Stories at 10,000 Feet


“Have you ever been to Tibet?” I asked our guide, Dzoji.  He was quiet for a minute, took a sip of grain whiskey from his plastic camp cup and smiled.  “Yes. I’ve snuck in twice.”  “Really?”  I hadn’t expected that.  “Tell us!”  Dzoji went on to explain that while Bhutan has always welcomed the Chinese people as individuals, the diplomatic relationship between the countries is strained.  He said, “Before I went to University a group of us decided to trek into Tibet.  We wanted to see if we could do it. It was a two day hike over that pass (as he pointed into the distance).”  “What would happen if you got caught?”, I asked.  He smiled again and laughed.  “Oh, a fine and probably write, ‘I will not go to Tibet’ one hundred times.  It would not be bad.  The problem is small.”  The talk moved to the Dalai Llama and his expulsion from Tibet and I lamented the Chinese occupation.  But Dzoji smiled and said, “India was occupied by Great Britain for 160 years and Gandi was able to return the land to its people using compassion.  So, why can’t this happen for Tibet?  But, we must be patient.  Maybe not in our lifetime.”  Then he frowned and said, “The Dalai Llama has never visited Bhutan.”  I looked at him and said, “Dzoji, I don’t think he needs to.”

I’m not sure when my fascination for the Himilayan mountains began.  It was never really about Mt. Everest, although that’s a pretty interesting history of mountains continuing to conquer man.  No, my attraction has always been Tibet.  The elusive country, once ruled by the Dalai Llama, now occupied by China.   A place where the governance was based in Buddhist philosophy:  harmony, compassion, non-attachment.  A place that had figured it out.  A place of happiness.  It filled my hippy heart!

Well we all know what happened.  The Dalai Llama was expelled and lives in India.  The Chinese now occupy Tibet and have outlawed many  Buddhist practices – even installing their own Dalai Llama –  and have continued to limit human rights.  

And through all this turmoil, right next door, quietly smiling, is Bhutan.

I’m embarrassed to say that until my Bhutanese friend, Sonam, suggested I go, I knew nothing about this small, land-locked oasis.  Rick was underwhelmed by the prospect of visiting.  In fact, it wasn’t until we were landing in Paro, on a medium size jet – literally weaving through mountain passes (only 20 pilots in the world are certified to land there), did he start to get excited.  And there is a lot to get excited about.   The stats are impressive:  700,000 total population.  Only 100,000 visitors allowed each year.  No stop lights in the country.  Television was introduced in 1999.  Mountains aren’t even named until they are over 14,000 feet.  It’s the world’s only carbon sink.  That means, it absorbs more CO2 than it gives out.  Citizens have a constitutional obligation to preserve and protect the environment.  It is a place where people happily live almost organically with nature.

No need for stop lights when you have this fine fellow directing traffic.

But the facts don’t even begin to describe this Buddhist nation.   Bhutan is a place best explained through stories.

The Tiger’s Nest.

We are hiking up a mountain to visit an historic monastery, built in the 1600’s.  Dzoji and our driver, Tzensin are with us, as they always are.  (You must use a government sanctioned tour agency to visit Bhutan.  This includes a guide and driver that accompany you during the day.)  Dzoji explains that all monasteries – and they dot every mountain – are filled with monks who are meditating for 300 days in complete silence.  They are fed and cared for by sponsors or family members.  But, this monastery was special.   One of the meditating monks is the reincarnation of the architect  that designed and built the world famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.   “How did they know he was the reincarnation?”  I ask.  “Because he knew all the details of the building and told his parents about it when he was just 3 years old.  He is now 26 and about half way through his 3 year meditation.” Dzoji explains.  “What happens if you don’t want to continue your meditation?”, I ask.  Dzoji looks at me with surprise and said, “It is a promise.  Everyone finishes.   Unless you die.”

Before things went side-ways. Looks real cute and all….

As we are climbing down, a mountain goat gets a little feisty with Rick and starts charging him.  Dzoji gets between them and tries to distract the goat  but the goat turns and  head-butts Dzoji  and he nearly falls off the ledge.  Tzensin bravely takes the goat by the horns and holds him still while everyone gets past.  Then, he gently releases the goat.  Dzoji turns to the goat and smiles.  “I was just trying to be compassionate”, he tells the goat.

Eating lunch with a woman named Yangchen.  She is my friend’s cousin and owns the tour agency we used.  We are engaged in a conversation about my job as a counselor.  I share with her that one of the most common issues I see in my student population is anxiety.  She is quiet for a moment and then says, “Here in Bhutan, we have our problems, our worries.  I am sure that there are some big worries that I don’t know about.  But I wonder.  Is it so bad to have a problem?  Maybe we shouldn’t push our difficulties away.  Maybe we should hold them and learn from them and become stronger and more compassionate because of them.”  


Standing at the top of a mountain pass, we are hoping desperately for the clouds to part so we can catch a glimpse of the tallest Himalayan peaks.  No luck.  Oh well.  We chat, laugh and begin our short descent down to the parking lot.  Suddenly, a dark cloud rolls over Dzoji’s face.  He quickly walks away from us onto a grassy field stewn with the garbage of lazy tourists.  He picks up every piece of garbage and disposes of it.

We are sitting on mats on the floor of a farm house drinking butter tea and talking about all things Bhutanese.  This is the home of the town’s elected “mediator.”  The husband is called upon to settle all types of problems from land disputes to marital issues. If people can’t settle the problem, he will.   We have been told that at no time should our feet point toward another person.  Extremely rude.  Not a problem if you are sitting cross legged.  But, Rick is struggling.  He’s not a yoga guy and this sitting position is clearly taking a toll on his knees.  The wife’s eye’s soften and she motions for Rick to stretch out on the mat.  All’s well and we finish with a Bhutanese version of Saki, more talk and Rick lounging on pillows.

Stoically poising for a picture.
Off to do who knows what.

We are visiting Punakha  the historical capitol of Bhutan.  As we cross an incredibly beautiful river toward the Dzong, two very young boy monks walk up from the river.  They are maybe 9 years old and obviously best buddies.  They are talking and laughing.  I smile and motion that I’d like to take their picture.  They are clearly not excited about this and start to walk away. Dzoji comes over and speaks to them in Bhutanese.  I’m sure the translation went something like this, “Look, you two need to shape up right now and let this nice lady take your picture.  Be kind.   Don’t give me that attitude.  30 seconds of your time won’t kill you.”   I quickly snapped the picture and just as quickly, they shoot off like lightening running at high speed to do whatever 9 year old boys would rather be doing. We all laugh out loud.  Boys.

Hiking with a machete. This is not for wimps

Hiking along a ledge, our trail suddenly narrows to about 18 inches wide due to a wash-out.  On our right, a rock face going straight  up and on our left, a cliff covered with dense follage.  “O.K.”, I think.   “If I fall, I’ll probably just get caught up in all that brush.  No problem.”  The trail continues to narrows a bit more and now we need to climb over a boulder that is wedged into the spot where the trail is completely washed out.  Alright then.  Heart-beating, I clambor over this and the trail thankfully widens and we reach a small monestary where we stop for a quick break.  Rick asks, “Hey Dzoji, are there any more treacherous spots on this trail?”  Dzoji looks confused.  “Treacherous?”  New vocabulary word.  Rick says, “Yeah, you know, dangerous”.  Dzoji nods with understanding and matter-of-factly says  “Dangerous?  Yes.” and continues down the path.

30 minutes later we are on yet another ledge – also narrow.  We round a bit of a bend and the follage disappears to our left.  It is a 400 foot shear face, to a teeny, tiny river below.  We come to a place where we need to step over a gap while hugging our body against the rock wall.  Then, step down about 2 feet onto a very small ledge and manuever onto a steel ladder that has been drilled into the granite.  Remember, we are 400 feet up a shear rock cliff.  The ladder steps are about 3 inches deep and the ladder handles maybe 6 inches off the rock. It is as if we are repeling without that little thing on your butt and the person at the bottom controlling the ropes.  We climb carefully down about 50 feet before we get onto another small ledge and then back on the trail once again.   (My hands are sweating as I type this.)  What does Dzoji say?  “Ah Melissa.  You are what we call a tomboy.  You are strong!  You can sit up proud after that!”  Thanks.

It’s 6:30am at 13,000 feet.  Probably 20 degrees and we are above the clouds.  The sunrise is indescribable.  Our newest dog friend, Mamasita is hanging out with us.  We think she’s pregnant, hence the name.  We have an 8 mile trek ahead of us down to the Tiger’s Nest.  But before we go, we hike up to the top of a ridge that faces Tibet.  I hang a 100 foot string of prayer flags among the stunted trees.   I know my sister Karen would have liked that.  I cry and remember.

Compassion. Happiness. Sadness. Life affirming. Athentic living. This is the direction of my life. I look out toward Tibet and know that this is my heart, my “Tibet.” Bhutan.

Karen’s Prayer Flags – looking out toward Tibet.





2 responses to “Stories at 10,000 Feet”

  1. Lovely read especially today in the US. We all need to be reading (and doing) something calming and find our compassion!


    1. Going Global: A School Counselor Goes Abroad Avatar
      Going Global: A School Counselor Goes Abroad



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