Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 23 – Rerethang To Upper Sephu

Previous Post: Day 22 – Tampoe Tsho To Rerethang Via Thampe La

  • calendar date: Sunday, October 20 (The trek began on September 28!)
  • time: 4 hours including lunch and a stop at the Snowman Trek store above Rerethang
  • distance: 13 km.
  • start point altitude: Rerethang  3670 m
  • endpoint altitude: Upper Sephu   2876m

For the past few evenings, dinner time conversation had centered increasingly on our plans after we finished the trek.  Plane connections, work commitments, future trips … all signs that the end was near! Over the past three weeks, we had walked a bit over 300 kilometers through some pretty crappy weather (the first ten days) and over some fairly rough terrain, challenging even to yaks and horses, never mind trekkers! We had also walked into some stunning vistas and in the last half of the trek, the peaks would often be in full view and not be shrouded in cloud cover.

And amazingly almost all of us had made it, though we had lost one in Laya with a severe respiratory issue and another on Day 21 with a stomach problem.

We had one last section to do – the 13 kilometers from Rerethang to the endpoint at Upper Sephu.  We had left the alpine behind; the morning would start on the west side trail down along the Nikka Chhu across fairly flat and open terrain. The satellite image below shows that stretch from Rerethang to Maurothang – easy walking.

After Maurathang, we crossed over to the east side and the trail mostly went across the forested slopes.  On occasion, we were 50 or 100 meters above the river as we made our way south.  Along the way, we also crossed a number of streams that tumble down to the Nikka Chhu -either rock hopping our way across or making use of the wooden bridges.

The red line on the satellite image below is a rough approximation of our route down the Nikka Chhu from Maurothang to Upper Sephu. It took about 3 1/2 hours at a  brisk pace to get done. In the process, we dropped another 800 meters in elevation. We had not been below 3000 meters in three weeks!

looking up the Nikka Chhu from the trail to Upper Sephu

the Nikka Chhu as it flows down towards Sephu

Somewhere along the way, I had my first hard fall of the trip!  22 days without incident and an hour before the end I placed my right boot on a sloped wet rock only to have it slip down.  I lost my balance and somehow the right side of my rib cage bumped hard into a rock.  The trekking poles I always have in my hands helped reduce the severity of the fall somewhat but it still hurt. It was mild enough that I could keep on walking but every once in a while there would be a stab of pain if I moved in the wrong way.

[It took about three weeks for the pain to go away. Back in Toronto, I had trouble lifting my right leg over the top tube of my bicycle. And then one day – no pain! Don’t you just love how time itself is often the answer, at least in the short run!]

yaks lounging on the trail from Maurothang to Upper Sephu

Upper Sephu is at the end of a dirt road that winds its way up the east side of the Nikka Chhu from the Bumthang-Ura highway and Sephu proper.  I guess a few years ago this road did not exist and trekkers walked right to the highway and the Nikka Chhu bridge, another six or seven kilometers away.

We were greeted there by the Yangphel support team. They had arranged lunch for us, complete with bottles of wine and beer and a celebratory cake.  There we are sitting at our table!

I did gather together some of the left-over bits of meat and gave a local dog watching the proceedings a surprise treat. But then, maybe it wasn’t a surprise!  He may have learned that gatherings such as ours often result in some freebies!

a local dog watching the proceedings at Upper Sephu

Not keen on dealing with the impact of even a bit of alcohol on my head while we spent the next four hours rocking back and forth on the bus, I decided to postpone my reintroduction to beer until that evening. On the table was a bottle of Bhutan’s finest red wine.  Later that evening I ended up ordering a can of tonic water! Fun guy!

the lunch table at Nikka Chhu – trek dun!

Tipping is always a big deal at the end of these treks.  Over the past three evenings, the World Expeditions guide had collected some U.S.$300. to $400. from each of the 16 trekkers and come up with a formula to calculate each support staff member’s share based on their role. The tip – and the concern about it shown by the guides from Day 1 –  was just another reminder of economic reality trumping what is ultimately the nonsense of the Gross National Happiness concept concocted by Thimphu’s political elite on behalf of the vast majority of Bhutan’s citizens.  The  speeches made, thanks given, a few group photos of the support crew and their trekker guests, final handshakes and hugs …

the team which made our Snowman Trek happen

As noted elsewhere, World Expeditions was the non-Bhutanese company that organized the trip, brought together the 16 trekkers, made sure that visa and other issues were dealt with, and worked with the local adventure travel agency, Yangphel, to make sure that certain standards were met. I was told that WE has been using Yangphel to handle its Snowman trip for the past two years.

World Expeditions also sent one of their own guides along.  His two decades’ worth of experience with high altitude trekking and Himalayan climbing was a bonus; the local guide assigned by Yangphel was also very experienced and knowledgeable thanks to twenty years of handling all sorts of tours from birding to various trekking routes including a dozen times on the Snowman. Both were just nice guys and made the trip more enjoyable.

The trek cost me US $7800.+ tip.   Since the Bhutanese charge their “high value, low impact” (that is, non-Indian) tourists US $250. a day to be in Bhutan, that means $6750. (27 days x $250.) went to the local trekking agency and to the Bhutanese government.

  • The Bhutanese government take is $65 a day or $1755  for the entire 27-day stay! 
  • The trekking agency gets $5000. 
  • The remainder, about US$1000. per trekker, is the World Expeditions charge for making the trip happen and to pay for the salary of their own assigned guide. 

The tip is expected by all and added another $375. to the final cost of the trip.

See this Lonely Planet article (here) on money matters in Bhutan.

While you could just arrange the trek yourself through a Bhutanese agency,  the problem is one of numbers.  You would need to find at least one and preferably two or three other trekkers who would be willing to commit to the trip at the same time as you.  Thanks to its attractive website, World Expeditions and other companies like it, do the finding of trekking mates for you.  That is worth at least a couple of hundred dollars.

I will admit that a group size of 16 trekkers is not ideal. Consider the three previous organized treks I have done –

There were almost as many trekkers on this Snowman trek as on my previous three combined!  With 43 horses and a dozen support staff, we were a small village on the move!

See the end of this post for more on Bhutan’s no-longer-functioning  “high value, low impact” tourism policy. 

final group shot of the crew – trekkers and support staff

By 1:30, we trekkers would hop into the bus pictured below.  Destination – Punakha and what would be an excellent hotel/resort on the slopes on the west side of the Mo River.  Showers, wifi, email, food choices, and food choices other than the trek food I had seen enough of …

Yangphel staff at Upper Sephu with our bus to Punakha

our Punakha camp spot was definitely an upgrade

Punakha and the confluence of the Mo and Pho Rivers

Next Post: Day: Punakha, Thimphu, and Paro – Random Images

the Punakha Dzong – the view from the Zhingkham Resort

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The Complete Day-By-Day Snowman Trip Report! 

Laya To Upper Sephu high passes and campsites graph

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Bhutan’s “High value, low volume/ impact” Policy:

Only citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives can tour Bhutan on their own as “unregulated” visitors.  Many enter Bhutan in their own vehicles. No visas are required. Meanwhile, almost all “international” visitors enter via Paro International Airport on Bhutan’s Druk Airlines and, on arrival, must be in the care of a local travel agency and an assigned guide. They will also have paid $40. for the entry visa. They cannot rent a vehicle, bus from town to town, or go trekking on their own.

Indian citizens – they make up 92% of the “unregulated” regional tourists – are also exempt from the $250. a day charge which the other visitors must pay.

For the “international” visitors, a mandatory all-inclusive package deal of $250. a day is required to enter the country.

  • $185. goes to a local travel agency which handles all of the visitors’ mandatory tour package  – transport, food, accommodation, cultural center entrance fees, guides, etc.
  • a $65-a-day government tax or ‘Sustainable Development Fee’
  • Solo travellers can add an extra $40. a day; a party of two will pay an additional  $30.-a-day surcharge for each person.

The Bhutanese government’s intent 50 years ago was to prevent the country from becoming a low-budget hippy backpacker destination like neighbouring Nepal. The tourism policy has been described as “high value, low volume/ impact”.

However, the past decade has seen this controlled tourism policy shattered. The graphs above and below illustrate the reason. As India’s middle class has grown more affluent, so to has the number of Indian visitors.

Indeed, the growth since 2010 has been so dramatic that the policy of “high value, low impact” has been swamped by a competing approach – “low value, high volume/impact.”

The stats below show that while the “high value” number of arrivals pre-COVID was fairly stable, the number of Indian arrivals has skyrocketed.

Bhutan tourist arrivals 2010 – 2018  “high value” and total number

See the article Bhutan throws up paywall amid surge of Indian tourists from The Hindu (2019).  The writer examines the tensions created by the current setup with two opposing tourism goals.

The way it actually works now is: you’ve got to be a financially well-off and as a result, probably an older person ( 45 years +) to visit Bhutan – or have an Indian passport! My trekking group’s average age was in the low 50s! Most were lawyers, doctors, company execs…these were not “budget” travellers!

In 12019, the average Indian tourist spent about $50. per day compared to the $250. that “high value” tourists did.  [See here for the data source. Interestingly, the one statistical chart absent from the study is the most obvious one – the one which shows the dramatic rise in “low value, high volume” tourism! ]

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.

Despite the new reality, the Bhutanese government and travel agencies continue to promote the image of Bhutan as a “high value, low impact” destination. This government poster from 2019 pretends that all is good!

The poster also celebrates an off-the-cuff comment made by the King in the 1970s about “Gross National Happiness” which somehow became government policy a decade later! More than anything,  it seems like a useful piece of fantasy concocted by the financially-well-off political elite in Thimphu to diffuse any political or social dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, they fly off to their medical appointments in New Delhi!

Somehow we make a leap from the fluff of  “Gross National Happiness” to the notion that the people of Bhutan are the happiest in the world – a statement that crops up in more than one tourism promo. Bhutan ranks 129th in the U.N.’s Human Development Index (2019 stats – p.13 of 19).

To be fair,  the large numbers of  “unregulated” regional tourists will almost all be in the urban centers and temples and not on the trekking trails, perhaps because the agencies are more interested in catering to $165. a day “high-value” clients than those with more limited financial means.[ It is the case, however, that some travel agencies have been making reduced-price deals with potential clients in order to get the business that would otherwise go to another agency. These deals are probably not being offered to “high value” guests!]

During the 23 days on the trek, we met one Swiss group in Lunana, a German couple in Laya, and a local student group at Komolhari B.C. That was it for traffic on the trail. It was, however,  a different story at the Tiger’s Nest!

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For an alternative view of Bhutan’s tourism policy – one which does not really address the contradiction between a mandatory $250. a day charge for 20% of its visitors and next to- to-no-charge ($15.!) for the other 80% see Is Bhutan really worth $250 per day?  by a fellow WordPress blogger, a Dutch adventurer who was there pre-Covid.

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For a counter-argument, consider the trekker Mark Horrell’s argument – “5 reasons why Bhutan is NOT worth the $200. per day tourist fee” from 2011. Obviously, since he wrote the piece the cost has gone up 25% to $250. US. Also, his 5 reasons predate the massive influx of Indian tourists. In 2020 he would definitely have a sixth reason to add to his list.

The points he makes are quite valid.  A three-week trek in Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal at one-half the cost with ten times the stupendous mountain views is a much better deal. The Three Passes of Everest Trek is the world’s #1 high-altitude trek for a reason!

See the following post for the first of a series I did on that stupendous Himalayan adventure –

The High Passes of Everest Trek – Lukla to Namche Days 1 – 3

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