Everest Trekking, Vancouver, BC, Tours to India, Nepal

Nov 2009
A walk through an environmental wonderland

Ten hardy trekkers (see below) met on a sunny October 23 at the Paro airport in Bhutan to explore Bumthang, a district in central Bhutan. This area is tucked away in the central mountains 13 arduous hours of bus travel over a mountainous road that is seldom wider than a large truck. We were in the hands of a skilled driver who shifted gears with tender patience. The bus was blessed with a khata scarf (a Buddhist religious symbol) which decorated the rear view mirror. Endless pine forests and rushing streams slid by the window. Prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels graced the many high passes we crossed.

This is a Buddhist country of 675,000 that reveres its king and environment. Mountains unclimbed; national costumes worn; smoking forbidden; archery the national sport; air space free of jet trails; and a government without a plane or helicopter. It is encouraging to know that if the king or government official wishes to visit the Bumthang district, or any other area of the kingdom, they must ride like everyone else. A refreshing thought!

At the centre of Bumtang is a broad valley, populated with farms and temples and the main village of Jakar. A former king’s palace lies next to the Bumthang Chhu (river). Electricity is sporatic and you are warned on checking into the hotel of the problem which all adds an exotic feel to the area. There is no doubt that we were far from home.

We were blessed with perfect weather, not always the case in the Himalayas. We counted on the blue skies holding, not only for our comfort and safety but to ensure the departure of our flight to Bangkok 2 1/2 weeks hence. The airport at Paro, the only one in the country, is ‘visual flight rules’ only. Clear skies or the flight does not go.

Our trek destination was the base camp of Gangkar Punsum, the world’s highest unclimbed peak at 7541m. This peak lies along the border with Tibet. We were venturing into the high country where only 200 trekkers go each year. The safety net is slim. In the event of accidents, there are only 2 telephones in the area, both at distant army stations. If a helicopter rescue is required the chopper comes from India, and only after approval of an insurance company located on the other side of the world. The only other option was to ride out on the “hospital horse”.These were prospects we needed to avoid!

In total, we walked about 150km and ascended 6,000 metres. The route was rocky and uneven and passed thru a wide variety of growth including rhododendron, spruce, pine, bamboo and hardwoods. Above tree line we smelled the rich fragrance of dried azelea plants, the leaves of which are used for the making of incense. On our fourth day we reached a high plateau with Gangkar Punsum filling the northern horizon. We walked to the edge of the ridge and there below us were our green, blue and yellow tents dotting the base camp plateau. A splendid sight! We were welcomed with a hot cup of tea as the sun sank below the mountain ridge. Within moments, the temperature plummeted to below freezing. At 4400m, the air was thin and cold. We had reached our destination!

Following a night deep in our down bags and a chilly –14c we were ready for an exploratory trek to the moraine below Gangkar. The views were spectacular and we felt blessed to savour such Himalayan splendour. Our trek was timed to experience the full moon of November at base camp. With clear skies our wish was granted. The brilliance of the moon cast blue shadows across the campsite, Gangkar Punsum glowed in its light, and no headlamps were needed at night.

Our choice of returning to the Bumthang valley via an alternative route was not an option due to washed out bridges. Earlier in October, Bhutan was hit by a vicious storm that did heavy trail damage. Repairs were not completed in time so we retraced our steps to Jakar over a four day period.

The Jambay Lhakhang is an ancient Buddhist temple in Jakar. Built in 659 it hosts the annual festival, timed with the November full moon. This is an ancient Buddhist ritual complete with colourful masked dancers representing good and evil. It provides an opportunity for locals to attend in their finest clothes and spend the day in the temple grounds picnicking and shopping at the adjoining fair booths. They become caught up in the dance as the demons are ushered off amid cheers and laughter.

A trip to Bhutan offers the refreshing experience of witnessing a country that lives by it’s credo of ‘Gross National Happiness’, that is, good governance, sustainable development, conservation of the natural environment and a unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. The concept of GNH is based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual values occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

A return ETC trek and tour to Bumthang is planned for November 2010 to led by Doug MacLean of Canmore and our remarkable Bhutan travel partner Dorjee Wangchuk of Gangkar Expeditions.

Ten hardy trekkers - left to right

Doug MacLean, Canmore
Ken Cross, Vancouver
Andreas Poulsson, Vancouver
Gord Konantz (leader), Vancouver
David Gartshore, Oakland, CA
Jane Garrard, Marshfield, UK
Tsering (driver), Gangkar
Neil Garrard, Marshfield, UK
Barb Cross, Vancouver
George Brazier, Vancouver
Dorjee Wangchuk, Gangkar Expeditions
Peter Ford, London, UK

Gord Konantz Dec ’09

by Michael Buckley

OUT THE PORTHOLE looms the world's highest peak. The flight from Delhi skirts the Himalayan giants before plunging into one of the world's most reclusive destinations: the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. The entire Bhutanese air fleet consists of two BAe 146 jets, both blessed by lamas. They need the benediction--Paro landing strip rates as one of the globe's trickiest. The plane banks sharply, skims a mountain top, and drops into a valley of rice paddies, landing abruptly on a short runway where a row of Buddhist prayer flags flutters in the breeze.

      Right away, from the traditional style buildings at the airport, you know you have arrived somewhere exotic. Bhutan unfolds by the roadside: a land of wooden chalets set in dense pine forests. The capital, Thimphu, has no traffic lights--just a few policemen who perform graceful tai-chi-like movements with white gloves. Not that there's much traffic to direct in this town of 35,000 anyway. In an age where Asian capitals have let their traffic run amok, Thimphu appears to be remarkably quiet, slow, and sane. And the people are remarkably friendly, polite and good humoured for city dwellers. There are no huge billboards scarring the landscape--advertising is restricted.

      There's only one newspaper in Bhutan--a weekly 16-page effort called Kuensel. It is printed in three languages. Editorials during my visit debated the government's highly controversial proposal to introduce personal income tax for the first time. Bhutan is ambivalent about modernising: the country finally logged onto the Internet in mid-1999, making it a cyber-kingdom of sorts. Its Internet provider was set up by a Canadian development agency. At the same time, the first domestic television broadcaster went on the air in Thimphu, timed to coincide with King Jigme Wangchuck's Silver Jubilee, marking 25 years on the throne.

      In a nation where people still think the world is flat--not round with satellites--and where farmers consult the local astrologer to determine auspicious dates on when to get married or when to start building a house, these are heady times. But Bhutan is not completely isolated: video rental-shops in Thimphu give access to a wide range of movies in English and Hindi.

      Sandwiched between Tibet and India, Bhutan is roughly the size of Switzerland and seeks to be as neutral. In fact, so neutral is Bhutan that it sat through both world wars with most of its citizenry blissfully unaware of what was transpiring. The Bhutanese were, however, aware of the British invasion of Tibet in 1903-1904. Because of Bhutanese assistance in this venture, the British supported the establishment of a new monarchy in Bhutan in 1907--the Wangchuck Dynasty.

      In a stroke of genius, the third Wangchuck monarch landed Bhutan a seat in the UN in 1971, thus protecting the kingdom from a takeover by India, which had its beady eyes upon it. Today, Bhutan relies on the Indian army to patrol its northern borders and keep Chinese troops at bay. The coronation of the fourth (and present) king, Jigme Wangchuck, in 1974, permitted a trickle of privileged Western visitors to enter Bhutan. The king, who is in his forties, is married to four queens--sisters from the same family--and has ten royal heirs. The royal family wields considerable power and employs its own force of royal bodyguards.

IT'S THE MEN WHO WEAR THE ROBES in Bhutan--a traditional knee-length garment called the gho. This is complemented by a pair of knee length socks, often argyle, leaving you to wonder whether a regiment of Scots in kilts got lost here earlier in the century. Socks are something of a fashion statement among Bhutanese men (our guide said he used to smuggle in top-quality socks from New York). The women wear a graceful ankle length gown (the kira), fastened at the shoulders with twin silver brooches. Traditional dress is compulsory: a fine can be levied for not wearing it in public, although exceptions are made if playing soccer or indulging in other non robe friendly activities.

      The mania for preserving traditional culture extends to a number of facets in Bhutan, most strikingly in architecture. New apartment buildings, schools or hospitals are constructed Bhutanese style, with paintings of mythical animals or lucky symbols gracing exterior walls. Across central Bhutan, large dzongs dominate main towns. Most of these fortress monasteries were built in the 17th century, and still function today as district government headquarters.

      The Bhutanese follow a form of Tibetan tantric Buddhism: monastery or dzong courtyards are venues for annual religious dance festivals, which rank as prime touring attractions. Our small group heads out of Thimphu by car along the nation's only east-west road, toward the region of Bumthang, to catch the annual festival there. Along the way, we get to see idyllic pastoral snippets: most of Bhutan's population is engaged in subsistence farming combining crops, livestock and forestry. Ubiquitous in these rural regions are wooden two storey farmhouses with red chillies drying on shingle rooftops. Ema datsi (chillies and cheese) is the staple Bhutanese dish eaten with rice, and leaving the uninitiated with a fierce afterburner. More familiar foods--excellent cheese and apple juice--are produced with Swiss-backed technology in Bumthang.

      Dance festivals in Bhutan--though religious by nature--are also an excuse for the locals to get together, picnic and party, and indulge in archery competitions, long range darts, gambling and drinking. To ward off evil forces and ensure auspicious happenings, lamas perform a series of masked or costume dances: among them, the Black Hat Dance, and the Dance of the Terrifying Deities. Intermission means picnicking, where locals dressed in their finest get down to the serious business of consuming plates of chillies and cheese with their bare hands--and washing it all down with Bumthang Beer. A man with a jester mask circulates--cracking lewd jokes and eliciting guffaws from the picnickers.

      After stuffing ourselves, we stagger back for the next round of dance, The Day of Judgement. This sobering number is actually more of a medieval passion play: dancers with wild animal masks chase a man (technically in a post-death limbo zone) up a tree to bring him in for judgement. His life's deeds are contained in two bags of small stones--white for good, black for bad. Weighing up the pros and cons is The Lord of the Dead, seated on a throne, wearing a large mask embroidered with skulls, and holding a sword and a mirror. At the end of play, the suspect goes to hell, I think and all the Bhutanese all rush over to the Lord of the Dead for a sacred blessing. The man behind the mask is a real lama--and a highly revered one, judging from the amount of pushing and shoving going on.

BHUTAN STRETCHES FROM frigid Himalayan snowcaps to the heat of the Indian plains, ranging from over 7000 metres right down to 300 metres. Apart from its traditional culture and festivals, Bhutan's biggest visitor draw is its pristine environment. We get a glimpse of its alpine splendour on a three-day hike from Thimphu back to the airport at Paro. Hiking is still the only way into remote parts of northern Bhutan, where there are no roads. An impressive 60 percent of Bhutan is forested; some 20 percent of the total land area is set aside as reserves or national parks--unprecedented for Asia. Strict regulations are in force on the felling of lumber, and no killing of wildlife is allowed. Thus rare Himalayan animals such as the snow leopard and the takin survive. And so, it is rumoured, does the legendary yeti: the Abominable Snowman pops up in folktales--and on several of Bhutan's whimsical postage stamps.

copyright Michael Buckley - 2000

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