[Photographer] Matthieu [Paley] rests fitfully. He's listening for a dreaded sound: the low, keening whistle that signals the approach of the migoi, Bhutan's breed of Abominable Snowman. He's obsessed with the monster, convinced it will come for him in the night. Here, at base camp, we're utterly vulnerable. Matthieu is afraid, very afraid.
* * * *
He has reason to be. To begin with, we're the freshest meat around. But the real source of his terror is an experience he had a week ago when, driving toward central Bhutan, we'd spent a night in Tongsa.
Tongsa lies seven hours east by car from Thimphu. Aside from its textile-and-tuna bazaar, the main attraction is a magnificent dzong. Dzongs are found in many of Bhutan's historic citiesthey're both monasteries and administrative centers, demonstrating the close link between religion and politics in this Buddhist monarchybut Tongsa's may be the most impressive in the country. It's a sprawling white fortress perched high above a seemingly infinite valley.
Foreigners are forbidden in most of Bhutan's dzongs, unless they have official permission. One morning, thoughwhile Kesang [our official Tourism Authority liaison] was still sleeping and before the guards took their postsMatthieu passed the site while taking photographs in the old city. He spied an open doorway and stood paralyzed, unsure whether to proceed. Suddenly, he heard a whistle. A monk loomed in an upper-story window, beckoning him inside.
Following the drone of chanting, he made his way through the door to the monastery. After crossing a small courtyardthere was no one in sighthe climbed a narrow stairway. Now he was at the entrance of the main lhakhang (chapel), surrounded by the unearthly din. At that moment, he looked upand saw, hanging in the shadows, three flayed skins. Each had black hair, dangling limbs, and long, splayed fingers. He tried to photograph them, but his hands shook violently. He fled from the dzong, and appeared at breakfast with wild eyes.
The sight had unnerved him completely. It was possible these were human hidesthat in itself was a nightmarish thought. More likely, though, they were the skins of migoi. He'd read, in a 1961 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, of one dzong that claimed to possess such hides. Could the creatures really exist? Matthieu was now certain that they did. He also believed that, somehow, stumbling upon the forbidden sight had cursed himand that the migoi could smell his fear.
"Did you hear that?" Matthieu sits up with a start, breathless. It's 2 a.m.
I grunt no and fall back to sleepsnoring, so I've been told, with a low, keening whistle.
* * * *
Dawn is silent and clear. We dress quickly and begin walking while the snow is still firm. The scenery around us is otherworldly. I feel like a space traveler, crossing the polar caps of Mars. There's very little life. We see only a few quick birds, as well as some fragrant shrubs sheltered by gleaming white chunks of granite. Leathery, rust-colored lichen covers the rocks.
In dry conditions, the main Gangkar Punsum glacier is almost two hours away. We stay above the river, crossing avalanche scree and frozen marshes on numbing feet. By nine o'clock the crust has thinned, and every step is a gamble. We sink to our waists in the softening snow. Despite our resolve, the effort and altitude wind us. We can go no farther.
A short climb affords us a magnificent view of the three-pronged massif. The flank of Gangkar Punsum is shrouded in clouds. I shed my pack on a dry boulder, taking in the majesty of the scene. Knowing it's unclimbed gives Gangkar Punsum an aura of mysterylike the moon's, before the Apollo astronauts turned it into a used-car lot.
But even Gangkar Punsum may not remain unspoiled forever. Its primary threat is the Chinese, who might someday issue permits to climb the peak from their side of the border.
For my part, I agree with Bhutan's policy. There should remain at least one mountain of real height that stays forever unclimbed. If Gangkar Punsum goes, what will that leave us? Forbidden peaks are an endangered speciesand below a certain altitude there's no real impact to the gesture.
For now, though, this whole valley demonstrates the strength of Bhutan's convictions. As we hike back to base camp, our experience seems an apt reflection of the kingdom's attitude toward the outside world. Gangkar Punsum let us get closebut not too close.
Get the full story of the otherworldly adventures of Jeff and Matthieuand a guide to unlocking Bhutanin the November/December issue. (Subscribe today.)
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