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Visiting Bhutan

Rob Howard

Photo: Rob Howard

Nobody celebrates birthdays in Bhutan. With electricity a recent innovation, time in this tiny Himalayan kingdom is measured by sunrises and seasons, not by dates. Ask a Bhutanese child how old he is, and all you'll get back is a blank stare or an indifferent guess.

That's what made Bhutan the perfect place for my cousin Sue and me to celebrate our 50th birthdays. Decades ago, the two of us went on a trek in neighboring Nepal. Young and obscenely healthy, sleeping bags on our backs, we headed off without guides or Sherpas and improvised our way through the Himalayas. We hiked in the shadow of Everest, ate and slept in dark peasants' huts, and washed in icy streams. We both came down with a dazzling assortment of intestinal and respiratory ailments; Sue also developed a case of altitude sickness serious enough to require evacuation back to Kathmandu. In short, we had a wonderful trip.

Ah, youth. Last year, Sue and I decided it was time, once again, to challenge nature. Only now, we didn't want nature to be too challenging. Though we're confirmed independent travelers, we signed on for a group tour of Bhutan with Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco—based outfitter.

The proposed itinerary would combine a week of cultural touring by bus with a five-day "easy-to-moderate" trek. We'd visit remote villages reachable only by foot, enter ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries, and attend religious festivals. And we would walk through the pastoral Bumthang Valley, one of Bhutan's holiest landscapes, replete with important Buddhist sites, including a famous rock bearing an impression of Guru Rinpoche, Bhutan's most revered saint. Group or no group, we had to get in shape. Sue has a bad knee and prefers opera to exercise; I'm a city boy for whom "wilderness adventure" means a Trailways bus to the Poconos. Sue began a regime of hiking and physical therapy, and started stockpiling such a supply of medications that by the time she left, her luggage would resemble a MASH unit. I regularly climbed the 10 flights to my apartment, repeating this mantra: "I am not getting old, I am not getting old, I am not . . ."

As we embarked on our trip, we both felt fit and proud. But we were surprised when, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, we transferred in Bangkok to our Bhutan flight and found half the plane filled with a chipper Elderhostel group. In fact, everyone onboard looked older than us—and fitter. Regarding our fellow passengers with envy, I was reminded of a New Yorker cartoon in which a woman declares to her husband, "Seventy is this year's fifty." More like this year's 30, I thought.

BACK WHEN SUE AND I WERE TREKKING IN NEPAL, BHUTAN had no tourists, old or young. Until 1974, the only foreigners allowed in were guests of the royal family. But that year, as part of a modernization program, the newly crowned King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began to permit very limited and carefully controlled tourism. Since then the industry has been privatized, but still only 7,000 or so visitors make the trip annually. Every visitor must pay a daily fee of at least $200, most of which goes toward touring expenses—and, more important, keeps out the hordes of backpackers that have overrun Nepal. Only the determined and well-heeled make it to Bhutan, the bulk of whom are, improbably, older Americans. Few others can afford the time and expense.

With one exception, Sue and I were the youngest of our 12-member group. The energetic core consisted of three Midwestern women who'd dragged along their husbands (they'd wanted to go golfing in Scotland instead). Longtime friends, the women were in their fifties—"but our husbands are much older," they told us—athletic and well prepared. They were also indefatigable. "They never rest; they're animals," one husband warned me on our first day. Sue and I dubbed them the Yaks, for their uncanny ability to tour and talk at the same time.

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