Thunder Dragon Part I

The Druk Air flight from Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan, was a daunting introduction to the sacred country.  At the beginning of steep ascent, the captain announced, “Do not be concerned with the planes proximity to the mountains.”  Only 8 pilots are qualified to land the Airbus 319 at this remote Himalayan airport.    I was greeted on the ground by Haba, our official guide for the trek.  Dressed in a traditional gho, a knee length robe tied at the waist with a kera, he introduced me to my fellow trekkers.  Our clan totaled nine people with represents from Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, Switzerland, Holland, and Idaho.

Bhutan is about the size of Switzerland with a population approaching 800,000. Roughly 100,000 tourists visit this country each year and are subject to high fees and strict visas.  All visitors must be chaperoned by an approved guide.  The Land of the Thunder Dragon is ruled by a 34 year old king.  The country does not compete with other nation on an economic stage but claims to have the highest level of GNH (Gross National Happiness) in the world.  The ban on television and internet was lifted in 1999 and the country does not have a single traffic light.

We filled two vans and began the 65 KM drive to the capital city of Thimphu.  An endless supply of  barking dogs and wandering cows were common on the curvy road that followed the Pachu river.  Hot tin roofs loaded with bright red chillies covered the homes that dotted the countryside   About 25 KM into the drive, three stupas (Buddhist shrines) were build at the confluence of two rivers.  Haba explained that the meeting point of two rivers attracts demons and the monuments are build to shield the area from evil.  A 150 foot gold Buddha surrounded by pines and prayer flags sits atop a mountain and acts as a welcome mat to the capital city.  We spent two days in this city and were lucky to experience the annual Tshechu Festival that corresponds to the birthday of Guru Rinpoche.  Festivals are grand events where entire communities come together to witness religious mask dances, dress up in their finest attire, and receive blessings.  A few foreigners tried to blend in by wearing traditional local dress.  My conclusion is that white men cannot rock a gho.

After the final festivities, I took my last shower and loaded  gear into the van for a drive back to Paro.  The first day of the trek is a walk to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery perched on a mountain above Paro.  The temple complex was built in 1692 on the spot where Guru Rinpoche arrived from Tibet on a flying tigress in the 8th century.  He meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days, and 3 hours.  Today, 50 monks are in meditation at Tiger’s Nest.  It takes about 2 hours to climb 3000 feet to reach the ancient temple.  The trekking company made a custom walking stick (eventually named Amber) that accompanied me on the ascent.    The rocky and rooted trail is steep and adorned with stunning views and thousands of colorful Tibetan prayer flags.  We ended the day with a long drive to our first camp.

I was assigned to tent #1, a blue four season model, for my first official night on the trail. There was another trekking group at this camp so there were likely 20 hikers, 40 horses, 12 crew, and at least 20 barking dogs.  The raging river suppressed the dog and horse bell sounds.  After dinner, we celebrated the 29th birthday of Osti, a fellow trekker from Singapore.  The cook make a miraculous chocolate cake in a dutch oven.  I slept under bright and clear stars in a mountain rimmed valley at 9500 feet.

Breakfast tea or coffee was served at 6:00 AM  tent side  by Ishay, a 16 year old boy on his first trip.  It was bright but very cool at this early hour.  The sun became a furnace as it cracked the mountain rim around 8:30.  After a fine breakfast, I was in need of the outhouse.  With trepidation, I walked across the field to the portable vinyl zippered tent. The interior was uninspiring with a bare rectangular (8 x 16 x 10) hole as the commode. Never underestimate the value of a toilet seat!

The first day on trail was 13 miles, but it took almost eight hours to cover the 2200 foot climb.  Every step was either ascending or descending and was rock to rock. The natural rhythm of  walking was rudely interrupted with a staccato version of stepping.  A raging and freezing river was omnipresent throughout the day.  A plunge into the cool water would likely be a final moment in life. With 90 minutes left in the day, I relied on music to prod me towards the finish line.  Alanis Mosissette’s Thank U was the premiere song on the walk.

Walking alone and ahead of the group, I found myself at a rare junction.  Using good judgement, I found solace on a moss covered rock to wait for my crew.  While enjoying the rest, three women from California showed up at the same junction.  They asked, “Where are you going?  Where did you start?  How far are you walking today?”  They were a bit taken back with my response being “I do not know” to each question.  After some laughter, I was able to explain that living in the moment allowed me to have no reason to know or care about any of these questions.  I did not embark on this trip to study guidebooks and count steps.  I took this journey to enjoy each step with no relation to the previous or next one.

To be continued over the next few weeks……