Last revised: November 14, 2022.
Table of Contents:
Previous Post: Day 16 – Green Lake To Chozo Via Keche La
- Rest Day In Chozo
- The Chozo Dzong – some historical background
- Behind The Dzong – The Chorten & The Altar with Dzoe
- Inside The Dzong and the Second Floor Shrine Room
- Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
- Villagers And Trekking Staff At Work And Play
- Climate Change: Its Impact On Lunana
- The Snowman Ultra-Marathon – 2019 Calibration Run
Calendar date: October 14, 2019.
See here for a Google Earth view of Chozo (also spelled
- Tshojong, and
If you have Apple Maps, its satellite imagery is sometimes more detailed and realistic than the Google one.
I used a Sony RX100 III to frame 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!)
Rest Day In Chozo (Tshojo)
A day to do nothing – or next to it! Some of the group were more ambitious and headed off to Thanza, five kilometers up at the top of the Pho Chhu valley.
Those versions of the Snowman Trek that end in the Bumthang area usually spend two nights in Thanza. Since our route south started with a high pass just across the river from Chozo, it made more sense for us to camp there instead.
A late breakfast and an extra cup of coffee and then a bit of rambling up and down the paths in the village …that’s what I did. Some were keen and did laundry. Then it was time for lunch and a nap. This was followed by a flurry of movement as the kitchen staff, having warmed up enough hot water, called us in turn to the shower tent. It was our third (and last!) full-body wash of the trek; the next one would be in Punakha a week later.
A Visit To the Chozo Dzong:
If England is about castles and France about châteaus, then western and central Bhutan is all about dzongs! They are the #1 tourist attraction in Paro, Punakha, and Trongsa. More remote ones like Drugyel Dzong and Lingshi Dzong also see visitors, the number only determined by the difficulty in getting there.
The dzong in Chozo probably wins the prize for most remote! Also, given the economic base that supports it, it is also one of the more humble ones, even more so than the one in Lingshi. However, unlike the Lingshi dzong, damaged repeatedly by earthquakes and fire, this one is intact and in good shape.
The photo above by Mark Horrell on his Flickr page shows the dzong as it was a decade ago before it was given a new roof and painted. It definitely looked better in 2019! (See here for the image source!)
The dzong sits high above the floodplain of the Pho Chhu. The two-storey U-shaped front section and open courtyard are enclosed by the utse or tower in the back. While it may have served as an administrative and religious center in better days, now only a solitary monk lives here.
The main door was locked when we first approached the dzong, and a knock on the door did not prompt a response. I ended up walking around the building, only later realizing that I had broken a basic law of the Himalayas regarding religious structures like mani walls and chortens – and dzongs: I had gone around counter-clockwise!
Behind The Dzong – The Chorten & The Altar with Dzoe
Behind the dzong, I found what looked like an altar, a place to leave offerings. At the foot of the structure were three plastic soft drink bottles, either litter or containers emptied of the liquid gifted to placate the spirits.
On the roof were three cross-shaped things bound with string – all in an identical pattern. Like the dream catcher of Anishinaabe culture in Canada, it is meant to trap negative spirits. Known as a dzoe or tendo, the device illustrates certain beliefs held by its users –
Sometimes you will come across a strange construction of twigs, straw and rainbow-coloured thread woven into a spider-web shape. You may see one near a building or by a roadside, with flower and food offerings. This is a dzoe (also known as a tendo), a sort of spirit catcher used to exorcise something evil that has been pestering a household. The malevolent spirits are drawn to the dzoe. After prayers the dzoe is cast away, often on a trail or road, to send away the evil spirits it has trapped. from Lonely Planet web page on Bhutanese Life – see here
Inside The Dzong
Circling the dzong, I was back at the front. The door was open, and my fellow trekker called to me to come in. The monk (and keeper of the keys) had apparently heard that we wanted to visit and had come up to the dzong from our lodge. The photos below show some of what we saw – but not the most important.
We walked across the courtyard to the utse, the tower structure at the back of the dzong. The resident monk opened the door you see in the image below and, after taking off our boots at the entrance, up we went on a set of ladder steps to the second floor. We entered the room and found a shrine area with three not-quite-lifesize metal statues, perhaps of bronze or painted to look like it. The three figures were, from left to right –
Padmasambhava (i.e. Guru Rinpoche) – the Buddhist tantric master who brought his version of Buddhism from northern India to Tibet in the 700s CE (that is, 1300 years ago). In the Himalayan cultural world, he is known as “the Second Buddha” but the fact is that his version of Buddhism, infused as it was with tantric concepts, fit much better with the pre-existing animistic beliefs of the Bon religion than the teachings of the first Buddha. The shrine figure had Padmasambhava holding a bell in one hand and a Dorje or thunderbolt in the other; his moustache is another clue as to his identity.
Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, – the 400’s B.C. originator of what we now know as Buddhism who lived his life in the Ganges plain area. He is depicted in the classic mudra with his right hand touching the earth; the significance of this would be known to all Buddhists.
Ngawang Namgyal – a Tibetan Buddhist monk, as well as a military and political leader. Also known by the title Zhabdrung Rinpoche “(the precious one at whose feet one submits”), in the early to mid-1600s, he united the western and central areas of the political entity we know today as Bhutan. Belonging to the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism, he often found himself at odds with other Buddhist groups within Bhutan and with the branch on the ascendant in Tibet at that time, the Gelugpa sect headed by the 5th. Dalai Lama. He can be identified by his full beard and red hat associated with the Drukpa line.
A Youtube video posted in 2013 recorded a puja ceremony in the shrine room. While the statues of the three above figures are not revealed, you do get an idea of what the room looks like.
At the end of the trip, we would visit the Punakha Dzong, and in the breathtaking main shrine room, we saw the same arrangement of the three above figures – the Holy Trinity of Bhutanese Buddhism!
It would have been nice to get a few photos of the shrine area to compensate for my faulty memory of what I saw! As is often the case in Bhutan, no photos were permitted within the temple itself.
Click here for 6 Bhutanese Dzongs – Fortresses, Architecture & Significance for a basic web page overview of the Bhutanese dzong, complete with good images of some of the major ones. [If the link is dead, you can access a pdf file of the article here.]
A much more in-depth and well-written piece of research is Fortress Monasteries of the Himalayas by Peter Harrison. A downloadable Kindle copy from Amazon is available. The front cover illustrates the ultimate dzong of all, the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
A few frames of this Bhutanese film, released in October 2019, include the Chozo Dzong in them. The dzong is in the frame below on the screen’s bottom right.
The film would be nominated for a 2022 Oscar in the International Film category. The crew must have been up in the Lunana region in September-October 2018 to do the filming, using the villagers as their actors. I accessed the movie – a touching, sentimental, romanticized view of upcountry Bhutan – on Youtube for $5. (Link here.) The film’s main character grapples with the conflict between the traditional culture of western Bhutan (the Dzongkha-speaking area) and his desire to embrace Aussieland and the “modern” world’s values.
The NPR website has an insightful interview with the film director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, who was able to make it happen with a $300,000 budget. It ends with his response to this question –
Do you think modernization is affecting happiness?
It definitely is, but I also think change is inevitable. Bhutan is very unique in how it has evolved over the years. As a nation, we came together in 1901. We were the last country in the world to allow television or connect to the Internet because we welcomed that isolation and saw it as a means to preserve our way of life. But when we opened up in the early 2000s, it felt like it was too much, too soon. Television became the hottest item in society. People were selling their yaks for TVs. Our old ways of life transformed too quickly.
It’s ironic though. Until the last day of filming, I was wracked by worry over whether I was doing the right thing by intruding into the villagers’ lives. When I left Lunana, the village was being modernized. The government was laying roads and erecting telephone poles. The villagers were happy. Their standard of living was bound to improve. People would be more connected. But I knew life was going to change irrevocably and my footage of Lunana would be the last time we could see it so untouched.
Pem Zam, one of the little girls from the village, for instance is now on Facebook and TikTok — and she sends me videos of her dancing!
When we passed through Ledhi on our way to Chozo, nine kilometers upriver, we saw the large Lunana district school building. The Google Earth map uses the name Lunana Village instead of Lhedi. See here for a satellite close-up of the school in Lhedi.
I did not see anything designated as a school during our stay in Chozo. A scan of the various photos I took in Chozo did not turn up any building that looked like the one the movie used as the “school” –
However, the satellite view in Apple Maps locates a building with the same name and rectangular shape as the one in the image above. See the image below for its location –
The students and their teacher pictured in the two images at the end of this post walked down from the school to our tent site to greet the arriving ultra-marathon runners at the end of their 63-kilometer run from Rodophu!
Villagers And Trekking Staff At Work And Play:
Climate Change: Its Impact On Lunana
The acronym GLOF stands for glacial lake outburst flood. I had heard of the phenomenon before; a trek up the Imja Tse valley in the Everest region of Nepal brought us close to a lake, Imja Tsho, which was a mere puddle fifty years ago. These days it contains two billion cubic meters of water; it is held back by its terminal moraine, the accumulated rock debris collected at the bottom of a glacier that acts as a dam to the melting glacier above it and helps form the lake. The flood can be initiated by various factors:
- inflowing water from a higher-up lake
- an earthquake
- an avalanche
When I first looked at a satellite image of the heart of Lunana district – the stretch of the Pho Chhu from Ledhi up to Thanza – I noticed that at the top of the valley were three lakes:
- Raphstreng Tsho
- Thorthormi Tsho
- Luggye Tsho
The top of Lunana valley looked like an ideal place for a similar occurrence. More research turned up accounts of a 1994 flood caused when the southwest corner of Luggye Tsho’s terminal moraine gave way. Glacial water had rushed down the Pho Chhu and killed 20 people and destroyed several buildings as far down as Punakha and its Dzong.
As if to bring the reality of GLOF, my Google Bhutan news alert flashed this article –
A GLOF threatens Bhutan right now …July 10, 2019. (Click on the title to access)
I recall contacting the World Expeditions sales rep in Ottawa to see what the organizers had in place to deal with a possible flood! I was assured they were aware of the situation! When we walked through Lhedi just below Chozo I did note how high above the river the settlement was. In Chozo, somewhat closer to the river, the thought of a GLOF while we sleeping did cross my mind a couple of times!
A bit more research when I got back from the trek turned up these stats on the Lunana GLOF warning system from October 9, just five days before we were there –
The Snowman Ultra-Marathon – 2019 Calibration Run
Okay, so our stay in Chozo did not coincide with the arrival of floodwaters from the Rephstreng or Thortormi Tshos! However, on a much lighter note, it coincided with the arrival of the seven runners participating in the Snowman Ultra-Marathon trial run.
The run is divided into five stages.
- Gasa – Rodophu 60 km.
- Rodophu – Tshojo 63 km.
- Chozo (Tshojo) – Gecheewam 51 km.
- Gecheewan – Dhur Tshachhu 39 km.
- Dhur Tshachhu – Kurjey 63 km.
Here is the promotional copy for the 2020 run from a website devoted to marathons:
This race of a lifetime follows the trail of the famous Snowman Trek, which has been completed by fewer people than Everest. The audacious event appropriately turns up the heat, focused as it is on Climate Change. Slated to be the most challenging race in the world, this ultramarathon will take runners across the breathtaking, pristine landscapes of Lunana– lakes, glaciers, majestic mountains, shrubs, isolated villages, and the highest places within the Himalayan mountain range. Somewhere between myth and mystery, the unforgiving terrain will be a true test of strength, resilience, and willpower for even the most daring and fittest athletes. See here for the web page.
Not only does it connect the run to the climate change issue, but it also helps advertise the Snowman Trek to lesser mortals. Given more attractive options like the Annapurna 100, also in October, and runs (admittedly much shorter) on better terrain in the Everest region, only hardcore masochists will be attracted to this five-day suffer-fest!
Our stay in Chozo coincided with Day 2 of the trial race. The participants had started from Rodophu that morning and covered 63 kilometers! They would stay overnight in the lodge in the background of the image above. They were already gone when we got up for breakfast in the lodge dining room the next morning!
We had taken four days to cover Day 2’s distance, which the runners later agreed was the single most difficult day of the five-day ultra-marathon! The posts below detail that one day of their run:
- Rodophu to Narethang Via Tsemo La
- Narethang to Tarina Via Karakachu La (aka Kang Karchang La)
- Tarina to Green Lake via Woche
- Green Lake To Chozo (also spelled Tshojo)
Three of the seven runners ( some identified as farmers while the others were in the Bhutanese Army) finished the route in less than twelve hours. The others arrived long after we had gone to bed! The eventual winner was Sangay Wangchuk, a 36-year-old army guy.
See here for an article from Kuensel, a Bhutanese newspaper, about the trial run.
Note: Our version of the Snowman trek differed somewhat from the ultra-marathon version.
- Ours started in Shana and went up to Laya via Jhomolhari and Chebisa, while the marathon version shortened it by starting in Gasa.
- We headed south from Chozo (Tshojo) while the marathon version passed through Thanza before turning south.
- The race version ended up in Bumthang, whereas our endpoint was Upper Sephu on the Nikka Chhu.
Kandoo, a UK travel company, offers a Gasa to Bumthang version of The Snowman Trek that comes closest to following the Ultra-marathon trail route. See here for the details. My World Expeditions trek itinerary can be accessed here.]
October 2022 – The First Snowman Ultra-Marathon
Unfortunately, Covid-19 derailed plans for the first Snowman Ultra slated for October 2020. It was eventually held in October 2022 with a field of 29 runners, with 9 of them from Bhutan. Only 17 finished the race, with locals standing on all the podium spots! See here for an account of the event.
Billing the event as one to raise awareness of the climate change issue while having well-to-do participants fly 12000 kilometers from North America and Europe does seem a bit strange. I wonder if they are expected to pay the $ 200-a-day Sustainable Development Fee while in Bhutan for a week or ten days.
After our rest day in Chozo, it was time to switch back to trekking mode. We were heading south into what would be the most alpine-like part of our trek and my favourite. It would start the next morning with a relentless 1200-meter climb from Chozo to Sintia La, at 5200 meters, our highest trek pass so far.
Next Post: Day 18 – Chozo To Tshochena Via Sintia La