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  • Bhutan: The Dragon Kingdom

    The Himalayan mountain range, the tallest on the planet, always held my fascination. At long last I was able to experience them and from a little known country—Bhutan—that has a magic and charm of its own. 

     

    I traveled to Bhutan rather than Tibet or Nepal because fewer people go there. Bhutan considers mountains to be sacred, so you can't climb them. You can only gaze at them from their base and appreciate their majesty. There aren't any mountain climbers, rescue helicopters, or base camps full of technical equipment and satellite radios. Trekkers in Bhutan look for serenity, not the glory of conquering mountain tops.

    An Overlooked Country

    Many people haven't heard of Bhutan. It is a small country tucked between China to the north and east, and India to the south and west. The country is so small and so agrarian that it’s amazing that neither China nor India have tried to annex it. Bhutan does not have any formal diplomatic association with China, but it is closely connected to India through economic and military ties.

    Bhutan exports 75% of its hydroelectric power to India while India supplies a transient work force to Bhutan for construction and road repair jobs. As I rode through the country I saw many Indian work crews living in small shacks on the side of the road. Men, women, and children were on those crews.

    The small Bhutanese army is trained by the Indian Army and relies on the Indian Air Force for air assistance. I saw a number of Indian troops at many of the small army outposts I passed on our trek. I wasn't allowed to take any photographs of the army outposts, which were modest compounds that didn't appear to be equipped with much more than a few people who could serve as a checkpoint.

     

    A Challenging Landing

    Bhutan sits on the slopes of the eastern Himalayan mountains. The terrain consists of hills, mountains, and valleys, with most people living in the valleys where they can grow crops. There really aren’t any wide open plains like the midwest in the United States. Being landlocked, Bhutan doesn’t have a coastline.

    With no open, flat spaces, it is not easy for jet planes to get into and out of the country. The Paro valley where the airport is located isn’t very long and it is often subject to high winds. Planes must weave their way between mountains as they descend towards the airport. The runway never really comes into view until the last turn around the last set of mountains. Then, it’s time to straighten out the plane for the landing. At that point, the plane is only a few hundred feet off the ground.

    From the passengers perspective, the wings look dangerously close to the trees. It’s because of these physical challenges that pilots can land only during the day and when the weather is good so they can have a clear view of the landing. All planes going to Bhutan first stop in India or Bangladesh. (My plane stopped in Bangladesh.) Then, if conditions are good for a visual landing, the plane continues. Only eight pilots are certified to land there. And only one airline, Drukair, flies there.

    To get an idea of what it is like to fly into Bhutan, see this video:

    Real Paro Bhutan Landing 15 A319 Cockpit

    Despite the fact the landing video gives me chills every time I see it, I must admit that I enjoyed the actual landing. It was the beginning of a dream trip for me. As I saw the houses and trees flying by, my thoughts were occupied with the adventure I was about to begin.

    Travel Info

    I traveled with Geographic Expeditions on the Sacred Summits of Bhutan trip. This 14-day journey includes 8 nights on the trail and several days before and after the trek to experience the life and culture of the Bhutanese people.

  • Trek Day 5: Jangothang to Tso Phu

    After a day’s layover, we are well rested, clean, and ready to move on. It’s a short hike to our next campsite—less than 5 miles. The campsite is near two lakes, at an altitude of 14,100 feet. It’s time to say goodbye to Chomolhari, and hello to Jitchu Drake, a mountain we saw earlier on our hike, but that fell our of view at base camp except for a tiny peak. This morning, before everyone else was up, we hiked a bit out of camp to catch a glimpse it. We’ll see more later when we ascend to higher ground. Before we begin our ascent, we are going to visit the home of a yak herder and his family.

     

    The yak herder family—a woman and her two children—graciously welcome us into their home. It is a traditional two-story Bhutanese home on a large plot of land with a stable and grazing areas. The home is comfortably furnished. In addition to the sleeping, cooking, and living room areas, it has a small area dedicated to Buddha. There are offerings, multicolored flags/banners, and butter lamps.

    Jitchu Drake Appears

    After leaving the yak herder's home, we head uphill. The higher we climb, the more Jitchu Drake unfolds itself. The scenery at the top of our climb is spectacular because there we can see both Jitchu Drake and Chomolhari. Several of us have a difficult time leaving this vantage point. We just can’t pull ourselves away. We linger while the others rush on to camp. When we finally get to camp, it is quite windy and cold, but like most days, have a tent with a view.

     

    Mixed with the sound of the wind is the sound of a bell. It is ringing constantly. It sounds like the same incessant ringing we’ve heard for the past two nights when we were trying to sleep. I track down the sound to a horse. She is eating, constantly chewing. With every bite the bell around her neck rings. I find out from the horseman that a horse with a bell is a problem horse--typically a wanderer who needs to be kept track of.

     

    The temperature drops around dinner time. The staff make hot water bottles for each of us to keep down the chill of the night. It is the coldest night, but it turns out to be crystal clear and one of the most beautiful nights of the trek.