Journey Through the Himalayas

Terry McCarthy and Sarah Tran

Punakha Dzong in Bhutan

The Himalayas are breathtaking: the people smile by default and their Buddhist and Hindu faiths are omnipresent, woven into the smallest actions of life. And yet a two-week LAWAC trip to the Himalayan nations of Bhutan, Nepal and the Chinese province of Tibet also showed the difficulties of living at high altitude amongst these spectacular peaks, often in hard-to-access remote valleys, squeezed in between the two competing powers in Asia, China and India. Even these latter-day Shangri-Las have their own social and political problems, as customs that stretch back centuries collide with today’s universal internet access, superpower politics and global consumer marketing.

Our 14-member group hiked up to a monastery, Tango Goenpa, built in 1688 just north of the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. This is a place of seclusion, built on a peak where monks come to meditate in seclusion for three years, three months and three weeks to achieve lama (teacher) status. A monk offered us a blessing with sacred water and described the protective deities of the monastery and the discipline of those who come to meditate. But when a chirping began inside his robes he did not hesitate to whip out his smart phone to take an incoming call, bringing everything quickly back down to earth.

The Himalayas are 1,500 miles long from west to east, stretching from Pakistan across the north of India to Tibet and Burma (Myanmar). They are a relatively young mountain range, formed when the Indian tectonic plate began colliding with the Eurasian plate some 50 million years ago. This is a border that is subject to considerable stress – both geologically, as witnessed by the catastrophic earthquake in Nepal in 2015 that left more than 8,000 people dead, as well as politically, with Delhi and Beijing jostling with each other for position across Asia. As Americans, we were well-received, but it was also clear that the US today plays a very secondary role in this part of the world in the struggle for regional power.

A Bhutanese woman and child we met while hiking to a temple


Our trip started in Bhutan, with an impressive landing at Paro airport after some tight maneuvering between the mountain peaks surrounding the only valley in the entire country that has enough flat land for an airplane runway. As soon as the group got onto the minibuses for the trip to Punakha, we discovered that apart from the one running parallel to the runway, there is no other stretch of straight road in the country. The one main road that runs from west to east through Bhutan snakes around mountainsides in a perpetual succession of curves, with semi-humorous road signs admonishing drivers to exercise caution: “Faster brings disaster”, “Drive Slow to Avoid Grave Below”, and “On the Bend Go Slow Friend”. When the monsoon rains come in the summer there are frequent landslides that shut down the road for hours, days or even weeks – time has its own rhythm in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, as Bhutan is known.

In Punakha we visited the Chimi Lakhang monastery, which has come to be known for aiding fertility. The buildings nearby all have phalluses painted on their walls, and wooden representations are sold in all forms and sizes for curious travelers. Women come and circumambulate the temple three times in the hope of getting pregnant. As a testament to its success, the monks keep an album of photos of happy mothers with their newborns, both local and foreign, who attribute their good fortune to the temple’s mysterious powers. At the time of writing it is unclear if any of our group will be similarly blessed.

The next morning we visited a convent where we sat with some nuns during their morning prayer – while chatting with the afterwards, we were charmed to discover they didn’t know what or where “Hollywood” was. Many youngsters are sent to convents or monasteries because their families cannot afford to educate them – and so they take on the role of praying and turning prayer wheels to spread merit far and wide.

In Thimphu we met Lama Shenphen Zanpo, an extraordinary man from Wales who has become a Buddhist lama after years of study in Japan and Taiwan. Having lived in Bhutan for nine years, he now runs a drug rehabilitation organization for Bhutanese youth who fall prey to amphetamines and prescription painkillers that are smuggled in from India. This is the first hard evidence we see of the generational gulf in Bhutan, between the conservative, traditionally-minded older people who are in charge of government, business and teaching, and the younger generation who have grown up with television (it was only legalized in Bhutan in 1999) and the internet. Most of the addicts have come from villages to the relatively urbanized society of Thimphu, where they lose touch with their family and seek solace in drugs. Shenphen sends those addicts he finds to dry out at a rehab center in India – he has sent 300 so far, and when they come back after four and a half months he helps them find jobs.

Our members in traditional 'kiras' and 'ghos' in Bhutan

We donned traditional Bhutanese dress – a robe-like gho for the men, a long kira for the ladies – to have dinner with the current Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, a fascinating polymath with degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard’s Kennedy School. He gave a long talk about Bhutan’s aim to increase Gross National Happiness, and the country’s very strong conservation policies – some 70% of the country is forested, most of which is protected by the government. This means Bhutan is, in the prime minister’s words, “carbon negative” – its forests absorb more carbon than it emits. “We aim for economic growth balanced with a healthy environment and good government…when you have a small country boasting 100% vaccination and 100% elementary enrollment it becomes an example for the world.” Although he himself came to power through the ballot box, he conceded that democracy was not initially popular in Bhutan when the first elections were held in 2008. “Democracy is normally something you have to fight for – in Bhutan it was imposed on them [by the King’s decision] and the people didn’t want it.” And so his government has to work very hard to persuade the people they are working on their behalf. As others said to us, Bhutan had been exceptionally lucky to have had five enlightened monarchs, all of whom contributed to the country’s development – “and when you look around at the so-called democracies in the rest of South Asia, you can see why the Bhutanese thought they would be better off staying just with their beloved kings!”

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan

Overlooking Thimphu on a hillside is the enormous Buddha Dordenma, a 169-foot high gold-plated Buddha that can be seen for miles, and was finished in 2015 after nine years of construction. Inside the statue they are installing 100,000 8-inch tall Buddhas and 25,000 12-inch tall Buddhas, also covered in gold – all to commemorate the 60th birthday of the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Bhutan has had five kings in the Wangchuck dynasty since 1907, and they are widely revered throughout the country for being responsible and caring rulers who have given the country free health care, free education and, most remarkably, democracy. When the fourth King stepped down in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, he simultaneously introduced elections for parliament and a prime minister. The fifth and current king still has enormous power, but the day-to-day governmental decisions are now handled by elected officials.

We ended our trip to Bhutan back in Paro, where we climbed up to Paro Taktsang, the fabled “Tiger’s Nest monastery”, clinging to the side of a cliff at 10,000 feet. This was a steep climb, but everyone made it halfway to a restaurant that overlooks the monastery – some braved the mules that make the trek up the narrow path! – and then most of the group continued on up the path with stone steps to reach the actual monastery. This is supposedly where the legendary Guru Rinpoche, an eighth-century Buddhist master, landed on the back of a tiger to meditate in a cave, ultimately bequeathing Buddhism to Bhutan. Built in 1692 the monastery seems to stick, somehow, to the sheer side of the cliff, and monks have to scamper up and down the steep path every day to bring up whatever food and supplies they need. We went at a more leisurely pace, conscious of the altitude and the constant urge to stop to take pictures.


From Paro we flew directly to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, where we found monkeys right in the airport next to the arrival lounge and a torrential downpour that caused us to take shelter before we could board our bus outside. The monsoon, it seems, is coming early this year!

Unlike Bhutan, which has a mere 700,000 people in the whole country, Kathmandu alone has a population of 2.5 million, and the whole country of Nepal has some 28 million. Also unlike Bhutan, Nepal abolished its monarchy in 2008 after years of political turmoil and the massacre of many members of the royal family in 2001 – the country is now a republic. It suffered much from a long-running Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006 and from inefficient government. At $733 per capita GDP, it is one of the poorest countries in the world (Bhutan, by comparison, has annual per capita GDP of $2,660, according to the IMF).

Patan Museum; One of the many monkeys we saw in Nepal; The Buddha doing the two-handed salutation

Closed to outsiders until the 1950’s, Nepal has an astounding array of old monuments and temples, although some were damaged or completely destroyed during the 2015 earthquake. Driving around the city there are still many piles of uncleared rubble from stupas and temples that came crashing down in the 7.8 magnitude quake. We had lunch with Binod Chaudhary, Nepal’s first billionaire who made his fortune from instant noodles and now invests in property and technology. When the earthquake happened in April 2015, his company applied some private-sector principles to helping the survivors – they designed replacement houses which cost just $750 to build, getting destitute families back in homes in a short period of time.

We had drinks one night with Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times newspaper, who pointed out that despite its widespread destruction and loss of life (8,964 dead with 3.5 million left homeless), it could have been much worse. The earthquake happened on a Saturday, when the schools were empty, but shoddy construction led to 3,500 school buildings falling down (a similar thing happened in the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake). Had the Nepal earthquake happened on a school day, Dixit’s staff at the Nepali Times had conservatively estimated that at least 50,000 school children would have died.

Mount Everest

Kathmandu hosts what is doubtless one of the best museums in Asia – the Patan Museum, a treasure trove of Buddhist and Hindu art works housed in a renovated former royal palace. Austrian architects helped with the rebuilding and The Smithsonian provided some curatorial assistance to the very able Nepali staff. The result is a beautifully-presented collection with very clear and helpful labelling that leads the visitor deep into the meanings of Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. Around the museum in the old center of Patan, and in the other ancient city of Bhaktapur, we saw some fabulous old palaces and temples built in the traditional Newari style, complete with wood carvings that sometimes have erotic friezes that would be worthy of the Kama Sutra. But as Nepal tries to preserve its past – many temples need substantial repairs after the earthquake – the country is also looking to the future, and engaging in a high-stakes game between India and China, its two giant neighbors.

India and China fought a brief border war in 1962 (it actually started during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so nobody outside the region paid it much notice!). As the two most populous nations in the world, neither one would seriously consider trying to “conquer” the other - both realize coexistence makes sense, and trade between the two countries is increasing. But relations are still somewhat strained, and India is watching uneasily as Chinese influence increases rapidly in Nepal. Many of the manufactured goods in the markets in Kathmandu are Chinese – and when the railway and road connections that the Chinese are building from Lhasa in Tibet to Kathmandu in Nepal are completed, Chinese goods and travelers will jump exponentially. The Nepalese try to play one side against the other, and were infuriated when India closed the border to all trade shortly after the earthquake (when Nepal desperately needed to truck in supplies) to protest some planned changes to Nepal’s constitution.

The rain continued to fall periodically, leaving clouds over the mountains, but when the weather cleared one morning we took a short flight along the breathtaking Himalayan range, with beautiful views of Everest and all the neighboring peaks. No apparent concern about potential hijackers here – when the plane reached Everest the captain invited the passengers to come forward to take pictures over his shoulder from the cockpit, because the view was better!


Potala Palace in Tibet

From Kathmandu we flew to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet that has been part of China since 1951. This was, among other things, the physical “height” of our trip – and for that reason we scheduled it at the end. Thimphu, in Bhutan, is 7,612 feet and Kathmandu is 4,593 feet, but Lhasa is 11,995 feet. Everyone was advised to drink plenty of water, avoid too much alcohol and take it slowly for the first day. A couple of our group needed some oxygen to get over temporary unease at that altitude, which quickly proved restorative - everyone else was fine, despite some apprehension before we arrived. Without fully realizing it, their bodies had been acclimatizing for the previous 10 days at altitudes far higher than that experienced crossing the hill on the 405 into the Valley in LA.

Tibet has a population of 3.18 million, according to the Chinese Bureau of Statistics, 90% of which is Tibetan and 8% are Han Chinese. The Han Chinese are concentrated in Lhasa – few venture far into the countryside. The government is very controlling of the local population – CCTV cameras are everywhere, looking for any sign of an incipient demonstration, and even the monasteries have informers listening to everything the monks say. We did witness hundreds of monks debating in the Sera Monastery, one of the three great “university monasteries” of Tibet built just north of Lhasa. Some of the monks were sitting, others were standing and clapping their hands in dramatic fashion as if they were pitching baseballs – all very lively, but politics was not on the agenda. They also had created three large, colored-sand mandalas that took four monks five days to make. These mandalas then get swept away, and new ones are made – the devotion exists in the creative process itself.

Ganden Temple; Debating monks at Sera Monastery; A storefront in Tibet

In the Drepung Monastery, another of the great “university monasteries” which once housed 10,000 monks and was the largest monastery anywhere in the world, the monks all come together periodically to chant by the flickering light of butter lamps (usually made of vegetable oil today to avoid the black smoke that stains the interiors of the buildings). Tibetan visitors prostrate themselves 100 times in front of Buddha statues, but the pictures of the Dalai Lama that used to be common have now disappeared completely. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and took up residence in Dharmsala in northern India – another source of tension between the governments in Delhi and Beijing. The Chinese fear the Dalai Lama harbors “separatist” intentions, even though he has said he does not favor Tibetan independence at this time. He is now 81 years old, and the Chinese seem set to wait until he dies and then try to exercise control over the choice of his successor, which will be very contentious with the exiled Tibetan community.

With their newfound high-altitude strength, our group all managed the 340 steps up to the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. Most notably are the enormous gold stupas containing the mummified remains of previous Dalai Lamas, encrusted in coral, jade and a pearl the size of a baseball. The day before we left we made it up to the Ganden Monastery at 14,000 feet, an hour’s drive from Lhasa. Tom Malone celebrated his birthday at a restaurant in Lhasa, sharing a bottle of whisky with the group over a dinner of yak meat, pizza and a home-baked birthday cake.

The group after the hike to Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger's Nest (pictured in the background), in Paro, Bhutan

In Bhutan the prime minister had told the group he hoped the trip would be more than just a series of sight-seeing opportunities, and by the time the group flew out of Tibet everyone seemed to have picked up some knowledge of the different cultures and peoples we encountered. It is easy to glamorize these places – the reality of living on the roof of the world is somewhat harder than the Shangri-La image would suggest. And yet despite the hardships, the conflicts and the political complexities, these cultures have proven to be enduring and strong, and worthy of our respect.

Our guides: Tandin, Ramesh, Dushyant, Dorji, Tashi, Rishi

Thank you to our guides who showed us around their beautiful countries and made us feel very welcome.

Travel with LAWAC

The World Affairs Council Travel Program offers members the chance to learn about the world's cultures and countries by experiencing them first-hand and hearing from guest lecturers familiar with the history, culture, and current conditions in the countries they visit.

We aim to make our tours both informative and enjoyable, by including special access to local experts and political leaders who give private briefings and unique behind-the-scenes insights. Having Council members travel together means that you will have the chance to meet globally-minded people from your area, who can share this experience with you during and after your travels.


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