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Top of the World
by Ed Gray

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 hillsides.

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 think.

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 landed.

I'm in Bhutan!

ShangriLa

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 same school.

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 thirty.

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 walking again.

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 awe.

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....

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