I thought nothing of it. The menu looked incredible, yet all I felt like ordering was tomato soup and mint tea. “Are you okay?” Magellan asked. “Yeah, I think it’s just all those cashews I ate with that cucumber martini when we got back.”
We were at Amankora Gangtey Lodge, my favourite of the places we stayed in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. On a hillside in the Phobjikha Valley, the twelve-room lodge overlooks meadows and forests that lead up to the Black Mountains. Although distant fires hazed the views over most of Bhutan that spring.
Modelled after a traditional farmhouse, the lodge is constructed from local blue-pine timber and stones from a nearby quarry. Its rustic-looking exterior shelters luxury within, a perfection of Japanese minimalism, Swiss-chalet warmth and Bhutanese personality. Our corner room, number six, had heated wooden floors, a large tub overlooking the valley and colourful paintings by local artists. The dinner menu changes daily, offering both Bhutanese and Western options prepared with locally sourced ingredients.
“I’m surprised you’re not having the yak,” Magellan said. “Maybe tomorrow it’ll still be on the menu,” I replied, assuring him it was likely just my pre-dinner gluttony, the heat of the day at this elevation which I’d offset by drinking three litres of water, and that hinky feeling one gets after a month away from home in foreign countries, first Oman, now Bhutan.
I didn’t sleep well, attributing my insomnia to worrying about the hike up Shashila Pass the next day. It wasn’t on the list of Phobjikha Valley activities from Wind Horse Tours. I’d asked for it to be included, mainly because it’s the traditional route for the Gangteps, the local farmers, to pasture their yaks—and I really wanted to see yaks in the wild. Also, it’s one of Bhutan’s few glacial valleys. One side an old growth forest of rhododendrons and oaks, the other sub-tropical, dwarf bamboos and Himalayan orchids I was hoping to find in the wild. I was surprised and worried that because Namgyel, our superb young guide, didn’t know Shasila, that it might be a bummer of a trail.
Tashi drove us to the village of Khelikha, where the steep ascend to Shashila begins behind Beyta School. “I have been here before,” Namgyel said as we crossed a roadside ditch to the unmarked trail. “About six years ago. Now I remember.” He said nothing else. I asked if the hike was worthwhile. Quite nice, he said, and we might see yaks in March, and Tashi would drive around the mountain and meet us on the other side in Tokha village.
In ten minutes I was breathing so hard I wondered if I could continue. Shashila Pass is at 3250 metres. We had to hike six kilometres to reach it—an elevation gain of 1200 metres—4,000 feet in the three kilometre ascent! I remained silent about how I was feeling, which, after all, wasn’t that bad, my habit of carrying on, one foot in front of the other, thoroughly calcified.
There’s a permanent cramp in my memory of what the trail was like. I do remember the dust, the path the colour of a paper bag. Lots of Chir Pine, unique to the Himalayas. And blood-red rhodos with their ostentatious blooms. I don’t recall the white chorten at the top, nor the prayer flags. My diary says Magellan carried my water bottles to the pass.
When we reached the pass and Namgyel brought out the sandwiches the lodge had prepared, I was glad to see plain white bread, white cheese. “Not hungry today?” he asked as I wrapped up most of mine after a few bites. I was more interested in getting close-up photos of the yaks we’d spotted.
Looking at our photos, you can see that Magellan did most of the shooting. I recollect nothing of the walk down the half-pipe of the trail on the other side, not even the village. I do remember Tashi’s smiling face greeting us and being tired and cold on the drive to the lodge. And my diary says the hike took us five hours.
It was likely Magellan who realized what was happening.
I had AMS, Acute Mountain Sickness, the mildest non-threatening form of altitude sickness. Not a hangover from one martini or a headache from too many salty cashews or fatigue from a strenuous hike.
In retrospect, I could have been much sicker from my daunting accretion of foolishness. “Shasila Pass is at 10,663 feet,” Magellan reminded me. “Not a recommended trail for good reason,” he said. “Unless you’re a yak.”
Just because you’re healthy doesn’t mean you won’t get AMS; it happens to Olympic athletes, and young people are more likely to get it than jubilados. About 40% of those of us who ascend to 3000 meters develop some form of altitude illness. Your rate of ascent, the highest altitude you reach and your sleeping altitude (Gangtey Lodge is at 3000 metres) influence the likelihood of developing AMS. Its symptoms (headache, nausea, a hangover feeling, fatigue, disturbed sleep…and a loss of appetite) are sometimes confused with dehydration. Drinking fluids will help but you’re supposed to stop your ascent and rest until your symptoms disappear. If you have a headache, taking an anti-inflammatory drug will help.
Not their first AMS rodeo, the staff at Gangtey Lodge knew exactly what to do. Equipping me with blankets, a hot-water bottle and copious amounts of piping hot tea made from fresh ginger, they built up the flames in the stone fireplace and suggested we sit outside beside it. From our own medical kit that Magellan had equipped before we left Vancouver, I took a few of the altitude sickness pills.
From my mother, who at the age of 64 after a 10 km walk began dinner in Scotland with a milkshake (her “cocktail”; she was not a drinker) followed by a salmon dinner with potatoes and veg, bread and butter, polished off with a slice of bumbleberry pie with ice cream, I’ve inherited a hearty appetite. I should know that its loss is a sure sign there’s something wrong.
As with most people who get AMS, my symptoms disappeared quickly.
I even tried the yak that night: braised and thinly sliced, it was lean and not gamey as you’d expect. Many guests enjoy it according to Pema who responded to my email asking if they still served yak. On the Western menu, it’s a main: “Home-made Smoked Yak Sausage, Charred Cabbage and Dijon Mustard Jus,Roasted Baby Potatoes and Onions.” On the Bhutanese menu, a starter: “Ravioli, Ragout of Drugyel Yak, Fresh Pasta, Sherry Jus, Spinach and Aged Parmesan.” My mother might have ordered both…
Gangtey Lodge I can say, unequivocally, that one of the best and most memorable meals I ate in Bhutan was breakfast the last morning: fluffy buckwheat pancakes served with tomato salsa and yak cheese, which is similar to feta. I’ve taken to making it at home, adding slices of ham…
Shasila Trail, also known as Shasi La Nature Trail