Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Dragon's Back (Paro to Thimpu)

Mention Bhutan, and it will invoke certain special phrase, such as
  • Happiest Places on Earth
  • Shangri La
Bhutan, a predominantly Buddhist nation, and has a population of about 700,000 living in a state the size of Switzerland.  The country is run based on a dual system of hierarchy with a King and Chief Abbot. With the Abbot being the head of the religion and the King is like a president in a republic nation.

Thus in each city, there will be an administrative centre called the Dzong, which in time past will be a fortress.  And in this Dzong, it will house the Administration, with the chief administrator appointed by the King; and also a monastery with the abbot being appointed by the Chief Abbot.

Thus, a dzong is a common sight in Bhutan, with certain of them in ruin, and some in pristine condition, of which the most famous the Punakha Dzong, which hosted the Royal Wedding.

Bhutan located in the Himalaya, is naturally mountainous, and with moutains there will be valleys, and there major river will flow.

There are 5 major valleys in Bhutan, and of these various towns and cities sprout.  These valleys
  • Paro
  • Timphu
  • Punakha
  • Bumthang
  • Gantey
Paro being the gateway from the air; and Timphu the capital; Punakha of old was the capital, and still hold its majestic glory.  Bumthang and Gantey, names are unfamilair as we have yet to be there.

Unlike most mountains we have climbed, both Paro and Timphu are 2,000 m above sea level, with an air pressure of about 80% of sea level.  Something that most of us would experience in a plane.
That is to say that for any climb to be done, it is a good place to spend a few day to acclimatise.

And in Paro, it is a must to visit Taksang (Tiger Nest), which will grant climbers like us another opportunity to stretch those leg muscles, as well as lung for the 3,000 m.

That being the case, day 0 for us was the climb to and fro Tiger Nest, and then the real climb begin on Day 1.

With these thoughts, we ventured into Bhutan and to attempt the Druk Path, a moderate to tough climb covering 5 days. It begins at Paro Valley and will end in Thimphu Valley.  A decent distant of about 50 km, on a ridge that forms a U, where at the last camp site, one can see the first.

A decent route, not too difficult and neither easy would see us walking for 5 days, and reaching the highest point of about 4,230 m.

The trek was exciting, as we would be in the forest reserve, camping on highland lakes; with finicky weather, moment of hotness followed by sudden hail.

These pictures are records of the 5 days trek, and hope you can enjoy.
Try to make the captions in the form of poems, hopefully they make sense to you.

Day 1   Paro - Jele Dzong (3,502 m)

Starting at the museum in Paro, we started our climb.
The beginning stretch will see us passing through small village, and we were usually greeted by the cheerful and adorable children, but this being a weekday, few children were around.  As we have carried much sweets, pencils, and other goodies that we have brought, these children ended up with most of these goods. We were happy to have off-loaded these extra weights, and the children were happy to receive them.

Starting at 2,352m, it will be an arduous climb to 3,542m over a distance of 9 km.
Arduous as it is the first day of climb, and the journey is one continuous up slope over 1,200 m.
At this altitude, there is only sensation of mountain sickness in the form of headache, but there should not be anything serious for most climbers, the various symptoms of mountain sickness starts to manifest from about 4,000 m.

Towards the camp, we met various trekking groups, but from Camp 1 onward, it seems that Druk Path was only hosting us.

Having reached the highest point of the day, we descended to our campsite. which is located slightly below the Dzong at 3,507m.

A common landmark will be a small hut housing the prayer wheel, probably powered by water that flows in a nearby stream.  Something that we have also seen in Nepal during our EBC track.

Donkeys, horses and yaks - these will be the animals of choice to carry our  camping gears.  In other type of climbs, bipedal human was the choice, but over here, with more slopes than steps, these are the animals of choice over the human porters.

A cute native, free and easy.  What would strike us most will be the manner of all the children and adults alike, polite and courteous.  A sign of good upbringing!

These 4 animals - mythical and real, are deemed sacred to the Bhutanese, and are found always in quad be it on wall or flags.  The Dragon, the symbol of Bhutan, the Tiger - ferocious and majetic, the mythical snow lion and the garuda.

Walking passed these huts, with their apple orchard - flowers still in bloom, but fruits still at least a 2 months wait!

An older sister barely grown up, on her back her little charge.  So sweet to see such sibling love and devotion, that now are amissed in our own countries!

Our horses, our porters, the load they carried, and nary a complaint. For corns their wages, and the free spirit to walk and roam, these are certainly the eco and efficient ways to travel.

Granny with a toothy smile, a small boy with an equally enchanting toothless smile. What a joy to see such happy face, for theirs are all as long as their hearts are contented!

Pines - couple of species are prevalent here. And the pines grow strong and tall, but some would eventually fell prey to the nasty beetles that make them bald!

Hot and balmy we walked and walked, this is but the beginning of our trek.  Soon houses will disappear, and into the forest with great pines growing in vast arrays.  Nature and outdoor smell, these are the things that attracted us in the first place!

Pines and pines in great galore, how we wished you will grow to be tall.

Now this is humbling, we stand next to a big tall ancient tree.  Pine this is, and many years old, perhaps this pine was already there when the first King founded this Dragon Land.

Tall and straight these pine would grown, and compare with us  6 foot human, these are giants we were told.

Day 2   Jele Dzong - Jangchulakha (3,757 m)

Having reached Camp 1, we will be walking on the many ridges of this Dragon's Back.

As can be seen from the climbing profile, it will be many ups and downs. with the highest point reached for today will be 3,811 m.

A lone tracker (actually our guide), leading us to the next camp site.

And to the next camp site, we will have to pass this dzong on the right.

From here we looked at the campsite that we have spent a night, it looked so far away.

This is the monastery that this campsite was called, this is a small dzong (fortress)

There were 3 monks living in this monastery, and on this morning it was cold.  Spring may be here, but it was still nippy in the morning.

On the 2nd day of the trek, we moved away from the monastery to our next destination.

Rhodendron of many colours flourished during this time, and we would passed many such shrubs with its myriads of colourful flowers.

Rhodendron - root word means Rose!

This flower abound during this time, as to the species, unfortunately I have no clue!

Typical of the trek, pines will be the dominating plant species, towering tall and straight.

Rhodendron on both sides, multiple species of different colours.  Most common being red, but all look awesome in their own shade.

The white horse with a red plume, that is the chief horse, leading the rest of the pack to the next camp site.

Pine tree with its sap, catches fire very easily.  From the look of things, I doubt these wounds were caused by lightnings, but more on deliberate fire set upon them.  Perhaps to rid it of the nasty pine beetle, that has decimated most of the pines in this part of the forest.

Shrouded in mist, so thick it was that I got lost trying to go the toilet tank.  The headlamp that we wore, the light bounced off the fog in front, and thus I came to understand the term "White Out"

A study in Blue, 4 different mountain ridges with a heavy cloud cover!

Day 3   Jangchulakha - Jimilangtso (3,895 m)

Once again, it was up and down for the 3rd day, and this time there were more ups and downs as compared to the previous days.
Thankfully our legs have been conditioned by the previous 2 days, that though the difficulty was more, but the climbs quickly passed.

Our trusty steeds, having corns for breakfast!
Once again, up the slope to the ridge, this will be one tough climb.
There is no clear path to walk, and the undergrowth was filled with pine needles.  Ground was soft, and at the same time loose.  Thus the traction was not so good, and thus much effort spent on this first leg of the climb.

Spring is approaching, and the herdsmen have brought their stock to this place to graze. And in such profession, the dog is truly a closed and useful allies.

Gnarled through rain, wind, snow and ice, these Rhodendron branches display very unique shape.

An unknown bird called to us as we descended one of the many mini summits.

One of the many lakes or ponds that dotted our journey to Thimphu Valley.

Earlier it was a gnarled branches, and now the gnarled roots.

Our next campsite will be next to this lake.  From here, it will be many more hours before we reached this destination.

Pine tree with "Old Man Beard" Ferns

Another view of the mist shrouded lake (camp site)

Getting nearer, but still a long walk away!

We passed this ruin - an old monastery or dzong.  Too broken down to know its original design.  Perhaps a simple abode for the herders.

When we reached our camp site, the tents were already pitched and it hails started to fall.

And soon our camp site was covered with ice (not snow)!

Day 4   Jimilangtso - Taban Campsite (4,144 m)

Some of our members were already feeling the dreaded mountain sickness symptoms - no appetite  fatigue, and coldness to the body.  Having discussed with our guide, we decided to go for lower ground, and hopefully this strategy will revive the oxygen deprived souls!

On this day, we would circumvent the lake, and from there we were able to see the beautiful reflection of the mountain, and we were not up there, one might have easily mistaken for some low attitude location.

Next day, the sun shone through, and we were presented with this glorious scene, river flowing in the valley amidst high mountains.

This stream and the lake boasts plenty of trouts.  This is a juvenile that was caught by bare hand, as it hid among the rocks.

Purportedly to be the track of a fox!

From snow to "no snow", on this 4th day, the terrain changed.

Looking like the head of an eagle, an outcrop gave us the avenue to take a good perspective shot of the height that we have traversed.

Snow, Ice, Rocks - the Druk Path is an exciting track.

Day 5   Taban - Timphu Valley (2,826 m)

Though this was the final part of the Druk Trek, and descending to the Timphu Valley, however we would pass the highest point of our trek at 4,230 m.

Like all descend that we have done, the body having acclimatised to the high altitude will now be flooded with much oxygen, that we did not feel fatigue in our downward climb.
In fact, we were literally "flying" down the slope.

The team that helped us in making our track successful.

Was hoping for Bhutan national bird (the Raven), but alas I have to settle for these crows.

Final day - and we are happy that the adventure is coming to an end.

We are now at the highest point of our climb 4,230 m.

A pheasant like bird!

Another species of the Rhododendron - this one is purplish pink in colour.

Man at work (monk) - adding a new building to this hill side.

A rubbish dump - a small land fill but it would be good if it is emptied more regularly than to be over filled, and with gust of winds the rubbish ended up everywhere.
Unfortunately, the trail is filled with rubbish, either blown by the wind from the dump, or carelessly littered by trackers and locals alike!

Each of this plank easily weight 20 kg, and he was carrying 3 of them!  Wow ...

At the end of our track, we saw this sign, somehow no one pays any heed to it!

Thus at the end of this journey, the brief 9 days exposure to Bhutan and the Bhutanese.  Are they truly happy?
My verdict, those days when life was simple; when there was no comparison with the neighbours; when distraction does not come in the form of internet and commercial advertisement; when people were contented - yes Bhutan was a happy place.
However, by evidence of centre for troubled youth, such will be the problem with affluence and if not moderate carefully, Bhutan may join the dubious rank of other nations, having to deal with the toll of what modernisation can bring!