I almost died in Bhutan


I almost died in Bhutan. No joke.

Tuesday was my second last day in Bhutan, with my flight out leaving early morning Wednesday. I was spending my time in Paro, where the only international airport in the country is located. My plan was to spend this last day visiting the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery that’s 3,100 metre above sea level. It’s situated high up in a mountains among steep slopes, with a 2-3 hour trek leading up to the ridge where the monastery is located. (More on my trip to Bhutan in general later.)

I had no problems on my way up, making it to the top in 1.5 hours. I explored the monastery and surrounding caves, met with monks, chatted with other hikers and police officers. I had a great time.

I started my descent at around 3.30pm in the afternoon. For one-fourth of the route, it was easy going. Descents are easier than climbs anyway and I expected to be down at base camp even quicker than the time it took me to go up. I was even taking the trickier goat paths in certain stretches because I felt confident enough in the route. I mean, I saw and met travellers who were senior citizens. How hard could it be?

And then, it started raining.

Now, I’d been aware that it might rain. It had rained on-and-off for the past week, but mostly it was a manageable drizzle that lasted at most an hour. The weather app that I have – possibly due to a lack of data on the country (based on – shows forecasts for a very generic “Bhutan”, the entire country, rather than the cities / towns I was in. So although I’d been getting alerts the entire week about long spells of rain, I mostly ignored them since I found they didn’t really apply in real life.

This time, it was a downpour: the kind that you see in typical Indian monsoons. Within minutes, the entire path was caked in mud, rocks turned slippery. I was past the official break point on the route with shelters by this time. The next point would be all the way down at base camp. I made a few crucial mistakes which haunted me…

Mistake #1: I was wearing a pair of running shoes, rather than hiking boots.

Buying hiking boots was actually on my to-do list before I came to Bhutan, since I might need it. (I brought only one pair of shoes with me from the UK.) I’d planned on buying this in Kolkata, where I was flying out from. One thing lead to another and I never found the time to do so. I could possibly have bought them in Thimphu (the capital, where I spent a few days) or even Paro, where I was staying. Thing is, I really like my trainers (they are great trainers) – and since I didn’t have any space in my backpack to carry a spare pair of shoes back, I decided to forego getting the hiking boots.

This would come back to bite me in a big way, since my trainers have practically zero tread or grips on them. On any other day, with dry slopes, this would have been no problem at all on this particular route. Tuesday wasn’t that day.

Mistake #2: I started late on my ascent / descent, especially during off-season.

Typically, hikers make an early start for Tiger’s Nest in the morning, so that they can make their way back by the afternoon. These, to be fair, are mostly people on guided hikes. I started my ascent almost at midday, at 11am. By the time I’d been to the monastery, spent a good two hours exploring the place, and started making my way back it was already pretty late. There were no hikers on the trail, and people from surrounding villages, anticipating a rainy day, had headed back to their homes either near the summit or base camp.

A couple of other groups of hikers I met offered me the chance to join them on their way back. I politely turned them down, because I wanted the chance to enjoy the journey in my own solitude.


Not many people know this about me: I have, or used to have, a crippling fear of falling, especially up/down stairs. (I’m not, however, afraid of heights at all.) I’ve mostly got this under control now in normal circumstances, to the point that I can safely take stairs at work or personal life without freaking out.

And, if you know me, I have generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). I’m prone to panic attacks as well when I feel things spiralling out of control. I’ve mostly got this under control as well in the past few months.

Within minutes of the downpour starting, I knew I was fucked because of my shoes. My feet were finding it hard to find purchase, and the rain had just started so I knew it would get worse. Climbing back to the top or the rest area would be hard – and with my flight leaving tomorrow I’d still be stranded. My weather app predicted a 98% chance of heavy rain till 5am the next morning. While I took that with a pinch of salt given past experience, I still couldn’t discount it. And with a late start, I’d also be losing light very rapidly very soon – on top of the reduced visibility due to heavy rains. I couldn’t count on anyone coming by, because, well, the entire trail had been deserted so far.

This hiking trail isn’t dangerous per se, or even that arduous for that matter. Thousands of people, including the young and the old, do it every year. During the rainy season though the narrow, unguarded pathways and a mix of rocky and muddy pathways instantly turns treacherous. Dozens of hikers end up injuring themselves badly due to the steep and slippery descent even on the best of days.

As the rain went on, I found myself constantly slipping and falling over – thankfully, without hurting myself. But as the descent became steeper and path wetter, it felt like a matter of time before I had a bad fall. I love travelling solo because of the freedom it gives me, and I stay away from organised tours because they feel too fake to me. Even my hotel didn’t know where I had gone or what time I would be back. There wasn’t going to be anyone coming to rescue me, at the very least not until if/when I missed my flights by which stage it would probably be too late for me. And in the middle of the forest with no mobile phone signal, I had no recourse to calling emergency services either.

All of these factors – my bad timing for the descent, inadequate equipment vis-a-vis my shoes, the general off-season solitude on the trail, the heavy rain, my fear of slipping and the accompanying anxiety / panic attacks, that I was alone and nobody was aware where I was, the lack of a mobile phone signal – each individually may not have been that bad. Taken together, it meant only I could ensure I got out alive and the only way (I felt) I could ensure that was going downhill.

I was trying to fight off tears, trying to stave off panic attacks. I needed my wits around. At times, I froze almost entirely on particularly slippery sections, too scared to move at all. Thankfully, I had a walking stick to aid me but whether it was for real or my oncoming panic attacks, I was scared I’d just pivot and fall if I tried to walk.

At the bottom of the tricky slope
At the bottom of the tricky slope

The path was reduced to two kinds after half an hour of rain: a moss-covered, rocky side next to the hillside; and a smoother, muddier part next the cliff face. I navigated a lot of the sections on the muddier side, hugging the floor – almost sitting down and slowly lowering myself – finding purchase using my walking stick. It was incredibly slow progress. As I descended at a snail’s pace, I was getting scared whether I’d even be able to finish before nightfall. And as my shoes, my jacket, my clothes, my stick became muddier, I started slipping more frequently and for longer stretches.

There were many times when I skid right to the edge of the cliff, frantically trying to claw at mud, tree roots – anything I could – to halt the slide. Every precarious slide, I thought it would by my last.

So I switched tactics, and I started hugging the rocky wall and descending standing up instead. This was somewhat quicker, and thankfully, no slippage at all. But I was scared and aware that with muddy shoes, moss-covered rocks, and shitty shoes there was a very real chance if I did slip, I might break a limb or hit my head. I could bleed out with nobody even thinking of where I was for more than 18 hours at the least. Of the two choices, I felt more reassured hugging the hillside wall. My walking stick flew out of my hand and rolling away, almost teetering on the edge of the cliff one time: I lunged to grab it crawling on all fours because without it, I’d be well and truly fucked.

I…honestly thought I’d die. Even if I didn’t fall a long way down, I’d seriously injure myself in a town / country where healthcare standards are non-existent and anything beyond minor surgeries or fractures need to be airlifted to facilities many hours away in India. I was whimpering. I was crying. I froze on so many occasions. I even started composing goodbye text messages, and then I stopped. What would be the point? I didn’t have a signal, and even if the messages did by some miracle get through, they’d be able to do fuckall for me and I’d just get them scared. If I did die or get injured, I’d rather they found out later. It’s funny which people you think of when you think you’re about to die; it’s a very no-bullshit take from the depth of yourself on which people you care about.

I’ve never truly felt mortal danger, until then. They say you see your life flashing in front of you on such occasions. All I could think of was the next minute, the next step down, and how I’d survive that. All I could think of was how to not freak out.

Blocked by stray dogs on my way to base camp
Blocked by stray dogs on my way to base camp

After three hours, I could see base camp. I was almost there! The only obstacle was the my path was blocked by a line of ten stray dogs. I think dogs can smell fear. Ever since I got chased by a stray dog as a kid, I’m utterly terrified of them…and also, on every single trip I’ve run into stray dogs I’ve been chased by them. (I’m okay with domesticated dogs, mostly because they are usually less ferocious.) And while everyone else in Bhutan goes on about how docile their strays are, the moment I stepped somewhat close to them, this pack started howling and barking.

I made my way through, clutching my walking stick close. I thought I’d cut through them safely, when a couple of them gave chase. I ran, slipping again – still among rocks, still among muddy paths – and in my head I thought “For fuck’s sake, not now, not when I’ve come this far.” If it was a couple of dogs, I could probably beat them away; with ten, I had slimmer chances. There was nobody in sight at base camp at that point; none of the souvenir sellers, snack shops, tea sellers, walking stick sellers (where I picked up mine in the morning). At least even if I got bitten, or broke something, I’d be able to somehow limp to civilisation.

In the end, I made it back safely, without getting hurt, without any cuts or scrapes even. I don’t know how much of how bad it seemed was because it was actually that bad, or whether it was my panic issues.


Why did I do travel alone? Why did I decide to do the hike, when I know I have fear and panic issues? Hiking – yesterday, and in general – for me is a way of confronting my fears. Of being fucking terrified, at the deepest levels of fear that my fucked up brain interprets things, and still coming out on top. On a normal hike, when I make it to the end, it gives me an immense sense of satisfaction and every so slightly diminishes the anxiety I have about falling and my general anxiety issues. Just that it almost didn’t work out for me this time.

Does this mean I’ll stop travelling? Not at all. There have been so many times when I’ve felt unsafe: chased by dogs, felt like I’d be mugged, stranded in the middle of nowhere with no money. lost my passport, found said passport back, question by menacing law enforcement officials (sometimes, angling for a bribe, sometimes not), felt like I’d been drugged, been actually drugged – and now, almost died. I can recount countless bad experiences.

But I can also recount countless good experiences, average experiences, great experiences. I’ve heard so many amazing stories, met so many great people who’ve enriched my outlook on life immensely. On a daily basis, I think the experiences I’ve had travelling – even the bad ones – have shaped how I look at life. And when it comes to my next trip, and as I head back to London, I’m going to look forward to those with renewed appreciation and vigour.


What has truly broke me though, is that last night I was walking within the hotel compound where I was staying – I was staying in a cottage secluded from the main building – and I decided to go to the lobby in the main building for a WiFi connection to check-in to my flights (and also because I couldn’t sleep and thought a walk would do me good). Once again, I got surrounded by a pack of stray dogs snarling away at me. It was around midnight, and there was nobody around among other guests or even hotel staff. I was cornered and had to smack them away with an umbrella I was carrying as they tried to bite me. It took a long while before thing de-escalated and the dogs walked away.

Being attacked on the same day, within a space that I thought I would be safe, made me crumble. The experience of the past few days has made me paranoid, resurfacing my phobia of falling. I’m too scared to step onto any surface that is or can be even remotely.

I couldn’t stop shaking then. I still can’t.


23 hours in Istanbul airport

There are a few things you need to know if you’re flying Turkish Airlines via Istanbul and have to spend 23 hours there.

If you have a transit layover longer than 10 hours due to their schedule, they provide you a free stay at Istanbul airport hotel. The ‘their schedule’ part is the important bit, because it means you’re not entitled to a free hotel if there’s an alternative flight for their connecting leg which has a gap of less than 10 hours for the layover. (I was hoping that someone at their transit desk wouldn’t know the distinction well enough or give me a room anyway, but no luck.)

Turkish Airlines also offer a free tour of Istanbul at specific times during the day. This is an excellent way of eking out more out of your layover. You do need to pay for tourist visa though as you’ll have to pass through passport control landside.

You could also try paying to get lounge access at Istanbul airport – if you don’t have free access to one already, that is. (HSBC card holders are particularly in luck as any HSBC Premier card gets them lounge access. Any other HSBC card holders can get access for 50 Turkish lira.)

Failing everything, you can always sleep like a hobo.


Book abandoned

I often used to buy used or “one-off read” books when travelling. Most hip hostels offer some kind of book exchange; this is where I tend to pick them up. And thus started a ritual – inspired by Paul Carr’s The Upgrade: whenever I’m at an airport or a train station or just at a café when I happen to finish reading these one-off books, I leave them behind with a short review. The rationale is that a book that would otherwise have stagnated on my shelf gets a new life and keeps another traveller company.

I like sticking around to see who picks the book up. (Mea culpa, I can be creepy.) It’s fun to note how much time each book takes to be picked because people do judge a book by its cover. Most passengers at an airport are in a hurry anyway and don’t like to pick up books which don’t immediately scream out “this is an easy read!”. What I’ve found works best is to leave it behind at a Starbucks or similarly ‘upmarket’ coffee chain; presumably because people stopping by at a cafe have time to kill. It’s also a question of logistics: if you leave it behind in a restaurant instead, books left behind are sure to be cleared away by waiters.

Some books are harder to get picked up than others. The one in the photo above (Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston – a used book that I bought from a friend when I was in Singapore) was a particularly tough one. Interesting books get looked at regardless. Less striking ones…I can only assume passers-by think it’s being used to reserve a table. Sometimes I need to leave a note outside the book too saying that it can be picked up for free.

I leave behind my Twitter handle on those reviews too. I hope to hear back from someone who’s picked up my books some day. And I hope they pass it on when they finish too.

Now that I own a Kindle, I hardly ever buy paper books. I’ve slowly been giving away my entire book collection: either by gifting it to friends or by leaving it behind in public places like this.


I missed my first flight ever, this weekend when flying back to Delhi. My flight was at 1050, I woke up at 0920. I felt incredibly helpless and frustrated that this happened because I overslept, due to medication that knocks me out as a side effect.

I don’t know why I spent £45 on a taxi to take me from Guildford to Gatwick; there was no way I was going to make the flight. The woman at Turkish Airlines counter was quite helpful when I explained my situation to her. While I looked for alternative flights online, she checked on their system for how much it would cost to rebook on a different date. I’d bought my tickets at an incredibly cheap promotional price of £400 round-trip from London to Delhi, way back in August. And the news was bad: I’d have to spend £530 to pay for the fare difference if I wanted to fly the next day.

I almost didn’t take it. I haven’t been back to Delhi for two years because to me it boils down to simple economics: given the choice of spending £600-800 on return tickets to Delhi, or spending the same amount cumulatively going on a holiday elsewhere, I’d rather take the holiday. I’d rather take a new experience over an old one.

I’ve discussed this need I feel to constantly somewhere else often with my therapist. At the root of what I’ve been trying to get to is why do I want to avoid going back to Delhi? I spent a sizeable chunk of my life there and despite the ties I have to the place, I don’t find myself drawn back. I don’t know the answer why – and now with a missed flight I found myself with a solid excuse to bail on the trip. I really didn’t want to spend an extra £600 (once I threw in lounge access, food during layover, et al), partly because I didn’t even have that much money in my UK bank account.

Such situations crop up constantly when travelling. Things don’t go according to plan and then you need to make a snap decision: do I pay a high sum of money to do what I wanted to anyway, or bail? I found myself thinking of how much I agreed with Seth Kugel’s The Argument Against Pound-Foolish Travel. One thing I’ve learned while travelling is to never walk away from something writing it off as “too expensive” because if it’s something that caught my attention, I will regret not doing it when I think of that trip. And more than my family, what I found myself thinking is that I owed it to my therapist to explore what is it exactly that makes me want to avoid Delhi. My therapist! I’m more concerned about what my therapist thinks of me than my family.

Have you noticed the awkwardness yet? I danced all over the place in the above paragraphs to avoid using “home” and “Delhi” in the same sentence. Because I simply find myself unable to call any place “home” with conviction.

In the end, I just felt like I was having this same fucking conversation over and over again with myself. I wanted to put an end to that. I emptied my Indian and UK bank accounts out to buy myself that amended ticket. And you know what I found myself excited about? Not the flying back. I found myself excited about the fact that I would have a 23 hour layover in Istanbul airport “because it would be a new experience”.

Sometimes I do wonder what’s wrong with me.


There’s something about airports that I find oddly calming. An airport is one of those places where time loses meaning – like a casino – yet the pace of human activity round-the-clock is so measured. The cavernous halls just seem to swallow up all sound. There’s a faint murmur of snappy footsteps on tiles and the click of luggage wheels. I find this atmosphere to be incredibly Zen – an epitome of ‘the state of being‘.

I couldn’t blag a free hotel stay, so I headed to the lounges. Oh how I agonised over not trying to look like an unwashed backpacker (which I pretty much was by that point). But before I paid, I asked one of the other travellers in the queue whether he’d sign me in as a guest. And he did! Sometimes, you just have to ask.

I was looking forward to my layover as it would offer me an excellent opportunity for people watching. It’s calming to simply zone out and watch people go by in a busy place like an airport, trying to think about the story of how they got here and where they are heading to. A businessman in an expensive looking suit and a fancy briefcase sprawled across a bench sleeping – how did he not get himself a hotel? The girl working the graveyard shift at a pastry shop. The woman in Versace trousers walking barefoot, carrying broken heels in her hands. The chef at a food court restaurant laying out fresh baklava in the morning. The guard who was all for giving me a tough grilling at a security checkpoint…until I spoke the few Turkish phrases I knew, whence he immediately changed his attitude and waved me along smilingly. A kid who was crawling around a busy terminal gate, his parents seemingly didn’t care about keeping an eye out.

Somehow, these characters I notice at airports stick with me. I think it’s because it’s a time when I slow down and just ‘be’ in the moment.