Happiness is a Place

Exploring Bhutan continued…

Peddling out of Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Day 3

The next morning produced one of those rare brilliant sunrises that comes along only every so often in this life. There was the one after a night spent on a sailboat with friends. And the one that followed an impossibly cold mid-winter long run. And then there was that one morning camping on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. I live for sunrises like that. The sky to the east was cloudless. How could I possibly be expected to handle ANYTHING on a day like this? The water that remained glazed on everything only enhanced the brilliance of it all, refracting sunlight in a thousand directions. The valley, already pristine, looked as if it had been wiped clean by some cosmic squeegee. I remember when I first needed glasses in high school. I couldn’t get over the amount of detail in the world that I had been missing. If you ever wondered why I couldn’t hit a curve ball before 10th grade, there you go. That morning felt like my contact lens prescription had been upgraded. I enjoyed a steaming cup of tea and sat on the inn’s front steps and bathed in the mountain air. I felt it trying slip between my neck and collar, I played with it in the cave of my mouth and warmed it in my lungs. If this wasn’t living, what the hell was? I had stepped out of my room and felt I was being featured in a commercial for fabric softener or light beer or some new medication called ‘Flexor’ or some crap like that (you should ask your doctor about if you feel it’s right for you). The little league kid in my head stepped from the dugout and took it all in. Satisfied, he pulled a gummy worm from his back pocket and jogged out to his spot in right-center making sure to step over the perfect chalk foul line. Today was going to be his day.

The plan was for another 100km, this time headed north. As I was getting ready I felt an extra moment of gratitude for last night’s woodstove when I unexpectedly found my cycling shoes and gloves perfectly dry. Effin’ right! We did our pre-ride bike check and rolled down the drive hungry for the rode before us. Coasting back through the small town, we passed dozens of kids in uniform walking to school. I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure every single last one of them said hello. Hello! We climbed with the morning light, up and out of the Phobjikha Valley to the Lowa La Pass at 3360m (11,023ft). The road was almost as splendid ascending as it was descending the day before. A pickup truck with a tailgate full of young monks passed by and waved and smiled toothy grins. I thought it was odd, but then I again I remembered that I was the six foot white dude biking up their driveway. If anything is out of place in this life, it’s me. At a hairpin turn I got another smile and then fist bump from a teenage passenger leaning out the window of an old gremlin-looking hatchback that was struggling to make the grade. It seemed like everyone was happy to alive. The retreating shadows were cool and the sun was kind, not yet overbearing, as we started to really press on the pedals. Feeling a little bit more confident in my lungs’ ability to handle the elevation, I kicked over to the right side of the road and jumped ahead of Pema and shot him the same smile I had just been gifted. After the first 5km of climbing, I decided I was ready to set the pace for a couple of kilometers before letting him pull me up and over to the top. After years of lock-downs and then a couple more months of uncertainty with the move, I felt I was heading somewhere, finally. It didn’t even matter where it was that I was headed, but that I was moving again, and under my own power even.

At the Lowa La Pass, we stopped for fresh water and to shed an insulating layer and grab windbreakers. The descent to Wangdu was going to be 51km of downhill at an average 4% grade. We double checked our tires and brakes and rolled off. It would prove to be almost 90 minutes of fun diving down into the mountain switchbacks. We would hit speeds of 55km per hour without any real effort. Several times we were able to drop our support truck on the road behind us. Pema probably wanted to go even faster, but I was happy to let the wheels run at their most confident speeds. Remember, I’m a lucky cyclist, not a good one. In darting in and out of corners and trying not touch the breaks and then stomping on the pedals to get back up to speed, we were playing. Playing! Two old guys on bikes on a glorious autumn day, with only a destination in mind, enjoying the moment. We could have been in Colorado or Switzerland or Peru, it didn’t really matter. Those sleek roads are the stuff dreams are made of. The cliff walls plummeted a thousand feet on the northern and eastern side of the road, but they also allowed for spectacular uninterrupted views of the lush green valleys and snaking rivers far below. On the other side of the road, waterfalls cascaded from unknowable heights cutting and carving into the Himalayan rock before being channeled under the road and spit out the other side. The terrain felt very much alive and primordial (as immense quantities of water and rock and gravity often do) and not so much transgressed upon by humans, but as if humans had asked the land’s permission to build these perilous roads and had been humored by the mountains themselves.

This is abundance. A luxury of place and time. Something rare and wonderful. It’s almost historically unprecedented. We must do extraordinary things. We have to. It would be absurd not to.”

 – Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


We stopped just south of the Punhaka Dzong for lunch. By this point the sun was getting carried away and starting to feel oppressive. It was early afternoon and lunch was fresh and locally sourced and delicious, but that’s not what I remember most about that meal. You can imagine my elation when after they cleared the table I was offered a bowl of homemade ice cream! You can’t tell me there’s anything better in the whole freakin’ world than an unexpected bowl of ice cream after riding all morning. And the look on the staff’s face when she served it up was just a good. It said “we’re so happy you’re here” without her actually saying anything at all.

Rather than getting back on the bikes immediately, I decided to play tourist for a bit. Pema and I took a walk and were rewarded with a tour of a local nunnery and temple. Public schools are good in Bhutan, but like most other places private education is considered more prestigious even if it’s not necessarily better. Private schools in Bhutan are also more heavily focused on the teachings of Buddhism as they are looking to produce the next generation of monks and nuns to serve the country. From what I understood, anyone can study to become a monk or nun, but it helps both your application and your exam results if you’ve been enrolled in one of these private institutions first. The royal family of Bhutan sponsors several institutions like the one we visited and also contributes with school fees for individuals who wish to attend but do not have the means or family support.

From the nunnery we moved further upriver to the Punhaka Dzong, a 17th century fortress which is the symbol of the country’s founding and place of worship and ceremony. It sits at the convergence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female). Everything is balance. In the courtyard monks and civil servants both were working to prepare for the upcoming festival season which would bring thousands of domestic tourists (and hopefully a few international ones too) to the inner courtyard for music and dance and celebration. It was difficult to understand our guide because of the language barrier, but from what I gathered, the fortress was built to protect local populations from invading Tibetans and Nepalese. I found it odd that while these 17th and 18th century Buddhists believed that suffering is a result of human desire, they could then also go and sack and pillage neighboring Buddhist tribes because of… wait for it… desire. But then again many Christians in my country continue to rage against and actively try to prevent people from seeking refuge in the United States when that entire religion was literally founded by a guy born in a stable to a mom who then had to take him to seek refuge in Egypt for a number of years. Despite all my education, I remain thoroughly confused by most world religions. The feeling is probably mutual. Probably.

So this is where the fortresses (which doubled as temples and commercial centers) come in. They are built all over this country and some have applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site protection and status. Waves of invasions took place over several hundreds of years. So naturally hundreds of strategically placed strongholds were built and still remain. Another interesting fact I picked up is that Bhutan was never a colony of the British or of anyone else for that matter. That makes it one of a dozen or so (depending on how you count) to hold the distinction. (The British did try though, but Ashley Eden, the British Chief Commissioner of Burma “signed a treaty favourable to the Bhutiás, after being assaulted by having his hair pulled and face rubbed with wet dough”). A short five-month war ensued, but because of the home terrain advantage enjoyed by the Kingdom, the British backed down rather quickly having gained only a small piece of land for strategic tea producing purposes near the border with India. No lie. Fair play to the Druks, I’d say.

Not surprisingly, none of this complex history or culture was touched on in my American public school or liberal arts education. To be fair though, Bhutan has only been open to most of the world since 1974 (49 years!) and saw fewer than 100,00 tourists a year (and mostly from India) up until 2012. In fact, it was only in 1999 that the then King of Bhutan lifted the government’s ban on television and internet access. Traditions are strong, and the world is still very new to Bhutan. The Kingdom’s stance towards tourism is one of “high value, low impact.” As you may know, there is now a $200 fee per tourist per day to visit in Bhutan (this is up from $65 pre-pandemic). This fee goes to support tourism infrastructure, but it has also been criticized in the media and travel circles as redefining Bhutan’s policy as “high income, low volume.” I started to think about these paradoxes while we drove up the hill to our hotel that afternoon. The Zhinkham Resort was an acceptable place to stay, three-stars, but I was much too tired to really notice much about it to be honest.

After only two full days of riding at altitude, I was starting to feel the physical and resulting mental fatigue set in. My lungs had adjusted to the elevation just fine, but my legs were getting heavy, and I would need an extra cup of tea before getting on the bike the next day. As I ate dinner, I wondered what does it mean if a place is absolutely wonderful and welcoming, but it isn’t open to everyone? Should Bhutan temples and landmarks be given UNESCO World Heritage Site status (a designation that mean a place is “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”) if most of humanity couldn’t afford to experience it for themselves because of that $200 per day fee? I mean, the national and state parks in my home country all charge for access even though those places are supposedly for all American’s to enjoy. So what felt different about Bhutan? I tried again to think it through as the sound of the rains on the metal roof carried me off to into deep and restful sleep once again.

To be continued…

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