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Bhutan for Beginners: A First-Time Trekker Tackles the Famed Druk Path

SmarterTravel

Bhutan for beginners

When I was a kid, I dropped out of the Girl Scouts for the sole reason that I did not want any part of the camping trips. Cookies, I was on board with. Sleeping in a tent, no running water for days at a time, and exposure to bugs and dirt, not so much. Many years later, I’ve grown to love the outdoors, but in a playing outside all day, sleeping indoors at night kind of way.
So when I had the chance to join Exodus Travels’ Land of the Thunder Dragon Tour, a 12-day journey that would involve five days of trekking Bhutan’s Druk Path, I decided it was time to face my fears. The beauty of the Druk Path is that it is away from cities and towns, so there was no hotel option—it would be four nights of camping or nothing. Could this trekking first-timer survive five straight nights of hiking and four nights in a tent, by herself? I was about to travel over 7,000 miles to find out.

I spent the next few month Googling camping tips and dangerous bugs that live in Bhutan, vacuum packed my sleeping bag into my suitcase, stocked up on hand sanitizer, and got on the plane. The trip started off with a few blissful nights in comfortable hotels in Nepal and Bhutan, and then it was time for our “warm-up hike,” a seven-mile hike to and from the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which is impressively built on the side of a cliff. The views and altitude (and perhaps a lack of hiking training) took my breath away. At the end of that day, I was very glad to return to my hotel for a nice hot shower, and somewhat more nervous for the trek ahead.

At dinner the night before the start of the hike, our Exodus guide, Norbu, promised us that our experience would be more “glamping” than camping. “Glamping” at 14,000 feet? I was skeptical. Glamping, I had done, and it usually involved hot water and plush bedding. I didn’t anticipate any of that waiting at the top of the mountain. Norbu outlined the hiking for each day, promising us some easier days and some harder days. This was coming from a man who had completed Bhutan’s infamous Snowman Trek, a 29-day hike that’s one of the world’s most difficult. (More people successfully summit Mt. Everest every year than complete the Snowman.) I questioned his definition of “easy.”

The next day, I bid a fearful goodbye to my beautiful hotel bed, took an extra-long hot shower, and headed out into the wilderness.

Our van drove us part way up a long dirt road before abruptly stopping. Goodbye civilization, it was time for the hike to begin. Fortunately, my daypack was light. The rest of my gear, along with the gear of the 15 other people in my group, was being ferried up to camp by a team of 25 horses. We steadily climbed uphill for hours as the dirt road gave way to a lush green forest. Just as I started to get tired, a welcome oasis emerged in the distance—a large tent with a cushioned carpet for relaxing. This was our lunch tent, and I settled in and was greeted with hot coffee and tea, followed by a buffet of local Bhutanese dishes served on real dishes with real silverware.
Bhutan is the only country in the world to be carbon negative, and I was happy to see how eco-friendly and low-impact this Exodus trip was. Exodus lives by the motto: “ban the bottle,” committing to reducing plastic waste on all its trips by encouraging clients to bring their own reusable plastic water bottles, and by providing sanitary drinking water (boiled and then filtered) at every meal and throughout the day to reduce the massive piles of plastic water bottles that tourists contribute to.

After lunch, we had less than two hours of hiking to reach our camp, and I was nervous as we crested the last hill about the conditions we’d find there. But thanks to a team of nine camp staff, “glamping” was indeed what we had on the Druk Path. I arrived to a hiker’s paradise: roomy tents carpeted with woven rugs, topped with plush sleeping mats, and even full-sized, non-inflatable, pillows. Actual pillows at 14,000 feet? That’s luxury.

Warm water and soap waited at a central hand-washing station, and camp chairs were ready to hold my tired body. I sat in comfort and snacked on hot popcorn drizzled with honey, cakes, and tea while watching the mist roll in over the monastery towering above us.

Energized by the snacks, our group took a short hike from camp up a ridgeline to a spot with panoramic valley views. The sun shone down in beams from the clouds and it felt like the perfect evening. Then it was a quick walk back down to camp where we were rewarded with dinner. Over the course of the next five days it was impressive to see what the trekking team had brought up the trail with them. This included: an entire pumpkin, a roast chicken, a whole watermelon, and ingredients to make a spun sugar cake. I couldn’t have created the gourmet dinners they made in my own kitchen, so I was very impressed they were doing it in the wild. It became a running joke among my group that this would be the only hiking trip you’d actually gain weight from, thanks to all the great food.

At bedtime, we were given hot water bottles to keep cozy, and soon fell into the natural rhythm of sleeping when it was dark and waking with the sun—an incredible reset. Without electricity or cell service, there was no temptation to stay up staring at screens, and I fell asleep easily. There were no honking cars or city noises to wake me up, although I did wake up once or twice to a horse grazing outside my tent—a much more charming way to be awoken.

Waking up to birds singing as the sun rose over our lakeside campsite made me realize what this whole camping thing was about. Aside from our group and the horses grazing lazily in the fields, there wasn’t a soul in sight, just miles of pristine nature. Who needed running water when you had endless views?

Two adorable camp dogs joined our trek on the second day. According to the camp crew, the dogs are given the leftover food, so the same dogs always follow the camp along the hike, as they know they’ll be getting good meals out of it. These were the happiest, most relaxed dogs I’d ever seen—they never begged or barked, just joyfully bounded along the trail beside us every day. If you ever need hiking motivation, I suggest bringing a cute dog along to help you power through.

On our third day, our weather luck ran out and it poured rain all day. We determinedly marched along the trail, arriving at camp hours ahead of schedule, since no one wanted to linger in the cold downpour. There, we were greeted by warm noodle soup and hot chocolate, dry tents all set up, and a heated communal tent to warm up and dry off. Our spirits were instantly lifted. Even in the worst weather, camping isn’t so bad when there’s a space heater and good food involved.

The trek wound its way from Paro to Thimpu, up along high ridge lines and down past mirror-like lakes. The clouds finally cleared and we suddenly we saw what had been hiding behind the clouds this whole time. The snowy peaks of the Himalayan Mountains sprawled before us, mountains so high that they blended in with the clouds. Bhutan is home to the tallest unclimbed mountains in the world—the Bhutanese believe that the peaks are sacred and so no one is allowed on them. In this world where every last corner seems to have been explored and neatly mapped, it’s wondrous to know that some things that are so majestic and visible remain an untouched mystery.

Along the trail, we never saw any buildings beyond one lone monastery—everything was left as open, preserved land. Environmental conservation is one of Bhutan’s four pillars of Gross National Happiness, and the country’s constitution dictates that a minimum of 60 percent of its land must be preserved under forest cover.

On our last day, we climbed our way up a steep trail and Norbu pointed out a large clearing many miles away. “That’s where we camped our second night. And to the left, that’s the monastery we slept below on the first day.” Our entire trek unfurled behind us. It looked impossibly far away. I was filled with a deep sense of accomplishment that I had traveled so far on my own two feet. And most importantly, I had survived camping all on my own (well, on my own except for the nine crew and 25 horses that helped me along the way). If I’d known camping could be like this, maybe I’d have made it to Girl Scout’s graduation.

More from SmarterTravel:

• The Alchemy of Happiness: Discovering Magic in Bhutan
• Happiness is Bhutan
• The Ultimate Camping Packing List: 29 Essentials

Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Exodus Travels on their Land of the Thunder Dragon Tour. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline to see her photos from the adventure.

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