<%-- Page Title--%> Travel <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 129 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 7, 2003

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Breathless in Bhutan

Lamia Rashid

This was my first trek, but certainly not my last. In Bhutan, you can do some of the most difficult treks in the world but as a beginner, I tried the sixty-five kilometers Druk Path trek from Paro to Thimpu. While physical exertion is not normally my idea of a holiday, I could think of no better way to spend the one precious week I had off from all my adult responsibilities.

I won't get into the details here of how difficult it was to convince the travel agent that I, as a Bangladeshi woman, wanted to go to Bhutan by myself, during the off-season, not on a sightseeing tour (read shopping), but on a trek, in the mountains, sleeping at night in a tent. It sound crazy, but apparently, such a thing had never been done (or at least requested) and if it has, could whoever has done it please identity yourself -- I'd love a chat? It was well worth the two weeks of to-ing and fro-ing with the travel agent to realise my plan.

I flew to Bhutan in late August this year and spent the first half of my week trekking and the second half sightseeing. My trek started from outside Paro Museum around nine in the morning on a bright sunny day. With me I had my guide, whom met the day before and trusted immediately; the cook, a man with a permanent smile and the gumdrop cheeks that a lot of people get up in the mountains; the horseman, who looked more like a cow-boy; and his horses. The four small horses carried the tents, 3 days worth of supplies, and our few personal effects they were not there to carry any of us -- we had our feet for that purpose. Two tiny trainee ponies also came along, if not for the experience, then surely for the tasty mountain grass.

We climbed gradually up to 12,000 feet that day, with an hour break for lunch and a nap in a flowering meadow. The cook and horses would go on ahead, so when we reached the camp spot in the early evening, the tents were all set up and hot chocolate and cream biscuits were laid out and waiting. (This was my kind of trekking experience!) I spent the evening chatting with my Bhutanese mates and retired early, I guess, not having worn a watch.

The next day was going to be hard. Plus, I hadn't slept very well, not having yet adjusted to sleeping in a tent in the middle of the mountains. While the first day had been relatively rain-free, the second day was downright damp -- so much so that we had to cut short our lunch break. But I was so exhausted, I managed a doze despite the dampness, sitting upright in my raincoat and hat with my face buried in my arms. We spent the first half of the day slipping down, down, down the mountain, only to spend the second half climbing steeply up again above the tree line. I had warned the guide that uphill was going to be rough for me, unfit as I know myself to be, and he was well prepared with torchlight in case we should fail to reach the campsite before dusk. As it turned out, the downhill was much harder than uphill and we made it to camp just after dusk without the aid of a torch. I felt victorious!

I am not eloquent enough to do justice to the natural beauty that was all around me. What I can describe is the smell. Quite simply, it was the smell of nothing -- of pure, clean, moving air. I know that we Bangalis are obsessed with catching a bit of bathash, but for the Bhutanese, bathash is an essential element of life and religion. Bathash moves the prayer flags and with each motion, merit is accrued for the prayer. Another source of motion, and consequently merit, is flowing water. Throughout my trek, whenever I needed a bit of cooling, I could run my hands alternately through trickling steams and gushing torrents of water-falls. Its not surprising that Bhutan is a net exporter hydraulic energy.
The second night, we camped beside a quiet misty lake. I slept much better. Dinner included chillies so large, they're vegetables and fresh spring onions that my guide picked on our way up the mountain while waiting around during my numerous breaks. I'm a vegetable lover, and I loved the fresh, crispy vegetables the cook made up, in cheese sauce and served with a reddish rice. In the morning of my last day, we started out around eight-thirty after the usual bowl of warm water for my face and a vegetable omelette for my stomach. It was cloudy but not as wet as the previous day. Today, we climbed to our highest point of 13,000 feet before stopping for lunch at another lake.

The lakes here were pools of stillness reflecting the mountains all around them. Our lunch lake was so clear, you could see right through to the jagged rocks at its bottom. The sun came through the clouds and I looked at the only creatures around beside us. I thought, how lucky these grazing cows were and how envious Bangladeshi cows would be to know how much space and fresh grass each of their Bhutanese counterparts have as a matter of course. After lunch, I had a long final stretch of downhill to the Thimpu valley. I paid for taking it easy on the first leg of the descent. We ended up walking 'till well after dusk and by the end, I couldn't see anything but my guide's feet in front of me to lead the way down. Again, I realised that downhill was much, much harder than uphill! When it was all over, I was grateful that something other than my own two feet (i.e. the attendant car) was going to transport me from the outskirts of Thimpu to the hotel.

Now, of course, I miss it again. The effect of eyefuls of green forest and blue skies, nosefuls of light, clean fresh air and handfuls of cool, soft, flowing water on one's soul is truly compelling. I want to go live in Bhutan. Does anyone have job for me there please?



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