Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 17 – Chozo Rest Day

Previous Post: Day 16 – Green Lake To Chozo Via Keche La

  • calendar date: October 14, 2019.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the Chozo (also spelled Tshojo)  and environs. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! TBH, the view isn’t always the greatest! If you have Apple Maps, its satellite view is sometimes more detailed and more 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!)

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 Bumthang 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.

downtown Chozo on a sunny morning in October – our lodge on the bottom right/the Dzong visible above all the other buildings/behind is the ridge I regret not having walked up

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 Bumthang 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.

Chozo as seen from up high on the other side of the river the next morning

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 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.

the kitchen team getting lunch ready

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 and Punakha and Thimphu; 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.

A photo by Mark Horell 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 2009 look!)

the Chozo Dzong and surrounding area

The dzong sits high above the floodplain of the Pho Chhu.  The two-storey U-shaped front section and open courtyard are enclosed in the back by the utse or tower.  While it may have served as an administrative and religious center in better days, now only a solitary monk lives here.

Lunana’s Chozo Dzong -the  front side

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 when it comes to religious structures like mani walls and chortens – and dzongs: I had gone around counter-clockwise!

Chozo Dzong – front door

a chorten behind the Chozo dzong

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.

a stone structure behind the Chozo dzong

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 –

a Dzoe  orTendo – spirit catcher – behind the Chozo Dzong

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

the Chozo Dzong – a view from the back

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.

the interior of the Chozo Dzong

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 most of 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 always the case in Bhutan, no photos were permitted within the temple itself.

Chozo Dzong monk at the door to the tower/utse

the Chozo Dzong – the interior front wall and door to the outside

Click here for 6 Bhutanese Dzongs – Fortresses, Architecture & Significance for a basic overview of the Bhutanese dzong, complete with good images of some of the major ones. The article could use some editing by someone who uses English as a first language.  [If the link is dead, you can access a pdf file of the article here.]

A  more in-depth and worthwhile source of information is Fortress Monasteries of the Himalayas by Peter Harrison. It is downloadable from Amazon in kindle format for US$7.64. The front cover has an illustration of the ultimate dzong of all, the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet.

Villagers And Trekking Staff At Work And Play:

some of our support staff killing time in Chozo – Thanza and the top of Lunana valley are behind them

Chozo boys practising the national sport of Bhutan near our camping spot

a Chozo house in the traditional Ngalop style

bundling hay in one of the fields behind our camping area

Chozo in Lunana -hay storage – or drying? – platform

Chozo Lunana in October – wood supply for the coming winter

one of the trek support team playing the dranyen, a traditional Tibetan lute

Climate Change: Its Impact In 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

Lunana and the Glacial Lakes

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:

  1. Raphstreng Tsho
  2. Thorthormi Tsho
  3. 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 –

See here  for the source of the information

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 did coincide with the arrival of the seven runners who were participating in the trial run of the Snowman Ultra-Marathon, the first of which will take place in October 2020.  The run is divided into five stages.

  1. Gasa – Rodophu    60 km.
  2. Rodophu – Tshojo   63 km.
  3. Chozo (Tshojo) – Gecheewam   51 km.
  4. Gecheewan – Dhur Tshachhu    39 km.
  5. Dhur Tshachhu – Bumthang    63 km.

Chozo school children preparing for the arrival of a Snowman Trail runner

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 with the climate change issue, but it also helps promote the Snowman Trek to lesser mortals.  How many people will actually end up doing it is open to debate.  Given more attractive options like the Annapurna 100, also in October, and runs (admittedly much shorter) on better terrain in the Everest region, only the hardcore masochists will be attracted to this five-day suffer-fest!

almost 5:30 and still no Snowman Trail runners at the Chozo finish line

It was Day 2 of the race and they had started from Rodophu that morning and covered 63 kilometers!  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.

Snowman Race Participants – 2019 Trial Run – See here for source

We had taken four days to cover Day 2’s 63-kilometer distance, which the runners agreed was the single-most difficult day!  The posts below cover that one day of their run:

  1. Rodophu to Narethang Via Tsemo La
  2. Narethang to Tarina Via Karakachu La (aka Kang Karchang La)
  3. Tarina to Green Lake via Woche
  4. Green lake To Chozo (also spelled Tshojo)

Sangay Wangchuk is the first to cross the Chozo Day 2  finish line – October 2019

See here for an article from Kuensel, a Bhutanese newspaper, about the trial run.

Note: Our version of the Snowman trek was somewhat different that this race version.

Ours started in Shana and went up to Laya via Jhomolhari and Chebisa, while the marathon version shortens it by starting in Gasa.  Also, we headed south from Chozo (Tshojo) while the marathon version passes through Thanza before turning south. It ends up in Bumthang, whereas our endpoint was Upper Sephu on the Nikka Chhu.

World Expeditions Snowman compared to Snowman Ulta-Marathon Route

Kandoo, a UK travel company, offers a version of the Snowman that comes closest to following the Ultra-marathon trail route.  See here for the details. [The look of their brochure has been copied from that of World Expeditions, the company I booked my trip with! See here.]


Our rest day in Chozo done, it was time to switch back into 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 very next morning with a relentless 1200-meter climb from Chozo to Sintia La, at 5200 meters our highest pass of the trek so far.

Next Post: Day 18 – Chozo To Tshochena Via Sintia La

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