Prayer flags streamed away on all sides, mimicking the mountains marching into the distance. At 4200 meters, the air was crisp and the increased altitude caused my breath to come to me in ragged streams of frozen air. I watched as the clouds swirled around Jomolhari, the goddess of all mountains to the Bhutanese people, the second largest peak in Bhutan (7326 meters) and a place of divine power
We had hiked for three days through darkened woods and high alpine plains passing yaks grazing happily upon impossibly steep slopes. The Gods of old had tested us with every step. Despite April being the best time of year to go trekking in Bhutan, we had encountered ankle deep mud and endless waves of stinging hailstones. Thunder cracked loudly as we crossed creaking suspension bridges, the rivers buoyed by reinforcements and rushing fast. Lightning split the sky and we found many blackened trees, burnt and hollow inside, lining the trekking path as it wound deeper and higher into the mountains.
Bhutan is a tiny country, a small Himalayan kingdom with a population of less than a million people. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in personality. Bhutan is one of the most culturally rich places I have ever been and in Bhutan, there is little difference between fact and legend. Bhutanese history teaches us that Guru Rinpoche, one of the most beloved and important spiritual figures in Bhutanese history, ordered his Bhutanese girlfriend (he had quite a few girlfriends) to turn into a tiger which he then mounted and flew into the mountains in search of the perfect cave to meditate in. He stayed in his cave, which I had the pleasure of visiting, for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. Later, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery was built upon the cliff-face concealing Rinpoche’s cave.
Bhutan is a place of devout Buddhist belief but make no mistake, these are not the Buddhists as romanticised by Western Culture. The Bhutanese are a warrior people. Stunning Dzongs, the Bhutanese version of a fortress, protect key mountain passes and roads. These iconic red and white buildings, traditionally home to both monks and warriors, dot the landscape and maintain peace throughout the land.
Through necessity, the Bhutanese learnt to master the bow and today archery is still an important part of Bhutanese culture. We were the only trekkers at Jomalhari Base Camp but we were far from the only folks around. A dozen Bhutanese archers, aged between 18 and 80, whooped and sang beneath the first flakes of snow as somebody scored a bulls-eye.
In Bhutan, archery competitions are fought and won around a target the size of a plate shot at from one hundred and forty meters away. Two opposing teams line up against each other and attempt to shoot this laughably small dot upon the horizon. To hit the target is rare and whenever an archer makes a shot, custom dictates that both teams erupt into song and dance, kicking one leg back and forth in a kind of can-can movement. These die-hard archers had walked for nearly two days to reach this remote village for an annual competition. For many in Bhutan, daydreams of representing Bhutan at archery in the Olympics are never far away.
We set up our tent right in front of Jomalhari and watched the clouds dance over the shining glaciers creaking and moaning in the midday heat. The ruins of a Bhutanese fortress howled as the wind rushed through ancient corridors, prayer flags launching into the sky and then dragged back to earth by their rope anchors and the bending trees from which they were strung.
Nina was suffering from the altitude sickness so I left her to chill at base camp whilst me and Penjor, my guide and friend, climbed another 700 meters to a glacial lake. Penjor set off at a terrifying pace, marching through the snow and ice and tackling endless switchbacks with ease. I hurried after him, launching myself against the freezing gusts, buried deep within my down jacket. We made it to the lake through high winds and cold hail, pausing for some digestives before deciding the path ahead was simply too treacherous – waist deep snow faced us in the high mountain passes and I agreed we must turn around.
Heading back to camp we stopped at a small farm house occupied by an elderly man and his wife, who greeted us in the traditional Bhutanese fashion.
“Kuzu zangpo la”
The old man, who’s name was Karma (only in Bhutan), plied us with salty Bhutanese butter tea and pulled out his drangyen; A traditional Bhutanese instrument similar to a lute. He had carved this instrument himself from drift wood found by the river’s side. He played a slow and delicate ditty which rose to a crescendo of high notes as Penjor sang softly in Bhutanese about a love long lost and a hero upon a quest to do battle with the demons living high above the mountains.
You can’t make this stuff up – Penjor, the too-cool-for-school guide, chilling out next to an old man with a lute, singing as the mountains peaked out from behind shrouds of light blue cloud. I sipped on my tea and smiled as the lute was passed to me.
I made a big show of warming up and then revealed my total and utter lack of musical talent causing both Penjor and Karma to roar with laughter.
I pulled out my phone, no signal here, and flipped to uTalk, the language learning app I’ve been using for over a year now to arm myself with key phrases when I first rock up to a new country. Penjor spoke excellent English but Karma did not and I figured now was the perfect time to practise some Dzongkha.
I had already mastered some of the basic phrases by practising with Penjor and I quickly ran Karma through my name, country of origin and fondness for hiking.
He seemed impressed.
Penjor watched on, amused at the voices in perfect Bhutanese coming out of my phone.
I’ve always found the best way to really get a feel for a place is to talk to people. I struggle with languages at the best of times but when I have made the effort to learn, this is when it has really paid off.
uTalk, which includes your first words for free, has made learning languages significantly easier.
The clouds covered the sun and the air turned chill so we waved goodbye to Karma and headed back to basecamp where Nina was busy emptying our entire tent onto the ground. Apparently, we would sleep outside tonight.
We ate a fine Bhutanese meal of purple rice, fried vegetables, chicken curry and fried fish and propped ourselves up in our sleeping bags against a rock.
Jomalhari disappeared into the darkness, the glistening white peak still just about visible and, slowly, the stars began to come out.
Shooting stars danced across the sky and we chatted about what we hoped and wanted to achieve with the year ahead. Bhutan, and being back amongst the mountains, was having an undeniable holistic effect on both me and Nina.
Being away from the constant distractions of the internet, of stressing about work and money was incredibly refreshing. We chatted late into the night, watching the milky way snake off into the distance and passing a cheeky smoke back and forth. Bhutan is a country sought out by many who want some peace, some chilled times, and I was starting to understand why.
The next day we awoke with the rising sun and stumbled out into the pre-dawn chill on a mission.
Mission: Good Karma Guaranteed Foreeeeeeever
We headed over to a small stupa and located the best view of Jomolhari, the Goddess of all Bhutanese mountains. Here we attached our prayer flags, bought in a small town a few days before and prayed for luck, love and fortune as our flags flapped in the wind.
All too soon, it was time to turn and head back down the mountain… I would not be forgetting my time camping out in the shadow of Jomolhari anytime soon. Despite not being able to shower for a week, I felt incredibly refreshed, the Bhutanese mountains are a truly special, truly chilled, place.
My thoughts on Bhutan
Bhutan is a country unlike any other; a place where even the modern, jeans and gel, teenagers celebrate their culture with a fiery passion. A land where monks still meditate for years in the sacred caves to the East. A country ruled by a monarch who had freely given up his absolute power to usher in democracy. A place where progress is officially measured by happiness, rather than Gross National Product, using the government’s pioneering Gross National Happiness system. The first carbon-negative country in the world, Bhutan has preserved its mountains, forests and people on its journey to modernise, a feat that is totally unique in the history of this world.
Bhutan is a one of a kind and truly remote destination to visit. You can only travel to Bhutan as part of an organised tour. I’ve never travelled on an organised tour before and it’s not normally something I would be interested in but travelling in Bhutan truly was the experience of a lifetime. My trip to Bhutan was kindly sponsored by Druk Asia who are the leading experts in unique Bhutanese adventures. Travelling with Druk really didn’t feel like a tour; everything was extremely flexible and I had a private car and guide (rather than being on a minibus). My guide, Penjor, quickly became my good friend and we had a great laugh together exploring Bhutan and knocking back a beer or two in the evenings. The guides working for Druk can arrange pretty much anything – whether it’s hiking into the mountains, taking part in a Buddhist ceremony or camping out beneath the stars. For more info on how to travel to Bhutan, check out this guide and feel free to fire away with questions!
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Writer and entrepreneur. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will has been on the road for thirteen years, travelling to far-flung lands on a budget. Today, he runs a number of online ventures, including The Broke Backpacker – the world’s largest budget travel blog. He is passionate about solving the plastic problem and cleaning up the oceans. Currently, Will is based in Bali where he plans to open his first Tribal Hostel in 2020.