Bye Bye Bhutan

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.

None of us, including Ugyen, understood this one.

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.

Yeah, we look okay, but check out the monastery in the distance.
You can see some of the final stairs descending down, and way in the distance the beginning of the up stretch.
The path onward varied between steep and fairly flat, but we trudged along it for an alarmingly long time. Then we rounded a bend and my heart sank to see the final barrier to reaching the monastery. We would have to descend a long series of steps leading to the end of the gorge and then slog up what looked like an equal number leading to the monastery entrance. We all kept going at a steady if slow pace. Part of our slowness resulted from the compulsion we all felt at every turn to try to capture the staggering drama of the site. The monastery is a feat of construction that rivals the Great Pyramid at Giza. It’s not the size of the building but its impossibly difficult locaton that makes it so extraordinary. Somehow, humans built it on a sheer rockface thousands of feet above ground level.
I can’t say the interior matches the outside. The inner walls bear some elaborate and complex paintings, and the passages lead to a number of beautiful shrines, where once again my eyes crossed as Ugyen regaled us with stories about the holy men and demons and incarnated lamas who had inhabited or meditated here at one time or another. After a while, we all were starving (it was well after 1 p.m.) so we started the long hike down.
The Tiger's Nest

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.

One of the girls pulled flimsy cloth partitions between the tubs, then they shooed Steve and me into one. I was struck by how different the protocol seemed to be from that in Japan, where thoroughly scrubbing and sanitizing every inch of one’s body is de riguer before getting into the steaming tub and soaking there. In Steve’s and my little cubicle, I stripped off my clothes and made a clumsy effort to wash up with the square of soap and plastic cup (for scooping water out of the tub) with which we had been provided. But within a minute I gave up and climbed into the tub. A minute later, Steve joined me.

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 and his traditional doctor

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.

Gross national bovine happiness

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.

We think that's Everest looming in the distance.

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.



Vital communications links

We got back safely to Thimphu yesterday around 5, after a three-hour ride that was less terrifying than our previous drive. Donna and I calculated we were frozen with fear only a dozen or so times; it probably added up to only 15 minutes of terror (in contrast with the solid two hours or so on the road between Punakha and Gangte.) Return to the nation’s capital also meant a slightly better electronic link to the outside world.

In Gangte, our destination for the sacred dance festival, there was no wifi at our hotel. “You can’t get it anywhere in the [Pobhjikha] Valley,” a local guide declared. As no one in Bhutan appears to have the ability to get Internet on their cell phones (worse than what we’ve seen most places in Africa), we were pretty much completely cut off from news of the world. The one exception came when, after we were strolling near the village, we came upon an elegant hotel with stunning views of the valley. Most of the hotels that are included in the standard daily tourist rate are pretty basic — comfortable but plain. But in recent years some luxury properties have been developed for which the 1% pay astronomical surcharges. The Gangte Lodge, at $850 per day, was one such. For that fee, you not only get a room with the killer view, but also attention from perhaps the nicest concierge I’ve ever met. Rosina (a pretty Argentine) gave us a tour of the property and also loaned us a set of darts so that Ugyen could demonstrate the game for us on the lodge’s dart court. She let us use the swanky bathrooms and allowed us to make a reservation for a 6 p.m. prix fixe dinner. It was a splurge, but we were all ravenous for something other than the plain rice, sauteed vegetables, noodles, and stewed potatoes that seem to be the only thing on the menu at more plebeian hotels and restaurants.

This is THE basic meal of Bhutan. We've eaten it about a dozen times now. Tasty enough but BORing.

It occurred to me that dinner would probably include access to the Internet (who would pay $850 a night for a room and not expect a satellite dish enabling connectivity?) I was right, and Donna and I did spend part of the meal acting like teenagers, checking our cell phones with glee. (Sadly, the food, though more varied, wasn’t much tastier than that in the prole hotels.)

We didn’t get connected again until we returned to Punakha. The wifi at our hotel there was sketchy, but good enough to enable me to check my email and find a disturbing message from our agent in Kathmandu — the guy securing our visas for Tibet. (It’s too tedious to explain all the details here, but basically he was demanding almost $200 more for Chinese visas than he had said they would cost.) Even more disturbing was the news Howie saw in the New York Times about Nepal’s border with India being closed due to political turmoil over the newly enacted Nepali constitution. The Nepali-Chinese border has been closed since May, due to the monster earthquakes, so this latest turn of events basically cut off Nepal from receiving any supplies, including gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

This was worrisome. Steve and I MUST get to Kathmandu in order to obtain our visas for Tibet. There’s no alternative. But if the city is running out of fuel, might we be unable to get from the airport to our hotel and back? Might our flights be canceled? Could we get stuck in Kathmandu — at an ugly moment?

We’ve done a lot of checking since we learned this news Tuesday evening. We’ve communicated with our travel agent in Tibet, with the one in Kathmandu, with our Kathmandu hotel, and with the head of the international Red Cross in Nepal (who happens to be the friend of a friend and who we were/are supposed to visit there). All the above feel we’ll be okay, and our Bhutanese travel operator has confirmed that our flights in and out of Nepal should be flying as scheduled. So unless the situation takes a turn for the worse, we appear to be good to go.

A bit to my amazement, this little distraction hasn’t the least dampened the pleasures we’ve been deriving from our sightseeing outings. None of us can think of any place we’ve been on earth — or seen pictures of — that’s more beautiful than the physical landscape here, and the man-made structures equal it. Tuesday afternoon at the huge ancient fortress (dzong) in Punakha…

….we spent a lot of time in the central temple — a space so vast it reminded me of Notre Dame cathedral. But instead of the relative austerity of the latter, virtually every surface in the temple was painted or carved (or both) with a staggering profusion of colors and exotic imagery. Afternoon sunshine poured in through a few of the upper windows, and thin trails of incense floated up in it.

Temple visitors are not allowed to take photos. This one was outdoors, however, one example (out of millions) of the extravagant and ubiquitous ornamentation.

We started off the next day by visiting a recently opened nunnery. One of its buildings is a temple not as large as the one at Punakha Dzong, but it seemed even more insanely decorated, if possible. I sat for a long time on the parquet wood floor, varnished to a high gloss, and tried to identify a single color that wasn’t present in the room. I failed. In addition to all the primary and pastel hues, a plethora of textures competed for my attention: richly embroidered silk fabrics, a milky glass chandelier, hammered brass hardware. As if all this wasn’t enough, outside, we found a huge crew of young Buddhist nuns clamboring all over the dome of another structure, white-washing it. At the sight of those maroon-robed, crewcut-coiffed, paintbrush-wielding young women, Howie gasped with pleasure and spent the next half-hour or more trying to capture the flurry of activity with his Sony camera. When we finally pried him away, he said it was the best photo shoot of his entire career.

A couple of the girls stirred up the whitewash.
Howie should be producing an amazing photo essay sometime soon.
There’s simply too much more to describe; I don’t think it’s possible to communicate all we’ve seen and done. And tomorrow we still have one more day, a day in which we’ll be climbing to the top of Bhutan’s most famous monastery: the Tiger’s Nest (followed by an afternoon in a traditional farmhouse). I probably won’t be able to post again tomorrow, before we take off to Nepal. But if all goes well, the lines of communication there will be open and running smoothly, and I’ll have some time to report.
That string across the river is actually a foot bridge -- second longest in the world, according to our guide. Donna and I tied prayer flags to it. Hopefully they'll help ensure our safe travels in the next few days.




(Tantric) Sex and (Near) Death

Read any touristic information about Bhutan, and you will come to believe that attending a Bhutanese tsechu is something no one should miss. A tsechu is a religious festival highlighted by days of ritualized dances. When I began planning our trip here, I was sad to see that because of scheduling constraints, we would just miss the big tsechu held in the nation’s capital, Thimphu, every September. But then I heard from a tour operator who pointed out that one tsechu would be taking place in a beautiful glacial valley named Phobjikha during the week we wanted to come to Bhutan. Attending it would require driving almost to the center of the country. But we could do that in about 5 hours, she assured me. And we could break up the car time with a couple of sightseeing stops. Because seeing a tsechu sounded so important, we committed to the tour operator who had suggested this itinerary (Bhutan Swallowtail).

We had to leave Thimphu after just one night (Saturday, when we arrived in Bhutan.) The first half of Sunday was magical. For a while, the road was decent, and it took us to a mountain pass that’s the site of a splendid war memorial. Clouds obscured the views of the distant Himalayas, but what we could see was so beautiful, we dawdled to drink it all in, greedily.

The road leading into the pass had deteriorated, however, and we had to press on, eastward. The ride grew worse as we approached the Punakha Valley, site of a former Bhutanese capital. Our destination there was something called the Temple of Fertility, built by Drukpa Kunley, a beloved 15th Century lama known as the Divine Madman. Kunley was bawdy and iconoclastic, and although I’ve read several things about him, I still do not understand why he’s a wildly popular Buddhist saint (at least in Bhutan). It must have something to do with the character of the Bhutanese, who in the part of the valley around the Divine Madman’s temple paint images of giant penises and testicles on their homes and buildings.

We ate a late lunch at a restaurant that featured a giant carved wooden penis, then set out on foot across the valley. Folks say the farmers here are the most productive in Bhutan. Maybe it’s the fertile vibrations emanating from the temple, but we also saw a lot of back-breaking labor as we followed a path through the ripening wheat fields — women bending over and over again to cut bundles of rice with hand scythes; others in the distance threshing the grains by hand.

The temple was dark and atmospheric and filled (as most religious structures in Bhutan seem to be) with tantric images, both wrathful and sensual. At a certain point, a gaggle of boy monks ranging in age from maybe 4 to 14 trooped in. Most sat on the floor, lined up in rows, while a few prepared a “food offering” to the resident Buddha. Howie and Donna were eager to see how the ritual would play out, but Steve and I, still jet-lagged, were weary, as well as worried about the drive in front of us. It was close to 3, and we’d been told that the trip to our final destination would take at least 2 hours.

So we hiked back to the car and set off. This was around 3:15, still partly sunny. The road, which we knew would take us from about 4000 feet up to almost 10,000, was atrocious, a narrow crumbling asphalt ledge hacked out of one mountainside after another. This was the main east-west highway traversing Bhutan, but for the most part, it had no shoulders, let alone guardrails. It virtually never ran in a straight line for more than a few hundred yards, but twisted and turned (sometimes almost 180 degrees) to make the climb up the unearthly grades. Early in the ride, Steve and I remarked that although it was terrible, this Bhutanese road wasn’t the very worst we’d ever traveled on. We reminisced about the hellish jouncing nightmare of one journey in Baja; about the potholed horror of another ride in Senegal.

But after an hour or so, we realized it wasn’t true. The Bhutanese road was worse than anything we’d ever experienced, than anything imaginable. It’s allegedly being widened, thanks to money donated by the Indian government, and huge stretches are torn up and boulder strewn. Occasionally, even though it was a Sunday, we glimpsed wretchedly poor migrant Indian workers gathering rocks together into chicken-wire-bound blocks to (eventually) be assembled into reinforcing walls. Bhutan experienced torrential rains this fall, and in places streams poured over the path before us. The erosion from this and all the heavy truck traffic had made all the asphalt disappear at times, and the recent rain had turned the underlying dirt into a muddy bog. Through that, our minivan shuddered, inches from the edge of a cliff that dropped straight down, for thousands of feet. We slogged on, and another hour passed. It began to grow dark.

Not all of the road was this muddy, but this section was wider than many.
We weren’t very far from the riverbed here, but this shot gives a sense of our close we were to the edge, and how crumbly the edge was.

Yet another hour passed, and the road still didn’t improve. Sometime into the third hour, it began to rain. Finally, after four full hours on the road, we reached the dark Gangte village, but then learned that a) our hotel was somewhere on the other side of the huge valley adjoining the village, and b) our driver had never been to it before and didn’t know where it was.

We asked questions of people that we passed in the night but still got lost. The minivan got stuck. The driver almost fell into a stream trying to get the vehicle to move. Finally, close to 8 p.m., we arrived at Gakiling Lodge, and learned that the electricity had gone out.

It was all pretty grueling, so it may be hard to understand how we could all be so happy the next morning (Monday). In the light of dawn, we could take in the breathtaking views of the valley (where the annual migration of Black-necked Cranes draw hordes of tourists every November.) Low clouds quickly burned off, and brilliant sunshine illuminated a dozen shades of green on the thickly wooded mountainsides. We set off early for the festival, parked, and walking amidst the monks and villagers toward the temple, I felt like I’d been transported back to the middle ages. All the villagers were wearing their finest woven and silk robes and scarves and jackets, as these tsechus are part country fair, part religious obligation. (Bhutanese Buddhists believe that you get spiritual points for attending them.) When we entered the temple grounds about 9:30 a.m., it was packed with families sitting on mats on the ground. Mothers peeled hard-boiled eggs and cut up chunks of cucumber for their kids. People gossiped, keeping half an eye on the monks dressed in masks and fantastic costumes executing one exotic dance after another. We spent a couple of hours watching the spectacle, but we were told that most of the locals would be there all day, then back again for a third time the next and final day.

This morning, after a buccolic hike through the woods, we had to face the awful ride back, of course. Although it was sunny and warm, most of the road was in at least as bad a shape as it had been. But we didn’t run into any landslides. We didn’t slide off the path and into the void. No gigantic boulders or trees slammed down on us (as they clearly could have). Our driver, Tandin, was cautious and level-headed and sensitive to the minivan’s needs, and we pulled back into Punakha for lunch.

After this adventure with pornograpic daily ornamentation and blood-curdling transportation, the next few days should be almost sleepy. Today (Wednesday) we’re supposed to visit a Buddhist nunnery, go on another nature hike, then return to the capital for more (prosaic) touristic activities.

Welcome to the kingdom of happiness

Monday, September 28

Saturday morning we landed at one of the scariest airports in the world. We survived. I would have predicted that it would have been the highlight of our day. But somehow it wasn’t. A few things went wrong in the hours that followed, but they were balanced by other moments that I can only describe as mind-blowing.

That’s not to say our arrival wasn’t noteworthy. Boarding for the flight from Bangkok started a few minutes earlier than scheduled. The weather was sunny and clear. The Drukair Airbus pilot had a reassuringly Teutonic accent, and our stop in Calcutta to pick up passengers went without a hitch. Then we were off for the 55-minute flight to Paro, the site of one of Bhutan’s three airports (and the only international one).

Halfway into the trip I was thrilled by my first sight of an actual Himalayan mountain poking up through the cloud layer. I was stuck in an aisle seat but loosened my seatbelt and strained as far as possible over Steve in the middle. The peaks we glimpsed were white as marble and jagged. I wanted to yank the friendly lady from Macao out of her window seat, the better to stare at them.

Then we were descending, and soon I could soon see patches of green forest below. Fortunately, I had watched (3 times!) the video that can be found online by googling “Scary landing at Paro Bhutan,” because it prepared me for what followed. There’s no place in Paro (or Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital), that’s clear enough of mountains to allow a jet to make a straight and gradual descent. Instead, planes go down fairly quickly to about 5000 feet, at which point they’ve over the airport. They keep descending into Paro Valley, and just when it appears they will definitely slam into the mountainside in front of them, they bank sharply, dropping and twisting their way back up the valley until they’re over the tarmac and able to touch down. Probably it was just as good I wasn’t at the window; I would have disgraced myself by gasping and moaning at how close we came to the terrain. What made the whole experience not that terrifying was that it only lasted maybe 5 minutes. And then we were rolling to a halt before the tiny mountain kingdom’s glorious airport terminal.

Arrival at Paro Airport

Passengers flowed off the plane and into the terminal on what felt to me like a wave of relief and adrenaline. As difficult as the Bhutanese make it to visit to their country, they make up for that with a quick and easy passage through immigration — a swift passport stamp, and then the immigration agent gives you a postcard featuring a beautiful image of the country, complete with postage, ready to be mailed. (That’s never happened to us at any other border in the world.)

The bad things that happened to us in the hours that followed were:

— At the airport, no guide or driver was waiting for us (unlike for all of our fellow travelers.)

A guide should have been among these guys with a sign saying DE WYZE. But there was none.

Eventually, one of the guides who was milling around approached us and told us he’d gotten a call from his friend, who been pressed into guide service at the last minute. Apparently he was covering for our scheduled guide, absent for reasons that to date have still not been made clear to us. He urged us to hang out at a nearby coffeehouse, assuring us that the replacement crew would arrive shortly. It was more than an hour, but we instantly liked Ugyen, the guide, when he showed up; our vehicle, a Hyundai SUV, looked to be in reasonably good shape.

— Late in the afternoon, after we’d made the hour-long drive to Thimphu and had lunch and checked into our hotel and headed for the town’s central marketplace, we found an ATM (one of the few in the country.) When Steve and I asked it for 10,000 ngultrums (or “nu”s, as the people have nicknamed their currency), the machine dealt them out to us. Howie then went through all the same steps up to the words “Take Your Money Below” appeared on the screen. But no money appeared. It’s possible he’ll eventually get recredited for the $160, (but it promises to be a long process.)

On the other hand, the day was filled with sights so beautiful and strange they made our jaws sag. On the drive to Thimphu, we stopped at our first Bhutanese temple, this one founded by a Tibetan ascetic in the 15th century. Here’s the bridge he built over the river that runs next to it.

Ugyen escorting Donna onto the bridge built by Thangtong Gyelpo. The brightly colored cloths are prayer flags. They're ubiquitous here.

One of the temple’s caretakers, a direct descendant of the ascetic, was about 70 years old and dressed in the national outfit for women (which looks a bit like a kimono, but warmer). Her teeth appeared to be dripping with dark blood — the distinctive look for those who chew betel nuts (which apparently is most of the Bhutanese older generation.) She welcomed us inside and let us poke into her smoky kitchen, then we spent some time admiring the temple interior. I’m tempted to call it “baroque” because of the extremely detail and complexity of the ornamention. Except never in the Western world’s baroque catalog have I seen so many images of violent conflict and sadistic tortures, mixed in with copulating gods and goddesses.

I felt simultaneously awestruck and depressed. As a writer, I struggle most when describing landscapes and art works. Within a few hours, I began to realize there was no way I would be able to communicate the way those two things come together in this place. The valleys are so lushly green; the hillsides so vertiginous. In their natural state, they would take your breath away. But the buildings that have been created here also are astounding. Not only the temples and monasteries, but even common country homes are sturdy and covered with beautiful colors and images. The poverty of the people is evident, but they live amidst something that looks like a movie set.

Typical Bhutanese building ornamentation.

And the grand buildings — of which we will see plenty on this trip — could hold their own with those in Earth’s most powerful capitals. Toward the end of our first day, Ugyen and our driver chauffeured us through a section of the valley where the Bhutanese Supreme Court and the National Asembly and a huge monastery fill huge majestic spaces. We were ogling all the distant sights, when Ugyen suddenly blurted out, “That was the king!” He pointed to a couple of cyclists, rapidly disappearing down the road. The current king, Bhutan’s fifth, is just 33 years old and a legendarily passionate biker. He lives in a modest house near the monastery and is married to a gorgeous 23-year-old. (We see the royal couple’s photo everywhere.)

Changgangkha Lakhong, the ancient monastery and monastic school in the hills above Thimphu, where we caught a glimpse of the king on his bike.

I was glad to see him, if only for a few seconds. It made me think that even if I can’t do justice to the art and nature here, there will still be interesting things to write about.

A 2-stage launch

Steve and I generally eschew group travel. In fact, we sometimes joke that it took us decades to learn to get along with each other on the road. But we’ll have some close traveling companions for the first part of the adventure on which we’re now embarking. That part will take us to the remote Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan (tucked in between India and Tibet.) The Bhutanese government limits tourism severely; it allows no independent travel, for example. All Bhutanese visitors must be part of a “group” (even if the group is only 1 or 2 people). To go there at all, you pay a hefty daily flat fee per person.

At some point when planning our Bhutan excursion, we started wondering if we might entice any friends to join us, thus lowering the daily costs a bit while increasing the fun. We thought of two individuals we’ve known forever and with whom we spend a lot of time. The idea of exploring Bhutan for a week did appeal to them; they agreed to join us.

At some point during the months since then, they decided to leave three days before us, in order to have some time in Bangkok (the city from which we’ll catch our Drukair flight to Bhutan). They also decided to follow our example and travel as lightly as possible. They bought snazzy new carry-on suitcases and packed them carefully. I gave them a ride to the airport, and when I dropped them off, they looked exultant.

I was surprised, then, when Howie called me an hour or so later with a cautionary tale. When they’d checked in for the flight, the gate agent had made them weigh their suitcases (even though the bags clearly met the requirement for carry-on dimensions). On the Japan Airlines scale, Howie’s rolling bag was 2 kilograms too heavy, while Donna’s was over by 4. Although Howie then shifted some of his stuff to his backpack and made the 10 kg limit, Donna couldn’t follow suit. She had been forced to check her bag.

Steve and I were shocked. Once in a while we’ve been ordered to check our carry-on suitcases (usually on small planes or obscure airlines with limited overhead bin space), but never have we ever had to weigh them. I checked the JAL regulations online, which confirmed a 10 kg (22-pound) limit. Our suitcases, fully packed, each came in around 25 pounds. I took several items out of my suitcase and crammed them into my backpack (the other object I carry onboard); made plans to wear my pullover and raincoat through the check-in process, even though the weather in San Diego has been sweltering. Once at the gate, we could repack, I reckoned, putting the extra 3 pounds (or more) back in the rolling bags. We had Elliot drop us off at the airport super-early, to accommodate this additional screwing around.

As it turned out, none of it was necessary. The friendly fellow at the check-in desk didn’t so much as glance at our carry-ons, let alone make us weigh them. We breezed through security; arrived at the gate more than 90 minutes before boarding. Of course that gave us plenty of time to transfer the extra weight back to the rolling bags.

And all the fiddling with our gear helped distract us from the grueling journey we were facing: San Diego to Tokyo to Bangkok (where we slept for a few hours in an airport hotel) before heading on to Calcutta (just to pick up more passengers) and finally Paro (Bhutan).