A breathtaking Himalayan journey to ’the rooftop of the world’
By ANNIE GROER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 31, 2018
Tibet. Nepal. Bhutan. The names rolled of my tongue like a timeless Himalayan mantra.
I was itching to go, but after decades of solo rambling, I was done with handling tricky logistics. Let someone else -- preferably an established tour company -- arrange flights, guides, hotels, baggage and, most important, assorted visas and travel permits.
Globe-trotting friends suggested Road Scholar, a do-it-all company targeting travelers of baby-boomer age and older, which is how I spent 16 days last spring in and around the capital cities of Lhasa, Kathmandu and Thimphu. There were 11 of us, in our mid-50s to late 70s, with fitness and congeniality levels that ranged from impressive to dubious.
Led by two guides per city, we padded though Buddhist and Hindu holy sites, trying to keep straight each faith’s main precepts and deities. We watched students practice, and thus preserve, the heritage arts of painting, carving, weaving, boot-making and sculpture. We traversed museums and markets, and compared the dancing skills of monks, archers, folkloric troupes and ordinary folk. We marveled at the fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels everywhere we turned.
And we consumed a lot of yak: Meat that was grilled, stewed or ground and stuffed into dumplings called momo; yak milk and yak butter mixed into fermented tea; and yak cheese, eaten dried and crunchy, or cooked low, slow and oozy with spicy green chiles.
On balance, Road Scholar -- founded in 1975 as Elderhostel and mercifully re-branded in 2010 -- provided a fascinating look at what has been dubbed the Rooftop of the World. The trip was not perfect, but then again all I had to do was show up.
Shortly after we landed in Lhasa, elevation 11,500 feet, my head began to pound and my heart started to race. Altitude sickness aside (I stupidly opted not to take the prescription meds in my bag), I was eager to explore the capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
We’d been warned not to discuss politics during our four days in Lhasa, especially the current Dalai Lama who fled to India in 1959 amid Beijing’s bloody crackdown on Tibet.
Our focus was strictly Buddhism and culture. Before entering Tibet’s holiest site, the 7th-century Jokhang Temple, the devout prayed or prostrated themselves on the ground. Inside, the scent of butter lamps and incense drifted over the crush of pilgrims who inched past dazzling relics, murals and the most sacred Jowo Shakyamuni, a gilded, bejeweled Buddha reportedly made when he was 12. The pilgrims’ faith was palpable.
More difficult to reach, up hundreds of switchback stairs, was Potala Palace, the soaring cliffside architectural icon that dominates Lhasa’s skyline. Built in 1645 by the fifth Dali Lama, Potala would be used by all nine of his successors as a winter palace, citadel and spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism. Today, 20 of the 1,000 rooms are open as a museum. Displays include exquisite religious art and raiment as well as the narrow bed of the absent last occupant. Norbulingka, the richly embellished summer palace, is across town nestled within Tibet’s largest garden.
Yet nothing matched the set-piece drama at the Sera Monastery, where, in a shaded, white-graveled courtyard, countless pairs of red-robed monks were locked in heated debate. With voices raised and arms flailing, each standing senior monk argued moral doctrine to the disciple seated at his feet. The protege could only reply after the mentor clapped his hands. We understood not a word, of course, but the emphatic speech and balletic movements were riveting.
Far calmer was Tse Wang Tan Pa, a physician at the Tibetan Traditional Hospital, who explained centuries-old anatomic and botanic thangka paintings depicting ailing patients and natural remedies before he checked our pulses -- both wrists -- and inspected a few tongues. Get more exercise, he counseled one; eat less sugar, he told another before leaving to see patients, three of whom had interrupted his lecture with phone calls.
Our major field trip was a 75-mile bus ride from Lhasa to a settlement of semi-nomads, where yak butter tea (an acquired taste), dried cheese (a nice salt jolt) and sweet cakes (tasty) were served in a modest family compound. Handmade tapestries covered doors and windows, and posters hailing Chinese Communist Party leaders leaned against a wall. In a nearby room, thangkas honoring ancestors shared space with a Mickey Mouse blanket.
Back in Lhasa, a young, costumed troupe intent on keeping its culture alive performed Tibetan opera and traditional dance, including the best two-man cavorting yak we would see.
My own terpsichorean moment came in Zongjiao Lukang Park in the shadow of Potala, where hundreds of locals dance to blaring recorded music. Some wore national dress -- long robes called chubas, hiked up at the waist for men, ankle-length for women (who add a striped apron if married). Others preferred Western dress.
I’d carefully studied the footwork before accepting the hand of a burly chap sporting mirrored shades, a black chuba and heavy Tibetan jewelry. We clocked a goodly number of turns and two-steps until the altitude wiped me out. He bowed and burst out laughing. So did I.
Two events a half-century apart comprised what little I’d heard about Kathmandu: The late 1960s counterculture invasion fueled by then-legal hashish and cannabis; and the 2015 earthquake and aftershocks that killed nearly 9,000 people, left about 500,000 homeless and destroyed or damaged many important Hindu and Buddhist temples, palaces and pagodas.
"Hippies put Kathmandu on the map in the ’60s and ’70s," said Sanjay Nepal, our smart, irreverent chief guide and fixer. "After the earthquake, they sent in their photos of how things used to look, to help with restoration."
Today, post-disaster construction is everywhere in the dusty, dirty, traffic-choked city of 1 million (closer to 5 million when counting the surrounding Kathmandu Valley) jammed with endless streams of diesel-belching vehicles).
In the town of Bhaktapur, once a major medieval city-state, and at central Kathmandu’s Durbar Square eight miles away and other heritage sites, great piles of rescued bricks, stone and timbers were being used to rebuild the distinctive red clay Newari-era structures that were built from the 12th to 15th centuries; they are known for intricately carved windows, eaves, cornices and doorways.
We joined a group of Nepalis inside the largely intact Kumari Ghar near Durbar Square, hoping to see Kathmandu’s Living Goddess. Chosen last year at age 3 by her local clan as the embodiment of divine female energy, she’ll be cloistered in the palace save for rare outings until reaching puberty, when another girl-child replaces her. Finally, briefly, she appeared in an upstairs window, her scarlet dress matching her painted lips, her eyes outlined in black kohl.
From the Living Goddess, we transitioned to the newly departed at the Hindu cremation ghats (stone steps) on the banks of the city’s sacred Bagmati River. Sitting on the opposite bank, we watched families carefully wash and grieve their shrouded loved ones, soon to be lit afire en route to the next life.
We were, in fact, on the grounds of Nepal’s holiest Hindu temple, Pashupatinath, which is closed to non-Hindus. Rather than visiting other major houses of worship there, I zoomed in on the sadhus, ascetics who renounce the world to embark on religious quests. Some travel nearly naked, covered in gray dust or ash. Others frequent tourist-thronged holy sites like this one. Dressed in layers of red, orange and yellow with elaborate face painting, they serenely posed for photos in return for alms.
Our five days in greater Kathmandu were not solely Hindu-centric, given the country’s deep Buddhist influence. (Buddha was born in 523 B.C. in what is now Nepal). On separate days, we saw the city’s two major stupas, enormous half-dome holy edifices built on square bases and topped by pointed spires painted with four sets of Buddha’s all-seeing eyes.
The Boudhanath Stupa, which suffered minor earthquake damage, is surrounded by neighborhoods filled with Tibetan Buddhist exiles. Pilgrims walked clockwise around its upper and lower levels, spinning prayer wheels along the way. The famed stupa at Swayambhunath, built on a steep hill overlooking the city and Kathmandu Valley, was equally impressive -- save for its brazen monkeys.
Happily shifting gears from the sacred to the mercantile, we peered into stalls and shops along central Kathmandu’s narrow back streets. I was entranced by knife sharpeners sitting opposite each other on the curb; one pulled both ends of a chain back and forth while the other honed a barber’s scissors on the spinning stone. When finished, they picked up their ingeniously simple rig and moved on.
At construction sites large and small, I lost count of the women hauling bricks and sand in large baskets tied around their heads and balanced on their backs. Load and dump, load and dump, hour after hour.
The loveliest moment came mid-trip at the Dhulikhel Mountain Resort 20 miles outside Kathmandu. As I walked the grounds with chief gardener Prem Raj Giri, he proudly showed off his flowers and handed me a lemon grass bundle he’d just deftly tied.
"It makes very good tea," he promised. "Very good tea." It did.
It seemed fitting to end the trifecta in Bhutan, the land of "Gross National Happiness." Flying over the highest peaks of the eastern Himalayas, the plane circled, banked hard and landed between heavily forested Paro Valley cliffs. We stepped onto the country’s only runway to see a landscape carpeted with pine trees, and rice paddies reflecting the clouds.
Since 1972, when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the term and declared Gross National Happiness more important than Gross National Product, Bhutan’s leaders have tried to ramp up the joy level of its nearly 800,000 citizens. While the notion of giving value to health, education and personal well-being is gaining global traction, Bhutan is not yet Scandinavia, an official conceded.
Visitors, however, have much to admire: crystalline waters, gorgeous scenery, organic farming, craft-beer breweries, great climbing and hiking, rich handicrafts and traditional architecture that somehow evokes Swiss chalets. Many homes we saw during our five days were white-painted stone or packed mud, with elaborate wooden windows and cornices. And there was no missing the phalluses -- painted on house-fronts or carved into amulets dangling from the eaves -- used to repel assorted evils. The phallus practice began with Lama Drukpa Kunley, dubbed the Divine Madman, who spread Buddhism through Bhutan in the 15th and 16th centuries using sex, song and raunchy humor, as well as scripture and ritual.
There are obstacles to seeing Bhutan: tightly controlled tourist visas and a $250 daily spending minimum - it includes hotels, local guides, meals and transport -- intended to generate revenue and protect the country’s fragile environment from hordes of budget travelers.
Atop a steep hill outside Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, a wealthy Singaporean recently financed a 169-foot-tall gilded Buddha and a meditation hall filled with 125,000 miniature Buddhas. On its sprawling plaza, we watched an interfaith chanting extravaganza that included monks in spectacular costumes leaping and twirling their way through a pair of classic religious dances.
Archery, Bhutan’s national sport, offered its own spectacle during one match at the well-kept range in Thimphu, which featured high-tech carbon-fiber bows, and at another using bamboo bows next to a field of cows in Paro, a small town 34 miles from the capital. Arrows must travel at least 460 feet to hit a melon-sized target painted on a board about one foot wide and three feet high. Opposing teams face each other at both ends of the range. Even half-drunk -- the days-long matches involve much alcohol -- the archers often hit their mark and rarely wound each other.
We gladly toasted the victors with K5 Himalayan Whiskey, a brand that is slang for Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the country’s fifth monarch. Giant posters of his majesty, Bhutan’s lovely commoner queen and their little prince are everywhere.
Our last day in Thimphu was reserved for the arduous climb to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, about 71/2 miles from Paro and built onto a sheer cliff at just above 10,000 feet in elevation. Only four from our group reached the highest lookout point; the rest dropped out along the way. Owing to a wonky knee, I skipped the hike altogether in favor of a massage at the hotel spa.
How better to practice Gross National Happiness?
If you go
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