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

Last revised on October 30, 2022.

Table of Contents:

This Post – The Snowman Trek – The First Half

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

 

See my Hiking/Trekking Page for other walks I’ve done over the past decade.

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The Snowman Trek – Possible Complications

I spent most of October 2019 in the northwest corner of 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 due to 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.

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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.

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 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.

Taktsang Monastery to the north of Paro

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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 get my hoped-for shot of the dzong with Jomolhari in the background!

Drukyel Dzong on our way to Shana and the trailhead

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Our Version of the Snowman Trek Route

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

Bhutan - Snowman Trek Route

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 promoted 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 since 2017.

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.

Snowman Trek effective-amount-of-oxygen

As the graph above shows, most of the trek is spent in the 4000 to 5000- meter range, with the day’s campsite lower than the same day’s high point.  The first three days see an altitude gain of almost 2000 meters from Paro.

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Day One: Shana To Thongo Sampa

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

A view of our first camp on Day 2 morning

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!

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Day Two: Thongo Sampa To Thangthangkha

horse being prepped for the day’s carry

The first three days were spent walking up the Paro Chhu (chhu is “river” in Dzongkha, a Tibetan language and that of the country’s dominant political group). Never far away were the hydro poles and wires 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 is on the move!

Full Report … Day Two: Thongo Sampa To Thangthangkha

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Day Three: Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C.

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

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!

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! It is one of four or five that I got during the first ten days of our Snowman Trek.

Morning view of Jomolhari

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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.

The Jangothang campsite at Jomolhari B.C.

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 saw the lower flanks of Jitchu Drake (6850m), one of Jomolhari’s neighbouring peaks.

Full Report … Day Four: Jomolhari Acclimatization Day

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

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Day Five: Jomolhari to Lingshi Via Nyile La

We’d get a better but incomplete 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.

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

Full Report … Day Five: Jomolhari B.C. To Lingshi Via Nyile La

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

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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.

the Lingshi Dzong – under reconstruction in October 2019

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

Chebisa panorama

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.

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 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 of naive Western students of the dharma as Buddha-like behaviour.

Drukpa Kunley's thunderbolt on a chebisa house

Drukpa Kunley’s thunderbolt on a Chebisa house

This brief Youtube video summarizes the “divine thunderbolt” role in traditional Bhutanese culture.

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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.

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

Full Report … Day 7: Chebisa To Shomuthang Via Gombu La

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

approaching our Day 7 campsite – the blue dining tent and the sleeping tents are already up

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Day Eight: Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

trekkers approaching a makeshift bridge

Full Report … Day 8: Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La

a few of our horses and the end of another day

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

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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!

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

Before continuing, we set up a lunch shelter on this side of the pass. By now, everyone had on rain gear – top and bottom.

Sinche La with our lunch tent just below.

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.

Limithang campsite

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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

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 returned to Laya while a new set of yaks or horses were hired to take us down the final section. The Thimphu agency – Yangphel – that organized the actual trek, had all of this figured out. Everything –

  • the logistics
  • camp set up
  • and take down –

unfolded without a problem.

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Day 11: Rest Day in Laya

the dining room of the Laya lodge we used d

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

Full Report … Day 11: Rest Day in Laya

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

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Arranging A Visit To Bhutan:

Before 2020 and the Covid Epidemic:

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  pre-2022 US$250.+ a day that Brits, Canadians, Americans, Australians, and Europeans had to pay before the massive tourism policy revamp in 2022 – 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. In late 2022, some agencies updated the trek prices, while others still have the old ones with the $65 rather than the $ 200-a-day government tax.

[See here for a breakdown of where the $250 US a day + $15 to $20. in “optional” (but expected) tips went. Choosing one of the agencies listed above also added another $30. to $50. a day for their value-added service.]

In all cases, the trip agency 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 TravelI 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. Pre-2022, if you went on your own, you had to pay an extra $40. a day; if there were two of you, it was a $30.-a-day per person surcharge.

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Since July 2022 & The New Bhutanese Tourism Policy:

As expensive as the Snowman Trek was in 2019, it is much more so since a total revamp of Bhutan’s tourism policy. Now, instead of a $ 65-a-day tax, most visitors must pay $200 a day. (The fee for Indians went from $0. to $15.)  A 27-day stay in Bhutan to do the Snowman would mean that the visitor will pay $200 x 27 = $5400. in tax (called the Sustainable Development Fee).  This is before the actual cost of the trek is added!

The above UK or US-based trekking agencies have all raised their prices. An email sent to MK, for example, got this response –

We are still yet to formally confirm the price for this trek. However, it is likely to be around £17,500 per person on a land only basis.

A further query about the price before 2020 received this additional information –

Bhutan has recently implemented a new pricing structure. Previously there had been a daily rate of $250 per person. This would cover all costs whilst in Bhutan and would include a $65 fee for sustainable development. The daily rate has now been done away with. However, the sustainable development fee remains and has now been increased to $200 a day, then the costs of accommodation, guiding, meals etc are added on top of this. This has therefore led to an increase in cost for all of our trips to Bhutan.

Further to this our trips are paid for in dollars and due to a less than ideal exchange rate prices have seen further increases.

The price in 2019 was £6,885 however our most recent price before the change in pricing structure was £7195.

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In 2019,  315,599 tourists visited Bhutan. Of that

  • 72, 199 were of the “high value, low impact” class, up less than 1% from the previous year.
  • 243,400 were in the “unregulated” regional category, up 20% from 2018. Most (92%) were from India. The dramatic change  from 2010 to 2019 to a “low value, high impact” tourism policy created obvious tensions.

The new SDF of $200. a night that non-Indian visitors will now have to pay will undoubtedly reduce the number of “high value, low impact” tourists. More to the point is what will happen to the number of Indian tourists.  Not only do they now have to pay a nominal SDP of NU1200 ($15) a night, but they are also subject to all sorts of new rules –

  • an NU4500 a day fee to travel in Bhutan in their own vehicle
  • mandatory travel insurance
  • the services of a guide are now required/no more independent travel
  • the need to pay entry fees to visit temples and monasteries – NU2000 ($25) for Bhutan’s #1 tourist attraction, The Tiger’s Nest.

Clearly,  with the new fees and other requirements, the Bhutanese government aims to welcome a more manageable number of tourists, especially from India. The pre-Covid situation was not sustainable.  In 2023 perhaps 20,000 Indian visitors and 20,000 from everywhere else, for a total of 40,000, will be added to the graph below. That will be quite a reduction from the  315,599 in 2019, the last normal tourism year before covid.

It will, however, leave those Bhutanese tourist industry workers, travel agencies, hotel owners, and restaurants used to the old numbers having to scramble to find some other way of making a living.

Bhutan tourist arrivals graph – “high value” and total – note the explosive growth in the number of Indian tourists from 2010 to 2019

Time will tell how it all unfolds. In the meanwhile, Bhutan’s new branding encourages its citizens and tourists to  “Believe.”

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Day-By-Day Snowman Trek Trip Report

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5 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

  2. Pingback: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek - hikerstore

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