I arose early on my first full day in Bhutan to the sounds of stray dogs barking outside my window and the morning light shining on the mountains above the Trashi Chho Dzong  (fortress). Today was the first day of hiking on the 500-year-old newly reopened Trans Bhutan Trail and I could hardly wait. 

Room with a view. The view outside the balcony at my hotel in Thimphu. 

At 7 am, I met my guide Singay down in the dining room for a breakfast of eggs, toast, strawberry jelly, and coffee. After breakfast, I packed up my luggage, put on my hiking gear, and we were on our way. There are a number of different ways to do the Trans Bhutan Trail. You can hike the entire 403km trail in 28 days and stay in tents and occasionally, a hotel. Or you can hike it in segments like I did and spend the nights in a hotel. My 9-day itinerary included five days of hiking and two long days of driving back to Paro with cultural stops along the way. It was a lot of moving around but worth it to see so much of Bhutan.

We left the hotel heading east out of Thimphu to Dochula Pass, a high mountain pass at 3100m (10,171 feet),  where we would begin our first hike on the ancient Trans Bhutan Trail.

Map of six day hike on Trans Bhutan Trail

Map of my route on the Trans Bhutan Trail. This is only a small section of the 403 km trail which starts in the west in Haa and ends in the east in Trashigang (not pictured on this map). Map credit: Trans Bhutan Trail organization

The forty-five-minute drive was slow going given all the winding, hairpin turns.  One thing I quickly learned in Bhutan is that given its extremely mountainous terrain, you never can drive very fast.  On the flat, straight parts of the road before a turn, you are able to accelerate to perhaps 30 mph. However, once you reach 30 it is time to hit the brakes as you weave around the curve, hugging the mountainside.  After an hour of it, my stomach would be churning and I’d have a headache. It took me a few days to get used to the roads without getting carsick.

We arrived at Dochula Pass a little after eight and were pleased to be the only ones there. On a clear day (which we were blessed to have) you are rewarded with a spectacular view of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Himalayan range. My heart sang. The sight of the Himalayas reminded me so much of Nepal.

Heading up to Dochula Pass there is nothing but prayer flags and of course the mountains

Himalayas at Dochula Pass Bhutan

Gangkar Puensem at 7,158 m (23,484 ft), the tallest unclimbed mountain in the world, can be seen from Dochula Pass

As I caught my first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas piercing up into the sky, I inhaled a breath of relief. It was hard to believe that I made it here to Bhutan after over a decade of dreaming. I reflected on the challenges and obstacles that had gotten in the way of achieving my dream.

Four months prior to my trip, I received unwelcome news. At age 50, I had no cartilage remaining in my right hip and would need a total hip replacement. My world crumbled. How would I continue to live my active, adventurous life? How would I make it to Bhutan? Even worse, how would I bear it? I’ve never had surgery in my life and after watching a YouTube video on what a hip replacement entails, I almost threw up. The only time I’d been in a hospital was to deliver my two children. A hip replacement sounded frightening.

Yet I pushed those thoughts away and thankfully found a band-aid fix to my fierce, dark, relentless pain. I had a cortisone injection in early September which brought me immense relief. A week after the injection, I woke up one morning and the debilitating pain was gone. As I walked around the lake near my home I felt liberated to be pain-free. I felt like I was 20 again.  I booked the trip.

At the Dochula Pass, beaming with gratitude and ready to go

A few months later there I stood at Dochula Pass, looking at the 108 memorial chortens (stupas) grace the hillside overlooking the valley below. As I walked around the memorial taking the magical view in, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude. I was in such an incredibly spiritual place, its beauty giving me newfound determination, hope, and strength.

Singay discussed the meaning of the landmark, as I listened intently trying to take in all the knowledge he was sharing with me about Bhutan. The memorial was built to honor the bravery and sacrifices of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and the Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives during the battle against Assamese insurgents from India in 2003.

Dochula Pass Chortens Bhutan

Dochula Pass Chortens Bhutan

Dochula Pass Chortens Bhutan

We had a quick coffee and I skyped my family back home. I had to show them the Himalayas. I felt like I was on top of the world. I knew that I could do it. I could complete this hike on a bad hip and when I returned home, I could do the surgery. It was time to be brave.




  1. Nicole, What a beautiful, exciting and inspiring experience. I’m so happy for you that you felt such a sense of gratitude for making this journey. Also, I am glad for you that the cortisone shot worked but know that a hip replacement is one of the most successful surgeries- my husband can attest. Hope all is well with you! 🙂

    1. Oh Jane! Thanks for your kind words! Yes it was quite the trip for me. I’ve never gone on a trip like this alone and after a few years of pandemic life it was incredibly special. I felt like I found myself again. The last few months have been hard. Lots of ups and downs with pain levels. I am less than three weeks away from the surgery. Feeling nervous but also looking forward to getting my quality of life back again. Sitting and sleeping is quite hard and I miss all the winter sports that I normally get to embrace to help me get through out long winter here. But soon enough, I hope to turn that page. Hope you are doing well and thanks for the wonderful encouragement! I can use all I can get! 🙂

      1. You will do great since you’re in such good shape. Bob was vigilant with his rehab, as I’m sure you will be. That’s imperative. You’ll be back in action quickly!

      2. Thanks Jane! I already do PT since I was trying to avoid the surgery and have kept active with the pool! Only thing I can do comfortably. 🙂 Thanks for the well wishes. It means a lot! 🙂

  2. Lucky you! I crossed over Dochu La twice and never saw a single mountain or anything in the distance – just thick gray fog and clouds both times. 🙁 I’m glad your hip held up while there and wish you luck on the surgery. As Jane notes, hip replacements seem to have a high degree of success, so I’m sure you will recuperate well and get back to your activities quickly!

    1. Thanks for the comment Lexi! I remember you went to Bhutan but forgot when and with who. Must have been pretty incredible to go earlier than I did. I loved it so much and yes the view of the Himalayas was breathtakingly magical. I’m just really nervous about the hip surgery. It was such a surprise to hear I needed it! I have been active all my life and especially loved to run. But I won’t be able to ever run again. It makes me sad but then again I realize my body just isn’t cut out for it. I look forward to being able to nordic ski again next winter and walk comfortably again! I hope you are doing well Lexi. Any travels to updates? I always love following what you are doing. You always inspire me. 🙂

      1. I’m sure you have many complicated feelings about your upcoming surgery. It will be great to get some relief for your pain, but I would have a hard time knowing I would not be able to run again also. 🙁 Maybe you’ll surprise yourself and the doctors! And if not, at least you have walking and hiking and skiing to look forward to again.

        We took a quick trip to Malta in December (quite impromptu) and have a Dolomites trek booked for July. I was supposed to hike in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco in March, but it was cancelled by the company. At that point, I begged my husband to think about rebooking our Southeast Asia trip that was cancelled in Feb/March 2020. A few nights later, he said he had been holding me back from that trip for a long time now, and that he didn’t care that much about going and didn’t want to leave work for 3 weeks. He said to go for it with his blessing … so, within 48 hours I had found a trip and booked it – haha! I leave in mid-March and will join a small group in Vietnam and then Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. I’m pretty psyched!

      2. Wow sounds like a lot of amazing travels Lexi! I’m jealous! Enjoy and I hope to read some posts on your upcoming trips! 🙂

  3. Good to know that despite the news, you were still able to go on this trip you had been dreaming of for more than a decade. May the memories of those snow-capped peaks and all the beautiful things you saw in Bhutan help to hold your spirits high in preparation for the surgery. And after that, I wish you a speedy recovery!

  4. Oh I can feel your excitement right through the screen. This must have been an amazing trip.
    Have you had your surgery yet? It’s not nearly as bad as you imagine. You are so fit I have no doubt you’ll recover quickly. After recovery you’ll understand what a miracle modern medicine is!
    Alison xo

    1. I loved it so much Alison. I am so glad I got to go! My surgery is coming up – March 1 already. I am nervous but really ready to get it done, and start healing so I can get back on my feet again! 🙂 Hope you are doing well!

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