Our days unfolded steadily in a rhythm of walking and resting, eating and sleeping, silence and sharing, climbing and descending. It takes some time to drop into the slower rhythms of trekking, the easy awareness and lack of distraction by cell phones and to-do lists, the expansive spaces and skies, the attunement to nature and the elements. After more than a week of walking, the group had settled into a different state of mind and being. Silences were as comfortable as stories, staff and clients were all bonding, and bodies were well-acclimatized, which made crossing 16,000-ft passes easier, if not easy. We hiked over the mountains day-by-day, camped in an occasional village, but more often in an alpine valley next to a river.
In the villages we didn’t have campfires, but everywhere else, our horsemen would arrive into camp before us, unload and unsaddle the horses and mules, walk the whole pack up a hillside to graze, and return with loads of firewood, ready to dry out clothes, share stories and conversation (even though we only shared few words in a common language), and of course, find warmth in the coming dark. We couldn’t have asked for a better team of horsemen.
These guys were tough and kind, hard-working and funny, ready to help with anything needed. Is your sleeping bag too light and cold? One horseman has a brand new blanket to offer from his home in Laya. Need an extra tent? Their neighbor has one. Need to carry a 45 lb bag all day for the medical evac? This guy can do it. Crossing a river on an unstable log that starts to tip? One horseman runs into the river, shoes and all, to offer up a hand of balance. Need a log to sit on for our final bonfire? We didn’t even know we needed it until a horseman came out of the woods with an 8 ft, 150 lb log on his shoulder for our final celebration at the trip’s end. Need a horse reshod? We didn’t know it, but they did. They checked the horses every morning and when one lost a shoe, they reshod it on the spot. It was hard to watch the horse’s discomfort and struggle, but horseshoes spare their hooves from painful splitting, even if they’re uncomfortable to get on. Horses are the livelihood for these men, and they care for the animals conscientiously.
Our horse crew makes good money from the occasional trekking group, but groups are few and far between. The rest of the time, they use their horses to transport goods for local consumption, have small farms at home, and hunt for Cordyceps each spring like everyone else. They quickly adopted one of our mountain-man trekkers as their brother and won all of our hearts with their regular campfires.
While the horsemen vary by trip and by area, the kitchen staff and guides are people I’ve worked with regularly over the last decade in Bhutan. They are absolutely awesome—ready to help with anything, rising before us and going to bed after us, serving tea at our tents in the morning, feeding us throughout the days and weeks (making everything from gluten-free pancakes to the national favorite of hot chilies with cheese), spotting birds and pointing out wildlife, saying prayers every morning, and delivering hot water bottles every night.
The staff speak much more English than the horsemen, so they’re often cracking jokes, teaching us songs, and fielding questions about everything under the sun with patience and warmth. Hiking in a white out or along a washed out trail? You might find our head cook Tsering right behind you making sure you’re safe. Wondering what that unusual bird is? No problem, half the staff are trained as bird-watchers. Need a rock cairn built and a prayer recited in honor of a lost loved one? Gogo and Jigme have both studied the Buddhist scriptures and can perform basic rituals. Is water building up on your tent? Dampa will come out at night, in the rain, to re-stake it. Wondering about dating and domestic violence? Jigme will explain things that rarely get talked about. Suddenly find an aggressive yak blocking the road and making threats at the jeep? Gogo will hop out and act like a wild man in order to scare it off. Last night of the trek? Gogo and Jigme made small rock hearts in front of each of our tents and big star-heart at the center of camp–just because they were going to miss us when we left. Our staff are the people we get to know best in Bhutan because we travel together day after day after day—and I regularly feel it’s an honor and privilege to work with this crew.