Wandering over to a row of windows, I looked out onto the valley toward the mountain pass where, for centuries, Tibetan traders, lamas, and, sometimes, warriors made their way on foot to Bhutan. Smoke rose from the houses of Paro, in which families were preparing their evening meals (no doubt ema datsi, the fiery dish of chilies and cheese that's the daily staple). A monk stole up to me and pointed to a building whose shingled roof was catching the last rays of the sun. He opened his mouth, surely about to impart some ancient wisdom. "That's where Richard Gere stays when he's in town," he said, smiling, then turned and spit a stream of red betel-nut juice.
WE WEREN'T MOVIE STARS, BUT ONCE we'd written our checks, Geographic Expeditions took care of all the travel arrangements, inundating us with packing and reading lists, reams of information, and even luggage—sturdy duffel bags sporting the company logo. GeoEx had originally won our votes by announcing, in its brochure, that it serves Peet's French roast coffee on its treks. "No yak butter tea for us this time around," declared Sue. And no backpacks either. Porters and ponies would carry our belongings, and a cooking staff would supply three hot meals daily. There would be "toilet tents," an unimaginable luxury. If Sue's knee went out while she was trekking, a pony would be waiting for her. And in case of an emergency, the tour package included medevac insurance.
In Nepal, Sue and I had roughed it. In Bhutan, we stayed in hotels and guesthouses and the latest-model Marmot tents. With GeoEx worrying about the details, we were free not only to enjoy the scenery, but to interact with the Bhutanese, which was my greatest pleasure. We shared tea and meals with the locals, visited shops and temples. At the Jambey Lhakhang festival in the Bumthang Valley, while masked monks performed centuries-old dance dramas, Sue and I strolled through what resembled a fairground arcade—souvenir stands, beer stalls, dart games, even gambling monks—talking to everyone. A student at the traditional arts school in Thimphu, the capital, gave me a gift of a painting. A young monk presented me with a crayon drawing of his monastery. At the Yangphel Lodge in the Bumthang Valley, I spent an entire morning sitting by the woodstove chatting with the beautiful young proprietor, Yangzun, whose equanimity in the face of her foreign guests' endless requests could only be attributed to Buddhist detachment.
AS BHUTAN GRADUALLY LETS IN THE outside world, the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity only adds to its charm. The Internet arrived just last year. When our group stopped at Thimphu (population 35,000; no traffic lights) on our way east toward the starting point of our trek, Sue and I went to check out what was advertised as Bhutan's first cybercafé. What we found was a tiny storefront that serves no drinks or snacks but, along with Internet access, sells hair dryers and rice cookers.
Our five-day trek had been whittled down to three days (including one for resting) so we could squeeze in the festival in Bumthang. Only one segment was really rigorous, with cold, wet weather and an 11,647-foot pass to cross. The other days were more like long strolls through gentle farmland and tiny villages. I actually found the trekking less challenging than sitting on our tiny bus (no reclining seats or toilet) while it negotiated Bhutan's precarious east—west road: a numbing blur of scenery, dizzying curves, and junk food. (The Yaks had come prepared not only with Dramamine, a crate of baby wipes, and gallons of Purell hand sanitizer, but with enough cookies and Tootsie Pops to keep us on a sugar high for two weeks.)
There were more pedestrians than vehicles on the winding road. Villagers hauled everything imaginable in woven bamboo baskets slung on their backs. Wildlife often joined the traffic flow: monkeys, mongooses, even a leopard, not to mention herds of cattle and mangy dogs. Built into steep cliffs, the road is subject to regular landslides. Instead of much-needed guardrails, there were whimsical road signs: IT'S NOT A RACE OR A RALLY, STOP AND ENJOY THE THIMPHU VALLEY, OR BETTER BE LATE THAN NEVER. And, every few miles, simply: thanks.
One of the few (but frequent) heartbreaking sights here is that of road workers, many of them women and children, smashing rocks into gravel and laying hot tar, all by hand: punishing labor that belies Bhutan's Shangri-la image. It was on our trek, though, that any romantic notions we still harbored about peasant life were shattered for good. The first night was lovely: we camped in a pretty (if dung-strewn) pasture owned by the headman of a nearby village. Dinner, in our huge, white geodesic dining tent, was a delicious buffet of various curries and rice. And we were all grateful for the cases of Côtes du Rhône the ponies had carried. One member of the group meandered out of camp and returned with the news that we were surrounded by wild marijuana—a bouquet of which he dried by the fire and smoked in a jerry-built bamboo pipe. (For the rest of the trek, he insisted that he was receiving CNN broadcasts telepathically.)