Bhutan is a country that’s been high on my travel list for many years. Located in the Himalayas, Bhutan is sandwiched between the much larger countries of India and China. Bhutan is the size of Switzerland with a total population less than that of San Francisco. It is also famous for promoting its Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product. Environmental preservation is high on the Bhutanese government’s list of priorities and Bhutan is a carbon-negative country. To protect the country’s culture, tourism is highly regulated. All trips must be booked through an approved tour company and a guide is assigned to stay with your group throughout your travels.
The only international airport is located in Paro, and the flight from Delhi was very memorable. As we started to descend, the captain got on the loudspeaker and announced there would be some gentle turns before touchdown but that it was absolutely normal and there was no reason to be alarmed. Soothing Bhutanese music began to play. Suddenly the clouds parted and were replaced by mountains reaching high above the plane on either side. We banked right, then left, then right again following the contours of the valley. The plane leveled out two seconds before the wheels touched the ground. We all breathed a collective sigh and smiled to each other. Welcome to Bhutan!
TRAILS AND PRAYER FLAGS
The first morning in Bhutan, I woke up in the capital city of Thimphu at an elevation of 7,600 feet and headed out the door with a local runner. He ran with me until the base of the closest mountain trail and then pointed upward to the many prayer flags snaking along the mountainside. In Bhutan, you can always find trails by looking for prayer flags. They will likely lead to a temple perched on the mountainside. As we started climbing, I rapidly left the guide behind and worked my way up the steep, rutted trail. I ran through a beautiful profusion of prayer flags to see the temple and a stunning view of even bigger mountains beyond.
Temples and fortresses are special sites everywhere in Bhutan. The most sacred and spectacular temple is the Tiger’s Nest. Perched on the side of a cliff at 10,000 feet, it is one of the meditation sites of the founder of Buddhism in Bhutan. The trail up to Tiger’s Nest is steep; 2 miles of dirt and stairs. Of course I couldn’t resist running up and down. It was quite an adventure dodging horses, passing numerous other hikers and dealing with the altitude. The best views of the temple are from the last landing before the start of the stairs. To enter the temple, you need to wear appropriate clothing (no shorts and covered shoulders) and must be accompanied by your guide.
LOVING THE LOCAL SPIRIT
I loved exploring the trails in Bhutan and interacting with the local people. Any time I was lost a helpful local always saved the day. While in Paro, we embarked on a big mountain adventure to run to a temple we could see from our hotel room and try to find the pass and the glacial lakes beyond. We successfully ran up to the temple but were unable to find the continuation of the trail. Suddenly an old Bhutanese woman peeked her head out of a window and waved at us. She cheerfully and enthusiastically directed us to the trail and hiked a short distance with us (almost leaving us in her dust).
I wish I could have stayed longer in Bhutan. A spectacular and ancient network of trails criss-crosses the mountains and trail runners are just starting to tap into them. The Buddhist culture and philosophy that permeates daily life is calming, intriguing and inspiring. I felt so hopeful that a country is actively preserving their culture and environment for the future. The people of Bhutan truly are embracing their Gross National Happiness.