Trekking in Bhutan, a country that stresses happiness and spiritual growth over material gain invites introspection, offering the chance of as much inward discovery as outward
Story and photography by: Andrea Oschetti
The journey of the fool
The irregular, moss-covered stones of the serpentine footpath are the same ones that George Boyle and Samuel Turner walked on their missions to Tibet of 1774 and 1783 respectively. Back then, this was a medieval kingdom and Tibet a feudal theocracy. Both isolated, they were the subject of imaginary utopias, as well as the target of imperial and commercial interests.
I saw it just as Turner had when he came here: “Cascades of water issuing from the bosoms of the lofty mountains, clothed in noble trees, and hiding their heads in the clouds: abrupt precipices, deep dells, and the river dashing its waters with astonishing rapidity, over the huge stones and broken rocks below, composed the sublime and variegated picture.”
I am walking the Snowman Trek, 11 high-altitude Himalayan passes in the remoteness and unpredictable weather of northern Bhutan. A clearing in the blue pine forest reveals a cluster of colorful prayer flags on the ridge up the valley’s steep slope. I venture off-trail to reach the propitious point, trying to make my life easier by following wildlife paths through the undergrowth.
From my high vantage, I see my hiking companions standing in the glade amid the expanse of green hues softened by the dark sky. They are signalling something which I cannot understand. Is it easier to traverse to the left? Do they see danger and I should return? Are they simply saying hello? It is silly that we did not devise a system to communicate from distance. I gamble on their indications and move sideways. The slope turns into a rock-face forcing me to retrace my steps. The bushes on the opposite line are too thick. My partners are still gesticulating and it is unnerving. I climb on.
It gets steeper and I become unsteady. I decide to retreat. They are still watching: my bold solo exploration has turned into a grotesque show.
I come to appreciate the situation later, in the coziness of my sleeping bag, while outside is rain and darkness. If I look back at my history of adventures, they abound in dumb errors: wearing the wrong clothes, being left without water, forgetting the map, the sunglasses, the toilet paper, getting lost, taking shortcuts, getting caught in the dark. Wilderness gives me freedom to make mistakes and make a fool of myself.
In the tent I have a book on Drukpa Kunley, the 15th-century great master and divine madman, who wandered in these valleys and whose phallus is painted on the whitewashed walls of homes across Bhutan as an auspicious symbol. A heroic figure of the Buddhist path to enlightenment, he is defined by his spiritual accomplishments rather than any slavish observance of strict monastic protocols. He belongs to the tradition of the Holy Fool, found in both Western and Eastern cultures. There are the crazy saints of medieval Russia, the jesters at the court of Pope Leo X, the eccentric Zen vagabonds of Shingon in Japan, the lunatic Sufi storytellers.
The Holy Fool is free from social constraints, cultural conventions and has a limited consciousness of the ego. His acts are eccentric, disconcerting and degrading. He knows that seriousness is not a virtue. Drukpa Kunley invites people to let go the sense of self-importance, the affectations to impress, the restriction to what is righteous.
In the wilderness I come to laugh at my mistakes and at my fears. It gives me hope in facing the bigger challenges of life.
The journey into nature
After a long ascent, the trail levels off as it enters a desolate valley bounded by ridges capped by rocky and iced peaks. They call this place Dupchu-na – sacred waters – for a landslide buried a rock painting of Guru Rimpoche here, at a spot where water now surfaces. I stop and sit before the final push to Sinche-La, the 5,000-m pass that leads to the remote village of Laya.
In 1798, admiring a valley in Wales, a few miles above Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth wrote a poem about the redemptive power of Nature.
…[Nature] can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.
Impressed by the landscape I ask myself what there is to like about Nature.
I look above at the saturated blue of the sky and pure white of the clouds that shades into infinite varieties of gray: dappled, pearly, mousey, leaden, smoky, glaucous. Is my sensitivity to details heightened in this landscape?
The slopes are bare, littered with rocks of inharmonious forms. This is not a place for men to live. Yet it is attractive in its immensity. Does the landscape give hope that we all can be beautiful in our own way?
Then there is the silence of the valley: is it simply the pleasurable state of tranquility this brings?
Samuel Coleridge warned us that “we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand”. He recommended Wordsworth’s poems to “awaken the mind’s attention from the lethargy of customs, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible pleasure.”
Yet there is a limit to this mental and literary experience of Nature. In his book, Nature, Man and Woman, the philosopher Alan W. Watts discusses the impossibility for the mind to comprehend a system of relationships which are changing and being changed simultaneously, because the order of thought is linear. It’s as if we wanted to take charge of our body so that, unless we think about it, our heart and lungs and stomach could not work.
“Nature is not strung out in a line. Nature is, at the very least, a volume, and at most an infinitely dimensional field. We need another conception of natural order than the logical.” Watts suggests the Taoist concept of kuan: “To observe silently, openly, and without seeking any particular result.”
I shall stop asking myself how this valley is beautiful to try and get the most out of this experience. I shall allow myself to feel, in the same way that I felt how to move my legs up to this valley.
The journey toward virtue
The high trail between Lingshi and Chebisa runs steadily at 4,000m across hillsides covered with medicinal plants. Halfway is Gangyul, a small village of 25 households dominated by a massive, vertical cliff whose abstractly fissured face is mesmerising [see opening spread] and which disguises the 16th-century Bja-Ghi Dzong.
A group of young novices is reading aloud from sacred scriptures, led by Lam Jamtsho who sits cross-legged at the end of the room. He waits as I bow in front of the altar and make an offering, before inviting me to sit next to him. A monk brings butter tea and biscuits.
The remoteness and sacredness of the place lead me to ask him about the practices of lamaist magicians who challenge demoniacal beings, of lung-gom-pa ‘flying’ monks, of hermits who warm themselves in the snow without fire, of mystics that send messages ‘on the wind’.
He suggests that I leave the Snowman trail and venture up the valley towards the mountain Takaphu. I do as he recommends and there, beneath a hanging glacier, are hermitages and a gompa or monastery. An old lama welcomes me with a broad smile, shows me the altar and offers holy water. I wonder, half jokingly, if I just broke his ascetic isolation, just before he completed his vowed 10 years of solitude, and now he has to start over.
Hermetic practices are a means of self-transformation by the elimination of vices and attachments, and their replacement by virtues. The solitude of wilderness hiking is similarly an opportunity to strengthen one’s virtuosity.
The Desert Fathers who lived in the Scetes desert of Egypt in the third century AD found inspiration in the wilderness to teach them key virtues required to survive in Nature as well as for spiritual development: haplotes, making do with available resources; agrupnia, consistent mindfulness and self-presence; aphobia, the self-knowledge to be able to take chances, overcome fear and act. Buddhists focus on non-attachment, araga; benevolence, advesa; and understanding, amoha.
Whatever virtue we wish to attain, exposure to the trail keeps the ego in check, encourages us to look at the essence of our being, strengthen our ethics. We yield ourselves to the sorcery of the landscape, to be transformed by way of participation.
The inner journey
To acclimatise for the high passes ahead, we rest at Mt Jomolhari base camp, contemplating the landscape dominated by the 7,326m peak.
In the natural world, there are no crises of identity. Man alone has trouble realising his or her Self; understanding who they are and what they should be doing, confused by a restless mind and a pretentious ego.
The purposefulness that is evident in Nature calls for us to uncover what is illusory in our life and what is authentic.
A hiking holiday allows the clarity of thought and inner perceptions necessary for a discernment rooted in what we love doing rather than what is expected of us. Walking along the moraine that leads to a series of alpine lakes, I ask myself what it is that I love doing.
I left the corporate world because business strategy and operational efficiency is not what I am passionate about. Today I run my private kitchen because I love cooking and great food. I travel (and write and photograph those travels) to experience diversity, and to pursue personal development and physical challenges. Yet I realise that living in Hong Kong I am preoccupied about my entrepreneurial capabilities, whether I am still a dining spot of choice, what destinations interest my editors.
Back home the expectation of success and the thirst to prove myself creep in my daily life. But in the Himalayas simply ‘being’ is enough; the mountains do not care about my grandiosity.
How to get there
The only international airport is in Paro and only two carriers operate to Bhutan: Drukair and Bhutan Airlines, with daily flights from Bangkok, Singapore, Kathmandu, Dhaka and several cities in India.
For years there has been the belief that visas to Bhutan are limited and expensive. Neither is strictly true.
There is no quota to foreign visitors but the country targets ‘High Value, Low Impact’ tourism by applying a per diem charge. The US$250 (US$200 in low season) per person per night is not a visa fee but a minimum daily package which includes accommodation, all meals, all internal transport by land, a tour guide and camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours.
What to do
All visitors to Bhutan must book their holiday through a tour operator.
Mountaineering is not allowed in Bhutan but trekking is the outdoor activity of choice. Cycling and whitewater rafting are also emerging.
Cultural tours start in Paro and move east to Thimphu, Punakha and the district of Bumthang. The east of the country is open to tourism but rarely visited, offering off-the-beaten trek and travel opportunities.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan website offers an extensive overview of Bhutan’s treks: www.tourism.gov.bt/activities/trek
For detailed descriptions, we recommend Bhutan: A Trekker’s Guide by Cicerone Guides.
World Expeditions, www.worldexpeditions.com, offers an extensive range of touring, trekking and cycling holidays to Bhutan.
A Portrait of Bhutan, by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, 2006.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan, by Jamie Zeppa, 1999
Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon: A Journey Through Bhutan, by Katie Hickman, 1987
The Divine Madman, translated by Keith Dowman, 2000
The High Road to China, by Kate Teltscher, 2006
Views of Medieval Bhutan : The Diary and Drawings of Samuel Davis, 1783, by Michael Aris, 1982