Monthly Archives: April 2012

Epic Mission, Great Adventure

I face the 3rd last mountain pass trying to get back to our base camp.  Tashi and I are out front, another two are about 15 minutes behind us and another group of three is at least 90 minutes behind them.  We’re in a white out, I want to say that low cloud cover has smothered us but since we are at least 4.3km (14,000ft) above sea level somehow I think the clouds are exactly where they are meant to be.  Not realizing the height at which we would trek to, I had not taken medication to combat altitude sickness, I’m nauseous, my legs are exhausted and have been for the last three hours, with every step is a struggle.

We left from the telecommunication tower above Thimphu at 7.30 that morning.  Backpacks filled for the overnight camp.  I have our dinner packed away in my rug sack and we take it in turns to carry the tents.  It takes us 4 hours to climb to Phajodhing monastery from 2,300m to 3,600m where we eat lunch.  We drop off the backpacks into the monastery, we’ll camp here tonight.  At 11.45am we set out on the second half of the climb and what we believe will take us 2hrs to reach our destination, Simkotra Tsho, a high mountain lake.  The first hour and a half gets up to the first pass at Thujedrag Goenpa (4,070m).  The first signs of the near permanent snow is scattered across the mountain peaks which are laid out before us.  Kinlay, who has trekked this route, known to as the “Druk” path, 9 times but the last time was over ten years ago.  He believes that the lakes are just over the next mountain pass.

Five passes later and we reach the lake, its visible we’re all shattered; we look down on the lake from a cliff ledge as it is laid out below us, about the size of a football pitch, perched above the valley far below.  Three of the group discuss going down the 150m to the lake edge, I have no problems in letting them know that I’m not able.  I really feel the altitude at this point and my stomach is doing summersaults.  The three start the descent as we wait, its 4.00pm at this point.  It’s taken us over 4 hours to get here and I’m conscious that we have only a couple hours of light left.  I decide I’m going to start back to camp and the other three are only too keen join me.  We signal to the others that we’re off.   The clouds have moved in at this point.  One of our group is suffering from a bad headache, a sure sign of altitude sickness while the second is nauseous.  All four of us are beyond tired.

The third last mountain pass was a bitch, Tashi and I broke away from the other two, I knew I needed/wanted to get to a lower altitude.  The gradual incline for more than a kilometer rising to a height of 4,300m was killing me.  We stopped at least five or six times, from our snail’s pace, to rest and catch our breath.  We finally get there.  We make it back to the last pass above Phajodhing at 5.20pm and wait for the two behind us.  I was worried, Kinlay was pretty sick and I could see in his face he was scared.  Tashi and I had agreed to wait at the pass as long as we could, leaving enough light for the hour hike into camp.  We decide if it came to it, we would leave our hiking poles on the path with our torch so that the other two could use them to find their way back down.  The sun had set at this point.

Luckily after 20mins they came into sight and 15 mins later they made it to the pass.  None of us were as concerned for the three we left behind.  All local, they did not seem to be as affected by the altitude.  Tashi and I made for home.  One of the benefits of the steep decent is the reversal of the otherwise deadly altitude sickness.  If I learned anything from a month in Nepal 8 years ago is if you feel it, you must descend immediately.   Tashi and I got back just before nightfall just as the wind and hail picked up.  The other two were 10mins behind.  The monks were a godsend, giving us all hot water.  I, along with the others, were frozen.  The other three arrived back two hours later in pitch darkness, a little worse for wear.  Boy we were glad to see them.  They had wandered off the path four times in the darkness, but thankfully each time realizing it before they had gone too far.  The wind and hail has beaten into them but they had two got torches.  Feeling like, what I can only describe as shit, we went to pitch the tents…..I’m the only one out of seven who had done this before, I couldn’t believe it!  We collected firewood and managed to get a camp fire going, wet wood and all.  It took us until 11.00pm to get dinner cooked but boy was it good.

In hindsight we should have acclimatize at Phajodhing before trekking to the lakes the following day.  It went from an adventure to an epic mission but we made it.  Lesson learned – prepare better!

We’re already planning our next trek! 😉

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Tigers Roar

The Thongdrel is over 400 years old, four stories in height and about 25m wide as it is hoisted up on the front of the monastery building.  It depicts Guru Rinpoche (the second reincarnation of Buddha) and his bringing Buddhism to Bhutan.  It is unrolled by monks in the top floor of the monastery who winch the Thongdrel up as a team of around fifty people at base of the building slowly unroll it with every heave.  A single drum beat is played very slowly.  The moment it reaches the top the hundreds of people who have gathered to witness this event prostrate before it.  Its 3am in the morning and the Land of the Thunder Dragon lives up to its name as the thunder rumbles overhead and the rain descends.  It’s an auspicious sign, cleansing the sins of the people present.  Many of these people have travelled for days, some by foot, from all over the country and from all over the world to witness this.  I can only look on with respect.  They then form an orderly queue and wait, some for hours, to touch the Thongdrel and receive a blessing.  This spectacle has played out like this for over 400 years.

I leave at 7am to return to the traditional farmhouse in which I’m staying for the night/morning.  The Thongdrel was taken down within a couple of hours, for fear the ancient tapestry might be damaged by the rays of the morning sun.

At 9.30am I can sleep in no longer, I can hear soothing tones of a horn coming from within the building.  The smell of incense fills my room.  I get dressed and make my way into a reception room which is next to my bedroom and I’m greeted by the farmhouse owner.  Off the reception room is the altar room, it seems every house has one but this is essentially two rooms and quite large.  Four monks are chanting rhythmically to the sounds of two horns and a drum.  Three of the monks are wearing the normal maroon attire while the fourth, on a raised platform is wearing orange and yellow, signifying his importance.  He appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties.  This is a very special occasion the owner tells me, the high Lama, who arrived with his team earlier in the morning is believe to be the partial reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche (Buddha) himself and his ceremony in the house will last for about six hours.  Offerings of food, water and incense are all laid out to the gods and I am taught how to correctly prostate myself before the altar and to the high Lama.  He does not speak but smiles at my efforts.

It’s a country that is still extremely spiritual.  I am surprised by the number of youth joining the religious order; some look as young as ten years of age.  Many have come from some of the poorest families and it appears to be common that one member of a family will join an order.  It will be interesting to see how many will in the next ten years.  The youth at the moment are looking towards countries like South Korea and Japan for inspiration, skinny jeans are in, groups of guys wear over styled hair and spirituality and Buddhism is taking a back seat.

Strangely, I can’t help but feel I’ve seen this before.  Ireland and Bhutan bare stark similarities, I feel a certain sadness in the inevitable.  As the Celtic Tiger raged, Ireland faced the same important decisions that Bhutan faces today.  Ireland gripped capitalism or maybe capitalism gripped Ireland, took her (Ireland) for a cheap ride and kicked her out the next morning.  I think she is now doing the walk of shame, and slinking back to sobering reality.

In the case of Bhutan, it is flirting with the big C (capitalism).  In recent years, imports from India have soared and with the Bhutan Ngultrum pegged to the Indian Rupee it has made the currency artificially high.  Cheap money and loans within the banking system have driven consumerism in the country and its dependence on India for everything from cars and milk, to cheap labour and rice – many items that Bhutan could easily produce itself .  And so, within the last few weeks Bhutan has made the difficult decision to limit access to the Indian Rupee.  It seems that it is possible to learn from the experiences of others, and the Government is now trying to plug the holes and wean itself off the reliance on India.  Fortunate perhaps, but at the same time, this foresight is having huge repercussions.  Imports of basics from India are now on the rise, my tins of baked beans have gone up by 20% (mum, send me beans please!) along with many other more essential items, the cheap Indian labour is also under strain.  Many Indians workers are not migrating to Bhutan for work as their employers can no longer pay them in Rupee’s.

While the roar of my own home’s Celtic Tiger’s has caught a cold and now whimpers, I admire the steps in which the Land of the Thunder Dragon embraces its past as it grapples with the tough decisions that will shape its future.  Thankfully when they talk about tiger’s roar, they are very much of the real variety, one they are very careful to nurture.

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“Bhutan – Happiness is a place”

Is Bhutan the mythical, mystical nation seen as last remaining Shangri-La where its people live in permanent happiness, perched on the top of the world?

Unfortunately this is not a fairytale but a country.

With approx. 700,000 people it has the same problems as a lot of the world’s “least developed countries”, which it was until last year.  Bhutan now holds last place in the worlds “developing” nations, breaking out of “least” developed bracket.  This does not dismiss the fact that 1 in 5 live in poverty.  It faces huge challenges, where a burdening youth face the prospect of high unemployment, where hospitals still treat tuberculosis and leprosy.  The image of a pristine countryside is brought into reality on landing and driving a few kilometers on the road, where trash can be found dotting the roadside as you twist and turn around endless mountainous bends.  A few days into living in the capital I find out about broken families and a youth prescription drug problem.  Where the average school kid has no idea that its government has turned Gross National Happiness (GNH) into an inspirational new development tool, endorsed only last week by the United Nations, never mind that he/she not having a clue what GNH means.  The mantle of bringing the world GNH has turned it into an international punching bag.

I began to wonder if I was sold a lie.

BUT, it is struggling to improve.  It is trying hard to make this country a better place for its people.  The fact is that illiteracy in the older (55+) population is 90% in some rural areas of the country, a huge figure.  Now youth literacy is up to 87%, the government is pouring money into education; into its free healthcare system (if you cannot be treated in Bhutan you will be flown to India for treatment).  Fines were introduced this week on littering and people are responsible for keeping their property trash free.  No trafficable roads entered Bhutan until 1974; infrastructure is improving all the time but it still has some way to go.  Remember this is a country where electricity did not make its début until 1964; TV came to the country in 1999 and still does not have a set of traffic lights, anywhere.  Now I type over my Wi-Fi network.

The prescription drug problem has occurred as a direct result of the countries modernization.  Where in rural communities, if parents separate or die the children were taken in by the extended family, this tight knit structure is not present when a family moves to the city for a “better life”.  On the falling apart there are no aunts or uncles there to take these children in, it leaves them susceptible and a portion turn to drugs.

Gross National Happiness is a philosophy that Bhutan has inspired the world with.  It does not measure the countries success by its gross national product (how much money it makes) but focuses on a more holistic approach, based on a variety of social issues (from healthcare to education, time value to facilities found in your home etc.).  A statistically verifiable questionnaire has been development over many years to harness the results by which every new government policy is passed or failed against this model.  Deforestation was once carried out along the southern border to India producing huge amounts of revenue for the country; this process was then subjected to the GNH model and failed.  The logging was stopped, it was rightly deemed unsustainable but it’s a powerful message, this country stopped a major revenue source because it knew in the years to come it would be better for the country.  Maybe this is why 72% of the country is still covered by forestry.  It is now developing hydroelectric infrastructure, selling this electricity to India.  This is the sustainable model at work and the GNH policy for that matter.  This is the biggest money generator for the country.

The concept of GNH can be traced back to Bhutan’s legal code of 1629 which stated “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist”. This was championed again by the 4th King of Bhutan in 1972 “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”  It was written into Bhutan’s new democratic Constitution in 2008 Article 9: “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.”   It has left Bhutan open to criticism by the international world on its failings but what the rest of the world needs to understand is Bhutan is not trying to be the happiest place on earth but it is trying to make life happier for its people.  Should it ignore the philosophy because it is not doing as well as it would like?  It believes the rest of the world needs to wake up to the “suicidal” path it is on.  Capitalism believes in constant growth driven by demand from an ever increasing population which is great only that the physical earth is not ever growing, we are constrained by our size and our natural resources.  It wants the world to focus more on a holistic approach and its people’s wellbeing (or happiness) than on how much money you have in your back pocket.  Bhutan is striving for “Happiness and Well-Being : Defining a New Economic Paradigm” for the world, I think for a developing nation it can hold its head high.  I only wish the rest of the world was so brave in its vision for its people.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan has a slogan, “happiness is a place”.  If Bhutan has taught me anything over these weeks is that happiness is a place.

It is a place inside of you.

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