I write from the floor of a four hundred year old monastery. The electricity as been cut by the storm raging outside. The only light comes from Kathryn’s very fashionable yet useful headlamp. Glued onto the wooden-plank walls are pages from Hindi magazines of flashy women and gourmet food. To my left, against a crumbling clay wall is a DVD player and a television where, no doubt, child monks get their fix of American wrestling. The scent of pine incense is inescapable.
Our first jaunt into the wilderness of the Himalayas started two days ago. Since then the only other signs of human life have been our guides and the occasional yak-herder. After nine hours of hiking along mountain ridge after ridge I hear the roll of thunder in the near distance. I suddenly feel very vulnerable.I ask our guide,
“Dendup? Is it going to rain?”
“No, of course not. I prayed for no rain in the monastery this morning. Look! A dragon!”
Either he is alluding to Bhutan’s nickname, “Land of the Thunder Dragon” or a tiny little dragon just ran under my nose. It must have been a quick dragon because I missed it.
From a thousand feet up Dendup points down into an enclosed valley encompassing a dark lake, “There’s our camp.” And there it is, looking like a tiny village from our perch. I have never been in nature that is so vast and infinite. It is hard to believe that human life has weathered these elements and that somewhere, very far from here, the internet exists, and high rises and spaceships.
The horses, horseman, and cook always pass us on the route and have camp set up and have dinner waiting by the time we get there. We know dinner will be waiting in a luxury kitchen tent where we are served several courses beginning with tea and cookies followed by datsi with fresh veggies, Bhutanese red rice, and finally, fruit with cream. From this high up the camp looks like a microscopic version of itself made miniature by the enormity of the landscape around it, titanic mountains that still are growing a few centimeters every year. Talk about endurance.
As we approach the camp the first flakes of snow begin to fall. By the time we have reached the bottom, there is a full-on blizzard raging. The harsh landscape has come alive to put on an icy performance of swirling snowflakes, white wind and rapidly dropping tempuratures. That night, there is talk of cutting the trek short and returning to civilization. The storm rages through the night and Kathrin and I never quite fall asleep. In the morning everything is still again so we forge ahead. The day is clear and beautiful.
Come early evening, the snow begins to fall and we approach the steepest peak yet, marked by those who have come before us with a giant wooden phallus and an arch of fluttering prayer flags.
“Thimphu!” Dendup shouts.
Thousands of feet below is Thimphu tucked into the crack of a single mountain range. At this point the snow again begins to fall in earnest. We start running down the hill to camp. As we reach, the tempest begins, raging wind and thick snow being hurled down from the sky. We tuck into the unsubstantial tent that is thrashing all around. We have to shout to each other from less than a foot away to be heard. This time, we are sure the tent will not hold up through the night. Dendup pokes a wet head through the flap up to announce that we have been given permission to “seek refuge in the nearby monastery.” We slog across the mountainside against the violent storm. The lights of Thimphu miles below us are faint and misty.
Dendup bangs on the ancient door and an equally ancient and monk answers. Wordlessly, he leads us through a flooded courtyard up a rickety flight of stairs. He apologizes for the only room he can offer, which, religious traditions aside, looks like the manger where Jesus was born. (I speculate.)
Now we sit here in the dark and the whole building, all four-hundred years of it is creaking and rattling like a ship on an angry sea. Outside, the thunder dragon continues to roar. Dendup has conveniently forgotten his sleeping bag and is happy to wedge himself tightly between Kathrin and me.
“Where will the others sleep?” I ask him about the cook and horseman. Thinking of the impossibility of sleeping in the wet, ravaged tent.
“Oh, they’ll be okay.” He says with a smile on his face. “I hope the rats don’t come out tonight.”
It's not the rats I'm afraid of, Dendup.