It was quite an entourage. A dozen mules, lugging the tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, gas stoves, and enough food for both humans and animals for four days. Managing the animals were three pony men. The group also included two cooks, two campground managers, and one guide in charge of keeping everything in order. Oh yes, and two guests: my wife and me.
We were gathered on the edge of Paro, a small town in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, as we were about to embark on the Druk Path, a four-day trek that would take us through forests of blue pine, past monasteries of whitewashed stone that look a bit like Swiss chalets, above the tree line to yak-herder shelters, along snowy ridges with stunning views of the high peaks, and finally down to the valley of Thimpu, a bustling town of government ministries, international aid-agency offices, small museums, and tourist shops, which is the closest Bhutan has to a city.
A country the size of Switzerland sandwiched between the plains of India and the plateau of Tibet, Bhutan is renowned for its challenging trekking: One of the toughest mountain treks in the kingdom, the Snowman, involves weeks of Himalayan ascents and descents through some of the most isolated—and beautiful—places on earth. Such treks are definitely not for beginners. But you don't have to be hard-core to trek in Bhutan. The Druk Path (druk means "dragon" in Bhutan, and the Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul, or "Land of the Thunder Dragon") is certainly challenging: We started at 7,500 feet above sea level and walked and walked till we were at 13,800 feet. But the trek is also quite accessible, assuming you're in reasonable shape and not prone to altitude sickness.
This accessibility has made it a favorite for a small number of Western tourists looking for a taste of Himalayan trekking while maintaining a bit of luxury. I'm no hiker, but my wife had wanted to go to Bhutan for years. So, equipped with sturdy boots, four-season sleeping bags, and altitude-sickness pills, we headed for the Himalayas.
Keeping the World at Bay
Bhutan, with a population under 1 million, has an ambivalent attitude toward outsiders in general and tourists in particular. The landlocked Buddhist kingdom is famously isolated: TV broadcasts and Internet access weren't available until 1999. There are few roads. Cell-phone service didn't arrive until 2003. The telecom network is hit-or-miss. And forget about trying to use a BlackBerry to get e-mail.
The country's young king, a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who last month forced the reluctant Bhutanese to have their first ever parliamentary elections, is determined to protect the country's culture—not to mention its countryside—from outside influence. The government is keen to keep Bhutan from becoming a backpacker haven like nearby Nepal. Bhutan has policies designed to keep out the Lonely Planet crowd and appeal to more affluent travelers. Tourists must to spend a minimum of $200 a day and can't trek without a licensed guide. Not surprising, then, that we barely saw anyone else during our four days on the Druk Path.
Further complicating travel to Bhutan, there's no competition among airlines to keep fares down: The country has only one airport, in Paro, and only one airline flies in and out. Druk Air operates two incoming flights a day, one from Bangkok via Dhaka and the other from Delhi via Katmandu. Once the two flights have departed again in the morning, the airport simply shuts down. On our first afternoon in Paro, we hiked to a hill overlooking the airport, and there wasn't a plane in sight below.
So Bhutan is not for the bargain hunter. But the kingdom enjoys the sort of political stability unheard of among its neighbors. While the Bhutanese share a similar language and religion with Tibet, the border with the Chinese-ruled region is closed, and there's no spillover from the Beijing's crackdown on supporters of the Dalai Lama.
Similarly, there's nothing in Bhutan similar to the Maoist rebellion in Nepal that is now close to ending the rule of the Nepalese royal family. And unlike the Indians, the Bhutanese don't have to worry about local insurgents or attacks from Pakistan.
The focus on high-end tourism has provided an opening for a handful of five-star international hotel chains. Singapore's Amanresorts International, for instance, operates the Amankora, five posh hotels around the country. Guests not keen on walking can easily hop aboard an Aman car to shuttle from one hotel to the next. Taj Hotels, owned by India's Tata Group, has just opened its first Bhutanese hotel, the Taj Tashi, in Thimpu. We stopped by to visit, and while riding in the elevator heard a hotel staff member proudly explain that the lift was one of the first anywhere in the country.
Another international luxury chain with a relatively new outpost in Bhutan is Singapore's Como Hotels & Resorts, which a few years ago opened the Uma, a traditional Bhutanese-style complex of whitewashed stone and intricately painted wooden beams in the hills overlooking the Paro Valley. The Uma, which has all the features that typify a luxury hotel—a spa, a health club, an indoor pool, yoga classes, and an upscale restaurant—offers a standard seven-night package for tourists interested in the Druk Path trek. We went on a few gentle hikes near the hotel for the first two days as we adjusted to the altitude and then, on our third day in Bhutan, we set off on the Druk Path. It was early April, when the thermometer is supposed to be climbing and the ubiquitous wild rhododendrons are in bloom. But for whatever reason—climate change or quirk of nature—the weather has become more unpredictable and temperatures were low enough that we had snow every day. To stay warm, we wore layer upon layer upon layer.
Trekking through the snow was surprisingly easy, though sometimes it turned into slush and mud. We typically started around 8:30 in the morning and went until 4:30 in the afternoon. We weren't exactly roughing it, of course: The mules carried most of our stuff, and the two cooks prepared delicious multicourse breakfasts and dinners as well as elaborate picnic lunches. Time was never really an issue, and we had plenty of chances to stop and enjoy the spectacular scenery. Indeed, had we decided to splurge, we could have gone for even more luxury: The Uma actually offers guests the option of taking a masseuse from the hotel spa along on the trek. Given how many layers of clothing we were wearing just to keep warm, there didn't seem much point in taking advantage of that luxury service.
We quickly realized the importance of keeping the mules happy. Every morning a few of us would set off first, and the pack animals and the rest of the team—who walked at a much faster pace—would start later and then pass us. One day we saw a mule rebellion: One decided it didn't like the looks of the path and suddenly turned around. That led other mules to follow suit. A few even fell off the path, with a cooking stove sliding down the side of the mountain. Would we have to abandon the trek? How could we go on without the animals cooperating? Eventually the handlers managed to restore order and got the mules moving. By the time we got to the campsite that afternoon, the team had already been there for hours, with hot ginger tea waiting for us in the dining tent.
No mules, no trek. So sometimes we had to make compromises to accommodate the animals. On our last night on the trek, the guys in charge of the mules nixed a campsite because they fretted there wouldn't be enough grass there for the animals. So we stayed in a mule-friendly area. Good for the animals. For the people? Less so. The spot had terrific views of the peaks on one side and the Thimpu Valley far below on the other. But we were also exposed to harsh winds that seemed to pick up as the sun went down. Even standing around the campfire didn't make us any warmer, and my wife and I shivered in our sleeping bags much of the night. Turns out we weren't the only ones who spent a restless night: The next morning we heard that many of the Bhutanese guys were also too cold to sleep.
By then, though, the wind had disappeared, the clouds cleared, and we had beautiful blue skies and unimpeded views of some of the highest mountains in the country. Soon we started our descent to Thimpu. We were done. The mules and their handlers set off for their next job, and we drove 90 minutes along the country's main highway—sometimes paved, sometimes not—back to the hotel in Paro. Surprisingly, we had no muscle aches and no blisters, and we had weathered the high altitude without a glitch. We're not about to embark on the Snowman Trek or one of the other insanely difficult treks in Bhutan. But no matter: We had completed—with assistance from man and beast—the Druk Path.
Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show for a closer look at the Druk Path trek.
Lodging Web Sites:
Uma Paro: www.uma.como.bz/paro/Amankora: www.amanresorts.com/home.aspx?id=298Taj Tashi: www.tajhotels.com/Leisure/Taj Tashi,THIMPHU/default.htm