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  • Bhutan: The Dragon Kingdom

    The Himalayan mountain range, the tallest on the planet, always held my fascination. At long last I was able to experience them and from a little known country—Bhutan—that has a magic and charm of its own. 

     

    I traveled to Bhutan rather than Tibet or Nepal because fewer people go there. Bhutan considers mountains to be sacred, so you can't climb them. You can only gaze at them from their base and appreciate their majesty. There aren't any mountain climbers, rescue helicopters, or base camps full of technical equipment and satellite radios. Trekkers in Bhutan look for serenity, not the glory of conquering mountain tops.

    An Overlooked Country

    Many people haven't heard of Bhutan. It is a small country tucked between China to the north and east, and India to the south and west. The country is so small and so agrarian that it’s amazing that neither China nor India have tried to annex it. Bhutan does not have any formal diplomatic association with China, but it is closely connected to India through economic and military ties.

    Bhutan exports 75% of its hydroelectric power to India while India supplies a transient work force to Bhutan for construction and road repair jobs. As I rode through the country I saw many Indian work crews living in small shacks on the side of the road. Men, women, and children were on those crews.

    The small Bhutanese army is trained by the Indian Army and relies on the Indian Air Force for air assistance. I saw a number of Indian troops at many of the small army outposts I passed on our trek. I wasn't allowed to take any photographs of the army outposts, which were modest compounds that didn't appear to be equipped with much more than a few people who could serve as a checkpoint.

     

    A Challenging Landing

    Bhutan sits on the slopes of the eastern Himalayan mountains. The terrain consists of hills, mountains, and valleys, with most people living in the valleys where they can grow crops. There really aren’t any wide open plains like the midwest in the United States. Being landlocked, Bhutan doesn’t have a coastline.

    With no open, flat spaces, it is not easy for jet planes to get into and out of the country. The Paro valley where the airport is located isn’t very long and it is often subject to high winds. Planes must weave their way between mountains as they descend towards the airport. The runway never really comes into view until the last turn around the last set of mountains. Then, it’s time to straighten out the plane for the landing. At that point, the plane is only a few hundred feet off the ground.

    From the passengers perspective, the wings look dangerously close to the trees. It’s because of these physical challenges that pilots can land only during the day and when the weather is good so they can have a clear view of the landing. All planes going to Bhutan first stop in India or Bangladesh. (My plane stopped in Bangladesh.) Then, if conditions are good for a visual landing, the plane continues. Only eight pilots are certified to land there. And only one airline, Drukair, flies there.

    To get an idea of what it is like to fly into Bhutan, see this video:

    Real Paro Bhutan Landing 15 A319 Cockpit

    Despite the fact the landing video gives me chills every time I see it, I must admit that I enjoyed the actual landing. It was the beginning of a dream trip for me. As I saw the houses and trees flying by, my thoughts were occupied with the adventure I was about to begin.

    Travel Info

    I traveled with Geographic Expeditions on the Sacred Summits of Bhutan trip. This 14-day journey includes 8 nights on the trail and several days before and after the trek to experience the life and culture of the Bhutanese people.

  • Trekking in Bhutan: Day 1 from Drukyel Dzong

    It’s amazing to think about the amount of people, horses, and equipment that is needed to take 8 Americans on a 9-day trek. Besides our trip leader, Tashi, and our guide, Pema, we had 10 camp staff. Some dedicated to us and some dedicated to managing the 28 horses who carried our packs, food, tents, stove, cooking fuel, and other essentials. Some of the horses who carried our gear.

     

    After the warm up hike to the Tiger’s Nest on the previous day, we were all ready to begin our adventure. We started from Drukyel Dzong at an elevation just over 8,200 feet. Today's hike was an easy 11.2 miles; it had an elevation gain of only 1,624 feet. Much the hike was on dirt roads through small villages.

    Children Learn English

    After only a few miles of walking past homesteads, we came upon a school. The children happened to be on a break. Many of them were running out the door of the school to play or visit the small store across the street. When they saw us, they ran to the fence to greet us with a big "Hello." One girl saluted.

     

    Most of them were eager to pose for our cameras and even more delighted when we showed them their image on the camera's LCD screen. 

    Red Rice is the Staple of the Diet

    We walked past fields and fields of red rice. Along with hot peppers, this is one of the everyday foods eaten by the Bhutanese. So, too, it became one of the staples of our diet on this trek. I often had the opportunity to eat red rice twice a day. It is served rather bland, with no flavoring, but serves to cut the heat of the pepper and cheese dish that is also commonly served on a daily basis.

     

    As I walked, I heard a continuous whirring sound. It got louder with every step until I finally came upon the source. It was a foot-powered thresher. Entire families—men, women, and children were in the rice fields harvesting. One person would constantly pump the thresher while others cut large bundles of rice and brought them to the thresher where the grain was separated from the rest of the plant. 

     

    Outdoing the Aussies

    I lied before when I said the horses were carrying essentials. At our first lunch stop on this trek I discovered that some of the items weren't really essential. Like the table and chairs that appeared at the lunch stop and every lunch stop thereafter.
    On this portion of the trek, we seemed to be playing leap frog with an Aussie group. They'd take a break and we would pass them. Then we would take a break, and they'd pass us. We walked pass them when they were sitting on the damp ground eating lunch. Just a few hundred feet from them we came upon a table with pots of food, and a line of chairs which were waiting for us. We waved at the Aussies.

    It was the beginning of a great trek.

    Thanks to Glen Gould for photos used in this post. 

  • Trek Day 2: Shana to Sot Thangthanka

    Mountains are imposing entities. They inspire those seeking to gaze upon their majesty, but they annoy those who merely want to be on the other side of them. I am in the gazing category.

    Mountains are also notorious cloud collectors that love to hide themselves. I prepared myself mentally for the possibility that the Himalayas would never show their face on this trek. Today, I started to believe that might be the case.

    It was drizzly and gray, so gray that the weather seemed to be on the precipice of getting worse. We heard a rumor that it was snowing on the pass, and that one group was turned back. I feared the entire trek might be like this.

    A Muddy Trail

    Today we had to hike 14.5 Miles with an elevation gain of 2,438 ft. The trail was very muddy, wet, and steep. There was a lot of horse traffic and they get the right of way, which makes the walking slow. Just when I thought I was making progress, I'd hear the yell of "horse," which meant I had to quickly find a place to perch myself as 5, 10, or more horses went up or down the trail. It was amazing to see how sure-footed they were in the mud.

    The horses' hooves chewed up the trail badly, so I had to pay careful attention to my footing. I appreciated the fact that I brought gators, otherwise I would have been a muddy mess. There was a technique to hiking this stretch of the trail. I had to find rocks and tree roots in the mud and the hop from one to the other. Otherwise I risked stepping ankle or knee deep in the mud.

    No Photos Today

    When I managed to look up, I saw beautiful green scenery. The temperature was comfortable, so I didn't find it that bad walking in the drizzle. But the deep mud that was a bit distressing.

    I was told that we wouldn't be within range of seeing the Himalayas until we reached our campsite. I tried to replace my fears of constant bad weather with the hope for clear skies in the evening or by morning.

    I regret that I didn't pull out my camera on this portion of the trek. But my hands were occupied with the two hiking poles I used to feel my way through the mud. I also didn't want to get my camera wet.

  • Trek Day 3: Soi Thangthangka to Jangothand

    When I signed up for this trek, I knew that I would be close to nature, but I didn’t expect to be this close to yaks, horses, and dogs. It is obvious that the land belongs to them, not us. Yaks run through the camp. Horses wander. Stray dogs follow us. As you might imagine, there is yak dung and horse poop all over. Bhutan is not a place to be barefoot.

     

    After yesterday’s drizzly day, this day is starting off promising. When I woke up, the sky was cloudy, but it cleared just before we left. It’s a good thing because this is day that we’ll arrive at Chomolhari Base camp, elevation 13,268 feet. Our hike is almost 12 miles, but our elevation gain is only 1,348 ft. Tashi, our trip leader, told us the trail conditions will be much better today.

     

  • Trek Day 4: Chomolhari Base Camp

    The problem with Chomolhari is that it is big and beautiful. It can’t help but to dominate the landscape. It draws our attention and compels us to take photos and videos as if somehow we could capture its essence and bring it home with us. Is it more beautiful in the twilight, the early morning, or the full sun? It’s difficult to decide, but one thing is for certain—we are very lucky with the weather. Like most mountains, Chomolhari can be a magnet for clouds. So far, except for a few clouds that quickly disappeared, it’s clear.

     

    The morning starts out frosty with the sun casting a subtle pink hue on the face of the mountain. Today is a layover day. Base camp is relatively crowded, with about 4 or 5 groups camping in the vicinity along with some local yak herders and the usual trekking horses, yaks, and stray dogs.

    Last night while we were trying to sleep, we were awoken by a snorting noise coming from an animal that was running in our direction. It stopped directly outside our tent. We were too afraid to look outside, so we yelled at it to go away. It moved on to the tent next to us. Was it an angry yak? The animals all look so peaceful this morning that it's impossible to tell which one is the culprit.

     

    Layover Day Lets Us Explore the Area

    It is a fine day for a hike. Five of us decide to take the option to get a closer look at Chomolhari while three of our group are staying at camp to rest. We hike uphill behind the camp and cut across a ridge, passing a large herd of blue sheep.

     

    The ridge is very windy, but it affords a 360 degree view with mountains in all directions. There is a beautiful valley at the base of Chomolhari. Yaks graze in the distance. After exploring a small river that runs through the valley, we make our way back to camp where solar-heated showers and tea await.

    Koren, Taski, and Pema on a day hike from base camp.

  • Trek Day 5: Jangothang to Tso Phu

    After a day’s layover, we are well rested, clean, and ready to move on. It’s a short hike to our next campsite—less than 5 miles. The campsite is near two lakes, at an altitude of 14,100 feet. It’s time to say goodbye to Chomolhari, and hello to Jitchu Drake, a mountain we saw earlier on our hike, but that fell our of view at base camp except for a tiny peak. This morning, before everyone else was up, we hiked a bit out of camp to catch a glimpse it. We’ll see more later when we ascend to higher ground. Before we begin our ascent, we are going to visit the home of a yak herder and his family.

     

    The yak herder family—a woman and her two children—graciously welcome us into their home. It is a traditional two-story Bhutanese home on a large plot of land with a stable and grazing areas. The home is comfortably furnished. In addition to the sleeping, cooking, and living room areas, it has a small area dedicated to Buddha. There are offerings, multicolored flags/banners, and butter lamps.

    Jitchu Drake Appears

    After leaving the yak herder's home, we head uphill. The higher we climb, the more Jitchu Drake unfolds itself. The scenery at the top of our climb is spectacular because there we can see both Jitchu Drake and Chomolhari. Several of us have a difficult time leaving this vantage point. We just can’t pull ourselves away. We linger while the others rush on to camp. When we finally get to camp, it is quite windy and cold, but like most days, have a tent with a view.

     

    Mixed with the sound of the wind is the sound of a bell. It is ringing constantly. It sounds like the same incessant ringing we’ve heard for the past two nights when we were trying to sleep. I track down the sound to a horse. She is eating, constantly chewing. With every bite the bell around her neck rings. I find out from the horseman that a horse with a bell is a problem horse--typically a wanderer who needs to be kept track of.

     

    The temperature drops around dinner time. The staff make hot water bottles for each of us to keep down the chill of the night. It is the coldest night, but it turns out to be crystal clear and one of the most beautiful nights of the trek.

     

  • Trek Day 6: Tso Phu to Chorapang

    This is the day of the big pass—Bang Tue La at 15,700 feet. I set my alarm and get up before everyone else because I am still obsessed with Chomolhari and Jitchu Drake. I want to see the early morning sun on them. It takes me a long to warm up and motivate myself to leave the tent. But it is worth the effort. It’s crystal clear and the view is, once again, spectacular.

     

    When the pink is gone from the mountains, I head back to camp to pack up and join the others in the trek to the pass. I use my typical strategy to get up the pass—one foot in front of the other at a steady pace I can maintain. Koren and Bill make it up first. Then Glen and I. Then the others. Our guides are amazed. They allotted 2 hours for the final climb, but we made it in under an hour.

    Prayer Flags at the Pass

    It is windy but clear at the pass. I feel great. We linger to take in the view. Koren, Glen, and I brought prayer flags that we had blessed by a Buddhist monk before we set out on our trek. Koren hangs the flags we brought in memory of her mother, my sister, who died just two weeks before we left the country. Glen hangs the flags we brought in memory of his mother, who died last year.

     

    We modified the prayer flag tradition a bit be cause white vertical flags—108 of them—are traditionally placed on poles to remember the dead. The horizontal colored flags are hung to increase life, fortune, health, and wealth to all sentient beings. The flags will unravel slowly in the wind, thread by thread, over time. These threads carry good fortune and for us, they also carry the memory of Elizabeth and Juanita.

    We don’t have much farther to go to our next camp, and we need to drop more than 2,600 feet. The trail is sharply downhill. We come over the crest of a ridge and see our lunch spot—an open meadow surrounded by the Lesser Himalayan range. As usual, the cook and horseman are already at the site. The table is set up with hot tea, rice, and other food. No doubt we'll have spicy peppers and cheese, a Bhutanese staple, with our meal.

     

    We hike a short distance after lunch, and can already see our camp in the distance. Chorapang, our destination is at an elevation of 12,300 feet.

  • Trek Day 7: Chorapang to Thangbue

    Today we cross our second highest pass, Takalung La at 14,400 feet. After yesterday’s success, my feeling is that Takalung La is just another hill with a view. I remind myself that the pass is as high as Mount Rainier and only 100 feet short of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental US.

     

    It’s another relatively short hike, less than 7 miles, which allows us to start a bit later and take a tea break before we hike up the pass.

    Takalung La has a spectacular 360 degree view. We yell the traditional Lha Gey Lo!, which is a requirement for every pass, then we hang a few prayer flags and enjoy the view. It is typical for passes to have such high wind that hikers aren’t allowed to linger. The fact that we could stay awhile at yesterday’s and today’s passes is quite unusual.

     

    Our camp tonight is in a remote yak herding area. We find a few buildings that are used seasonally, but the yaks and the herders aren’t here. Only the yak dung remains.

    A mist rolls in can gives the camp an ethereal look. It's difficult to believe that we've been on the trek for 7 days. We have only a few more days in this spectacular part of Bhutan.

  • Trek Day 8: Thangbue to Shana

    Today our chef seems to have gone all our for breakfast. He added french fries to our usual fare of cereal, eggs, peanut butter, and leathery bacon. This is our last day of hiking. Our trip leader modified the itinerary so that we don’t do any hiking tomorrow. I’m not sure how that will work, but it could mean that we are hiking more than the 9 miles slated for today. We begin our hike with an easy uphill walk over a small pass.

     

    The next part of our hike is across a ridge with views in each direction. We see the China side of Chomolhari at one point, that’s how close we are to the border. The ridge hiking is easy. When we get to the downhill part, we put our cameras away. It is steep and relentless. We drop 4,500 feet in not that many miles.

     

    I am happy that it is not raining because parts of the trail are so deeply rutted by people and animals that the ruts have turned in to canyons the width of a horse and about three feet deep. I imagine these turn into chutes of raging water during the rainy season. Most of the rest of us take our time. We take so much time that we are about an hour late for lunch. The head horsemen worries so much that he starts hiking uphill to check on us.

    When I finally arrive for lunch, I am relieved the downhill has ended. After this, it us a short, flat hike to our final camping spot.

     

  • Trek Day 9: Shana to Paro and Thimpu

    I wake up a little sad that we aren’t hiking today. My spirits are lifted when I see crepuscular rays. One of this phenomenon’s common names is Buddha Ray’s so it’s fitting that in this Buddhist land, on the last morning of the trek, that I see this spectacular sight.

    The camp is so close to where the horseman lives, that the horses are restless. They had to be tied up last night so they didn’t run home. I imagine that after hauling our things for so many days, the horses are ready for a rest. Today they appear to be discussing plans for their time off.

     

    A bus arrives to take us to Paro and on to Thimpu for cultural touring. First, we stop at Drukyel Dzong, where we began the trek. We are greeted with ceremonial white scarves, tea, beer, and momos. It was a fabulous trek.

     

  • A Tale of Two Archers

    When I shoot an arrow, I stand about 30 feet from the target. Otherwise, I don't have a chance at hitting it. So I was amazed to watch an archery match in Bhutan, where the archer stands more than 400 feet from the target. That's not a typo—I really meant 400 feet. An American football field is 360 feet.

    I was excited to get a new target this year. It's four feet in diameter and made of special material that makes it easy to pull out arrows. A Bhutan target is 11 inches wide and made of wood. It's so difficult to pull out the arrows, that the archer often unscrews the tip and uses a pliers.

    My archery lessons included detailed instruction on safety. Never stand or walk on the archery field until all arrows have been shot. Then, and only then, do you walk on the field. Not in Bhutan. Each team stands next to the target while the other team shoots, from that 400-foot distance, at the target.

    My upbringing stressed the importance of good sportsmanship. Archers in Bhutan are expected to taunt each other in an effort to unnerve the opposition. When someone hits the target, his team mates run in front of the target singing and dancing in mockery of the other team.

    Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Archery is so important, that despite the low per capita income ($1400 USD), people take out loans to purchase high-end compound bows that can cost as much as a year's salary.