Hello to our fellow travellers! Thanks to you all for your patience as we put together a plan for our journey into the kingdom of Bhutan, also known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayan mountains and is one of the last remaining Buddhist kingdoms in the world. Filled with awe inspiring natural beauty, monasteries, alpine forests, tranquil lakes, rugged mountains and perhaps most famously known as the country that introduced the world to the idea of “Gross Natural Happiness”. As an integral part of the course, we will also get to spend significant time in Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Buddha and home to the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest!
Your instructor team (iTeam) has been preparing to make this spring course in Nepal and Bhutan an adventure that we will always remember. Exploring together, we will visit Buddhist monasteries, hike through pristine forests, travel how locals do, live with local families, eat local food and most importantly learn about life in the Himalayas by experiencing it with these communities. We have sketched out a brief tentative itinerary below to get you excited and give you an idea as to how we plan to move during the course.
Our itineraries are always flexible and especially in a place like Bhutan, plans may change. Rest assured, we will keep you updated on this yak board if they do. We look forward to meeting each one of you and sharing this journey of learning and exploration together.
WEEK 1: Get…Set…Start! Welcome to Nepal!
As you arrive, your iTeam will be welcoming you at the airport in Kathmandu. We will drive to Nagarkot, a historical hill station town in the east of Kathmandu. It is here that we will have our orientation, where we will be getting to know one another and learning skills to adapt to a new place. Starting our journey in Nagarkot, with its serene surroundings, thriving nature and vibrant culture will give us plenty of chance to witness the diversity of a unique culture, and its powerful expression which in many ways is similar to Bhutan. This will also provide us some important regional context before we travel onward to our next destination. We will also get a small taste for trekking as we do a mini trek through the hills to reach our urban homestay families.
Week 2: Panauti: A taste of urban life and homestay in Nepal
Welcome to Panauti! A medieval Newar city located about 30 km southeast of Kathmandu is one of the oldest cities in Nepal with breathtakingly intricate heritage and history standing the test of time in the ever changing and developing country around it. In the ancient period, Panauti used to be the trading hub along the salt trade route between Tibet and India. The peaceful coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism is evident at almost every corner in this city. You will be living with the indigenous Newar families, whose members are inseparable parts of its heritage. Panauti is a city of legends, fascinating history, rich culture, of artisans and a city of ancient spirit in the modern world. A cultural capital of Nepal, we will spend our time here diving into our independent study projects (ISP) with mentors and expert guest presenters. In preparation for Bhutan, we will also practice our Dzongkha language skills, learn about the history of the country, and start to explore various pertinent topics such as Gross National Happiness, environment and development challenges with the group.
Our daily schedule in Panauti roughly shall look like follows:
Monday through Friday, you will arrive in the morning to our Program House for yoga and/or meditation, breakfast, Dzongkha language lessons, a guest speaker or an instructor or student-led discussion, followed by lunch together. Afternoons will be dedicated to your ISPs, a project where each of you will delve into an aspect of the culture that most interests you. Past students have done projects ranging from arts and handicrafts, yoga and philosophy, music and instruments, and cooking. We will spend time each day engaging with our families and community. Over the course of our Panauti home-stays we will explore interesting places nearby.
WEEK 3: Touchdown on the Land of the Thunder Dragon!
After these two weeks in Nepal, we will take a short, beautiful flight to touch down in the lush green rice paddies of Paro, Bhutan. From Paro, we will hike along ancient trading routes through scenic alpine yak pastures and over high mountain passes through the famous Druk path to reach the capital city, Thimpu. During our hike, we will begin to look at the interplay between the landscape and religion and begin our inquiry into the nature of happiness. In Thimpu, we will visit a few important heritage places, magnificent old fortresses called Dzongs, monuments and monasteries, try some unique local cuisine, explore the city and buy our Bhutanese clothes, as well as delve deeper into basic Dzongkha language.
Week 4 and 5: Central Bhutan: Bumthang valley and UWICER
Taking in the sights and breathing some of the cleanest air in the world, we’ll travel by road to the central region of Bhutan to Bumthang valley where we will settle in for a few days. We will be hosted by our partners UWICER (Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research) and learn about their amazing work protecting the unique environment of the area. Surrounded by experts, it is here where we will delve deeper into topics of environment and development. We will also use their facilities as a base to explore the landscape, which is dotted with sacred Buddhist sites including hidden cliff side temples and remote village stupas. We will also start to prepare for our rugged trekking through the Himalayas.
Week 6: Tang Valley Trek
We will embark on a multi-day trek through the Tang Valley, hiking through beautiful, traditional villages. This trek will be quite a challenge, but will also be super beautiful and rewarding as we explore the majestic Himalayas trekking through the terrains carved by rivers and graced by mountains. From sprawling villages to cold mountain camps we will be together working as a team. The trek will challenge us on many levels but will be a wonderful tool to understand ourselves and others to create a compassionate and responsible unit of travelers to move these lands with humility and grace.
Week 7 and 8: Chumey Valley: Rural homestay and ISPs
This week we will have the unique opportunity to stay with families living in a village in Central Bhutan. A few hour drive from UWICER campus, we will settle into our rural homestay in the beautiful little village of Domkar in the Chumey valley. This will be our opportunity to slow down to the pace of agricultural life, and to understand this unique culture from the inside. We will have the chance to speak to our host families about local myths, fairy tales and Bhutanese history as well as about social change and development. We will also have the opportunity to do independent study projects, which may include anything from traditional culinary skills, local farming, to archery and weaving. During this time we will also have plenty of time for group discussions and lessons on issues facing Bhutan and the world.
Week 9: Monastery stay: Spirituality and Buddhism
Bidding goodbye to our rural families, we plan to spend a couple of days in a Buddhist monastery. Here you will get to see practice of Tibetan/Bhutanese Buddhism in daily life. From the chants going in the shrine room to the peaceful surroundings and crisp air blowing through the modest monastery complex you will be thoroughly inspired. During our time here, we will get to learn about the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation and learn how we can cultivate what we’ve learnt there in life on wards. Be prepared to have many of the ideas and values that you have (perhaps unconsciously) held up to now in your life to be challenged. Prepare to dive in!
Week 10: Western Bhutan: Last week in Bhutan
Leaving the beautiful Bumthang valley, we will begin to make our way back to western Bhutan to Paro where our journey began. Along the way we will stop to visit some of the most majestic Dzongs, travelling by road to beautiful towns including Phobjika valley, Traongsa and the old capital of Bhutan, Punakha. After a quick stop in Thimpu, we head back to Paro where we will reflect on our journey, and eventually say goodbye to this unique country – not before having the chance to trek up to the iconic “Tiger’s Nest” Taktsang monastery.
Week 11: Back in Nepal: X-phase
Back in Nepal, a time for re-discovery, re-assessment, beauty, and deep contemplation- also marks the “Expedition” (X) phase of the program, when students can step up together to take on some of the leadership roles of the program more fully. The penultimate week of our course will be dedicated to let you all apply all the learning that you have done to design a week full of learning, adventure and fun to travel to a place of your choice. The instructors will work as guides and take a step back while you take the reins of logistics, planning and curriculum.
Week 12: Bhaktapur: Transference and end of course
For our last few days together, we head back to Kathmandu to one of the ancient cities of Nepal known as Bhaktapur. This last week, we reflect back on and celebrate our journey, our accomplishments, the bonds and the moments that we shared as we prepare ourselves for the journey back home. Transference offers us the chance to contemplate where we’ve come from, where we’ve been, and what we are now carrying with us as we exit our Dragons semester and transition back to life in our home-places. This intentional, often emotional and important time together will mark the end of our semester, but the beginning of something new and just as special. As we say our (tearful) goodbyes, we’ll be sad this time is over, but so excited to see what awaits us all.
Please do not worry, we will go through the itinerary in detail when we meet here in Nepal. Our aim here is to give you a general idea on the itinerary which can inform your preparation for the course. We hope this itinerary is helpful to you and that it gets you excited about our semester!
Trust in the journey, friends!