There are moments when pleasant things happen so unexpectedly at a time when it is most needed and we had one such moment, when this beautiful article (written almost four decades ago) landed in our laps. Exactly what we wished for as our opening story. Enjoy reading!
To the stellar writer, friend of Bhutan and our dear friend, we thank you beyond Sky and Earth for sharing your story with us and for allowing us to post it here.
Contributed by Charlie Stewart,
Our honeymoon destination was Bhutan. My wife, Franny and I knew it to be a country that could fulfill all of our romantic fantasies. Placed in a 20th century fairytale, we turned back whole chapters of modern civilization while visiting this kingdom still inspired by ancient tradition.
We were attracted there because 27 years ago Franny’s parents had also spent their honeymoon in Bhutan. Franny had also been to Bhutan twice and was magically lured for the third time. But, most importantly, the word “remote” describes Bhutan’s location, and remoteness is the key ingredient for an ideal honeymoon.
Its whereabouts unknown to most, Bhutan lies south of Tibet and north of India. Few have considered journeying to Bhutan, a small mountainous land nearly the size of West Virginia, hidden in the Himalayas.
One must enter under the auspices of one of several agencies authorized by Bhutan Travel Service (present day Tourism Council of Bhutan). Most of their tours lead visitors along a pre-planned route with accommodations catered to Western comforts.
Seeking adventure rather than the typical package of sightseeing, we opted for the eleven-day yak and pony “safari” in the northwestern region of the Dragon Kingdom, as it is reverently named. Yaks are the classical alpine beast of burden, which resemble a monstrous, shaggy Texas Longhorn and possess the sure-footedness of a mountain goat.
The objective was to reach the base of Jomolhari, Bhutan’s second highest mountain, keeping us above the tree line for the most part. Not being mountain climbers per se, we had our apprehensions regarding altitude effects. Nevertheless, we were set to leave in october, 1981.
Franny and I rendezvoused in Darjeeling, India, and left by jeeps for Siliguri. From there Bhutan’s tourism representative escorted us to Phuentsholing, Bhutan’s sole gateway in the hot and lush lowlands. The following day our air-conditioned Toyota minibus covered in six hours the endless switchbacks of Bhutan’s main road. At the end of the drive, Paro Valley shone golden in the sunset because harvesting had begun. The single street town of Paro seemed quiet and passive. Already we were at 8,000 feet altitude.
Though quite a small town, Paro offered unexpectedly comfortable accommodations. We were given a spacious newly built cottage constructed and decorated according to the Bhutanese architectural heritage. They use no nails and skillfully craft the woodwork and trim which are then hand-painted in deep mineral hues.
The dawn of the next day saw us on the first step of our trek. Our entourage would eventually boast eleven Americans, three horseman, a guide, a chef, twelve yak herders, thirteen ponies, seven pack mules, and eleven yaks and would at one point simulate the advance of Genghis Khan.
The weather for nearly the entire trip could not have been more perfect. Frost did incrust our two-man tents by morning, but hot tea served at the tent opening enabled us to forsake the warm down sleeping bags. Morning silenced the frightening baying of wild dogs which lurked around our camp at night in search of stray yaks. Each day the sky was a stunning crystal blue. Temperatures ranged from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to well below freezing at night. Only one afternoon did we find ourselves in a snow blizzard. It was a frigid reminder that these were the Himalayas.
Our camp sites were set at around 13,000 feet and most often near clusters of yak herders in their handwoven, black yak hair tents. The group enthusiastically observed the daily routine of milking, making cheese, and weaving blankets and rope. These products would all be exchanged for other essential goods carried by traders from the lower fertile valleys.
Handsome, strong-featured, and of good build, inwardly all Bhutanese are proud of their culture. Even today the men wear the traditional dress called a “Gho” with knee socks, while the women wear a “Kira” which is the size and shape of a bedspread that is wrapped around the body several times.
Buddhism is the predominant religion. Magnificient Dzongs are the religious and political headquarters for each dzongkhag or district. Some have been destroyed by invaders from Tibet while others have deteriorated naturally, but, by and large, most have been skillfully preserved. The scale of these gigantic structures dwarfs the 1,000 monks who might live within.
The journey abounded with sights and sounds of a land little touched by the modern age. But nowhere is life more enchanting than at the top of a 16,000′ mountain pass. As we topped the last pass thanks to our tireless yaks, we realized we had climbed above the storm. Mist would roll in, rise over our heads, roll back and fall to rest in the deep valleys below. Almost with an aristocratic air, the snowy peak of Jomolhari remains untouched by the storm. The wind and the slow flapping of prayer flags were the only sounds. The cold damp air finally broke the spell of this spectacle and we descended toward camp.
Nausea and headaches could hardly be ignored at such high altitudes. Short tempers and dizziness were experienced by some. Sleep and occasional rest days cured most discomforts. As we descended, fields of rhododendron bushes flanked our path. During the spring they are in glorious blossom and luminate in shades of red, yellow, white and pink.
The day never passed without a humorous event such as the time a yak gave his western tourist jockey a personalised tour of the rhododendrons at break neck speed. These were not docile Grand Canyon donkeys.
Arriving at the camp stiff from the day’s yak ride, we dined on yak meat, the indigenous red rice, and incongruous canned fruit cocktail. Hot green peppers mistaken for green beans could trigger every human reflex. An evening fireside chat with our group and the yak herders via an interpreter revealed it is impossible to begin to describe a television to those who have never seen one or heard of one.
Bhutan is by no means ashamed of its cautious, gradual modernization and will not be exploited or ruined by distasteful tourism. The Bhutanese are clever and cautious in gauging the progress to their own advantage. They strive for a thoughtful balance of the best of both the traditional and modern.
Outside Phajoding Monastery on our last day of the trek a group of monks relaxed while taking their weekly bath in an outdoor hot tub. The water was heated by red hot rocks transferred from a blazing log fire nearby.
Thus we spent our honeymoon in a country that redefines the word remote. No doubt the unusual traditions and lifestyle will endure at least until our children’s honeymoon.
Majestic like its royal symbol the dragon, Bhutan remains a lasting yet quiet influence in the Himalayas.