Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 14 – Narethang To Tarina Via Karakachu La

Previous Post: Day 13 – Rodophu to Narethang

  • calendar date: October 11, 2019.
  • time:  7 hours
  • distance:  16 km. (Jordans); 18 km. (Lonely Planet); 16.9 (my Polar M430)
  • start point altitude: Narethang  4920 m
  • endpoint campsite: Tarina 3880m
  • high pass crossing: Karakachu La 5180m (my Garmin inReach); 5120 (Lonely Planet) 5020 (Jordans).
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser!
  • 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!)

    first view out of the tent at Narethang – October 2019 – Huawei P30 shot

    We got up to a light dusting of snow at our over-5100 meter Narethang campsite. As I looked around at the tents, I certainly got that exhilarating feeling of being on a high alpine expedition.

Narethang Camp – early morning in October

our Narethang camp – early morning in October

a few of our horses in the morning at Narethang

We zipped open the dining tent’s rear door to let in some air and some of the view too. Soon the sun poked over the mountain walls that we were camped behind and streamed into the tent.

our Narethang dining tent at breakfast

A typical breakfast on the trek was a bowl of cereal or oatmeal – either the watery gruel supplied by the cook team or the Quaker Oats-like stuff I had brought from home. I supplemented the oatmeal with some of my supply of nuts, raisins, cranberries, and dried blueberries.  My from-home peanut butter also came in handy; here I spread it on some Indian flatbread called chapati.  What I didn’t finish for breakfast I would put in a Ziploc bag to have as a snack later on in the morning.

my breakfast plate at Narethang – oatmeal and chapati with peanut butter

We set off from our Narethang camp knowing that our high pass of the day would be coming up very soon into the day.  1 1/4 hours and 250 meters in elevation later, there we were at  Karakachu La. [The Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan calls it Kang Karchung La.]  In the image below the red arrow indicates the location of the pass on the horizon.

heading for Karakachu La from Narethang

A bit further up the trail to the pass,  I turned back to where we have come from. Our Narethang campsite is on the horizon – ie. the dead center of the image – and some of my fellow trekkers are coming my way.

looking back at the trail from Narethang

Only the last twenty minutes or so is a bit steep; we came at it from the bottom left of the image and would end up at the pass on the right hand side.  There we would find the customary laptse (i.e.stone cairns) and prayer flags.  A few less clouds would have been nice, but as it was the views were excellent.

fellow trekkers approaching Karakachu La

prayer flags at Karakachu La above Narethang

Karakachu La – laptse with strings of prayer flags

Karakatchu La rest stop -

taking in the view on Karakatchu La

When I looked back to the southwest at where we had come from, I saw the two small lakes below.

one last look west from Karakachu La

Then I turned northeast for a view of the plateau-like terrain we would be walking into, at least for a while.  We were at 5180 meters; by the end of the day we’d be at 3880 at our Tarina campsite.  That is a drop of 1300 meters!

a first view east from Karakachu La

On the horizon were peaks with names like Teri Kang (7300m) and Jejakangphu (7100m) and to our left (not visible in the image below) was Tsenda Kang (6400 m).  The image below captures a bit of the peak experience we had!

zooming in on some of the peaks east of Karakachu La

the trail down from Karakachu La

As we made our way down, we would experience our first serious traffic in days! First, a yak train came towards us; they were on their way to Laya.

yaks from Lunana heading west to Karakachu La

A while later, this team of pack horses and their owners came by. The yaks may also have been theirs; if so, they were well-trained and stuck to the trail on their own!

We continued our still gradual descent, unaware that the most spectacular view of the trek so far was coming up.  It was a view that the dog sitting without a seeming care in the world on his flat rock perch had as his own until our arrival.  I imagined him to be a buddha sitting there and the words “Be here now” came to mind.   He didn’t even budge as we walked by, unthreatened by our presence.  What was he doing there?

descending to the Po  Chhu flood plain from Karakachu La

a free-roaming dog surveying his Himalayan domain

From the dog, my eyes and mind moved on to the view below. We were looking north to the Bhutan-Tibet border and a snowcapped string of 7000-meter peaks, the single most impressive stretch of rock we had seen so far.

what the dog was looking at from his rock perch on the side of the trail to Tarina

The river streaming from the two glacial lakes visible in the image above is the west branch of the Pho Chhu, the very river that flows by Punakha less than seventy kilometers to the southwest. [The main branch of the Pho Chhu we would get to know better in days to come as we walked into the heart of Lunana.

Note: The Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan refers to the river here as the Tang Chhu, and not the Pho. The lack of uniformity of names or their spellings can get a bit confusing and affects the information you get when googling. Use a different spelling or different name and you come up with a different set of links!  Google Earth calls the river the Po Chu.

satellite view – Karakachu La North to the Tibet border

trekkers heading down to the Po Chhu valley floor – shot with the Huawei P30

As we headed down to the valley floor of the Po Chhu, some 800 meters below, we were passed by an eight-person trekking group from Switzerland. We moved to the upside of the trail as their horse team came our way. Here is the video I posted on Youtube –

two horses coming up from the Po Chhu valley floor – shot with my Sony RX100

And then it was some serious downhill walking.  I lengthened the trekking poles a few centimeters and let gravity do some of the work as I danced my way down, down, down for over an hour until we came to the bottom.  Four hours after leaving Karakachu La, we stopped for lunch in a flat open space on the west side of the river.  It was the first of a few which showed evidence of use by trekking parties in the past. (What evidence? Badly hidden piles of garbage left behind.)

The valley floor trail runs along river right (i.e.the west side) of the Po Chhu in a southeasterly direction.  Some sections, like the one in the image below, were a muddy mess; other stretches were packed sand and gravel and nicer to walk on.

along the Po Chhu trail to Tarina campsite

Just before we got to our site, we crossed the river and continued on for less than a kilometer. We could see that the camp was already set up. The tent crew had done it again!

Tarina campsite – a morning view from the northwest

Google Versus Apple  Satellite Views of the Pho and the Tarina Campsite:

Both Google and Apple have 3D satellite views of our planet that provide a different perspective on things.  While a comparison is perhaps unfair since the Google view is zoomed in a bit more than the Apple view,  I do find the Apple Maps 3D look more appealing. Until this post I have been going the Google Earth in Chrome route; I’ll have to remember to check out the Apple view more often!

Google Earth 3D View:

Tarina campsite Google Earth satellite view

Apple Maps 3D View:

Apple satellite view of the Po headwaters and Tarina campsite

Next Post: Day 15 – Tarina To Green Lake Above Woche

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 13 – Rodophu To Narethang Via Tsemo La

Previous Post: Day 12 – Laya To Rodophu

  • calendar date: October 10, 2019.
  • time:  7 hours
  • distance:  16 km.
  • start point altitude: Rodophu  4220m (my Garmin device)/ 4215 m (Jordans guidebook) ); 4160m (Lonely Planet’s Guide to Bhutan 2017 – the camp it mentions is below the bridge))
  • endpoint campsite: Narethang  4920 m;
  • high pass crossing: Tsemo La  4885 m;
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser!
  • 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!)

An interesting day coming up! Usually, the pass of the day is also the high point and by the the day’s end  you find yourself at a campsite a few hundred meters lower in altitude.  On this day our pass – Tsemo La – was at about 4900 m and that is where we would mostly stay for the rest of the day. Our campsite was actually about twenty meters higher than the pass!

Robophu to Tsemo La to Narethang

a horseshoe job in the field – Robophu campsite

looking east at our Robophu camp- early morning

There was some frost on our tents when we first got up but by the time we left the early morning sun was drying them out. The first hour involved a fairly steep 250-meter climb up to the point you see in the image below. Down on the flood plain of the Rodo Chhu you can see our campsite; the tents are still up!

looking back from the south at our Robophu campsite after our initial steep climb

Then, as the topo map shows, the ascent became more gradual as we made our way up a wide valley towards our pass of the day, Tsemo La. Along the way we saw more of those alpine “beacons”, the Rheum nobile or “chogo metho” as the locals call them.   Autumn was definitely in the air!

a trail beacon below Tsemo La – or Rheum nobile (aka Sikkim rhubarb)

Approaching Tsemo La:

The pass is at 4885m (my Garmin); 4905m (Jordans). The next two images show some of the final terrain we covered to get there.  Once there, we found the usual stone cairn (laptse is the local term) and the strings of prayer flags. As for the spectacular mountain views – not so much.  During the three hours that it had taken us to get there, the clouds have moved in and covered the nearby peaks that would dazzle on a clear day.

approaching Tsemo La, our high pass for the day

Tsemo La coming up – a switchback trail to the pass

the view from Tsemo La of the top of the valley we had walked up from Rodophu

enjoying the view from Tsemo La – on the way to Narethang

Our 800-meter ascent from the river floor done, the day’s hard work was replaced by an undulating trail that went up and down but never by more than 100 meters or so until we got to our 4900-meter campsite on a high alpine plateau.  The satellite image below conveys some of the difference between morning and afternoon.

Along the way we got some beguiling but never quite revealed views of striking peaks to the east and north.

taking in the view after crossing Tsemo La

panoramic view as we head to Lunana country from Tsemo La

Somewhere within a half-hour after leaving the pass, we stopped for lunch. The eye-popping blue of the trumpet-shaped flowers of the gentian plant caught my eye on the edge of the meadow where we had stopped.  While we sipped on our post-lunch tea, the tent crew came by with a dozen of our pack horses. We would find most of our tents up when we got there a couple of hours later!

gentian on the mountainside at 4500 m

some of our horse team passing by on the way to Narethang

the trail to Narethang  two hours after crossing Tsemo La

By 4 we were at our Narethang camapsite.  For the second day in a row, I forgot to take some pix of the camp as we walked into it.  Here is one from the next morning –

our Narethang campsite the next morning

Coming up – the most spectacular day of the trek so far with some incredible WOW moments as we walked into one stupendous view after another.

Next Post: Day 14 – Narethang To Tarina

 

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 12 – Laya To Rodophu

Previous Post: Day 11 – Rest Day In Laya

  • calendar date: October 9, 2019.
  • time: 8.5 hours total, including lunch and other stops  (6 hrs. moving)
  • distance: 14.5 km. (jordans); 17.6 km  (my Garmin inReach); 19 km (Lonely Planet)
  • start point altitude: Laya  3825m
  • endpoint campsite: Rodophu  4220m (my Garmin device figure)
  • high pass crossing: none
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser!
  • 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!)

Note: elevation is in feet, not meters!

For me, this day would prove to be the most difficult of the trek. I was really dragging my butt by the end of it and my legs felt like lead! Maybe it had something to do with the 600-meter drop in altitude as we left Laya and walked down the trail on the east side of the Mo Chhu. This was followed by regaining all 600 meters and yet another 400 by the time we got to our campsite at 4220m halfway up the Rodo Chhu.  Whew!

Satellite view – Laya to Rodophu

Leaving Laya:

We left Laya shortly after 8:00. The weather was mostly overcast with an occasional patch of blue and burst of sunshine.  Unfortunately, we would bid a sad goodbye and wishes of improved health to one member of our trekking group. She had developed a respiratory problem and was coughing fitfully.  The doctor at the Laya health clinic had recommended a descent down to Punakha, some two days to the south where more extensive tests and help could be given.

Day 12 – getting ready to leave Laya

As we left the village,  we walked through the Laya school grounds where the staff and students were waiting for the arrival of some dignitaries.  Flags festooned the perimeter and chairs were arranged in a U-shape in the open space.

Set up in the yard were also the yak fiber tents traditionally used by the Layaps when taking their yaks to distant pastures.  The Canadian equivalent situation would be southern politicians flying into an Indian reserve (in Canada we refer to it as a First Nation) and finding teepees or wigwams set up and elders walking around with feather headdresses. I wondered if the Layaps were expected to put up these tents and wear those comical hats whenever politicians from other ethnic groups are helicoptered in from Thimphu?  It would appear so.

Laya school staff waiting for visiting dignitaries in the schoolyard

teachers at laya school waiting for dignitaries to arrive

To stress the traditional Layap culture, the girls were dressed up in a yak fibre one-piece black woollen jacket/shirt decorated with vertical stripes on the bottom half. Completing the look is hair worn long and covered with the bamboo hat with a long spike on top. If the men in the image above are Layap, then their basic garment is a long-sleeved linen gown coloured red and saffron. [Given their garments, the males might be Ngalop teachers or administrators from the south.]

Layap schoolgirls in traditional clothing for visiting politicians

locals waiting for the arrival of dignitaries at Laya

The photos above and below contrast the traditional Layap look with a modern one!

the last goodbye as we leave Laya for Rodophu

As you leave Layap there is a stone archway and a few strings of prayer flags highlight the way out.

fellow trekkers passing through the main gate to Laya

Not too long afterward, I heard the sound of a helicopter and I assume it was bringing in for the morning or the day those dignitaries – probably politicians – from down south. Not for them a two-day journey up from Punakha that involves a final four-hour uphill walk from the end of the road!

And then I saw this guy in the image below. He was carrying a refrigerator up to Laya!  Wow! He probably got it in Thimphu and then was able to use vehicle transport until the end of the road at Koina.  I thought –  Why couldn’t that fridge have been on that helicopter with those politicians!  Laya has had electricity since 2017 so the fridge would be plugged in somewhere in Laya by the end of the day!

a Layap hauling a refrigerator up to Laya from the end of the road north of Koina

It is an easy walk downhill, especially if you use trekking poles. It took us 1 1/2 hours to get to the army camp on the east side of the Mo Chhu where permits are checked.    While our guide took care of the legalities, everyone enjoyed the sunny break from the usual clouds.

Snowman trekking group at rest at the army camp and permit checkpoint

And then it was through the gate on the south side of the complex and on to the descending trail, occasionally somewhat muddy thanks to the rain and the volume of pack animals using the trail.

the south gate of the army checkpoint to Laya

a muddy section of trail to Gasa south of the army camp

About 2 1/2 hours from our Laya departure we came to the junction of the Snowman Trail with the trial from Gasa.  If we continued straight we would be heading south to Koina; we turned left (i.e.east) and began an initially steep upward curl towards the side valley – that of the Rodo Chhu – where our camp was located.

the trail for Lunana from Laya – the Snowman Trek

Varying Trail Conditions Up The Rodo Chhu:

Sections of the trail to Lunana were packed dirt and easy to walk; other sections, the ones through forested areas, were often muddy and meant we were back to stepping from stone to stone to avoid the mess below.  A couple of times we stepped to the upper side of the trail while yak caravans on the way to Laya or Gasa came at us from the east. One 200-meter stretch was wiped out thanks to a landslide.  See below for pix …

Yaks approaching from Lunana district as we head east

a section of trail above the Rodo Chhu on the way to Rodophu – the slash in the middle of the image!

a section of trail through the forested slopes above the Rodo Chhu

It started to rain in mid-afternoon after our lunch break. This time I would not assume that it was just a short shower so I slipped on the rain pants as well as the rain jacket. Good call – it rained for the final hour into camp!

a section of the Snowman trail to Rodophu destroyed by a landslide – See here for a Google Earth view of that landslide

Every once in a while,  we came down closer to the river – the Rodo Chhu, a very impressive glacial river coming down from the glacier on the west flank of Tsenda Kang. It reminded me of some glacial streams I have walked up in the Canadian Rockies, that same energy and off-the-beaten-track feel.

the Rodo Chhu on a rainy afternoon in October

About a kilometer before the campsite, we crossed a substantial wooden bridge to river left of the Rodo Chhu (i.e. the south side).   It had taken us about 3.5 hours to walk up the river valley after turning off from the main trail to Gasa.

approaching our Rodophu campsite

Not soon enough the campsite appeared in the mist ahead.  I had struggled to keep up with the others after lunch and was happy to see the end of what turned out to be my single most tiring day of the trek.  I didn’t even get a shot of the campsite that afternoon. That would have to wait until the next morning!

As the satellite image below makes clear, the Rodophu campsite is about half-way up the length of the Rodo Chhu.  An interesting day trip for a group with days to burn would be a hike up to the foot of the glacier below Tsenda Kang.  We were on a tighter schedule.  The next day we would head up to Tsemo La SE of our camp and then remain at 4900 meters for the rest of the day all the way to our next camp.  See the next post for the views!

Next Post: Day 13 – Rodophu To Narethang Via Tsemo La 

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 11 – Rest Day In Laya

Previous Post: Day 10 – Limithang To Laya

Date: October 8, 2019.

  • 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 for letting me post them, O!)

A free day in Laya Village! It is a settlement of about 1100 inhabitants, who are known as Layaps (a Dzongkha term and not theirs).  They make up an ethnic/cultural group that migrated from Tibet about 500 years ago.  Layaps apparently call their place a beyul, one of the hidden valleys of Himalayan Buddhist myth mentioned by the Vajrayana Buddha – Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche – as a sacred refuge in times of trouble.

The village faces south and is built on a gently sloped mountainside at about 3800 meters.  That makes it the highest all-year-round settlement in Bhutan. It was also the biggest single settlement that we visited on our Snowman Trek. All the others are smaller and many – like Chozo and Thanza – are abandoned in the winter as people move down to less severe weather.

our Laya lodge-keeper with traditional Lay-up skirt and hat

The traditional culture remained intact relatively undisturbed until about thirty years ago and the arrival of the first of many western visitors, most often trekkers on a route from Drugyel Dzong past Jomolhari and then up to their village. (It is this trek that my ten previous posts describe. Profound changes have taken place over the past generation or two. Electricity arrived in 2017.

Road construction north from Gasa means that what was once a fairly isolated and difficult-to-get-to village is now a four-hour walk to the current end of the gravel road at Koina. While this might make it less alluring to trekkers, the locals are liking it!  A Kuensel article from 2017 included these comments –

A villager, Rinchen, said although the incomplete farm road remains blocked during the monsoon, it helps them in the winter. “Most Layaps migrate to Punakha and Wangdue in winter and we transport all necessary goods to last a year when we return home. Farm roads have helped us immensely.”

Another villager, Pem Zam, 21, said the farm road would not only benefit Layaps  but also visitors to the locality. “Even our horses were spared from carrying huge loads for days,” said Pema.

Residents said the farm road would help in reducing the inflation rate in Laya. See here for the article in Kuensel.

The economy has been supercharged by the presence of a medicinal fungus known as cordyceps which has high demand in China as traditional medicine.  These days it goes for $10,000-$50,000 US a kilogram.  It is Bhutanese gold and those who mine it get incredibly rich! The village of Laya is one of the centers of its gathering.

yaks coming from Lunana on the east side of Karakachu La

More traditional forms of wealth are the ownership of yaks and horses. In his guidebook on trekking in Bhutan, Bart Jordans provides numbers for each in Laya – “yaks (2706 in 2015) and horses (1107 in 2015)” and notes that their numbers are growing.  Given other ways to make a living, as well as reduced reliance on pack animals by traders to move goods thanks to the roads getting ever closer to the village, you wonder about the value of yet more yaks.  Even the yak fibre to make traditional Layap clothing has been replaced by readily available and cheaper textiles like the fleece jacket our Layap woman is wearing in the photo above.

Google the term Layap and guess what comes up!  See here!  You have to wonder – where do the men fit into the picture? Why is it always those comical hats?

the Layap women’s conical hat

The tourist brochures and the Bhutan Tourist Council still promote a Laya that does not really exist anymore.  In one TCB posting, I read -“this village will mesmerize you with their unique culture“.  Unless it refers specifically to those conical hats, I must have missed it!  And those conical hats worn by women probably just come out those days when they perform traditional dances for foreign trekkers or greet visiting politicians from Thimphu who had helicoptered in for the morning for some school ceremony (as happened the next morning when we left Laya).

See here for an April 2018 article- ‘Laya’s traditional Hat Under Threat Of Disappearance” or access a pdf copy here.

Layap schoolgirls in traditional clothing for visiting politicians from Thimphu

Things To Do On Our Free Day in Laya!

It was our first day off since Jomolhari and I was looking forward to it! Time to –

  • ramble around the village for photo ops.
  • find some supplementary food to take along for the second half of the trek
  • wash at least socks and put them out to dry in the sun,
  • sign up for five minutes in the shower tent set up by the kitchen crew
  • make use of my inReach Explorer+ to send some emails to the folks back home
  • recharge my iPhone, iPad, camera batteries, and my 26,800 Mh Anker battery pack

I had lots of stuff to do that did not involve adding to my cardio load!

Unfortunately, the weather was more of the same!  It had rained overnight! It was raining at 7:00 a.m. as I crawled out of the tent for the dining room and breakfast.  It started raining again just before noon; luckily we had just come back from a little ramble around the village.

Intermittent rain in the afternoon meant I did not bother with those socks!  I did get my five minutes in the shower, the first in a week. It felt great to stand underneath the stream of hot water provided by our kitchen guys, karma and Kinley. I also sent out some emails and got those devices recharged!

Thanks to all the rain main street Laya was a total mess. That is it in the image below!

the very muddy main street in Laya

A Walk Up To the Jigme Dorje Park Office

We went for a walk to the east side of Laya; there is a nice vantage point overlooking the village from near the Park Office. Along the way, we got the following shots –

boys behnd the window in a Laya house

Laya Village boys

Laya woman fetching a stray horse

A Visit To The Laya Gompa

The outside gate to the gompa was open so we wandered in.  No one was around and most of the buildings seemed to be abandoned.

prayer flags above the Laya gompa

Laya gompa

Laya Gompa – window frame

Laya Gompa – wooden door and frame

Laya gompa prayer wheel wall

When we got to the Park Office, some of us turned back while the others continued on to a plateau just above the village accessed by a trail behind the Office.  What they saw was locals – mostly women – doing some work in preparation for the Fourth Annual Royal Highlander Festival later in October.

My somewhat skeptical take on it is the Bhutan Tourist Council trying to create a two -day tourist attraction out of something that does not really exist anymore.  However, here is a more effusive take on the event – Livin’ It Up In Laya At the 2017 Royal Highlander Festival.  The writer also describes her trek up to Laya from Gasa.

the Jigme Dorje Park Office on the east edge of Laya

looking down on Laya school

Laya schoolchildren – taking a break from their ball game

Layap children near the laya school

a horse train walking through Laya

In mid-afternoon, I set off with one of the guides for a small shop to buy some Made In India packages of spiced peanuts. Purpose: To add to the bland twice-daily servings of rice and make it more enticing!  I ended up buying sixteen packages; I hoped that would be enough for the rest of the trek!  There would be no more shops until Chozo, six days away.

Main Street Laya – on our way to a sundry shop for some food items

Laya shopkeeper

woman and child in the Laya shop near the school in Laya

a young boy in Laya – note the cellphone in his hand!

Layap mother and child in a front yard of the village

lower Laya – the downtown area

Back At Our Laya Camp Spot:

Their job was done.  Our horse handlers, who had been with us since Jomolhari Base Camp seven days before, were going to be turning back the next day. A brief tip-giving and thank-you ceremony during a rain-free part of the afternoon was our goodbye.  Already arranged were the services of a Laya team of horses that would take us the next six days to Chozo, deep in Lunana country to the east.

We spent a fair bit of time in the second-floor dining room of the lodge we tented behind.  The shoes-off policy meant for cold – but unmuddied! – feet. The room had electric lighting; it also had a couple of wall plugs where we could recharge our devices. Those plugs were going all day as people brought in their smartphones and iPads and cameras. And not just the trekkers –  but the support staff too. I often saw the horse handlers – the young ones for sure – with phones in their hands as they guided their horses along the trail.  It really brought home the seismic shift in culture that Steve jobs ushered in with the first iPhone in 2007! Bhutan has not been immune.

the dining room of our lodge in Laya – it had electricity

The royal family – the Wangchuk Dynasty that started in 1905 – remains very popular in Bhutan – or at least in the western part of Bhutan that we were in. I cannot speak for their popularity in the south or the east of the country where people other than Ngalops live.

Behind the lodge was an impressive collection of empty glass beer bottles! Welcome to the modern world!

impressive bottle collection behind the lodge in Laya

our lower Laya tent site behind a lodge

Before the day ended, the kitchen crew had gathered the food supplies for the rest of the trek – i.e. twelve days.  The supplies they are checking here came up the road from Punakha to Gasa to the end of the road at Koina. From there horses were used. Another visitor – a Yangphel higher-up from the head office in Thimphu had also arrived in Laya. He was there to deal with another group – apparently a group of army guys who were doing a preliminary test of a Snowman Trek Run.  However, he had somehow managed to bring all the way from Thimphu a celebratory German-style chocolate cake for us!

the kitchen crew checking out the food supplies for the second half of our Snowman trek

Here is a Youtube video from the 2019 Highlander Festival –

Next Post: Day 12 – Laya To Rodophu

And here is a graph illustrating altitudes at the remaining seven high passes and eleven campsites. no high passes on Day 12 – just 600 meters down and then 1000 back up!

Laya To Upper Sephu high passes and campsites graph

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 10 – Limithang To Laya Village

Previous Post: Day 9 – Robluthang to Limithang

  • calendar date: Monday, October 7, 2019
  • time: four hours – 3:15 of actual walking time
  • distance: 13 km.
  • start point altitude: Limithang  4120m
  • endpoint campsite: Laya  3817m
  • high pass crossing: none on this day (see here for the high passes we had done)
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for the Google Earth satellite view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! Zoom in and you can see traces of the trail to Laya, especially as you approach the village.
  • 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!)

Limithang to Laya – Day 10 of our Snowman Trek

I crawled out of the tent shortly before 7 and could feel the rays of the sun, a novel experience on this first half of the trek.  Looking north towards Gangcheta, aka Great Tiger Mountain, I was able to capture a bit of the rainbow’s splendour, even if the mountain peak was not co-operating!

Limithang campsite bathed in the morning light

Limithang camp area – horses in the morning

This would be the last day of work for these horses. Their handlers would take them back to the settlements near Jomolhari Base Camp, from where we had set off with them on Day 4. Instead of the six days it took us to get to Laya, it would only take them two to get back home! Impressive!

Hopefully, there would be another trekking group whose gear they would be able to haul.   I was told that they get $20.US a day for each horse. While I’ll admit I am skeptical about the sum, if it is correct then they were going home with a pile of money. ($120. a horse x 43 horses!)  The horses provide a nice cash infusion at a time of the year when the harvest is done and everyone is preparing for the winter.

a horse with decorative headcover at Limithang camp

Limithang camp in the morning - trekkers ready to go

Limithang camp in the morning – an hour after the rainbow sky photo above / trekkers ready to go

The trail starts off on river right but less than a kilometer from the campsite we crossed over to the other side and continued for an hour on river left all the way to its confluence with another river.  There we crossed over to river left.  At this point, we were at 3800 m and would mostly remain within fifty meters above or below this elevation until we got to Laya. The elevation states were as follows: 80 ascent; 380 descent.

A Geographical/Cultural Tangent!

As for the river we walked down, just below Laya it merges with the Mo Chhu, the river which flows by the west side of the Punakha Dzong. A week later as we walked up Lunana district, we would get to know the other river which frames the Punakha Dzong on the east. It is the Pho Chhu.

The confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu at Punakha Dzong

[Chhu is the Dzongkha word for “river” while Mo and Pho mean “mother’ and “father”. Dzongkha is the language of the Ngalop ethnic group of Tibetan origin who are the dominant political and cultural group in Bhutan.    

The Ngalop were the ones who built all the dzongs, the fortress monasteries from the 1600s, a time when various Tibetan Buddhist sects fought each other and other Buddhist invaders from Tibet for control of the space we now know as Bhutan. They live mostly in western and central Bhutan and are the ethnic group that tourists will come to associate with Bhutan itself, even though there are other major ethnic groups.  

The situation reminded me somewhat of Myanmar with its dominant Bamar ethnic group surrounded on the periphery by people of a hundred other smaller ethnic identities. The big difference is that the Bamar constitute 68% of Myanmar’s population whereas the Ngalop people make up about 20% of Bhutan’s.  (That figure can be pushed up to 50%. It all depends on how liberally you define Ngalop.)

It does put a different spin on the quaint traditional Ngalop clothing that we saw even our guides wearing on certain occasions.  It left me wondering – Are all ethnic groups in Bhutan required to dress in Ngalop fashion?  How do they feel about this?  Let me know in the comment section below!]

Back To The Day’s Walk:

The expectation of an easy 11 km downhill walk to Laya was soon dispelled as there was a  fair bit of scampering up and down hillsides. Much of the trail passes through heavily forested slopes along the river banks.  Here is how well my Polar M430 was able to connect with the GPS satellites thanks to the dense tree cover we walked under!

Not a shining moment for the M430 though but understandable given that it is a fitness tracker better known for heart rate recording.  My Garmin inReach Explorer, however, was able to record an elevation point each minute.

peaks shrouded in mist on the way to Laya from Limithang

Another clouded-over day on our ten-day walk from Shana – and another day of mountain peak views that looked like the above image.  I couldn’t help but contrast this with the excellent weather I have always experienced on treks in October and November in the Nepal Himalayas. For the last hour, it rained more heavily but my calculation at the beginning that it would stop soon turned out to be a bad one!  While I had slipped on my rain jacket, I did not bother with my rain pants. My bottom half got soaked!

We arrived in Laya around noon, about four hours after having left our Limithang campsite. As we approached the village, there was a fork in the trail. The left-hand one leads to the upper village. We took the right-hand fork and soon found ourselves in front of an ornately decorated building in the Ngalop style.  I never did find out if it was a temple (lhakhang in Dzongkha ) or not.  One of our guides took the opportunity for a group photo for a mostly successful first half of our trek. (One of our trekkers had developed a severe cough and respiratory problems and would leave the trek here, heading down the road to Punakha and Thimphu for medical treatment.)

some of the 16 in our trekking group on arrival at Laya – the photo is not mine

I took the following image the morning from higher up and to the east the next morning. It captures most of Laya.  Click on the image to see:

  • the exact location of the beautiful piece of traditional Ngalop architecture above
  • our Laya tent site location for two nights

a view of Laya from the hill to the east

Our campsite was located behind a lodge whose toilet facilities and dining room we made use of during our two-night stay in Laya. At least I think it was a lodge! None of the commercial buildings in Laya Village have signs up advertising their service.

our Laya tent site behind a lodge

We had finished the first half of our Snowman Trek. Still to come were the following:

  • six days to and in Lunana District with Chozo, not far from Thanza, as our rest day stop
  • five days to head south over the high altitude and most dramatic section of the Snowman

If it is true that the eastern Himalaya weather tends to be wetter and cloudier than that in Nepal, we would have better luck for the next twelve days. The relative lack of mountain views that characterized our Shana-to-Laya trek would thankfully be replaced by more blue skies and clear views and some incredible vistas.

But first,  we had a rest day in Laya!  See the next post for some pix of Laya village.

Next Post:   Day 11 – Rest Day In Laya.

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 9 – Robluthang To Limithang Via Sinche La

Previous Post: Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La

  • calendar date: Sunday, October 6, 2019
  • time: 7:40 from start to finish
  • distance: 16.3 km. (Polar M430); Jordans: 18km.
  • start point altitude: Robluthang 4160m
  • endpoint campsite: Limithang  4160m
  • high pass crossing: Sinche La 5000m
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! Zoom in and you can see traces of the trail to Sinche La.
  • 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!)

Topo & Satellite Views of the Day’s Walk:

Day 9 – Robluthang To Limithang Via Sinche La

satellite view of the trail from Robluthang to Limithang

Robluthang Campsite:

horses waiting for the day’s work assignment at Robluthang camp

Day 9 – horses ready and waiting for the day’s carry to Limithang

On The Way To Sinche La: 

The highest pass of the trek so far was on the menu for this day.  Sinche La at 5000 m was just 20 meters higher than our very first pass, Nyile La which we did the day we left Jomolhari Base Camp.  Over the first five hours, we curled our way into a side valley from our Robluthang campsite and then walked the left side of a valley to the bottom of the slope with Sinche La.  As the images show, we were not blessed with a sunny day and blue skies.

walking up the side of a glacial stream an hour after leaving Robluthang

finding our way through a scree field on the way to Sinche La

taking a wee break on the way to Sinche La from Robluthang

Along the way, we passed by some plants unlike any I had never seen before in the Himalayas.  I was amazed that they were there at all in a pretty inhospitable spot. Maybe the mist from those clouds we were walking through keeps them alive! I would later find out that it is a form of rhubarb native to the Himalayas.

we pass by a distinctive-looking plant – the Rheum Nobile – on the way to Sinche La

The Wikipedia entry on Rheum nobile describes it this way –

…a giant herbaceous plant native to the Himalaya, from northeastern Afghanistan, east through northern Pakistan and India, Nepal, Sikkim (in India), Bhutan, and Tibet to Myanmar, occurring in the alpine zone at 4000–4800 m altitude.[2]

It is an extraordinary species of rhubarb (genus Rheum). At 1–2 m tall, R. nobile towers above all the shrubs and low herbs in its habitat, and it is visible across valleys a mile away

It is as if it were a beacon guiding travellers!  Below is another one we passed by;

the Rheum Nobile -aka the Sikkim rhubarb – on the way to Sinche la

Approaching Sinche La: 

looking back at the valley we have walked up to get to Sinche La

A half-hour later the pass was finally in view.  As I caught my breath for a moment for the final push to the top, I watched our lunch team horses continue upwards.

horses approaching Sinche La from Robluthang

Under The Tarp At Sinche La:

While the original plan had been to have lunch on the downside of  Sinche La,  our guide made the decision to stop just below the pass for lunch instead. While half the group was already standing by the chorten at the pass, the other half was some distance behind. Instead of having us wait at the pass until they arrived and then continue on down on the other side, we set up the lunch tables and chairs just below the chorten.

the lunch tent at Sinche La

We just happened to time lunch with a thirty-minute hail/snowstorm! Up went the blue tarp to cover two of the tables. Soon the green tarp went up too and more space was created.  Meanwhile, the rest of the crew had arrived and lunch was on!

photo by another one of the members of the trekking group

trekkers heading to Sinche La from the lunch shelter

After lunch was over we headed up to the chorten; the rain pants / rain jacket combo helped keep everyone dry and warm as we stood there for a minute or two.

standing at Sinche La and about to descent towards Limithang

Down To Limithang:

From that shot of the chorten at Sinche La, my camera was most untouched (and tucked away to keep it dry!) I did take a couple more photos that day. The first one below is of Gangcheta (aka Great Tiger Mountain)  on the Bhutan-Tibet border, until now like a snow leopard pretty much a rumour only on our Snowman Trek.

a view of Gangcheta on the Tibet-Bhutan border after the start of our descent from Sinche La

The second shot was of a section of trail following a glacial stream. Not even any campsite shots on this day. The one below is of the next morning.

approaching Limithang from Sinche La

Limithang campsite – the next morning

The Limithang campsite is an open area sure to please tenters with its flatness and the horses with the availability of grass. Flowing down past the camp area was a river from the Tibet-Bhutan border that eventually ends up in the Mo Chhu, the river which flows by Punakha.

an afternoon view of Gangcheta from our Limithang campsite

Later when I looked at Polar fitness tracker stats for the day,  the calorie output for the day was the largest of the trek so far, double the calorie expenditure of the day before!

Luckily, our walk the next day to Laya was really only a half-day.  Also coming up was a rest day in Laya while we got ready for the next half of our Snowman Trek, into the remote Lunana region.

Next Post:  Day 10 – Limithang to Laya Village

 

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 8 – Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La

Previous Post: Day 7 – Chebisa Via Gombu La to Shomuthang

  • calendar date: October 5, 2019
  • time: left camp at 8:00 and arrived at Robluthang at 2 – 6 hours/4 of actual walking
  • distance: 11 km  on my Polar M430/10  on my Garmin inReach; 16 in Jordans’book
  • start point altitude:
  • endpoint campsite: Robluthang 4155m
  • high pass crossing: Jare La  4785m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • see here for a graph showing high pass and campsite altitudes for each day of the trek 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!)

Topo View And Satellite View of the Day’s Walk:

Shomuthang to Robluthang via Jare La (4785m)

The first part of the day involved a gradual ascent to Jare La, a two-hour walk up the valley you see in the satellite image below.  Once we got to the pass we relaxed for a half-hour, taking in the somewhat clouded-over  views.

From Shomuthang To Jare La:

Shomuthang campsite – dining and cook tents and horse blankets

horses returning to Shomuthang camp from the meadows above

an hour into our walk to Robluthang from Shomuthang

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

flowers on the Himalayan hillside above Shomuthang

looking back at the terrain we had covered from Shomuthang

Jare La coming up – two hours after leaving our Shomuthang campsite.

Day 8 … Shomuthang to Jare La to Jholethang Chhu to Robluthang campsite

trekkers approaching Jare La from Shomuthang

trekkers approaching Jare La on the way to Robluthang

Jare La – high pass between Shomuthang and Robluthang

Jare La – on the way to Robluthang

a mountain view from Jare La – Snowman Trek

From the pass, we walked down on a fairly decent trail, at first a rather barren and open and then more forested and muddy as we approached the valley floor.  We would stop at a thang (i.e. meadow/flat spot) to have lunch before moving on to the log bridge crossing the Jholethang Chhu.

on the way to Robluthang – a view on the descent from Jare La to the valley floor

dirt trail on the forested slope of Jare La

lunch down on the side valley floor  near the Jholethang Chhu

Lunch was a bit of a wait since we arrived at the spot before the lunch crew did! When the others were served tuna with their rice, I asked Kunley if he could provide me with some cashews as a substitute.  []This would be the beginning of adaptations which would leave me in better spirits and in better shape to deal with the caloric requirements of the trek!]

After lunch, we moved on towards the Jholethang Chhu and the extensive grazing land along its banks.  Re: lunch.A somewhat precarious log bridge over the stream and then we were on the east side of the river. and standing at the north end of extensive yak grazing grounds.

log bridge across the Jholethang Chhu

The image below shows the view looking north up the valley which comes down from the Tibet border ten kilometers away.  Our Robluthang campsite was a couple of kilometers up this valley. In the image below, the beginning of the trail is visible on the right-hand side. Steep at first,  it eventually levelled out to a gradual ascent to our campsite, a fair-sized meadow or thang.  (Click here to access a Google Earth view of the neighbourhood!)

looking north up the Jholethang Chhu to the Tibetan border

Of this valley the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan notes this:

Herds of takin migrate to this valley in the summer and remain here for about four months. Takins are easily disturbed by the presence of other animals, including humans….The valley has been declared a special takin sanctuary and yak herders have agreed not to graze their animals in the valley while the takin are here.  [Lonely Planet. Bhutan. (6th Edition) p. 188.]

No takin here when we passed through but a dozen yak grazing,  as well as a yak herder’s tarp shelter off image to the right closer to the river flowing down the valley.

a view of the grassland on the east side of the Jholethang Chhu

from the Jholethang Chhu up its east flank to the Robluthang Campsite

Robluthang campsite – one of a few choices for trekking groups

some of our horse train coming into Robluthang campsite

horses coming into Robluthang camp in the afternoon

four of our horses entering Robluthang camp with trekker duffels and other camp gear

A Happy Vegan!

Supper – for the second night in a row, I was able to stuff myself!  More aloo gobi, the curried Indian potato and cauliflower dish. And on top of that, a Bengali brown lentil dal-like watery stew to pour over the rice which made it so much more enticing! But wait – there’s more!  The cook had prepared a vegetable soup without an animal-derived broth or milk product in it!  Trek soup is yet another way to make sure the clients are staying well-hydrated; I had two bowlsful.

Those doubts I had earlier about not having the energy to finish the trek! Well, they had been allayed thanks to the past two days’ supper fare.  For the rest of the trek, the cook would prepare a special soup for the two vegan trekkers and I would get bowls of cashew nuts as a substitute for whatever meat dish the others were presented with.  Things were looking up!

Next Post: Day 9 – Robluthang To Limithang

 

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 7 – Chebisa To Shomuthang Via Gombu La

Previous Post: Day 6 – Lingshi Camp To Chebisa

  • calendar date: Friday, October 4, 2019
  • time: 7 hours
  • distance: 13 km.
  • start point altitude: Chebisa 3900 m
  • endpoint campsite: Shomuthang  4217m
  • high pass crossing:   Gombu La 4447 m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • Google Earth – satellite view here
  • altitude graph showing high passes and campsites of the first ten days of the Snowman Trek here
  • 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!)\

Amazingly, no rain on this day and periods of sunshine. I could get used to this!

This day would require a bit more effort than the easy day we had from Lingshi Camp to Chebisa.  It would start with a steady ascent to the second pass of our trek, Gombu La at 4447m, some 550 meters higher than our campsite.

Topo And Satellite Views of the Day’s Walk:

satellite view – from Chebisa to Shomuthang

a few of our horses waiting for their day’s work assignments in Chebisa

Chebisa village dog at our campsite

Chebisa – the breakfast tent –

We started off our day with a brief visit to a local shop selling sundry items of interest to trekkers – chocolate bars, nuts, cookies, and such.  The building was decorated in traditional Bhutanese style as the images below make clear.  On the wall were murals of mythical creatures connected with stories which the locals have heard since childhood.

last-minute shopping in Chebisa – sundry items

elephant-with-dharma-bowl-on-top.jpg

elephant with dharma bowl on top

garuda biting naga (snake) image on Chebisa house

garuda biting naga (snake) image on Chebisa house

Chebisa house detail – Himalayan Buddhist baroque!

As we left the village I saw this dog nestled in a sheltered spot – a roofed-over shelter housing a supply of dried yak manure which the locals use in the winter for fuel. Like the dog at the campground in the photo above, this one could use some attention and a good combing to get out all those burrs.

Chebisa dog and supply of dried yak dung patties

As both the map and the satellite image make clear,  we made a steep ascent out of Chebisa valley and then continued on a gradual uphill trail to the high pass of the day, a 575-meter gain over the first two hours of the day’s walk.

panorama – the trail above Chebisa on the way to Gombu La

a section of trail about four kilometers above Chebisa on the way to Gombu La

the trail to Gombu La from Chebisa

Gombu La: 

Two hours after starting off from Chebisa we were at Gombu La, our second high pass of the trek.  We sat there for a while, enjoying the view. Coming up behind us were the first of the horses. We would let them pass before we continued on with a 250-meter descent in the next valley.

Gombu La – the high pass of Day 7 on the Snowman Trek

trekking crew at rest on Gombu La

a few of our horses approaching Gombu La from Chebisa

trek horses approaching Gombu La

stone ruins on the side of the trail to a campsite near Shomuthang

glacial stream on the way to a campsite near Shomuthang

a distant view of our Day 7 campsite near Shomuthang

approaching Shomuthang camp on Day 7 afternoon

We had left Chebisa around 8:00; it was now 3:00 and our day was done. As we approached the campsite, we could see that all the tents were already up. Just in front of the blue cook tent visible in the image below was a stream that we hopped over to get to the site.

our Shomuthang campsite – Snowman trek Day 7

Later that afternoon I checked my Polar M430 fitness tracker for the stats.  I can’t vouch for their total accuracy but this is what it looked like –

The problem with my tent door zipper was fixed in a jiffy by Angel, whose multi-tool pliers got the job done in less than a minute. He has probably done this a thousand times on different expeditions.  the tent was a great one – a very spacious and new Marmot four-season tent. It may be that the crew set it up too taut and that created the zipper problem.


The Importance of Your Tent!

Trekkers will be spending at least 40% of each day in their tents so having a comfortable one is crucial.  For most trekkers, it begins with having your own, as opposed to sharing it with someone else.  I have even talked to couples who wished that they had gotten their own tents!

At the end of each day’s walk, I would spend at least an hour or not more before supper in my tent, arranging things and then enjoying some of the warmth that slipping in my unstuffed sleeping bag provided.

Supper was usually around 6:00 to 6:30 and by 8:00 p.m. the dining tent was empty and everyone had gone to their tents.  Wake-up was around 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. so that was ten hours of tent time each day – 40% of your time in Bhutan!  An important question to ask your local trekking agency is this – what tent do you provide? Do I have to share it with someone?  I saw a Canadian group at Jomolhari with much cheaper A-frames that did not look as roomy as the Marmot Thor 3-Person tent that I had for my own use. And they were two per tent!


While we had walked about the same distance as the day before, I had burned 50% more calories to do so!  The next day would prove to be a bit less taxing than this one. We would start off with a walk up the valley from our meadow campsite to the day’s high pass.   The next post has all the details!

Chebisa to Gombu La to Shomuthang – satellite view

Next Post: Day 8 – Shobuthang To Robluthang

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 6 – Lingshi To Chebisa

Previous Post: Day 5 – Jomolhari Camp To Lingshi

  • calendar date: October 3, 2019
  • time:  4.5 hrs. (including our walk through the dzong)
  • distance:  10 km. (Lonely Planet); 16 km. (Bart Jordans); 11.6 km. my Polar M430; 12 km on my Garmin inReach. It may depend on exactly where the chosen campsite is.
  • start point altitude: Lingshi campground 4010m
  • high pass: none.  However, Lingshi Dzong at 4220m
  • endpoint campsite: Chebisa village campground 3870m (my Garmin device); 3990m in Bart Jordans guidebook but perhaps not the same camp place?
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman as well as other treks.
  • Google Earth view in Chrome: See here
  • 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!)

Day 6- Lingshi Camp to Chebisa via Lingshi Dzong and Goyul

This day would prove to be perhaps the easiest single day of the trek!  Two hundred meters of elevation gain to get to the Dzong before descending back down to Lingshi Village at 4075 m.  After that, as my Polar M430 altitude profile for the day shows, the trail was fairly flat until we went down 125 meters in our descent to the village of Goyuk, an hour from Chebisa and our tents.

In the image below,  the trail we will be taking to get to the dzong is visible on the hillside behind the tents. It would take us an hour to get to the dzong after leaving camp.

Our Lingshi Campsite (Charhae Thang?)

morning at Lingshi camp – pre-breakfast

The dzong is on top of the hill (4220m) in the panorama below. Some ascent required! We were at 4013m at the campground at the bottom of the valley transliterated by

  • Bart Jordans as  Charzi Thang and Charhae Thang and
  • by Lonely Planet writers as Chha Shi Thang.

The many variations in spelling as Dzongkha words are hauled into Engish remind me of the similar situation in Bolivia where the various English transliterations from Quechua are sometimes not even recognizably similar!

Lingshi Campsite with Dzong hill in the background

Lingshi Dzong:

looking back at our Lingshi campsite from the trail up to the Lingshi Dzong

A half-hour on a gradually ascending and well-trodden path and we were standing next to the stupa pictured below.  Another forty-five minutes and we were on a plateau just south of the dzong. We waited there while our Bhutanese guide entered the dzong to see if we could visit.

the chorten on the way up to visit the Lingshi Dzong

our trekking group waiting on the plateau outside of Lingshi Dzong

The dzong has not had an easy time of it. More than one earthquake over the centuries has caused significant damage. As soon as the dzong gets rebuilt or repaired, another earthquake or fire hits it.  The original dzong dates back to 1668 – ancient in Bhutanese terms. It was meant as a checkpoint/customs station for traders crossing a nearby pass from the Tibetan side.  A severe earthquake in 2011 destroyed the dzong yet again, just after renovations had been completed a few years before. [See here for a Bhutanese newspaper article about the current reconstruction project. The article says that it was built for a commemorative purpose and not for a practical one.]

inside the ruins of the Lingshi Dzong

a view of the exterior of the Lingshi Dzong

some of the Lingshi Dzong work crew in October 2019

Lingshi Dzong – exterior wall and entrance staircase

From Lingshi To Goyuk:

After our brief walk-through of the dzong ruins, we headed down to Lingshi village at 4075m.  The panorama below is of the village from the north slopes of the dzong hillside as we approached. We walked right through the village in two minutes and were soon walking along a ridge that eventually descended sharply towards Goyuk.  The satellite image below gives a good idea of the trail.

a view of Linshi village from the north side of the Dzong

the trail from Lingshi to Chebisa via Goyuk

Goyuk:

120  meters of descent from the ridge and we came to Goyuk village. The trail actually continues on to Chebisa on the east edge of the settlement but we walked in 100 meters to check out the architecture – a mix of traditional and more modern materials. While we were there I saw three locals.

Apparently, it has 100 inhabitants among 25 households but our mid-day visit may have caught them all away or at work (or staying out of the view of gawking western tourists!).  We did admire the colourful fleece blankets which were clearly of Chinese design and origin and wondered who had carried them across the nearby pass without getting caught by the military guards on the border!

walking down the trail to the village of Goyuk on the way to our campsite at Chebisa village

some traditional stone buildings in Goyuk

A day encountering the “divine thunderbolt” of the anarchic Tibetan Buddhist monk Drukpa Kunley is always an auspicious day in Bhutan!  The wall murals depicting his penis and testicles are considered good luck charms that dispel evil. I was actually expecting to see more of them on our Snowman trek.

Well, here in Goyuk we were blessed with a nice rendition. Our Bhutanese guide felt the need to return to the monk’s exploits on too many occasions during the after-supper talks that were meant to tell us something about Bhutan.  It got to be quite tiresome.  If you need to know more, check out Keith Dowman’s book (totally uncritical) on the life of our dispenser of “crazy wisdom”.  See here for a sample.

The exploits of Chogyam Trungpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, two recent “enlightened” Buddhists who used their status as lamas (either earned or self-given)  to exploit hundreds of young women in Europe and North America, should serve as a warning to those who give “crazy wisdom” the benefit of the doubt.

Above the village was a dzong/temple which we did not visit.  In his essential guidebook for trekking in Bhutan, Bart Jordans recounts its history  –

Goyok is next to some impressive rockfaces, and in one of these there used to be a ruin (the Bja-Ghi Dzong). In the summer of 2003 the community renovated it on their own initiative over a couple of months. Building materials, carried by yaks, came from the distant forest between Shana and Soi Thangthanka; one day down, and two days back up. This dzong is one of the oldest and most sacred in Bhutan, believed to have been built in the 16th century by Phajo Drukgom Zhipo. There is a lhakhang in the dzong with several statues, and a caretaker and lay monk.    Excerpt From: Bart Jordans. “Trekking in Bhutan.” 

Bjagoe Dzong above the village of Goyuk

More easy walking from Goyuk and we would get to Chebisa around 1 p.m.  Lunch would be served on the Chebisa version of the “village green” on the south side of the stream which separates it from most of the village’s two dozen or so houses.

approaching Chebisa on the trail from Lingshi

‘ campsite at Chebisa

Lunch – you can see the table set up just in front of the blue cook tent in the image above. And below you can see what I ate that day – a half a cup of plain rice (rather bland and without any spices or sauce other than the chilli sauce on the table to jazz it up) and some sort of soggy and rather tasteless vegetable.  The others may have also received some chicken or tuna.

My plant-based-only diet was becoming an issue.  An evening or two later when I was presented with essentially the same options as you see on the plate below, I ate nothing.  I went back to my tent and pulled out one of my 100-gram Ziploc bags with tamari-flavoured almonds and had that for supper.  Once or twice during the first ten days, I thought I might not finish the trek because I would run out of energy that the food is meant to provide!

As mentioned in a previous post, I had discussed all of this with the western organizer of the trek on more than one occasion in the months leading up to the trek and had been assured that the local agency would be aware of my food requirements. They didn’t have a clue! The cook would try his best once he got it, but his options were few in the field since he was not supplied with ingredients to make it really happen.

Day 6 – my lunch plate

After lunch, we went for a walk up the small valley that Chebisa finds itself in.  At the top is a small waterfall, that little slash of white that you see a couple of images below.  As I walked there I had the feeling I was entering into a forgotten corner of a Judeo-Christian Eden or a Himalayan Buddhist beyul.   I walked past stately trees and watched a few horses grazing in their shade. A bit of hands-on scampering and I was able to get so close to the waterfall that the mist forced me to put away my not-waterproof camera!

the side of a Chebisa house – woodpile for the coming winter

a walk from Chebisa campground to the waterfall

some of the guys in horse crew working on ropes and other gear

43 horses on trek – at $20. a day per horse!

I think I got the figures correctly! It does seem somewhat high!

Our trek started in Shana where a local crew provided three days of horse transportation to Jomolhari Base Camp.  When we arrived there, the crew was paid and it turned back for home and hopefully another trekking group.  Meanwhile,  we took on a new set of horses and handlers supplied by the settlements near Jomolhari B.C.  They moved us seven days up the trail to Laya on Day 11.

This crew would then return to Jomolhari with a nice bundle of cash while a crew from Laya would take us the next leg of the trek, the six days to Chozo.  The thinking seems to be that this way the benefits of the trek are dispersed more evenly among the various villages along the way.

In traditional upcountry Bhutan,  wealth and status were determined by the number of yaks and/or horses one’s family had.  This traditional Bhutan is dying as roads reach further and further north and make the animals less necessary since trucks and jeeps can do the job faster and easier.  Soon it’ll just be the trekkers who use horses and yaks!

Chebisa trekkers’ camp with a chorten on the hilltop in the background

It is six kilometers (as the raven flies) to the border with Tibet; another ten kilometers will bring you to one or another small town on the Tibetan side, the source of all sorts of attractive trade goods.  All an enterprising local has to do is get them across those mountains and that border!

Chebisa and the Tibetan border

As the hydro poles and wires indicate, electricity has come to Chebisa!  One or two houses had satellite dishes and television has been available in Bhutan since the year 2000. Roads, electricity, television,  the smartphone that almost every younger member of the horse team and the cook and tent crew had …how do you measure how much Bhutan has changed in the past generation?

looking west from our Chebisa campsite to the waterfall and the border with Tibet

Chebisa prayer wheel temple on the village green with the waterfall in the background

After we got back from our little mid-afternoon trek, the rain can down – at times quite heavy.  Laying in my tent and listening to the rain hitting it probably made it sound even worse!  Later – it was supper and -wonder of wonders – a meal I could get enthusiastic about: aloo gobi, aka potatoes and cauliflower and onions. I had double/triple portions and let the servers Kinley and Karma know how good it was!  Nothing like tasty food when you’re feeling a bit run down!

Next Post: Day 7 – Chebisa To Shomuthang

 

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 5 – Jomolhari B.C. To Lingshi Via Nyile La

Previous Post: Day 4 – Jomolhari Base Camp Acclimatization Day

  • calendar date: October 2, 2019
  • time: 6 hrs. (including 1 hr. for lunch and a bit more time for a few rest breaks)
  • distance:21 km.
  • start point altitude: Jomolhari campground  4044m
  • high pass: #1 Nyile La 4890m
  • endpoint campsite: Lingshi campground 4010m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • Google Earth: Check out the satellite view here.
  • 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!)

Day-5-Jomolhari-b.c. to Lingshi camp via-Nyile La

Day 5 – horses with Jomolhari in the background

Before we left camp we took advantage of a visible Jomolhari for a promotional World Expeditions shot of our 16-member trekking group and our two Bhutanese guides. Behind the camera was our non-Bhutanese guide Angel Armesto, the World Expeditions representative on the trek. Given his decades of high altitude experience, this trek – his first in Bhutan – was for him perhaps a bit of a break from his usual more stressful mountaineering expeditions.

shot taken by Angel Armesto, our Argentinian WE guide

Photos done, we looked around the camp and noticed that the tents were almost all down and packed away.  The tent crew was experienced and got things done fast, even going so far at the end of the day as to blow up the Thermarests and place the carpets and each tent’s duffel inside!  Whenever I could,  I thanked them for their service and told them I could take care of the duffel and carpet and Thermarest myself!

Just after 8:00, we were off – and the blue sky was still visible!

satellite view of the start of the trail from Jomolhari to  Nyile La

We walked back along the path we had taken the day before for our acclimatization hike to Tsho Phu.  However, instead of taking the first bridge across the Paro Chhu, we kept on going towards the settlement of Jangothang, at the end of which is the second bridge. Crossing the river here, we started our way out of the valley up the zigzag trail and headed east into another valley which we would walk up to access our first high pass of the trek.

trekkers leaving Jomolhari for Nyile La and Lingshi

prayer flags across the Paro Chhu at Jangothang

hydro poles and trail up to Nyile La from Jangothang

break time on our way to Nyile La – we’re at 4680m,,, only 200 more “up” to go!

a look ahead to the Nyile La – top left side of the image

I knew it was too early so when I saw the piles of stones  – laptse in Dzongkha – and the prayer flags I told myself not to be fooled!  I did sit there for a while, sipping water from my Nalgene bottle and munching on half of the one Clif Bar which was my day’s allotment.

rest stop – not the pass! – by a cairn and some prayer flags on the way to Nyile La

We were at 4680m, having come up about 300 meters since leaving Jomolhari camp.  Still to go – another one hour and 200 meters before we were at Nyile La.  As the photos make clear, we walked on a clearly defined trail through low-level scrubland and scree.  I was not missing the muddy forest trails and horse-shit-filled puddles and rock to rock stepping that defined the first two and a half days from Shana to a half-day before Jomolhari.

the final stretch up to Nyile La (4890m)

the final stretch up to Nyile La (4890m) – looking up to the trekkers ahead of me

me under the hydro wires and walking up the last stretch to Nyile La

When I got to the top there were already five or six fellow trekkers there (one of whom took the above photo!). I took off my backpack and had a slug of water and pulled out my bag of dried fruits and nuts for a snack. Then out came the camera – the colourful prayer flags were calling out to me!  I consciously framed a few shots that avoided one thing  – the hydro pole and the wires coming up and over the pass.

chorten and prayer flags at Nyile La with Nyilele100 meters higher on the top left

A photo includes and excludes whatever the person behind the lens decides. Scroll down to see what it was that I at first avoided including. The reality is that for a good bit of the Shana to Laya trek, my photos include at least a few with those poles and wires. And quite honestly, who am I to complain?

a colourful patch of lichen and flowers near the prayer flags

For the locals,  access to electricity means a more comfortable life. Hydropower is Bhutan’s #1 export – it is good to see it also benefits its own upcountry people for cooking, lighting, television, computers, the internet … even if it means the end of traditional Bhutanese culture, increasingly celebrated only at festivals which seem to have tourists in mind just as much as locals.

Nyile La chorten draped with prayer flags

Note: Many of the strings of multi-coloured prayer flags are put there, not by locals, but by trekkers. On our rest day at Jomolhari, our Bhutanese guide gifted one set of flags to each one of us to put up at a pass of our choice.  We were told that they had been properly blessed by a Buddhist monk and thus would presumably earn us merit in our karma banks. These flags are the most colourful reminder of the Tibetan-style (i.e. Vajrayana) Buddhism which characterizes the traditional culture of the Himalayan region.

Nyile La prayer flags and chorten – shot with hydro poles and wires

To the west of the pass, as seen in the image above, is the hilltop known as Nyilele (5090m). It looks like there is a communication tower at the top of it!   On the righthand side of the pass is Golung Phu (5096m).  No one gave in to the temptation of a quick scamper up either of them, though the shot below as taken from about a quarter of the way up to the Nyilele hilltop.

Nyile La – Oct 2, 2019 – looking down at the pass from the slopes of Nyilele (5090m)

Soon the other trekkers were up on the pass.  We looked around to see the first of the horses coming.  They were carrying the tents and the camp gear to our Lingshi destination, another 12 kilometers or so away. By the time we got to camp, most everything was already up and ready for us to move in.  Taking down a village and setting it up again every day – a great crew!

watching a few of our horses come up to Nyile La

Also coming up to the pass were Karma and Kinley, the guys in charge of lunch. Here is Karma with one of the three horses that carried all the supplies necessary to do lunch Bhutan trekking style – i.e. tables, chairs, table cloths, plates and cutlery…wow!  A boxed lunch is the usual format.

Karma and one of the lunch team horsesThe brochures mention something about the last dramatic views of Jomolhari or Jitchu Drake from the pass  – but the daily clouds that roll in mid-morning and seem to last all day mean we have to accept something a bit less.

looking west and north towards the Tibet border from Nyile La – Takaphu on the right

The same would go for our view towards the east! Before we set off from Jangothang, our Bhutanese guide had enthused about the 6840m Gancheta (aka Great Tiger Mountain) as our WOW view of the day. The peak to the north, the 6526m Takaphu (aka Tsheri Kang) should also have been quite a sight, given how it dominates the nearby string of peaks.

For the next few days, we would hear daily references to a view of  Great Tiger Mountain; it became a bit of a joke as we stared at yet another clouded-over vista on the horizon. Seeing it proved as elusive as seeing one of the claimed 30 or so snow leopards which roam the upper reaches of the 4400 square kilometer Jigme Dorji National Park that we were walking in.

panorama – the way down from Nyile La on the way to Lingshi

We turned our focus to the tasks at hand –

  • a descent down the scree slope on the other side of the pass and
  • lunch!

Down we went. We had gained 800 meters in altitude on our way up to Nyile La; now we would give all 800 meters away by the time we got to our Lingshi campsite.

However, it is rarely continuously downhill!  Even in losing 800 meters, you may have to do 500 more uphill!  Here is a brief uphill stretch about 45 minutes after leaving the pass, which is beyond the top lefthand corner of the image.

coming down from Nyile La

Finally, lunch. It is shortly after 12 and we have been on the move for four hours.  Our tables are set up in a meadow and the lunch team horses are grazing as yet other horses carrying our gear stream by in the distance.

our lunch spot after crossing Nyile La – our tent crew and their horses continue to Lingshi

lunch team getting table settings ready

The walk after lunch was an easy one over open terrain

looking east from our lunch spot at a section of trail after Nyile La on the way to Lingshi

looking east from our lunch spot at a section of trail after Nyile La on the way to Lingshi

view of a glacial lake between Nyile La and Lingshi camp – hidden peaks behind the clouds

Had the weather been better we would have had a tremendous view of Jitchu Drake and the 6526m Takaphu.  Maybe next time!

satellite view of the above image – the two small glacial lakes

As we got closer to our campsite we got our first view of the Dzong for which Lingshi is famous.  It sits dramatically on a cone-shaped hilltop.  We would camp below and to the south of it and then pay a visit the next morning on our way to Chebisa.

Lingshi Dzong - a view from the south

Lingshi Dzong – a view from the south …shot taken by a fellow trekker

I didn’t realize until the next morning that there was an actual village attached to the name too! We would walk through it after we descended the Dzong hilltop on the north side.  The satellite image below makes it all clear to me now!  The trekkers’ campsite is on one side of the Dzong hill; the village of Lingshi is on the other. Also visible on the satellite image is the trail we would follow up to the dzong.

satellite-image-of-lingshi-campsite-dzong-and-village

Our camp was all set up by the time we arrived.  The camp is at 4010 meters, almost the same as the Jomolhari camp.  The day’s walk over Nyile La had provided us with a good acclimatization exercise; as the mountaineer’s saying goes – “Walk high; sleep low”. We had done that; everyone seemed to be acclimatizing to the higher altitude and no one was reporting any headaches.

Lingshi camp – Day 6- morning view

Next Post: Day 6 – Lingshi To Chebisa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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