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Expedition Day 105: Are We There Yet?

In Expedition Journal - Roof of the World by Pia Saengswang3 Comments

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I’ve been on the road for 105 days and it definitely shows…I don’t want to see another plate of dal bhat for quite awhile…my bike’s been through the ringer (thankfully, my Royal Enfield is built like a brick house)…I’m really starting to miss home…and my clothes probably need to be burned.  All that said, this 3,000 mile expedition has been interesting, revealing, unpredictable, difficult and fun…basically, everything an old-fashioned adventure should be.

Luckily for me, I’m on the home stretch…we’ve been filming in Bhutan for the final weeks of the expedition.  It’s a fitting end for my journey for a number of reasons, not the least being that reaching Bhutan means I’ve successfully accomplished my primary objective – to cross the length of the Himalayas on my Royal Enfield.  In addition, Bhutan offers a fascinating contrast to India and Nepal culturally, environmentally, politically and economically.  Most importantly for my own story, it’s been a place that’s increasingly held more focus for me over recent years.

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I first came to Bhutan in 1997-98 at the invitation of the Kingdom to chart the country’s river system.  The following year, I was invited back to serve as the Kingdom’s official whitewater consultant and for the next decade I had the honor of developing the nation’s whitewater tourism industry, training guides and operators.  I feel deeply connected to the industry here and feel personally invested in its success and sustainable growth.

Bhutan’s definitely got an exotic mystique amongst travelers – its natural and cultural treasures are well known internationally, yet relatively few people have had the opportunity to visit.

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As a nation, it’s played its tourism cards close to the vest – tourist visas carry a mandatory $250 USD/day tariff and all visitors must be accompanied daily by an in-country guide or escort.  While I know some oppose this rigid policy, the upside has been the forced protection of Bhutan’s pristine environment from rapid over-development and the typical ravages of mass tourism.  Though I see both sides of the debate, after experiencing first-hand the consequences of Nepal’s rapid growth over the past 30 years due to unchecked tourism…I tend to side with the protectionists.

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There’s something special about the Land of the Thunder Dragon that’s drawn me in from day one.  Every time I arrive, I exhale and feel a sense of peace.

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I’m often torn between wanting to introduce people to the Kingdom and just keeping the whole place a secret.  Here, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya’s eastern range rise over turquoise rivers… wild, and clean – with challenging whitewater for every level of paddling or rafting.  The vast forests are untouched old-growth curtains of impenetrable green covering steep mountainous slopes.  The flora and fauna are some of the most diverse in the world…rare species thrive and tigers still roar here.

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To top it off, Bhutan’s culture is rich, interesting, and 100% Buddhist.

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Many visitors come here for the cultural sightseeing alone, with little to no knowledge about the incredible outdoor adventure possibilities that await.  In my opinion, if you visit Bhutan’s monasteries, festivals, and village-life…without experiencing the thrill of flowing down her pristine rivers, hiking her jungle-covered mountains, or biking up and down her pastoral valleys…you will miss a significant piece of the Kingdom’s heart and soul.  It’s opening up this facet of Bhutan in a sustainable, responsible way that’s taking up a portion of the Third Act in my life.

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For the past several years, I’ve been working with a few close friends and colleagues – Bhutanese and American – to build a new lodge in Bhutan’s Punakha Valley that will spearhead responsible, high quality adventure travel in the Kingdom.  It’s been a long time coming and a lot of hard work on the part of many people, but Channa Lodge is slated to open next year.  It’s my sincere hope that we’ll successfully serve as a positive example and collaborative voice in Bhutan’s growing tourism industry.  After decades of being part of an industry that’s involved in a one-way transaction with Mother Nature – taking and rarely giving – I want to do what I can to help ensure that Bhutan’s path is different.  I want to be part of a good story here…hopefully one with a sustainable future.

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Opening up the throttle on my bike and hearing that familiar THUMP-THUMP-THUMP gaining volume, I realize I’ve made a psychological transition somewhere over the past few days – from being immersed in the adventure, to thinking about the finish line.  I’ve been on the road since mid-August and I’m finally allowing myself to think about being home soon.   I remember standing on the summit of Everest and being acutely aware that many accidents happen on the way down.  It’s a cautionary feeling in my gut; reminding myself not to let my guard down during this last leg.

I’ve got one more intense river to kayak, several hundred more kilometers of winding highway and a high mountain pass to cross before reaching the Bhutan-India border…and the end of my journey.  I know that every rapid I run, every mile further I ride…takes me closer to home and the people I love – my girl, my family, my friends.  I also know that paying close attention to each task at hand is what’s going to bring me to the finish line safe and sound.  I’m pushing away my impatience and staying focused and ready for the final leg.

As I head east across the Kingdom, I know one thing for sure – the real gift of experiencing an authentic adventure is the genuine feeling of gratitude it gives you for everything you already have in life.

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