BHUTAN and INDIA … the Jomolhari Trek
Ever since the epic walk into Lo Manthang in Nepal in 2006, I had been hearing from other travelers about Bhutan. A small kingdom sandwiched among Tibet, Nepal, and India .. a bit mysterious, totally Himalayan, and totally Buddhist. So I purchased maps and began to put a trip together. The Jomolhari Trek is the second-longest trip one can do in the Himalaya, the longest being also in Bhutan and requiring several weeks. Not practical. Several friends expressed interest, and ultimately there were five of us. We put our adventure in the very narrow window of time between the Monsoons and the winter storms.
One friend of many decades suggested that she and I go to India for a couple weeks prior to Bhutan, in her words, ‘In order to rest up for the trek’. Ha. Be forewarned … No one goes to India to rest up for anything. It’s an amazingly fascinating country of extremes. Our biggest problem was me, and my tendency to pack as much as possible into the available time. Not a good idea in a place where getting around is so incredibly stressful. We met early in the morning in the Delhi airport, and by that evening we had driven to Agra and toured the Taj Mahal. Next day on to Jaipur, a city I had read much about and looked forward to experiencing. Flight snafus forced us on, earlier than desired, to the state of Sikkim and the area around Darjeeling, where we immersed ourselves in tea culture and Buddhist rituals. We managed a couple of long hikes, and must have visited five or six monasteries. Driving on the steep mountain roads of Sikkim was exhausting, even as a passenger.
Reflecting later on the vehicular mayhem we experienced in the cities of India, I realized that, horn honking notwithstanding, I did not observe even one angry gesture directed from one person to another. Not even one. The more I thought about that, even now several years later, the more remarkable it seems. Some months after the trip, while on the phone for technical assistance with a young woman probably in Bangalore, I shared this observation with her, and how much different my neighbors behave when annoyed by other drivers. Her responses were memorable. First she said, "Well, just know that we are feeling it on the inside !" Then, in a more serious vein, "There are just so many of us. We know that we cannot act out." Such wisdom.
Our flight into Paro was delayed almost one full day, due to the Royal wedding that was taking place as we were beginning our Bhutan adventure. What a beautiful flight it was, though. A dozen majestic Himalayan peaks out for our viewing pleasure, and most of an entire 737 cabin all to ourselves. The final approach into Paro airport is a bit harrowing, totally VFR hands on ! Late during the process with gear down and flaps down, you look out the right side of the aircraft at the runway parallel to our path, but about ¼ mile over there ! Hard right turn, hard left turn around terrain, and touch down. My companion was a recently retired 767 captain, so she was particularly amused by this epic approach. Anyhow, the quiet of Paro and the clean air was striking for us. Next day, a long beautiful hike up to the Tigers’ Nest Monastery. It’s roughly a 3000’ climb, worth every step. This complex of six temples was built in the 16th century, perched on the edge of a cliff. What we saw inside, where photographs were not allowed, was beautiful almost beyond description.
First day of our trek was about 9 miles up the Paro River, to about 9500’. Lush and gorgeous, easy walking. Reminded me very much of the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. Day 2 a much tougher 16 miles up to about 11,500’. Golden Tamarack trees and frequent river crossings were the memorable visions of the day. I am suffering from bronchitis, and having frequent coughing fits. One of our group turns back due to sickness, another is suffering from food poisoning and blisters. It’s all part of the wilderness experience ! At one point, we are ahead of the guide and do a zig when a zag was required, and end up halfway to Tibet. Day 3 up to Jangothang, an 8 mile walk up to 13,000’.
We encountered many families of yak herders, and got a clear sense of being above timberline. In camp, a clear view of Jomolhari … a gorgeous glacier-covered pyramid. Yaks had free reign of our camp, and several snorted their way among our tents overnight. Three of us climbed up to Ngila La on Day 4, a 16,000’ pass that we would normally have negotiated but for swollen rivers and washed out bridges. We encountered a huge herd of Blue Sheep, quite a treat. There were easily 200 of them, crossing the route in front of us. These are the animals that George Walker, famous biologist, was studying on the trip described in Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard. Very cold night, heavy sheet of ice on the tent in the morning. Up to Bongte La today, about 16,100’.
Third major pass in three days, some of us are getting a bit worn around the edges. Today’s was Takhung La, roughly 15k. Air is cold, windy, and frequent rain. Next day descent into the pines and junipers. Last day long and easy, but for the steady rain. There was over a foot of snow dropped on base camp, and we encountered many people heading up. Theirs was going to be a long, wet, cold trek. We get to spend tonight in a warm hotel in the capital city, Timphu.
My impressions of Bhutan and its people were very positive. On our trek we did not pass through villages, so there was little contact with people in the countryside, beyond an occasional family of yak herders. That was a major contrast, and a bit of a disappointment for me, vis-a-vis our trek in Nepal in '06 where we slept in a village's livestock corral every night, and spent evenings visiting with our hosts. When we asked how Gross National Happiness affects the lives of the Bhutanese people, usually the response was, 'Nothing is really different for us ordinary folks.'