Hikers brave landslides for Bhutan's health

This month, a hearty team will trek 350 miles over Himalayan peaks to fund the country's healthcare system.

Asked to describe the route of his upcoming 350-mile walk for charity, Lyonpo Ngedup is succinct: "You start climbing down, then you start climbing up. Then you start climbing down, then you start climbing up."

Eventually, 15 days later, he should arrive in Thimphu, capital of Bhutan, a misty mountain kingdom wedged between China and India. That is, if his team doesn't fall prey to landslides or wild animals first. Then, having raised millions to fund Bhutan's health service, he hopes, he will go back to work – as Minister of Health.

As sponsored walks go, Mr. Ngedup's takes some beating. The trail zigzags across Bhutan from East to West, passes over 12 major peaks – some higher than 13,000 feet – and plunges through subtropical gorges and swollen glacial rivers. Local guides will relay the six-man team along an old mule trail, which has been replaced by a road. The walk starts Sept. 25 from the eastern town of Trashigang, close to the Indian border.

It will be a first for Bhutan, an isolated Buddhist nation, where charity fundraisers are an exotic foreign import. But 49-year-old Ngedup is more than a trendsetter out to turn his country on to the importance of healthy living and proper hygiene. He also hopes to raise enough money to provide basic drugs and vaccines to everyone in Bhutan, free of charge.

All proceeds from the walk will go to a tax-free trust fund that currently stands at $11 million, with another $5 million contribution due next month. Among the initial donors are Bill and Melinda Gates, the governments of Norway and New Zealand, and the government of Bhutan itself. This week, during an official visit to Bangkok, Ngedup scooped up another $10,000 gift from Thailand.

That leaves an estimated shortfall of $8 million that Ngedup wants to raise to bring the health fund up to $24 million – enough to generate sufficient interest to cover all the country's annual drug procurement costs, estimated this year at $1.6 million.

Bhutan relies on foreign aid to pay for about half of its essential health services. A trust could decrease its dependence on donations and, in the long term, allow health planners to train specialists and improve hospital management.

Ngedup says his epic walk is also a way of paying tribute to the nation's 2,600 health workers, who often walk all day to reach remote villages and restock clinic pharmacies. "Our terrain is rugged, unfriendly – and beautiful," he says. "The population is scattered and to bring them services is nightmarish."

International experts say that despite these obstacles, Bhutan has made impressive strides over the last two decades in primary health care. Since 1984, infant mortality has fallen from 103 deaths per 1,000 live births to 60, while infant immunization has risen to 90 percent. The landlocked nation may lag economically behind neighbors India and China, since 79 percent of its population are farmers, but most of its people have access to clean water, sewage treatment, and medication.

Not that Bhutan places too much emphasis on international standards for development. Its British-educated monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has long preferred to measure his nation's development in terms of cultural pride and spiritual fulfillment – what he calls Gross National Happiness – than economically, through its gross national product.

Ngedup has been training since May for the walk. Most weekends have found him hiking up and down Bhutan's soaring peaks with a 55-pound pack strapped to his back. Now, he eagerly ticks off the likely obstacles in his path.

No. 1: landslides. "After the monsoon, the stones get quite loose, and the big boulders can fall and crush you to pieces. This is not an exaggeration." Two, bears: "[They] attack without any warning and the first thing they like to hit is your face." Three is nocturnal cats (leopards and tigers); four is dysentery. And five?

"Leeches," he cries with a gleam in his eye, provoking peals of laughter from his two aides. "Terrible, terrible," he mutters.

• For sponsorship and other information, see: www.move4health.gov.bt.

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