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Layap women are easily recognized by their traditional handmade bamboo hats

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 of a tiny caterpillar found only at high altitude in the Himalayas. When they munch on grasses and leaves, these caterpillars eat a fungus which then sprouts inside them. It kills the caterpillar and grows up out of its remains…to be eaten by a new caterpillar the next season.

Cordyceps–half caterpillar and half fungus (photo: J. Allen)

Known locally as yartsagumba or scientifically as Cordyceps, the caterpillar is prized in Chinese medicine for its unique half-animal/half-plant status and is believed to have many medicinal benefits including enhanced virility. As the Viagra of the natural world, Cordyceps is worth more than $18/gram locally (and $100/gram on the global market!). In a good year, a farmer or herder can earn triple his annual income during the one month when the caterpillars sprout. In Laya, this wealth is visible in the form of new houses everywhere. Old stone homes are being replaced with homes that have expensive tin roofs, wood carved windows, and painted facades. The wealth also translates into extra blankets stacked in every home, extra firewood stacked outside, mobile phones and puffy jackets, children in boarding schools, and families leaving the heavy high-mountain snow for a few months in the capital each winter. This year, however, is not likely to be a good year for Cordyceps harvest. The passes to the high fields will still be blocked with snow at the critical time, but none of us know this yet–although we are all concerned by the weather, villagers and trekkers alike.

New homes and new wealth in Laya

Our trekking team consists of 8 clients, 2 guides (myself and a Bhutanese guide), 1 assistant guide, a head cook, 3 kitchen staff, 4 horsemen, and roughly 35 horse loads (which will decrease as we eat through food and supplies). The four horsemen hail from this village of Laya, so in the evening they bring their wives and neighbors to sing and dance for us in the close, dark seating room of a village home. The women arrive in their finest traditional dress—handwoven wool skirts, silky blouses, heavy turquoise and coral necklaces, precious carved silver and gold pins and ornaments, and their distinctive cone-shaped handmade bamboo hats with loops of bright beads along the back. Layaps are one of two highlander ethnic groups in Bhutan, traditional herders with distinctive language, clothing, and culture formed through centuries of isolation in the high Himalayas. They sing about their land and about love, in high-pitched nasal voices while dancing synchronized moves in a line or a circle, to a beat we find particularly hard to follow when we join them for their final song.

We gather in a circle afterwards to thank them, offer the traditional tips, and converse. We travelers always have questions we’re curious about, and then I ask what they would like to know about our lives. One of the most interesting questions is when they ask if we all live in apartments in modern, high-rise buildings which they have seen on the news and in movies. Members of our group live in everything from the expected urban high-rise, to modern single-family homes, to a 100-year-old wooden building, to a 400-year-old stone home…and this is all surprising and good fodder for further conversation before we finally say good night.

Spirit catcher at the edge of a farm to trap any negative forces and keep them away from the home. If you see one, don’t touch or disturb it.

Blessed, packed up, and ready for adventure, we drove off into the mountains on a road that wound up over a high pass, strewn with prayer flags and chortens. Bhutanese hospitality is everywhere, even on the roadside, where we met 2 truckloads of monks at the pass. They spoke some English and offered all of us traditional butter tea while they told us about the 5-foot-tall statues strapped in the back of their trucks for transport to a far temple. 

Fortified with tea, we descended through a hot, flat, flowering valley to Bhutan’s most ornate and majestic dzong before rising again on a twisting road that tightly hugged the mountains. The road turned to dirt, narrowed, and finally we stopped for the night in a small village.

Punakha dzong

Camped on the edge of town, we shifted to 4WD jeeps in the morning as the road turned rougher. The precarious road has been newly carved between a sheer mountain wall on one side and a sheer drop down to the river on the other. The jeeps drove until we literally reached the end of the road. From there, our team of 18 people and 30+ pack horses cut down over loose and uneven terrain to meet the main trail which comes from Tibet and was followed by Bhutan’s unifier and visionary monk, the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 16th century. This land abounds with stories and history.

Our string of pack horses moving through the mountains.
first campsite

Pine, larch, and orchids growing in the trees formed a gentle forest where we climbed lightly and steadily up the valley, while the river rose to meet us. Our campsite was on the edge of a glacially cold river, at the bottom of a gorge. It was the first of many beautiful campsites we would enjoy along cold rivers. It was also the first of many days where the clear morning clouded over by early afternoon, then turned into precipitation. The afternoons varied from a light drizzle, to rain, to hail, and a few days even to snow. We quickly fell into a rhythm of enjoying early mornings outdoors, eating lunch before the rain, and at some point pausing on the trail for the whole group to suit up in colorful rain jackets. Although hiking in the rain is never ideal, it has its own beauty—clouds and mist shifting around rocky peaks, bright flowers abundantly blooming in a monochrome landscape, a heavy blanket of moisture dampening sounds and tuning one’s attention inward. Weather is one of the things beyond our control, so all we can do is let go, stay dry, and enjoy the earth in its many incarnations.

Paro dzong

Our Snowman Trek began in the western town of Paro with a cultural and religious orientation to Bhutan, as well as physical acclimatization to higher altitude. We explored the town’s dzong, a massive stone monastery-fortress which helped defend and unify this Buddhist nation. Today, it’s home to over 100 monks and also houses civil administration offices for the district. This merging of Buddhist practice with management of civil affairs has been going on since the 16th century and is directly related to why Bhutan is one of the happiest places on earth. The first code of laws was written by a Buddhist teacher, and the government continues to apply Buddhist principles in practice.

In the evening, we visited one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, spinning prayer wheels and lighting 108 butter lamps to spread blessings to all sentient beings and to ask for an auspicious journey.

Lighting butter lamps

The following morning, we hiked 1500ft up into the mountains to the famous Tiger’s Nest, a complex of temples and caves impossibly built onto the side of a mountain. The Tiger’s Nest is named for 8th century sage Padmasambhava and his Tantric partner/consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, who took the form of a Tigress in their meditations. They were the first to meditate in these remote caves, doing deep Tantric visualization practice, dispersing negative energies in the valley, and bringing Buddhism to the early people of Bhutan. Many important sages and spiritual masters followed them and used these caves for retreat and revelations across the centuries.

The Tiger’s Nest remains an important pilgrimage site because Padmasambhava’s teachings and insights are the foundation for all of Tibetan Buddhism, including the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Stories abound of Padmasambhava’s travels through the Himalayas, spreading Buddhism on a timeline that spans multiple lifetimes and an impossible swathe of geography. He was a real historical figure, but it’s difficult to distinguish where history ends and legends begin. In Buddhist cultures, teachings and wisdom are often more important than a linear notion of time, so Buddhism is flexible about the chronology of events. Padmasambhava’s life across multiple centuries is taught as history in the public schools. His spiritual practices in these mountains came to define a religion that continues to shape our own thinking hundreds of years and half a world away.

8th century sage Padmasambhava (left) and his Tantric consort Yeshe Tsogyal (right)
The famous Tiger’s Nest built onto the side of a mountain and held there by the hair of dakinis, feminine sky dancers, who are believed to have carried the construction materials up the cliff centuries ago. (When the temples burned down in an electrical fire in 1998, Bhutan had to rely on more modern methods for the rebuild, including a steel cable car from the valley floor 1500 feet below–but they dismantled it after construction because a pilgrimage to the temples should require effort to help cleanse you of any sins.)

In Buddhism, a ritual blessing is a prerequisite before any major journey or undertaking, so after touring the capital, we rose early one morning and drove to a nearby nunnery. Our group and some of our trekking staff were seated in a dimly lit hall, the walls painted with fiery deities and serene Buddhas, and the altar stuffed with enormous statues, ornaments, food, flowers, offering bowls, water vessels, incense, money, rice, jewelry, and photos of important religious teachers. Tibetan Buddhist temples are a colorful cacophony of symbolic items and images, which stand in ornate contrast to the simple lives of the monastics who practice there daily.

The nuns were seated in lines along one side of the hall, and we were seated in a line along the other. They chanted in Tibetan, asking the goddess Tara for protection, as we sat quietly contemplating the present moment and the journey ahead. We all drank steaming tea that a nun poured into mugs before us. At the end of the ceremony, the ranking nun placed silky white prayer shawls around our necks and gave us sacred threads to wear for protection. We in turn made an offering of tea and food to the monastery and walked down the line of red-robed nuns with shaved heads, giving a donation to each of them one-by-one as is traditional. Participating in the ritual, rather than observing it from afar, was an experience that stayed with us long after we left the room, the town, the country.

The colorful accoutrement of Buddhist temples in Bhutan.

We were prepared for 24 days in the sheltered Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, 17 days crossing the Himalayas on one of the world’s toughest trekking routes, and about 2 weeks with no connection to the outside world beyond an emergency SAT phone…but the nature of adventure is that things don’t always go as planned. 

On the day I arrived, a cyclone dropped new snow on passes that were already unusually late to melt in the cold spring. On the middle trail of the Snowman Trek a week later, the route was blocked with snow for miles, and our entire trip had to be rerouted on the fly. Over the next few weeks, one client had to be evacuated, the weather never really cleared, one of our staff had a death in the family, we were trekking through an area I hadn’t fully researched, and all of our end-of-trip hotels had to be rearranged. So many things didn’t go as planned, but this is part of why people return to travel with me again and again: I will take care of it (whatever “it” may be). I take care of problems and I take care of people, which helps everyone step into this foreign geography, this foreign culture, this challenging experience and be successful. 

Whether your water bottle opens up inside your down sleeping bag in sub-freezing weather or the country shuts down for a revolution or you break your arm or a puppy adopts the group in a snowstorm or the group adopts a child, (all of which have happened over the years), I do what I can to keep people happy, comfortable, and make it all work as gracefully as possible. It’s not some heroic effort but rather a natural extension of who I am and how I am in the world. I do everything I can and then let go of what is beyond my control. I enjoy supporting people, figuring out solutions, and creating cultural connection. 

Whether it’s wrangling helicopter evacs, finding an orphanage for an abandoned child, building personal relationships with local gurus and monks, finding out what nuns want, taking clients down labyrinthine alleys to visit friends in the middle of a revolution, or becoming honored guests at village festivals, I have a way of making things happen. We’re all on these adventures for the experience, and the unexpected is part of that. Sometimes the unexpected brings wonderful new experiences, sometimes it brings difficulties to overcome, and sometimes it’s just a inconvenient hassle, but our ability to flow with what happens is what allows us to feel the full spectrum of experience…and that’s part of the richness of the journey. 

We were prepared for the Snowman Trek, but everything didn’t go as planned. We didn’t end up hiking the route we expected, but we received so many serendipitous and wonderful experiences through the time in Bhutan that everyone was happy in the end. 

One of those unforeseen benefits is that I’ve felt inspired to write for the first time in a few years, inspired to reconnect with all of you and share the adventure. Full story coming in the next few posts…stay tuned! 

Treasure Lakes Trek – Nubsonapata

November 1, 2017

From the 10th-15th centuries, Bhutan was a land conducive to spiritual treasure-hunting. Treasure-finders, known as tertons, were generally monks with spiritual powers that allowed them to see and bring forth treasures including ritual objects and sacred texts. The area where I’m trekking holds the story of one of these treasure-hunters and is filled with treasure […]

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Buddhism in Bhutan

October 20, 2017

  Around Paro, the capital Thimphu, and surrounding areas, we can’t pass a temple without my wanting to explore it. I’m gathering stories and looking for interesting out-of-way places to build into future trips…and Bhutan does not disappoint. Dark rooms are painted with winged wrathful deities to protect the land from disease. Centuries-old wooden ladders […]

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Exploring Bhutan

October 15, 2017

  Bhutan is everything I love about trekking and travel. Endless expanses of alpine wilderness are dotted with high altitude flowers and sacred lakes, and yak herders roam the high country. In the valleys, richly painted monasteries are full of red-robed monks and secret markers lead to forest temples of fierce Tantric deities. Traditional farmhouses have […]

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On Fire!

September 5, 2017

  Fire is the element of vitality and passion. It springs up fast and wild, and needs to be fueled to remain bright. It’s symbolic of energy, creation, and transformation. This has been a summer of transformation, and I feel myself burning wild and bright! Within days after my last heart-wrenching post, I sat a 10-day silent Buddhist […]

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A New Geography

April 28, 2017

Deep fissures carve their way into my heart from watching the aftermath of destruction in Nepal, as well as from exhuming my own past. Two years this week since Nepal’s devastating earthquakes, and so many people still living in dire conditions.   The government has signed agreements for $3.1 billion in aid and is still collecting […]

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What’s Happening in 2016…

October 1, 2016

Hi–This is a blog post of our recent newsletter. If you did not receive this as a newsletter last Thursday and would like to know about our programs in Nepal, please email me.  I’m delighted to say that we have wonderful news and photos from our projects! (I won’t be posting the updates here this fall…only in the newsletter.) […]

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