Published: April 2009
By Alan Brown
Forty years ago,
Bhutan had no currency,
no phones—and no
tourists. Now the
modern world is at its
doorstep. Alan Brown
visits a Himalayan
kingdom where time
no longer stands still
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.
BHUTAN IS BUT A SPECK ON THE MAP, SQUEEZED BETWEEN India and Tibet. It is the size of Switzerland, with a population of less than 700,000. Until the 1960's it had no roads, monetary or postal system, telephones, hospitals, or schools outside of monasteries. Since then, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as it is known in Bhutanese, has slowly been modernizing but taking great care to preserve its environment and culture. By law all buildings must incorporate some element of traditional architecture, and everyone wears traditional dress in public—for women, the elegant, ankle-length kira; for men, the kimono-like gho. (The effect of the latter, hiked up to the knees and worn with high socks and Western shoes, is both courtly and endearingly goofy: the blousy fold above the belt is used to store everything from wallets to groceries. A small boy I met appeared to be carting around the entire inventory of Toys "R" Us in his.)
The only independent Buddhist country left in the Himalayas, Bhutan is routinely referred to in travel literature as the last Shangri-la. And with its miles-high mountains, Buddhist monuments, and whitewashed, wood-beamed houses decorated with fanciful designs, it does appear to be a paradise. In most families, at least one son will join a monastery, and the presence of monks everywhere adds to the sense that this is someplace special. Despite recent technological progress, most people's lives have barely changed in rhythm or habit since the Middle Ages: they pray at home altars; plow with oxen; grow their own food and cook it on wood-burning stoves in dark, chilly, smoky rooms; and walk for hours, or even days, on mountain footpaths just to reach the nearest village.
To Western tourists who breeze through on tours, all this seems exotic and romantic. Fortunately, the Bhutanese, besides being good-natured and good-looking, are charmingly eccentric—a trait that saves their country from preciousness. Consider this: though they're devout Buddhists who hold all life sacred and don't kill animals, the Bhutanese happily eat meat—and carve up and cook any animal that's already dead. In almost every house, we saw gristly strips of yak meat hanging to dry (a sight that almost turned me into a vegetarian).
Or this: there are only a few dozen personal names in all of Bhutan, and they are used for both men and women as first or last names, in any combination.
And then there's the matter of the penises. Painted in full color—and in full, um, bloom—on the façades of houses, or carved of wood and dangling from eaves, they are considered good luck, all because of one of Bhutan's most beloved figures, the Divine Madman, a libertine monk who, according to one version of the legend, vanquished a terrifying female demon by dragging her clear across the country with his you-know-what.
WHEN GURU RINPOCHE FLEW INTO Bhutan on the back of a tigress (his consort in disguise, legend has it), he landed first in Paro, which is now, fittingly, the site of Bhutan's only airport and every visitor's first glimpse of the country. At 7,300 feet, Paro's air is thin and pure, the sky a brilliant blue, and the surrounding mountains, dotted with prayer flags, dramatic. We arrived at dusk and went to visit the Paro dzong. A combination monastery and district administrative center, the dzong resembles a medieval fortress in both construction (impregnable) and location (prominent, with sweeping views). In the center of the main courtyard is a towering temple; surrounding it are the monks' quarters and administrative offices.
Bernardo Bertolucci came to this river valley, with its willow-lined paths and sleepy, one-street town, to film scenes for his movie Little Buddha. I had watched the video before my trip, and as I stepped inside the dzong's cavernous hall, I thought I recognized the fantastic painted scenes from Buddhist mythology that covered the walls. I walked through the courtyard, where the only sounds were a mysterious, low murmur coming from inside the thick walls and the plaintive cry of crows. Red- and saffron-robed monks scurried across the stone square. Even the smell—musty and acrid—seemed ancient.
After making small monetary donations, which is the custom here, our group stood in line while a monk poured holy rose water into our hands. We pretended to sip it (intestinal health taking precedence over spiritual) and then tossed it onto our heads. Sue bowed by a row of glowing butter lamps on the altar. "When I was young, I used to make offerings to Buddha," she whispered. "Now I make them to my orthopedist."
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.)
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.
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.
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.