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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best Shangri-La: Kingdom of Bhutan

Trust a country that didn't allow television until 1999 to provide a portal into traditional Buddhist culture and unspoiled landscapes. But get there soon: Thanks to a new democracy, Bhutan is modernizing fast. Luckily, getting around has never been easier, and strict regulation keeps the hordes away. Mix and match these three adventures into a trip of a lifetime.

by: Rachel Zurer and Dan Oko (Nabji-Korphu Trek)

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22,900-foot Jichu Drake (Chomolhari Trek). (Photo by Howie Garber)
22,900-foot Jichu Drake (Chomolhari Trek). (Photo by Howie Garber)

[best wildlife]
Nabji-Korphu Trek
Don't miss this wildlife-packed forest trek in the hidden Himalayas.

I’m catching my breath on the trail, admiring peak-a-boo views of the mighty Mangde Chhu river as it cuts a jagged scar through the rolling foothills of the world’s tallest mountains, when I hear small stones clacking down the hillside. I lift my binoculars and scan the dark jungle, eager to catch a glimpse of something wild. Then it dawns on me: Despite this South Asian nation’s reputation as the world’s happiest place, Bhutan has some pretty ferocious animals. Along with musk deer and nearly 400 species of birds, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park’s 427,500 acres house Bengal tigers, Himalayan black bears, and both clouded and common leopards. My shoulders tense, and I can’t decide if I’m glad or terrified that my wife and five-year-old daughter are ahead of me on the trail.

Since first opening to tourists in the 1970s, Switzerland-size Bhutan has emerged as a top-tier destination for travelers in search of a modern-day Paradise Found. People say the Buddhist kingdom, with its ubiquitous prayer flags and dozens of Himalayan peaks topping 20,000 feet, is like Nepal was 40 years ago, before the hippies took over Kathmandu and trekkers swarmed the teahouses. But along with high passes and alpine treks (see right), Bhutan also boasts some of the region’s most-protected wildlife, thanks to a national conservation policy that has preserved about two-thirds of the country’s woodlands.

This trip is partly business for my wife, and we’ve decided to bring our daughter, so we skip the high peaks and opt for a porter- and pony-supported, five-day, 30-mile out-and-back on the Nabji-Korphu Trail, a mix of primitive roads and rocky footpaths traversing a rolling patchwork of dense, broad-leaf jungle. The undulating, mostly uphill trail stays between 3,000 and 6,000 feet, linking several primitive villages within the national park. Amid the terraced fields planted with rice, buckwheat, and the occasional citrus tree, the town of Nabji boasts holy sites associated with the legendary Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. Our outfitter hires local porters and kitchen help, and provides and sets up the tents. We pack our own sleeping bags, pads, and water purification. The communities maintain basic campsites, charging a nominal nightly fee that includes use of mud-hut kitchens, thatched-roof dining areas, and water spigots.

Visiting with monks, sipping the local moonshine, and finding playmates for our kindergartner provide fascinating experiences for each member of the family. But again and again, the wildlife proves most exciting of all. We run across weasel-like martens, watch a troop of shaggy, terrier-size Assamese macaques scamper across a clearing, and spot prehistoric-looking, endangered rufous-necked hornbills. 

That was all well and good, but at this moment on the trail, I imagine a leopard or tiger might be stalking me, and could be ready to pounce. Then with a hoot, a golden langur—a globally endangered primate common in Bhutan—breaks through the forest canopy, swinging with awe-inspiring, muscular grace. “That was awesome!” my daughter exclaims when I catch up to her. No need to convince her this is the happiest place on earth. 

Do it
Work with a guide: Itineraries must be pre-approved. A minimum daily charge of $200/person ($100 for kids) includes taxes, basic accommodation, and meals.

Journey to Bhutan ($1,960/person for 8 days;

October to late April


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