Bhutan may forever be blurred with my physical and mental state at the time. It was my first trip after 3 months of recovery and nearly no exercise.
But even without forced idleness and low levels of fitness, Bhutan is a very physical destination. Paro is at an altitude of approximately 2,200 meters (7,200 feet). When the plane lands it doesn’t descend much compared to take off. So you have an immediate idea of the altitude. It is a paradise for walkers, cyclists (very fit cyclists) and trekkers. In fact, the hardest hike in the world is in Bhutan. Many temples are accessible only by hikes.
One thing I liked best about Bhutan was how green and natural it felt. And I was constantly surprised at the visibly healthy kitchen gardens, which are a sign of the very low rates of pollution. In fact, it’s so environmentally friendly that Bhutan is carbon negative. You can learn more about Bhutan’s carbon negative status here.
We completed our first trek the day after arrival. We began immediately above the hotel on the mountainside and then trekked down into town to the Paro Tzong. It was vicious. My body was slow, tired, and out of shape. My lungs and heart worked hard against the altitude, and I my sedentary months dripped down my back with every step.
I made it. Barely. But my spirits lifted as we headed down into the tzong (the main temple/administrative building of the city.) Inside was a traditional tsheschu (Bhutanese festival) and I enjoyed the colors, dances, and people for hours. All citizens must wear traditional dress inside the tzong, and men must have a long scarf to indicate their status as citizen or a higher rank. I found this charming. To me, the men looked like young roman senators.
My final day in Bhutan was another intense day but very worthwhile. I was nervous about my fitness, but I wanted to at least try the intense hike up to Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery. The hike is 2-3 hours from the parking lot to the monastery. There is an option to ride a horse for the first half but I skipped it. In fact, every time a string of horses passed I scrambled up off the trail from nerves. I am clearly not over the fall. And, at least one rider was thrown when the horse fell due to the steep and muddy trail (from the days of rain.) Are you kidding me!? I think I made the right choice.
The first half of the hike was brutal. I was not fit, the horses made me nervous, and the forest cover and mud didn’t create a very pretty picture. Plus, the trail was surprisingly crowded. But in brief moments when fog obscured the forest it was quiet, I could hear chanting from the monastery floating down the mountain. That was otherworldly.
Even after the difficulties of the first half, I chose to continue after a tea break at the halfway point.
On the second half of the hike something strange happened. I started to breathe more deeply (though by now I was starting to get close to the 10,240 ft summit) and some of the pains and exhaustion was blurring into a steady, but no longer distracting, background. We also reached a different type of forest. Parts looked like Savannah, Georgia. Or a jungle. Huge, winding cypress trees covered in hanging moss. Big langur monkeys swung from the trees and the chanting was louder and less masked by the hikers’ conversations. The weather was clearing and I could see brilliant blue sky through the gaps in the canopy.
And so we made it. I had to make a hard decision to get very close to the monastery, but not finish the hike. The final part of the hike starts at a summit and descends down a few hundred feet via stairs and past a waterfall before climbing back up again. 850 steep stairs to be exact. By this point I was feeling a persistent pain in my shoulder and knew I still needed to descend the mountain. So I stuck with photos from a stone’s throw position and skipped the final 700 stairs.
Bhutan is a beautiful, physically engaging, country. The environmental policies and the visa policies ($250 USD per day for Americans) help maintain the country. And help the economy as well.