Somewhere in the back of my dreams, a voice announces that tea is served. This is the low–key alarm clock for the trekker in Bhutan. I partially unzip the tent, put my hand out into the freezing air, and find a steaming hot mug of tea. Half–awake now, I catch sight of something that appears more fantastic than my reveries. The stunning snowcapped massif of Chomolhari looms high above our campsite. Totally socked in by low cloud the afternoon of our arrival, the massif is crystal clear this morning––a dazzling display of summit snows and cascading glaciers.
Those summit snows at 7,300 metres are thought by the Bhutanese to be the dwelling place of the goddess Jomo Lhari, whose sister deity resides on Everest. And on a morning like this, I am almost prepared to believe the legends. I have gravitated to a front–row seat to witness sunrise over the peak. Well, a fold–up director's chair––taking in this Himalayan splendour at the breakfast table.
In remote areas like this, there is no greater hardship for the stomach than the prospect of local breakfast. So I am thinking what a stroke of luck it was that the British passed through last century. Because the folding breakfast table is piled up with toast, porridge, scrambled eggs, Frooti mango juice, peanut butter, and Royal Bhutan orange marmalade––bearing the double–thunderbolt royal crest of the kingdom. Plus a large pot of tea. Some products are from India, while others derive from the lowlands of Bhutan, where temperate fruit (plums, peaches and apricots) and subtropical fruit (guava, mango, papaya) thrive. Breakfast is a surprising legacy of British presence in Bhutan, when the British Raj established close diplomatic relations with Bhutan. After the diplomats came British plant hunters, explorers and climbers. Mount Chomolhari was first climbed in 1937 by Spencer Chapman and Sherpa Pasangâ€”at the time, one of the highest climbed peaks in the world. But while Chapman triumphed, the locals believed this climb upset the resident goddess and brought bad luck. After a 1970 climbing tragedy where two Indian mountaineers died, a complete ban was imposed on climbing the peak. Climbers can, however, still attempt Chomolhari from the Tibetan side, with permits issued by the Chinese.
The direct sun is taking an awfully long time to find our campsite, so mugs of tea are put to good use as hand–warmers. I am joined at the table by Eric, a fellow trekker from Canada. And by an unruly visitor. A large head suddenly dives right into the porridge. No table manners at all. A horse handler rushes over and apologises for his wayward charge, but within a few minutes the same horse is back again, intent on demolishing the porridge. The pack–horses––a dozen of them––know the timing well. This makes for somewhat–surreal breakfasts as they peer around the tents, eyes locked on the oats. They may even nudge you from the back, prompting you for handouts. And if you should leave the table for some reason, that's an open invitation to chow down.
The horses are going nowhere near the wrangler's breakfast, and I know why. The Bhutanese escort––guide, cook, and horse wranglers––are all getting tucked into plates of ema datsi (chilies and cheese). This is a kind of Bhutanese pizza, heavy on the chilies: the Bhutanese are fond of spicy dishes. In fact, the cook informs us, in our saddlebags there are four kilos of chilies––a big bag of dried red chilies, and several wicked–looking jars of green chilies pickled in mustard oil. I can't tell you if the chilies are any good or not––blistering chilies are the last thing you want to touch if you have cracked lips from the extra–dry air at this altitude of 4,070 metres.
On this three–week trek, our guide Norbu is the leader. But second–in–command is Dorji, the cook. The cook is of prime importance to the success of the trek because of huge amounts of energy consumed. Marching eight or nine hours a day up narrow trails, you develop into a formidable walking machine––one with an equally formidable appetite. To get the day going, you need the Breakfast of Champions––a mega–hit of carbohydrates (porridge, toast) and glucose (jam, mango juice) at daybreak. Trekking is a conundrum: burning energy boosts your appetite, but altitude can suppress that appetite. So food must be simple, nourishing and tasty, with a sizeable carbohydrate content. And, at least at breakfast, the food must look vaguely familiar.
Breakfast is the easier meal to prepare. At night, when the mess tent is set up, Dorji has to retrieve all the ingredients he needs from the pack horses, fire up the propane stove, and set about creating tasty hot meals for trekkers and staff. That amounts to a logistical nightmare, but magically he orchestrates the whole show somehow.
Bhutanese regulations stipulate that all trekking trips must be done in self–sufficient camping style: pack–in, pack–out. That would explain our 770 kilos of supplies, loaded on a dozen pack horses. A tad over the top for two trekkers: but while some of the load is camping gear and personal effects, a lot of it is actually food and cooking supplies. The rice for our Bhutanese escort alone weighs 80 kilos. One horse carries a large propane canister that powers all cooking needs. A lot of the food is fresh, like potatoes, and is stored in burlap bags. Waste like cardboard containers is burned, while items like cans must be crushed and packed out. Plastic packaging is not a problem: it is simply forbidden in the first place.
When it comes to technology, Bhutan may appear to be a land locked in a medieval timewarp, but it is light years ahead of 'developed' nations of Asia when it comes to environmental vision. Adopting tenets of Tibetan Buddhism creed, the Bhutanese have evolved the concept of sacred landscape: mountains, lakes and forests to be left totally untouched. Over 25 percent of Bhutan's land area has been set aside for wilderness and wildlife preserves. And to keep these regions pristine, plastic bags have been banned in Bhutan. At a time when some North American cities are just thinking about banning plastic bags and replacing them with cloth ones or other substitutes, Bhutan has nation–wide anti–plastic laws in effect.
And this explains why, at our splendid campsite––contemplating the brooding colossus of Mount Chomolhari–– the only sign of human presence is the ruin of an ancient fort, decked with prayer–flags fluttering in the breeze. No plastic bags blowing around, no human detritus to be seen: this is wilderness the way it should be. The vastness and stillness are broken only by bird calls. And by the voice of Dorji the cook, asking if we'd like more tea.
Michael Buckley is author of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook, a comprehensive guide to Indochina (Avalon Travel Publishing, USA, 2006). and Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide. He has appeared previously in Perceptive Travel with Raiders of the Lost Temple and A Railway Runs Through It.
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