Handicraft school – woodcarving class – dragon in progress

For a journey that was mostly in the remote mountains, our group was happy for an extra day or two of cultural connection and sightseeing. All of the hiking was behind us, so it was easy to relax and enjoy the town…plus it’s always fun taking people to my favorite off-the-beaten-path places.

In a small town outside of Thimphu, we visited a handicraft school that trains students in traditional Buddhist arts such as painting, woodcarving, and embroidery…all of which offer good employment opportunities in Bhutan. As part of its cultural conservation initiatives, Bhutan requires that homes be built and painted in traditional style, with carved wooden lintels and detailed geometric patterns. This makes it easy for basic artisan painters and carvers to find work. Across the country, people are also devout Buddhists which means they purchase art for home altars and monastery gifts, and they paint their homes with the four powerful animals for protection. Artists with advanced skills find even better employment.

Some women are beginning to train as painters, but more often they learn sewing or embroidery to become tailors or artists who make everything from clothing accessories to 3-story hanging images of Buddhist figures. The school provides full scholarships to students from poor families. Because it’s such good employment afterwards, many youth want to attend. A highly competitive application process means only the most dedicated are admitted, and students who are accepted train all day for many years. The classes we entered were quiet, with everyone working diligently on their new trade. The school covers the cost of materials and fees completely, which is part of why everyone in our trekking group was happy to offer support through purchases of student art from the school shop. After meeting the students in each class and seeing the school in action, nearly everyone went home with handmade Buddhist artwork in one form or another.

Handicraft school – painting class
Handicraft school – embroidery class
First woman to graduate from the 7 year painting program at this school.

In the afternoon, we found a large meadow and met our trekking staff for a picnic complete with local red-rice beer and a game of frisbee. It was great to have a final few hours with the team we had grown to love. I actually had three frisbees, and most of us didn’t have much aim, so the chaos of throwing-and-catching was equal entertainment for those who played and those who watched from the sidelines (beer in hand). We also took the opportunity to stop by a beautiful and rarely-visited Tara temple on the outskirts of town. Tara is a feminine deity associated with compassion, enlightened action, and the support of women on their spiritual path. The central statue is a stunning 8-foot tall goddess made out of silver, glistening in the dark, cool temple (per usual in Bhutan, no altar photos allowed).

Frisbee in the forest with our trekking staff.

In the evening, we were reunited with our lead guide and his wife (the office mastermind and operations manager extraordinaire). They had arranged a happy hour and cultural performance for us, bringing one of Bhutan’s best dance troupes to a nearby hotel to showcase dances from various ethnic groups and from different religious festivals. The Buddhist art Bhutan is most famous for is dance. Festivals happen throughout the year with monks performing a series of religious dances in brocade costumes and animal-headed masks, interspersed with village locals performing folk dances. This night we got a taste of dances and songs from all across the country. The group of men and women played traditional instruments, sang, and danced in a skillful demonstration of the diversity of song and dance across Bhutan.

A delicious dinner followed, with a pink ice cream cake for dessert. When it arrived, it read, “Happy Birthday, Deana!” and everyone started singing…again. It was my second birthday celebration this year—and I was entirely surprised both times. During the trek, I came to breakfast one morning to discover the table set with fresh flowers, a card, a chocolate bar, and a cake (because you can have cake for breakfast when you’re trekking!). The clients and staff were all gathered together singing happy birthday, and I was touched that one of my clients who had travelled with me before had remembered my birthday, come prepared with card and gift, and organized with the kitchen and clients into a celebration. When we returned to Thimphu, my friends who own the tour company had heard from the trekking cook that it was my birthday, and they arranged a cake and celebration all over again!

Birthday cake for breakfast

For most of my birthdays in recent years, I’ve arrived home in May after 2+ months in Nepal too mentally and physically tired to plan anything, so I’ve rarely celebrated beyond a low-key dinner with a few friends. This year, I had not one, but two, birthday celebrations, and I felt very joyful and loved!

In the morning, we drove to Paro, where we began, where the international airport is, where our trip would come full circle. In Thimphu, our office had managed to magically arrange hotel rooms despite the town being at full occupancy in the nicer hotels. However, in Paro where our flight was departing from, our office had been hitting a wall for accommodations. I ended up reaching out to a hotel owner in Portugal for a favor in Bhutan—and he was incredibly gracious to oblige. After all the struggle and weather and diverted plans, we spent our final two nights at a brand-new luxury property, enjoying 6-course gourmet dinners and sweeping views of the valley from every room. Another serendipitous experience forced by the unexpected—and an amazing way to end our journey!

During our last few days of hiking, we crossed our final pass and strung prayer flags across the top, then descended for two days to reach the road. We passed a monastery being restored by prisoners on work-release-rehabilitation, herds of Blue Sheep, carpenters repairing a health post, and old hermit huts built high on cliffs.

Putting up prayer flags brings merit to those who place them and also sends the prayers out on the wind as a blessing to the world.
Down and down to meet the road.

As we worked our way down, and back into cell coverage, I found myself on the phone far more than usual. We were exiting the trek in a completely different town than planned—and two days early. All of our prior hotel arrangements were useless, and every hotel was now packed with Indian tourists escaping the blazing heat of the Gangetic Plain before monsoon. We were also about to have two free days in the capital of Thimphu and two more in Paro—much more than we originally planned. In the kitchen tent-turned-office, I worked with the staff to plan excursions, call contacts, and arrange a cultural tour while drinking more and more tea. I was acutely aware how the installation of cell towers has changed guiding over the last 14 years. Expanded coverage has made it easier to pivot on a dime and make a whole new plan.

When we reached the road, we were met by our driver with a cooler full of beer and soft drinks. It took another few hours to unload the horses, pack the bus and jeep, have lunch, and say our goodbyes to the horsemen. They planned to take a shortcut over a high pass and head north to return home. The journey would take them another 5 days.

For us, however, it was a straight shot to hotel, showers, and a pizza dinner! We were also happily reunited with our once-sick trekker. After resting for a few days in Thimphu, she had headed out with one of our other guides on an adventure to tour the middle of the country for a week (and stay mostly below 8,000 ft). The group was elated when she suddenly arrived at the restaurant just as pizzas were coming out of the oven. We all had so many stories to share.

All together again!

The revised route of our Snowman Trek took us through a wider array of altitudes and climate zones than originally planned. It was springtime in the Himalayas, and we saw an incredible array of blooms—dozens of species of rhododendrons, whole fields of primula, tiny micro-flowers growing in soil crusts, and thousands of irises in every shade of purple. As we moved through different regions, we discovered a continuing succession of new flowers: blood red orchids, spotted cobra lilies, and ever more rhododendrons. Bhutan has more varieties of rhododendrons than almost anywhere in the world. So for today…just lots of flower photos!

Cobra Lily
Fritillaria lily – endangered medicinal plant
Rhododendrons in unusual colors
Himalayan Lady Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium)
More rhododendrons
Tiny rhododendrons
Tiny cluster flowers
Himalayan iris
Thousands of irises!
More tiny flowers
Himalayan Yellow Swallowtail & primula
Himalayan orchid
Tiny flowers in high alpine biocrusts.

The afternoon rains were typically light and late, but one day the skies opened early, the wind blew, and a heavy rain came down almost sideways. With good raingear, it’s not a big problem to hike in the rain, but eating in the rain is a different story. When we passed through a small village, our staff led us to lunch at small tin-roofed shelter with no walls, and the rain blowing in from the side. I knew immediately we were going to need a different option, so I started looking around at the houses and wondering who might allow the 11 of us (not including Norbu the horse, who carries lunch) to come in for a while. It’s a pretty big request, and I could tell our slightly shy assistant guide was not excited about asking. Instead of heading towards the houses, he and I took off towards the primary school a little farther away, found the office, and knocked. Less shy, I immediately called out, “Hello?” and a voice answered in English, “Hello? Hello, yes! Come in!” I knew right away we’d found a solution—and that I didn’t have to put my assistant guide on the spot. I walked into the office to meet the friendly and welcoming School Principal, who spoke excellent English. I explained the situation, and he welcomed us to the school cafeteria for lunch.

The cafeteria was a large empty room, with a wooden floor and peeling paint, two narrow benches that wobbled, and pictures of the current and former kings on the wall. It was somewhat barren but nonetheless perfect as an escape from the rain—it had a roof and walls. We hiked back to gather the group, and all returned together to gratefully settle in for lunch. Moments later, 46 children in red and blue plaid school uniforms arrived to join us.

The students filed in to the cafeteria quietly, picked up stainless steel plates, and lined up in orderly fashion. Three of the older children came into the front of the room with buckets of rice, soup, and vegetables. A teacher guided all the students through reciting a blessing for the food, and then they filed past the servers, filled their plates, and sat cross-legged in neat lines on the floor to eat with their hands and occasionally whisper to their neighbors. The contrast with any school cafeteria in America was not lost on us, and we watched with a mixture of appreciation and fascination.

The principal shared some of the school soup and vegetables with us (spicy!). I asked one of our staff to take the oranges intended for our group and cut them into 50 small pieces, which he happily did. (Did I mention how great our staff are about all my strange requests?!) Then I fished a pile of almonds out of my backpack, offering both fruit and nuts to the clients who found more snacks in their own bags and went down the lines serving the children one-by-one. Shy smiles, receiving hands outstretched, and more animated whispering ensued as the children received these rare treats.

After lunch, the principal offered to have the children sing a song for us, which we eagerly agreed to. They sang one, then another…and then of course, it was our turn! It’s not the first time one of my groups has been on the spot to sing—and it’s always revealing how few songs a group of 8-10 Americans all know the words for. Imagine you suddenly have 1 minute to come up with a song you can sing straight through, that 8 other people (who aren’t your friends from high school) also know all the words and tune for, and that is going to sound okay without any instrumental backup. Not so easy. Over the years, Christmas carols, 50’s tunes, and Beatles songs have all been recourse in the pressure of the moment.

At the school on this rainy day, we sang This Land Is Your Land (presented as one of our national songs because The Star Spangled Banner is so hard to sing) and Take Me Home Country Road. The children loved it and were more excited when they sang another song or two, so we responded with Jingle Bells and many lively Ho, Ho, Ho’s. The children’s next song included a series of animated arm movements and foot stomping, which we picked up and performed with them. They had upped the ante, and I knew what I needed to do next.

Although I’m fairly reserved in the US and would never subject someone to my singing (so off-key!), when I’m guiding I will do almost anything in the name of awesome cultural exchange and fun with locals. So I summoned up a big voice, organized the 60 of us into a circle, and led the Hokey Pokey as loud as I could. The kids cracked up watching us begin, and then they joined in, following us through shaking arms-legs-heads-bodies, spinning around, and clapping, round after round. It was great fun for everyone!

The day was fading, the students needed to get back to learning, and we needed to get back to trekking. The rain had abated, and we still had a few hours hiking to reach our campsite. Our group walked with renewed spirit, energized by the unexpected connection this grey day. It was a perfect example of serendipity brought by the rain, and we were grateful for the afternoon downpour that drove us inside. In Thimphu after the trek, we bought children’s books and colorful pens to send back out to the kids who had stolen our hearts that afternoon.

Our campsite is still at the far end of this valley–time to start hiking.

Snowman Trek Bhutan – Our Local Team

September 16, 2019

Our days unfolded steadily in a rhythm of walking and resting, eating and sleeping, silence and sharing, climbing and descending. It takes some time to drop into the slower rhythms of trekking, the easy awareness and lack of distraction by cell phones and to-do lists, the expansive spaces and skies, the attunement to nature and […]

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Snowman Trek Bhutan – Yaks, Herders, and the Snow Leopard

September 11, 2019

Turning west, we began a new route for the coming 10 days. This area has more trekking and local-use trails, but there are still very few tourists compared to other trekking routes around the world. We saw only 7 other trekkers, in groups of 1-2, during the entire time we hiked. What we saw far […]

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Snowman Trek Bhutan – Death & The Bardo

September 5, 2019

After turning back from the snowed-in pass and medically evacuating one client, I’m standing in a misty field in Laya at 5am when I learn that our lead guide has had a death in his immediate family. He’s the owner of the local company I’ve partnered with for the last 10 years to run trips […]

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Snowman Trek Bhutan – Altitude Sickness

August 26, 2019

Over the course of these first few days, too much snow is not my only concern. Altitude sickness is an ever-present concern, and it’s unpredictable how bodies will adjust in thin air. People across the world can (and do) die every year from severe altitude sickness, generally because they ignore the signs & symptoms and […]

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Snowman Trek Bhutan – Too Much Snow

August 21, 2019

From Laya, we head east, away from the villages and trails of habitation and into more remote mountains. Camped at 13,800 ft by a glacial river in a wind-swept alpine valley where yaks graze freely, this will become our home for the next 3 nights, longer than expected. We can see that snow is still […]

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Snowman Trek Bhutan – The Village of Laya

August 18, 2019

In the Himalayas, you can hike uphill for days. We spent the entire next day gaining altitude, until we reached Laya at 12,400 ft. This final outpost of 44 houses was once a poor and rough village with few resources. In the past few years, however, wealth has come to the area in the form […]

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