It might be one of the most overused cliches in the travel universe but the idea of a kingdom deep in the Himalaya’s inspired by James Hilton’s classic Lost Horizon has thousands of backpackers and jet setters alike grabbing their warm coats and hiking boots in search of this mystical kingdom.
The sheer remoteness of the Himalaya’s have certainly been the focus of plenty of mythical tales such as yeti’s, snow lions, and tantric buddhist masters who have the ability to fly but one thing that surely does exist in these mountains are some of the most unique and beautiful cultures which exist on the planet. Many westerner’s fantasize about one day visiting such distant places such as Tibet, Nepal or Bhutan but with each one having its own flavour and attractions it can be hard to decide which one is right for you. I certainly struggled with this and instead visited all three.
Ever since I watched Brad Pitt befriend the young Dalai Lama, I had long been fascinated by Tibet and it’s unique culture and have found in conversation with many westerners that a trip to Tibet ranks high on people’s bucket list. When we began seriously researching for a trip to the Himalaya’s, we began reading about Tibet but were put off by many accusations that “Tibetan culture is ruined” or that “Tibet is now just another part of China”. Luckily, we didn’t listen and last year had the opportunity to visit.
While its true, Tibet has certainly changed since the Chinese invaded, sending the Dalai Lama into exile in the 1950′s, those who believe Tibet no longer has any cultural interest clearly have not set foot in this amazing land. For those interested in the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism a trip to Lhasa is a must. Imagine walking amongst a sea of pilgrims coming as far away as the Eastern Tibet, who circumnavigate the sacred site from sun up to sun down all the while chanting mantra’s and spinning prayer wheels. While the Han Chinese have their section of this sacred city and the Chinese military have a shockingly strong presence, the old Tibetan quarter remains a fascinating place to wander around or perhaps stop in and light some incense at one of the many monasteries.
Then there’s the landscape. Tibet sits high atop the highest plateau in the world in which locals herd their yaks across a high altitude desert surrounded by snow capped peaks. High altitude lakes shimmer bright blue in the powerful sunlight as you look around this great wilderness.
Tibet remains closed to independent travelers and the only way around this is to book a tour with a travel agency which is commonly run by a Chinese outfit and may be quite expensive. Tours can include only a single individual or as many as 4-5 persons (more is uncomfortable in a land cruiser) but includes a guide and driver. Companies such as Tibetan Connections will cater more to backpackers allowing them to choose their accommodation and food so as to cut costs and not be limited to tourist oriented services. Travel agencies can organize permits and train tickets into Tibet, but a Chinese visa will be needed to first enter the country. Due to the strict regulations tourists outside of the major sites such as Lhasa and Yam drok lake are a rarity.
More of a backpacker and trekker utopia than a buddhist shangri la, Nepal offers almost an limitless opportunity to get up close and personal with the big mountains of the world while trekking day to day with pizza for dinner. In fact, while the scenery from Tibet is completely alien and moon-like, when it comes to admiring the sheer size of the majestic Himalaya, Nepal gets my vote. The reason being that while on the Nepali side you are staring up at the Tibetan Plateau rather than being already at 5000 meters plus looking straight at the great peaks.
While Nepal may be an overwhelming 85% Hindu, the areas bordering Tibet and specific areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara which harbor thousands of refugees offer glimpses into the amazing Tibetan buddhist culture described in “Lost Horizon”.
Nepal offers a kaleidoscope of activities from trekking mountain trails, Paragliding alongside the peaks, rafting down raging rivers, or chasing rhinos on the back of an elephant. For someone looking for a lot of adventure, Nepal has it. Nepal has a massive backpacker lure and in the peak season Oct-Nov the trails can be busy and Kathmandu and Pokhara can feel a little invaded by the hordes here for months of trekking.
A big positive for Nepal is its ease of independent travel as there are virtually no restrictions on traveling independently as well as Nepal being very friendly on the wallet. A budget of 25 USD a day provide a comfortable lifestyle for most backpacker needs. Visa’s are available for most nationalities at the Kathmandu airport or border crossings.
Bhutan is best described in one word…unique. Even attempting to visit such an intriguing country requires a completely different approach than any where else in the world. To even enter the country one must pay a visa fee of 200 USD per day…yes…per day.
While this is far out of the reach of anyone even considering themselves a backpacker, the 200 dollars a day fee not only buys you a visa but a driver, guide, vehicle, food, accommodation and really just about any costs you may come across on your trip. While its a shame this country can’t be explored independently, this is exactly part of the reason why Bhutan is so special – It’s almost void of tourists. Every experience is authentic and free of all those negative effects mass tourism can have on a fragile culture. I had the amazing opportunity to visit and while staying in tourist oriented accommodation and eating tourist oriented food was never my style, what I came away with from that trip was of the ultimate goal of the traveler, to experience something completely unlike anything else.
For those with even a little sense of adventure, a home stay in Bhutan can offer a glimpse into daily life and opportunity for cultural exchange. I stayed with 3 families while in Bhutan but it was the family below which was the highlight of my trip as they had only ever had a single western guest many years earlier. As we sat around their yak dung stove drinking rice wine and talking of my life back home before they allowed me to sleep in their alter room surrounded by butter lamps with images of buddha sending me to sleep.
While the price tag keeping most tourists out, Bhutan has a list of attractions not the least of which is its intact Buddhist culture uninfluenced by a foreign government such as Tibet or parts of India. Imposing Dzongs or Fortresses are still houses of government, not a single building is built in a non traditional manner, a son entering monk hood is still a blessing to a family, and due to strict environmental policies the forests and landscape remain evermore pristine than its neighbors.
Bhutan may be labeled as “the Last Shangri-La” or “What Nepal was 30 years ago” these labels simply fall short in describing this amazing country. Bhutan has recently just become a new democracy but with its charismatic policy still in force of “Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product”, Bhutan is entering the future in its own unique way.
While not a destination for the long term traveler, for those interested in intact buddhist culture and one of the most unique countries in the world, Bhutan may just be for you.
* Not listed here are the Indian areas of Ladakh and Sikkim which are also sometimes lumped into the great Himalayan Kingdoms. We haven’t got there just yet…