I have very exciting news.
I’m going to Bhutan.
Now, the most common response I’ve gotten to this news is, “Bhutan, where’s that?”
So let me tell you a little bit about Bhutan.
Now, it’s important to know that I’ve never been to Bhutan, and also I don’t know a whole lot about it. And honestly, that’s part of the reason that I’m excited to go.
Bhutan was closed to tourism up until 1974, and today tourism visas are tightly regulated. To travel the Bhutan, one must hire the services of a licensed Bhutanese tour operator, and must pay a minimum of $200/$250 per day. This fee covers food, accommodations, and transportation within Bhutan, and includes $65.00 that goes to fund the free education and healthcare that the government provides to its citizens.
This is to dissuade casual tourists, and to attract the folks who really want to visit Bhutan. Limiting the visitors in this way helps to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and their near-pristine wilderness.
Bhutan has gone to great lengths to ensure the protection of its environment and its culture. It is one of few places on earth that shows such a low level of westernization. Buildings are still constructed according to guidelines to ensure a traditional style is maintained, traditional style dress is still common, and subsistence farming is still practiced in much of the country. Television and the internet were first introduced in 1999, and the nation became a parliamentary democracy in 2008.
It’s the last Buddhist kingdom left in the world.
Bhutan is known as one of the happiest places in the world. Its government uses the Gross National Happiness index rather than the GNP as a means of tracking its success, and the GNH takes into account many factors, economic, spiritual, emotional, and health related, to evaluate the overall well-being of the nation, rather than judging it based on economic production. In fact, despite still being considered a third world nation and having a very low GDP, Bhutan still ranks within the 20 happiest nations.
Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation, and is full of temples, monasteries, and crumbling fortresses once employed in defending the kingdom from invasion by Tibet. Bhutan was also the home of Drukpa Kunley, the divine madman, a Buddhist master and famous poet. He is said to have introduced Tibetan Buddhism to Bhutan. He was known as “The Saint of 5,000 Women,” and though I’m not religious, he sounds like a buddhist that I can get behind.
Bhutan is a land of incredible natural beauty. It is home to sub-tropical jungles, temperate rhododendron and oak forests, alpine meadows and stark Himalayan peaks. The nation has taken care to maintain its wild and rural places, and has been careful to protect threatened species. As a result, it is home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, both in plants and animals. It is home to several rare animals, including the one-horned rhinocerous, the bengal tiger, the tibetan wolf, the snow leopard, the clouded leopard, the himalayan black bear, and the red panda, among others. It is also home to more than seven hundred species of bird.
This dedication to preserving their natural resources and their cultural heritage is why I want to go. It is a chance to go somewhere truly strange to me, and to experience something totally different.
We’ll be spending our time there trekking in the temperate and alpine zones. We’ll be on the Chomolhari Trek, starting in the Paro valley and walking up to Paro Taktsang, a monastery and temple complex built on a cliff overlooking the valley, and then we will hike to the base of Chomolhari, one of Bhutan’s sacred mountains and home to the goddess Chomo. The round trip trek will take about a week, according to the itinerary. We will then spend a day or two in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, before the flight home.
I’m so thrilled that I’m going to have the opportunity to do this, and even though we’re not leaving until October, I’m already so excited. I have to admit that I’m a little intimidated by the physicality of the trip, but I have no doubt that I will muddle through. This is really the opportunity of a lifetime for me, as I will probably never be able to go on my own. And I’m so glad.
It’s true that I’m a dedicated walker. I walk three to five miles daily just getting to and from work and accomplishing errands on the way. But those miles are on city streets, not mountain passes, and very steep inclines still leave me out of breath. So one of my goals is to get in slightly better shape before going. I’m not concerned with my weight; just my strength and my pulmonary stamina. The breathing is particularly important as I’m already a smoker, and all of our hiking will take place at altitude; I believe the lowest points will be just under 10,000 feet. I’ve lived more or less at sea level my whole life, so I have no doubt that the altitude will take its toll.
I have a plan that involves conditioning hikes on the weekend and aerobic exercise a few times a week that will hopefully help me prepare for the rigors of the trip.
They say that the coffee situation in Bhutan isn’t great, either.
I’m a little concerned about that.
But it sure won’t keep me from going.
I’ll carry a travel journal and a camera with me as we go, and I hope to be able to tell all about it when I get back in early November, with photos.
I’m so excited, and the excitement is a delicate, tender feeling.