Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 1 – Paro To Shana to Thongo Samba

Previous Posts:  Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview- mostly images

Part 1 From Paro To Shana To Laya
Part 2 – From Laya To Chozo To Sephu

a satellite view of the first three days of the trek - the way to Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang

a satellite view of the first three days of the trek – the way to Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang

Day 1 –  Paro To Shana To Thongo Samba

  • Calendar date: September 28, 2019
  • Time: 3.5 hrs.
  • Distance: about 10 km.
  • Start point altitude:  2885m. at the Shana bridge
  • endpoint campsite: Thongo Samba  3260m –  a clearing on the east side of the Paro Chhu just after the side trail to Tremo La and the Tibetan border.
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many variations of the Snowm and other treks.
  • Altitude profile chart: see here for the high passes and campsites from Shana to Laya.
  • I used a Sony RX100 III to capture most of the images you’ll see below; a fellow trekker’s Huawei P30 captured the others. (Thanks again, O, for letting me use them!)

The Dewachen Resort is located on the hillside west of the Paro Chhu and about three kilometers north of Paro’s small downtown area. We spent two nights there as we got over the effects of jet lag and did some pre-trip preparation. We also spent a half-day visiting Bhutan’s #1 tourist attraction – the Taktsang Monastery (“the Tiger’s Nest”).

Taktsang Monastery to the north of Paro

At 8:30 a.m. on our third day in Bhutan, we set off for Shana. The Lonely Planet Bhutan guidebook names it Sharna Zampa. Zampa is one transliteration of the Dzongkha word for “bridge.” Since it is currently the end of the road from Paro,  Shana now serves as the starting point for most treks going up to Jangothang and Jomolhari B.C.

(We later met a group of four Canadian trekkers whose local agency had them start from Drugyel Dzong. The thinking may be that the 300 meters in elevation gain from Drugyel Dzong (2580m) to Shana are enough for Day 1 and that the 12-kilometer road walk makes for an easy introduction to the coming rigours of the trek. I am glad we were spared the drudgery of walking this stretch!)

The Snowman Trek – the bus and pick-up truck ready to take us to the trailhead at Shana

On the dirt road to Shana, we would get one more view of Taktsang Monastery, three kilometers away on the other side of the Paro Chu. Click on the image below to see the arrow indicating the Tiger’s Nest location!

Click on the image to see the arrow indicating The Tiger Nest’s location!

Then it was further up the west side of the river until we came to Drugyel Dzong, which was, until a few years ago, the end of the road and the start of the local/trader/trekker trail up to Jangothang and on to Lingshi and Chebisa and Laya.

A view of Drugyel Dzong as we approach from Paro

We walked up to the hilltop to see the fortress close up. While a photographer’s hope is a clear day to frame a shot of the dzong with Jomolhari in the background, the cloud cover nixed that possibility!

Drugyel Dzong – a view from the south

The dzong (essentially a monastery fortress) was built in 1649 during a time of tensions within the Tibetan world as the dominant Buddhist sect – the Gelugpa – challenged Zhabdrung for control of what is now western Bhutan. It was one of a number of dzongs Zhabdrung had ordered to be built during the 1640s – e.g. Semtokha, Punakha, and Paro. Not far to the north of the fortress is Tremo La,  one of the passes over which the Gelugpa armies had come in the past, sometimes invited by those Sakya lamas opposed to Zhabdrung.  These days the sectarian war between various Buddhist groups is reframed as a war between the nation-states of Tibet and Bhutan. [Zhabdrung was a Tibetan who belonged to the Drugpa sect and had fled to what is now western Bhutan due to the war among the various Buddhist groups.]

drugyel dzong. 1905 photo

Over the years, earthquakes and, in 1951, a devastating fire left the hilltop in ruins. It was only in 2016 that work to restore the dzong to its former glory was started.

the Drugyel Dzong interior – a view from the north

After a walk up to the hilltop, we stood in the courtyard with a tall tower in front of us. It was enclosed by three-storey buildings that served both as enclosing walls and as housing and storage for the dzong’s inhabitants.

Drugyal’s central tower – October 2019

At the site were perhaps thirty people engaged in restoration work, which will apparently be completed by December 2022. (See here for some background info.)

It is twelve kilometers from the Drugyel Dzong to Shana. We had a bit more narrow dirt road to go down before we got there.

building in the traditional Bhutanese style on the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

Just before Shana, we stopped for a few minutes at the army-manned checkpoint Gunitsawa while our local guide had our trekking permits checked by the official.

We would be entering one of Bhutan’s largest protected areas, the 4,349 sq. km. Dorje National Park. The trek to Jomolhari starts in the park’s southwest corner.

National Parks and Protected Areas in Bhutan – Jigme Dorje Park in deep blue

the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

Just before noon, we arrived at Shana. The satellite image below shows perhaps a dozen buildings in Shana and the broken red line on the first 2 kilometers of the trail that we would soon be walking up to Jomolhari and beyond.

We were ushered into the yard on the side of a building, where we were greeted by support staff belonging to the Thimphu adventure travel agency Yangphel in charge of the actual trek. [I booked the trip through World Expeditions,  an Australian company specializing in small group adventure travel that I had used before.]

A covered table was already set for lunch.   We didn’t know it then, but we were not far from the footbridge across the river and the start of the horse trail up the Paro Chhu valley.

the lunch tent at Shana

Under his own umbrella sat a Buddhist monk/priest with all the paraphernalia associated with ritual – incense, special bowls, etc. I did notice that the cardboard box which served as the altar had once held a couple of dozen whisky bottles.

a Buddhist priest doing prayers for our benefit

In the background, as we ate lunch, I occasionally tuned in to the chanting and ritual gestures the monk was engaged in. Before we left the grounds, we lined up for him to drape a khata, a white scarf, over each of our necks. I’m still not sure why he was the one bestowing the khata. I figured in this situation, it should have been we, trekkers, in thanks for his petitioning the deities on our behalf.

Here is an alternative explanation which may explain why we were the ones getting the ceremonial scarves –

The white scarf is also used to welcome and bid farewell to guests at places like airport, train station and bus station etc. In these contexts, Khata is a gesture of welcome, goodbye and good luck in the form of best purity and sincerity.

In our case, perhaps a welcome, goodbye, and good luck gesture all simultaneously.

photo taken by a fellow trekker

Before we set off, there was one more issue to deal with. We would be saying goodbye to the driver who had driven the bus over the past two and a half days. US$10. from each of us was the suggested tip – $160. in all. While I can’t say for sure how much a bus driver in Bhutan earns per day, $30. is, I think, a reasonable guess. (I base that on what someone in Nepal or India in the same situation might earn.)  Feel free to correct me on the actual wage if I am way off,  but in the meanwhile, I still find the idea of a $160 U.S. tip in this situation astonishing. If nothing else, we helped to raise not only Bhutan’s GDP but also its National Happiness Index number!

the start of the trek at the Shana bridge

Day 1 –  Shana To Thongo Samba

  • Time: 3.5 hrs.
  • Distance: about 7.5 km.
  • Start point altitude:  2885m. at the Shana bridge
  • Endpoint campsite: Thongo Samba  3260m –  a clearing on the east side of the Paro Chhu just after the side trail to Tremo La and the Tibetan border.
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
Days 1 and 2 - Shana To Thangthangkha

Days 1 and 2 – Shana To Thangthangkha

After putting on our rain gear – pants and hooded jackets and, for some, gaiters – it was time to set off.   We set off in the rain at about 1:30 and arrived at the campsite around 5:00 p.m. – a four-hour walk. The one defining feature was the muddy, horse-shit-littered “trail” we walked up. I was also surprised to see the hydroelectric poles; we would follow the wires almost all the way to Laya. They were a reminder that the isolation and rustic living conditions which once defined this area along the border with Tibet was ending. I sometimes consciously framed my images so that the wires and poles would not be in them, thus preserving the “used to be” look of the landscape!

hydro-electric poles on the side of the trail – a common site for the first ten days

a rainy – and muddy -introduction to the trekking trails of Bhutan

The Bart Jordans’ guidebook to trekking in Bhutan has this line about the first couple of days of the trek as you walk through the lush forested terrain on either side of the Paro Chhu –

The trail climbs steadily through a beautiful thick forest of oak, rhododendron, bamboo and ferns. Look out for birds: there are many species here.

Given the trail conditions, looking up at the tree canopy for birdlife was the last thing on our minds. Instead, we were focused on the mix of mud and horse shit that we were walking through. Every step involved an assessment that included avoiding the mud and horse shit and stepping on a rock stable and flat enough to allow us to follow with another solid step. A couple of hours of this can get a bit tiresome! I slipped once, thanks to a miscalculation!

another of the many muddy sections of the Day 1 trail from Shana to Thongo Sampa

walking the muddy trail from Shana to Jomolhari – Day 1

From stone to stone, we made our way up the trail, occasionally rewarded with a stunning view of the Paro Chhu itself (Chhu is the Dzongkha word for “river”) or of streams running down into the Paro from the hillsides on either side.

a bridge crossing on Day 1 from Shana to Thongo Sampa on leaving Shana

one of the bridge crossings of Day 1 from Shana to Thongo Samba (Zampa)

Below is a shot of me walking along with my trekking poles in hand – only one of a few times that I was not using them! As I look at the trail in the image, I think – “Where is the mud?” It looks totally acceptable!

shot taken by one of my fellow trekkers

Shot taken by one of my fellow trekkers

Also evident on occasion were reminders that we were in a cultural world defined by the magic and sorcery-infused branch of Buddhism known as Vajrayana. It combined the tantric beliefs of north India from 1000 years after the times of Siddhartha Gautama with the local animistic beliefs of the Himalayas at that time to such an extent that the result is a belief system far from what Guatama taught or intended.

We would pass by the multi-coloured prayer flags strung across a stream or alongside the trail. Later in the trek, the flags would be found at most high passes that we crossed, along with a pile of small stones, each one of which would have been carried up by a traveller and left as a sign of thanks for safe passage. See the following post for more on those prayer flags!

Blowin’ In the Wind: An Appreciation of Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags

In the video below, you can see the water being used to spin a prayer wheel. Filled with thousands of individual “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantras, the spinning action is believed to toss the positive energy of the mantras out into the world.

checking out the Paro Chhu from the trail to Jomolhari

We came to the fork in the trail pictured below just north of Shing Karap and south of our Day 1 campsite. Take the left-side trail, and in a couple hours,  you will be standing at the top of the 4600m Tremo La and on the border with Tibet!

We took the trail to the right and approached our campsite after crossing a bridge to the east side of the Paro Chhu.

the fork in the trail – Tremo La and Tibet to the left – Jomolhari B.C. to the right

Already at the site as we walked in were the tent/cook crew and the horse crew from Shana with their 43 horses! They would move us up the trail as far as Jangothang/Jomolhari Base Camp before they turned back to Shana. Meanwhile, a new horse crew from Jangothang would take over and move us up to Laya before they would be replaced by a new team from Laya. In this way, the economic benefits of trekking tourism are spread out among the various local communities. If I got the information right,  each horse earns  US$20. a day, a nice infusion of cash into the region and a good reason to take care of the aminals, each of which carries about 60 kilograms.

Thongo Samba camp – Day 1 of the Snowman trek

a few of our horses – Day 1 Thongo Samba

Jordans labels the campsite as Thongo SambaThongo is his transliteration of thang, meaning “flat area,” and samba, his version of zampa, meaning “bridge.”  The site is not far from a bridge we crossed to get there from the west side of the river.

a view of our first camp on Day 2 morning

We were now at 3250 meters, about 400 meters in altitude higher than Shana. While the World Expeditions guide had encouraged me to forego my use of Diamox,  I had started taking the tablets the day before to aid in acclimatization. While he was probably right,  I figured I had used them on a half-dozen previous high-altitude treks and had not experienced any acclimatization issues or even a headache. So I continued with the twice-a-day ritual – a half-tablet (125mg.) on waking up at 6:00 a.m. and the other just before supper at 6:00 p.m.

Snowman Trek – the effective amount of oxygen at different elevations

I was only one of three trekkers – of a group of 16 – who made use of the Diamox, and none of us suffered any acclimatization issues during the trek. Then again, most of the others also faired okay, though two of them could not finish the trek because of respiratory or stomach-related issues.

N.B. If you are going to suffer from acclimatization issues on the Snowman trek, it will likely be in the first week or so. After that, your body will probably have made the adjustments necessary to deal with the thinner air.

Next Post: Day 2 – Thongo Samba to Thangthangka

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1 Response to Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 1 – Paro To Shana to Thongo Samba

  1. Pingback: Mapping the Snowman Trek I using Google Earth « The Wandering Drukpa

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