Guest post by Catherine Perkins
I left the United States for a study abroad program in Bhutan in February and didn’t return home until July, with my head full of almost five months of experiences in a different country.
When I reunite with friends here, their first question is, “How was Bhutan?” and I say feebly, “It was great.”
How can I sum up five months of life abroad, the geopolitical history and the religion upon which all understanding of the country is founded, the feeling of being an international student in a Bhutanese college, and all the tiny cultural details that make up the entire experience?
Arriving back in the states, and struggling to articulate all these nuances, made me realize that I’d both passively and actively learned a whole lot about Bhutan: what it’s like to live, study, eat, socialize, travel, practice religion, and teach there.
But after being asked many, many times about what my favorite thing about Bhutan was, I finally have an answer: Bhutan is the most beautiful place I have ever been.
I was born and raised in Florida. Yes, I’m a native flatlander; I come from a state where the highest elevation is a whopping 345 feet. According to Wikipedia, our highest non-natural point is the Four Seasons Miami Hotel, which caps out at 789 feet – twice as tall as our highest hill. We have the lowest high point of any U.S. state. Even Washington DC has us beat — so you can imagine how shocked I felt to find myself in the middle of the Himalayas.
Elevations in Bhutan range from 520 to 24,700 feet above sea level; I spent most of my time living at 9000 feet. And when we weren’t at school, my peers and I traveled and camped and hiked over large areas of the country.
Together, we visited a temple perched on the side of a mountain in Paro, and the hot springs high in Gasa. We hiked up to 14,000 feet in Haa and wended through the rural villages in the lower valleys of Bumthang, the so-called “Switzerland” of Bhutan.
We visited temples that have been standing since the 7th century, saw prayer flags fluttering from places so high that you can’t imagine anyone possibly reaching them, and attended religious festivals where, for participants in the folk dances, the point seems to be to wear as many vivid colors as possible.
On our second day in Bhutan, we completed the day-long hike up to Taktsang, the famous “Tiger’s Nest” Temple built on the side of a cliff. Most of us were huffing and puffing, even though we were taking baby steps — urged by our tour guide — to prevent ourselves from getting altitude sickness.
Despite the strain, my discomfort with altitude, and the fact that I seriously screwed up something in my knee and had to walk up and down slopes and stairs with a great deal of pain, there was never a moment when I didn’t feel like it was worth it.
Our entire hike, clinging to the tiny winding trail, was one long vista after another of the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen. As often as I stopped to catch my breath, I stopped even more frequently just to look at the view and soak in the feeling of being present.
We looked out onto mountains covered with blue pines, and distant valleys with squares of crop fields and clusters of houses. There were many moments when my friends and I turned to each other to exclaim, “We’re in Bhutan!” as if the realization occurred to us for the first time.
I counted prayer flags as we walked, because I had this notion that when we reached the top I could proudly announce the exact number to my impressed friends. Five minutes into the hike, I had counted over 500. Then we walked into a clearing where they were draped over every tree and shrine and strung ten-deep from every reachable height.
I gave up. We must have passed hundreds of thousands of them.
And soon we saw Taktsang. At first, it was just a distant structure, its increasing size used to gauge our progress. Then we were at that perfect spot to take pictures of it (you know, the exact height from which all the pictures on the Google Image Search are taken when you type in “Taktsang“), to see it framed by the mountains behind and below and to realize just how high it was. It’s a sense of scale that pictures can’t give you.
After we’d taken enough pictures to satisfy our parents, we walked down some stairs and up some stairs (our tour guide told us it was something like 800 steps) and arrived at Taktsang itself. And it was amazing!
Incredible enough that the temple was constructed on a mountain, in an area that requires a laborious hike to reach on paths that were laboriously created, but also that Taktsang underwent more construction after a fire damaged it in 1998. Imagine how many people had to work hauling construction materials on ponies and their own backs up the side of a mountain in order to preserve this site.
And that incredible, life-changing hike happened on our second day in Bhutan. I didn’t have two days there, or even seven. I was in Bhutan for one hundred and thirty-three days. Four and a half months of mountains, of seeing views that would “take your breath away” on a daily basis.
As I sat in the cab heading down the mountain from my college, as my taxi driver hurtled along the roads in the valley to the Shechen Nunnery (where I was doing an internship to teach Buddhist nuns how to use the computer), I regularly thought to myself, “This is the most beautiful daily commute I will ever have.”
So yes, there’s a lot that’s great about Bhutan: the people, the religion, the cultural practices. There’s also some stuff that’s not-so-great. No country is perfect — not even this one, despite the fact that they advertise themselves as the “last Shangri-La.” Bhutan is still working on their politics, and the education system is … well, that’s for another post.
But at least I can say with certainty that Bhutan is the most beautiful place I have ever been.
Catherine Perkins is an English and Asian Studies double major at Wheaton College, Massachusetts. After she graduates in 2014, she plans to teach English in Japan. You can read more of her writing at Travels in Bhutan.