Druk Path Trek in Bhutan

Druk Path Trek in Bhutan

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: May 11, 2007
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Spring

Where is Bhutan? What is Bhutan?

“Uh…Bhutan…where’s that?” This was a common reaction of people when we said we were going trekking in Bhutan. Many people have not heard of it and have no idea of its location in the Himalayas (north of India, south of Tibet). However, a week before we left for our trip, NBC’s Today Show aired Matt Lauer live from Bhutan. Then the reaction of people was: “Oh…we saw Matt Lauer’s piece on Bhutan! It looks like a beautiful country!”

In spite of the Today Show’s “promo” extolling its unique beauty, we were still awed and inspired by the country, it’s mountains and valleys, and most of all, it’s people.

Bhutan is, indeed, a land of contrasts:
….a culture steeped in Buddhism....and a government looking toward the western modern world;
….people everywhere using cell phones....but there are no ATMs;
….wine and liquor are allowed, but no cigarettes can be purchased (if you smoke, you pay a fine);
….autos and trucks zip up and down winding roads and cows and mules walk the roadway, but those roads are single lane and full of pot-holes.

Other memorable features 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, monasteries, sturdy dzongs and stupas on hilltops and in villages.

We fell in love with Bhutan. Truly the best way to experience this country is with a combination of trekking and cultural tours. In our opinion, 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.

Cultural tours are a must, particularly in Paro (Tiger’s Nest, for example), Thimphu (arts and crafts schools, textiles and folk heritage museums, dance theatre, the zoo for takins), Punakha (the Dzong and river rafting), and the Phobjikha Valley (black-necked cranes).

Getting to Bhutan and Getting Oriented

The focus of this trip report is on the 6-day Druk Path trek. Our “group” was two: Sandy and Barbara. We flew from LAX in the U.S., to Paro, Bhutan, via Taipei and Bangkok. If flying from Europe and other points west, you would arrive via India, or possibly Kathmandu. Wherever the home starting point, if you fly to get there, you will arrive in Paro, with a new terminal in the traditional Bhutanese architectural style. It’s the only airport in the country.

For all tours and treks, there are bi-lingual guides to help along the way, and get you to where you want to be. Although the native language is Dzongkha, English is spoken by many people, especially in the cities. It is taught in schools.

Paro Dzong

Our guide, Karma, met us as we exited the Paro terminal and greeted us warmly with a white silk welcome scarf (a tradition for greeting people to the country). We met our driver, who also was named Karma. We began the “immersion” experience right away by visiting the National Museum, high on a hill above Paro. This was the best “Intro to Bhutan 101” experience, after which we were ready for our first Dzong (fortress), the Paro Dzong, now a government administrative building and a monastery.

This day held our first experience observing young monks in temples, learning and saying their prayers. The humming and chanting was mesmerizing. With our guide’s explanation of the shrines, statues and artifacts, we gained an appreciation of the Buddhist religion. The ornate architecture of the buildings was amazing. It it notable that pictures cannot be taken inside temples and other holy places. We respected this, of course...with the result that we have no pictures of the statues and religious artifacts!

Young monks at prayer

Prayer flags are flying in the breeze...wherever someone has wanted to put them. We went to a small shop in town to buy two strings of prayer flags to hang enroute on our trek. Later, we stopped at a field to watch a group of men play archery, the national pastime. They were competing with modern bows, but during special events, they use traditional hand-made bows.

The next day, we headed out early to climb up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This was a good warm up hike for our trek. The altitude of Paro is about 7500 feet (2280 m) and the monastery is at 10,400 feet (3140 m), so this is not an easy saunter (though monks walking up, passing us, made it seem so)! It is up a trail...then a bit of down stairs...and a final up stairs to get to the monastery. Most interesting!

Let's Start Trekking!

The two most popular treks in Bhutan are the Druk Path and the Jhomolhari (or Cholmolhari). The first is 4 days, and the second is 8 or 9 days. We took the Druk Path trek, but because a couple of the days are 20 km each, we split each of those into two days and did the trek in 6 days. This makes for a very pleasant hiking experience...two additional, beautiful campsites...and time to play!

Day 1:
We were picked up at the hotel by Karma (and Karma, the driver) and taken to the trailhead at the National Museum. This is the start for the Druk Path that, for centuries, 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 have 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 6 mules and 1 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 have only our day packs...weighed down with cameras! The mules and horse, with very heavy gear passed us, enroute to the next campsite.

The  crew  carrying gear!

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 our hot lunch.

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 sit on pine boughs around a fire that keeps the place warm. After pictures of the children (we show them the picture on our digital camera) we bid them good bye. This procedure will be 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 VERY tired from the climbing and hiking that day! Our camp is in a meadow below Jili Dzong at approximately 11,500 feet (3480 m).

Campsite at Jili Dzong

Days 2 and 3 - More yaks and yak herders

Day 2:
Today was supposed to be easier hiking. 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 7-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 (3770 m).

Yak herders camp

All of our meals were superb, but tonight was particularly unique. After chicken soup, we were served spaghetti and sauce, hand made meat dumplings filled with a mixture of beef, onions, garlic and ginger. AND, we then had mushroom pizza (also hand made)! Quite tasty. We tried not to eat too much but it was so good! For dessert, the chef, Dan, served apple pie, which he had made and baked Dutch oven style.

Day 3:
Today’s 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 all the men tossing javelins at a target! A yak herder’s boy had several hand made javelin sticks and a dart. Karma even tried throwing Sandy’s trekking poles....they stuck in the ground but never reached the target.

We asked if we could have lunch there in the tent and they were pleased to have us. It was cold and had started to rain. Since we couldn’t finish our lunch, we gave our left over 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!

Yak herder making cheese

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 (3870 m).

Yak mama and calf

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!

Yak herders family

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.

Days 4, 5 and 6 - Beautiful Country!

Day 4:
This morning was a beautiful sunny day with a few puffy clouds in the sky. We ate breakfast outside (the usual procedure for our group), watched by the children of the yak herder (sitting on chairs at a table, eating eggs and sausage, is pretty bizarre 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.

Rocky trail

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.

All throughout the trek, we have been seeing beautiful flowers. Rhododendrons of many colors are in bloom. Other wildflowers, growing in profusion, are a pleasant sight and provide a good opportunity for a photo stop! Karma often stopped to tell us about the flowers and herbs and was most informative about medicinal plants. Did we see the illusive blue poppy? 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, gorgeous views. Each high point brought new sights and a continuation of the trail. Enroute, the hillsides are covered with rhododendrons. At this high altitude, these are not in bloom until mid-June. Finally, we made a climb to the last and highest pass (of the day) at almost 14,000 feet (4210 m) and 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 have been having typical Bhutanese dishes...without the chilis. (The absence of chilis was our request--they will add them for anyone who wishes to have them!) The crew have the same thing, but jazz it up with chilis...very spicy hot chilis! Tonight’s fare was pork dumplings, beef and potato balls and fried egg plant. Then they served enchiladas. 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!

Day 5:
Our campsite at Labana is near some water, but also next to a dry lake bed. It is at 13,600 feet (4110 m). We head off in the morning, up hill. At this point, we are fairly acclimatized and are 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 a herd of yaks, taking pictures of the little ones...and keeping our distance!

We arrived at Phume La Pass at 13,500 feet (4080 m), 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 see the sun shine on Thimphu!

As we had tea, another group of trekkers came bight 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 4 days (so it can be done!)

Overlooking Thimphu

They left and we continued to a rock outcropping where we had lunch. At this point, we are heading downhill towards Thimphu, to a monastery at Phajoding. Our campsite is in the vicinity of this monastery, so we take a side trip for a tour of the temple there. This dates back to the 13th Century.

Day 6:
The first order of “business” today after breakfast, was to gather our crew together and give them small gifts and their tips. We thanked them for an incredible adventure! 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 is a short day, only about 5 to 6 km. Most trekkers continue down the mountain to the youth center at Motithang in Thimphu. We took a more gradual path along a ridge and down to the radio tower. This trail was shaded, with trees dripping with Spanish moss. Near the end, on the hilltop, are thousands of prayer flags. It was a meaningful way to end the trek.

Last day arrival in Thimphu

We arrived at the trailhead and parking lot late morning and immediately began our tours in the Thimphu area. This will be described in future newsletters. Yes, we did make it back to the hotel for showers...and then headed out again to see the sights with the guidance of Karma. Thus ended our trek, and our cultural experiences continued!

What Stands Out The Most?

Friends have asked: What stands out the most? Our answer is four-fold:

Children greet us everywhere!

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, it’s past history, it’s 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 the temples and monasteries...each was unique and a place for pilgrimage.

This was truly an adventure! Travel to Bhutan can be “within reach” for most people (save up your pennies!) and should be on everyone’s life goal list! My advice is to visit now, while the tourists are few, and the traditions are so very alive!

Let me know if you want more information! There are many travel companies and outfitters for Bhutan, and you will want to check with several. We found that Adventures Within Reach, based in Boulder, Colorado, in company with their local Bhutan outfitter, provided a high quality, high value-for-the-money experience. We were very pleased with their attentive service.
o www.adventureswithinreach.com

The view from the top


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