All foreign flights into Bhutan land at Paro, and for many tourists, their first destination is the nearby 17th-century Taktshang Monastery, more commonly known as the Tiger's Nest. We did the reverse: saved that adventure for Friday, when all of us would be departing the next day (Howie and Donna to Thailand and Steve and I to Nepal). I'm so glad we did. First, it gave us all four days to get used to the altitude. The Paro Valley is at about 7,400 feet, but the monastery clings to a clifftop that's more than 10,000 feet high. As our guidebook noted, the only way up is to hike, rent horses (which can only go halfway), or fly up on a magical tiger. The latter is rare, but the legendary Guru Rimpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet centuries ago, allegedly ascended that way to subdue a resident demon. Besides better preparing our bodies, saving the Tiger's Nest for last also made sense from the perspective of theater. A visit to it makes for the grandest of grand finales.
We checked out of our hotel in Thimphu and were on the road by 7:15 am. The two-lane road between Thimphu and Paro is narrow, but the surface is good and the roadside signs are most entertaining. They bear virtuous if sometimes puzzling exhortations such as, “Shooting Stones — Drive Carefully,” “Be Gentle On My Curves,” and “If You Are Married — Divorce Speed.”
The trailhead was jammed with minivans, SUVs, and other other assorted vehicles, and we felt for the first time like we were approaching a major tourist attraction. (At so many places, we were the only foreigners in evidence.) Howie and Donna rented sticks for about $1 apiece, but Steve and I had new collapsible hiking poles, with which we have fallen in love. For all of us, the sticks felt indispensable. They made me feel more secure on the uneven, narrow, and invariably steep pathway, and they provided some cushioning for my much-taxed knees.
For the first half-hour, the hike up was pleasant and demanding, if unremarkable; scattered clouds and forest cover kept us cool. After about an hour and a half, we arrived at a simple “cafeteria” where I downed a quick coffee and we all drank in our first views of the monastery — so improbably dramatic it looks like it could only have been dreamed up by some studio CG team. We also felt encouraged, as we seemed to have almost reached the same altitude as the monastery, and the distance across the gorge between our cliffside and its didn't look that daunting. This was illusory.
Our Genuine Bhutanese Stone Bath Experience that evening paled in comparison with the Assault on Tiger's Nest. We hadn't sought it out; rather, our tour operator had thrown it into the package at no charge. For it we drove to a guesthouse just outside of town where the staff had been “roasting” stones for a couple of hours. They led us to a wood pavilion out in what felt like the backyard and showed us the three coffin-shaped wooden “tubs,” each maybe 7 feet long and filled with water that was heated by the pile of stones in one end of the vessel.
I could see Donna's head sticking out of her tub a few feet to my left (the cloth partition being too short to afford complete privacy). More comic still was the fact that Ugyen and our driver Tandin together climbed into the third tub, beyond Howie and Donna. Ugyen wasn't naked, something I know because at one point he insisted we needed more hot stones, climbed out of his tub, dashed outside, grabbed some with a tongs, and plonked them into our tubs. It was relaxing, if somewhat grubby and pretty hilarious, and when we all dried off and dressed and went into dinner inside the guesthouse (more red rice! more potatoes! more green beans!), I was ready to fall asleep at the table.
Besides the life-threatening roads, the extremely limited diet is definitely the worst part of visiting Bhutan. I had read this in advance and thought I was prepared for it, so I was startled by how irritating it became in just one week. As our plane climbed up and out of the Paro Valley this morning (Saturday), I reflected on how almost everything else was simply wonderful: the fabulous art and architecture, surrounded by the peerless scenery and inhabited by such warm and welcoming people — almost all of whom speak serviceable English! One brainstorm of the previous king (I think) was to dictate that all schools in Bhutan teach most subjects in English, a policy that has rendered all the younger generation bi- (and often multi-) lingual.
That king (who abdicated a few years ago to let his son take the throne) is the one who set Bhutan's famous Gross National Happiness policy. It's not crystal clear to me just how well that's working. We saw an awful lot of grinding poverty, and while education may be free to all Bhutanese children, people talk about how hard it is to find any job.
Medical care is also free, even to foreigners, we discovered firsthand. On the day we toured around Thimphu, we stopped into the campus of the national center for alternative medicine. There wasn't too much to see, but on a whim, Howie asked Ugyen if he might get a consultation regarding the sore throat he had developed the previous day. Ugyen made an inquiry, and in less than 5 minutes, Howie (along with all the rest of us) was ushered into the office of a senior physician, a pretty but serious, white-coated young woman behind a desk. She asked Howie a few questions, taking careful note of his answers, but she never looked into his mouth or did any other physical examination. Instead, she wrote out a prescription and directed him to have it filled at the “pharmacy” a few doors down.
Howie turned in the paper there and was told to wait until his number (118) flashed on a little display. Barely a minute passed before it did. He then collected the pills (to be taken twice daily) and dried herbs (to be boiled into a tea before breakfast). Indeed, there was no charge for any of this, though he gave something as a donation. I have no idea if any of it was effective; he was still battling the cold when we bade goodbye last night.
If the jury's still out (for me at least) about the efficacy of the Bhutanese health-care and happiness policies, one thing I'm certain of is that Bhutanese cows must be the most blissful cows on earth. They're not sacred in Bhutan (a Buddhist country, not a Hindu one). But their owners (who keep them for the milk rather than their flesh) let them wander freely throughout the countryside even though they're not branded. Ugyen insisted that they find their way home every evening on their own. They use the footbridges and they balance gracefully on the hillsides, munching the luxurious grass. They wander out onto the highways, and somehow drivers don't seem to hit them. If I ever have to be reincarnated as an animal, I want to come back as a Bhutanese cow.
For now, however, Steve and I are alive and well in Kathmandu. Our plane pushed back from the gate 10 minutes early, and within minutes we were catching thrilling glimpses of Himalayan peaks from our window. As we neared Kathmandu we had a picture perfect view of the cluster of mountains that includes Everest.
I felt moved almost to tears at the sight of the tallest place on the planet. Since we landed, everything on the ground has been pretty sublime too.