June 7, 2017 The lure to travel to and experience Bhutan began more than 20 years ago when its relative isolation lent it an “other-worldly Last Shangri-la” sheen. Over the years, the call became even more pronounced as Druk Yul (a.k.a the Land of the ThunderDragon) adopted the seemingly abstract vision of measuring Gross DomesticHappiness versus Gross Domestic Product to gauge its economic development and the quality of life of its people. More recently, Bhutan’s Constitution which mandates that it maintain no less than 60% forest cover, makes it a carbon negative country. At present, Bhutan’s forest cover which approximates 72% has added to its allure. These and the quiet gentleness of the country and its people pulled at my heartstrings.
Three themes/activities shaped my travel plans. First, I wanted to see and experience two or more spring Tsechus/religious festivals. Second, a 6-8 day trek that would skirt aglacial lake and a high pass or two was on tap. Lastly, a more immersive and interactive cultural journey in the countryside would cap my 26-day sojourn inBhutan.
Getting these plans in place was a challenge. No international tour or adventure operator was able to easily put together an itinerary that met my expectations and/or requirements. The reason being, international tour operators are required to use or work with Bhutanese tour operators when arranging tours within Bhutan making international operators largely dependent on local operators. Hence, while trolling the Internet and looking for alternatives, I chanced upon Wind HorseTours, Treks and Expeditions (https://www.windhorsetours.com/), a Bhutanese tour operator whose head office is in Minneapolis, MN. With WindHorse Tours I was able to make my travel arrangements with ease and confidence. In addition, having a U.S.-based office simplified matters considerably.
Ugen Tschering, operating out of Minneapolis, was most patient, helpful and instructive in guiding my travel plans. In particular, Ugen customized the third leg of my trip and put together a wonderful mix of home stays, day hikes, a day and a half on horseback, visits to dzongs, monasteries, a nunnery, museums, drives through the countryside and village walk-abouts. Jambay Dorji’s logistical support, follow-throughs and quick responses (from Thimpu) to my many questions gave me the comfort and assurance that all was inorder. Both gentlemen were friendly, warm, professional, and efficient in their dealings with me. I trusted their wisdom and advice wholeheartedly.
I flew into Paro from Bangkok and upon meeting Pema, our Chief Guide (who would also lead our Jhomolhari trek), Gudu (our amicable and smooth-steering driver) and Tshering (a most helpful, smiling guide-in-training) it quickly became apparent that we were in the best of hands. Pema is a seasoned guide. He was attentive, sensitive to the needs of everyone in our group and readily introduced us to Bhutanese culture, cuisine, folklore and humour. Moreover, his deep knowledge and understanding of Vajrayana (tantric)Buddhism was enlightening. Pema also made sure we got the most out of the Talo and Paro Tsechu festivals we attended.
Half of our group departed after the first week and three of us stayed on to do the seven-day Jhomolhari trek. Our crew was made up of Pema (Chief Guide), Tshering (Assistant Guide), Kelten (Chief Cook), Yeshey (Assistant Cook), 2 horsemen, 7 or more horses, a donkey and a mule. We started at Shana Zam (altitude 2850 metres/~9350feet) and over 3 days we wound our way through a valley, crossed the Paro rivera number of times and hiked through forests treed with cider, juniper, pine and oak. On the third day we reached Jangothang Base Camp, (altitude 4080 metres/~13386feet) where the sunrise view of Jomolhari in the distance was breathtaking! The next day being a rest day, Tshering and I, with more gumption than direction,clambered over boulders and scree to reach a glacier fed lake to the east of the camp.
Were it not for Pema’s solicitousness, patience and excellent pacing of our ascents and the crossings we made over Bhonte La pass (4890 metres/~16043 feet), Takhungla pass(4520 metres/~14829 feet) and Thombu La pass (4380 metres/~14379 feet), I doubt that I would have managed as well as I did. From Thimpu, Jambay called to check on our well-being as he was concerned the inclement weather in Thimphu could delay or affect the rest of our trek. In same fashion, like a concerned son,Tschering kept me good-natured company as we both hummed songs on the 1650metre/~5413 feet descent on the last day of the trek. The happiness and inner peace I felt after coming down the mountain are beyond words. Given the challenges thrown our way, the oneness with nature and the sense of quiet accomplishment made it all the sweeter. To top it all off and to Gudu’s credit, he had at theready tall, cold bottles of golden Red Panda beer (or was it Druk 11000) to wash away our fatigue at the end of the trek. I will beeternally grateful to Pema, Tshering, Gudu and all who made this trek a fulfilled dream.
Flying to Bumthang a day later, I began the third and last leg of my Bhutan experience. Gaki was my young and sweet lady guide, Tenzin was our cheerful, gallant and able driver, and Pema (not our earlier hiking guide but a different Pema) was our lead horseman and riding guide. Dzongs, Buddhist lakhangs (temples), maroon robed monks, prayer flags, prayer wheels, chili-laced dishes, yaks and yak cheese were a-plenty. However, it was the interaction with the locals that made the trip all the more endearing.
Hiking down from the monastery in Padselling we were led part way by a young lama, his student and 2 dogs. Shortly after they left us, we came to a fork on the trail. Gaki made the right choice and we hiked through the forest, into a valley and open fields. As we climbed over a stile and came off the trail, we spotted a worried Tenzin in his Gho (traditional menswear), walking up the dusty road,umbrella and water bottles in hand, rescue in mind, The sight was priceless! Riding on horseback from Ngalakhang to the village of Nagsphel, Pema was caught in a dilemma as to who to attend to first when we took off on a gallop and the horses had to be reined in. Should he attend to me, the client, first or help Gakiwho was struggling to stay on her horse? I managed to rein in and quiet down my horse so Pema ran off to assist Gaki who had fallen off her horse! In Mesethang,our host, his mother and aunt were most gracious and welcomed us warmly intotheir lodge/farm house. The same warm hospitality was extended us by the family whose home we shared in the village of Nangsphel. In Chumey, while discussing fabric with staff at our lodge, we arranged to buy a couple of yards of locally woven fabric when we returned to Thimpu. We picked up the fabric, and with Gaki’s resourcefulness we found a tailor and got it sewn into my very own Kira(national dress for women in Bhutan) – all in the span of a day!
For all thatI saw, heard, tasted, smelt and experienced in Bhutan, there is Wind Horse Tours to thank in spades!Without the attention, organisation, follow-through and terrific front and back office handlers, guides, drivers and support staff, Bhutan would still be adream.
Namey samey kadrin chhela!
For ever grateful, Genny
Guide with one of our guest
Local lady prostrating – an act of faith.
Taktsang Monastery in Paro
Lady selling handwoven traditional Dress
Monk in Monastery
Beautiful Punakha Dzong guarding the confluence of 2 river.