Jim Baker, Perth, WA
Bhutan is the most mysterious country in South Asia, as well as being one of the most beautiful. It sits on the roof of the world, bordered to the south by India and to the north by Tibet. The local name for Bhutan is Druk Yul, which translates as the Land of the Dragon. Local superstition says that the thunder echoing around the Himalayas comes from the roar of dragons, hence Bhutan has become known as The Land of the Thunder Dragon. The country has been deliberately isolated from the rest of the world with tourism closely controlled and restricted to some 20,000 visitors a year.
Our all-Australian group consisted of nine males and three females, with an age span of some forty years. Our itinerary was to take the Jomolhari trail, up the valley of the Pachu River, across the Nyele La Pass (4700m), the Yale La Pass (4950m) and from there down into the Bhutanese capital, Thimbu.
Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…
We left Perth on a drizzly October morning, overnighted at the new airport hotel in Bangkok, then travelled on the following day to Kathmandu, where we stayed in the Kathmandu Guest House. Two days and nights sped by as we explored the town. Mike introduced us to a number of the local hostelries and we all ate and drank well—very well at times, I seem to remember.
The drive to Kathmandu airport was tortuous, and the airport security checks even more so, as we were relieved of potentially lethal items such as toothpaste, sun-cream and safety-pins by the uniformed guards. It was a relief to feel the aircraft lift off for the one hour flight to Paro, highlighted by the sight of Mt. Everest rising majestically through the thick cloud cover.
The contrast between Paro airport and the noisy chaos of Kathmandu could not have been greater. Paro was an oasis of calm, and the welcoming attitude of the local staff, dressed in national costume, made a positive and lasting impression. We were greeted by our local guide, Phurba, who remained with us for the whole trip. Our first stop was the Kichu Resort, where we found beautiful surroundings and a very friendly staff.
The following day we embarked on a day walk to the Taktshang Monastery and back.
The Taktshang Monastery or Tiger Nest clings to a granite cliff 800m above the Paro valley, at an altitude of 3100m above sea-level. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava flew to the location on the back of a tiger in the 7th century, and meditated in a cave on the cliff for three months in order to subdue the demons that were trying to prevent the spread of Buddhism. The monastery was built in the 17th century, and it remains a breathtakingly beautiful structure. The walk was a steady uphill climb along a well used path, and the views of the building as we gradually neared it, and the wonderful artefacts inside, made it well worth the effort.
As well as giving us the chance to enjoy the beauty of the Tiger Nest, this walk had practical applications. Altitude sickness is a real danger above 3000m, and acclimatisation is important. We were intending to climb to almost 5000m on the trek, where altitude sickness can be a common problem. There are two ways of minimising the risk; firstly to ascend slowly, and secondly when possible to ascend to a high point and then descend again, preferably to sleep for the night, as we had just done.
The trek proper began the next day. On the way to the assembly point we had our first glimpse of the snow-covered peak of Jomolhari, the sacred mountain. Jomolhari, at 7300m, straddles the Bhutan-Tibet border, and is believed by Buddhists to be the home of a sacred goddess. I had been surprised to learn that our gear would be carried by horses—I had assumed it would be yaks—but I discovered that yaks cannot operate below an altitude of about 4000m.
The first day set the routine for the whole trek. We moved out first, and the horses carrying our gear passed through our ranks later in the day. I was fascinated to see that the horses weren’t led by human hand. Instead there was a lead horse, decorated with a red plume, at the front of the column, who clearly knew the route just as well as our guides!
The weather stayed fine and the first’s day’s walk was over relatively easy terrain. We had a break for lunch and by the time we reached the campsite in the afternoon, at 2800m, our tents were set up and water was boiling for tea. There was time for a rest, after which we assembled in the mess tent for dinner. The food was excellent, and typical of the fare we enjoyed throughout the trek—hot soups, meat and vegetable stews, rice and fruit, and plenty of tea and coffee.
The next day was cool, clear—and tough! Walking in the river valley meant that there were many wet areas to negotiate, a lot of mud and some steep climbs. Our campsite at Thangthangka was at 3800m, with a spectacular view of Jomolhari. The group was very relaxed. Jokes, limericks and songs accompanied dinner.
Day three took us to 4050m. The weather grew colder and windy and flurries of snow meant thermal tops and waterproof jackets became the order of the day. We reached camp in the early afternoon, where we encountered other trekkers. Light snow continued to fall through the afternoon and evening, and down jackets made their first appearance at dinner that night.
The following day had been designated as a rest day, with a day walk up a side trail to Tshophu Lake (4500m) and back down to camp, for further acclimatisation. We awoke to find the snow was still falling, although not heavily. The weather became no worse, so we spent the afternoon walking to the lake, a steady climb of about 500m, and returned to the campsite for dinner. Our horsemen were concerned that heavy snow in the high passes would make it impossible for the horses to get through. Whether we continued would depend on the conditions in the morning.
The weather made the decision for us. The next morning the tents were snow-covered and thick snow was falling. After further consultation with the guides and horsemen Mike told us that we would stay where we were for one more day, and then return the way we had come up. The next day the gods gave us a display of Himalayan weather. By lunch time the sun was out. The snow melted, and we could hear the rumblings of avalanches on the high peaks. Then the sun set, the temperature plummeted violently, and after a quick dinner everyone was glad to get into the warmth of their sleeping bags.
The cold was still intense in the morning, and fingers and toes remained numb for the first hour or so of walking. The going was quite easy as we were heading slowly downhill on the high plateau. Snow started again as we approached the campsite, but the mood of the group remained upbeat, despite the disappointment of not being able to press on over the high passes. However, the unexpected is what trekking, or any other adventure holiday, is all about.
We descended through the river valley over the next two days. The weather became warmer as we reached lower altitude, but the going got tougher, as much of it was through the creek beds, which meant negotiating slippery boulders and a lot of liquid mud. The final campsite was a one hour walk to the point where the bus would pick us to take us to the Kichu Resort for lunch, and then on to Thimbu.
We arrived in hot sunshine, which gave everyone a chance to wash in the river, air out damp clothes and generally relax. Our guide, Phurba, went into Paro and brought back some beer, which helped to make our last dinner under canvas a very cheerful affair!
The final day’s walk was short and easy. We arrived back at our original assembly point and sat in the warm sunshine until the buses came to take us to Kichu.
The group spent four more days together, firstly exploring Thimbu, and then travelling back to Paro and on to Phuentsholing, on the Indian border. From there we drove through West Bengal into Nepal and took a local flight to Kathmandu, which provided magnificent views of Kanchenjunga, Makalu and the Everest range.
The highlights of the trip were many and varied; first and foremost for me was the cheerfulness and serenity of the Bhutanese people, coupled with the beauty of the countryside. It was a great experience and enormous fun, made all the more enjoyable by the humour and camaraderie of our group, the hard working and ever willing guides, cook-boys and horsemen, and the professional and patient leadership of Mike Wood.
I hope to have the good fortune to visit Bhutan again, and I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to do so to seize it with both hands. It was a privilege to visit one of the truly magical and unique places remaining in the world.