I've been to the top of the world.
And I've seen the top of the world.
They are two different places.
First Class View: Mount Everest -- 29,028 feet, the tallest mountain in the world.
The voice of the pilot fills the cabin and I hear muffled oohs and aahs from
the curtain behind me. Through a seating quirk or a reservation problem, I
had to pay to upgrade myself to first class in order to get to Bhutan, that
tiny Himalayan nation wedged between India and China. Otherwise, all the
coach class seats were filled and I would have to wait until next Monday to
fly out of Delhi. Druk Air, Bhutan's national airline and the only one to
fly into Bhutan, runs only two flights out of Delhi per week.
So I paid the difference - about $65 - and settled into my comfy first class
seat by the window on the left side of the plane. This same seat would yield
vies of eight of the world's ten tallest mountain peaks. Everest - 29,028 ;
Lhotse - 27,923 ; Makalu - 27,765 ; Cho Oyo - 26,906...they are all there,
and quite by accident, I have the best seat in the house along with the guy
in front of me!
A couple dozen or so of the coach class passengers part the curtain
separating us and ask for views and to take pictures out of our windows. The
gentleman in front of me and I jokingly say that we should charge $5 a head
for the privilege of using our windows!
Roller Coaster Descent
The Druk Air flight continues and we bid farewell to Everest (the top of the
world) and to Nepal's wonderful airspace. We begin our descent into Paro,
Bhutan, the only city with an airport in this tiny country.
"We are beginning our descent now," the pilot tells us. "During our descent,
you will be closer to mountains than you have ever been in an airplane
before. Do not be alarmed. This is quite normal for our approach into Paro."
I buckle in and enjoy the most awe-inspiring airport approach I've ever
witnessed. We bank left, descend, bank right, come around, and see brilliant
green below us, miles on end, with a few houses here and there. The only
roads visible are thin dirt paths that trace their way up and over
The plane comes in low over one ridge, then plunges down. I see the runway
out of my window beneath us and we settle onto it quickly, much as if we
were topping a hill on a roller coaster and starting down the other side.
But instead of a rush, we settle into a perfect controlled landing and glide
to a gentle stop. I have just experienced the best airplane landing ever, I
I step off the plane into the Paro Valley and look at the high green walls
all around. Atop the valley is a brilliant, untainted ceiling of blue sky.
The only airplane for the next five days to mar this amazing sky has just
I'm in Bhutan!
My guide and driver for the next couple weeks meet me outside of the
airport. Tandin, my guide, is 23 and he is a third-year student of law in
Pune, India, a town about five hours from Bombay on India's west coast. Some
call his school "The Oxford of the East," Tandin will tell me in coming
days. Karma is my driver. He is 20, only in his first year of law at the
We make fast friends, the three of us. As I stood inside customs before
leaving the airport, I looked around at my fellow passengers. Their average
age had to be 45 or 50! That surprised me immensely. Save for the two young
daughters of an Indian couple, I was the youngest passenger by far on
today's flight. In the arrival hall, several large tour groups had massed. I
stumbled past their big suitcases and large bags, all lined up on the floor
like massive, multicolored dominoes. With only my day pack and a lightly
(but adequately!) stuffed backpack, I emerged into the bright light outside
to meet Tandin and Karma.
As we begin our drive to Thimpu, the capital city of Bhutan, I tell Tandin
and Karma what I've witnessed inside.
"Yes, not many young tourists come to Bhutan," Tandin informs me in perfect
English. They both laugh when I tell them I was the youngest person around
and laugh even more when we talk about the sheer numbers of bags most of
these people had!
I'm sure the daily fees charged to visit Bhutan are what keep the casual
backpacker out of the country. For all nationalities except Indian, visitors
are charged a fee of $200 - $220 per day. This sounds expensive, and it is
to an extent, but this price includes all meals, all lodging, all trekking
and all hiking arrangements, all vehicle transportation, and your Engligh
speaking guide. I will also soon find out that it includes the necessary
fetching of Band-Aids for the blister on my heel (something the guidebooks
don't mention)! The fee is not bad once you consider all that you get.
Bhutan has been dubbed by some as the last ShangriLa, a natural paradise
full of awe and wonder. Fittingly, my tour company is named ShangriLa Bhutan
Tours. Tandin and Karma are both employed here. To my surprise, I am the
only person in this particular group for ShangriLa Bhutan Tours. Whereas
larger tour companies such as Etho Metho and dozens of people and large
buses to cram into, I get personalized attention and the entire back seat of
Karma's uncle's car to lounge around in! How nice. As we move onward to
Thimpu, I pat myself on the back for choosing this company.
Over the next couple days, I see just how beneficial this personal attention
can be. I ask Tandin tons of questions and he and Karma are able to ask me
questions, too. In a larger group, this individual interaction would not be
possible. Also, I receive another benefit that the larger tour groups
probably do not -- I get to listen to local Bhutanese music casettes in the
car. The music sounds very synthesizer-composed and performed, and the
vocals remind me of Indian film soundtrack vocals - envision a woman with
high pitched voice singing about her love for a man. The man has his part in
the songs, too, and Tandin has translated songs for me in the car. The
Bhutanese seem to be a romantic sort - as far as I can tell, all the songs
are love songs!
Hike to the Top of the World
No, I have not hiked all the way to Mount Everest. However, on my first full
day in Bhutan, still reeling from jet-lag and after sitting on airplanes and
in airports for 24-plus hours, Tandin and I took a three-hour-plus hike
outside of Thimpu to the Phajoding Monastery.
I say OUTSIDE of Thimpu. What I should say is that we hiked ABOVE Thimpu! To
begin with, Thumpu itself sits at about 2,300 meters above sea level. That's
meters, not feet! For you non-math folks, a meter equals about 3.3 feet. So
Thimpu (and it is in a VALLEY!) sits at just under 7,600 feet. Upon my
arrival here, I realized that it's the hightest altitude I've ever visited.
That personal record would not last for long! Our hike begins easily enough,
with a drive up to a local youth center perched above Thimpu proper. We head
up a gradual incline to start the hike.
"The hike will take three hours," Tandin said, eyeing his watch. It is nine
We come upon a small settlement of people in about ten minutes' time. I
immediately know, as if there were any doubt before, that I am in a
different place - colorful prayer flags whipped about in the breeze,
spreading, as Buddhists believe, the prayers inscribed upon them into the
wind. Cattle roamed around us, little children sneaked peaks around fences
to say "Goodbye!" to me (yes, no HELLO, just goodbye). I'm wondering if they
know something I don't about my hike.
It soon becomes apparent to me that I am not at sea level any more! Whereas
Tandin merely has a streak of sweat across his brow, I have the sweat AND a
constant need for more air! We stop and I regain my breath in ten or twenty
seconds, but ten steps later I feel myself laboring again.
The trail gets steeper. We are now virtually climbing stairs in parts of the
muddy trail, and I have to stop more and more often. We are climbing higher,
and the air is getting cooler. Occasionally, there is a break in the trees
where I can see out across the valley. Thimpu's red roofs and white
buildings shine in the sunlight. It is breathtaking, and it would be
breathtaking even if I were breathing normally!
"This is unbelievable!" I tell Tandin. We talk some as we walk, but I find
conversation is a needless additional exertion for me...simply walking up
the hillside is usually more than enough!
The monastery sits at an amazing 3,700 meters (nearly 12,000 feet) above sea
level. The promise of a nourishing lunch of Bhutanese food and views from
the monastery spur me on! It is undoubtedly the toughest three hour hike
I've ever been on. Normally, I can make a hike like this one easily, but
there is just no oxygen to breathe here. I envy Tandin and the ease with
which he traverses the steep slopes. He tells me we are moving up gradually
so I can avoid altitude sickness.
We rest often. At one point, I hear something break through the silence that
has envelloped us throughout the hike. It is a low humming sound that goes
on for a few seconds, then stops, only to start again. My eyes perk up and
the altitude no longer matters. These noises are man-made.
"It is the monks," Tandin says. "Playing --"
"The horns!" I say I've seen these huge horns in movies and on television
before. They are long tubes the monks blow through to produce low mournful
notes like those produced from a tuba. The instrument is called a dungchen
in Dzongka, the local Bhutanese language. We listen for a moment, then start
Not two minutes later, we climb a hill and emerge in a clearing where dozens
of prayer flags are billowing in the cool breeze. The whitewashed walls of
the monastery buildings contrast with the vivid greens, dark-greens, and
browns of the mountainside all around us. After three-plus solid hours of
hiking in thin air, we've arrived at Phajoding Monastery.
Today is an auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar, Tandin tells me, as
every tenth day is. The monks are outside and we see them now, their backs
to Thimpu which sprawls far below in the valley, and they are reading
prayers and playing the dungchen. Each time I hear the sounds of that
instrument, I am soothed. Tandin and I stand and watch the ceremony for a
few minutes. It is amazing to see. I know at that moment, listening to the
readings, hearing the horns, watching the crimson-clad monks, looking at the
whipping prayer flags all around me that I am far, far from home. I am in
We walk to the main building of the monastery. Tandin's search for the
building caretaker yields no one. A monk informs him that the caretaker has
gone to town for the day. Most of the monastery's food and suplies are
transported up the trail from Thimpu (I make a mental note to never
volunteer for that job while I am here!) and the caretaker is probably
getting necessary provisions.
The monk allows us to come inside the monastery. We remove our shoes and I
return my camera to my pocket -- inside a monastery is no place for a camera
-- and we go through the colorfully painted wooden door.
Inside, I feel like I have stepped back in time several hundred years. The
monastery itself has stood here since the 13th century. The creaking
floorboards and dim natural lighting inside underscore the age of this
place. We move into the holy center of the monastery, a room with colorful
hangings on the ceiling and two impressively adorned altars bearing Buddhist
figures from Bhutan's past. Tandin bows reverently in the direction of each
altar. I stand silently and reverently near the door, hands folded over one
another, until Tandin rises and beckons me further inside.
Everything looks as if it has not been disturbed since the monastery opened,
from the golden figure of the monastery's founder to the 13 filled bowls of
water on the main altar.
I don't talk too loudly in here. The human figurines on the altar sit
quietly and patiently, as if expecting all visitors inside to behave the
same. I watch as the monk slides across the floor on pieces of wool, as if
his bare feet are not worthy to touch the floor here. "Or maybe the floor is
just too cold," I think, feeling the cold floorboards through my wool socks.
I watch as Tandin gives the monk a couple bundles of incense as a gift. He
offers some money as well and rolls dice in the money bowl. He pays close
attention to the results displayed on the faces of the die. The monk offers
us both some blessed, rosewood-scented water. He pours it into our hands
from a metal pitcher. We drink it. Tandin tells me that this process
cleanses us of evil spirits, and I nod, feeling clean. Tandin asks if I want
to roll the dice.
"Think about one thing. Focus on something you want resolved," he tells me
and I pause before I roll, placing the die in my hand and putting my hand
against my forehead as I watched Tandin do. Then I roll, letting them go
into the pile of money. I get a seven. My brow furrows.
"Very good number," Tandin reassures me. "We got the same number."
So my situation is likely to be resolved, I think. Good.
First, my evil spirits were banished, then the problem I concentrated on
will be fixed. Now, lunch is the priority. It's been a full morning, and I
am craving sustenance for our trip down the mountain....