Lost in the Clouds on Skeleton Mountain
(I take myself way too seriously)
And now, a short commercial break…
In honor of my grandmother, I have begun to morph into an avid cook. Regardless of the inevitability of this development, I hardly expected it to begin in Bhutan. Just to clarify, I fully intend to captivate you with stories of adventure and daring atop the highest hills and at the surfaces of the most mystical lakes. Before I do, however, I feel it necessary to share with you a quintessential step in my journey:
This event, or rather, encounter, occurred perhaps an hour ago as I was returning to my room from the academic building. After an extended three-hour shift as a writing tutor, I trudged out of the classroom with my brain in shambles. Given, I have worked as a writing tutor a great deal in the past, however, the challenge of this position rests in the fact that every students who attends tutoring sessions is ESL (English Second Language); obvious as well as more obscure problems arise on a daily basis.
With the writing center behind me and my “second wind” on its final approach, I chose to take the road less traveled by (thank you, Mr. Frost) and began to hike up the long dirt road that runs along the side of campus. “Sandals were a bad choice,” (thank you, Ron Burgundy) I thought, feeling every tiny pebble below me puncture the rubber under-surface of “Old-Navy’s Impenetrable Flip-Flops.” I brought my focus at this point to my stomach, which grumbled louder than my former college roommate on a morning after a night of heavy drinking.
The idea that my time here in Bhutan has eliminated almost all of my daily complaints is solid. The unbearable combination of an empty stomach and deteriorating flip-flops is beyond comprehension. Too much to bear. Utter misery.
In my fragile state, I wished only for some form of sustenance. Suddenly, a beacon of hope appeared in the form of an elderly Indian woman. She stood in the doorway of a nearby shack and beckoned me to come join her in her home. Nearing the door, sweet, almost visible aromas drifted past my nostrils and stimulated my senses. I took a deep breath and crossed the threshold into what seemed like a dream.
For the next hour or so I feasted on warm samosas that crumbled against the force of my teeth and melted slowly in my mouth. We spoke, in broken English of course, and binged on the exotic fare before us:
After we had both had our fill, I thanked her graciously, slipped back into my wounded sandals and left. On my way out, the woman stopped me and handed me a bag of leftovers, which I devoured during the five-minute walk back to my dorm. Before I left the woman’s house, however, she took a step towards me and embraced me in a mother-like hug—this was quite comforting considering I am without a girlfriend or mother at present. The woman wished me well and invited me back next week to learn how to cook a complete Indian supper—Iron Chef, here I come…
I know its not gnocchi or chicken lasagna but I’m sure grandma would be proud.
Now, back to the show…
(Enter five brave travelers; all itching for adventure and a glance into the unknown)
(From left: Sarah, Devon, Moi, Yuri and Atsu)
On a clear and sunny Friday afternoon, the five of us piled into the RTC bus and zoomed off on the winding roads towards the head of the Phajoding trail. It was here that we were greeted by our guide, Tsewang, along with four other Bhutanese men who had been hired to help the trip run more smoothly. Each one of these individuals proved to be a true pleasure to be around and provided services such as cooking, setting up camp, building the “toilet tent” and guiding our baggage carriers over the rough terrain. Being a psychology major, I’ve heard of almost every phobia in the book; it was, however, a surprise to discover Sarah’s crippling phobia of our baggage carriers—view the picture below at your own risk; it may be quite inappropriate for small children:
(Sorry, Sarah; I couldn’t resist)
In all honesty, the horses proved to be key players during our trip. At an altitude of over 10,000 feet, lugging our own bags would have been suicidal.
Note: By the end of the weekend, Sarah was finally able to conquer her fear of horses by approaching one and, for a split second, patting it on the head. Way to go, Sarah :)
The first day of hiking consisted of roughly 4 hours of uphill navigation over rocks and mud. Although it proved to be a challenge for some of us, our all-knowing tour guide set an appropriate pace for the entire group. Being typical Americans, we also stopped every hour or so for chips, candy, or other excuses for gluttony.
Several hundred feet from our camp, we came across a temple, where a young monk stood outside practicing martial arts. All alone in an expansive green field the boy stood, surrounded by rolling green hills and dream-like clouds. It was a very touching site; a boy no older than 7 or 8; completely and utterly focused on the task at hand. As we began snapping pictures of him, his focus shifted directly towards us:
As darkness began to envelop the land, we arrived at our campsite. From here, we would venture to the lake regions the following day. Although fatigued, we were all eager for the adventures that the following days would bring. This made it difficult enough to sleep—six cups of highly-caffeinated tea didn’t help either. We spent most of the night in a large tent, where we exchanged stories, jokes, plans, dreams and everything in between:
The starless night ended as we trudged back to our tents and slipped into deep and vivid dreams (high altitude-induced?)
I awoke quite early the next morning; about 5:30am. The bitter cold hit me like an oncoming train as I exited my cozy sleeping back. Dressed only in long underwear (thank you, Jessie) I exited the tent and went to “find a bush,” as our tour guide put it. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light, I noticed my surroundings; or rather, lack thereof. I was standing in a cloud. This would be the first but certainly not the last time that I would find myself in a complete whiteout. After a delectable breakfast of porridge, cereal, eggs, toast and tea, we packed our things and set off on what would prove to be one of the most challenging physical feats of my life.
This hike, or should I say, pilgrimage, took us the better part of the day—about 12 hours. We hiked through fields of plants taller than every member of our group, over countless rocky ridges and past several mystical water deposits such as this one, before reaching the lakes.
Arriving at the massive body of water, we were again lost in a white mist. Slightly disappointed that the lake was not visible, Devon, Sarah and I navigated down the rocky terrain to the edge of the lake. As we approached the outer perimeter, the clouds suddenly parted—only long enough to snap a picture or two:
On our return trip (several hours from the campsite), Devon had the bright idea of climbing “Skeleton Mountain,” an area which our tour guide explained to us was and is still sometimes used for “air burials.” You see, in Bhutan, the dead are frequently cremated—the age of the deceased, however, comes into play when deciding what to do with the body. If the body is of an infant (one or two years), an air burial is sometimes performed, in which the body of the infant is placed in an elevated position so that it may be closer to heaven; also so that it can provide food for the birds (not sure if the tour guide was joking about this). Climbing up this mountain was no easy task—it involved scaling massive rocks and shimmying across ledges of minuscule width. Upon our arrival, the air was filled with an unusual quality; a chill of sorts. The kind of chill that reaches to the bone. Walking around on the mountain, we came across baby bottles, blankets and an alter upon which the body of the infant is usually placed. Our tour guide informed us that air burials had become legal in the recent past—people still continued to do it, he explained.
Without notice we were plunged into yet another whiteout. This made descending the mountain nearly impossible. With steady hands and prayers to whatever God we believed in, we eventually made it down and back to camp safely. The stars that night were brighter and more clear than I had ever seen them…
On our final day, we took the liberty of sleeping in till 9:30 or so. The events of the previous day were enough to put us all out of commission for the rest of the semester. Additionally, we had been at 12,000 feet for most of the previous day and even surpassed 14,000 feet on the top of Skeleton Mountain—this had led to some of the most vivid and lucid dreams I had ever experienced. On the way back down the trail, we stopped at a temple where dozens of monks were meeting for a ritual (this day was an auspicious date). We sat in awe and amazement as the monks chanted on and on. One monk sat texting on his cell phone the whole time—can’t escape modernization. Our last view of the monks was of them eating outside in the courtyard—a beautiful, ancient area filled with the lush green of the trees and the deep red of the monks’ garments.
In the early afternoon, we returned to the head of the trail. Our bus arrived shortly after and, after saying our goodbyes and taking some group pictures, we climbed onto the bus and passed out instantly. This weekend has taken more out of us than we even knew we had to begin with.
The last words from our tour guide: “Great job guys. This was a great warm-up. The trek in Haa Valley in November will be much more difficult than this. I know you can do it.”