Imagine two descriptions of adventure travel journeys. One is billed as the toughest trek in the world. The other has a staff of seven, a kitchen tent, toilet tents, hot tea served as you arise each morning and hot evening meals with silverware at a large table. As incongruous as it may sound, both are the Snowman Trek, a 24-day horseshoe-shaped journey of 216 miles on foot through the Himalayas in Bhutan.
Why is the Snowman considered so tough? Not only are trekkers hiking nearly 10 miles a day, they traverse 11 high-mountain passes, seven of them over 16,000 feet. In addition to the risks inherent on at times precarious trails and from unpredictable weather, the height of the mountain passes makes altitude sickness a very real — and potentially fatal — danger. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have completed the Snowman Trek, Fewer than 120 people a year attempt the trek; less than 50 percent finish. Or, as one of author Kevin Grange’s fellow trekkers put it, “Everybody cries at some point on the Snowman Trek.”
Were Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World, Grange’s account of his journey, limited to its hazards, trials, and tribulations, one could easily categorize it as an adventure travel tale for those who enjoy such reads. Fortunately. Grange’s scope and journey were far broader. For the armchair traveler, Grange does a fine job of showing readers the nature, history, and landscape of Bhutan, as well as taking us to remote villages and monasteries (including an encounter with a “shit-faced” shaman who is plainly intoxicated when he comes to bless the group in a remote village). He is equally open about what is essentially a personal search for meaning.
As such, Beneath Blossom Rain combines the best of two other recently released works. Noted travel author Colin Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet is a somewhat more heavily philosophical account of his pilgrimage trek from Nepal to a Himalayan mountain in remote western Tibet. A search for meaning and an account of life in Bhutan, a country that actually measures Gross National Happiness and limits the number of tourists, is the focus of Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth. Napoli’s story, though, is set in Bhutan’s capital and largest city, not Himalayan treks.
Two concepts help drive Grange on the trek. One is the western idea of Shangri-La. A friend who completed the Snowman Trek described a high-altitude village in a valley in remotest northern Bhutan as “the most beautiful, most mysterious and most otherworldly place I’ve ever been.” It becomes Grange’s personal idea of Shangri-La and motivates him along the trek. The other is a Tibetan and Bhutanese concept that inspired the book’s title. In local folklore, an auspicious superstition surrounds blossom rain, the moment of rainbow light when it is raining and sunny at the same time. Those Bhutanese he asks about blossom rain provide no better than enigmatic answers about its significance, and his desire to grasp the concept also animates his efforts. Beneath Blossom Rain becomes as much a journal of an internal trek as a Himalayan one, a tale in which we are even privy to Grange’s ongoing debate with his “inner critic.” We also learn with Grange that enlightenment may not always come in places or events we would suspect.
Grange occasionally falls into a few clichés (“like home, sleep felt far away”) and platitudes (“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”). Additionally, some of the conversations with his fellow trekkers and guides seem somewhat artificial, designed more to convey basic information to the reader that someone on the trek would already know. Still, Grange brings a light touch of humor and direct, conversational tone that outweighs these occasional foibles. More important, Beneath Blossom Rain succeeds in merging travelogue with personal contemplation, allowing the armchair traveler to share both the physical and personal journey and taking them beyond a geographic place to a more philosophical one.