In Bhutan, the day’s protagonists, at every moment, are the mountains. From wherever you stand, be it the tarmac of Paro International Airport or queued up for cheese- and-chili-stuffed-momos on a Friday evening in Thimpu, you’re under the influence of the great Himalayas.
Here, life happens among thickly forested slopes of pine and the lush valleys to which they give birth. Swathes of green are only broken up by dots of stark white: the impossibly perched, lonely homes and monasteries tucked into the hillsides. Everything made by man feels like it is solemnly built to honor nature or a higher power that lives within her branches.
Since Bhutan opened up to tourists in 1972, intrepid travelers clad in prayer beads bought at their local hippie shops and deep-pocketed, starry-eyed Westerners have come to this verdant Shangri-La with hopes to tap into the spiritually enlightened minds of the population, returning home a more compassionate—if not more cultured—person, thanks to this quiet nation that values Gross National Happiness over GDP.
I, a fresh-eyed almost-millennial with more than eight years of living in Asia, was arrogantly determined to come back from my first visit to the country with a different story. But here’s the thing: I was there to trek bits of the Trans Bhutan Trail, one of the oldest and most significant paths in the whole country. Dating back to the 16th century, the trail snakes 403 kilometers from Haa in the country’s West to Trashingang in the East. Up until the spread of road networks in the 1960s and 1970s, trails like this one were the lifeline of the population.
And so I was quick to realize that to walk along the Trans Bhutan Trail—through dense pine and rhododendron forests, past crumbling stucco stupas and over rickety draw bridges clad in prayer flags—was to walk in the steps of Bhutan’s founders, its heroic soldiers and thousands of religious pilgrims. Not only would it be difficult to ignore the magical air of the country about which so many guidebooks wax lyrical, it would be entirely remiss.
It was not long after 9 a.m. when I followed Chimmy, one of our group’s guides and an absolute warrior of a women who works as a guide part time on top of managing the nonprofit she founded for victims of domestic abuse, off the cement road at Dochula Pass into an unassuming clearing leading into the forest. I only became aware that I was walking on the Trans Bhutan Trail when someone in my group pointed out the trail post telling us so. Truthfully, I had been envisioning something more, well, manicured, if not structured. In 2018, the Bhutan Canada Foundation, a nonprofit focused on education, and the national government began the restoration of the trail to make it accessible for locals, pilgrims and travelers after 60 years of neglect.
During the pandemic, hundreds of desuungs, volunteers trained to support and build a sense of community, helped completely replenish the trail by rebuilding 18 bridges, restoring more than 10,000 steps and installing 170 trail posts, which each feature a QR code for travelers to access information and local history. Most of the trails had been completely out of use since the 60s, and given the rugged terrain of the country and the vast length of the train, it would never end up looking like the yellow brick road, and that’s a good thing.
Within the embrace of the forest, the air was sultry and the ground slick with mildew. Above, the sky, from what the dense canopy revealed of it, threatened rain. Chimmy picked up a leaf and explained how her mother used to peel off the bark of its tree for medicinal uses. Her mother, and her mother’s mother, all used the trail regularly to travel across Bhutan. I was reminded that the mountains—the forests— grant us special access to a kind of aboriginal land of spirits and folklore that we are deprived of in the cities.
My days along the Trans Bhutan Trail were vivid and deliberate and elemental. We’d walk hours, passing by cows placidly on the road before us, taking rests at Dzongs whose kaleidoscopic interiors became havens of hush storytelling from our guides. In one version of this story, I fell deeper into mindfulness with each leg of the trail completed. But the less romantic reality is that I spent the majority of the treks asking my walking buddy Adam, a sweet-faced Brit who towered over locals at 6′ 3″, Would you rather…? questions or trying to convince my dapper guide Damchoe, a former soccer player for the national team and an aspiring singer, to serenade us with some of his original songs (he’s got a viral hit on Youtube).
One day, I matched the (extremely brisk) pace of Karma, the former secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission of Bhutan. Smiling from ear to ear even through heavy breath as the trail steepens, Karma’s enthusiasm for trekking was utterly contagious. “One of the world’s biggest tragedies right now is the growing disregard for nature,” he said, momentarily relieving the smile from his face. “It seems as though modern society is too focused on the individual. In Bhutan, learning to live in harmony with nature is just as important in education as learning to read and write.” He told me about the public school his daughter attends, where students go out into the community to help grow produce, some of which is harvested for their lunches. I also learned that there is a consistent and overwhelming interest among the youth to become desuungs or scouts. Those who don the bright orange jumpsuits are notably—and rightfully—proud. Here, the trees aren’t a resource, they are an attachment of one’s self. You cut a tree, you’re cutting someone’s arm.
Many people—writers, travelers, observers—equate the Bhutanese’s gentle, kind demeanor as a product of the people’s connection with Buddhism. And while religion may or may not have laid the foundation, it’s the visceral connection to nature that seems to inspire this next-level sense of compassion. I get it—with every new impossibly green valley view and whiff of fresh pine, I myself began to soften. Even my incessant get-to-know-you questions couldn’t diminish the palpably peaceful air on the trail (though, maybe you should confirm with Adam and Damchoe).
It’s barely 6 a.m. and I’m on my second cup of butter tea and plan on having a third, sunk deeply into a folding chair feeling a gut-deep sense of satisfaction with life. While heads are beginning to peer out of their tents, eyes squinty with sleep and confusion, hardly anyone else is dressed and ready for the day to start. I slept like I was practicing for death and feel invigorated by the day’s promise. I grab my mug and take a walk. Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure where we set up camp last night, somewhere up the mountain off the trail, but there is a heart-clearing stillness that far exceeds any morning calm I’ve ever experienced. Later, my new friends will tell me they didn’t sleep a wink because of a few barking stray dogs at the temple just down the way, but right now there is a ringing silence and it speaks not of absence, but presence.
My goal for this trip was to come home with a story of Bhutan unlike the others. I wanted to spare the reader the romance and hit them with some realism. There is a story out there about the rapid modernization of Thimpu, the new increased daily tourist tax and whether or not the lack of international influences is detrimental to the population, but none of those are mine to tell.
I was enamored—spellbound, even—by the stolid simplicity of the nation that’s so often shrouded in mystique. Frankly, there is little that is mysterious about Bhutan, the allure to foreigners is seeded in what a visit to the country brings out in ourselves. These revelatory moments are but mere realizations of what is meaningful in life: nature, connection, compassion—things that most of us are increasingly growing away from.
I’m at the gates of a cliff-hugging monastery by the time I notice my group tearing down their tents in the distance. Inside, monks chanting conferred an air of solemnity. The morning fog is slowly dissipating to reveal first the mountains, then the valley. There are a few solitary stupas in the distance, droplets of white in a deep sea of green, everywhere else was empty and spacious—spacious enough for the mind to go everywhere and nowhere at all.
Guided journeys on the Trans Bhutan Trail range from one night to 17 nights starting at US$300, excluding the mandatory US$200 daily tourist fee. Learn More Here