Bhutan – The Land of the Thunder Dragon – Part 2

TP, Karma and the boys sending us off on the trek

TP and his family pick us up from Dragon Roots on May 1st, and we drive to Paro in their Toyota Hilux.  The Laya-Gasa trek starts just outside of Paro, near Drukyel Dzong.  We drive past the Amankora resort, a chain of exclusive high-end resorts with a minimum room charge of US$1350/night.    At the end of the paved road, we meet our guide/cook Sharev, assistant Rinche and horseman Sangay.  Sangay, a 55 year old small man in statue but great in character even though we don’t share a common language, chews a self prepared package of betel nut with the few teeth he has left, while loading up the nine, yes nine, donkeys with our supplies.  First day is easy with only three hours to our first camp through barley fields, rice paddies and paralleling a new road construction being built by Indian workers. The Indian workers brought in by

First day of Laya-Gasa trek through rice paddies and barley fields

Indian companies, perform most manual labour in Bhutan especially in construction.  As we walk, we see one guy keeled over throwing up, another doing a number-two in plain view.  Without shame, they continue their business while staring down Katie at the same time.  Shortly after, we see a western couple heading the opposite way, and it turns out, they will be the only white people we’ll see for the next eight days.  We come to an army checkpoint where our permits get checked by the army as foot traffic is closely monitored due to the proximity to the Tibetan border only seven kilometers away.  It’s more for our benefit as they check the permit again on the way out near the town of Gasa to make sure we get out safely.

The first two camps on this trek comprise of a few huts where we can cook and shelter from rain if need be without pitching the kitchen tent.  Its fine by us, and we arrive at the camp to see Sangay and Rinche setting up our tent.  It is a very strange feeling letting other people set up your tent but we oblige and stay out of their way.  We settle into a routine of unpacking our sleeping bags and arranging our monster canvas A-frame tent while Sharev and Rinche prepare dinner.   Sharev, is in

Sangay with his lead horse

his mid-twenties, about 5’6, slender with shoulder length long black hair.  He is the only one speaking some English and we communicate quite comfortably.  Katie speaks to him slowly and very loudly forgetting that the man is not deaf.  At 5pm Rinche  the 21-year-old assistant cook with a constant smile on his face and tireless stamina whether hiking or loading up 50lbs loads onto the donkeys,  “knocks” on our tent and tells us coffee and tea is ready.  Huh?  As we unzip the tent, there he is, with an assortment of teas, coffee, hot chocolate and cookies.  WTF.  We each grab a tea and go back to reading and relaxing in the tent.  Now, that’s what I call camping.  About an hour and a half later, we hear Rinche is calling us again.  This time, he is calling to alert us that there are two washbasins outside our tent to wash up before dinner, which is almost ready.  We briskly get up, wash up and head into the hut where a separate table is set up for us with a table cloth, assortment of teas, water, juice and array of rice dishes.  We’re stoked. We’ve heard lots great things about the spice-rich Bhutanese cuisine and I’m starting to get hangry.   When I’m hangry and try to pick a fight, Katie, the most patient woman I know, says, “if you want to pick a fight, fine, but let me feed you first”.  The fight usually never materializes.   We are not disappointed and after some curry, potato and chili dishes, we quietly retire to our tent for an early night.

We wake up to a slight drizzle and are thankful for the hut to take shelter in. At 7am, we’re roughing it with a hearty breakfast of eggs, porridge, corn flakes and toast.   We are told that today is the longest day of the trek, about 26km.  We pack everything up, and by “we” I mean mostly Sangay, Rinche and Sharev, and we’re off at 8:30am.  This time, I forced Sharev to let me help them and assist him in taking down our toilet tent. Yes, a toilet tent.

The trail leads through a tall rain forest peppered with red and pink rhododendrons.   We cross a newly built bridge and meet a shift of Bhutanese soldiers coming down from the Tibetan border post 25km away.  After a solid five hours, we arrive at our second camp.  A tattered fence surrounds the corrugated-steel-roofed rock hut.  It starts to mist and sprinkle so we quickly set up the tents in a few grassy spots that aren’t covered by donkey and yahk dung, and Sharev starts to prepare dinner.

Day 3
We wake up to donkey bells as Sangay puts on the headdress on the lead white donkey and make our way to breakfast.  We feel quite alienated by the separately set up table for us and ask our Bhutanese friends if we can eat together and in the same room.  They are quite taken aback by that request for some reason but with big smiles they invite us over and we all eat together.  We decide that we will eat together with them for the rest of the trip and they happily accept as it saves them the hassle of setting up a separate dining tent!

Typical landscape above 4000m of grassy hillsides and an occasional herding hut

We emerge from the lower himalaya treed forests and into the sub alpine.  Stunted shrubs with open grassy hill-tops dominate the landscape.  We pass yet another army camp, this time a combined Indian-Bhutanese camp where officially the Indian army trains the Bhutanese soldiers.  Unofficially, its just a political move by the Indian government to have a military presence in Bhutan that is a major power supplier to northern India and a major trading partner.  An English speaking Bhutanese sergeant invites us for coffee and cookies and we of course accept.  The hospitality and friendliness of these people in these remote posts and villages is overwhelming.

About half way through the day, three hours into the hike we stop for lunch and some litche juice.  As we sit down, we notice two little girls skipping through the brown and bare landscape few hundred yards away.  They shyly approach us after repeated encouragements by Sharev and ourselves.  After usually being bombarded by children in Nepal, India and SE Asia, it was a shock and amazingly rewarding experience for

Tashi squared

me to witness.  These two cute twin orphaned (that we learned later) wide-eyed snotty and tattered-hair eight-year-old girls live with their grandparents in a herding hut over a small hill away from the trail.  Sharev asks them what their names are.  “Tashi and Tashi”, they reply.  Hmmm, who would name their twin daughters the same name?  You have to understand the naming tradition in Bhutan to appreciate this.  There are no true last names in Bhutan.  The monks in monasteries give names to children when they are born.  With a country of only 700,000 people, everyone knows everyone.  So, just like in ancient Europe, people are recognized as “Dema’s Tashi” or “Dawa’s Tshering” similar to “John, son of Smith.” In this case they have two first names Tashi “something” and Tashi “something” After, about a fifteen-minute visit, the girls skip back over the hill to their home.

After three more hours of hiking, we arrive at the Jomolhari base camp at 4300m.  This camp is the final destination of 80% of trekkers in Bhutan.  We see a few tents set up in the distance of another trekking group but don’t see anyone there.  Usually, people take a rest day here before continuing on the trek back to Paro.  Because we’re trying to fit a 14-day trek into the 10 days due to our not-to-distant departure date, we skip the rest day.  Jomolhari (7314m), an amazingly esthetic

Jomolhari base camp

mountain is one of the sacred mountains of Tibet/Bhutan (but not the highest).   Unfortunately, the mountain was cloud covered when we arrived to camp so we couldn’t appreciate its grandeur.

Day 4

Next morning however; we open our tent door and there is  Jomolhari, in bright blue sunshine serving as a backdrop to our camp.  After yesterday’s dinner, we met a new friend,  a large north Bhutanese mountain dog named Cholo (by Katie).  Stray dogs are present throughout the country but are not as big of a problem as other Asian countries.  Most dogs have owners, and in towns they have to be registered and checked out by a vet.  These mountain dogs are highly regarded and quite expensive at lower elevations as they are extremely smart, strong and loyal. Cholo was quite hungry, and after we fed him dinner leftovers the night before, he followed us down the path in the morning.  Todays’ hiking consists of going over the first of four passes on our trek.  At 4850m, it’s the second highest and since we haven’t acclimatized fully yet, its a tough day.  Because I’m still battling giardia that I picked up in Thimphu, I struggle up the pass while Katie surely and steadily beats me to the top.  Sharev lights a package of incense and fixes some prayer flags destroyed by the winds and we decend the other side.  After about 15 minutes, Sharev realizes he forgot his sweater at the pass, drops his pack and goes back up to retrieve it.  Cholo, Katie and I skip down the loose scree and fine shale and  as we descend,

Katie with Dorje Wangchuk and friend

we see two people coming up, few hundred yards away.  We meet two Bhutanese men in their national dress, sweat drenching their towels around their necks.  They are surprised we are alone without a guide but we explain Sharevs delay.  One of the men introduces himself as Dorje Wangchuk, a local government official.  He asks us where we’re from.

“We’re from Canada”, replies Katie.

“Oh, I studied my Masters in Canada. Where in Canada are you from?” Dorje asks.

“Mark is from Calgary and I’m from Antigonish in Nova Scotia.” says Katie.

“I did my studies in Antigonish at Saint FX University!” Dorje replies with a smile.

“Crazy!  Do you know Brenda?” replies Katie with a high pitched excited voice.

“Of course I know Brenda!” says Dorje nonchalantly like it’s the most obvious question he’s been ever asked.

Brenda is our friend who helped us get our visas into Bhutan.  Since we just had dinner with Brenda and Melissa less than a week ago, I take out my phone and show Dorje

A spectacular campsite welcomes us on Day 4

a picture from the dinner.  While still laughing at the coincidence, we take a few pictures and say goodbye.  What are the chances to have this encounter four days from civilization on a remote pass in Northern Bhutan 11,000 km away from home?

We descend through a beautiful stunted-tree forest and see the already set up kitchen tent and our blue A-frame home.  It’s the most majestic and scenic camp we have had to date.  Located on the side of a river at the bottom of a valley, on a beautiful large meadow, well protected from high winds and all to ourselves.  Amazing.  Cholo is still with us.

Day 5

Cholo decided he’s had enough of us, crossed the river early in the morning and headed up a steep hill on the other side to a Dzong located at the top of the hill. We never saw him again.  We departed at our traditional 8:20am time and after couple of quick hours reached a small village of Lingzhi.  Schooling and education is very important in Bhutan.  Elementary schools are located in every larger village in the area and most kids attending the schools board in the village as most come from

Breakfast time at Lingzhi Elementary School

neighbouring valleys and remote areas.  Lingzhi is one of those larger villages with an elementary school that we planned on visiting from the start.  We brought some small gifts for two of these schools that we would visit.  As we crest a ridge, Lingzhi appears below us. Maybe 30-40 huts/houses and a few larger buildings that comprise the school make up the village.  Children are outside on the school field performing a group Buddhist prayer.  We sit on the ridge high above, take a break and watch the morning village life unfold.  After a few minutes the kids go into the large building and shortly after, we descend down to the village and wonder onto the school grounds.  A teacher invites us in and we go into the dining room where the kids are being served breakfast.  A dark open room filled with six to seven-year-olds sitting on a bare wooden floor.  They’re giving us the stink eye while devouring their rice dishes served by a school cook from a window at one end of the room.  We chat with the teacher, learn more about the school and give him the small gifts for the kids to be distributed by the teachers.

After about 20 minutes, we leave Lingzhi and head for another ridge on the other side of the village.  We pass

Friendliness and smiling was contagious

two teenage girls washing clothes in a stream just outside of town.   I ask if I can take a photo and as an answer they give me two massive smiles in return.  We carry on and after only about an hour we arrive at todays camp.  Up to today we’ve been camping alone, away from any village or town; however, today we set to camp right in the center of a village on an archery field.  Just so happens that today is the final day of seeding the fields and the village is celebrating.  The men are all in their “Sunday” ghos (male Bhutanese traditional garb), engaged in a heated battle of archery, the national sport.  Nothing like camping in a donkey-poo-mine-field with arrows propelled by state-of- the-art compound bows flying over our head.  The winds are gusting something fierce and as I stand behind our

massive kitchen tent and take a photo of one of the archers, the tent is picked up by a gust and slams into and over me.  The whole village stops, looks over at me and starts laughing at the white gringo drapped by a giant canvas while the occupants of the tent are untouched, sitting in their original spots.   That’s one way to break tension with the locals. We have dinner, chill out and watch the progressively drunk men nail a dinner plate

Archer take aim at the tiny target 150m away

sized target from 150m away!  It truly is awesome to watch even though a little terrifying with drunken men shooting a deadly weapon right by your tent.  The party went into the night but by 11pm everything was shut down, as tomorrow is another day of partying for the village.

Day 6

We have french toast, eggs and french fries for breakfast today… tough backcountry living.  We need it, as right from the village the trail climbs straight up the mountainside to another pass at 4600m.  Katie is acclimatizing well and is gaining strength every day at these higher altitudes but today she’s having one of the bad days.  She struggles a little on the climb but

Rinche looks on as Sharev cooks our breakfast

after cresting the pass, with the views that awaited us, she perks right up and has a great day overall.  As we are descending the pass and making our way through a quite extensive rhododendron forest, we notice a herder and a non-moving animal on a large meadow below us.  Then, like WWII bombers, giant himalayan vultures and griphons buzz us and circle the meadow eventually congregating few hundred yards from the herder.  We have no idea what going on but soon, the Bhutanese man starts to drag the animal, which turns out is a dead yahk, away from the vultures.  We don’t stick around long but enjoy these giant birds circling above us for another half hour.

As we continue to descent we come to a majestic valley at 3900m.  Its home to the takins, the national animal of Bhutan. A takin looks like a cross of a yahk with a tapir, and is extremely rare and skittish, so

Another amazing campsite

no yahk hearding is allowed in this valley when takins are grazing or mating.  Even trekking, like we’re doing, is forbidden during that time, which adds another half a day of circumventing this valley.  Lucky/unlucky for us, depends which way you look at it, the takins were gone.  We stopped for a break, had a litche juice and b-lined it through the open high alpine valley and continued to our camp.  It was only 400m vertical above us, and after an hour and a half, we looked down our next camp at the bottom of a hanging valley.

Day 7

Another 4700m pass awaits us this morning and we tackle it right from camp.  Today is very similar to yesterday and we hardly see any human signs of settlement.  We have a nice lunch in a picturesque river valley at 4100m where we meet a lone Laya woman herder taking care of a valley full of yahks.  After another  six hour day, we arrive at our camp, a small sloped field on the way to the highest pass on our trek that we’ll be tackling tomorrow.  We can hear dogs barking so we know there is a herding hut somewhere around.  Sure enough, three stray dogs show up during dinnertime at our tent.  Two of them appear related (I’m sure most of them are), but they look like brother and sister.  The sister is quite aggressive when our leftovers are given to them, but it just shows how hungry they all are.

Day 8

Even though Katie has been breaking her altitude records along the way, she really had her sights set on breaking the 5000m altitude barrier.  Having run multiple marathons and a half ironman, she wanted to compare high altitude to long distance endurance sports.  The gradual climb starts right from the camp again.  We settle into a nice pace with Sherev and the twin-dogs who decided to join us, while Sangay and Rinche went ahead with the donkey train ahead of us.  Few hours later, we’re on the pass plateau and Katie is doing the “death march” step, five steps forward, one minute break to catch her breath.  I ask her, how does this compare to running a marathon, and she says “This is waaaay harder!” I disagree and say that if I asked her that question during the last 5km of a marathon, her response would be reversed.  It’s amazing how quickly we forget the pain of past adventures and yearn for more punishment as soon as the mental and physical wounds heal.

We reach Sinche La (5050m), and after helping Sharev light the incense we descend quickly as it’s a little windy up here.  At this point, only one dog, the aggressive female continues with us over the Sinche La.  Katie names her Mo.  After the dominant “alpha male” behaviour at last nights camp, Mo has become attached to us and stops

89 year old Laya woman invited us for a quick tea

when we stop, sits when we sit etc.  She’s a good girl after all.  It starts to rain and wind picks up even more.  We’re getting hungry so we stop behind a big rock and try eating another gourmet lunch.  As we continue descending we encounter

another herding hut manned with three generations of Laya women.  They invite us for tea but we’re running a little behind schedule. After 15 minutes we continue on, past a glacial lake and moraine to our second favorite camp of the trip, a picturesque camp at the base of Tiger Mountain.

Day 9

After a breakfast of pancakes and french fries we press on to make it to Gasa by tomorrow.  Our flight leaves in three days and we have to make it to Paro in two nights time.  We visit the village of Laya, which is one of the most remote villages in Bhutan with a separate culture of the Laya people.  Women wear turquiose pendants and bracelets that are passed on from generation to generation and wear very distinctive outfits and pointy wicker hats.  Most hiking itineraries make a stop in the village for the day and sure enough we walk by six tents with westerners lounging about enjoying the sunshine.  Because this route is also the first half of the famous Snowman Trek, most stop here as well for a rest day before continuing for another 14 days.  We drop off some school supplies at the Laya Elementary School and push on to the exit army camp where our permits are checked and stamped.  We pass the traditional camp spot to make tomorrow shorter, and camp right by the trail underneath overhanging cliffs.  Less then ideal and not real safe, but whatevs.

Day 10

The best analogy I can think of to describe the trail on the last day to Gasa is like this:

2 cups of large loose round boulders

6 cups of donkey manure and piss

Sprinkle of rain for mixing

Healthy dose of leaches

Donkey train traffic jams

30% uphill, 70% downhill

Mix everything together for a solid six inch deep concoction of probably the worst hiking terrain I have ever experienced.  Continue mixing the substance with your boots for the next seven to eight

Gasa - the final camp of our trek

hours.  It was never ending.  Mo, gracefully avoided all the deep shit-bogs and hopped from one rock to the next but always waited for us.  We’re all attached to Mo quite a bit by now, even Sangay who is not a big dog person.  Finally, after over 20km of the hell-trail, we welcome the majestic landscape of the village of Gasa overlooking the lower himalayan hillsides.  We camp on the side of the village soccer field.  We watch an impromptu soccer game develop while we eat our dinner.  I make a few calls to TP to arrange our pickup from Gasa. Unfortunately, TP is busy this week and can’t pick us up so we hire a taxi for around US$100 to come pick us up.  Given that it takes over four hours on horrendous 4×4 roads for a one-way trip, we’re willing to pay top dollar for the service.

Next day, we pack up at the usual time and walk down to the road, which is half hour away.  Because the truck is still a few hours from reaching us, we decide to keep walking towards the truck instead of sitting in the sweltering muggy heat that is becoming quite unbearable.  Especially after spending the last 10 days in the cool and comfortable high alpine.  We’re taking shortcuts bypassing tens of switchbacks that make up this “road”.  In the process we cross the river a few times, once over a suspension bridge.  We walk through, the donkeys hesitantly follow.  Mo, bringing up the rear steps on the bridge and quickly retreats.  She’s terrified.  She backtracks and runs down the steep embankment in panic, hoping to find another way across the river to join us but the river is raging with the spring runoff.  She runs back up and tries going across the bridge again but backs away once more.  Sangay, even though not a dog lover, walks back across the bridge, picks the 70 pound Mo up and carries her across the bridge.  She’s still shaking with anxiety but now reunited with her new family is wagging her tail vigorously.

Three hours later we finally meet our ride.  Our friend TP sent his cousin with the taxi driver to make sure everything goes smoothly.  The driver, in his early twenties sports a gho and well-groomed hair.  He is acting less than friendly and we get a bad vibe from him right away.  Mo, who followed us all the way to here, sits by us as we eat.  We are sad to leave her and secretly hope that Sangay who has a farm outside of Paro will take Mo back home with him.  Out of the blue, the taxi driver offers to take her.  We’re happy and maybe our spider senses were wrong about him.  Mo, who has never seen a car never mind being in one, is terrified when we put her into the back of the Tata Bolero 4×4.  Its hot, humid and the “road” is beyond bumpy.  Sure enough, Mo can’t handle it and throws up all over the back seat that she jumped into from the tiny back trunk.  The taxi driver stops, gets out of the truck and walks away.  WTF?  So, Sharev and I clean up the puke, put Mo in the back again, this time with an extra folded seat for more room and the douchebag driver finally comes back and we drive off.

Sangay, Sharev, Katie, Rinche, Mark and Mo at the end in Gasa

Fifteen minutes later, Mo throws up again, won’t drink any water and I’m worried she won’t make it through another three and a half hours of this.  Mo’s new “owner” bolts once again, while I clean up the puke.  Katie, Sharev and I are all really attached to Mo and even Sharev is getting emotional.  We talk to TP’s cousin and he mentions that at the next village is a lady who might take Mo in.  We stop at the village, the woman agrees to take Mo and all of us with tears in our eyes watch Mo get tied up to a post as we drive away.  From roaming the high mountain passes and valleys carelessly her whole life, she ends up being tied to a post in a hot and humid village.  We are heartbroken, but assured by the TP’s cousin that she will never have to fight for food again and will be visited by a vet regularly and receive a checkup and all shots.  This served as a little consolation and we feel terrible for the rest of the drive.  The taxi driver is the only person on the whole Bhutan visit that I did not like.

We arrive in Thimphu around 7pm, check-in into Dragon Roots and quickly cleanup ourselves from 11-days-without-a-shower layer for a formal dinner with the Cabinet

A bed and a shower was a welcome sight at Dragon Roots Hotel

Secretary at his house at 7:30pm.  Tashi (the Cabinet Secretary) together with wife, daughter Tashi, another daughter and older son welcome us at their home for a fantastic evening meal filled with wine, traditional dishes and great conversation.  We are very grateful to Tashi for inviting us and letting us experience this country without the handcuffs of set itineraries of the packaged commercial tours.

Next day Karma, TPs wife drives us to Paro where we finally visit the world famous Tigers Nest and have dinner with Nancy Strickland, Ann Sherman, Leo MacDonald and a few other Canadian doctors in the evening.  At

Tigers Nest in Paro

10 am the next morning, we are pushed into our seats in the Airbus 319 as the jetliner heads straight up from the runway avoiding the mountains immediately in front of us.  Was the trip everything I imagined and dreamed off when I was a kid?  It was, and more.  The people, culture, and the scenery truly made it into the best country I have ever visited.  Will I be back?  Heck yes.

A few thanks to people that made this trip possible and special:

Tshering Penjor and Karma Dema for all the help organizing our logistics
Dasho Tashi Phuenstog and family for hosting us in their country
Nancy Strickland for on-site visa and logistic support and great story telling
Brenda and Melissa Berthiume for all the tips before we left Canada and arranging the visa with Dasho Tashi
Ann Sherman for the great dinner on the last day
Nature Trek Tours

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