… a visitor’s spiritual journey through Bhutan

Jigmi Wangdi 

Karen Darke has been paralyzed from the chest down following a sea cliff climbing accident when she was only 21. She turned 51 this year.

A Paralympic Gold Medalist, para-triathlete, and author, Karen Darke has travelled the world despite her limitations. Karen was one of the many foreigners who entered Bhutan on September 23.

Karen and her team of nine other foreigners cycled from Paro to Bumthang. She said that it had been a lifelong dream to visit Bhutan.

“I wanted to come to Bhutan 30 years ago when I first heard about it,” she said.

Ever since her recovery, Karen has been able to hand-cycle around many of the Himalayan ranges in countries such as Pakistan, India, and Nepal but never Bhutan.

“The fabric of Buddhism, of compassion and of kindness is so strong here and that makes it a special country, it is a privilege to be here,” she said.

She said that the USD 200 sustainable development fund was a very interesting module that would ensure Bhutan manage its foreign visitors while also serving as a means to increase the nation’s income.

“The SDF safeguards Bhutan’s unique identity that focuses on the values of sustainability and protection of the natural environment. For most people, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit,” she added.

Karen said that the values that the country is trying to promote are something that every Bhutanese embodies.

“Everywhere we’ve been you just feel like people care for each other, the environment and for nature. So it is very special for us to come and experience that,” she said.

Karen shared that she was able to feel the ‘High Value’ that the country wants foreigners to find when visiting.

“Where else do you get to sleep in a monastery with the monks and chant prayers at 4 in the morning with nuns and have dinner with a reincarnated Rinpoche,” she said. “It really has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Before coming to Bhutan, Karen did not know any of the other group members. She said that the spiritual element of Bhutan has enabled them to become great friends during their trip.

For Karen, the journey to Bhutan was focused on inner gold.  She said that it is different for everybody but in essence, it is about that peace and happiness inside.

“Many people in my country and other countries face mental health problems. I know it exists in Bhutan as well but the values underneath the society here are very strong from Buddhist principles, compassion and care coming from family and connections with flourishing nature,” she said.

She said all these aspects can help a person find the gold that’s inside, as most people lose it when their life gets hard.

On her last day, Karen went up to Taktsang with her group who came through MyBhutan, a local tour operator. Along with her guides, a group of bodybuilders joined them to help carry Karen all the way up to the monastery.

Karen said that the entire experience of hand-cycling in Bhutan to climbing to Taktsang was an extraordinary experience. “All of the members in our group cried today when we reached the Tiger’s Nest. The emotions we felt were not only from the climb but from everything that we felt in Bhutan.”

Karen said that she remains hopeful to return to Bhutan in the future.