Happiness is a Place

Bhutan Adventure Part 1

Like many ex-athletes my age, I exist in a constant state of being nearly in shape. I can improve my conditioning, but not by much, certainly not as much as I used to anyway. At 43, I maintain a higher floor but lower ceiling than when I was 35. I’ll say that I’m okay with it, I’m grateful for all I can still do, but what I really mean is that it sucks. I also can’t really do much about it without making more than a few life altering sacrifices. And as much as I complain, I like my life right now. In fact it’s probably the best it’s ever been. How often do you get to say that? I can enjoy a glass of wine now and again without thinking about the impact on tomorrow’s workout, and I don’t have to sacrifice my tea with too much sugar or my chocolate biscuits in the name of race weight either. Best of both worlds, right?

Of course I’m lying to both of us right now. A Canadian friend in South Africa once suggested an anecdote to this tragic impasse of age and ego. “The Tour of the Dragon,” he said “is the most brutal one-day cycling race in the world.” We were talking about how the family vacations, while always enjoyable, didn’t usually cut it in terms of stimulation for us over-40 somewhat-former athletes. I looked it up. 260km and four thin air mountain passes totaling 8,000m of climbing in a single day. I laughed at the thought of it. He was serious though. He didn’t want to do the race, but the appeal of just completing the course over a few days sounded like the kinda thing that he could get excited about and would get him training again. At the time I didn’t see the appeal as I had just recovered from a broken elbow sustained in, you guessed it, a cycling accident in own my driveway. But that’s how these things usually start to germinate, after a friend plants a seed.

Nearly two and a half years of global pandemic later and a world away from that conversation, I happened to spot the word Bhutan running across the news channel chryon while I was in the gym. Because the country is not a usual news-maker, I stopped what I was doing and read on. The Kingdom would reopen to tourists on September 25th, just a month away. I paused and remembered the conversation with my friend under that majestic African afternoon sky while our kids played in the backyard.

You know that voice that isn’t quite your own but always resides in the back of your head? The one that’s kind of like an 11 year old kid planted out in the left field of a never-ending little league game? I’m sure you know the type. The kid who wears his glove on his head and kicks at dandelions and tries not to get stung. The kid who doesn’t often have the ball hit to him, and wouldn’t know what to do if it was. He’s not good for much anymore, but I keep him around because he still provides a steady absurdist comic relief, and his quick wit got me through a decade of public school teaching. I feel he’s earned his place in the town square that resides between my ears. “That’s it! Tour the Dragon! Let’s GOOOOO! ” he howled at me as he threw his glove into the air, and I smiled at the thought of it.

It was then that some neurons started firing along a well-worn pathway that had long since been covered over. I could feel the synapse actually travel down through my massively underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and into that place that produces the urge for self-induced suffering. Thoughts were lighting up. At the end of that line a happy neon sign appeared. JUST DO IT! “It’s not a race, I bet you can even do it without training! Think of the Strava kudos!” The 11 year old shouted. Not to be out-done, my subconscious snarkily lobbed back “You’re fat! You’re old! You’re a horrible cyclist!” The Super Ego and Id are relentless around here and unfortunately for everyone involved, they are mostly running the show.

Another good friend in another lifetime once told me “Not every one of your thoughts needs a voice.” She was right of course, but the opposite is also true. Sometimes those shouts from the kid in outfield deserve serious consideration.

“Swing batta’!” he yells and spins in place.

A quick search on my phone in the gym that day found a tour company that provided cycling tours in Bhutan before the lock down (www.kimkim.com). Sebastian, the agent in Rotterdam who responded to my inquiry wasn’t entirely sure if his company could get me there for the grand re-opening, but I could hear his excitement about it all. In my experience the Dutch aren’t exactly the most enthusiastic people in the world unless there is some combination of beer, the color orange, or cycling involved. Luckily for me ‘Bas was a cyclist. After a couple days of phone calls and texts, I had a plane ticket, a visa, and an itinerary booked for nine days and almost 600km of cycling across Bhutan.

So how do you prepare for riding a mountain bike over and through the Himalayas? I’m stuck at sea-level without a bike and nothing but a poor man’s excuse for altitude (humidity). I think there might be a couple of bridges I might be able to use for hills? The kid out in left chanted to no one in particular “Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always gotten!” He was right again. I dusted off a nearly 30 year old playbook that isn’t entirely research based, but but has been shown to boost confidence to a level where I can no longer tell the difference between being prepared and being unprepared. False confidence is a counterfeit currency that is easily passed. The itinerary would consist of 60-90km rides or about 5 hours of pedaling per day. The subcommittee in my head got to work and wisely decided that I only needed about one hour of hard stationary cycling in a hot gym every day for the next three weeks. Why? Because why not? Forget the heart rate and the speed and distance metrics. For twenty days I went to the gym and pounded on the plastic pedals till there was more than a decent size puddle under the machine and my quads felt like Jell-O.

“I’m a maniac, MANIAC!” the kid was doing his best Flashdance now. “And I’m dancing like I’ve never danced before.”

In between that steady stream of sweat, I was smiling again. I had a goal. I was physically working towards something. A number to chase is all I needed now. At some point I had read that generating two watts per kilo of weight was a magic formula for amateur cyclists. It stood to reason then that if I could hit 2.1 watts per kilogram for an hour, I’d be better than the average amateur cyclist, right? The day before I left I hit the magic 2.2w/kg for an hour and was suddenly feeling pretty good about my chances for no other reason than that being able to hit that number.

Nestled somewhere between myth and mystery is the true Bhutan. Long closed to foreigners, the Kingdom is probably best know for it’s Gross Domestic Happiness metric. Bhutan has also recently made international news as being the first country to be carbon negative (absorbing more carbon than it emits). I was curious if the country long isolated from both the West and the East would be as happy as advertised. In high school I read (and have since kept a very old copy of) James Hilton’s Lost Horizons, the story of Shangri-La and the Englishman Hugh Conway and his party who through a series of events find themselves guests in the magical lost city. After much secrecy and indecisiveness among the party, Conway reluctantly returns to civilization, whereupon he realizes his mistake and attempts to return to Shangri-La only never to find his way back again. His paradise was lost to him forever. I think the book had something to do with youth being wasted on the young, but I’m not smart enough to be certain. At the time I loved the Romantic (capital R) nature of the adventure, the allure of paradise, and the Lost Generation’s disillusionment.

By today’s standards, it a pretty problematic book with its thinly veiled racism (paradise for humanity is supposedly where there are no black people and the servants are mostly submissive Asian women?) and its cultural ethnocentrism (the hero being a white mid-level British foreign emissary who may have had a hand in over-throwing a local tribal government of two but has a Laissez-Fare attitude about it all). Regardless of the book’s influence, I was aware that I carried more than a few western stereotypes and biases to the places this in this world where I lacked real information. Like in my travels to Cuba and Catalonia, I wanted to remain open to what the people and the Land of the Thunder Dragon really were instead of searching for what I thought they might be.

“Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.” “You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.” “Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”

― James Hilton, Lost Horizon

Day 1

On Sunday September 25th, less than 24 hours after the official Grand Re-Opening Ceremony, my plane from Singapore touched down at Paro International Airport. There is only one airline that serves Bhutan, Druk Airlines (named after the first people of the region) and only a handful of cities it visits. The approach had us weaving through the canyons and clouds, and I don’t think we descended as much as the earth rose up to meet the plane. The single runway and terminal airport was immaculate and freshly painted. The welcoming was warm and personal. Immigration and customs were friendly and efficient. The cool dry mountain air was a welcoming hug from an old friend. The sun was setting behind the mountains as I exited the secure area and found my driver and guide waiting.

“Welcome to Bhutan Mr. William! Come, come, we have an excellent truck for you!” the shorter of the two men said to me as the other draped a white silk scarf on my shoulders. I assume he recognized me from the passport photo I had sent. He gave me a fist bump. It’s not the first time this type of name confusion has occurred. Because U.S. passports state names as Last, First, Middle, many people assume that my family name is Mr. William. We sorted out it quickly on the ten second walk to the truck we’d be using for the week. They were right, it was excellent, dented and well-loved and all. In the back were three mountain bikes and several cases of bottled water. My bags were tossed in and we got on our way. The capital city of Thimphu is ten miles due east of Paro, but the road to get there is nearly 30 miles of switchbacks and bridges crossing the Paro Chu and Thimphu Chu Rivers. As I would come to understand, “Bhutan is a land of short distances but long journeys.” My hotel that first night was quiet and modern and welcoming. It was very apparent that the staff were excited to have guests again, but they were still working on refining the check-in procedures after such a long hiatus. I would be a guinea pig of sorts throughout the trip. That night I ate a traditional Bhutan dinner of spicy noodles, namma (a leafy vegetable), and fried rice in the hotel lobby with the owner of the hotel (also an avid cyclist) before heading off to bed.

Day 2

When my kids are are apprehensive about upcoming events, I try to re-frame being scared as being excited. All through breakfast I was telling myself how excited I was to climb and descend these mountains. How excited I was to ride with another cyclist! How excited I was be heading to passes over 10,000ft where the air was far thinner than I have ever been. I’m lying again. I was scared. I’ve been fortunate to never be seriously hurt while biking, but I know where my skill level resides, and it has always been luck that’s kept me out of the hospital.

I found Pema and Sonam working on the bikes in the hotel courtyard. A new Trek Marlin mountain bike was being double checked. I filled some water bottles to appear useful while they adjusted seats and inflated tires. Being the first day of riding we (I) opted to start outside of the city instead of downtown cutting a few kilometers off before the long ride up to Dochu Pass at 3048m. We found the road was quiet, the weather was good, and the kilometers clicked by relatively quickly. Pema was a strong cyclist and it took all I had to hold on to his wheel on some inclines. Heading east we stopped once at a checkpoint where I had to present my visa and passport. A little over ten miles of climbing later and without much fanfare, we arrived at the pass which was clouded over. On a clear day Pema said you could see the tallest un-climbed mountain in the world, Gankar Punsum (7550m) to the north. The Bhutanese believe the mountain tops are sacred spaces reserved for the deities who live there. Other mountain summits are fair game though. Apparently even the gods are subject to the first rule of real estate (location, location, location). After a warm tea and simple lunch of spicy noodles, we started our 43 km descent in the rain. Our destination was the much more tropic Punhaka Valley at 1400m of elevation. In the drier the central valley, fruits and vegetables grow year round. We passed banana trees and cacti as we shed our wet warmer layers and cruised along the Puna Tang Chu River. The sun burned through the clouds with intention as we zipped through small villages and around traffic circles. We stopped at the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, a monastery and fortress built at the convergence of two rivers for water and sunscreen. The next leg was to be 50km of climbing at an average grade of 3.8%. I was faking fit and knew that trying to hang on a climb like that might take me out of the game for the rest of the week if I went at it too hard. I’ve never had altitude sickness and didn’t want to experience it now. I decided I would take a break and hop in the truck for bit. I think my guide was also relieved to get off the bike. We were 60km in and still had another 20km from the top of the pass to the hotel. Starting the tour with 130km day might have been a little ambitious, Bas. I noticed I hadn’t heard from the kid in the outfield as the truck bumped and bounced back up another mountain road.

At Lowa La Pass (3360m) we got the bikes out of the truck again and cruised down to a small village that surrounded the Gengtey Monastery. The quiet pine stood straight and tall against the fog creeping up through the valley. Ghosts on the move. If you had to pick a spot to live a life of contemplation and meditation, you couldn’t do much better than Phobjikha Valley. Home to the migrating black-necked cranes, rich green grasslands, a Buddhist university, and a series of stunning hiking trails, the valley was surrounded on all sides by cloud capped peaks. The older towering trees gave small sway and with it a glimpse of the old world. Some people travel to relax. Some people travel to experience luxury. I travel to find other-worldliness, and here it was sprawled out before me, a tapestry for the senses. I felt like Conway looking down at Shanga-La for the first time. How do you describe such a sense of place (when you yourself have never seen it before) to your readers who will likely never experience it themselves? It had a presence all its own, welcoming, but not familiar. It was a place I wanted to know, a place I wanted to be. The low hanging clouds milled like party guests around the walls of the valley floor. Cowbells in the distance clanged as the thud-thud-thud of a farm tractor joined the conversation. The wind was still and grass was wet and the sun neither could nor cared to burn through the patchy clouds. Time evaporated.

Without speaking we turned off the pot-marked road and onto a forest trail. Our wheels spun without effort over the orange needle carpet. The slope of the hill pulled us down deeper into the valley. The single track was clear and easy to follow, but not from overuse or blatant markings. It simply rested there waiting for us to come along. At the far side of the forest we crossed a stream and entered into the grazing fields. A cairn here or a graying wooden planked bridge there were the only signs others had ever been to this place. It was breathtaking, but not because of the elevation. No, it was more the solitude of it. Not a jet in the sky above nor a house or road in the distance. Crickets called, water tumbled down the stream, and the beat of a cranes wings on the pond ahead broke the silence. Even our bikes seemed quieter moving in respectful hushed tones over the trail showing reverence for the moment. I want to share it with you. I want you to go and find it, to see it and hear it and feel the augustness of it for yourself, but I also don’t want that. Is that selfish? Very well. Terra mobilis.

“What most observers failed to perceive in him was something quite bafflingly simple—a love of quietness, contemplation, and being alone.”

― James Hilton, Lost Horizon

We rode on. The afternoon grew long and the white clouds darkened threateningly. At the far end of the valley we found the road again and it held our hand and brought us into a quiet village. Dogs trotted down the street with purpose, chickens wandered in and out of yards, and young kids peeked out from behind gates and windows as we rolled through. Six kilometers out of town, a steep hill driveway brought us to Dewachen Hotel. The guidebooks will tell you this is a three-star hotel. The guidebooks will lie to you almost as often as I will. The rooms are rich and warm and welcoming. Mine had a wood stove, wool blankets, and heavy quilts. There were no TVs. There was no minibar. There was no WiFi. While there was an electric light, my room was also well stocked with a large oil lamp in the corner and small candles in glass jars. Cozy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In the main lodge there was a large central wood stove around which I found my guide and driver and the hotel owners talking with a German couple who were on a bird-watching and hiking expedition. I was offered a piping hot ginger tea and a steaming bowl of red pepper and potato soup. I hadn’t realized how cold and wet I had gotten on the ride, but now with the fire crackling and sipping on the soup I was aware of the deep chill melting and the feeling of appreciation for the good food and a warm place to rest. I used to feel this way often, mostly in high school and college. I felt it coming home from cross country or ski practice in the still darkness of autumn or winter. I felt it after stacking the firewood that had been delivered in the November rain. I felt it shoveling snow in the hours before dawn. In a paradoxical way, it was so comforting to be that uncomfortable. And I’m probably misremembering, but I think I enjoyed being in that state of discomfort. I ate my dinner savoring its flavors and the nourishment, and I wrote, and I listened to the music of the conversations in the many languages couldn’t understand. That night as the rain pelted the metal roof and the wind whistled outside my window, my little wood stove put on a shadow puppet show for the ages.

To be continued…

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