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10 January 2014

Trekking the last Shangri-La

  Only recently has the door to the kingdom of Bhutan, one of the oldest and most well preserved cultures of the world, been opened to tourists. A landlocked country in the eastern Himalayas, bordering India to the south and Tibet to the north, Bhutan is a haven for people who crave real, old-fashioned adventure. […]

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Only recently has the door to the kingdom of Bhutan, one of the oldest and most well preserved cultures of the world, been opened to tourists. A landlocked country in the eastern Himalayas, bordering India to the south and Tibet to the north, Bhutan is a haven for people who crave real, old-fashioned adventure. Bid farewell to western branded clothing, wi-fi internet and blaring televisions. Embrace everyone from school children to grandparents proudly displaying the gho and kira (traditional male and female dress), the soft recitations of young monks and the sight of giant penises painted on walls and houses to protect the citizens.

Bhutan is incredibly well preserved, despite recent surges in urbanisation, and the Bhutanese are passionate about making sure that does not change. From the moment you step in and pay the daily entrance fees, you are not just putting money into the pockets of tour guides and accommodation providers, you are contributing to well-kept roads, free family planning services and national environmental initiatives. This is sustainable tourism – and the endless forested valleys, crystal clear rivers and people that never seem to stop smiling are evidence of that.

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Approximately 80% of Bhutan is still covered completely with forest and at no time is this more evident than when you have your trekking boots on. This is wilderness in the truest sense of the word; wild and untamed, with snowcapped mountains towering over the most colourful of alpine meadows and the surrounding forested hillsides in every shade of green stretching to eternity. The more than a dozen trekking routes across the land of the Thunder Dragon offer a wide range of unforgettable experiences. Whether you choose a short but stunning trek like the Juniper Trail or a challenging but extremely rewarding trek like the Snowman, the incomparable views, serene nature, wilderness and unique people you will meet will stay in your mind forever.

Bhutan is a centuries-old medieval kingdom which is enthusiastically embracing the newest global developments. It is unique not only from the perspective of natural heritage or cultural aristocracy, but from the tiny Himalayan state’s method of measuring development through Gross National Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product. Instead of concentrating solely on material growth, Bhutan looks at prosperity through the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment. The concept might sound idealistic and unattainable, but with stark global wealth inequities, financial systems teetering on the brink and environmental destruction surging ahead like never before, Bhutan’s philosophies are attracting interest across the world. The natural world is at the heart of public policy in Bhutan, which means that environmental protection, often left to an inadequately resourced government department and a handful of passionate but also often not well-financed non-government organizations, is enshrined in the constitution. The country has promised to remain carbon neutral and will keep at least 60% of its landmass under forest cover.  In 2011, the UN adopted Bhutan’s call for a holistic approach to development, and this was a move which was quickly endorsed by 68 countries.

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We flew into Bhutan’s Paro airport from Bangladesh during the Eid Qurbani vacation in mid-October. Getting tickets was the first challenge – tour operators were saying Bhutan is experiencing the most tourists it has seen so far this year, even though the country recently raised the tourist entrance fee. All the flights were full and we were waiting, bags packed and boots on, with no confirmation whether we would get on. At the very last moment, Druk Airlines, the national and only airline operating to and from Bhutan, announced an additional flight and we all breathed a sigh of relief, and piled our bags on.

It was a very short flight to Paro, the location of Bhutan’s only airport. The landing is famous because the pilots are known to kiss the runway on their way in with a sudden maneuver that gives you the feeling that the bird’s wing is actually going to touch the ground! It is a fraction of the fantasy that many of us have, of flying a fighter jet, and it is awesome!

Bhutan’s airport authority and immigration system is great. No big lines and no hassle; they have it sorted. In a matter of minutes we exited smoothly out of the green channel and we were gently ushered towards waiting transport by taxi drivers who were friendly, but not pushy – a welcome sight!

“Kothai jaben?” –called one of the drivers, in pure Bangla dialect to grab our attention. It worked straight away – “how do you know Bangla? He enthusiastically replied – “oh, we have lots of Bangladeshi tourists, from Bangladesh and from West Bengal also, so we learn a bit for our customers”. Within a few minutes we were on our way to the vibrant capital of Thimpu.

We had a look at the current temperature using the AccuWeather app – it was supposed to be ten degrees, but felt a whole lot colder! We pulled jackets on as rain poured down the taxi windows. Paro is one of the largest of Bhutan’s many valleys, with monasteries dotting its many hills and a long and rich Buddhist history.

The sun had already disappeared when we arrived at Clock Tower Square in the heart of Thimpu city. Street lamps lit the roads and, as we tumbled out of the taxi with all our bags, we gratefully used their golden glow to find a small shop to hide in from the unrelenting rain.

The next challenge was to find a nearby hotel. It was bitterly cold outside but we were feeling the heat as we struggled, in the height of the tourist season, to find a room for the night. Finally Hotel Tashi Delek gave us shelter on the fourth floor – there was just one room, and it was vacant because no one wanted to climb up five levels of stairs. We checked in, thanking the hotel for not yet investing in an elevator!

There are a number of trekking routes available in Bhutan, all with varying durations and levels of difficulty. We were going for something short but special, as it was a trek to celebrate ten years of high altitude adventuring. No matter how hard it has been or what we have had to sacrifice, we have chased this lunatic dream for ten years now, starting with Mt. Everest Base Camp ten years ago. There were just three of us  – I was joined by Rifat vai, who has also been chasing the dream with me since Everest, and Tanzuma Miti, who we had not trekked with before, but who has a rich history of globetrotting.

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We chose the Gangtey trek, a moderate three-day trek winding around some magnificent small Himalayan villages – lots to see, and not too difficult so we could spend our time really appreciating what we were seeing.

Bhutan has a unique system in place to control tourist numbers and movements. Every tourist can travel up to a certain distance from Paro but for going any further than that, travel permits are needed. They work like visas and there are check points along the road to any destination.

It continued drizzling in the morning as we headed to the tourist office – only to find it completely packed with other eager adventurers. We were worried that we would not be able to get the permit on time, but, with a bit of waiting, it was ready within a few hours. We spent the time hiring a taxi and armed ourselves with a guide, two horses and a horseman. Our friend Karma also volunteered to come along.

Travel permit in hand, we now headed to Phobjikha Valley, the starting point of the trek.

By the time we reached the valley it was dark and we appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. We were cold, wet and muddy but our guide Chiring was waiting with a big big dose of gross national happiness on his face to greet us. We stayed in a two story house which belonged to the horseman and it was our first night, enjoying vaat, dal and emdasi – the national dish of chillies and cheese by the tiny fire place. The food was delicious, but we were definitely hungry so that may have contributed to the taste!

Next morning, we woke very early in the morning and, after having s small bite, we hit the trail.

The first leg: Gangtey Gompa to Gogona

This section of the trek covers 14 km of rough, rocky terrain, eventually reaching an altitude of 3100m. Under normal circumstances it takes 5-6 hours, concentrating on showcasing the exotic wild flora of the Himalayas. We indulged in the beautiful scenery, climbing through forests of juniper, magnolia and then bamboo. This stretch was also very culturally impressive; we passed through some of the most beautiful dzongs in the country.

Second leg: Gogona to Khotokha

This section begins from the picturesque village of Gogona and leads to a climb through a forest of firs, spruce, cypress, oaks and dwarf rhododendron. This ends in Shobju La, which is a pass of altitude 3410m. From here the trail snakes down to arrive at Dolonaga which is an old woodcutter camp. There is also a clearing further down the valley called Chorten Karpo which has four Chortens to the Je Khenpos who were from this area. This is the ideal place to camp with a spectacular view of the valley.

Third leg: Khotokha to Tikke Zampa

From Khotokha, you take the well-trodden route to Tashi La. The walk takes you through a beautiful forest of magnolia and ferns, and has plenty of surprises in store for bird watchers. Continuing down, with plenty of awe-inspiring views, the trail eventually ends at Tikke Zampa, which is at an altitude of 1500m, and the end of our short trek.

After the trek, was over, we decided to see a little bit more of the country and hired a taxi to take us to Trongsa town, famous for its spectacular fort. We dumped our stuff in the car and rushed to start as it was six hours drive away.

We arrived in Trongsa close to 9pm which is already very late for Bhutan. We had another hard time finding a hotel room as there was a school program happening that evening and lot of local tourists were here for that purpose. After a bit of work, we found a small room for one night.

The Trongsa Dzong is a jewel of Buddhist medieval architecture. Its construction dates back to the year 1543 when the first temple of the dzong was erected under Lama Dupthop Nagi Wangchuk. The dzong proper was built in the 1640s, in fact the data in the sources vary between 1643, 1647 and 1648. The Trongsa Dzong, situated high on the top of an exposed hill at an altitude of 2,200m, consists of six main buildings, which are grouped around 6 court yards and extend 230 m in a north-south direction. The Dzong is the original seat of the Royal Dynasty of Wangchuk and one of the most important monastic fortresses of Bhutan. Before ascending the throne, the crown prince holds the position of Trongsa Penlop.

We wanted to see the museum as well which was situated in another historic building named Trongsa Tower. It was Sunday though, so it was officially closed – so we head back to the hotel, packed our stuff and started back for Thimpu, and back home.

Trekking in Bhutan is a great way to experience the beauty of the majestic Himalayas and meet the incredible Bhutanese people. The country dubbed as the last Shangri-La is a small place, hidden between the giants of China and India, but it is a country that many people are starting to believe has some big lessons to could teach the rest of the world.

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