Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 10 – Limithang To Laya Village

Previous Post: Day 9 – Robluthang to Limithang

  • calendar date: Sunday, October 7, 2019
  • time: four hours – 3:15 of actual walking time
  • distance: 13 km.
  • start point altitude: Limithang  4120m
  • endpoint campsite: Laya  3817m
  • high pass crossing: none on this day (see here for the high passes we had done)
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for the Google Earth satellite view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! Zoom in and you can see traces of the trail to Laya, especially as you approach the village.

Limithang to Laya – Day 10 of our Snowman Trek

I crawled out of the tent shortly before 7 and could feel the rays of the sun, a novel experience on this first half of the trek.  Looking north towards Gangcheta, aka Great Tiger Mountain, I was able to capture a bit of the rainbow’s splendour, even if the mountain peak was not co-operating!

Limithang campsite bathed in the morning light

Limithang camp area – horses in the morning

This would be the last day of work for these horses. Their handlers would take them back to the settlements near Jomolhari Base Camp, from where we had set off with them on Day 4. Instead of the six days it took us to get to Laya, it would only take them two to get back home! Impressive!

Hopefully, there would be another trekking group whose gear they would be able to haul.   I was told that they get $20.US a day for each horse. While I’ll admit I am skeptical about the sum, if it is correct then they were going home with a pile of money. ($120. a horse x 43 horses!)  The horses provide a nice cash infusion at a time of the year when the harvest is done and everyone is preparing for the winter.

a horse with decorative headcover at Limithang camp

Limithang camp in the morning - trekkers ready to go

Limithang camp in the morning – an hour after the rainbow sky photo above / trekkers ready to go

The trail starts off on river right but less than a kilometer from the campsite we crossed over to the other side and continued for an hour on river left all the way to its confluence with another river.  There we crossed over to river left.  At this point, we were at 3800 m and would mostly remain within fifty meters above or below this elevation until we got to Laya. The elevation states were as follows: 80 ascent; 380 descent.

A Geographical/Cultural Tangent!

As for the river we walked down, just below Laya it merges with the Mo Chhu, the river which flows by the west side of the Punakha Dzong. A week later as we walked up Lunana district, we would get to know the other river which frames the Punakha Dzong on the east. It is the Pho Chhu.

The confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu at Punakha Dzong

[Chhu is the Dzongkha word for “river” while Mo and Pho mean “mother’ and “father”. Dzongkha is the language of the Ngalop ethnic group of Tibetan origin who are the dominant political and cultural group in Bhutan.    

The Ngalop were the ones who built all the dzongs, the fortress monasteries from the 1600s, a time when various Tibetan Buddhist sects fought each other and other Buddhist invaders from Tibet for control of the space we now know as Bhutan. They live mostly in western and central Bhutan and are the ethnic group that tourists will come to associate with Bhutan itself, even though there are other major ethnic groups.  

The situation reminded me somewhat of Myanmar with its dominant Bamar ethnic group surrounded on the periphery by people of a hundred other smaller ethnic identities. The big difference is that the Bamar constitute 68% of Myanmar’s population whereas the Ngalop people make up about 20% of Bhutan’s.  (That figure can be pushed up to 50%. It all depends on how liberally you define Ngalop.)

It does put a different spin on the quaint traditional Ngalop clothing that we saw even our guides wearing on certain occasions.  It left me wondering – Are all ethnic groups in Bhutan required to dress in Ngalop fashion?  How do they feel about this?  Let me know in the comment section below!]

Back To The Day’s Walk:

The expectation of an easy 11 km downhill walk to Laya was soon dispelled as there was a  fair bit of scampering up and down hillsides. Much of the trail passes through heavily forested slopes along the river banks.  Here is how well my Polar M430 was able to connect with the GPS satellites thanks to the dense tree cover we walked under!

Not a shining moment for the M430 though but understandable given that it is a fitness tracker better known for heart rate recording.  My Garmin inReach Explorer, however, was able to record an elevation point each minute.

peaks shrouded in mist on the way to Laya from Limithang

Another clouded-over day on our ten-day walk from Shana – and another day of mountain peak views that looked like the above image.  I couldn’t help but contrast this with the excellent weather I have always experienced on treks in October and November in the Nepal Himalayas.

We arrived in Laya around noon, about four hours after having left our Limithang campsite. As we approached the village, there was a fork in the trail. The left-hand one leads to the upper village. We took the right-hand fork and soon found ourselves in front of an ornately decorated building in the Ngalop style.  I never did find out if it was a temple (lhakhang in Dzongkha ) or not.  One of our guides took the opportunity for a group photo for a mostly successful first half of our trek. (One of our trekkers had developed a severe cough and respiratory problems and would leave the trek here, heading down the road to Punakha and Thimphu for medical treatment.)

some of the 16 in our trekking group on arrival at Laya – the photo is not mine

I took the following image the morning from higher up and to the east the next morning. It captures most of Laya.  Click on the image to see:

  • the exact location of the beautiful piece of traditional Ngalop architecture above
  • our Laya tent site location for two nights

a view of Laya from the hill to the east

Our campsite was located behind a lodge whose toilet facilities and dining room we made use of during our two-night stay in Laya.

our Laya tent site behind a lodge

We had finished the first half of our Snowman Trek. Still to come were the following:

  • six days to and in Lunana District with Chozo, not far from Thanza, as our rest day stop
  • five days to head south over the high altitude and most dramatic section of the Snowman

If it is true that the eastern Himalaya weather tends to be wetter and cloudier than that in Nepal, we would have better luck for the next twelve days. The relative lack of mountain views that characterized our Shana-to-Laya trek would thankfully be replaced by more blue skies and clear views and some incredible vistas.

But first,  we had a rest day in Laya!  See the next post for some pix of Laya village.

Coming Soon!   Day 12 – Rest Day In Laya.

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 9 – Robluthang To Lemithang Via Sinche La

Previous Post: Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La

  • calendar date: Sunday, October 6, 2019
  • time: 7:40 from start to finish
  • distance: 16.3 km. (Polar M430); Jordans: 18km.
  • start point altitude: Robluthang 4160m
  • endpoint campsite: Limithang  4160m
  • high pass crossing: Sinche La 5000m
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! Zoom in and you can see traces of the trail to Sinche La.

Topo & Satellite Views of the Day’s Walk:

Day 9 – Robluthang To Limithang Via Sinche La

satellite view of the trail from Robluthang to Limithang

Robluthang Campsite:

horses waiting for the day’s work assignment at Robluthang camp

Day 9 – horses ready and waiting for the day’s carry to Limithang

On The Way To Sinche La: 

The highest pass of the trek so far was on the menu for this day.  Sinche La at 5000 m was just 20 meters higher than our very first pass, Nyile La which we did the day we left Jomolhari Base Camp.  Over the first five hours, we curled our way into a side valley from our Robluthang campsite and then walked the left side of a valley to the bottom of the slope with Sinche La.  As the images show, we were not blessed with a sunny day and blue skies.

walking up the side of a glacial stream an hour after leaving Robluthang

finding our way through a scree field on the way to Sinche La

taking a wee break on the way to Sinche La from Robluthang

Along the way, we passed by some improbable plants the likes of which I had never seen before. (Let me know in the comments below if you can identify them!)  I was amazed that they were there at all in a pretty inhospitable spot. Maybe the mist from those clouds we were walking through keeps them alive!

we pass by a distinctive-looking plant on the way to Sinche La

a cabbage-like plant on the way up to Sinche La

Approaching Sinche La: 

looking back at the valley we have walked up to get to Sinche La

A half-hour later the pass was finally in view.  As I caught my breath for a moment for the final push to the top, I watched our lunch team horses continue upwards.

horses approaching Sinche La from Robluthang

Under The Tarp At Sinche La:

While the original plan had been to have lunch on the downside of  Sinche La,  our guide made the decision to stop just below the pass for lunch instead. While half the group was already standing by the chorten at the pass, the other half was some distance behind. Instead of having us wait at the pass until they arrived and then continue on down on the other side, we set up the lunch tables and chairs just below the chorten.

the lunch tent at Sinche La

We just happened to time lunch with a thirty-minute hail/snowstorm! Up went the blue tarp to cover two of the tables. Soon the green tarp went up too and more space was created.  Meanwhile, the rest of the crew had arrived and lunch was on!

photo by another one of the members of the trekking group

trekkers heading to Sinche La from the lunch shelter

After lunch was over we headed up to the chorten; the rain pants and the rain jacket helped keep us dry and warm as we stood there for a minute or two.

standing at Sinche La and about to descent towards Limithang

Down To Limithang:

From that shot of the chorten at Sinche La, my camera was most untouched (and tucked away to keep it dry!) I did take a couple more photos that day. The first one below is of Gangcheta (aka Great Tigre Mountain)  on the Bhutan-Tibet border, until now like a snow leopard pretty much a rumour only on our Snowman Trek.

a view of Gangcheta on the Tibet-Bhutan border after the start of our descent from Sinche La

The second shot was of a section of trail following a glacial stream. Not even any campsite shots on this day. The one below is of the next morning.

approaching Limithang from Sinche La

Limithang campsite – the next morning

The Limithang campsite is an open area sure to please tenters with its flatness and the horses with the availability of grass. Flowing down past the camp area was a river from the Tibet-Bhutan border that eventually ends up in the Mo Chhu, the river which flows by Punakha.

an afternoon view of Gangcheta from our Limithang campsite

Later when I looked at Polar fitness tracker stats for the day,  the calorie output for the day was the largest of the trek so far, double the calorie expenditure of the day before!

Luckily, our walk the next day to Laya was really only a half-day.  Also coming up was a rest day in Laya while we got ready for the next half of our Snowman Trek, into the remote Lunana region.

Next Post:  Day 10 – Limithang to Laya


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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 8 – Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La

Previous Post: Day 7 – Chebisa Via Gombu La to Shomuthang

  • calendar date: October 5, 2019
  • time: left camp at 8:00 and arrived at Robluthang at 2 – 6 hours/4 of actual walking
  • distance: 11 km  on my Polar M430/10  on my Garmin inReach; 16 in Jordans’book
  • start point altitude:
  • endpoint campsite: Robluthang 4155m
  • high pass crossing: Jare La  4785m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • see here for a graph showing high pass and campsite altitudes for each day of the trek from Shana to Laya.

Topo View And Satellite View of the Day’s Walk:

Shomuthang to Robluthang via Jare La (4785m)

The first part of the day involved a gradual ascent to Jare La, a two-hour walk up the valley you see in the satellite image below.  Once we got to the pass we relaxed for a half-hour, taking in the somewhat clouded-over  views.

From Shomuthang To Jare La:

Shomuthang campsite – dining and cook tents and horse blankets

horses returning to Shomuthang camp from the meadows above

an hour into our walk to Robluthang from Shomuthang

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

flowers on the Himalayan hillside above Shomuthang

looking back at the terrain we had covered from Shomuthang

Jare La coming up – two hours after leaving our Shomuthang campsite.

Day 8 … Shomuthang to Jare La to Jholethang Chhu to Robluthang campsite

trekkers approaching Jare La from Shomuthang

trekkers approaching Jare La on the way to Robluthang

Jare La – high pass between Shomuthang and Robluthang

Jare La – on the way to Robluthang

a mountain view from Jare La – Snowman Trek

From the pass, we walked down on a fairly decent trail, at first a rather barren and open and then more forested and muddy as we approached the valley floor.  We would stop at a thang (i.e. meadow/flat spot) to have lunch before moving on to the log bridge crossing the Jholethang Chhu.

on the way to Robluthang – a view on the descent from Jare La to the valley floor

dirt trail on the forested slope of Jare La

lunch down on the side valley floor  near the Jholethang Chhu

Lunch was a bit of a wait since we arrived at the spot before the lunch crew did! When the others were served tuna with their rice, I asked Kunley if he could provide me with some cashews as a substitute.  []This would be the beginning of adaptations which would leave me in better spirits and in better shape to deal with the caloric requirements of the trek!]

After lunch, we moved on towards the Jholethang Chhu and the extensive grazing land along its banks.  Re: lunch.A somewhat precarious log bridge over the stream and then we were on the east side of the river. and standing at the north end of extensive yak grazing grounds.

log bridge across the Jholethang Chhu

The image below shows the view looking north up the valley which comes down from the Tibet border ten kilometers away.  Our Robluthang campsite was a couple of kilometers up this valley. In the image below, the beginning of the trail is visible on the right-hand side. Steep at first,  it eventually levelled out to a gradual ascent to our campsite, a fair-sized meadow or thang.  (Click here to access a Google Earth view of the neighbourhood!)

looking north up the Jholethang Chhu to the Tibetan border

Of this valley the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan notes this:

Herds of takin migrate to this valley in the summer and remain here for about four months. Takins are easily disturbed by the presence of other animals, including humans….The valley has been declared a special takin sanctuary and yak herders have agreed not to graze their animals in the valley while the takin are here.  [Lonely Planet. Bhutan. (6th Edition) p. 188.]

No takin here when we passed through but a dozen yak grazing,  as well as a yak herder’s tarp shelter off image to the right closer to the river flowing down the valley.

a view of the grassland on the east side of the Jholethang Chhu

from the Jholethang Chhu up its east flank to the Robluthang Campsite

Robluthang campsite – one of a few choices for trekking groups

some of our horse train coming into Robluthang campsite

horses coming into Robluthang camp in the afternoon

four of our horses entering Robluthang camp with trekker duffels and other camp gear

A Happy Vegan!

Supper – for the second night in a row, I was able to stuff myself!  More aloo gobi, the curried Indian potato and cauliflower dish. And on top of that, a Bengali brown lentil dal-like watery stew to pour over the rice which made it so much more enticing! But wait – there’s more!  The cook had prepared a vegetable soup without an animal-derived broth or milk product in it!  Trek soup is yet another way to make sure the clients are staying well-hydrated; I had two bowlsful.

Those doubts I had earlier about not having the energy to finish the trek! Well, they had been allayed thanks to the past two days’ supper fare.  For the rest of the trek, the cook would prepare a special soup for the two vegan trekkers and I would get bowls of cashew nuts as a substitute for whatever meat dish the others were presented with.  Things were looking up!

Next Post: Day 9 – Robluthang To Limithang


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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 7 – Chebisa To Shomuthang Via Gombu La

Previous Post: Day 6 – Lingshi Camp To Chebisa

  • calendar date: Friday, October 4, 2019
  • time: 7 hours
  • distance: 13 km.
  • start point altitude: Chebisa 3900 m
  • endpoint campsite: Shomuthang  4217m
  • high pass crossing:   Gombu La 4447 m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • Google Earth – satellite view here
  • altitude graph showing high passes and campsites of the first ten days of the Snowman Trek here
  • Amazingly, no rain on this day and periods of sunshine. I could get used to this!

This day would require a bit more effort than the easy day we had from Lingshi Camp to Chebisa.  It would start with a steady ascent to the second pass of our trek, Gombu La at 4447m, some 550 meters higher than our campsite.

Topo And Satellite Views of the Day’s Walk:

satellite view – from Chebisa to Shomuthang

a few of our horses waiting for their day’s work assignments in Chebisa

Chebisa village dog at our campsite

Chebisa – the breakfast tent –

We started off our day with a brief visit to a local shop selling sundry items of interest to trekkers – chocolate bars, nuts, cookies, and such.  The building was decorated in traditional Bhutanese style as the images below make clear.  On the wall were murals of mythical creatures connected with stories which the locals have heard since childhood.

last-minute shopping in Chebisa – sundry items


elephant with dharma bowl on top

garuda biting naga (snake) image on Chebisa house

garuda biting naga (snake) image on Chebisa house

Chebisa house detail – Himalayan Buddhist baroque!

As we left the village I saw this dog nestled in a sheltered spot – a roofed-over shelter housing a supply of dried yak manure which the locals use in the winter for fuel. Like the dog at the campground in the photo above, this one could use some attention and a good combing to get out all those burrs.

Chebisa dog and supply of dried yak dung patties

As both the map and the satellite image make clear,  we made a steep ascent out of Chebisa valley and then continued on a gradual uphill trail to the high pass of the day, a 575-meter gain over the first two hours of the day’s walk.

panorama – the trail above Chebisa on the way to Gombu La

a section of trail about four kilometers above Chebisa on the way to Gombu La

the trail to Gombu La from Chebisa

Gombu La: 

Two hours after starting off from Chebisa we were at Gombu La, our second high pass of the trek.  We sat there for a while, enjoying the view. Coming up behind us were the first of the horses. We would let them pass before we continued on with a 250-meter descent in the next valley.

Gombu La – the high pass of Day 7 on the Snowman Trek

trekking crew at rest on Gombu La

a few of our horses approaching Gombu La from Chebisa

trek horses approaching Gombu La

stone ruins on the side of the trail to a campsite near Shomuthang

glacial stream on the way to a campsite near Shomuthang

a distant view of our Day 7 campsite near Shomuthang

approaching Shomuthang camp on Day 7 afternoon

We had left Chebisa around 8:00; it was now 3:00 and our day was done. As we approached the campsite, we could see that all the tents were already up. Just in front of the blue cook tent visible in the image below was a stream that we hopped over to get to the site.

our Shomuthang campsite – Snowman trek Day 7

Later that afternoon I checked my Polar M430 fitness tracker for the stats.  I can’t vouch for their total accuracy but this is what it looked like –

The problem with my tent door zipper was fixed in a jiffy by Angel, whose multi-tool pliers got the job done in less than a minute. He has probably done this a thousand times on different expeditions.  the tent was a great one – a very spacious and new Marmot four-season tent. It may be that the crew set it up too taut and that created the zipper problem.

The Importance of Your Tent!

Trekkers will be spending at least 40% of each day in their tents so having a comfortable one is crucial.  For most trekkers, it begins with having your own, as opposed to sharing it with someone else.  I have even talked to couples who wished that they had gotten their own tents!

At the end of each day’s walk, I would spend at least an hour or not more before supper in my tent, arranging things and then enjoying some of the warmth that slipping in my unstuffed sleeping bag provided.

Supper was usually around 6:00 to 6:30 and by 8:00 p.m. the dining tent was empty and everyone had gone to their tents.  Wake-up was around 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. so that was ten hours of tent time each day – 40% of your time in Bhutan!  An important question to ask your local trekking agency is this – what tent do you provide? Do I have to share it with someone?  I saw a Canadian group at Jomolhari with much cheaper A-frames that did not look as roomy as the Marmot Thor 3-Person tent that I had for my own use. And they were two per tent!

While we had walked about the same distance as the day before, I had burned 50% more calories to do so!  The next day would prove to be a bit less taxing than this one. We would start off with a walk up the valley from our meadow campsite to the day’s high pass.   The next post has all the details!

Chebisa to Gombu La to Shomuthang – satellite view

Next Post: Day 8 – Shobuthang To Robluthang

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 6 – Lingshi To Chebisa

Previous Post: Day 5 – Jomolhari Camp To Lingshi

  • calendar date: October 3, 2019
  • time:  4.5 hrs. (including our walk through the dzong)
  • distance:  10 km. (Lonely Planet); 16 km. (Bart Jordans); 11.6 km. my Polar M430; 12 km on my Garmin inReach. It may depend on exactly where the chosen campsite is.
  • start point altitude: Lingshi campground 4010m
  • high pass: none.  However, Lingshi Dzong at 4220m
  • endpoint campsite: Chebisa village campground 3870m (my Garmin device); 3990m in Bart Jordans guidebook but perhaps not the same camp place?
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman as well as other treks.
  • Google Earth view in Chrome: See here

Day 6- Lingshi Camp to Chebisa via Lingshi Dzong and Goyul

This day would prove to be perhaps the easiest single day of the trek!  Two hundred meters of elevation gain to get to the Dzong before descending back down to Lingshi Village at 4075 m.  After that, as my Polar M430 altitude profile for the day shows, the trail was fairly flat until we went down 125 meters in our descent to the village of Goyuk, an hour from Chebisa and our tents.

In the image below,  the trail we will be taking to get to the dzong is visible on the hillside behind the tents. It would take us an hour to get to the dzong after leaving camp.

Our Lingshi Campsite (Charhae Thang?)

morning at Lingshi camp – pre-breakfast

The dzong is on top of the hill (4220m) in the panorama below. Some ascent required! We were at 4013m at the campground at the bottom of the valley transliterated by

  • Bart Jordans as  Charzi Thang and Charhae Thang and
  • by Lonely Planet writers as Chha Shi Thang.

The many variations in spelling as Dzongkha words are hauled into Engish remind me of the similar situation in Bolivia where the various English transliterations from Quechua are sometimes not even recognizably similar!

Lingshi Campsite with Dzong hill in the background

Lingshi Dzong:

looking back at our Lingshi campsite from the trail up to the Lingshi Dzong

A half-hour on a gradually ascending and well-trodden path and we were standing next to the stupa pictured below.  Another forty-five minutes and we were on a plateau just south of the dzong. We waited there while our Bhutanese guide entered the dzong to see if we could visit.

chorten on the way up to visit the LingLingshi shi Dzong

our trekking group waiting on the plateau outside of Lingshi Dzong

The dzong has not had an easy time of it. More than one earthquake over the centuries has caused significant damage. As soon as the dzong gets rebuilt or repaired, another earthquake or fire hits it again.  The original dzong dates back to 1668 – ancient in Bhutanese terms. It was meant as a checkpoint/customs station for traders crossing a nearby pass from the Tibetan side.  A severe earthquake in 2011 destroyed the dzong yet again, just after renovations had been completed a few years before. See here for a Bhutanese newspaper article about the current reconstruction project. [The article says that it was built for a commemorative purpose and not for a practical one.]

inside the ruins of the Lingshi Dzong

a view of the exterior of the Lingshi Dzong

some of the Lingshi Dzong work crew in October 2019

Lingshi Dzong – exterior wall and entrance staircase

From Lingshi To Goyuk:

After our brief walk-through of the dzong ruins, we headed down to Lingshi village at 4075m.  The panorama below is of the village from the north slopes of the dzong hillside as we approached. We walked right through the village in a few minutes and were soon walking along a ridge that soon descended sharply towards Goyuk.  the satellite image below gives a good idea of the trail.

a view of Linshi village from the north side of the Dzong

the trail from Lingshi to Chebisa via Goyuk


120  meters of descent from the ridge and we came to Goyuk village. The trail actually continues on to Chebisa on the east edge of the settlement but we walked in 100 meters to check out the architecture – a mix of traditional and more modern materials. While we were there I saw three locals.

Apparently, it has 100 inhabitants among 25 households but our mid-day visit may have caught them all away or at work (or staying out of the view of gawking western tourists!).  We did admire the colourful fleece blankets which were clearly of Chinese design and origin and wondered who had carried them across the nearby pass without getting caught by the military guards on the border!

walking down the trail to the village of Goyuk on the way to our campsite at Chebisa village

some traditional stone buildings in Goyuk

A day encountering the “divine thunderbolt” of the anarchic Tibetan Buddhist monk Drukpa Kunley is always an auspicious day in Bhutan!  The wall murals depicting his penis and testicles are considered good luck charms that dispel evil. I was actually expecting to see more of them on our Snowman trek.

Well, here in Goyuk we were blessed with a nice rendition. Our Bhutanese guide felt the need to return to the monk’s exploits on too many occasions during our after-supper talks meant to tell us something about Bhutan.  It got to be quite tiresome.  If you need to know more, check out Keith Dowman’s book (totally uncritical) on the life of our dispenser of “crazy wisdom”.  See here for a sample.

The exploits of Chogyam Trungpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, two recent “enlightened” Buddhist monks who used their status as lamas to exploit hundreds of young women in Europe and North America, should serve as a warning to those who give “crazy wisdom” the benefit of the doubt.

Above the village was a dzong/temple which we did not visit.  In his essential guidebook for trekking in Bhutan, Bart Jordans recounts its history  –

Goyok is next to some impressive rockfaces, and in one of these there used to be a ruin (the Bja-Ghi Dzong). In the summer of 2003 the community renovated it on their own initiative over a couple of months. Building materials, carried by yaks, came from the distant forest between Shana and Soi Thangthanka; one day down, and two days back up. This dzong is one of the oldest and most sacred in Bhutan, believed to have been built in the 16th century by Phajo Drukgom Zhipo. There is a lhakhang in the dzong with several statues, and a caretaker and lay monk.    Excerpt From: Bart Jordans. “Trekking in Bhutan.” 

Bjagoe Dzong above the village of Goyuk

More easy walking from Goyuk and we would get to Chebisa around 1. Lunch would be served on the Chebisa version of the “village green” on the south side of the stream which separates it from most of the village’s two dozen or so houses.

approaching Chebisa on the trail from Lingshi

‘ campsite at Chebisa

Lunch – you can see the table set up just in front of the blue cook tent in the image above. And below you can see what I ate that day – a half a cup of plain rice (rather bland and without any spices or sauce other than the chili sauce on the table to jazz it up) and some sort of soggy and rather tasteless vegetable.  The others may have also received some chicken or tuna.

My plant-based-only diet was becoming an issue.  An evening or two later when I was presented with essentially the same options as you see on the plate below, I ate nothing.  I went back to my tent and pulled out one of my 100-gram Ziploc bags with tamari-flavoured almonds and had that for supper.  Once or twice during the first ten days, I thought I might not finish the trek because I would run out of energy that the food is meant to provide!

As mentioned in a previous post, I had discussed all of this with the western organizer of the trek on more than one occasion in the months leading up to the trek and had been assured that the local agency would be aware of my food requirements. They didn’t have a clue! The cook would try his best once he got it, but his options were few in the field since he was not supplied with ingredients to make it really happen.

Day 6 – my lunch plate

After lunch, we went for a walk up the small valley that Chebisa finds itself in.  At the top is a small waterfall, that little slash of white that you see a couple of images below.  As I walked there I had the feeling I was entering into a forgotten corner of Eden; I walked past stately trees and watched a few horses grazing in their shade. A bit of hands-on scampering and I was able to get so close to the waterfall that the mist forced me to put away my not-waterproof camera!

the side of a Chebisa house – wood pile for the coming winter

a walk from Chebisa campground to the waterfall

some of the guys in horse crew working on ropes and other gear

43 horses on trek – at $20. a day per horse!

I think I got the figures correctly!

Our trek started in Shana where a local crew provided three days of horse transportation to Jomolhari Base Camp.  When we arrived there, the crew was paid and it turned back for home and hopefully another trekking group.  Meanwhile,  we took on a new set of horses and handlers supplied by the settlements near Jomolhari B.C.  They moved us seven days up the trail to Laya on Day 11.

This crew would then return to Jomolhari with a nice bundle of cash while a crew from Laya would take us the next leg of the trek, the six days to Chozo.  The thinking seems to be that this way the benefits of the trek are dispersed more evenly among the various villages along the way.

In traditional upcountry Bhutan,  wealth and status were determined by the number of yaks and/or horses one’s family had.  This traditional Bhutan is dying as roads reach further and further north and make the animals less necessary since trucks and jeeps can do the job faster and easier.  Soon it’ll just be the trekkers who use horses and yaks!

Chebisa trekkers’ camp with a chorten on the hilltop in the background

It is six kilometers (as the raven flies) to the border with Tibet; another ten kilometers will bring you to one or another small town on the Tibetan side, the source of all sorts of attractive trade goods.  All an enterprising local has to do is get them across those mountains and that border!

Chebisa and the Tibetan border

As the hydro poles and wires indicate, electricity has come to Chebisa!  One or two houses had satellite dishes and television has been available in Bhutan since the year 2000. Roads, electricity, television,  the smartphone that almost every younger member of the horse team and the cook and tent crew had …how do you measure how much Bhutan has changed in the past generation?

looking west from our Chebisa campsite to the waterfall and the border with Tibet

Chebisa prayer wheel temple on the village green with the waterfall in the background

After we got back from our little mid-afternoon trek, the rain can down – at times quite heavy.  Laying in my tent and listening to the rain hitting it probably made it sound even worse!  Later – it was supper and -wonder of wonders – a meal I could get enthusiastic about: aloo gobi, aka potatoes and cauliflower and onions. I had double/triple portions and let the servers Kinley and Karma know how good it was!  Nothing like tasty food when you’re feeling a bit run down!

Next Post: Day 7 – Chebisa To Shomuthang


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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 5 – Jomolhari B.C. To Lingshi Via Nyile La

Previous Post: Day 4 – Jomolhari Base Camp Acclimatization Day

  • calendar date: October 2, 2019
  • time: 6 hrs. (including 1 hr. for lunch and a bit more time for a few rest breaks)
  • distance:21 km.
  • start point altitude: Jomolhari campground  4044m
  • high pass: #1 Nyile La 4890m
  • endpoint campsite: Lingshi campground 4010m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • Google Earth: Check out the satellite view here.

Day-5-Jomolhari-b.c. to Lingshi camp via-Nyile La

Day 5 – horses with Jomolhari in the background

Before we left camp we took advantage of a visible Jomolhari for a promotional World Expeditions shot of our 16-member trekking group and our two Bhutanese guides. Behind the camera was our non-Bhutanese guide Angel Armesto, the World Expeditions representative on the trek. Given his decades of high altitude experience, this trek – his first in Bhutan – was for him perhaps a bit of a break from his usual more stressful mountaineering expeditions.

shot taken by Angel Armesto, our Argentinian WE guide

Photos done, we looked around the camp and noticed that the tents were almost all down and packed away.  The tent crew was experienced and got things done fast, even going so far at the end of the day as to blow up the Thermarests and place the carpets and each tent’s duffel inside!  Whenever I could,  I thanked them for their service and told them I could take care of the duffel and carpet and Thermarest myself!

Just after 8:00, we were off – and the blue sky was still visible!

satellite view of the start of the trail from Jomolhari to  Nyile La

We walked back along the path we had taken the day before for our acclimatization hike to Tsho Phu.  However, instead of taking the first bridge across the Paro Chhu, we kept on going towards the settlement of Jangothang, at the end of which is the second bridge. Crossing the river here, we started our way out of the valley up the zigzag trail and headed east into another valley which we would walk up to access our first high pass of the trek.

trekkers leaving Jomolhari for Nyile La and Lingshi

prayer flags across the Paro Chhu at Jangothang

hydro poles and trail up to Nyile La from Jangothang

break time on our way to Nyile La – we’re at 4680m,,, only 200 more “up” to go!

a look ahead to the Nyile La – top left side of the image

I knew it was too early so when I saw the piles of stones  – laptse in Dzongkha – and the prayer flags I told myself not to be fooled!  I did sit there for a while, sipping water from my Nalgene bottle and munching on half of the one Clif Bar which was my day’s allotment.

rest stop – not the pass! – by a cairn and some prayer flags on the way to Nyile La

We were at 4680m, having come up about 300 meters since leaving Jomolhari camp.  Still to go – another one hour and 200 meters before we were at Nyile La.  As the photos make clear, we walked on a clearly defined trail through low-level scrubland and scree.  I was not missing the muddy forest trails and horse-shit-filled puddles and rock to rock stepping that defined the first two and a half days from Shana to a half-day before Jomolhari.

the final stretch up to Nyile La (4890m)

the final stretch up to Nyile La (4890m) – looking up to the trekkers ahead of me

me under the hydro wires and walking up the last stretch to Nyile La

When I got to the top there were already five or six fellow trekkers there (one of whom took the above photo!). I took off my backpack and had a slug of water and pulled out my bag of dried fruits and nuts for a snack. Then out came the camera – the colourful prayer flags were calling out to me!  I consciously framed a few shots that avoided one thing  – the hydro pole and the wires coming up and over the pass.

chorten and prayer flags at Nyile La with Nyilele100 meters higher on the top left

A photo includes and excludes whatever the person behind the lens decides. Scroll down to see what it was that I at first avoided including. The reality is that for a good bit of the Shana to Laya trek, my photos include at least a few with those poles and wires. And quite honestly, who am I to complain?

a colourful patch of lichen and flowers near the prayer flags

For the locals,  access to electricity means a more comfortable life. Hydropower is Bhutan’s #1 export – it is good to see it also benefits its own upcountry people for cooking, lighting, television, computers, the internet … even if it means the end of traditional Bhutanese culture, increasingly celebrated only at festivals which seem to have tourists in mind just as much as locals.

Nyile La chorten draped with prayer flags

Note: Many of the strings of multi-coloured prayer flags are put there, not by locals, but by trekkers. On our rest day at Jomolhari, our Bhutanese guide gifted one set of flags to each one of us to put up at a pass of our choice.  We were told that they had been properly blessed by a Buddhist monk and thus would presumably earn us merit in our karma banks. These flags are the most colourful reminder of the Tibetan-style (i.e. Vajrayana) Buddhism which characterizes the traditional culture of the Himalayan region.

Nyile La prayer flags and chorten – shot with hydro poles and wires

To the west of the pass, as seen in the image above, is the hilltop known as Nyilele (5090m). It looks like there is a communication tower at the top of it!   On the righthand side of the pass is Golung Phu (5096m).  No one gave in to the temptation of a quick scamper up either of them, though the shot below as taken from about a quarter of the way up to the Nyilele hilltop.

Nyile La – Oct 2, 2019 – looking down at the pass from the slopes of Nyilele (5090m)

Soon the other trekkers were up on the pass.  We looked around to see the first of the horses coming.  They were carrying the tents and the camp gear to our Lingshi destination, another 12 kilometers or so away. By the time we got to camp, most everything was already up and ready for us to move in.  Taking down a village and setting it up again every day – a great crew!

watching a few of our horses come up to Nyile La

Also coming up to the pass were Karma and Kinley, the guys in charge of lunch. Here is Karma with one of the three horses that carried all the supplies necessary to do lunch Bhutan trekking style – i.e. tables, chairs, table cloths, plates and cutlery…wow!  A boxed lunch is the usual format.

Karma and one of the lunch team horsesThe brochures mention something about the last dramatic views of Jomolhari or Jitchu Drake from the pass  – but the daily clouds that roll in mid-morning and seem to last all day mean we have to accept something a bit less.

looking west and north towards the Tibet border from Nyile La – Takaphu on the right

The same would go for our view towards the east! Before we set off from Jangothang, our Bhutanese guide had enthused about the 6840m Gancheta (aka Great Tiger Mountain) as our WOW view of the day. The peak to the north, the 6526m Takaphu (aka Tsheri Kang) should also have been quite a sight, given how it dominates the nearby string of peaks.

For the next few days, we would hear daily references to a view of  Great Tiger Mountain; it became a bit of a joke as we stared at yet another clouded-over vista on the horizon. Seeing it proved as elusive as seeing one of the claimed 30 or so snow leopards which roam the upper reaches of the 4400 square kilometer Jigme Dorji National Park that we were walking in.

panorama – the way down from Nyile La on the way to Lingshi

We turned our focus to the tasks at hand –

  • a descent down the scree slope on the other side of the pass and
  • lunch!

Down we went. We had gained 800 meters in altitude on our way up to Nyile La; now we would give all 800 meters away by the time we got to our Lingshi campsite.

However, it is rarely continuously downhill!  Even in losing 800 meters, you may have to do 500 more uphill!  Here is a brief uphill stretch about 45 minutes after leaving the pass, which is beyond the top lefthand corner of the image.

coming down from Nyile La

Finally, lunch. It is shortly after 12 and we have been on the move for four hours.  Our tables are set up in a meadow and the lunch team horses are grazing as yet other horses carrying our gear stream by in the distance.

our lunch spot after crossing Nyile La – our tent crew and their horses continue to Lingshi

lunch team getting table settings ready

The walk after lunch was an easy one over open terrain

looking east from our lunch spot at a section of trail after Nyile La on the way to Lingshi

looking east from our lunch spot at a section of trail after Nyile La on the way to Lingshi

view of a glacial lake between Nyile La and Lingshi camp – hidden peaks behind the clouds

Had the weather been better we would have had a tremendous view of Jitchu Drake and the 6526m Takaphu.  Maybe next time!

satellite view of the above image – the two small glacial lakes

As we got closer to our campsite we got our first view of the Dzong for which Lingshi is famous.  It sits dramatically on a cone-shaped hilltop.  We would camp below and to the south of it and then pay a visit the next morning on our way to Chebisa.

Lingshi Dzong - a view from the south

Lingshi Dzong – a view from the south …shot taken by a fellow trekker

I didn’t realize until the next morning that there was an actual village attached to the name too! We would walk through it after we descended the Dzong hilltop on the north side.  The satellite image below makes it all clear to me now!  The trekkers’ campsite is on one side of the Dzong hill; the village of Lingshi is on the other. Also visible on the satellite image is the trail we would follow up to the dzong.


Our camp was all set up by the time we arrived.  The camp is at 4010 meters, almost the same as the Jomolhari camp.  The day’s walk over Nyile La had provided us with a good acclimatization exercise; as the mountaineer’s saying goes – “Walk high; sleep low”. We had done that; everyone seemed to be acclimatizing to the higher altitude and no one was reporting any headaches.

Lingshi camp – Day 6- morning view

Next Post: Day 6 – Lingshi To Chebisa











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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 4 – Jomolhari B.C. Acclimatization Day

Previous Post: Day 3 – Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C.

  • calendar date: October 1, 2019
  • time: 3 hrs.
  • distance: about 6.5 km.
  • start point altitude:  Jomolhari B.C. 4044m
  • high point altitude: Tsho Phu lakes at 4350m

The Acclimatization Issue:

The ascent up to Jomolhari Base Camp from Paro over three days is almost 2000 meters.  Those starting the Snowman Trek will hopefully spend a day before the trek acclimatizing with a walk up to the Taktsang Gompa. Still, an 1100 meter gain from Shana to Jomolhari in three days is pushing the limit of 300 maximum per day.    If trekkers are going to experience altitude sickness it will probably be in the first few days.  All trekking itineraries include a rest/acclimatization day at the Jomolhari campground to provide some extra time for bodies to adapt to the thinning air.

As the above chart suggests, if you are okay at Jomolhari then you should be okay until Laya since the altitude of each successive night’s camp spot remains the same at about 4000 meters.  The four high passes of the trek after Jomolhari provide excellent additional acclimatization and illustrates the mountaineer’s motto – “Walk high, sleep low”.

There were sixteen trekkers on this trip. No one seemed to suffer from even moderate altitude sickness.  Only three of us – I was one – made use of Diamox, a drug that helps the body in the adaptation process. I had been encouraged by the guide to forget about the Diamox and he may have been right, given that the 13 who did not use it seemed to do fine.  I ended up using it anyway since I had done so on a half-dozen previous high-altitude treks and had no issues at all – not even a headache.  I figured – why mess with something that seems to work for me.  If I do another such trek, I’ll use the Diamox again!

See this blog for some excellent advice on how to deal with trekking at altitude –

Tips for High Altitude Hiking

Scarce Mountain Views!

An early morning (5:45!) call by the guys in the kitchen and those who got up were rewarded with a  clear view of a mountain peak in Bhutan – our first since our arrival four days before!  In front of us was Jomolhari, at  7315m the highest peak on Bhutan’s western border with Tibet.  In the image below it is the peak on the left; the one in the middle is Jomolhari II at 6935;  the sharp peak on the right is the 6850m Jitchu Drake.

I took a couple of shots and crawled back into the tent for another hour of rest.  Given that it was a rest/acclimatization day, we would be starting a bit later.

early morning shot of Jomolhari and Jitchu Drake taken by a fellow trekker – 6:18 a.m.

Day 4 – early morning shot of Jomolhari – Blue Sky!

Acclimatization Hike To Tsho Phu:

The day’s major planned activity was an acclimatization hike with 310 meters of elevation gain, most of which happens in the first hour.  We were going to hike up to the Tsho Phu lakes on the other side of the river.  A clear day and the extra elevation would mean we would get to look back at some nice views of what you see in the satellite image below.

Jomolhari and the Tsho Phu lakes on Day 4

However, it was not meant to be!  By the time we left at 9:00 a.m., the clouds had rolled in and that blue sky that we had seen at 5:45 was pretty much gone for most of the day. The shot below shows the view from the other side of the river half-way up our climb to the plateau and the lakes.

looking west to Jomolhari Base Camp from the slopes on the east side of the Paro Chhu

As we walked up the hidden valley, we did see some Himalayan blue sheep on the slopes. They were far enough away that even with the 720mm reach of my Sony HX80, they were barely discernible!

The shallow lakes we were walking to are said to be full of brown trout but as you approach a sign informs you that no fishing is allowed.  Also discouraged are bathing in the lake and spitting into it!

fishing notice before we reach the first of the Tsho Phu lakes

We did pass by a yak herder’s temporary tarp shelter just before the first lake and heard the barking of a Tibetan mastiff guard dog. Luckily he was chained to a post since the guidebooks caution trekkers about the unfriendly nature of the dogs if they happen to be off-leash!

a yak herder’s tarp shelter on the edge of one of the Tsho Phu lakes

Shortly after we came to the area between the two lakes, it started to rain lightly.

a view of the first of the Tsho Phu lakes from its east end

looking west toward Jitchu Drake from a spot between the two Tsho Phu lakes by Jangothang

the easternmost of the two lakes – Tsho Phu by Jomolhari Base Camp

We did see a few yaks grazing on the hillside above the Tsho Phu but the guides noted that there would have been more up here for springtime.  We had an unexpected cup of tea courtesy of Karma and Kinley, the guys who took care of lunch service during the trek.

While we stood there and sipped on our tea, Tenzin described another popular trekking route – the Jomolhari Loop Trek –  that comes up to the Tsho Phu lakes before heading back in the direction of Shana. See below for a description of this popular trekking route!

yaks grazing between the two lakes with the yak herder’s tarp shelter at the other end of the lake

A Popular Short Jomolhari Trekking Route: 

Not everyone has the desire (or the time or money) to sign up for the 23-day + Snowman trek.  The trail from Shana to Jomolhari is undoubtedly the one most walked by trekkers visiting Bhutan.  This probably explains why it certainly had the most litter of any section of the Snowman Trek trail.

The most popular one-to-two-week Jomolhari options include the following:

  1. Shana-Jomolhari-Laya-Gasa…the most ambitious of the shorter trek options
  2. Shana-Jomolhari-Nyile La-Lingshi- Shodu-Barshong-Dolam Kencho-Dodena (Note: road construction will soon mean a road all the way from Lingshi to Dodena!)
  3. Shana-Jomolhari-Tsho Phu- Bonte La-Soi Yaktsey-Gunitsawa near Shana

The sketch map below illustrates #2 (The Jomolhari Loop Trek). It is Trek 4 in the Bart Jordans guidebook and has the name  Jomolhari Bonte La Circuit.  It makes use of the trail we had taken up to the Tsho Phu lakes and then continues on to the high pass of the trek at Bonte La (transliterated as Bongetela on the map below) and then returns to Gunitsawa near Shana via the Soi Yaksey valley.









And then it was back down to our campsite.

returning to camp – an afternoon view of Jitchu Drake, one of Jomohari’s neighbouring peaks

a view of Jomolhari Base Camp area on return from Tsho Phu

Back At the Jomolhari Campground:

Waiting at the campsite would be a lunch table set up outdoors.  The weather cooperated long enough for lunch and then – in mid-afternoon – it started to rain. Some retired to their tents; others moved into the guesthouse dining area. For a brief period the clouds cleared and we saw some blue sky as we looked towards Jomolhari.

Jomolhari Campsite – a semi-clear view of the peak

afternoon view of Jomolhari from the campground

I turned to the east and looked back at the eastern slope of the Paro Chhu that we had climbed in the morning on our way to the Tsho Phu lakes. Acclimatization mission accomplished – the next day we would be pushing on to Lingshi, crossing our first high pass of the trek.

a view of Jomolhari Base Camp in the afternoon

Next Post: Day 5 – Jomolhari Campsite to Lingshi Via Nyile La

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If Not For Viggo – A Winter’s Day Walk Along The Don River

If not for Viggo, our Icelandic Sheepdog, I’d have sipped on a third cup of coffee this morning. Instead, we headed out for a walk at the tail end of a snow storm!  It was something I was actually looking forward to because the snowfall makes our favourite walk even better! Viggo, of course, loves the snow.

our backyard this morning – Dec 2, 2019 – after the snowfall

We head down into the Don River Valley south of Bloor Street on the east edge of downtown Toronto. The snow means the bike trail will be traffic-free and  I can let Viggo walk off-leash on some of the side-trails that go down to the banks of the river itself.

Another great thing about going down to the Don is that Viggo gets to walk on clean snow instead of the salt-saturated brown mush on the streets of our neighbourhood. This morning I carried him over Broadview Avenue to spare his paws from touching that stuff.

the well-salted road down to Riverdale Park East footbridge

Viggo coming down the steps to the Lower Don trail

I did notice a couple of sets of footprints and paw prints, one set of cross country ski tracks,  and one mega-wide bicycle tire track – but that was it for activity on the bike path itself.

looking back at the Riverdale footbridge over the Don River

As for our favourite side trails, no one had walked them yet this morning so we broke trail!  I have adopted and spent some time maintaining these trails over the past ten years – clearing deadfall, removing litter and garbage, etc.  Some Ontario paddlers adopt portage trails up north that they return to each year and take care of. I figure this trail running along the Don River two hundred meters south and north of the Prince Edward Viaduct is my portage trail contribution!

Here is a one-minute sample of a section of those side trails as it was this morning –

We walk north under the viaduct and continue along the river. This morning we returned on the bike trail. The shot below is taken from north of the viaduct.  Downtown is about two kilometers to the southwest.

the Prince Edward Viaduct over the Don River –

some graffiti art on the Bloor Street Viaduct base

Back at our favourite bend in the lower Don, I take the shot below for the 51st time! If I could only photoshop out that hydro tower and the wires!

a shot of the snow-covered Don River beach. looking south

Back up the steps we go. To the left is the Riverdale Farm and Cabbagetown. We are heading right (east) and our Riverdale neighbourhood. I do a bit of a detour to avoid the salt.

Viggo waiting for our walk up the Riverdale footbridge steps

Tonight we do another shorter clean snow walk in Riverdale Park East below Broadview.  If not for Viggo, I wouldn’t be doing that either!  Along with becoming my constant companion, he has made sure that every one of my days has its share of low-intensity aerobic exercise.  See below for this morning’s benefits.

some stats on the morning ramble!


Posted in Ramblin' With Viggo, Toronto | 8 Comments

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 3 – Soi Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C.)

Previous Post: Day 2 – Thongo Samba To Thangthangka

  • calendar date: September 30, 2019
  • time:  5 hrs. (including 1 hr. for lunch and more for a few rest breaks)
  • distance: 17 km. (from Bart Jordans’ guidebook)
  • start point altitude: Thangthangkha 3575m
  • endpoint campsite:  Jangothang/Jomolhari Base Camp 4044m
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek

Snowman Trek – Day 3 Thangthangkha to Jomolhari Base Camp

We left a muddy Thangthangka campground around 8:30 after breakfast in the same room int he guesthouse that we had used the night before.  The day’s weather would feature low-hanging clouds and mist. As for the mostly muddy trail of the two first days, after the first two or three hours the forest canopy was gradually replaced by a more open vista and the trail also improved in walkability.

morning at Thangthangka campground – some rain overnight

The guidebooks talk about the stupendous views of Jomolhari – not only from Drugyel Dzong but also from the Thangthangka campground – but three days in and we still had nothing but cloud when we looked in the direction of that high peak.  The hydro-electric poles and wires, however, were never far away and often visible!

the muddy Thangthangkha campground – the start of Day 3 on the Snowman trek

Day 3 – getting ready to leave from Thangthangkha’s guesthouse

There were a few dogs at the Thangthangka guesthouse.   The  Tibetan mastiff below seemed to have a job as a guard dog; here he is tête à tête with one of our guides as we were ready to set off on the day’s 17-km. walk up to our next campground called Jomolhari Base Camp. (There must be a dozen different ways of spelling the mountain’s name; I chose the simplest version. See also Jhomolhari, Chomolhari, etc.!)

The trail follows the west side of Paro Chhu all the way to Jomolhari B.C.  Every once in a while we would stop and take in a view of the river to our right as its glacial waters tumbled down on its way to Paro and points beyond.

members of our trekking team coming up the trail from thangthangkha

members of our trekking team coming up the trail from the Thangthangkha campground

the Paro Chhu on Day 3 to Jomolhari B.C. – always on our right

low-hanging cloud cover on the other side of the Paro Chhu

In the morning we also walked past a rather ramshackle collection of buildings that served as a Bhutanese and Indian Army trekkers’ permit checkpoint.  While trekkers may be one concern, another is the easy accessibility of the Tibetan side thanks to nearby passes and Phari, a town of some 2000 inhabitants 11 km. away on the Tibetan side.  Smugglers bringing Chinse goods into Bhutan often use one of them to conduct their illegal business. [Clcick here for a map showing Phari in relation to the trekkers’ trail to Jomolhari.]

an Indian army checkpoint on the trail to Jomolhari from Thangthangkha

Along with the Para Chhu,  there are also a number of side streams coming down from those hills on the border side; every once in a while we’d cross one and I would think – “Should I get a shot of this one? – knowing that, as awesome as it is to stand there and take in the energy of the water rushing by,  it would look pretty much the same as all the previous seventeen to my wife when I showed her the pix!

a side-stream tumbling down to the Paro Chhu from the border with Tibet

Given the fairly low population in the region, there were few reminders of their Tibetan Buddhism.  We did see some examples of the following:

  • strings of the multi-coloured prayer flags, especially later in the trip at high passes. Our guide had given each of us a set of prayer flags to string at a high pass of our choice. If this is common practice with Bhutanese trekking agencies, then a lot of the prayer flags that we would see are not even left by locals.
  • chortens (usually square with the khemar, the rust-brown stripe just below the roof
  • mantra-filled prayer wheels (sometimes spun by the water flowing by)

breaktime in a meadow (thang) on the way to Jomolhari

While we set off before the tent and kitchen crews, they would catch up to us later in the morning and by the time we got to the camp in the afternoon, the tents would often be up and ready to take our duffel bags. An hour or so later, so too would the dining tent and the two toilet tents (erected over a 30 cm-deep hole dug by the crew and complete with sit-down seats!)

The pix below capture a few of our 43 horses as they lug all of the stuff mentioned above – the various tents, the trekkers’ duffels, the food, etc.). Each horse carried between fifty and sixty kilograms. In the first two images, they cross a side stream on a rough wooden bridge.  Then the trail was back to the Paro Chhu.

trekkers stepping aside to let some of our 43 horses pass by

a close up of the horse train on the way to Jangothang

our Snowman Trek village on the move! walking up the right side of the Paro Chhu

following the hydro poles up the Paro Chhu to Jomolhari Base Camp

Lunch Day 3 and the same set-up that had amazed us the day before!  The three horses carrying the food and gear got to graze while we had our sit-down meal.

I was impressed with Yangphel’s (the local trekking agency in charge of the trip) choice of a camp chair! It invested in the pricy  Helinox Chair One XL  (US $150. each!)  One the plus side they only weigh 1.5 kg. each and are fairly compact and take some abuse. One horse could carry all the chairs and the three equally compact tables!

We didn’t know it but our lunch spot was only a 4-km. walk away from the Jomolhari campsite, which we reached shortly after 2 p.m.

our Day 3 lunch set-up on the way to Jomolhari B.C.

a serious case of burrs on this poor horse’s head

Day 3  – the Paro Chhu a few km. south of Jomolhari Base Camp

By the time we approached our campsite the forested slopes had been replaced by a mud-free trail through scrub and low-level bush, as the remaining pix will show.

round chorten on a square base and a prayer wheel on the side of the trail to Jomolhari

There are a few scattered settlements (collections of a half-dozen houses) that the trail passes through or under.  We really did not see many signs of life until we came to the very last one, Dangojang (not to be mistaken for Jangothang just north of Jholohari B.C.!)

the trail to Jomolhari-base-camp passes through a few settlements

It is the one closest to Jomolhari B.C.;  in the satellite image below it is located on the top right.  As we entered the south end of the village we passed by a dilapidated chorten and a square open platform covered with a roof to the side. Prayer flags long past their best-before dates draped each of them. It made me wonder how important they really were to the villagers.

a dilapidated chorten at the south end of Dangojang

looking back at the cluster of buildings – and the chorten to the  left of center

On returning home I took a look at some satellite images of the village and was able to locate the chorten and covered platform that we had passed as we walked through Dangojang.  See below for the view.

Dangojang – the last settlement just south of Jomolhari B.C.

Visible in the image below are the hydro poles leading us to Jomolhari; on the right-hand side is a chunk of rock that was turned into a natural chorten!  Draped around the top was a string of prayer flags.

Day 3 – approaching Jomolhari Base Camp

As we came to Jomolhari Base Camp we saw four chortens on a platform to our right and in the distance a couple of buildings and some of our tents. We were now at 4044 meters, having gained almost 500 in the course of day’s walk.  Given that it was only Day 3 of our trek and we had started at 2200 meters in Paro, the 1800 meters gained is about twice that recommended.  To give our bodies a chance to adapt to the thinning air, we would sleep at Jomolhari B.C. for two nights.  [Three of the 16 trekkers were also making use of Diamox as prophylaxis to aid with the process; I was one of them.]

our trekking group arriving at Jomolhari Base Camp

Hearing “Jhomolhari Base Camp” immediately conjures up Everest Base Camp and you picture mountaineers starting off from the flat area at the base of the mountain for a summit of Jhomolhari. However, there is no record of the camping space ever having been used for such a purpose.  It does have a nice ring to it!

Since 2013 it has also been given another purpose when the Tourist Council of Bhutan made it the location of the Jhomolhari Mountain Festival,  highlighting various aspects of local culture and an opportunity for enterprising locals to set up vendors’ tables for the trekkers who happen to be in camp.  This year (2019) it took place on the 14th and 15th of October, two weeks after our stay there.  Recent trekking brochures mention it as yet another highlight of the Jhomolhari/Snowman Trek. One thing the organizers play up is a possible encounter with the snow leopard! There are supposedly some 30 in all of Jigme Dorje Park.  The “festival” does all seem somewhat contrived but, given the mandate of the TCB,  it also makes perfect sense.

Jomolhari Base Camp view from the south

Jomolhari Base Camp view from the south

And that view of the mightly Jomolhari peak, the highest of those on the western border which Bhutan shares with Tibet.  Well, that would have to wait until the next day!  The two shots below capture the little that the mountain revealed that afternoon.

chortens at Jomolhari with Jomolhari hidden in the clouds

As you look up to Jomolhari, you see the remains of a dzong on a hilltop, as well as crumbled bits of what was once a wall.

our Day 3- afternoon view of Jomolhari!

At Jomolhari B.C. there is a guesthouse for use by trekking groups. During our stay, we had use of the building as our dining area. The cook team was also about to set up their kitchen inside the building, a nice upgrade from their blue cook tent.

We shared the Jomolhari B.C. camping area with one other trekking party – a group of Bhutanese students whose blue and green tents are visible in the image below.  The orange tents were ours – they were Marmot Thor 3P tents and they mostly held one person each! Not only did the amount of space we each have make it quite decadent, but add to that the Thermarest Basecamp sleeping pads, the 2m x 1-meter wool carpet,  the pillow, and the also-provided Marmot sleeping bag and you have deluxe accommodation.

a view of the Jomolhari campsite from the west

The next day, as an acclimatization exercise (“Walk high, sleep low!”) we would walk up the hillside behind the tents in the above image and into a hidden valley. The next post has the pix! Included are our first views of Jomolhari!

Next Post: Day 4 – Acclimatization Day At Jomolhari Base Camp

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 2 – Thango Campsite to Thangthangka

Previous Post: Day 1 –  Paro To Shana To Thonga Samba

Day 2 –  Thongo Samba To Thangthangka

  • calendar date: September 29, 2019
  • time: 6 hrs. (including 1 hr. for lunch and a bit more time for a few rest breaks)
  • distance: 12 km.
  • start point altitude: Thongo Samba  3260m
  • endpoint campsite:  Thangthangkha 3575m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • altitude profile chart: see here for the high passes and campsites from Shana to Laya

Day 2 – Thongo Samba To Thangthangka

The Morning “On Trek” Routine:

This is how things unfolded each morning:

  • wake up and coffee/tea delivered to  the tent door
  • a bowl of hot water to wash up delivered a few minutes later
  • put back into the duffel the sleeping bag, Thermarest, clothes, jars with toiletries and medications.
  • make sure the day pack had the gear and items needed for the day’s hike
  • head for the dining tent with the day pack, leaving the duffel inside  the tent

On the first morning,  7 a.m. was the official wake-up time. I unzipped my sleeping bag around 6:45 and started by stuffing the agency-provided bag back into its sack. (We were also each given a 1 m x 1.5 m wool carpet, a large size Thermarest Base Camp pad, as well as a pillow!  All of the contents of the tent would go into its own canvas bag and then delivered to the tent at the end of the day after the tent was back up.)  At 7:00 I exchanged good-mornings with the kitchen guys who were on their tea/coffee round and requested a black tea.

At 6:55 I declined the bowl of hot water and continued packing the duffel and also making sure I had what I needed in my day pack. Once the duffel is gone you do not get access to it until you arrive in camp in the afternoon.

Breakfast in the dining tent was an hour after wake-up, ample time to get organized.   I was out of the tent early and brought my packsack and trekking poles to the dining tent and then went for a walk around the site with my camera.

While we had breakfast the tent crew was busy taking down the tents and putting all the contents of each tent inside its own bag.  The total weight of each trekker’s bag would be between 20 and 25 kilograms; those horses carrying the trekkers’ stuff would be loaded with two of them.  Yet other horses carried the various tents themselves as well as the food and other gear. In all, some 43 horses made up our train as we moved from campsite to campsite!  It was a small village on the move!

another view of the Thongo Samba campsite - horses, sleeping tents, and dining tent

a view of Day 1 Thong Samba campsite – the Paro Chhu flows from right to left across the middle of the image

the cook tent at Thongo Samba – the morning of Day 2 of the trek

horse being prepped for the day’s carry

Breakfast done, we hit the trail north at about 9:00.  We spent most of the day walking on the east side of the Paro Chhu. Never too far away were those hydro wires you see in a few of the following images.

the Paro Chhu an the hydro-electric wires

following the Paro Chhu and the hydro-electric wires up the steep valley to Jomolhari

the trail to Thangthangka - letting a local horse train pass by

the trail to Thangthangka – letting a local horse train pass by

Lunch On The Trail:

Somewhere along the way, we stopped for lunch. Since this was our first lunch on the trail we were amazed to see the lengths to which the crew went to make us comfortable. Three horses carried all the stuff needed to set up what you see below –

Lunch Day 2 –  shot taken by a fellow trekker

No matter where we were, this lunch setup is the one we used throughout the trek. [The more common format used elsewhere is a packed lunch for each trekker.] On one occasion when it was snowing we even erected a tent over the tables to keep us and everything else dry!

Thangthangkha Guesthouse and Campground:

Lunch over, we had a short afternoon walk before arriving at the Thangthangkha campground around 3.  We approached on a clear trail running on the west side of the Paro Chhu. Most of the tents were already up; the crew had managed to find a grassy area free from mud.  Behind the tents were three buildings. We would later make use of a room in the one nearest to our tents; it would serve as our dining room.

Thangthangkha – Guest House and Camping Area – see here for the Google Earth view

approaching the Thangthangkha enclosed camping ground area

Four dogs were curled up on the grass as we hopped over the fence enclosing the area; a couple of barks and they stopped and laid back down.

Thangthangkha dogs curled up in the tenting campground

Thangthangkha campground – the end of Day 2 on the Snowman trek

Thangthangkha on the way to Jomolhari – fenced-in campground

A few times during the trek, when there was a building available, we would make use of the interior space as a dining room.  Day 2 Supper/Day 3 breakfast was one of those occasions. Here is what it looked like for Supper on Day 2 –

photo taken by a fellow trekker

Food On The Trek:  Plant-based only, please!

What follows is a bit of a rant about the food served on the trek. Feel free to ignore it!

On signing up for the trip four months before departure I had made it clear that I wanted to keep to a plant-based only (i.e. vegan) diet. I was assured that the local company doing the trek (Yangphel) would know about my food requirements and would be able to meet them. A month before departure I checked again to make sure that my requirements had been relayed.  My World Expeditions Ottawa contact assured me everything would be fine.  The WE  “Essential Information” brochure included the following –

dietary requirements

Provided we are advised in advance of your departure we are able to cater for vegetarian diets and can assist with medically recommended diets (allergies and intolerances). Please ensure you discuss your requirements with us well in advance (at least 1 month prior to your trip) to determine whether we can cater to such dietary requirements on your chosen adventure. Please note that options are likely to be limited in very remote locations or alternatives may be more expensive or unavailable. There may be times when those with special requirements may need to provide their own food.

It turned out that the local company had no idea that there were two vegans on the trek!  I was told that this is only the second year that World Expeditions has worked with Yangphel. If this is the case, they need to do more work on the menu.

Given the $300. US a day I paid to be in Bhutan, I expected more.  The poor cook in the field did not have the resources to deal with the reality of vegans who require the same caloric intake as the other trekkers.  A few days later I was actually worried that I would not be able to finish the trek because of a massive food/calorie deficit.

I had brought along from home about 5or 6  kilograms of mostly snack food –

  • a jar of peanut butter which I used at breakfast
  • a box of 8 single servings of instant oatmeal packages,
  • 16 100-gram zip-loc bags of various types of nuts,
  • a dozen Clif Bars,
  • 24 Clif Shot energy gel packs,
  • vegan cookies,
  • a jar of non-dairy creamer for my morning coffee,
  • 500 rams of raisins, 250 grams of cranberries, 250 grams of dried blueberries

For Day 1 supper the night before I had the plain rice and some chewy mushroom (perhaps not completely rehydrated?) and 100 grams of cashews I had brought from home. That was it.

Day 2 breakfast involved a muesli cereal supplemented with some of my dried fruit over which I poured some apple juice. I also had a couple of slices of toasted white bread with peanut butter.  On the table was some jam which I would also end up using.

Lunch involved more plain rice, boiled veggies – probably mushrooms, cabbage, or broccoli. Since the food was prepared in the morning, it was usually cold by the time the containers were opened four hours later.

Supper meant more plain rice and more streamed vegetables.

Of all the food I have been served on treks around the world, the bland and predictable fare in Bhutan ranks at the bottom for tastiness and variety. I remember our local guide telling us at our final supper at the hotel before departure that on trek we could expect five-star chef’s cooking.  This was definitely hype and hyperbole!  I would rate it at ** at the most. World Expeditions needs to sit down and do some work on the menu for the trek with the local agency it is currently using. Maybe WE or the local agency need to draw on the expertise of Nepalese trekking cooks, who have forty years of experience to draw from.

A positive note – On the three or four times that we were served aloo gobi (a curried potatoes and cauliflower dish),  I complimented the cook team for a delicious supper.  I will admit, however, I had never before been presented with a version that included eggs!  They were good enough to make a separate version for me without the eggs. Another winning dish was the dal, a soupy lentil stew/soup.  Poured over the plain rice, it made it so much more interesting. One supper included a Bengali-style brown lentil dish that was appreciated.  It should have appeared more often!

Next Post: Day 3 – Thangthangkha To Jangothang/Jomolhari B.C.

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