Monday, June 10, 2013

Laya Trek with Thimphu Tshechu


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Laya Trek with the spectacular Thimphu Tshechu
A wonderful trek, crossing the Shinge La Pass (4,900m), and meeting the charming local Laya people, with their conical hats. Enjoy a soothing time in the Hot Spring right after the trek. Time with the Thimphu Tshechu (13-16Sep). Otherwise, this trek is suitable for May, and October as well.
Max height - 4,900m
Demanding Trek that requires a good level of fitness! Rewarding experience.

Day 1 Arrive PARO

Arrive Paro by flight. If you fly from Kathmandu to Bhutan, you will be rewarded with one of the most spectacular mountain scenery. From the left side of the plane, Everest, Makalu, Kangchenjunga, three of the world’s highest mountains, are clearly visible. Once you arrive in the Paro Valley, enjoy the splendid views of alpine forests, small monasteries, temples and farmhouses. In Paro, you will find a single road lined with willows, clear mountain streams, and families working in the roadside fields and one of Bhutan’s most impressive Dzongs (fortress monasteries) creates a memorable first impression. Once you touch down at the Paro airport, we will take an hour drive to the capital, Thimphu. (L/D)


Day 2 THIMPHU (Festival 13th-16th September 2013)

Today, you will visit the great Tashichoedzong Palace, which houses the offices of the King and the summer residence of the Je Khenpo, the spiritual head of Bhutan. If those who arrive in Thimphu from the 13th to the 16th of September, you will get to witness the spectacular Thimphu Festival. There are a large number of different dances, subdivided into three categories: those that are designed to drive away evil spirits and those that celebrate the Buddhist faith in its many guises. To be able to join in this annual festival is indeed a most enthralling experience for all. On the weekend, you will be able to visit the local market.  Have a visit to the Traditional School of Arts to see the locals learning the traditional skills of making masks, carving, painting and etc.



After breakfast, drive to Paro to the end of the road at Drugyel Dzong (2,530m). If the weather is clear, we could see the distant Chomolhari (7,314m), three days’ walk away. Before setting off on trek, it is worth visiting the old fort, which protected the Paro Valley from Tibetan invasions from the north. Unfortunately, only the outer walls remain, as it was gutted by fire in 1651. Soon, we will start our trek, by following the river for about 3 hours, stopping for lunch by a bridge across the river, next to a chorten. Later, we enter a magnificent rainforest of more open pine forests as we gain height. There are small hamlets on the way, their houses magnificently built in traditional Bhutanese design. Arriving in Shana and passing through the army camp at the entrance of the village, you will see a noticeable change in the style of the houses. The three storey buildings of the lower valley are replaced by single storey houses which retain the traditional system of roof structure, where overlapping coarse planks are held in place by large stones. To reach our camp=site, we cross a cantilever bridge and follow the opposite river bank for 30 minutes. Altitude 2860 m. (B/L/D)


DAY 4 TREK to Soi Thangka

Today is a longer walk, and we start 7 30 am. We continue along the river through a magnificent forest of pine and spruce, mixed with oak, birch, and maple. The autumn colours of the leaves contrasts with the Pale Spanish moss (old man’s beard) festoons many of the trees. We take lunch by the first bridge which crosses the river and follow the right bank for a further two hours to a junction of two valleys, marked by a large chorten. We turn north toward Chomolhari, which is visible at the head of the valley. Our camp at Soi Thangka is only a half an hour’s walk away, beside a purpose-built lodge. These lodges, often in idyllic locations, consist of a simple kitchen and an eating sites in this manner, the Bhutanese Tourism Authority (BTA) manages to keep disturbance of the local environment to  a minimum. (B/L/D)

DAY 5 TREK to Jangothang

Today, we trek to Jangothang, a beautiful grassy meadow beneath the enormous east face of Chomolhari. We pass a small army post at 3600 m and a chorten a little higher and then, leaving the forest behind, we enter more open country and encounter our first yaks. Our way continues through lovely juniper forest, to a tiny hamlet where we take a cooked lunch. As is the case with every meal in Bhutan, chilies are also provided, and we may be able to try the local thomba (beer made from barley), tsampa (roasted flour) or even Tibetan butter tea. Our camp is a little further on, by a ruined dzong (4,040m) beneath the huge east face of Chomolhari. (B/L/D)


Today is a scheduled rest day, intended to aid everyone’s acclimatization before the crossing of the Nyele La to Lingshi. There are plenty of options for a walk, and one possibility is a hike up the ridge behind the ruined dzong to a grassy summit at approximately 5000m, from where there is an incredible close-up view of Chomolhari. Alternatively, a 2 –hour hike to a lake above camp provides a stunning location for photographs of Jutchu Drake. Green grass grazing yaks, stunning mountain scenery  - it doesn’t come much better than this. For a spectacular view of Jitchu Drake close to camp (even better at sunrise if you can get up sufficiently early), follow the river for 20minutes to a lone house and here the mountain is presented before you. No matter what you choose to do today, the cooks will have had all day to prepare dinner and a veritable banquet will be waiting at the end of the day. (B/L/D)


One of the longest days of the trek, as we climb to cross the Nyele La to reach Lingshi. We follow the river for a while, crossing on a bridge close to the house at the end of the Valley where Michael Palin met with the Bhutanese composer during the filming of his Himalaya series.  Climbing steeply at first, this path offers views toward Chomolhari and Jitchu Drake which are some of the finest in the trip. We are now along a broad hanging valley to the final steep slopes adorned with prayer flags. From the pass we descend, steeply at first, to follow a long ridge before finally dropping through forests of rhododendron and pine to our camp beside the river. (B/L/D)


Today a shorter day, yet one of the most fascinating. After our breakfast, we climb up to Lingshi Dzong. If the monks allow, we will arrange a guided tour. Please remember to leave a donation on the way out, as the cost of maintaining these old buildings is high. From the dzong, a delighthful path contours the hillside, passing numerous farms. There are good views across the valley to the Basingthang Peaks and we have plenty of time to sit and watch the kestrels (almost identical to the European variety) ‘wind hovering’ above the ridges. After a couple of hours, the path turns a corner and there is a fine view of Tserim Kang, before we descend to Gang Yul (meaning ‘village of the pass’). Set beneath enormous limestone cliffs and dwarfed by the enormous east face of Jitchu Drake, Gang Yul’s situation is one of the most impressive in Bhutan. Home to about 150 people, living in a dozen or so beautifully designed house, this village offers endless photo opportunit8es and it is worth spending some time here – you may even be lucky enough to be invited into a house to try chang and roasted rice. Leaving the village, the path continues along the hillside for another hour to Chebisa, only a few hours from Tibet. Try climbing the hill by the side of the entrance chorten for an even better view of this fairytale setting. There are two parts to the village, with the upper section seeming to be the oldest, consisting of four houses. The architecture in this valley is particularly interesting, with traditional windows, wooden slatted roofs, an assortment of intricately carved ladders, and an ingenious system of insulation which involved packing the roof-spaces with straw and wood. Altitude at Chebisa – 3850m. (B/L/D)


From Chebisa, the path gradually climbs steep slopes high above the river to Gobu La at 4405m. Although climbing for most of the morning, this is a lovely walk and there are some excellent views. In this part of Bhutan, bharal (blue sheep) are very commonly sighted. Resting on the pass, watching the eagles soar by is very memorable and it is difficult to leave such a picturesque spot. We take a short walk down through the rhododendron forest to our lunch spot by a stream. In the afternoon, we walk through forest of silver fir, and juniper. Descending to the main river (Shagipasa), the scenery offers some of the finest scenery in Bhutan. From the river, the path contours across the hillside and then climb steeply into a side valley, where we set up camp at a site known as Somothang (3,985m). (B/L/D)



Start early today for the climb up to Jhari La (4720m). The views from the pass are stunning, especially the view of kang CHe Da (7000m). Then proceed to Shinge La, the lowest point of the horizon opposite, which presents daunting prospect, high above the valley. As we descend through more glorious pine forest into Tsharithang, we keep a look out for Takin (small deer) which are quite common in this part of Bhutan. The scenery on this day‘s walk is absolutely breathtaking – it inspired Victor Saunders, one of Britain’s most travelled climbers, to comment that this was the best walking he’d ever done! Next, we cross a river and camp in a very scenic location just half an hour’s walk up the hillside, at a place known as Robluthang. (4200m). (B/L/D)


Today, we take a yak trail, to a beautiful hanging valley and soon take the left side of the valley to Shinge La (4900m), the highest point of the trek. The final climb is strenuous. You will see prayer flags fluttering in the wind, and this marks the boundary of the Laya District. Then, we descend a path into the centre of the valley, to a clearing by a huge rock. Continue the descent and you will see a bank of moraine, which is holding back a very picturesque lake. The backdrop to this beautiful valley is Kang Che Da, the Great Tiger Mountain. We camp at Limithang. (4050m). (B/L/D)


Today, is a beautiful walk, but comes with many ups and downs. We cross  a bridge and follow the left bank of the river on an undulating trail through more forest of spruce and juniper. As we descend, we start to see Spanish moss once again hanging from the trees.The path then gradually climbs above the river and soon we see the first houses on the outskirts of Laya (3750m). The people of this fascinating village are very friendly and they present a most unusual and striking picture, with their pointed hats, hair covered in mustard oil and highly decorative jelwellery. We have the afternoon free to look around Laya or to visit a hillside monastery. Then we camp overnight on one of the village fields. (B/L/D)


From Laya, we descend to the Mo Chu to begin our 3-hour walk-out to Punakha. The main path from the village descends to the lowest house, passes through a large entrance chorten and drops down to the river. During the monsoon, from June to August, this valley receives a great deal of rainfall and as a result the jungle is particularly lush and impressive. We pass through an army camp and continue on a trail alongside the Mo Chu (Mother River). Finally, we make a long and gradual uphill trek from the BTC hut at Kuona to our camping site known as Chamsa (3700m) in the forest about an hour below the Bale La. (B/L/D)


A relatively short day, with only an hour’s gradual climb to the Bale La (3800m) which marks the high point of the trek to Gasa. As the mist rises in the late afternoon, it transforms the cliffs and forests of the valley into the appearance of mysterious Chinese wall hangings. Huge banana plants, bamboo and an array of exotic plant life make this part of the trek a botanist’s paradise. We have lunch near GHasa Dozng, which used to control the routes to the religious areas of Lunana and Laya. Its position, high above the Mo Chu, dominates the whole area and if the monks are amenable we will get the chance to look inside this wonderful building. After lunch, we walk for an hour to camp at Gasa Tsachu (hot spring). This is a famous pilgrim site and many people come from all over Bhutan to bathe in these springs. There is a choice of four or five spring-fed pools, and after our long trek it is simply delightful to bathe, drink a few beers and just relax. (2200,) (B/L/D)


After an early start, we continue alongside the Mo Chu for 4 hours to Damji. Once again, although we are heading down the valley there is still some climbing to do to negotiate a major ridge, but after this half-hour ascent the contouring trail is a delight. As the valley becomes more popularted we begin to encounter rice fields, scattered little hamlets and villagers about their work. From Damji, it is a very pleasant 2-hour walk to meet the word which is slowly pushing its way up the Mo Chu Valley and which one day reach Gasa Springs. After lunch, we board our transport and follow the river down to Punakha (1350m), the winter capital of Bhutan for more than 300 years. Punakha Dzong lies at the junction of the Mo (Mother) Chu and Po (father) Chu and , in winter, is home to over 1000monks. After a brief visit to the Dzong we drive to Thimphu on Bhutan’s remarkable east-west highway, which winds its way up to Dorchu La (3050m). The pass is marked by many prayer flags and a large chorten. The road winds its way down from the pass, passing through HOngsto, an ancient village founded in 1525 by the 14th Drukpa hierarchy of Tibet, to arrive at the relatively modern capital of Thimphu.  Overnight in the hotel. (B/L/D)


After breakfast, we return to Paro and make the hike up to Taktsang Monastery. The Taktsang or ‘Tiger’s Nest’ monastery has a most stunning location, perched improbably on a ledge of a cliff high above the Valley. The monastery was partly destroyed by a fire in 1998 but thanks in part to international aid, is now completely restored to its former magnificence. To reach the monastery involves a return trek of around 4 hours. About half way up, there is a classic viewpoint for Takstang, looking across the gorge to the monastic buildings which clinging, seemingly impossibly, to the cliff wall opposite. There is a small cafĂ© located at this viewpoint and this makes a great rest stop. Overnight in the hotel, and enjoy a great Bhutanese cuisine. (B/L/D)


We transfer to the Paro Airport to catch the flight for your onward destination.
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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dancing with the Snowman by Kevin Grange

Kevin Grange
(From  Tashi Delek , In-flight magazine of DrukAir)

Sometimes the best way to deal with Bhutan’s daunting Snowman Trek is to start dancing.
Bhutan’s epic 216 mile trek – Snowman Trek – which crosses eleven towering passes – is like a 24-day boxing match for the hiking boots. Yet for all the blisters, sweat and tears, countless moments of supreme beauty and grace await. Trying to capture Bhutan’s beauty in words for my travel memoir, Beneath Blossom Rain, was difficult, but trying to catch the beautiful spirit of its people proved to be the bigger challenge. After all, the height of the mountains can be measured by how can you convey the exquisite joy of a nation that governs by Gross National Happiness?
 Certainly, nothing beats a visit to the Dragon Kingdom but there was one special moment from my trek that revealed the magic of this tiny country. The event took place on the 10th day of the Snowman Trek. My trekking party – a small group of travelers from all over the world – and I had hiked 94 miles and had reached the remote village of Laya. We’d spent the afternoon threshing wheat with the locals, visiting the temple and getting our cameras ready for the cultural dance that was planned for that evening. I also happened to have met a ruddy-cheeked , 12-year-old girl named Tshokyi. When I first saw her outside the while stone schoolhouse she was chewing on a big wad of bubble gum and wearing sweat pants and the playground dirt of any child her age. However, when I encountered her again that evening, a miraculous change had taken place.
… When I saw Tshokyi for the second time, I barely recognized her. I was on my way to dinner when she appeared. Her face glowed with a fresh washing, her hair was pulled back, and she now wore the traditional skirt, sweater, and conical hat of the Laya women. She beamed like a little flower girl at a wedding, but when she swept past me, she immediately ducked her head shyly, and I pretended not to notice her. Like a young actress in costume, I knew I was not supposed to see her before the show. Still after she passed, I had to turn and steal a glance because she could’ve been the cutest sight I had ever seen, Gone was the little girl covered in playground dirt and in her place, had awoken a sweet little Cinderella, and her blue sandals sparkled like princess slippers. As Tshokyi hurried up the hill, I had the feeling that tonight would be her first dance with the adult ladies of Laya – tonight would be her welcome to womanhood. The night got off to a great start after dinner when Ryan bound up the wood ladder, carrying a big box full of Hit beer,.
“Aw, how d’ya do it, Ryan?” cried Rob.
As Ryan handed out the beers, I realized that like a great host, he was more interested in others having a good time than himself. Ryan didn’t necessarily like to party in the big drinking sense, he just liked to have a good time and was always serving himself last.
Once we all had drinks, Peter raised his glass. “To our rest day tomorrow!”
After we toasted, Paul threw out the idea of making dinner for the kitchen staff tomorrow. “Let’s give the boys the night off and whip up something special ourselves.
“What do you say, lads?”

“Are there any microwaves in Laya?” I mused.
Needless to say, everyone quickly volunteered. After that, it was just like old times – eating, drinking, laughing, and telling stories. Night slowly descended in dark hushes, and from outside, we heard the crackling laugh of campfire logs and relished the oaky incense of camp smoke.
20 minutes later, Sangey scuttled up the steps and peeked his head in the door. “The women are ready.”
We filed down the steps one at a time, mindful not to spill our beer, and came upon a sacred scene no doubt repeated throughout the ages: 10 Bhutanese women, all wearing full traditional Laya dress, stood in a circle around the fire. Tshokyi waited in line with the women, still chewing her blessed bubble gum. Then like theater ushers of Radio City, Sonam and Sangey escorted us to our appointed seats. When we were all seated, they made the rounds like wine stewards, refilling our cups with generous pours of Hit. The night was cold, but the fire and the gusting wind combined to throw off great waves of heat.
When the cultural show started, the women started singing, clapping, marching, and spinning in circles methodically and joyously. Watching them, I had the sense they’d be dancing exactly the same way for one spectator as they would for one hundred. While they were dancing before us, they weren’t dancing for us – they were dancing for something else, something higher. As my eyes fell on little Tshokyi, I realized something timeless and true was happening before my eyes. I could tell by her beaming face and hesitant dance steps that this was, indeed, her first dance with the adult women.
The dance looked simple but it was actually quite complex = requiring all kinds of twists and turns and claps. Naturally, Tshokyi got a few steps wrong. Yet when she turned the wrong direction, the woman in front of her with graying hear gently encouraged her in the other direction. And moments later, when she forgot to step forward, the woman with long black hair directly behind her, gently encouraged her ahead. As I looked at the three women in procession, it dawned on me the woman in front of her was her grandmother and the woman behind her was her mother and I was watching three generations, dancing and singing under the stars. Yes indeed, that night, Tshokyi would be initiated into womanhood the way her mother was and her before her. Watching Tshokyi’s beaming smile, it was all right there – I saw the young lady that she was, the woman she would become, and thanks to the big wad of chewing gum, the little girl she was leaving behind.
When Tshokyi danced past, I clapped enthusiastically and nodded. She didn’t respond, for already the importance of this sacred rite had filled her gentle little soul. She had no time to smile for there was more important work to be done. She had to sing. She had to dance and clap. She had to pray.
The night rolled on, my cup was refilled, the fire grew higher and by the time Norbu suggested we join the dancing, we all immediately rushed forth – Kira, Bob, Ryan, Tom, Larry, Paul, Joe, and me, all following Peter’s lead. Moments later, Achula, Sonam, Sangey, and the horsemen joined in, and in no time the rest of the village was also dancing even the stray dogs paraded around the circle, yipping and barking with excitement.
There was something intangibly magical about the night, something infinitely hopeful that bypassed my head and spread its scented petals of promise into my heart. All I can say is circling around that fire with joyous representatives from five different countries – Bhutan, England, Canada, Australia, and the United States – made me feel lucky to be alive and filled with such infinite hope that no matter any cynic said about wars and humanity going to hell, I know our world would be all right.
My critical mind told me it was just the beer talking, but I didn’t believe it.
People were still singing and dancing at midnight when I crawled into my sleeping bag. That night was amazing, but already I couldn’t wait until the next day, a rest day, and the chance to do laundry, soak in a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath, and of course, I no longer found falling asleep difficult. No longer did I fear the sound of horse hooves stepping precariously close to my head, the harness bells and night wind lulled me to slumber, and my sleeping pad now felt like a king-sized mattress. In fact, I could hardly remember my bed back home and the person who once slept there seemed like a stranger.
While the fire coals have long since cooled, my feelings from that evening still burn bright. Thinking back, I’m reminded of a Buddhist priest who once said, “We don’t have an ideology. We don’t have a theology. We dance.” I think the inspired message of that night is that the best experiences in life cant be captured. Instead, we should simply circle around them, singing and dancing joyously, before offering them up and letting them go, like heaven-sent embers from some inextinguishable fire, like that one special night in the beautiful village of Laya.


-          Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World