Land of Thunder

Land of Thunder

Last fall, my fiancé, Karen, and I traveled to a country I have been wanting to visit for a dozen years. The Himalayan country that proudly measures the Gross National Happiness, instead of the Gross National Product.

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It is the land of 24,000-foot high mountains, many beautiful old forts, called Dzongs, and the friendliest people I have ever met in all of my world travels. Bhutan is the name of this kingdom. It calls itself the Land of the Thunder Dragon. This scenic country is located between Tibet (China) to the north, and India to the south. Nepal is nearby to the west. We spent 11 days there, and although we never got higher than 13,000 feet, it is the most mountainous country I have encountered. Bhutan has a population of 755,000 people and is the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined, thus it is sparsely populated.

While touring Bhutan, I never encountered poverty-stricken populations. I think most people are comfortably middle class, or live happily on their small farms. The number one export of Bhutan is the electricity, which they produce from the numerous mountain rivers flowing from the many snowy peaks. Most of the people under 40 speak English. They are a Buddhist nation with a deep-rooted culture of always being kind and considerate to others.

Our driver, Tshewang, and guide Jigme, with Prado Land Cruiser

FJ70 Ambulance near Trongsa

Bhutanese also have something in common with the readers of this magazine. Yes, they love Toyota off-road capable vehicles. I saw a plethora of older and current Land Cruisers throughout my stay in Bhutan. The travel guide company I used, Druk Asia, offers the Toyota Prado Land Cruisers for exploration. We had a guide, named Jigme, and a driver named Tshewang, dedicated to our entire stay. Why would I want a Land Cruiser? I have been driving my FJ60 “Precious” for 35 years. I take her to Utah every year to places like the Maze, the Needles, Lockhart Basin, and the Hole in the Rock Trail. I love Land Cruisers, and other Toyota off-road vehicles because of their reliability and capability. The road from Thimphu, the Capital of Bhutan, to our ultimate destination, the Bumthang Valley, is almost 200 miles of very tight twisty mountainous roads, each way, and half of those miles were on rough unpaved roads with harrowing drop-offs. I wanted to be in something I trusted. 

Traveling on the Bumthang Highway

Toyota Prado Land Cruiser on the Bumthang Hwy

Every day started with a breakfast most Americans would recognize. Then off we went in the Land Cruiser to go to our next destination. Along the way we visited beautiful old Dzongs, quaint villages, amazing temples, idyllic farms, and magical holy sites. The Dzongs were once 16th and 17th century forts, but most have been turned into either Buddhist temples, monasteries, or sometime as government offices. They are stunningly beautiful and meticulously well preserved. Our guide took us on hikes in the beautiful countryside. Children would run after us, laughing, smiling and saying “hello.” Lunch and dinner were more local fare, which frankly didn’t offer a lot of variety, but offered enough nutritious vegetables and meat to keep us satisfied. Everything was clean and in order. All the bathrooms we saw were not only fastidious, but fashionable.

Young girl carrying her little brother in Tang Valley

 When we finally got to rural Bumthang Valley on day 4, we hiked from 8,000 feet up to 11,000 feet, had a hot picnic prepared by our guide, then returned to the valley floor where a camp was set up and waiting for us. We were offered the local lager, but better than that is the local whiskey, which I liked so much, we brought 4 bottles back with us. It’s the best $3.75 a quart whiskey I have ever had in my life! After another typical Bhutanese dinner of chicken curry, vegetable and yak milk soup, chiles with cheese, turnip leaves, dumplings, noodles, and the ubiquitous pink rice, we got a good night’s sleep in our tent. 

Buddist monks having lunch near Gangtey

The highlight of our trip was a couple of days later: the trek to the Bumdra Mountain Camp outside of Paro, followed by a descent to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutans most famous sight. It was a strenuous hike from 9,300 feet up to 12,700 feet. It took us all morning. Once we arrived, there were a lot of tents and camp chairs set up, like I imagine an African Safari outfitter would do. We were offered hot tea with yak butter as we sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the view. Our tent was a walk-in with a queen size cot and plenty of blankets and quilts. After regaining our ambition, we climbed the remaining 300 arduous feet up to 13,000 feet and hung prayer flags we had bought in Paro, with names of our loved ones inscribed on each. Prayer flags were everywhere in the mountains and the countryside, especially Bumdra Mountain, and we wanted to experience hanging them ourselves. 

After sunset, we had a communal feast of the usual suspects of culinary delights offered to us seemingly every other night. But we were hungry, so it tasted good. We enjoyed a night of interesting conversation with our hosts, our guide, and some fellow trekkers. When we turned in for the night, we were each given hot water bottles to help fend off the mountain air that was quickly falling to below 40 degrees. We slept well thanks to the physical exertion earlier that morning and the Bhutanese Grain Whiskey. 

This man bought this FJ62 from the Royal Family 16 years ago.

The next morning, Jigme, our guide was a little hungover, but it was all downhill from there...literally, not figuratively. We hiked down, down, down, to the Tiger’s Nest. Most people hike up to it from the Tiger’s Nest parking lot. But our climb was behind us. The Tiger’s Nest was beautiful. We toured the entire monastery. By the time we got all the way down to our waiting Land Cruiser, we were more tired than the climb up the day before. Probably because we were never afforded a day to recover. The next day, we said goodbye to Jigme and our driver Tshewang, and flew to Katmandu, Nepal for the rest of our Himalayan adventure. They both did a great job, and never failed to stop the Land Cruiser and let me take a picture. 

Map of our route on the Bumthang Highway

To end my story, I would like to expound on the very capable Land Cruiser Prado that ferried us across Bhutan’s rough mountain road on this trip. The Land Cruiser Prado our agency provided us with is the same body and engine as the Lexus GX, but with two differences:  it has a ladder frame and it has a lot less luxury than either a Lexus GX or any Land Cruiser sold new in the U.S. the past 22 years. It is also half the price. It has a gasoline fed V8, two speed transfer cases, and as many as 6 speeds in either automatic or manual transmissions. Unlike the U.S. spec 200 Series, the Prado does not have a lot of expensive technology. There is no Crawl Control, Multi Terrain Monitor, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, Torsion Limited Slip Differential, Multi Terrain Select or Off-road Turn Assist. I doubt you can even get heated seats and memory seating! ARB does offer one of their lockers that can be installed in this Prado version of the Land Cruiser. As I noted earlier, I have been driving my FJ60 for 35 years and I take it to Utah every year. I love my “Precious” truck (her name), but sometimes I wish I could get a new Land Cruiser that had 400k less miles than mine, plenty of room like mine, and yes, a fuel injected V8 engine. I would like a U.S. Land Cruiser without all of the expensive fancy luxury and technical gizmos. Sadly, the Prado is offered just about everywhere BUT North America. Toyota…. are you listening?


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