Hiking in Bhutan brought me a lot closer to Shangri-la

Taktsang Monastery hangs from a mountain cliff above Paro, Bhutan.G Adventures/The Globe and Mail

In the whirlwind mist atop a remote mountain pass in Bhutan, Dawa Tshering, 73, stood, twirling an umbrella. A gentle rain spat at the Pele-la pass and a cold breeze tugged at Dawa ghou – a dark red and yellow striped garment, up to the knees, tied at the waist. To keep warm, he had slipped checked flannel pants into a pair of worn rubber boots.

His gap-toothed smile was kind as he waited for a group of foreign hikers to secure their packs, refill water bottles, strap on gaiters, zip up GoreTex coats, rehydrate ready packs, and more. The only gear he had brought was this umbrella, which would later serve as a hiking stick.

Why is the tour fee in Bhutan $200 per day?

Dawa Tshering, 73, guides hikers on the Trans Bhutan Trail that crosses her valley.Florian Sanktjohanser

Dawa had spent his youth on this scenic section of the Trans Bhutan trail, as well as much of the 403-kilometre cross-country route, when it was the only way to reach villages in nearby valleys. He carried bags of chillies and brought bags of rice home.

Today he takes hikers into the Alpine valley – it’s practically his backyard – through meadows of wild rhododendrons and orchids and trees populated by grey-bearded monkeys, past grassy fields dotted with wooden huts. rough woods in which the yak herders live when the animals descend. mountains, grazing cattle and cow patties, and rushing rivers – optional bridges.

Catered camping along the Trans Bhutan Trail is a popular way for many trekkers to spend the night.G Adventures/The Globe and Mail

Eight kilometers away, Dawa’s family was preparing a traditional meal for foreign visitors in the village of Rukubji, but that was still a few hours away. He must have wondered if we would move one day.

Bhutan is in the Eastern Himalayas, a kingdom wedged between China and the Tibetan plateau, with India to the south. It’s a land of mountains and valleys and it’s carbon neutral – 72% of Bhutan is forested, and 60% will remain so legally, it also exports hydroelectric power. Bhutan is only 300 km long and 150 km wide but rich in biodiversity: home to 5,400 plant species and more than 770 birds and 200 mammals, including the snow leopard, the Bengal tiger and the black-necked crane. Only two airlines – Drukair and Bhutan Airlines – fly here and only local pilots are trained to make the tricky landing at Paro, where a short high-altitude runway hemmed in by the Inner Himalayan Range gives visitors their first thrill.

Geographically remote, Bhutan once held the world at a cultural distance. Television and internet did not arrive until 1999. Visitors have been few but when they arrive they discover a strong and uniquely Bhutanese Buddhist culture. Traditional dress – the ghou and at the ankle Kira for women – is commonly worn. Gurus and saints have their own local style – a popular one uses sex appeal to spread Buddha’s teachings, and so, yes, it’s a huge penis painted on the exterior walls of many houses, or a tiny one engraved on this school bell – the phallus occupies a sacred place. And Bhutan’s famous Gross Domestic Happiness program, launched in 2008, still means that sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation are more important than financial gain.

Once our group finally left, I happily tapped the white painted trail marker for luck. It was erected during the restoration of the Trans Bhutan Trail, a massive pandemic project for Bhutanese funded by a $1 million donation from Toronto travel entrepreneur turned philanthropist Sam Blyth. He has been drawn to the country since 1988. An avid hiker, he describes the TBT as one of the greatest long-distance trails in the world: “The pure beauty, in terms of the cultural aspect, the pristine nature of the environment… welcome warmth. It’s at the very top. »

But he, like everyone else in Bhutan, was quick to defer to the king, who is revered here, as the man with the “vision” for the trail – as a means of bringing the Bhutanese back to their history and away from outside influences that are changing the culture, such as consumerism, fast food, fewer people in traditional dress and, like everywhere else in the world, young people are spending more time online than outside .

Away from the city streets of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, where these changes were quickly spotted, our group weaved their way through ankle-deep heather and muddy bogs. Dawa’s big rubber boots made a lot more sense now. I stopped short when I reached a creek too wide to jump. But Dawa bent down, dug a few stepping stones, then held out his hand and smiled.

Elder and local guide Dawa Tshering, 73, leads hikers through the creek safely.Catherine Dawson Mars/The Globe and Mail

Safely, I walked, taking my time across the meadows to admire the mountains, which rose sharply on either side. One is densely forested with Himalayan pines and shrouded in mist, but clearing clouds to my left revealed terraced fields with crops of bright yellow mustard seeds, which stood out against the emerald green . Every once in a while a truck came up the country’s only hairpin bend highway, but it was inaudible – down in the valley the silence is broken only by cattle and cameras.

Mid-morning, Dorji, our local G Adventures restorative, pulled out a Bhutanese energy treat: Chugo, or yak cheese, white, powdery, one-inch cubes strung on red string, which she bought at a roadside stall. It reminded me of those candy necklaces from my childhood – but a piece of chugo is rock hard and sat like that in my mouth for 15 long, dry minutes. It wasn’t until it started to crumble that I noticed a slight milky flavor. Chugo is a local treat that I will leave behind.

After a few hours, Dawa and Dorji started talking urgently. A couple of Bengal tigers had been spotted on the after lunch part of the trail. The Rangers were hastily dispatched, though they were armed with tranquilizer darts, not firearms. Bhutanese don’t kill. Not even the leech which, completely engorged, came off my sock during lunch later that day.

Monks are commonplace in Bhutan, outside a monastery and on the streets.Catherine Dawson Mars/The Globe and Mail

As honored guests, we had been served our meal in the sanctuary room of Dawa’s house. We sat on mats in front of an altar that shone with deities, holy books, and many bowls of offerings. Horrified to be bleeding in this sacred space, I pulled off my bloody sock and took it to an outside room. Dorji picked up the parasite from the floor and followed to clean my ankle.

In the end, the tigers and bad timing meant the day’s hike was over. Our group would hike other stunning sections of the trail – through rainforests and rocks with awe-inspiring views – but this day would be my favorite. Mainly because Dorji released my leech out with a prayer. It delighted me. Now I had a blood connection to the country.

Before this trip, Bhutan was not on my radar. But I soon realized that – once you start walking in its painful natural beauty, once you start learning about its religion, once you get to know its laid-back, laugh-loving people – this country Himalayan is about as close to the mythical kingdom of Shangri-la as you’ll ever get.

If you are going to

In September, Bhutan has started charging visitors $200 a day to reinvest in the country. “I want every visitor to think that even though it was a bit more expensive, it was worth it,” Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said.

A great introduction to the beauty of Bhutan is the 2019 Oscar nominated film Lunana: a yak in the classroom (currently on Netflix).

G Adventures offers eight tours in Bhutan. Many include non-technical treks on the Trans Bhutan Trail and all include time with locals, plus the hike to Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest), hanging from a mountain outside Paro. Exploring the Taktsang shrines is one of the most memorable things you can do in Bhutan. Tours start from $3,699 and do not include airfare. gaventures.com

If you’re traveling this far, make the most of it with a stopover in one of your transfer countries. An extra night in Bangkok meant a great day of tuk-tuk and long-tail boat rides to explore the city. My Guide G Adventures bypassed the usual tourist spots to show me his favorite neighborhoods and cafes, and whet my appetite for a longer visit next time.

The writer was a guest on G Adventures. He did not review or approve the story before publication.

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