Asia: Trekking in Bhutan
The idea of trekking in the Himalayas conjures up images of jagged snow-capped peaks, monasteries bustling with red-robed monks, and a gentle people whose lives center around a spirituality long forgotten elsewhere. But, with warring rebels disrupting tourism in Nepal and Chinese suppression threatening Tibetan culture, finding Shangri-la is getting harder.
Enter Bhutan, a peaceful Himalayan kingdom south of Tibet, where the culture and environment remain relatively untouched by the outside world. A country the size of Switzerland with a population of about 750,000, Bhutan has made a concerted effort to protect its land and people, and has only been open to restricted tourism since 1974. Strict travel regulations and a hefty daily visitor fee keep visitation very low, with fewer than 9,000 tourists arriving in 2004.
If you do visit "The Land of the Thunder Dragon," you'll find these limitations to be a good thing, allowing you to see isolated villages and monasteries, nomadic yak herders living as they have for centuries, and a landscape unfettered by development and environmental damage. "Bhutan is one of the most pristine places on earth," says Cathy Anne Taylor, a Mountain Travel Sobek guide with more than 15 years experience leading Himalaya trips. "Oftentimes you won't see any other westerners."
Two years after Bhutan opened to tourism, Mountain Travel Sobek became the first company to lead treks in the country. It now operates several Bhutan itineraries, including a trek to the base of Chomolhari. At 24,000 feet, it's the most sacred mountain in Bhutan and home of the goddess Chomo. Led by Taylor, the trek begins in Paro with a warm-up hike to Taktsang Monastery, or the Tiger's Nest, which is perched on a cliff 2,700 feet above the Paro Valley. On the 10-day trek that follows, participants have the opportunity to hike through thick rhododendron forests, cross high mountain passes, and interact with local yak-herding families. Rates for this well-appointed trek start at $4,550 per person, which includes Bhutan's $200 per day visitor fee. Airfare is extra.
A leader in Himalayan travel, World Expeditions offers an 11-day "Bhutan: Dragon Kingdom" trip, an itinerary that combines visits to the Taktsang Monastery and other historic sites; and a seven-day trek from Paro to Thimphu, Bhutan's capital. Prices start at $2,750 per person, including the $200 per day fee. Airfare is extra. Longer treks to Chomolhari and other destinations can also be booked.
Getting there: Most treks (including those mentioned above) begin in Paro. Druk Air, the only airline that serves Bhutan, offers flights from Bangkok, Thailand, for around $740 round-trip. November flights to Bangkok from the West Coast start around $600 round-trip, plus taxes.
When to go: April, October, and November are the best months to visit. Avoid the summer monsoon season, which runs from June through September.