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October 14, 2011

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Touring the glories of Bhutan

BY
BRYAN HERB

Touring the glories of Bhutan
With a population of less than 700,000 people, Bhutan is one of the smallest and most culturally intact countries in the world. They have only had phones and TVs since the 80s, and while smoking is illegal, ironically marijuana grows naturally and abundantly all over the country. During my first day in Bhutan, our guide took us to different points of interest in Bhutan's capital city of Thimphu, such as its markets, squares, and vistas. Archery is also a big deal in Bhutan, and we got to watch archers hit targets that we couldn't even see with the naked eye. As if to intentionally create another piece of irony, the high tech looking bows, shot by their masters wearing traditional Bhutanese clothing come from Houston, Texas.

Touring the glories of Bhutan
Day two, our group had a long breakfast, then a tea sampling, and then we all read and visited for a while. All that talking and tea made us hungry so we dined on yak burgers for lunch, which were honestly in the running for the best burgers I have ever had. Our guide is absolutely amazing, and we are learning so much about Buddhism and Bhutan. We went to a holy site and then to a huge fortress, both spectacular, nestled at the bottom of the Himalayas.

Touring the glories of Bhutan
The temple inside the fortress sadly did not allow photos, and it was so breathtaking and inspiring, with a large golden Buddha at the front.
We later visited a fruit market and several towns and tried to do some shopping, but as beautiful as this country is, there isn't a lot to buy here. There are, however, carved wooden penises everywhere-- I am sure a fertility symbol. Those things always are.

Touring the glories of Bhutan
We had an astrology reading as well, and it turns out I was a prince of Gods in a former life, which I guess explains why I became a queen in this one.

Today was such a great day of simply enjoying the beauty of Bhutan. I loved it.

Day three, after a big breakfast, we drove through pristine forest along a river to the base of a mountain. All along the way colorful giant prayer wheals turned by the rushing water, and Buddhist prayer flags waved in the wind, suspended over vallies.

Our goal was high atop of the mountain, the home of a 16th century Buddhist monastery. The high altitude made accessing it difficult even for those most in shape, but those who made it received the award of one of the most beautiful sites we had ever seen. The whitewashed monastery had painted carved windows, and a view that would cost millions in the States.

We were the only tourists there, which was unbelievable to have that kind of experience in today's age. Just when it couldn't get any more beautiful, a monk or two, clad in bright red and saying not a word would walk past us, busy with their duties of the day. In all, 250 monks live there, and in a short time there were dozens moving about us, some with books, some with vegetables about to cook, and some with ceremonial candles, simply going about their day's work.

We pulled ourselves away and came back to the hotel for lunch. Then we went to a traditional Bhutanese house to learn their way of life, which was fascinating.

We went to a traditional art center, where those fortunate enough to be accepted, learned painting, sculpture, embroidery, wood carving, and more. Just being in that environment was energizing and felt completely beautiful.

Touring the glories of Bhutan
Then we went to the national library and the textile museum, and rounded off our day with a cooking demonstration of the food of Bhutan.

After a great sleep and a wonderful breakfast, we drove to a mountain to see the biggest Buddha in the world, which was tremendously beautiful and strangely inspiring.

We then headed to a farmhouse, taking photos all the way, and had traditional butter tea and rice wine with the local family--truly special.

We arrived at our hotel later and had one of the best hotel meals I have ever had. Everything was so fresh and flavorful. I was in heaven. The hotel, by the way has breathtaking views of the mountains and valley.

After lunch we drove to the national museum and then onto the Rimoung Dzong (Dzong means fortress) which is now a monastery.

Driving back to the hotel, a huge double rainbow appeared and landed in the village of Paro. It was truly one of the biggest, most vibrant rainbows I have ever seen. So, my fellow gay travelers and I felt quite welcome.

Touring the glories of Bhutan
and now for the big day... I am not even sure how to write about today, as I don't think that words can do it justice....but here goes.

Today I would visit one of the most beautiful manmade creations I have ever seen. Tiger's Nest, in Paro, Bhutan, is a monastery that was built in the 16th century over several caves on a cliff. One of the caves is the site where a famous guru, Padmasambhava (also called Rinpoche) came to Bhutan on the back of a flying tigress and is said to have meditated for three months in the 8th century. He is credited with bringing the Nyingmapa sect of Mahayana Buddhism to Bhutan.

The hike to Tiger's Nest is pretty intense, so intense that most of our group decided to stay back and enjoy our hotel. Travelers, Jim, Robert, Jeff, myself, and our guide took to the mountain. Hiking is one of my favorite things to do on the planet, and so with the blessing of the others, I tore up ahead of them and hiked and ran by myself. The sunlight ignited all the leaves and rocks in the trail, making everything so vibrant and fragrant.

As I hiked, I could feel the high altitude, but I started meditating as I climbed higher and higher, and the exhaustion seemed to get less and less. By the time I reached the top of 11,000 feet, I could see tiger's nest right in front of me, clinging to its cliff as if man and nature collaborated to put it there. I started down a winding path that would lead me past a tremendous waterfall, with unbelievably long strings of buddhist prayer flags hanging above, blowing in the wind, their prayers visible when the light hit them just right. So easy to imagine their messages truly reaching Heaven.

Touring the glories of Bhutan
And then something weird happened. I started crying. I am not a cryer, but so many emotions hit me at once that they started to leave my body as tears. I thought about the tough couple of years I have had with unending neck/back pain brought on by herniated discs, I thought about how beautiful this place was and how wonderful that places like this still exist in the world, and I thought about how fortunate I am in life in general, and especially how fortunate I am to come to a place like this. Plus, the sunlight was beaming on my face, and life in this moment just felt so completely perfect, and I so blessed to be there.
I also felt so powerful today. Physical fitness has always been a big part of my life, and so my neck issues have made me feel at half mast, but today my body felt like a machine again, like it used to. I got to the monastery in 50 minutes, and our guide said that most arrive in 3 hours. One doesn't have to sit still to meditate, and as i climbed the mountain, chanting to myself, my back pain at times was almost completely gone. Because I got up when I did, I had over an hour to sit and meditate and take photos before I saw Jeff, Robert, and our guide in the distance. Jim stopped at the halfway point, and enjoyed the views from there, not wishing to go on.

Sadly, photos are not allowed in Tiger's Nest, and it is just as beautifully rustic as one would imagine it to be. We visited 8 small temples within the complex, and our guide talked to us about Buddhism, its history, the practice of meditation, and how to have a strong mind. It was then that he stopped being our guide and in a way was transformed to our own guru. We hovered on every word he said, surrounded by brightly colored paintings and carvings, with the gentle scent of incense mingled with the neighboring pine trees. It is a moment that I hope I will never forget.

Less than 100 people visited the site today, so it felt like we were the only ones there. No where else on the planet does one get this feeling--only the hidden gem of Bhutan, which is still unknown to so many.

 
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