This is the first of a two-part series on Bhutan.
On the fourth morning someone finally mentioned weird dreams. Our breakfast conversation erupted, everyone speaking at once.
Since arriving we’d all been beset by bizarre, vivid night visions. Not your typical “I can fly” dreams but a netherworld where childhood friends were engaged in odd departure rituals; an octogenarian mother was with child. Even Dale, the non-dreamer, was visited by curious nightly imaginings.
We decided to ask our guide Tsewang about these strange episodes.
“This is normal, quite common,” he responded calmly. “It is your introduction to our high altitude. The dreams will pass.” And they did.
We had bombarded Tsewang for three days with our dumb inquiries — when he wasn’t busy offering up volumes of Buddhist wisdom. By now we felt Tsewang knew all. And he did.
We were in the Kingdom of Bhutan, with Bubbles and Simone Schumacher and Dale and Karen Horsley, our peculiar reveries framed by majestic Himalayan foothills.
Tucked between India and Tibet, Bhutan is 12 time zones and a world removed from Canada. We’d come for the mountain trekking — and a crash course in Buddhist culture.
Bhutan is small (just 300 km long and 150 km wide) but geographically diverse. The rainforests of the steamy south are barely above sea level while the snowy mountains in the north rise to 8,000 metres.
Bhutan’s 700,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers, are squeezed into sheer river valleys, their fields fed by rich glacial waters from the Himalayas.
On our first day-hike, Tsewang led us along an ancient footpath, through bucolic highlands overlooking steeply terraced rice paddies. Farmers, saffron-clad monks and itinerant yak herders have trampled these paths for centuries.
Bhutan’s topography makes travelling even short distances a challenge. The country’s first car arrived in 1961, the same year its earliest, crude road was built. Today’s roadways are still rudimentary. A 70-km journey is a three-hour ordeal, pitting battered vehicle against dispassionate potholes, ambivalent road-workers and stray cattle.
You won’t see any backpackers in Bhutan. The daily per person visa fee of $250 makes travel to the Hidden Country prohibitively expensive for the budget-minded traveller. Except in larger centres and hotels, we rarely crossed paths with other tourists. Fortunately, Florence and I were able to travel all-expenses-paid, courtesy of the FCIF: Feehan Children’s Inheritance Fund.
The Bhutanese are a genuine, welcoming people. When we met passersby — school children, expectant mothers, grizzled old men — with the traditional “kuzu zang po” greeting, they invariably smiled and shyly returned our salutation.
Bhutanese are also blunt. One afternoon we sweated up a steep trail, zigzagging through ripe terraces of rice. Music wafted upward from a school celebration hundreds of hazy metres below. Bubbles (aka Kim), avoiding a switchback, took a shortcut. When we converged higher up the path, he arrived huffing and puffing. Tsewang, leaning on a makeshift hiking stick, regarded our wayward companion quietly and after a moment said, “In Bhutan, we talk straight and walk around.” Then he turned and silently continued the steady uphill climb.
Though only half our age, Tsewang was a pearl of wisdom. Clad always in a gho, the traditional garment worn by Bhutanese men, he greeted us every morning with a bright smile. We were amazed at the stuff he could carry in that outfit: maps, books, binoculars, water bottles and — of course — a cellphone. I asked him one day if he had a hammer handy. He reached into his gho purposefully … and then winked.
Tsewang’s calm Buddhist demeanour, quick wit and love of country were enlightening and humbling. He opened Bhutan to us like a treasured family book.
Each day we had a good solid trek, our destination usually one of the many dzongs that dot the country. Situated at strategic locations along pristine rivers pouring southward from Tibet, these fortresses were built by Shabdrung (the feared Bluebeard), the 17th century warrior who unified Bhutan. These ancient buildings are still in use today, housing both monastic and government administrative offices.
We stood in the giant courtyard of Bhutan’s oldest fortress, the Dzong of Punakha, watching a meditative monk methodically spin a giant prayer wheel while a group of bureaucrats hustled officiously by. Tsewang was explaining the frescoed images adorning the walls but the distractions made his labyrinthal tale impossible to follow.
I was drifting off into another high-altitude dream world when he mentioned that the Bhutanese recognize thousands of deities. I wondered whether, for a sizable cash donation, a Canadian ex-lawyer might be added to the vast stable of Bhutanese gods. Fortunately the sound of nearby chanting shook me from my sacrilegious reverie before I could blurt out a regrettable idiocy.
Tsewang is a “still waters run deep” sort of fellow. And, although remarkably practical and resourceful (he was constantly mending small glitches and massaging details to ensure our trip went smoothly), I sometimes found his strict adherence to traditional Buddhist doctrine a little amusing. The morning he proposed to hang a prayer flag across the pass at 3,700-metre-high Pele La, Tsewang consulted an astrologer to ensure the day was appropriately auspicious for conducting such an endeavour. Apparently an inauspicious prayer-flag unfurling is an open invitation for negative karma. He received the green light and our ceremony proceeded.
(A small confession: when the flags began to wave in the crisp mountain air, I shouted “hle-guy-lo” (may the gods be victorious) as loudly as any of the others.)
Each hike was punctuated by a mountainside picnic or lunch in a quiet village; and always there was ema datshi: hot chilies cooked in cheese. The roof of every Bhutanese home is covered blood-red with drying chilies. And outside every door is a cow waiting to be milked. We developed a passion for this fiery national dish, made the more delectable when washed down with gulps of Druk 11,000 “extra-strong” beer.
Culture shock is both the beauty and bane of travel. I’m a Starbucks coffee guy. In Bhutan, brewed coffee is unheard of. Nescafe instant is your only choice … so I switched to tea. I hate tea. But if you want something truly awful, order a steaming cup of freshly-churned yak-butter tea with your ema datshi.
Oddly, the Bhutanese have incorporated into mainstream culture a lurid fascination with phalluses. The exterior of many houses are decorated unabashedly with indicia of male fertility. Designed to ward off the evil eye, this custom is attributable to the 17th century Divine Mad Monk and his “magnificent thunderbolt of wisdom” (which can not be reproduced in these family-friendly pages but can be firmly viewed on my blogsite).
As we scampered through muddy bogs, Tsewang was ever diligent and attentive, cautioning us away from the itch of stinging nettle and lending a steady hand to ensure no one sprained an ankle or — worse yet — did a yak-pie face-plant. One morning as we laughed and skipped down a smooth path admiring the snow-capped Himalayan peaks, oblivious to the tread of our feet, Tsewang stopped us cold.
“Be careful for the ants,” he admonished, pointing earthward. An army of tiny insects was marching across our trail.
“What if I step on them inadvertently?” asked Mrs. Schumacher.
“Ah, Simone-La,” he responded, invoking the Bhutanese suffix of courtesy and respect. “It is as it is — but no action happens without consequence. We must be attentive to the welfare of all sentient beings.”
When Florence and I retired that evening, a huge moth flew through our open door, attracted by the light. Honouring the day’s lesson, I spent 10 minutes carefully shooing the unco-operative beast outside. Then, as I was brushing my teeth, an intrusive mosquito jabbed its proboscis into my shoulder. I studied it impassively for a moment … and then mercilessly terminated its existence. One can take this sentient being thing only so far.
Before our trip to Bhutan, I knew nothing of Buddhism. After 12 days of immersion, I claim only a thin slice of understanding. In many ways Buddhism is incomprehensibly complicated — a multitude of deities and icons all wrapped up in mythology, reincarnation and karma.
But basically Buddhism incorporates a simple ideal: finding inner peace through the realization that things are just not that big a deal. (My words, not the Buddha’s. But the Bhutanese are an understanding people who know that most Westerners are simple-minded and should be given some interpretive leeway. They are content with the hope that a few of their values might be hauled home in the suitcase of our minds).
Still, there are some inflexible rules. A monastery must always be entered in a clockwise manner. Also a prayer wheel must invariably be spun clockwise to release and enhance one’s mindful intentions. And yet despite my repeated counter-clockwise transgressions, when Tsewang chastised me with the words “Gerry La …,” I felt utterly forgiven.
At least I dreamt I did.
Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.
Next Saturday: Bhutan’s vision: Gross National Happiness.