Journeys

Bhutan

As a child; the kingdoms of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan held a fascination for me. Three kingdoms like a shamrock held together with what I felt was an enchanted spiritual luck; on the roof of the world and yet so inaccessible; except in my imagination.

Eleven years ago, I had the pleasure of enhancing the spell by visiting Nepal for the first time. Some people had interfered with my dreams. The latent spirituality of the place was there but just slightly over commercialized in Katmandu.

I returned 7 years later on my first trek and had my faith restored by the sheer splendor of the Annapurnas and the softness of this hardy race. Other treks followed and my love for Nepal blossomed. The last couple of years has seen the Royal family annihilation coupled with an ongoing Maoist insurrection and has left a peaceful nation in the throes of a hostile involuntary insurrection. In pure Yeats terms; a terrible beauty was born.

With this back drop, it was time to choose a path less trodden and visit Bhutan; perceived as one of the most closed countries in the world.  A country were the first official tourist was only allowed to enter in 1974.  A country, which hosts some of the most stunning mountains in the Himalayas but on which, climbing is not permitted so as to respect the spirits of the resting Gods.

Armed with my Lonely Planet Guide, I and a fellow mentally imbalanced Irishman (fondly known as Antoin) decided that we would not only visit Bhutan but also trek in Bhutan; not only trek in Bhutan but attempt to conquer the Snowman Trek; frighteningly known as the most difficult, remotest trek in the world. Its duration being 22/23 days and one in which less than 50% of those who start actually finish and an altitude of 5320 meters, which needs to be conquered. The sojourn of the Irish to the Himalayas had commenced!   

But first, a little bit more about this stunning country.  A nation in which the main religion or spiritual following is Tantric Buddhism but where there is a total acceptance of the spirituality of non-Buddhists. Bhutan's early history is steeped in Buddhist tradition and mythology.  It is said that a saint who had the ability to appear in eight different forms visited Bhutan and left the imprint of his body and his hat on rocks. 

Bhutanese schoolbooks describe demons that threatened villages and destroyed temples until they were captured through magic and converted to Buddhism.  Tales abound of ghosts who destroyed temples, and angels who rebuilt them.  The kingdom's more recent history is no less amazing, with intrigue, treachery, fierce battles and extraordinary pageantry all playing an important part.

When preparing for your visit to Bhutan, it's easier to let your imagination flow: try visualising the spirit of the happenings rather than rationalising events as historical truth.  This will, in part, help prepare you for a country where spirits, ghosts, yetis, medicine men, and lamas reincarnated in three different bodies are accepted as a part of daily life.

Bhutan is not a wealthy country in global terms and its per-capita income in 2000 was US$656. A major contributory factor to this low figure is that 85% of the population is engaged in subsistence farming, which has minimal cash income generating capacity. Only 7.8% of the land is actually used for agriculture.

The current sale of hydroelectric power to surrounding countries has now become the largest contributor to the National Income.  This figure is likely to grow dramatically over the coming years since the government has embarked on an ambitious plan of further construction of hydroelectric plants, which are funded, by donor countries. 

Until the 1960's the country had no national currency, no telephones, schools, hospitals, postal service or tourists.  Through judicious long term planning by its respected king; development efforts have now produced all of these - plus a national assembly, airport, roads and a national system of health care.  A target of 95% school attendance should be achieved by the end of this decade.

The Bhutanese people are a justifiably proud people who actively celebrate their culture and tradition.   They have maintained a policy of careful, controlled growth in an effort to preserve their national identity with limited acceptance of tourism, television and satellite dishes.

Trekking in Bhutan differs to that of Nepal in that there is a much greater amount of "up and down" in Bhutan. Whereas you may only complete a gradient differential of 200 meters from the beginning to end of the trekking day; you could in the process actually ascend or descend up to 1000 meters.

The ranges of treks available in Bhutan accommodate a wide spectrum of walkers and trekkers. They range from 3 day easy walking treks to the ultimate 22/23 day Snowman Trek. The flexibility of the trekking companies make the planning a simple and custom built task. 

Bhutan also differs dramatically with Nepal with regard to its overall macro tourist policy. The numbers of tourists are controlled by simple supply and demand. You cannot simply visit Bhutan and "hang out" in the capital Thimpu (pop. 44,000).  The minimum charge per tourist per day is $230.  This may seem excessive at first glance but includes all your costs for a trek.  In other words a cost of a 22-day trek per person is $230 X 22 days or $5,060. On top of this you have the cost of getting yourself to Bhutan. But once you are there, other than presents, tips or alcoholic drinks; there are no hidden extras.

The logic behind this philosophy is simply not to have the country destroyed or polluted by tourists; a price which sadly Nepal has already paid dearly from an environmental perspective. Needless to say, the profile of the typical tourist in Bhutan is much older and affluent than that found in Nepal; a point having both its advantages and disadvantages.

There are very strongly adhered to rules regarding respecting the environment and an acceptance that the resources of Bhutan are finite and therefore once depleted, cannot necessarily be simply replaced. Throughout the country one senses a huge amount of intelligent forward thought processes being invested for the benefit of future generations. 

The major treks offer everything that a trekker could want, including what is described, as the world's most difficult - The Snowman Trek.  This trek travels to the remote Lunana district and the combination of distance, altitude, remoteness and weather makes this a tough journey. This is the trek two mad Irishmen embarked upon and lived to tell the tale!

The Snowman trek itself was the most challenging and physically draining holiday/trek/challenge of my life. In the course of the 22 days I managed to loose in excess of 26 lbs. The trek commenced with Antoin and myself and 4 able team members whose roles included chef, chef's helper, lead trekker and assistant trekker. We were also accompanied by either 10 horses or 10 yaks, which were changed every 4/5 days. These animals were accompanied by either two horse or yak herders. The entire 22 days were spent in tents and the ability to have a daily shower or major wash happily suspended until the end of the trek!

The day typically started by being woken at 06.30 and breakfast followed at 07.00. We commenced trekking at 07.30 and essentially would hike until 15.00/16.00 when camp would be set. Dinner would be in the evening at 19.00 and bed followed 30 minutes later. The routine quickly establishes itself and you become one with the programme.

The scenery was nothing short of stunning with trekking through snow occurring on about 4 days of the trek. The most interesting part of the journey is the range of scenery you pass through in the course of a day; meadows, forests, valleys and the almost tundra like passes you encounter. Occasionally you will meet a local on the paths; radiant smile and a sense of acceptance and peace with their lot in life.

People often ask me why do I trek?  Personally, I find it the most spiritual and physically rewarding pursuit. In the busy lives we all lead it gives a period for oneself. Like removing the layers of an onion, it gives you a glorious opportunity to stock take and get back to your most basic self or core.

It is like taking all your challenges in the world and putting them into soak at the beginning of the trek and one by one when they are ready to be re-evaluated you take them out and see them totally differently.  It forces you to be one with yourself and challenge why we do what we do in this rather crazy world we allegedly function in.  It allows your left and right brain to embrace and fuse in a non-judgmental basis.

On this trek like so many others; there are no roads, mobile phones, electricity or anything else to anchor you securely in the first world; you are relying on others and yourself to essentially survive. On the furthest and remotest part of the trek we were actually 7 days walk from the nearest road and telephone. Is that frightening or just wonderful?...you be the judge.

One thing is sure; Bhutan is truly one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. The people are gracious, humorous and love to party.  The highlight at the end of the trek was when we coincidentally experienced the most important Tsechu festival of the year.  A dramatic and colorful affair which lasts for four days in Thimpu and celebrates through folkloric dance Guru Rinpoche who in Buddhist terms is regarded as the second Buddha who was gifted with miraculous powers. This is celebrated in both the Dzongs (large white citadels which serve both as the administrative and religious regional centres) and monasteries during the day and on the streets of the capital in the evening with concerts, dances and all sorts of riotous behavior.

Bhutan is a country at a crossroads with one foot in the past and one courageously planted in the future. Time will tell what will happen to those students receiving education today...tomorrow. Time will tell whether the national sport of archery will be replaced by soccer and whether the commitment to the culture and rituals of the past will be replaced by the MTV culture. The reality will be a mixture of both and I know I will return and see for myself.

My parting thought encapsulates the future spirit of the country; the king has been reliably quoted as saying, " I am not as much concerned about the Gross National Product as I am about the Gross National Happiness". Maybe a little bit of a thought from Shangri-La but then again; that is exactly what Bhutan actually is.    

 

After the festival

Square space of spirit,

concentrated customs,

embrace closed walls.

 

The past and future

collide by satellite

in Tantric repose.

 

Customs in flux;

people ceremonially attired,

while inside,

a sense of passing

of longing;

to where it leads

only spirit knows.

 

A loss; born of past;

bladed in futures

Imax Kingdom.

 

Remoteness protects

in permafrost soul

...only in isolation.

 

Display of Customs

connect

soul of spirit

to heart of people.

 

Education provided

induces hope;

accelerated dreams

push boundaries

veering towards meniscus

...fronds of chance.

 

How to get there:

Bhutan has one airport and one airline, Druk Air. You arrive at Paro airport; one of the highest commercial airports in the world. The airport is about a one hour drive form the capital Thimpu (pop 44,000). There are two gateway cities to enter Bhutan; two flights per week form Delhi (via Katmandu) and and four flights a week from Bangkok via Dhaka. The flight time form Bangkok to Paro is approximately 3.5 hours.      

Where to stay:

You cannot simply "turn up" in Bhutan. You have to apply for visas and the minimum cost of a visa per day is $230. The tour/trekking company you use will make all your arrangements for you including where you will stay. Its recommended to stay at least the first day in Thimpu and acclimatize yourself to the altitude prior to commencing your trek. I would personally recommend the Druk Hotel (Tel 322966 or e-mail: drukhotel@druknet.net.bt) in the center of Thimpu. It si centrally located and serves some wonderfully spicy Indian food!

Which Tour Company to use:

We had an amazing experience with Jack and his wonderful wife Karma who own and operate Snow Leopard Trekking Company (snowlprd@druknet.bt). He can make magic happen in the most amazing of places. Logistics or lack thereof is the main enemy of a well organized remote trek. Jack is an expert at making the impossible happen. He loves partying as well!

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Gathering from Ecdysis 2008

Squirrels gather food
For the long
Dormant season

Why do we not
Do the same with
Learning?

If we did
We would be
One full season
Of being.

 

May
2008 Bali


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©2008 John O’Sullivan.website by artex-studio.net