I had a picture, albeit vague, of what my 18 days in Bhutan would be like and now that I’m here for about a week, I’d like to try to paint a picture for you of the experience thus far.
With the exception of the travel days where we are driving to the next “city”, I’ve had beautiful hikes every day. Over the 18 days, I am basically bisecting the country, traveling from west to east. At the end of the 18 days, I will depart the country at the southeast corner and enter Guwahati, India for the last leg of my journey.
Bhutan is a very small, landlocked country that borders China to the north and India to the south, east and west. The country has a variety of climates as a result of altitudes ranging for 500 feet above sea level near the southern border with India up to 22,000 feet in the Himalayas to the north. I’ve been hanging out in the middle, somewhere between 7000 to 12000 feet.
The rivers flow down from the mountains and run north to south through the country. The water, as you could imagine, is crystal clear and cold. Most of the towns hug the rivers. With the majority of the country’s 1500 megawatt peak electricity demand (you know I had to ask) supplied from hydropower and only 68,000 cars in the entire country and no heavy industry, the air is also crystal clear, fresh and clean. (By the way- New York City alone uses almost 12,000 megawatts peak electricity demand). Tourism, hydropower, and agriculture are the major parts of the economy. The elevation largely determines the crops grown and the duration of the season. Almost halfway through the country, rice has been the primary crop with fields in the valley as well as on the hillsides. Dzong’s, huge fortresses that housed the religious and governmental leaders as well as the military forces to protect them dot the landscape, most of them dating from the 1600’s. Every village has at least one temple, usually high in the mountains. Buddhists believe that if you’re serious about getting to temple, you’ll endure the climb.
The countryside is basically green and tan this time of year. I understand it gets more colorful in the spring, just like back home. The mountains play with the clouds here, so most days start and end cloudy, but the weather in between has been wonderful. Temperatures have ranged from 60 to 75 at the peak of the day. Higher elevations are very chilly in the morning.
All of this is by way of background. Now to the hiking.
The “cities” where I’ve been staying have been nestled in the valleys and we have either started the hikes low and climbed to higher elevations or driven to the tops of mountains (traveling on some of the craziest excuses for roads I have ever seen in my life) and hiking down.
I have a guide, Chencho. It is he and I on the trail. The more popular sites, like Tiger’s Nest monastery can draw crowds but most of our hikes have been just the two of us. Like Batman and Robin, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, The Green Hornet and Kato, Cheech and Chong, we’ve been together on every hike, every visit to a temple, monastery, dzong, nunnery, museum, zoo, school, town and village. Chencho is a Buddhist like 75% of his countrymen. He is a good and humble man with deep beliefs and values in line with those beliefs. He’s 33 years old, he’s married and he and his wife have an 11 month old daughter, Sangay.
We have a driver, Lecden who doesn’t say much, but navigates Bhutan’s roads with amazing skill. If he ever comes to the states, he would have great success in Hollywood as a stunt driver or on the NASCAR circuit. Just about every road in Bhutan is a single lane that is used for 2 way traffic. The roads in the mountains are switchbacks that remind me of Zion National Park, only narrower, windier, and there is nothing between you and the ground 3000 feet below you except air.
I typically grab a quick breakfast in the hotel (today’s buffet featured toast, fried eggs, and French fries…another first!) and then we’re off. Lecden typically takes us up or over to our hike starting point, then Chencho and I are off, either ascending or descending the trail. Chencho ceremoniously says, “here’s where we start our hike” every time, as if I couldn’t figure that out as Lecden has turned off the car and Chencho is standing outside the car with his backpack on. We then meet up with Lecden later in the day at a pre-arranged spot for a picnic lunch, tablecloth and all! I’ve made a couple of friends at these times with one of the MANY stray dogs in Bhutan. I need to say a few words about this. The Bhutanese don’t like harming animals. Hunting and fishing is illegal in the country. One of the outcomes of this noble viewpoint is that stray dogs are everywhere! I must say that the Bhutanese dogs, for the most part, look very healthy and happy. I can’t say the same about their Indian counterparts. Now I love dogs, but I don’t want to hear them fighting and frolicking all night long! Rather than resort to violence, which I’m sure would be frowned upon by the Bhutanese police, I’ve resorted to ear plugs to drown out the yapping and yelping enough for sleep. I think I have a solution that works out for everyone though. I propose that everyone makes a lot of noise during the day, banging pots and pans, screaming at the top of their lungs, revving tractor engines; whatever it takes to keep the dogs up during the day. After a few days of this, I suspect everyone will be sleeping soundly at night like we’re supposed to.
Back to hiking,…although there are scattered conversations during the hike on topics that cover politics, religion, agriculture, military, religious, and political history, botany, weather, family, friends, and food; we are mostly silent. Chencho and I have fallen into a rhythm and both of us understand that silence is not awkward and our hikes are time for reflection, thought, meditation or just taking in the beauty around us. This is exactly the way I pictured this portion of the trip. Having experienced the hustle and bustle (and noise) of Mumbai and Delhi, I was hoping to have a lot of quiet time here. Typically, we are either side by side if the trail is wide enough or he’s leading the way (after all, I have no idea where I’m going). We have walked on mountains, through rice fields, on pavement, on gravel, on dirt, barefoot on the sacred grounds of the temple, through the peaceful surroundings of the monastaries, and on the spots of historic battles against the Tibetan armies. If I stop to take a picture or to pee ( 2 of the 3 P’s…fortunately, I haven’t had to do the third P while on the trail), Chencho will continue walking but at a slower pace so that I can catch up.
When we were in Thimphu, his home town, I encouraged him to go home and spend the nights with his family rather than dining with me. Later on this trip, we’ll be going to his in-laws home for tea (or wine, but there is a good reason why you don’t see Bhutanese wine in the States- it sucks!). After spending 18 days together, I figured we would either be friends or mortal enemies. I suspect it will be the former. Although I carry water, Chencho carries extra water for me, as well as candy, cookies and peanuts. (I laugh to myself every time he asks me if I want peanuts, thinking about the line uttered by Andre the Giant in one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. With his deep voice and heavy French accent, he asks, “anybody want a peanut?” Anyway, it cracks me up every time! (Probably speaks volumes about me)
No matter what the temperature is, Chencho wears the traditional dress while I’ve been down to a tee shirt. Chencho strongly believes in tradition and always wants to show the country that he loves in a positive light. But if I ask him a direct question, he will give me a straight answer. And speaking of questions, I’ve peppered him with thousands of questions. I imagine I sound like a 5 year old sitting in the back seat of the car bugging the hell out of his father. Some examples are:
– how do they separate the rice from the stalk?
-what made this poop?
-can I pee here?
-is that a wasp nest?
-how much do the monks eat when they meditate for 3 years?
-has anyone fallen from here?
-any bear in these woods?
-are they vegetarians?
-do you have snakes in Bhutan?
-anyone ever get bit?
There’s a part of me that expects him to completely lose it one of these days and scream, “one more question, John and I’m gonna go Chuck Norris all over your ass!”
I’ve never experienced altitude sickness before. On our first hike, we drove to an elevation of almost 12,000 feet. After only a few steps on a slight incline I was out of breath. My heart pounded in my chest as it struggled to get enough oxygen from my lungs and into my brain and body. After a while, I thought I heard drums in the distance, so I stopped (the first of many stops) and realized that the drums were pounding in my head! Add to this, dizziness and feeling weak in the knees and I think you’ve got the picture. Altitude sickness is not fun! Fortunately, our bodies are amazingly resilient and adapt to a wide array of conditions. Within 24-36 hours, I was keeping up with Chencho and feeling myself again.
I can’t convey in words the beauty I’ve seen on our hikes, so I won’t even try. I don’t even think pictures do it justice but they will have to do. And we’re less than halfway through so there’s a lot more to come.
One story from our hike the day before yesterday. We visited the temple of the Divine Madman, a much beloved figure in Bhutan. Let’s just say he was a character. The legends about him say that he slayed many demons and seduced many women with his, um, “privates”. There are penises painted on the walls of homes and farmhouses in the town around the temple and the gift shops prominently feature carved penises in their windows. There are also a couple of carved penises in the temple!
But that’s not all. While in the temple, one of the monks will come around with a phallus and a bow and arrow (Freud would say also phallic) and tap you on the head with them as a blessing. When I said that Bhutan has been just as I pictured it, that picture did not include being blessed by a penis!