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Visiting Bhutan

Rob Howard

Photo: Rob Howard

THE NEXT MORNING, BY PREARRANGEMENT, the headman, Sherab La, invited us to experience a "typical" day in the countryside. We gamely hitched up the oxen and plowed his fields (which he later had to repair). We milked his cows, churned his butter, and spun his yarn. In his gloomy kitchen, we helped distill barley for the local firewater, arak, and made buckwheat noodles. For the privilege of all this, our group leader asked us to donate $25 each (half of which was to go to the local school). "We're actually paying to do this?" I grumbled to Sue. "What a scam."

Sherab La obviously thought so, too. "You Americans, you come to my dirty, dark house [accurate on both counts], and you like it," he laughed. We laughed along with him, passing the Purell behind his back. When lunch was ready, we sat down, exhausted, on the soiled floor and dug in.

That night around the campfire, Sherab La's family and our own trekking staff entertained us with traditional songs and dances. The arak and whiskey flowed freely. When it was our turn, the only number we all knew was "The Hokey Pokey." To our surprise, the Bhutanese knew it too, and they joined in. Fueled by their enthusiasm (and the liquor), we performed an encore—a rousing rendition of "Itsy-Bitsy Spider."

On the last day of our trek, I came down with an awful cold—just in time for a grueling bus trip to the Phobjikha Valley. That night, at a lodge that GeoEx's literature had imaginatively described as "rustic," the Yaks nursed me back to health with Theraflu, zinc tablets, NyQuil, and intensive Jewish mothering. I was too doped up to rise at four the next morning with the rest of the group to traipse into freezing marshes and squint through binoculars at a flock of endangered lack-necked cranes, the object of that day's long journey.

There was so much to see, though, I didn't really mind missing those birds. The views were spectacular: steep mountains dense with evergreen forests, rhododendrons, and bamboo; green valleys; rural villages; and, everywhere, monasteries, chortens (Lamaist monuments), and groves of colorful prayer flags fluttering on long poles, the wind carrying their entreaties up to heaven. I think it would be impossible to live in Bhutan for any length of time and not become a Buddhist, for the religion defines the landscape, and vice versa. A hill is not a hill in Bhutan, but the hump of a demon's back. A lake is not simply a lake, but the hiding spot of a holy treasure. A temple is not built randomly, but to nail down the head of a giant mythical serpent—which is now a verdant field of barley.

AS WE'D PREDICTED, BHUTAN PROVED to be the right place for Sue and me to recapture our youth. The Himalayas are both spiritually invigorating and a lesson in timelessness. Traveling in a country where lamas can live for hundreds of years and reincarnation is a fact of life (and death), it's hard to get worked up about growing older.

And the example of the Yaks, their husbands, and the rest of our group, all of whom were fit, fearless, and good-humored, dispelled any fears we'd had about aging. None of them seemed to give it a second thought. By the end of the trip, neither did we.

THE FACTS

October through May is the best time to visit Bhutan, both for the dry weather and the clear views of the mountains. (The monsoon takes hold from June through August.) Sue and I traveled with Geographic Expeditions (800/777-8183; www.geoex.com) on its Sacred Valleys Trek, one of a variety the company offers, for $4,195 per person, not including airfare. Other reliable adventure travel companies that have Bhutan itineraries are Mountain Travel—Sobek (888/687-6235; www.mtsobek.com); Bhutan Travel (800/950-9908; www.bhutantravel.com); and Above the Clouds (800/233-4499; www.aboveclouds.com).

If you'd prefer to travel without a group, you will still need to make all your arrangements with a tour operator licensed by the state tourism authority. Contact it directly (975-2/23251, fax 975-2/23695), or use one of the above companies for assistance.

READING
Longitude (800/342-2164; www.longitudebooks.com) has a comprehensive reading list for Bhutan. Both the Lonely Planet and Passport guidebooks are worth taking along. Almost everyone in our group had read So Close to Heaven, Barbara Crossette's thorough journalistic take on Himalayan Buddhism in Bhutan and its neighboring countries, and Jamie Zeppa's moving memoir of her experience teaching in Bhutan, Beyond the Sky and the Earth. I saved them both until after our trip, when they meant so much more.

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