See my Hiking/Trekking Page for other walks I’ve done over the past decade.
I spent most of October 2019 in Bhutan, a small country just south of Tibet in the eastern Himalayas. What drew me there was the long-distance Snowman/Lunana Trek, said by some to be one of the world’s most demanding.
Covering over three hundred kilometers in twenty-three days at high altitude means there is lots of time for something to go wrong –
- external factors like rain at lower altitudes, snow-covered passes as you get higher, and delayed horse and yak arrangements;
- personal factors like aching joints, especially knees; accidental slips and falls; respiratory problems thanks to the dry air combined with increased breathing rate; food or hygiene-related stomach issues; and inadequate acclimatization leading to acute altitude sickness.
Now back at Base Camp Toronto, I am happy to report no real problems except for
- mostly awful weather for the first ten days (it rained some mornings and overnights and most afternoons) and
- the puzzlement of the unprepared local cook team at what to do with a vegan who had made his dietary requirements clear months in advance to the non-Bhutan agency organizing the trek and had been assured that it would not be an issue.
What follows is a sample of the 500 images I framed during the first 12 days we spent going from Paro to Laya. The end of this post has a complete list of the day-by-day reports, which include maps, more background info, and a few more pix.
Arranging A Visit To Bhutan:
Click here to see how one adventure travel agency, World Expeditions, markets the trek! It is the Australia-based agency I went with. Other non-Bhutanese agencies that cater to the US$250.+ a day that Brits, Canadians, Americans, Australians, and Europeans will end up paying – include:
The various adventure travel agencies offer different versions of the trek with other start and endpoints so keep that in mind when you compare prices! Some include a stay in Kathmandu and the Druk Air flight to Paro; some only cover the Bhutan portion of the trip.
[The end of this post has a breakdown of where the $250 US a day + $25 to $50. in “optional” (but expected) tips go. If you choose one of the agencies listed above, you can also add another $30. to $50. a day for their value-added service. ]
In all cases, the agency handling the trip will be a Bhutanese one. There are over 3000 registered travel agencies and 4500 licenced tour guides in Bhutan – primarily based in Thimphu, Paro, and Punakha.
Our local agency was Yangphel Adventure Travel. I would definitely recommend this agency; its guides and support team were superb. You may save 20% if you book directly with a Bhutanese agency instead of doing what I did and having a non-local company handle all the paperwork for you.
Then again, it is always nice to know that all the details are being taken care of for you, from the glossy website to attract your initial attention to creating the small group of trekking companions you need to make the trek. If you go on your own, you can add an extra $40. a day; if there are just two of you, there is only a $30.-a-day per person surcharge.
Pre-Trek Visit To Taktsang Monastery
Bhutan is a country with a population of 800,000. While Thimphu is the capital and largest city, the country’s only international airport is just south of Paro, a town of 11,000 or so pictured below. I flew in from New Delhi, where I had overnighted.
We spent Day 2 visiting Bhutan’s single most famous tourist attraction – the Taktsang Monastery (aka the Tiger’s Nest), perched high on the side of a steep vertical rock face. It is a 10-km drive from Paro, followed by a two-hour walk from the parking area at the entrance to the site. The current building dates to the early 2000s; the original monastery from the 1690s burned down in 1998.
The Ride From Paro To Shana
The next morning we set off for the trailhead at Shana in the twenty-seater bus you see in the image below. An extra pick-up carried our duffels and backpacks.
On the way to the beginning of the trail at Shana, we stopped for a half-hour to check out the Drukgyel Dzong, currently undergoing reconstruction. Cloud cover meant I would not be getting my hoped-for shot of the dzong with Jomolhari in the background!
Our Version of the Snowman Trek Route
The map below shows the variation of the Snowman Trek route we did.
This first section of the Snowman is often marketed as the Laya Trek since Laya is the endpoint of the ten-day walk along the east side of the mountains that make up the Bhutan-Tibet border.
The KE Adventure promo image below is typical of how the trek is sold. However, the reality does not match the fantasy of a remote Himalayan Buddhist beyul since Laya is now no more than a four-hour walk from a road to Punakha, and the village has had electricity for the past twenty years.
This first part of the Snowman Trek – the trail up to Laya – included four of the eleven high passes we would cross; campsites were mainly at the 4000-meter level once we arrived at Jangothang and the camping area at Jomolhari B.C.
Day One: Shana To Thongo Sampa
It was raining when we set off from Shana around 2 p.m.
Full Report … Day One: Paro To Shana To Thongo Sampa
- There were 16 in our trekking party , most with a tent of their own.
- Our support crew – guides, the cook team, the tent team, and horse handlers – numbered 12.
- The 43 horses made up the single largest group!
We were a village on the move!
Day Two: Thongo Sampa To Thangthangkha
The first three days were spent walking up the Paro Chhu (chhu is “river” in Tibetan). Never far away were the hydro poles and wires installed in 2015 to bring electricity to this isolated area of the country.
Full Report … Day Two: Thongo Sampa To Thangthangkha
Day Three: Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C.
We got to Jangothang (“thang” means flat area!) and spent two nights there to help with acclimatization. It is at 4100 meters. The big attraction is a view of the 7315-meter Jomolhari. This is the view you hope to get –
Full Report … Day Three: Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang
However, the low-hanging cloud meant we were to get only very early morning glimpses of it. Here is the afternoon view from Jangothang!
And here is a morning view! It is one of my first pix with a blue sky in it!
Day Four: Acclimatization Day at Jomolhari B.C.
On our off-day, we walked up the hillside behind the tents in the image below. There we accessed the plateau and its two small lakes.
Our morning hike took us up another three hundred meters and was a good acclimatization exercise. The image below shows us on the plateau with the lakes just around the corner to the right.
On our way back to camp, we got a glimpse of the lower flanks of Jitchu Drake (6850m), one of Jomolhari’s neighbouring peaks.
Full Report … Day Four: Jomolhari Acclimatization Day
Day Five: Jomolhari to Lingshi Via Nyile La
We’d get a better – but not complete! – view the following day as we set off for Lingshi via our first pass, Nyile La (5090m), the first of our eleven high passes of the trek.
Full Report … Day Five: Jomolhari B.C. To Lingshi Via Nyile La
Day Six: Lingshi To Chebisa
The next morning we would visit the Lingshi Dzong (4300m) on the hill above our campsite.
- The fort was built in the 1660s,
- partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1897,
- rebuilt in the 1950s, and
- badly damaged again by the 2011 earthquake.
Some bad karma here? Local workers were busy with reconstruction when we visited.
On this day, we walked to Chebisa (3990m), one of the three biggest villages we would visit during our 23-day trek. In the image below, our orange tents are already up as we approach.
Full Report … Day 6 – Lingshi To Chebisa
After putting my duffel and packsack in my tent, I walked to the far end of the village to see the waterfall. It was harvest time and some locals were working in the fields.
A recurring post-supper topic dealt with the exploits and the significance of the Buddhist monk Drukpa Kunley, aka “the Divine Madman.” His “thunderbolt” is sometimes depicted on the sides of buildings as a good luck charm. With his “crazy wisdom” as the precedent, exporters of Himalayan (i.e.Tibetan) Buddhism to the West – supposedly enlightened beings like Chogyam Trungpa of the Shambhala Movement and Sogyal Rinpoche of Rigpa – were able to pass off their sexual abuse as Buddha-like behaviour.
This brief Youtube video summarizes the “divine thunderbolt” role in traditional Bhutanese culture.
Day Seven: Chebisa To Shakyapasang Via Gombu La
From Chebisa, it was on to a camp near Shakyapasang. On the way, we would cross Gombu La, at 4400m, one of the lower passes of our trek.
Full Report … Day 7: Chebisa To Shomuthang Via Gombu La
Day Eight: Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La
Full Report … Day 8: Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La
Day 9: Robluthang To Limithang Via Sintia La
The next day involved our highest pass so far – Sinche La at 5000m. The tent crew and their horse team are approaching the pass in the image below. About ten minutes later, it started snowing!
We set up a lunch shelter on this side of the pass before continuing. By now, everyone had on rain gear – top and bottom.
Full Report … Day 9: Robluthang To Limithang Via Sintia La
We would lose almost 900 meters in altitude by the time we got to our Limithang campsite. The tent crew was still putting up the sleeping tents. Already up was the blue cook tent on the left, the double green/blue dining tent for 16 trekkers in the middle, and the small army green toilet tent on the right-hand side. The members of the tent crew really knew what they were doing – our tents were often down by the time breakfast was over and often all up by the time we got to the day’s camp.
Day Ten: Limithang To Laya
The first leg of our trek ended at Laya, the layout of which reminded me of what Namche Bazaar in the Nepalese Khumbu may have looked like fifty years ago.
Full Report … Day 10 – Limithang To Laya
We would spend two nights in Laya, using the day off to rest for the second leg of our trek. Meanwhile, the guide finalized arrangements for a new horse team to take us from Laya to Chozo in the Lunana district.
Once we got to Chozo, the horses and their handlers returned to Laya, while a new set of yaks or horses were hired to take us down the final section. The Thimphu agency – Yangphel – which organized the actual trek had all of this figured out. Everything –
- the logistics
- camp set up
- and take down –
unfolded without a problem.
Full Report … Day 11: Rest Day in Laya
Day-By Day Snowman Trek Trip Report
- Day 1 – Paro To Shana To Thongo Samba
- Day 2 – Thongo Samba Thangthangkha
- Day 3 – Thangthangkha To Jomolhari Base Camp
- Day 4 – Rest Day/Acclimatization Day at Jomolhari B.C.
- Day 5 – Jomolhari B.C. To Lingshi Via Nyile La
- Day 6 – Lingshi To Chebisa
- Day 7 – Chebisa To Shomuthang Via Gombu La
- Day 8 – Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La
- Day 9 – Robluthang To Limithang Via Sinche La
- Day 10 – Limithang To Laya Village
- Day 11 – Rest Day In Laya Village
- Day 12 – Laya To Rodophu
- Day 13 – Rodophu To Narethang Via Tsemo La
- Day 14 – Narethang To Tarina Via Kang Karchung La
- Day 15 – Tarina To Green Lake Via Woche
- Day 16 – Green Lake To Tshojo Via Keche La
- Day 17 – Rest Day in Chozo (Tshojo)
- Day 18 – Chozo To Tsho Chena Via Sintia La
- Day 19 – Tsho Chena To Jichu Dramo Via Loju La
- Day 20 – Jichu Dramo To Tsho Tsho Tshampa Via Rinchen Zoe La
- Day 21 – Tsho Tsho Thampa To Tampoe Tsho
- Day 22 – Tampoe Tsho To Rerethang Via Tempe La
- Day 23 – Rerethang To Upper Sephu…includes a breakdown of the cost of the trip and who gets how much, as well as my rant on the collapse of the “high value, low impact” tourism policy in the past decade.