Trekking in Bhutan: A Snapshot

3500m Thangthangka. <- 24th March

There were a few rocks today. Or it could be that I keep squatting like an Asian person… but my knees are kinda sore. And just because we’ve had good weather and no major problems- Blisters. Seriously? My boots are already 4 years old. I told my guide, Pema, that it’s because my socks are old… yet without holes in them, he didn’t exactly sympathise. My heels have soft skin. A head nod… an understanding? And when I was cleaning my feet to put plasters on…, “I clean my feet at night.” Good point.

Today was definitely one of the easier 22km I’ve walked, only gaining 500m-ish elevation. We followed River Pa Chuu. Although the trail is “maintained” (through it constant use), I have to admit that the Rubbish is diabolical. (Sorry Bhutan!)- plastic bottles, hundreds, everywhere. Puma said that there is a cleaning (once a year) but unfortunately the locals haven’t really changed old habits. There are wire cage bins everywhere but clearly the government should be writting in Dzongka (the local dialect) on them. Of course, you can’t light fires anywhere in the national park. (As a simple method of clearing rubbish).

I still find it ironic that books say the treks follow ‘old trek routes’. There’s nothing old about them! Our horseman goes regularly to Tibet “for business”. When I asked about the border, “he has good relationships”. His horses are fat so I’m not going to ask further.

Tonight’s campsite- although it has the dual-purpose of being field, is home to a local family, kitchen shelter (for the trekking groups) and flush toilets. like wtf? When Pema told me there were toilets here, I thought he meant a hole in the ground. Evendently tonight and tomorrow’s are so. People have been donating money to fund them in order to redue bush toilets, and pit toilets. In a passing note, the field/campsite that is now empty would easy overflow the toilets in high season. Festival toilets, anyone?

On the first full day of my Jomolhari trek, the 22km was covered in 6.5 hours. Going by the time of a later group (on our return journey) was 9 hours, I figured we started out alright. Shing Karap, our first campsite, was a small collection of dwellings and a small temple. We offered a small donation to the local deity within the building before starting out. The route was full of large, round rocks. As it hadn’t rained for a few weeks, the trail was surprisingly dry. Rock hopping passed the time but didn’t make for happy knees.

Although I hiked prominently with my alone with my guide, we did pass the occasional mule train. As there are still large communities weeks walk from the Paro Valley, the main transport of mules & donkeys are still used. With the higher elevations, usually over the 4500m mark, the communities will use yak (which are better acclimatised to higher elevations). Had I known better, later on, I would have seen that the Jomolhari Base Camp was empty of Yak, which typically would have been exchanged for the ponies to make the Bhonte La and Thombu Shong passes. With too much snow covering the passes, our trek was changed a little to accommodate the spring weather, and we visited the Soi Yaksa valley by backtracking to a river junction.

It was really interesting and exciting to the see the trails still holding a function outside tourism. At one point during our trek we actually passed a sign saying “Tibet”, and a trail splitting left. As many goods are imported from India, one of Bhutan’s most important economic partners, cheap goods from China are carried over through Tibet via the mule trains. Out of the main trekking season, this underground, over-mountain trade is vital for the livelihood of many of the horsemen and farmers.

 

Himalayas 2.0

Bhutan 2017

I always think it’s interesting to look back to the moment when I choose a new country to visit. With Bhutan, I remember vividly the moment I read about the Druk Path Trek, and discovered trekking options in the eastern Himalayas. It was rainy September day, and I was waiting excitedly for our upcoming trip to New Zealand. I was reading Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Adventures. Best Treks with Killer Views? Sign me up!

“From bucolic blue pine, fir and thick alpine forests and dwarfed rhododendron trees to sparkling lakes and steep valleys nestled beneath Himalayan peaks, the landscape simultaneously feeds the soul and makes the camera happy …yet the subtle beauty of nomadic yak herders you pass while gliding through high-altitude meadows is just as stunning as the dramatic terrain.” – p72. 1st edition.

I had heard of Bhutan before. My partner’s mother had travelled there a few years ago with her Buddhist teacher and was able to visit both east and west Bhutan. In the three weeks she was there, she was able to experience a very different side of Asia. Mesmerizing prayer flags, high Himalayan peaks, and friendly people… I was very intrigued! Over the years, she has extensively travelled around Central and Southern Asia, and her opinion weighted heavy on my mind. It had been life changing.

I spent a few weeks researching activities in Bhutan, as I am the more active type, and discovered there was quite a few different options in regards to treks and ‘adventure’ sports. I liked the idea of possibly rafting or biking in Bhutan but did find it challenging to source credible reviews on actitivies. Throughout my research, I had to keep a very open mind at this point in regards to price, as any activities outside of the daily ‘normal sightseeing’ tour incurred an extra fee.

I had decided early on that I would prefer a longer trek. While in Nepal a few years ago, the 12 days we took for the Annapurna Base Camp was extremely rewarding. Wanting something a little more challenging, I choose the Jomolhari Laya Gasa Trek. Although based in western Bhutan (the side known to be more developed), the trek will take me high into the Bhutanese Himalayas and into rural mountain living. Having my introduction in Nepal, I’m throughly excited to experience this culture again.


Once in a Lifetime.

I’ve always been a believer of fate. Things happening because they should, and occurring at the most influential time. Whether good or bad, we learn from each experience and those to come.

When the opportunity arose to visit Bhutan, I knew this would be one of few countries that I ‘very likely’ would not be returning to. When I spoke to my partner’s mum about this notion, she agreed. Even if it was primarily due to funds, my goal was to know make the most of this trip. Jam-packed, adventure-filled Bhutanese fun.

When I emailed Raven Tours and Treks, I had listed a few activities that I would like to do while in Bhutan. I had sent the same email to a few other companies (honestly, I think the top 3 on TripAdvisior :P) and the manager wrote me back within a few hours saying he would put something together for me. The promptness won me over immediately. Within a few weeks we had a rough plan, including some cycle tours and a two days drive to the Gantey Monastery. The flexibility and eagerness to help and answer my questions only instilled my choice with this tour company. In the proceeding weeks, only one other company had replied to my email. Something of the more genetic type. Did it matter? My 6 day trip had been upgraded to a 2 week adventure!


Travel is never a matter of money but of courage. – Coelho.

In recent weeks I have certainly heard most of them…how much will it all cost? Isn’t the visa expensive? Don’t you need a guide? Don’t you have to pay a lot? Isn’t it closed to everyone? Until I did my own research, I didn’t know myself.

I think spending 1000USD on a handbag is a lot. It doesn’t make you a better person, you don’t learn from it. 500 on a weekend in the city to purchase material objects for your wardrobe doesn’t change you as a person. 3000USD computer? 250USD jeans? 15000USD diamond ring? It’s perspective.

Travel teaches first hand experiences that one can’t get from a book. Whether is the mental growth in a surprising situation, communicating without common language, or meeting other fellow travellers with different stories to share, travelling does change people. For me, I am probably comfortable spending more on these ‘experiences’ than some others.

With that in mind, Tourism is the income in Bhutan. They don’t have a massive capitalistic, exporting/importing economy like other countries. Tourism has been developed to support the country and economy.

Depending on the time of year in which you visit, the “daily rate” can vary between $200USD (buffer season) and $250USD (high season). Including the $65 ‘Royalty Fee’ (supporting the free medical system, free education, and infrastructure), the daily rate supports a full board travel experience. Meals, Hotels, A Driver and Guide are all included. In my case for the trek, Porters, Cooks etc are also included. Raven Tours and Treks also organised the Bike Tour costs, Visa and my flight from Delhi to Paro (with Druk Airlines). Other then my flight to Delhi, there wasn’t much left to organise! Definitely a different style of travelling for me!


Adventures are the best way to Learn.

With the 30 day countdown on, the excitement is real. I get to head back to Asia, a place I have come to love over the years, and in doing so experience a new side of the region. When I was younger, I naively thought that most of Asia was similar. Same, same but different. Over the years, and getting to see different areas of Central and South Eastern Asia I have proved myself wrong! Here’s to exploring another side!

 

2- Wheeled Escapades: Kathmandu to Daman.

Classic but gruelling on-road ride over a 2488m pass, culminating with incomparable Himalayan views at Daman. The ride begins on the Kathmandu- Pokhara Hwy, which gives the only access to the valley. After leaving the valley, the highway descends to Naubise, at the base of the Mahesh Khola Valley, 27km from Kathmandu. … Start a 35km climb to Tistung (2030m) past terraced fields carved into steep hillsides. On reaching the pass at Tistung (2030m) you descend for 7km into the beautiful Palung Valley before the final steep 9km climb to Daman, at a height of 2322m.

Lonely Planet: Nepal, 9th Edition. pg.296

Well, I remember I cried. Twice. It was exhausting. We left the Lonely Planet book in the hostel to keep weight down (we had just bought day packs), and figured we couldn’t really get lost as we had one turnoff, in Naubise. When we got to the Palung Valley, knowing that we certainly hadn’t missed Daman, but had no idea how much further… the journey suddenly got a lot harder.

29th Oct. 14.

Yesterday we cycled to a small town called Daman, 80 km from Kathmandu… uphill and in three valleys across!

Leaving Kathmandu, we instantly regretted not having something to cover our mouths and noses with. Our mucus was black from exhaust and fumes within meters. Weaving in and out of huge mountain trucks, small import cars and dodging the odd cart, the ride down to get outside of Kathmandu’s Ring Road was exhilarating and congested. And very ugly. The snaking highway from Chasapani to Naubise slowed the traffic down immensely, more so for the single lane switch-backs that the buses needed to navigate. On two wheels however, we quickly covered the first 30 km. We simultaneously agreed that we would return with the bus for the the last leg, from Naubise to Kathmandu, the following day.

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The Fashion of the Backpacker’s Tour-De-Nepal: Flats, woolly socks, leggings and running shorts.

The next 50 km was predominately uphill 🙂 Honestly, if it was any steeper, any more traffic, or if the bikes were shyte – we couldn’t have done it! Honestly² it wasn’t physically challenging- at no point were we really “puffing” or completely done for. It was however, one of the most mentally challenging things I have ever done! I realised coming down [from Daman] that half my problem was that after Tisung –  we didn’t really know where we were, in relation to where we were heading! After Palung Valley (which we didn’t remember existed!) the road just seemed to never end. Without the Lonely Planet’s basic description of the trip, we were just on a never-ending bike ride.

Palung Valley was gorgeous though – and it was nice to visit something out of the standard backpacker’s jurisdiction. Surprisingly, there were a few hotels and guest houses around! Given how big Palung is- we were surprised it wasn’t given more street creed in our journey! By the time we arrived in Palung town, it was mid-afternoon and we were starting to feel the mental drain and physical saddle sore! It was getting hard to sit down, adding to the strain that we still had at least 2 hours to go! If only we knew! I think normally, we should have made it in about 1.5 hours but we were getting to the point when we would walk for 50m or so, just so our legs could fully extend. 60km in, we kept guessing over every peak where Daman could be. We had no idea where, or how much longer we had to go! We had been going up hill all day. It was only when we thought we could see the lookout tower for the Daman Mountain “resort” atop a hill in the distance we though we might be getting close. Looking like a communications tower from an airport, it was seemingly out-of-place.

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Somewhere in the distance is Pokhara.

We arrived in Daman as the sun was kissing the mountains good-night. We stayed at the Daman Mountain “resort”, and as the complex contained the viewing tower that we would watch the sunrise from, we took what we could get. We ended up getting a room that had hot water, but didn’t end up showering because we were too cold! (It was the electric variation that took 10min to warm up!) The real treat was the small television not understanding any channels, it was nice to have something to watch and relax after a full day’s ride.

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Dinner at one of the hotel employee’s sister’s restraurants, next door to the hotel.

6:15- And the Himalayas looked amazing!

I didn’t realise how much the pollution from Kathmandu effected viewing the mountains. By 8:00 we couldn’t see them because of the glare. I think we saw Everest but it was quite small given how far away it was! The Annapurna and Langtang mountains looked enormous though! I’m glad we got up for the sunrise, as the best time to see the mountains lit up was just before the sun came into our view. It was beautiful. The Himalayas were all colours of glowing blue and purple. With the sun coming up, they shifted to warm tones of orange and yellow. The fact that I most likely won’t see the mountains again like that definitely made the trip worth the bike ride.

After a quick breakfast of curry and donuts, we zipped back. Hilariously fun. Two small hill climbs and 80km downhill. Best riding day ever! Once we got back to Naubise, we caught a local public bus back to the Ring Road in KTM- only costing us Rs100 🙂 The bikes were thrown on the roof (and tied down!) and we were saved from climbing the big hill while using exhaust fumes as our source of oxygen 🙂 Dollar well spent!

Trying to travel write but without Words…?

Well, here I am a month later and no blog post. I would like to use work as my excuse but… it’s not really one!

It has finally taken a rainy day, three cups of tea and inspiration from past travel photos to tell myself that I might as well keep going… if nothing other than for my sanity. If I didn’t write, I would end up throwing a zillion situations at my partner in preparation for our next trip(s)…

A few months (where did the time go!) ago I started to write, following the exercises given in Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing: Expert Advice From the World’s Leading Travel Publisher. After 8 weeks, I am now only writing about Exercise 4. excercise 3 got me write about my last trip to Nepal- using it as inspiration to (eventually) put together an article.

Exercise 3

After your next trip, or thinking back to your most recent trip, finish these sentences: I’ve just returned from Nepal. My most memorable experience there was trekking in the Himalayas. It was memorable because the people were so hospitable and the food surprising delicious given the (sometimes) primitive resources!. The experience taught me I have more endurance then I realised and my body is stronger than I knew. Think about how you could expand on this to build a personal and compelling anecdotal bridge to that place.

I talked in my post about the physical challenges that one needs to overcome to succeed in the adventure at hand. My partner and I have been very lucky to travel to places that offer such a diverse array of adrenaline and heart-pumping fun. Although I hadn’t mentioned it in the previous exercise, one of the physically most challenging things I have ever done was bike-ride 80 kilometres uphill from Kathmandu to Daman to watch the spectacular sun rise over the Himalayas.

“Honestly, if it was any steeper, any more traffic, or the bikes were shyte- we couldn’t have done it! Honestly², it was(n’t) physically hard- at no point were we really “puffing” or completely done for (at least on my boyfriend’s behalf!). It was however, one of the most mentally challenging things I have ever done! I realised coming down that half of my problem was that after (the village of) Tisung- we didn’t know where we were, in relation to where we were heading! … At this point, we kept guessing over every peak, where Daman would be. We had no idea where, or how much longer we had to go! We had been going up hill all day!”- 29.10.2014

If only I had any idea what the trek would entail!

Exercise 4:
Considering the trip you wrote about in Exercise 3, try to write an in medias res (in the middle of things) lead for your story. Think of the pivotal or most emotionally intense moment in your piece. Describe the prelude to that moment – the instance before the tiger, literal or figurative, appeared. Write two to four paragraphs – 400 words maximum – that place your reader right there with you in that scene. Could you begin your story this way?

I have an admiration for mountains and their enticing manner. When I hike the crunch of rocks under my boots, and the warm air that I try to labour myself into breathing motivate me to continue climbing. At every stage possible, I turn around to get a glimpse of the scenery that is unravelling underneath me. Every foot step leads to a different angle of the living worlds above, and below the trail one must climb to reach the top. The textures of rock, ice, snow and shrubs blend into nature’s rainbow pull me into a trace, wanting to stop at every breath to capture a photograph. Even living at the base of the Swiss Alps and having taken a plethora of photos capture their mood, no two have been the same. The sun makes them glow, misleading the masses to think they are forever controllable. But their temperaments are not to be toyed with; clouds and rain invade their summits, allowing their crowns to extend into the heavens and push their summit further from us.

It didn’t take long out of Pokhara to appreciate the area in which we were attempting to challenge. As with all overland journeys in Nepal, hair – pin corners and passing on blind roads become norm. The durable Tata lorries are favoured for good reason;it isn’t until you’re in a taxi with a 20 cm clearance, no suspension and a broken speedometer, that you see how Nature stills pounds the crap out of everything we through out at. Roads are rebuilt with the seasons, and hiking trails are certainly no exception, over growing in a matter of months. Ever changing weather patterns adds an edge of excitement and can make the world feel much smaller: days before we flew to Nepal, avalanches struck the region we would be hiking, the aftermath of a tropical cyclone!

There is a very worn expression, “its the journey that counts not the destination” and our journey was no exception. Ironically, the best views were presented to us at every corner, both in our car journey to the start point, and along the trek. Shortly outside of Nayapul, the smell of dry donkey’s manure stimulates your senses and the eyes become keen for any fresh piles. Settlements scattered every few kilometres remind you that civilisation is never far behind.

In answer to the last question, could you begin your story this way?, I hope so!