“I want to walk to the monastery and the dzong.”
It’s my first full day in Bhutan, and I’m alone with my guide Chador for a few days. We are visiting sites around Paro and hiking in the Haa Valley; then the other four people from our group join us for a 7 day cycling trip.
Paro is a tiny town in narrow valley. Before we began our descent, the pilot warned us about sharp turns and flying very close to the mountains — this is normal, he said.
Nothing is “normal” about Bhutan, though — it’s completely unlike any place else. Tucked into the Himalayas between Tibet and India, it’s a landlocked kingdom that became a constitutional monarchy at the hands of the same king who invented the notion of the national happiness index. Then he retired and handed the kingdom over to his son.
It’s a Buddhist country of just over 700,000 people that closely guards its quiet culture — you cannot visit without being part of a tour organization, and you have to pay a visa fee for every day you’re here. The money goes into universal education and healthcare. Unlike other places I’ve been where government sanctioned guides are to guard against tourists finding out too much, Bhutan requires guides to protect the country from the commercialization of the backpacker culture that sprawls over Asia.
Being a mountain kingdom, even the valleys have significant altitude for someone who lives at sea level. I’ve been training all winter to be comfortable riding and walking here, but I’m still fretting about the mountain passes. So I ask Chador if we can walk up to the museum that — being a former watchtower and dungeon — is perched high above the town.
Chador takes me up the “shortcut” from the Dzong (Fort) to the museum. As I find myself brushing scratchy bushes out of my face, the road above us fenced off, I realize we took a wrong turn. We both laugh, slipping around in a suddenly muddy track, a light rain falling.
At some point, I have to use my hands to keep from falling, and we arrive at the museum entrance covered in sticky brown mud. I wipe my hands on the wet wipes I have in my daypack and then surrender my phone and camera to go into the museum.
We watch a video of ceremonial dances and tour the dozens of masks, tapestries, statues, wildlife exhibit. The national animal is a takin, a creature with “the body of a cow and the head of a goat.” The national flower is the wild blue poppy.
This is clearly my place.
This is what all of those hours in a dark spinning studio, the 115 workouts since January 1, have been about. Being free and powerful in my body, to find energy that gets closed up in my tight work life.
We will be riding for several days, but for the first time, I haven’t brought anything to record my distance. I want to just be on the bike, in the mountains, on the muddy trail.
In my own body, finding every step. In a magical land, cultivating patience and openness.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here the first Friday and second Saturday of the month. She lives in Toronto when she’s not exploring the world.