Unlike any camping trip I’ve ever experienced.
With only daypacks filled with the “warmest of the warm” clothing (our tour company’s words) we began our ascent at around 10am on the first day of 2017.
A day before, Josh had joked while on a run in Paro, “That’s our turnaround point.” He was pointing to a faraway monastery on a mountain, literally the highest point of civilization that we could see.
On Jan 1, that monastery was our lunch stop.
Getting there was much tougher than any of us had anticipated. They say that the physical prowess of Bhutanese men was once judged by the size of their calves. Breathing heavily, we trekked single file, getting glimpses of our impossibly high midway point between the trees. We stopped to take breaks and take off layers.
Once we reached the monastery, we greeted with a hot lunch prepared specifically for us, as well as the mews of three kittens and the smiles of a monk cradling a puppy.
I got to hold the puppy, who whimpered if he was left exposed to the wind on the cliff. After he left my lap, he tucked in under Josh’s coat. Josh says he thought the monk called him “Munchow” but also noted that it could be a directive like “Come here,” for all we know.
Relentless beggars, those kittens
After lunch, we continued on for about another hour or so, reaching the campsite below the Bumdra monastery. While 12,690 feet is not the highest we’ve ever hiked, it’s certainly the highest we’ve ever slept (that number was obtained through a non-connected smartphone, so not sure how accurate it is, but from what our guide told us, it’s close enough).
The accommodations were fantastic. Our tents were double layered and big enough to allow for a little bit of walking space around a queen-sized mattress in a wooden frame. There was a separate smaller tent for the toilet, which actually flushed once you filled it up with water (there were two barrels inside). We were the only ones at the campsite save for our guide Chador, our campsite-specific guide Vishnu, a cook, the cook’s assistant, and maybe one more assistant whom we never saw, but heard playing the guitar and singing top 40 songs. We were served full hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a separate dining tent, the only one to contain a small gas heater. A typical meal consisted of rice, meat, vegetables, chilies in cheese (a local favorite), and fruit for dessert. We were hardly “roughin’ it” save for the cold and elevation. I don’t think any of us changed our clothes for 3 days because it was too unbearable to strip down, even in the tents.
Hanging out in the dining tent before dinner with new best friend, propane heater
Even with the cold, we were euphoric that first night. At dinner, Chador told us stories about Bhutan and the various treks that Yu Druk (the tour company we chose) provides. On one trek, he told us that he saw what looked like an oversized human footprint, with seven toes, in the snow. When he showed his trekkers, they laughed, thinking he had made a “yeti” footprint as a joke.
Sleep was fitful that first night. We slept in 30-90 minute intervals, waking up frequently because of the cold, altitude and incessant barking from one of the dogs hanging around our camp. At around midnight, it sounded like some kind of animal was pacing outside of our tent, trying to get in. It took us awhile to realize that it was just the wind catching on the second layer of the tent.
In the morning, we experienced a wave of altitude sickness. With so little oxygen at 12,000 feet, we discussed our mutual headaches and nausea at the breakfast table. Our cooks whipped up some garlic and ginger to help the stomaches, and we took deep breathes (and some ibuprofen) for the headaches. (Editor’s Note: only Kevin and Haley experienced headaches and nausea and consumed food or medication to alleviate the pain. Josh didn’t do anything because he’s a manly man, impervious to his very slight headache.)
We visited the monastery in the morning, where Kevin partook in a full hour of meditation. Josh and I left early, but not before we spied a very fat and cute mouse nibbling at something beneath the offering table. It scampered away if we moved our heads even slightly.
After a few rounds of khuru (basically darts, but the darts are about as long as your hand, made of wood and metal, and you throw them maybe 30m or so, trying to stick them in a log), lunch, and a bit of rest, we started our hike to the sky burial site at the top of our mountain.
It’s hard to make out in this photo, but the peak in the middle is our mountain, and at the very top you can see an assortment of white flags. When a loved one dies, white prayer flags are erected in their memory, usually near homes, monasteries, or in places of nature, like mountain tops.
When adults die in Bhutan, there’s a lengthly cremation process that takes several weeks. However, when children die, it’s custom to leave their bodies at the tops of mountains at sky burial sites. There’s no actual burial; the bodies are left out in the open, and it’s expected that wild birds, like Himalayan griffons (aka vultures) will consume the body.
Personally, I was slightly horrified that I might accidentally step on a child’s partially eaten corpse during the hike. But Chador told us that we didn’t need to be careful.
As I approached the top, my western mind became increasingly saddened by the steep incline and arduous ascent. If it was difficult for me, a happy 25-year-old not carrying anything, it must be even more difficult for a mourning parent to carry the body of their child up the mountain.
We didn’t see any sign of human remains. The sky burial site was hauntingly beautiful; up there, all you could hear was the gentle flap of hundreds of prayer flags in the wind.
On our way back down the mountain, it started to snow big, fluffy flakes. That night at dinner, one of the assistants brought a small bit of Bhutanese whiskey to the dining tent. The guys drank most of it to ward off the cold.
Getting into bed on the trek was the hardest part of the day. Once you were under the covers, it very gradually got warmer, to the point where you were shedding layers in the middle of the night. You’d pray that bathroom urges would wait until daylight (of course this wasn’t the case).
Josh playing khuru in the snow
On day 3, we packed up our things, said good-bye to our caretakers, and headed down the mountain. I slipped and landed on my butt only twice on the snowy paths. We passed several monasteries in our descent, including one that had litter of puppies playing in the yard. A little over an hour after we left the camp, we arrived at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, undoubtably Bhutan’s most iconic attraction built into the rock face of an otherwise sheer cliff.
Three sleep-deprived yet victorious mountain dwellers after three days of not showering. Tiger’s Nest monastery in the background.
For the first time in three days, we were encountering other tourists. We saw a yak on our hike up the mountain — that was it. Besides Chador, Vishnu, and the rest of our crew, we felt like the only people on the trails. Tiger’s Nest was crawling with people, and rightfully so — there really is no monastery as grandiose or as beautiful the Tiger’s Nest. The story goes that the man who would bring Buddhism to all of Bhutan rode on the back of a tiger to where the monastery is now located. He then proceeded to meditate in a nearby cave for 3 years. Several centuries later, the governor of Paro constructed the monastery in his honor. You’d never know that the monastery burned down in the late nineties. Each room is still impressive and intricate. Larger than life golden statues are seated in one room, honoring the men(/deities) most influential in the country’s religious foundation.
We still had to hike downhill a bit more after our visit to the Tiger’s Nest. The bedraggled hikers going the opposite way (up) continuously asked us how much longer it was to the monastery.
Happy, slightly sunburned, and thoroughly exhausted, we piled into Harka’s van at the end of the trek. It was about an hour drive to our hotel in the country’s capital, Thimphu, where we finally got that glorious hot shower.