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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.