Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya

I spent most of October in Bhutan, a small country just south of Tibet in the eastern Himalayas. What drew me there was the epic Snowman/Lunana Trek, supposedly one of the world’s toughest. 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; unplanned-for 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

  • some pretty crappy 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 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.  I tried to limit myself to one or two images per day!

Part 2 – coming soon – will finish off the trek from Laya to Upper Sephu/Nikka Chhu. Click here for a copy of the World Expedition brochure to see how one travel agency markets the trek!

Bhutan is a country with a population of 800,000. While its capital and largest city is Thimphu, its one international airport is just south of Paro, a town of 11,000 or so pictured below.  I flew in from Delhi where I had overnighted.

the town of Paro with the Paro Chhu flowing down

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 carpark at the entrance to the site.

Taktsang Monastery to the north of Paro

We set off the next morning for the trailhead at Shana in the twenty-seater bus. An extra pick-up carried our duffels and backpacks.

Drukyel Dzong on our way to Shana and the trailhead

The map below shows the variation of the Snowman Trek route we did.

Bhutan - Snowman Trek Route

It was raining when we set off from Shana around 2 p.m.

a view of our first camp on Day 2 morning

There were 16 in our trekking party, most with a tent of their own. As well, perhaps ten locals – guides, cook team, tent team, horse handlers.  The horses made up the single largest group – there were 43 of them.  We were a village on the move!

horse being prepped for the day’s carry

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 that were installed in 2015 to bring electricity to this isolated area of the country.

the Paro Chhu – we followed the wires to Laya!

our Snowman Trek village on the move!

break time by a chorten (i.e. stupa) as we walk up the Paro valley to Jangothang

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 –

Chomolhari and Jigku Drake from 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!

first view of Jomolhari from the Jangothang stupas

And here is a morning view! It is one of my first pix with a blue sky in it!

morning view of Jomolhari

On our off-day, we walked up the hillside behind the tents in the image below to access the plateau and its two small lakes.

the Jangothang campsite at Jomolhari B.C.

Our morning hike took us up another three hundred meters and served as a good acclimatization exercise.  The image below has us up 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 neighboring peaks.

an afternoon view of Jitchu Drake, one of Jomohari’s neighboring peaks

We’d get a better – but not complete! – view the next morning as we set off for Lingshi via our first pass, Nyile La (5090m), the first of our eleven high passes of the trek.

Jitchu Drake the next morning as we set off for Lingshi

a bit of a tease – a false pass before  we actually got to Nyile La

a stream flowing from a glacial lake on the north side of Nyile La

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.

the Lingshi Dzong – under reconstruction in October 2019

This day we would walk as far as Chebisa (3990m), one of the three biggest villages we would visit during our 23-day walk. Our orange tents are already up as we approach.

Chebisa panorama

After putting my duffel and packsack in my tent I went for a walk to the fall end of the village to see the waterfall. It was harvest time and some locals were working in the fields.

Chebisa village and waterfall at west end

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 perhaps 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.

Drukpa Kunley's thunderbolt on a chebisa house

Drukpa Kunley’s thunderbolt on a Chebisa house

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.

break time at the top of the day's pass -.Gombu La at 4400m

break time at the top of the day’s pass – Gombu La at 4400m

approaching our Day 6 campsite - the blue dining tent and the sleeping tents are already up

approaching our Day 6 campsite – the blue dining tent and the sleeping tents are already up

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

trekkers approaching a makeshift bridge

a few of our horses and the end of another day

a few of our horses and the end of another day – Robluthang campsite

The next day involved our highest pass so far – Sinche la at 5000m. In the image below the tent crew and their horse team is approaching the pass.  About ten minutes later it started snowing!

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

We ended up setting up a lunch shelter on this side of the pass before continuing. By now everyone had on their rain gear – top and bottom.

Sinche La and our lunch tent just below

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.

Limithang campsite

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.

the village of Laya on an overcast October morning

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 would return to Laya while a new set of yaks or horses would be hired to take us down to the end of the trek. The local agency which actually organized the did the trek had all of this figured out and everything – the logistics and camp set up and take down – unfolded without a problem.

the dining room of the Laya lodge we used d

the dining room of the Laya lodge we used during our stay

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

Next Post: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 2 – Laya To Chozo To Sephu

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3 Responses to Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya

  1. Garry Paget says:

    Ramblin’ Boy,
    Once more you have treated us ‘mere mortals’ to another of your excellent travelogues! The scenery is breathtaking! And, by the sounds of things, the Divine Madman’s good luck charm worked as a “thunderbolt” should.
    Didn’t I see a mule in the photo just after the “makeshift bridge”?
    Looking forward to the next installment.
    Garry

    • true_north says:

      Garry, you’ve got this city boy checking images of mules and horses to see the exact difference! We definitely had horses though there were also other “beasts of burden” on what the locals think of as their highway. Higher up yaks became more common. I was amazed to see us use horses for the entire route; they got as high as 5300 meters and spent many days above 4000. i’d never seen anything like that in high-altitude Nepal.

      • Garry Paget says:

        This half country/half city boy…with a glass eye…thinks that, by way of its muzzle and the length of its ears, the animal on the right is a mule. Just sayin’…
        Garry

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