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

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

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The previous post described the trek from Shana to Laya over 10 days; this route is sometimes packaged as the Jomolhari Trek or Laya Trek and has yet other names. From the end of the trek at Laya, trekkers descend to Gasa and a vehicle ride back to Punakha and Thimphu.

Now we were off on the second half of our Snowman Trek.  The trail from Laya to Upper Sephu Via Chozo or Thanza is often called the Laya Lunana Trek,  with the name Lunana Snowman Trek applied to the entire route from Shana.  This second half of the Snowman includes seven high passes and campsites, mostly at or above 4000 meters.

Laya To Upper Sephu high passes and campsites graph

Thanks to almost daily rain and low cloud cover, the expected views of Himalayan peaks during the first half of our trek were scarce.  After a relatively cool and rainy rest day spent in Laya, we hoped for better weather and clearer skies as we set off from Laya for Lunana.

After ten days on the trail,  the concern about acclimatizing properly was no longer an issue.  Unfortunately, the combination of dry air and increased breathing rate can cause problems;  one of our trekkers had to end the trek at Laya because of a cough that only seemed to worsen. I had seen a fellow trekker hit by the same respiratory problem on a 22-day Everest region trek a few years ago.

Bhutan - Snowman Trek Route

The day’s 17.6 km. walk was a tough one. Starting in Laya at  3800m, we would descend past a military camp/checkpoint to the left fork in the trail at 3240 m.  and then scramble on some relatively rough and, in the forest sections, muddy “trail.”  Cloud cover and occasional rain had me wondering if we would ever get some decent weather. We were back up to above 4200 meters by the end of the day!

the forest trail to Rodophu from Laya

the path to Rodophu – yaks on the way to Gasa

the trail to Rodolphu - a short section gone after landslide

the trail to Rodophu – a short section gone after a landslide

approaching Rodophu campsite

The next day was a shorter one – 11 km. and included another pass, Tsemo La (4905 m.)

approaching Tsemo La on the way to Narethang

descending from Tsemo La

descending from Tsemo La

panorama from the east side of Tsemo La

Narethang camp in the morning

Narethang camp in the morning

our dining tent at Narethang

See Day 14 – Narethang To Tarina Via Kang Karchung La for maps and more detail on this part of the route.

yaks coming from Lunana on the east side of Karakachu La

a free-roaming dog surveying his Himalayan domain

We walked into this stunning vista just around the corner from where the dog was; it was perhaps the most spectacular of the trip so far.

a breathtaking Himalayan view from the Narethang-Tarina section of the Snowman route

a makeshift bridge across a side stream on the way to Green Lake (after Woche)  from Tarina

See Day 15 – Tarina To Green Lake Via Woche for more pix and maps of this section of the trek.

flowers on the hillside above Green Lake campsite (4450m)

Some two hundred meters above is Keche La (4666m). The following images show the initial section above the campsite and the nearby Keche La itself.

leaving our Green Lake campsite the next day

a view of Green Lake and a second higher one from Keche La (4666m)

Then it was over the pass and down the other side.  Now we were definitely in the isolated district of Lunana with its river, the Pho Chhu flowing down from the three glacial lakes above Chozo and Thanza.

Day 16: Green Lake To Chozo Via Keche La

In 1994 a glacial lake outburst flood had a catastrophic impact on the swollen river down to Punakha.  In reading about the event, I had worried about our campsite location at Chozo.  The village of Lhedi, pictured below, sits high above the floodplain.  I remember thinking -“I hope the same is true of Chozo.”

the first view of Lhedi and the floodplain of the Pho Chhu

After a lunch stop at the east end of Lhedi (just beyond the school), we continued to Chozo, sometimes walking on a rocky but dry “trail” on the floodplain itself and sometimes on one side or the other – as in the image below.

Following the Pho Chhu up to Chozo

Chozo was another point on the trek at which one horse team would turn back to its starting point (Laya, in this case) while a local team would be hired to take us to the next point (in this case, to the very end of the trek at Upper Sephu).

We spent two nights in Chozo.  Since the second day out of Laya, the blue skies in most of the post’s pictures show that the weather had improved. We’d get more sun in the days to come.

panorama of the seasonal village of Chozo in Lunana district – October 2019

our Chozo campsite

the Chozo Dzong

The resident monk would let us enter the dzong and see the second-floor shrine room.

the resident monk at the Chozo dzong

See Day 17: Chozo Rest Day for more photos and info on Chozo.

As I look at that team of horses crossing the bridge below Chozo in the image below, I realize now that they were some of the horses that the guide had hired for the last leg of the trek. They would take us from Chozo down to Upper Sephu.

a local horse team crossing the Phu Chhu just 1 km downriver from Chozo

a small section of the days 1200 meters in ascent to get to the day's pass - Sintia La

a small section of the day’s 1200 meters in the ascent to get to Sintia La

precarious footing – for horses and humans  – as we make our way to Sintia La (5020m)

Day 18 – Chozo To Tsho Chena Via Sintia La

The next morning at our campsite to the west of Tsho Chena, a brief snow shower dusted everything!

morning snow shower at our camp above Tshochena

Less than forty-five minutes later, here is what things looked like at the same campsite!

twenty minutes after the morning shower at our above Tshochena campsite

There are two days of dramatic passes – Loju La (5115m) above and Rinchen Zoe La (5300m) in the two images below!

panorama of  Rinchen Zoe La and the glacial lake below

yaks starting the descent from the highest pass of the Snowman trek – Rinchen Zoe La at 5100 meters

No matter where we were, lunch involved a full sit-down with folding tables, tablecloths, plates and cutlery, and super comfortable Helinox chairs!  Three horses and three staff members made sure that it all happened quickly. The food was prepared at breakfast and then kept in heat-retaining containers until lunch.

Here is what it looked like on the day we crossed Loju La – it was a rather exposed spot on the high-altitude plateau we were traversing.

lunchtime a few kilometers after Loju La

Day 19 – Tsho Chena To Jichu Dramo Via Loju La has maps, more images and info.

In the next couple of days, we would go from the stark and treeless vistas of high-altitude Himalayas – what you would expect to see on the Tibetan plateau – to increasingly luxuriant foliage as more and more plants appeared.

A glacial lake bed drying up as we make our way to Jichu Dramo from Joju La

lake on the way to Rerethang after crossing our last pass Tempe La

approaching our final camp at Rerethang

the lunch table at Sephu – the trek was done!

We covered almost twenty kilometres on the last morning before arriving at Upper Sephu. To greet us were staff members of Yangphel, the Thimphu adventure travel agency that had organized the actual trip.  I learned that this was the second year that Yangphel had made the trip for the out-of-Bhutan company through which I actually booked the trip.

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The Yangphel staff had prepared another sit-down lunch, complete with red and white wine and beer. I stuck to apple juice and water, knowing how the alcohol would affect me after the 20 km. hike that morning and a four-hour ride on Bhutan’s winding roads!

By that evening, we had driven to Punakha and an excellent 3* hotel (the Zhingham Resort)  overlooking the Punakha Dzong. After three weeks in my admittedly plush 3-person Marmot tent, complete with basecamp Thermarest and carpet and pillows, it was a treat.

[I booked the trip through World Expeditions, an Australian-based company I have used before. Their website attracts clients and creates small groups that make the adventures possible for solo travellers like me. My contact was their sales office in Ottawa. The agency prompted me on the things I needed to take care of before departure –

  • the Bhutan visa requirements
  • a current passport,
  • an Indian visa ($110.) since I was flying to Paro via Delhi,
  • mountaineering-level insurance,
  • special dietary requirements, etc.

The Toronto-Delhi return was $1200; the Druk Air flight to Paro (and return) was another $450. Also, add in two nights in a New Delhi hotel – one on the way and the other on the way back. I picked a hotel close to the airport.

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Who Gets How Much? 

Note: I did the trip in 2019, before Bhutan’s total revamp of its tourism policy.

The trek itself cost me US $7800 + tip.   Before 2022, the Bhutanese charged their “high value, low impact” (that is, non-Indian) tourists a minimum of US $250 all-inclusive a day to be in Bhutan.  Therefore,  $6750. (27 days x $250.) went to the Bhutanese government and to the local trekking agency.

Of the $6750.

  • The Bhutanese government’s share – the sustainable Development Fee –  was $65 a day or $1755  for my entire 27-day stay!  
  • Yangphel, the local trekking agency, got the rest, $5000. 

The World Expeditions charge for making the trip happen and paying their own assigned non-Bhutanese guide was about $1000. ($7800 – $6750). 

Also, note that the “voluntary” tip is expected by all. It was clearly a concern from the very first day of the trek, and added another $400 to the final cost.

Post-Covid Update:

A new tourism policy was introduced when Bhutan opened up to tourism again after a two-and-a-half-year shutdown during the worst of the Covid pandemic. This would have quite an impact on the cost of visiting Bhutan.

In 2022 the same World Expeditions trip which I took now costs US$16900 ($18590 CDN), more than double the $7800 I paid in 2019!

  • One reason is the Bhutanese government’s tripling of the “Sustainable Development Fee” (i.e. non-Indian tourist tax) from $65. a day to $200! The Bhutanese tourist tax for a 27-day stay in Bhutan in 2022 is now $5400.US, up from $1755. in 2019.
  • Assuming the figure is correct, it means that World Expeditions and Yangphel’s share also increased by $5000! So, instead of their $5000. + $1000. pre-2022, their share of the total is now $10,000.

Day-By-Day Snowman Trek Trip Report

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Himalayan Alternatives To the Snowman Trek 

There are two treks in nearby Nepal that I’ve done that rival and surpass the Snowman as must-be-done epic trekking adventures. Like the Snowman Trek, they include the Himalayan Buddhist cultural overlay that I have until recently found especially enchanting.

The HighPasses of Everest: The World’s #1 Trek

Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La

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5 Responses to Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 2 – Laya To Chozo To Upper Sephu

  1. Loved the whole documentation, details and pictures.
    Is this trek not permitted to Indians?

    • true_north says:

      Mrunal – I am not sure if you received my reply. It did not appear here so I will rewrite a short version!

      Yes – of course Indians can do the Snowman Trek! October would be the best month to do so. My post for Day 23 notes the Bhutanese travel agency which organized our trek. It did an outstanding job. I will also add that it was not cheap! It costs non-Indian tourists $250. a day to be in Bhutan so my 27-day visit came out to $US6750. with another $375. for the trekking crew and the horse handlers at the end of the trek. Perhaps as an Indian you can arrange a less expensive trek?

      If not, you should seriously consider a trek in Nepal instead. The Mustang region, Dolpo, the Annapurnas, the walk up to Everest will all cost significantly less with mountain views more impressive than what the Snowman has to offer. The trekking infrastructure in Nepal is also much more developed than it is in Bhutan.

      A final note – The images I see from India these days are heartbreaking. I wish you good health in these covid times and a great trek (somewhere!) when we have passed through these difficult times. All the best from Canada!

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