Bhutan is a small, mountainous, landlocked country of about 700,000 people. It has been open to tourists for only about 30 years. It is a land of contrasts: a culture steeped in Buddhism, and a government looking toward the western modern world. The people use cell phones, but there are no ATMs. Wine and liquor are allowed, however, no cigarettes can be purchased (if you smoke, you pay a fine). Autos and trucks zip up and down winding roads; cows and mules walk the roadway. Those roads are single lane and full of pot-holes.
Here are a few more memorable features that stand out: men wearing ghos and women wearing kiras, the national dress; colorful prayer flags flapping in the breeze and prayer wheels built into the walls of buildings; yaks munching greens in pastures, tended by yak herders; men taking a work break to play archery, or throw darts or the javelin; ornate temples and monasteries, sturdy dzongs and small stupas on hilltops and in villages.
We fell in love with Bhutan. The best way to experience this country is a combination of trekking and cultural tours. The trekking is not easy. Trails are steep, rutted, often muddy and at high altitudes. The beautiful flora and scenery easily compensate for this difficulty, but the hiking challenge is to be respected. The two most popular treks are the Druk Path and the Jhomolhari (or Cholmolhari). The first is a four-day trek, and the second is eight or nine days. We took the Druk Path trek, but because two of the days are 20 kilometers each, we split those and did the trek in six days. This makes for a very pleasant hiking experience: two additional, beautiful campsites and time to play.
We were picked up at our accommodation in Paro by our guide, Karma, and taken to the trailhead at the National Museum. This is the start for the Druk Path – for centuries it was the main route from the Paro valley to the Thimphu valley. We felt as though we were going back in history, as we trudged along the trail, stepping where thousands of farmers, hikers, yaks and mules had trod. This translates to a trail that is worn with deep ruts, rocky and difficult to negotiate.
The cook, camp assistant and the mule driver (who arrived with six mules and one horse), packed the gear and loaded the animals. The two of us took off with our guide, starting at approximately 8,100 feet elevation. We had only our day packs, weighed down with cameras. The mules and horse, with very heavy gear passed us, en route to the next campsite.
The trail goes up steeply (naturally), and we were exhausted by lunch time. A beautiful meadow with a prayer wall was a welcome view as we ate. Mid-afternoon, we reached a yak herder’s camp, not far from Jili (or Jele) Dzong, close to our campsite. We went inside their home and visited a bit (through our translator, Karma). The homes are one-room tent structures with pine boughs, wood and stone walls. We sat on pine boughs around a fire that keeps the place warm. After pictures of the children (we showed them the picture on our digital camera), we bid them good bye. This procedure was repeated several times throughout the trek and became a very special experience for us.
We continued on to our campsite where the crew had set up a dining/cook tent – our tent and a toilet tent. The mules and horse were at pasture. We had warm water to wash, tea and a snack and finally, supper. We were extremely tired from the day's climbing and hiking. Our camp was in a meadow below Jili Dzong at approximately 11,500 feet (3,480 meters).
Today was supposed to be easier. We questioned that, as we negotiated long, rocky, muddy difficult up hills and short, rocky, muddy down hills.
The first order of “business” was a visit to and tour of the Jili Dzong, dating back to the 15th century. We were fascinated by the tall statue of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, and the monk caretaker, who taught us a dice game for determining whether our wishes would come true. We threw the dice well, so he said.
Hiking along a ridge, we were in search for a good place to string up our prayer flags (we added our prayers for a safe trek, and for those people in our lives who needed special thoughts and wishes.) We joined ours with many other prayer flags on a hill overlooking the Paro Valley.
After more hiking and lunch, we donned our rain gear, because it had begun to rain. We stopped at a yak herder’s home at Jangchhu Lakha and visited a bit. There, a young seven-year-old boy was learning from his elders how to be a yak herder; thus, he did not go to school.
We finished our hiking through a beautiful cedar woods and came to our campsite at a yak herder camp, complete with yaks. The site is Tshokam and is at 12,450 feet (3,770 meters).
Hiking was laterally (surprise!) for a bit, then downhill to a rushing stream; the Tsaluna Chhu, a tributary of the larger Thimphu Chhu River. We crossed a small plank bridge and came to a yak pasture. Here we found our mules grazing and the men tossing javelins at a target. A yak herder’s boy had several handmade javelin sticks and a dart. Karma even tried throwing Sandy’s trekking poles; they stuck in the ground but never reached the target.
Continuing uphill with our hiking, we found it very difficult because the rain had made the rocks slippery and the dirt turn to mud. Just when we thought we could not take another step, we reached the lake Jimilang Tsho and our campsite. Such a beautiful setting – tranquil lake, mountains, valleys. This site is at 12,800 feet (3,870 meters).
We asked if we could have lunch there in the tent. They were pleased to have us. It was cold and had started to rain. Since we couldn’t finish our lunch, we gave our leftover food to the yak herder. On his fire, he was heating whey, and he was in the process of making yak cheese. He had also made butter.
As we rested in our tent before “tea time”, we heard a commotion. A yak herder’s family had just arrived and was setting up camp. The commotion was the yaks, grunting and mooing (?) right outside our tent. The family set up their tent quickly (on their basic foundation, which stays there all the time) and the children came to watch us. We were a bit of an oddity.
The morning was beautiful and sunny with a few puffy clouds in the sky. We ate breakfast outside (the usual procedure for our group). The children of the yak herder watched us eating eggs and sausage (a bizarre sight for them).
Up hill we headed, rock hopping for a good part of the day. We had beautiful views of several Himalayan peaks and took many opportunities for photos. The clouds did not cooperate, however, and clung to the mountain tops. Lunch was at a Lake Simkotra Tsho. Karma and Sonam tried their luck at fishing, actually going around the entire lake, casting as they went. Fish were jumping, but not biting.
Throughout the trek, we had seen gorgeous flowers. Rhododendrons of many colors were in bloom. Other wildflowers, growing in profusion, were a pleasant sight and provided good photo stops. Karma often stopped to tell us about the flowers and herbs, and was most informative about medicinal plants. The famous and illusive blue poppy was not in bloom, but we did see the stalks of last year’s plants.
This part of the trek has the highest elevations, and of course, lovely views. Each high point brought new sights and a continuation of the trail. En route, the hillsides were covered with rhododendrons. At such a high altitude, they do not bloom until mid-June. Finally, we made a climb to the last and highest pass (of the day) at almost 14,000 feet (4,210 meters), and we looked down on the camp at Labana La. What a welcome sight!
As we had tea, we watched Dan (the cook) and Karma prepare supper. We had been having typical Bhutanese dishes – without the chili peppers. (Their absence was at our request. They will add them for anyone who wishes to have them). The crew had the same menu as we, but they jazzed it up with chili peppers, very spicy hot. The evening's fare was pork dumplings, beef and potato balls and fried eggplant. Then they served enchiladas – Bhutanese food with additions – something for everyone.
Following the dinner, there is always butter tea, made with boiled water, tea herbs and a pat of yak butter, mixed with a hand whittled egg beater. It tastes bland to us, which is a surprise, since their food is usually so spicy!
Our campsite at Labana was near water, but also next to a dry lake bed, at 13,600 feet (4,110 meters). We headed off in the morning, up hill. At this point, we were fairly acclimatized, not huffing and puffing with each step. As a result, this was a fairly easy day, even though we were still going up and down, hiking on a rocky trail. Again, the views were awesome, each pass bringing another terrific view. We passed through a herd of yaks, taking pictures of the little ones and keeping our distance.
We arrived at Phume La Pass at 13,500 feet (4,080 meters), just in time for morning tea. We hung our second set of prayer flags to send prayers over the wind to the other valleys and mountains. They were strung between two poles atop this crest where we could see the entire Thimphu Valley and the city of Thimphu. Even though it was cloudy on our high perch, we could watch the sun shine on Thimphu.
As we had tea, another group of trekkers came by, the first group we had seen during the entire trek. They were two women from Switzerland. We chatted a bit and found that they were hiking the Druk Path trek in four days (so it can be done).
They left and we continued to a rock outcropping where we had lunch. At this point, we were heading downhill towards Thimphu, to a monastery at Phajoding. Our campsite was in the vicinity of this monastery, so we took a side trip for a tour of the temple which dates back to the 13th century.
The first order of “business” after breakfast, was to gather our crew together and give them small gifts and their tips. We thanked them for an incredible experience. They had been so attentive and watchful for our health and well-being. It is always hard to say goodbye, when you have spent so much time with a group of folks in such a beautiful area. We took a group picture, gave hugs all around and headed off.
This was a short day, only about five to six kilometers. We took a gradual path along a ridge and down to the radio tower. The trail was shaded, trees dripping with Spanish moss. Near the end, on the hilltop, were thousands of prayer flags that the people of Thimphu had hoisted. It was a meaningful way to end the trek. We arrived at the trailhead and parking lot late morning and began our tours in the Thimphu area.
Friends have asked: What stands out the most about Bhutan and your trip? Our answer is four-fold.
1. The gentleness and sensitivity of the Bhutanese people. Their helpfulness, smiles, pleasant attitude. Their appreciation of whatever they do – work or play – a love of archery, javelin, darts, soccer, and other sports.
2. The beauty of the mountains (clear or cloudy), the lushness of the countryside – flowers abound. It is easy to simply stand still and soak up the scenery.
3. The educational aspects of learning about another culture, its past history, its hopes for the future. The Bhutanese are determined to preserve their traditions, while moving gradually into the modern age. Indeed, we saw evidence of the “gross national happiness” that the monarchy and the government are trying to achieve.
4. We gained a new appreciation for the Buddhist traditions and religion. Believe it or not, we never tired of visiting the temples and monasteries. Each was unique and a place for a pilgrimage and peace.
This was truly an adventure. Our advice is to visit now while the tourists are few, and the traditions are alive. Enjoy the beauty of the land and the people.
Note: You have a choice of many outfitters for a trek and cultural tours in Bhutan. We chose Adventures Within Reach and found that they provided excellent service.