The Last Secret: The Last Installment

Well, time to finally complete the coverage on the amazing race we had in Bhutan.

Stage 4: Getting closer to the finish

After getting down from the monastery, it was time to jump in the car and drive around to Paro.  On the way, we saw a sign that made me smile, “CAUTION zebra humps”.  I’m assuming it meant that there were stripes painted on the speed bumps in the road, but I thought that it was funny.  There are a lot of interesting and comical signs along the road in Bhutan, mainly having to do with road safety.  With the treacherous, winding, narrow roads it does make sense.  I wish I had taken pictures of some of them, but unfortunately after reviewing my photos, I didn’t see any.  

Camp 5 (the much better farmhouse): After a few hours of driving, we finally made it to our camp for the night.  It was a sprawling farmhouse with a courtyard and dining tents set up in back, set amongst the rice paddies.  This camp is always a real treat for the racers since the owners offer hot stone baths.  Basically they have wooden tubs filled with water into which they place stones that they have been heating over the fire for the day.  I have foregone this luxury both years after I found out that they don’t change the water in between bathers.  I can handle a lot of dirt and grime, but for whatever reason that one is a little hard to handle.  But it seemed like the people that took the bath found it utterly indescribable, so I’m happy for that.

Once we arrived in camp, I promptly climbed to the rooftop in order to try and catch a snooze.  I heard my name being called shortly thereafter and I am super glad that someone found me.  The owner of the home was making some of our staff breakfast and I was pumped to get to join.  It was an incredibly simple affair of eggs freshly scrambled and placed on top of rice.  There was a chilli and yogurt sauce as a topping and steaming hot milky tea as an accompaniment.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was one of the best meals that I had while in Bhutan.  The owner and her daughter were incredibly nice.  I later sat in companionable silence with the older female owner in front of the house, waiting for the runners to come in.  The silence was punctuated with her trying to say something to me via pantomime.  I usually had no clue what she was trying to say but we were both laughing and smiling, and I enjoyed her company.  Sometimes it’s the really small moments that make travel so exquisite: sharing tea with a family, feeling the sun on your face in a rice paddy, communicating via exaggerated gestures.  It was a nice afternoon for me sitting by the finish line.  I finished another book that I was reading and managed to catch up on the very writing that you are reading now.  

Eventually most runners came in and it was dinner time.  Jenn and opted for backpackers meals in order to get rid of some of the weight that we were lugging around in our duffel bags.  The MSG-laden meal was utterly delicious and I walked back to the finish line in the darkness with a full belly.  I took an actual shower !?!  Well kind of, I stood in a big plastic tub while a hose spit out lukewarm water at me.  It was the cleanest I have been in 5 days, so I’ll take it.  I slid out of my sleeping bag close to 10pm in order to welcome the last runner into camp.  Better get some sleep, it’s the long day tomorrow.

Stage 5 (long day)

The morning started early with a staggered start.  The hour in between the two groups of runners will hopefully allow the field to be a little closer.  I was at checkpoint 2 with another volunteer and a local driver.  The views were beautiful.

Everyone but 3 or 4 runners were in really good spirits when they reached checkpoint 2.  And despite the physical discomfort of a the heat and some climbing, most were able to appreciate the beautiful view from the checkpoint.  After all runners were through, the other volunteer walked with the last runner while I was whisked away to the finish.  It would be another long day until everyone came in, but it was a beautiful day and the finish line was a pretty great place to spend an afternoon.

Camp 6: After most runners were in, I walked back down to our camp.  Last year we camped in tents in a grassy field below the ruins of the finish lines.  This year, we were staying in houses in a tiny village.

We were entertained in camp by a spunky 3-pawed puppy.  One of our racers was a vet, and he thought that the paw had probably been lost traumatically after the puppy was born.  Despite several other cute little pups, this guy seemed to be the most well fed by our runners.  From camp, we could watch the last few runners come in.  It felt cruel that they had to make one last climb before they could come back down and join us, but everyone had great big smiles on their faces. We had one last buffet meal put together by our wonderful staff.  Most everyone looked absolutely great despite the high mileage of the day, but our Bhutanese boys needed a little TLC.  They are always so grateful to have our help, and one of them even smiled for the camera despite the disarray that his feet were in.

In this photo, you can see the skimpy trainers that he had been running in.  Poor guy.  Our runners were generous enough to donate shoes to both of our Bhutanese runners so that their feet would have some relief on the last day at least.  Maybe for the next race, we could make arrangements to have racers bring extra running supplies for our local runners.  It seems like in some countries, it is difficult or cost prohibitive to get high quality running gear.  With as gracious as our runners generally are, I’m sure there would be no problem in getting some nice equipment for the racers representing their home country.  We were given a tour of our lodgings and Jenn and I were delighted to see that we had the family’s prayer room to ourselves for our last night out. Final stage tomorrow!

Stage 6 – The END! 

 We were up early to start the strenuous hike up to Tiger’s Nest.  It was a bit chaotic in the morning, but everyone got to their respective places on time.  For the first time all week, Jenn and I got to hike together! We had the trail to ourselves before the late morning onslaught of tourists.

Photos from the hike to Tiger’s Nest:

It was damp and cool in the shade at the finish line.  We had some time before the runners were going to arrive, so it was prime time to sneak a peak at the monastery.  I got yelled at by the policeman up there for having a few inches of skin showing between my socks and the bottom of my pants.  No matter how old I get, I still hate being scolded… Typically at holy Buddhist sights, the requirements are to have your shoulder and knees covered.  Something must have changed since last year so we were going to have to get creative with some of the runners attire if they were going to be able to tour the incredible monastery.  Oddly enough, this same cop startled me by chanting Buddhist mantras and prayers in the toilet stall next to mine later in the day.

Finish line:

From the finish line, you can see the runners across the chasm coming down the steps long before they get to you.  There is always palpable excitement when watching the people you took care of all week cross the finish line.  There is a lot of smiling and hugging, and usually some tears too.  After most were in, we got to take our official tour of Tiger’s Nest.

Creative use of buffs to meet the dress code:

 On the tour, I learned a few new facts.  I stuck my head into the windy, whistling cavern where the flying tiger was purported to have landed.  Apparently there is a tight passage here that connects to one of the temples.  This scary cave is the Buddhist version of the Catholics saying numerous Hail Mary’s.  Basically, you have to crawl through this treacherous passage if you committed a grave sin in order to realign your Karma.  No thank you, it looked pretty scary.  After all runners had finished (yay!), we walked en masse down to a restaurant perched halfway on the climb.  It was a Bhutanese buffet (surprise!) with all the usual fare.  There was a hot pot of the national Bhutanese dish, Ema Datshi, or chilies with cheese.  This one was incredibly spicy which meant that I ate way too much white rice in order to quell the heat.  Jenn and I enjoyed  one of the best cups of tea ever before it was time for our group photos.  

Another race finished!  Time to celebrate!  We enjoyed the luxury of our 5-star resort, traditional Bhutanese dancing, and a buffet of Western and traditional foods.   

Our flight on DrukAir had been delayed the next day, so we got half a day of sightseeing and endless souvenir shopping in Paro.  

Time to go to Thailand!  And say goodbye to the land beyond the earth and the sky.

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