HOW I FOUND SHANGRI-LA
(MONEY Magazine) – We had hiked all day and were nursing our feet beside the fire as our tents and sleeping bags beckoned. But who could close her eyes when the mighty Himalayas soared just across the valley? When our personal cook had prepared a feast of asparagus, cauliflower au gratin and exotic red-grain rice? When handsome local women, clad in conical bamboo hats, long black dresses and brightly colored beads, suddenly appeared in our camp to sing and dance?
My traveling pal Suzy and I felt on top of the world--literally as well as spiritually. And that's just what we were seeking when we flew 7,622 miles through 11 time zones from New York to Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom about the size of Switzerland that is wedged between India and China. Few of our friends had heard of the place--and that was precisely the point. We wanted to escape our frantic urban lives in one of the planet's last unspoiled untouristy countries: one free from TV, fast food and hordes of backpackers, where the natural environment remains pristine and the customs haven't changed appreciably in centuries.
The irony is that as more of the world's prosperous urbanites seek to recharge in a place of calm and inspiration, they are putting increased pressure on such preserves. I saw the results firsthand last year while navigating the busy hiking trails and eroded hillsides of the Annapurna region of Nepal. After that trip, I read more about the Himalayan region--and discovered Bhutan.
The country's king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, enforces some of the strictest policies anywhere to protect Bhutan's traditional culture and environment. Its 600,000 people hew to a national dress code of robes for men and handwoven, sashed dresses for women. Lands prone to erosion lie uncultivated. Hunting of Bhutan's rare animals (including snow leopards and tigers) and birds (like the brilliantly plumed blood pheasant) is forbidden. And tourism just sneaked past 6,000 visitors last year. (Nepal, by contrast, hosted more than 400,000 tourists.)
As you'd expect, getting into Bhutan is difficult. And it's expensive--but no more so than, say, a ski vacation in Zermatt. The Bhutan government charges each foreign visitor a steep $200-a-day minimum, which is included in the fee that tour companies charge. (My trek through Nepal had cost a mere $30 a day.) The Bhutan government also insists that a guide accompany visitors at all times. Despite these hurdles, a few American companies offer excellent tours in Bhutan--everything from relaxed bird-watching excursions in the foothills to thigh-challenging treks high in the mountains. (For details, see the box on page B20.)
Suzy and I decided on a customized, two-week trip for just the two of us from Above the Clouds, a Worcester, Mass. tour operator that specializes in the Himalayas. With just a month's notice, Above the Clouds director Steve Conlon arranged an eight-day camping trek to and from the remote village of Laya, plus four days of cultural touring in the country's capital and largest city, Thimpu (pop. 30,000), and several neighboring towns. While trekking, our entourage would include a Bhutanese guide who spoke fluent English, a talented cook to prepare our meals, and two porters and six ponies to carry all our gear. In the city, we'd have our guide plus a private car and driver.
We paid a price for being particular. In addition to the government's $200 daily fee, we each had to pay a small-group charge of $30 a day and a custom-trip charge of $70 a day. That took our daily fare to $300 each, which covered all meals, local transportation and hotels. With $2,400 air fare, the tab for each of us came to nearly $6,000--an amount we justified as giving us a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After getting the requisite shots for tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis A and meningococcal meningitis (phew!) and laying in supplies of dried fruit, chocolate, Pepto-Bismol and moleskin (for patching blisters while hiking), we set off in late April on a 30-hour air trip, via Singapore and Katmandu, to reach our Shangri-la.
Our first glimpse of the place, from the windows of our flight on the Bhutanese national airline, was nothing short of stupendous. At 30,000 feet, we were looking head on at the peaks of Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga and Lhotse, three of the four highest points on earth.
Before setting off on our trek, we spent two days adjusting to the altitude and thin air of Thimpu (7,500 feet) and the nearby town of Punakha. In the capital, we stayed at the Hotel Druk, which was impressively upscale by Third World standards. Our spacious room had wood paneling, plenty of hot water, a phone with clear reception to the U.S.--even a spartan health club and a beauty salon!
Thimpu is a quiet little place with one main road, few souvenir shops and no Western clothing. Bhutanese women wear kiras: colorful handwoven, floor-length dresses, tied with a sash. Men wear ghos: calf-length robes in solid colors, stripes or plaids. Dress-code violators can be fined the equivalent of about $10--roughly a week's salary for many in Bhutan--and sent to jail overnight. (The rules don't apply to visitors--though we were urged not to wear short pants, short dresses or tank tops.)
Appropriately clad, we set off on foot northward along the rumbling Po Chu river in western Bhutan. Out on the trails, our days fell into a pleasant pattern: walking, eating a delicious lunch of red-grain rice (a Bhutanese specialty) and fresh vegetables, walking some more, eating again and then sleeping. Thanks to our four-person, six-pony support staff, our only concern was to stay on the path, keep our blisters padded and absorb the dramatic scenery and wildlife around us. Each morning, we woke to a tap on our tent and the invitation, "Tea, please." This meant that our breakfast spread of toast, omelettes, cornflakes and tea was waiting. Each night, we arrived at our campsite--typically on a hillside overlooking verdant terraced fields with fierce mountain peaks behind-- to find our tents already pitched and our three-course dinner bubbling fragrantly by the fire.
Coming from hyperkinetic New York City, I found this rhythm extremely relaxing and mind-clearing. But some stretches were difficult. Like the day we climbed four hours up a 4,000-foot pass, then headed down for another three hours over a narrow, icy path. The view was magnificent. But Suzy thought she was going to fall over the edge of the mountain, and I was convinced I was going to contract pleurisy when the temperature plummeted from about 80[degrees]F to about 40[degrees]F. Then it began to rain.
But just when our spirits were sinking lower than the mud beneath our boots, something magical happened. We camped beside a stone hut straight out of Grimm's Fairy Tales, in which a gnarly old woman was stoking a fire. Warming themselves around the flames were half a dozen men on their way down the mountain to trade the butter and cheese of yaks or goats, for rice and other provisions. The traders wore thin rubber boots, fur hats and woolen shawls. No Gore-Tex. No Polarfleece. No Capilene. As Suzy and I moaned about our wet feet, the traders happily tucked into bowls of plain white rice and sipped a bitter brew made from yak butter, tea and salt. Like most Bhutanese outside the cities, they could not speak English, but they welcomed us with warm smiles. That night, as we headed off to our down-filled sleeping bags and foam pads, the traders bedded down under horse blankets on the hut's bare floor. We felt sheepish for having whined about the rain. And we felt privileged to have gone where few tourists get to go: not just photographing another culture but, at least for a moment, living inside it.
After four days of trekking through forests ablaze with exotic birds and rhododendron trees, we reached Laya, a small town with no electricity, running water or phone service, located a day's walk from the border with Tibet. Almost entirely self-sufficient, Layaps grow their own food, grind their own grain and weave their own clothes. They even make, from bamboo, the distinctive conical hats that shelter them from sun and rain. Walking through the town, I saw children bathing and washing clothes in a stream. A crew of women and men were building a house by carrying rocks on their backs and sawing and planing wood by hand. Everyone was friendly and generous. No one begged. I quickly came to appreciate how Buddhism, which shuns materialism and emphasizes the performance of good deeds to ensure a better next life, took hold in such a survivalist society.
The last night of the trek, we stayed at Gasa Hot Springs, Bhutan's version of a resort, where the king and locals alike come to take the soothing sulfur waters. With a bit of trepidation, we wandered down to the half-dozen wooden tubs perched along the banks of a rushing river and chose one in which two young monks were lolling. They beckoned us into the steamy water, then gathered up their red robes to leave. Guiltily, we took their spots. After eight days of trekking without a shower, the hot water felt delicious in the cool night air. I didn't miss white tiles or fluffy towels at all.
Finishing our trek, weary but full of wonder, we checked into the best hotel in the country, the Zangtopelri, perched high in the hills of Punakha. Each room boasts a private balcony overlooking the Po Chu river. No bed ever felt so good, nor did clean hair, cold beer or a phone call to friends back home (cost: $50 for four minutes).
Our guide, Chencho, and our driver spent the next three days taking us to Bhutan's magnificent dzongs--forts that house Buddhist monasteries. These well-preserved structures are immediately impressive, and even more so if you have visited nearby Nepal, where many of the temples are in horrific disrepair, or Tibet, where ominous-looking Chinese policemen often stand guard outside the monasteries that weren't destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Here, we were able to see monks go about their daily rituals, and even to visit a young monks' study hall.
On our last day, we hiked up to Taktsang, or Tiger's Nest. One of the most famous monasteries in the Buddhist faith, this 14th-century structure is built into a sheer, 2,600-foot cliff face. On the way down we met a lama, or Buddhist priest, who was wearing Foster Grants and munching on potato chips. He had stopped at a trailside restaurant to bestow blessings and red string necklaces. When we approached him, he graciously tied the strings around our necks and told us (in excellent English) that they would keep away evil and bring good luck to our families. We wore those necklaces for weeks, until they began to fray. And I've kept the tattered remnants to remind me of the mountains and people and serenity of Bhutan.