During the peak summer of 2018, I decided to unfollow the myriad conditioned ways of life and lead life on my own terms – almost in act of brave renunciation. Almost! I hit the road, hiked the trails, and trekked off-the-beaten path – traveling, seeking, wandering around Bhutan’s magnificent landscapes, meeting different people, and experiencing native cultures – literally living off the bag.
My folks at home were stunned at my decision because for them traveling was a luxury. For them, traveling meant boarding an airplane and flying abroad to foreign destinations. And solo traveling, at that point, was rare, particularly for a lone girl. Take my word, it is still rare for a woman to go on a solo trip in Bhutan! I still remember how a bemused elderly lady in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley asked me if I were a lost foreigner.
Since then, I have traveled solo, hitchhiked, spent nights in far-flung hamlets, and shared accommodation with strangers. When I could no longer pay house rent and utility bills in the capital city, I uncluttered my belongings and moved back home with my parents so that I could continue to be on the road, minting memories. Looking back, that adversity helped me build resilience and find joy in my travels.
Traveling around Bhutan gave me so much happiness that it has become an indelible part of my life. The places I have been to and the people I have met during these journeys have meaningfully impacted my life. These experiences have helped change my perspective of my country – Bhutan.
The warmth and hospitality people freely offer, even to strangers, is one special trait of Bhutanese, seldom found today. You must only knock on the door of a rural home and the family will invite you to hot piping tea or a sumptuous meal. Kindness is deeply ingrained in our society. I dare say Bhutan will never fail to amaze anyone with its natural beauty, harmoniously coexisting with cautious, planned modernization. But what is striking is the simplicity of its people.
In the last four years, I have explored the length and breadth of my beautiful country with amazing people. Had it not been for my choice to travel, I don’t think I would have seen my own country beyond the ordinary.
Bhutan may be small in size and population but the surprise is, it is rich in diversity in terms of people, culture, tradition, and dialects. As a traveler, I have delved into the countryside, meeting rural folks, ethnic groups, and highlanders.
I remember hitchhiking to Samtse to meet the indigenous community known as ‘Lhops.’ Their white dress is a unique attraction, not to forget their unique native funeral rites where all the essential possessions of the deceased are buried along with the dead, such as pots, pans, silver, gold, etc.
To the north are the highland communities with distinct sociolinguistic and cultural features, which differ from the mainland. They herd yaks, and their primary source of livelihood is dairy products and cordyceps. During summer, they graze their cattle in the high mountain pastures; in autumn, before the snow closes their trade route, they journey to the lowlands. The highlanders of Laya and Lingzhi are geographically and figuratively the crown of Bhutan’s ethnic landscape.
One should not miss the Royal Highland Festival. It is the biggest festival in Laya, where highlanders from across the country come to celebrate their rich culture and unique lifestyle.
The eastern part of Bhutan is known as the land of weavers. This is because women from the east are known for their fine weaving skills. The slow and simple life of the easterners (sharchops) will only make you realize how simple living can bring you so much joy.
During all my travels, food has played an essential role. As a traveler, I have relished various delicacies and unique cuisines in different regions of the country. Through these delicacies and cuisines, I have experienced and learned about the history, tradition, and local culture of the community that go beyond taste. I believe that a travel experience is incomplete if one does not relish regional cuisines. Without Bhutanese culinary and gastronomy, the travel experience would be bland.
One of my most memorable meals was binging on bathup (handmade flat noodles) at the base of Mount Gangkar Puensum, the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. Bathup is filling and enjoyable, particularly on a cold, wintry evening. The memory of bathup always takes me back to that cold, snowy night at the base of Mount Gangkar Puensum. My friend, nomad Tashi, his family, and I sat around a campfire and savored the hot, steaming bowl of bathup. It was one of the best bathups I have ever eaten in my life.
Beating the cold and testing my stamina to the limits, I have trekked almost all the trekking routes in the country (mainly the popular ones) and also completed half of the famous Snowman Trek, where Lingzhi-Laya route particularly took my breath away. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable trekking experiences of my life.
Trekkers had to climb several passes, with the highest pass as high as 5,080m. The nine-days trek takes you to remote highland places bejeweled with many pristine crystal clear lakes.
As you walk around the shimmering lakes, you will be treated to stunning views of the Himalayan range and some of the world’s highest peaks, including Jomolhari, Masangang, Jichu Drakey, Gangchen Tag, and many more. Trekkers also come across hamlets of highland communities with warm hospitality.
Besides all the fun side of traveling, I also go on pilgrimage. As a Buddhist nation, most places in the country are sacred, blessed by Buddhist luminaries of the past. Although all the pilgrimages are equally memorable, the trip to Singye Dzong in Lhuentse was the longest and the most memorable of it all.
Singye Dzong or the Lion Fortress is one of the most sacred places blessed by Guru Rinpoche, the 8th century Buddhist master who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan. It is also one of the farthest pilgrimage sites in Bhutan. Singye Dzong is located in Khoma Gewog in Lhuntse district. In recent years, hundreds of pilgrims have visited the sacred Lion Fortress. The dzong (in the form of a massive rock structure) stands on a cliff resembling a lion, hence the name Singye (lion) Dzong.
The place is magically blissful and heavenly, with mountainshaped rocks on the cliffs, an expansive highland valley, and the most beautiful shimmering ‘Tshokar’ white lake, to name a few. The journey to Singye Dzong is as surreal as it is spiritual.
Personally, the highlights of
the Singye Dzong pilgrimage are meditating at the underground cave where Khandro Yeshey Tshogyal, the consort of Guru Rinpoche, meditated and visiting the sacred lakes of Tshokar and Tshona (Black Lake).
I LIVE TO TRAVEL
In the past four years, I have lived life like a free bird, enjoying the freedom of traveling to every nook and corner of Bhutan. I have followed my passion to remote communities, the mountains and the plains, into the wilderness, faraway from the hustle and bustle of city life. I have been the happiest while on the move. But I have had some scary moments too survived being chased by an aggressive yak on my way to the base camp of Mount Gangkar Puensum, a frightening encounter with a tiger in Manas, and another close encounter with a bear on the way to Nub Tshonapata Lake in Haa.
But again, if not for these thrilling experiences, my travels around the country would have become mundane, even banal. And for such memorable moments and experiences, I strive to explore, seek, and travel more!
Editorial Note: Denkars Getaway has written a book titled ‘The Tourist Within’, an anthology of her travelogues where she shares myriad stories about her lust for travel.
She is a full-time Bhutanese female solo travel blogger. In her blog, she shares personal experiences and narratives of traveling to various getaways within Bhutan. Follow her https://denkarsgetaway.com or @ denkarsgetway on Facebook and Instagram