As we made our descent into the emerald-green Paro Valley I couldn’t stop myself from thinking I was in a scene from the Avatar. It almost didn’t look real. Just twenty minutes before, we had passed Mount Everest on the lefthand side window of the plane and I was instantly spellbound. After over ten years of dreaming, I was finally almost there.
The landing at Paro airport, the only international airport in Bhutan, is one of the most difficult and dangerous in the world. In fact, only 15 pilots are authorized to land there because it requires a manual, visual landing. Trying to navigate a jet airplane through a country that is known as the most mountainous country in the world requires guts. Especially since Bhutan’s average elevation is 10,760 feet and mountains cover 98.8% of its total area. The only other place I had felt so fearful of landing was over the Himalayas of Nepal. And Nepal is what brought me to Bhutan.
As we descended, I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy by the magical surroundings outside the window. The valley was lush, verdant, and blanketed in trees. Lovely calming music that felt like being more at a spa than on an airplane was gently playing through the Druk Air’s loudspeakers. If this was the world’s last Shangri-La, I was certainly very excited to see it.
I had left wintery Minnesota over two days before, flying over 8 hours to Amsterdam, and then after a six-hour layover, another 10 hours to Delhi. When I landed in India, my back was aching, my legs were numb, and my bad right hip was searing in pain. After clearing customs and waiting over two hours to receive my bags at the airport, I walked outside into the thick humid air. It was four in the morning yet the airport was as packed as if it was midday. I quietly thanked myself for having the insight to spend a night at an airport hotel in Delhi before continuing on to Bhutan. I wasn’t twenty anymore. I was completely exhausted.
I spent the day resting up before continuing my journey to Bhutan the next morning. When I stood in line at the Druk Airlines counter at Indira Gandhi International Airport I instantly noticed I was one of the only foreigners. All in all, I counted only three which included me.
Soon I’d realize, that would be the theme for the next nine days in the Kingdom of Bhutan. I would be the only guest at the hotel, the only foreigner at the restaurant, and the last hiker of the season on the famous Trans Bhutan Trail.
I had dreamed of going to Bhutan for over eleven years, ever since my dad and I went on a life-changing trip to hike the Annapurna Trail in Nepal before milestone birthdays. As cliché as it may sound, that trip to Nepal did change my life. It began my journey as a writer, starting this very blog, thirdeyemom, and set me on a path to see the world.
After completing the trip, I promised myself I’d be back to the Himalayas someday and as time went by, I decided it would be a fitting place to go for another, bigger milestone birthday: When I turned 50. As the years went by, I thought my plan would be achievable until the pandemic struck. As borders shut down, so did my dream of going to Bhutan before 50. I was running out of time.
As life resumed normalcy, and the world began to slowly reopen, Bhutan kept its borders firmly closed. Meanwhile, my big birthday passed and life carried on. Months later during early fall, I was reading the paper and I saw it: Bhutan was set to reopen in September 2022 after one of the longest pandemic closures in the world. There was a chance I could go and make it while I was still 50. That old glimmer of hope and excitement ran through my veins as I searched online for a travel company that would take me.
Every inquiry I made ended up with a solid no. Despite reopening, none of the travel outfitters were ready or willing to take me. “In 2023,” they all said when the tourist season would open for the spring season in March. But by then I’d be 51 I realized disappointed and even more determined to find someone who would bring me. One dead end after another, I almost gave up when I tried one last place, UK-based Responsible Travel. I had heard about them through a sustainable travel writer I know and thought I’d give them a try. After two weeks of back-and-forth emails, I finally found my trip. The only caveat was that I’d have to go alone. There were no groups heading up before the end of the season, Rosie informed me.
Alone? I thought. I have flown alone to many far-off places over the years with the last destinations being Jordan and Belize. However, both times I joined a small-group tour after I arrived at the destination. I had never gone somewhere this off the beaten path all by myself. Could I do it?
After not much consideration, I booked the trip, realizing that it was now or never. After two and a half years of pandemic life, I was beginning to lose my steam and zest for travel. If I didn’t go on this trip a small part of me worried I never would. Yes, it made me a little apprehensive and uncertain but it also brought back something that had been missing for quite some time: My love of adventure and for following my own path. I had to go.
Two months after booking the trip, there I was landing in Paro getting ready to meet my guide for the next nine days. I didn’t mention to the company that I was nursing a bad hip – so bad that there is basically no cartilage left and I need a total hip replacement as soon as possible. No, that was better left unsaid. I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t hike the Trans Bhutan Trail. Despite the jarring pain after 26 hours of travel, I popped an Advil and decided to not worry about this minor issue. If worse came to worse, I would not hike. But I knew that was not going to happen. If I put my mind to doing something, I do it.
As I walked through the door of the terminal, there he was waiting in his gho (traditional Bhutanese dress for men) holding a sign that said my name. “Tashi Delek. I’m Singay”, he said with a smile. “Welcome to Bhutan”.