I almost died in Bhutan. No joke.
Tuesday was my second last day in Bhutan, with my flight out leaving early morning Wednesday. I was spending my time in Paro, where the only international airport in the country is located. My plan was to spend this last day visiting the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery that’s 3,100 metre above sea level. It’s situated high up in a mountains among steep slopes, with a 2-3 hour trek leading up to the ridge where the monastery is located. (More on my trip to Bhutan in general later.)
I had no problems on my way up, making it to the top in 1.5 hours. I explored the monastery and surrounding caves, met with monks, chatted with other hikers and police officers. I had a great time.
I started my descent at around 3.30pm in the afternoon. For one-fourth of the route, it was easy going. Descents are easier than climbs anyway and I expected to be down at base camp even quicker than the time it took me to go up. I was even taking the trickier goat paths in certain stretches because I felt confident enough in the route. I mean, I saw and met travellers who were senior citizens. How hard could it be?
And then, it started raining.
Now, I’d been aware that it might rain. It had rained on-and-off for the past week, but mostly it was a manageable drizzle that lasted at most an hour. The weather app that I have – possibly due to a lack of data on the country (based on Forecast.io) – shows forecasts for a very generic “Bhutan”, the entire country, rather than the cities / towns I was in. So although I’d been getting alerts the entire week about long spells of rain, I mostly ignored them since I found they didn’t really apply in real life.
This time, it was a downpour: the kind that you see in typical Indian monsoons. Within minutes, the entire path was caked in mud, rocks turned slippery. I was past the official break point on the route with shelters by this time. The next point would be all the way down at base camp. I made a few crucial mistakes which haunted me…
Mistake #1: I was wearing a pair of running shoes, rather than hiking boots.
Buying hiking boots was actually on my to-do list before I came to Bhutan, since I might need it. (I brought only one pair of shoes with me from the UK.) I’d planned on buying this in Kolkata, where I was flying out from. One thing lead to another and I never found the time to do so. I could possibly have bought them in Thimphu (the capital, where I spent a few days) or even Paro, where I was staying. Thing is, I really like my trainers (they are great trainers) – and since I didn’t have any space in my backpack to carry a spare pair of shoes back, I decided to forego getting the hiking boots.
This would come back to bite me in a big way, since my trainers have practically zero tread or grips on them. On any other day, with dry slopes, this would have been no problem at all on this particular route. Tuesday wasn’t that day.
Mistake #2: I started late on my ascent / descent, especially during off-season.
Typically, hikers make an early start for Tiger’s Nest in the morning, so that they can make their way back by the afternoon. These, to be fair, are mostly people on guided hikes. I started my ascent almost at midday, at 11am. By the time I’d been to the monastery, spent a good two hours exploring the place, and started making my way back it was already pretty late. There were no hikers on the trail, and people from surrounding villages, anticipating a rainy day, had headed back to their homes either near the summit or base camp.
A couple of other groups of hikers I met offered me the chance to join them on their way back. I politely turned them down, because I wanted the chance to enjoy the journey in my own solitude.
Not many people know this about me: I have, or used to have, a crippling fear of falling, especially up/down stairs. (I’m not, however, afraid of heights at all.) I’ve mostly got this under control now in normal circumstances, to the point that I can safely take stairs at work or personal life without freaking out.
And, if you know me, I have generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). I’m prone to panic attacks as well when I feel things spiralling out of control. I’ve mostly got this under control as well in the past few months.
Within minutes of the downpour starting, I knew I was fucked because of my shoes. My feet were finding it hard to find purchase, and the rain had just started so I knew it would get worse. Climbing back to the top or the rest area would be hard – and with my flight leaving tomorrow I’d still be stranded. My weather app predicted a 98% chance of heavy rain till 5am the next morning. While I took that with a pinch of salt given past experience, I still couldn’t discount it. And with a late start, I’d also be losing light very rapidly very soon – on top of the reduced visibility due to heavy rains. I couldn’t count on anyone coming by, because, well, the entire trail had been deserted so far.
This hiking trail isn’t dangerous per se, or even that arduous for that matter. Thousands of people, including the young and the old, do it every year. During the rainy season though the narrow, unguarded pathways and a mix of rocky and muddy pathways instantly turns treacherous. Dozens of hikers end up injuring themselves badly due to the steep and slippery descent even on the best of days.
As the rain went on, I found myself constantly slipping and falling over – thankfully, without hurting myself. But as the descent became steeper and path wetter, it felt like a matter of time before I had a bad fall. I love travelling solo because of the freedom it gives me, and I stay away from organised tours because they feel too fake to me. Even my hotel didn’t know where I had gone or what time I would be back. There wasn’t going to be anyone coming to rescue me, at the very least not until if/when I missed my flights by which stage it would probably be too late for me. And in the middle of the forest with no mobile phone signal, I had no recourse to calling emergency services either.
All of these factors – my bad timing for the descent, inadequate equipment vis-a-vis my shoes, the general off-season solitude on the trail, the heavy rain, my fear of slipping and the accompanying anxiety / panic attacks, that I was alone and nobody was aware where I was, the lack of a mobile phone signal – each individually may not have been that bad. Taken together, it meant only I could ensure I got out alive and the only way (I felt) I could ensure that was going downhill.
I was trying to fight off tears, trying to stave off panic attacks. I needed my wits around. At times, I froze almost entirely on particularly slippery sections, too scared to move at all. Thankfully, I had a walking stick to aid me but whether it was for real or my oncoming panic attacks, I was scared I’d just pivot and fall if I tried to walk.
The path was reduced to two kinds after half an hour of rain: a moss-covered, rocky side next to the hillside; and a smoother, muddier part next the cliff face. I navigated a lot of the sections on the muddier side, hugging the floor – almost sitting down and slowly lowering myself – finding purchase using my walking stick. It was incredibly slow progress. As I descended at a snail’s pace, I was getting scared whether I’d even be able to finish before nightfall. And as my shoes, my jacket, my clothes, my stick became muddier, I started slipping more frequently and for longer stretches.
There were many times when I skid right to the edge of the cliff, frantically trying to claw at mud, tree roots – anything I could – to halt the slide. Every precarious slide, I thought it would by my last.
So I switched tactics, and I started hugging the rocky wall and descending standing up instead. This was somewhat quicker, and thankfully, no slippage at all. But I was scared and aware that with muddy shoes, moss-covered rocks, and shitty shoes there was a very real chance if I did slip, I might break a limb or hit my head. I could bleed out with nobody even thinking of where I was for more than 18 hours at the least. Of the two choices, I felt more reassured hugging the hillside wall. My walking stick flew out of my hand and rolling away, almost teetering on the edge of the cliff one time: I lunged to grab it crawling on all fours because without it, I’d be well and truly fucked.
I…honestly thought I’d die. Even if I didn’t fall a long way down, I’d seriously injure myself in a town / country where healthcare standards are non-existent and anything beyond minor surgeries or fractures need to be airlifted to facilities many hours away in India. I was whimpering. I was crying. I froze on so many occasions. I even started composing goodbye text messages, and then I stopped. What would be the point? I didn’t have a signal, and even if the messages did by some miracle get through, they’d be able to do fuckall for me and I’d just get them scared. If I did die or get injured, I’d rather they found out later. It’s funny which people you think of when you think you’re about to die; it’s a very no-bullshit take from the depth of yourself on which people you care about.
I’ve never truly felt mortal danger, until then. They say you see your life flashing in front of you on such occasions. All I could think of was the next minute, the next step down, and how I’d survive that. All I could think of was how to not freak out.
After three hours, I could see base camp. I was almost there! The only obstacle was the my path was blocked by a line of ten stray dogs. I think dogs can smell fear. Ever since I got chased by a stray dog as a kid, I’m utterly terrified of them…and also, on every single trip I’ve run into stray dogs I’ve been chased by them. (I’m okay with domesticated dogs, mostly because they are usually less ferocious.) And while everyone else in Bhutan goes on about how docile their strays are, the moment I stepped somewhat close to them, this pack started howling and barking.
I made my way through, clutching my walking stick close. I thought I’d cut through them safely, when a couple of them gave chase. I ran, slipping again – still among rocks, still among muddy paths – and in my head I thought “For fuck’s sake, not now, not when I’ve come this far.” If it was a couple of dogs, I could probably beat them away; with ten, I had slimmer chances. There was nobody in sight at base camp at that point; none of the souvenir sellers, snack shops, tea sellers, walking stick sellers (where I picked up mine in the morning). At least even if I got bitten, or broke something, I’d be able to somehow limp to civilisation.
In the end, I made it back safely, without getting hurt, without any cuts or scrapes even. I don’t know how much of how bad it seemed was because it was actually that bad, or whether it was my panic issues.
Why did I do travel alone? Why did I decide to do the hike, when I know I have fear and panic issues? Hiking – yesterday, and in general – for me is a way of confronting my fears. Of being fucking terrified, at the deepest levels of fear that my fucked up brain interprets things, and still coming out on top. On a normal hike, when I make it to the end, it gives me an immense sense of satisfaction and every so slightly diminishes the anxiety I have about falling and my general anxiety issues. Just that it almost didn’t work out for me this time.
Does this mean I’ll stop travelling? Not at all. There have been so many times when I’ve felt unsafe: chased by dogs, felt like I’d be mugged, stranded in the middle of nowhere with no money. lost my passport, found said passport back, question by menacing law enforcement officials (sometimes, angling for a bribe, sometimes not), felt like I’d been drugged, been actually drugged – and now, almost died. I can recount countless bad experiences.
But I can also recount countless good experiences, average experiences, great experiences. I’ve heard so many amazing stories, met so many great people who’ve enriched my outlook on life immensely. On a daily basis, I think the experiences I’ve had travelling – even the bad ones – have shaped how I look at life. And when it comes to my next trip, and as I head back to London, I’m going to look forward to those with renewed appreciation and vigour.
What has truly broke me though, is that last night I was walking within the hotel compound where I was staying – I was staying in a cottage secluded from the main building – and I decided to go to the lobby in the main building for a WiFi connection to check-in to my flights (and also because I couldn’t sleep and thought a walk would do me good). Once again, I got surrounded by a pack of stray dogs snarling away at me. It was around midnight, and there was nobody around among other guests or even hotel staff. I was cornered and had to smack them away with an umbrella I was carrying as they tried to bite me. It took a long while before thing de-escalated and the dogs walked away.
Being attacked on the same day, within a space that I thought I would be safe, made me crumble. The experience of the past few days has made me paranoid, resurfacing my phobia of falling. I’m too scared to step onto any surface that is or can be even remotely.
I couldn’t stop shaking then. I still can’t.