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Outside magazine, March 2001 Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

The High Lunana Trek

Monteath/Hedgehog House
Yakking it up: The only crowds you'll see in Bhutan

Trek Length: 24 days, approximately 210 miles
Maximum Altitude: 16,847 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Group Trek): $5,600–$6,400 Self-organized trekking is forbidden by the Bhutanese authorities.
Prime Time: October
Staging Cities: Paro, Bhutan

The Rhapsody: First, some advice: When trekking in northwestern Bhutan with a yak, as is customary, strap your pack onto the beast, point it in the right direction, and let it walk at its own pace. Don't prod it to go faster. Don't try to pet its matted fur. Armed with the same horns as a rodeo bull, it's likely to disembowel you out of sheer cussedness. Fortunately, that's the only glimpse of ill will you'll encounter while trekking in Bhutan.

Unlike sprawling India, Bhutan is small and stable, the Switzerland of the Himalayas. And unlike its overpopulated neighbor Nepal, more than half of Bhutan remains forested. This is unspoiled Himalaya: glacial streams cutting through lush meadows of grass and rainbow-hued wildflowers; dense rhododendron forests behind clusters of whitewashed pagodalike houses and centuries-old monasteries; ruddy-cheeked yak herders at the start of paths winding into the jagged mountain peaks, where, if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a snow leopard.

The Route: Since the Bhutan government tightly controls tourism, surprisingly few trekkers wind through the countryside—about 1,500 annually, compared to 150,000 in Nepal. Most groups start in the western gateway city of Paro, head north to a mountain town called Laya, and then circle back southeast, eventually returning to Paro or the capital Thimphu. To get really far gone, sign on with a trek that takes the right fork at Laya onto a dirt track into the high Lunana region. No more than 90 outsiders visit Lunana each year. For three weeks and 200 miles, the Lunana trail (known as the Wild Lunana—or the Death March, by unfit clients) roller-coasters over rocky, moonlike 16,000-foot passes. Four days later, the trail descends 3,750 feet to Woche, the first of three small, remote villages, where few of the children have ever left home. After a day of rest, trekkers zigzag back onto the lonely massif, rest at the next village, and then repeat. Rest, repeat. The peaks are well spaced and trekkers walk the spine of the range, treated to views of both the desolate Tibetan plateau and the tropical lowlands of the Indian subcontinent.

Guides and Outfitters: The Bhutanese government forbids foreigners to travel unescorted, and every outfitter is required by law to charge $210 per day minimum. (The money is split between the American outfitter, its Bhutanese partner company, Bhutan's Tourism Corporation, and the Bhutanese government.) For more information, contact the Bhutan Tourism Corporation at 011-975-2-322-854 or www.kingdomofbhutan.com. And Geographic Expeditions, High Asia Exploratory Mountain Travel Company, KE Adventure Travel, and Snow Lion Expeditions all offer top-shelf treks.

Read Up: Canadian Jamie Zeppa signed on to teach in Bhutan and two years later found herself in love with both the country and a local man. Readers of her memoir, Beyond the Sky and the Earth ($14, Riverhead Books), will be as enchanted. Lonely Planet's Bhutan ($20) is the most reliable guidebook. —Eric Hansen

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