The Kingdom of
Land of the Thunder Dragon
Himalayan Trek, Oct.-Nov. 1998

Monastery in Laya

skip to photo gallery

Inspired in part by Tibetan Buddhism and in part by the writings of Peter Matthiessen, I'd dreamed of visiting the Himalayas for some time.  In 2008 I trekked in Bhutan,  having been won over by an excellent book called So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas by Barbara Crossette.  The following are brief excerpts from much longer journal entries chronicling the16 day Laya-Gasa trek from Paro to Tashithang with Sakten Tours and Treks.

Paro Valley  ...sweet subtle smells on the wind and once in a while a tinge of wood smoke.  It's overcast over the tops of the mountains and a slight bit humid.  There are just a few people working in the fields below us, but other than they little moves in sight.  We are hearing more birds this morning, small groups of song birds, but I haven't managed a look yet.  Bhutan is all that we imagined in our wildest expectations.  The architecture is unbelievable in its beauty, intricacy, and interest.  Prayer flags stand in groups or singly all around the valley; we heard the whipping in the wind last night--they and little else.  We can see much of the valley here on the side of a mountain where our hotel/ex-ministry quarters stand....At least a mile directly below us are rice fields, each carefully outlined by paths or irrigation canals.  About a quarter of them are harvested, the grain stretching in perfect rows across the field, sometimes in a pattern, but always excruciatingly neat.  As Larry said, it looks like it's right out of The Lord of the Rings.

Day 1, Drugyal Dzong to Shana.  Started out at the ruined fortress of Drugyal Dzong where the Bhutanese defeated the invading Tibetans hundreds of years ago.  We lunched at a chorten by Pachu, (another delicious meal, though cold, consisting of three boiled potatoes, (very tasty), some cheese sandwiches without crust, a Paro apple, (!), which was superb, mango juice :(, and two hard boiled eggs).  Once we left, after turning all the prayer wheels of the chorten, we hiked for another 2.5 hours through pine forest up the valley.  I saw what look like dying licorice ferns on a dark, twisted kind of hardwood tree.  We passed houses on and off, most painted but some plain, and Tashi was very helpful pointing out, (and even scaring out), birds all along the way.  Eventually we reached camp at 2:50, only to find it deserted, no camp.  Tashi left us there to retrieve the pack train and while we were there, a lady and boy came along, quite concerned about us, and tried to tell us where our horses were--she indicated across the river.   We tried to explain that they were coming back, but to no avail.  It seemed to pain and frustrate her to leave us there without understanding.  Her teeth were stained red from chewing betel nut....Tashi returned and led us back down the river to a bridge that had recently washed out, the train having chosen a different site since the bridge was repaired.

Day 2, Shana to Soe Thangthangkha.  Tonight we stay in a "community house" 13.2 miles from our last camp!  It's a stone house made from mortar-less rocks with a traditional Bhutanese roof of shingles held down by rocks.  Once again they've brought us tea and toasted rice and cookies to tide us over till dinner....It was an incredibly strenuous day today--13 miles is tough anyway, but this was constantly steep up and down slopes, (favoring the up side--we gained 1600 feet), that was 95% rough rock.  Not gravel, but big rocks difficult to maneuver around....We started out among pines on a muddy trail, (it poured last night), and gradually it changed to jungle!  At least it seemed to us...big trees, vines, ferns, moss, meandering streams...hard to describe, but we took pictures.  :)  Close to lunch we left jungle and got into more deciduous trees, including a vibrant red birch and gorgeous yellow larches.  Some of the sites we had of the orange, red, yellow, and green leaves alongside the mountains and aqua colored Pachu were priceless, right out of a painting or unbelievable puzzle.  The trees have thinned somewhat and we're getting higher--we can see some gorgeous bare peaks from here when the mists clear up.

Day 3, Soe Thangthankha to Jangothang.  The trek was lovely today--the best day yet.  The trail gradually climbed out of the sparse forest and onto high country.----Blue sheep!  We just saw our first bharal up on the mountain slope towards Mt. Jomulhari, a whole herd of them....I remember reading The Snow Leopard and dreaming some day to be in blue sheep country.----We walked along smooth pasture land up through the valley with great harsh dramatic mountains across the river and yaks scattered all over the place.  I had difficulty in the last few hours finding a place to go to the bathroom.  In the few shrubby areas I had to find a balance between being far enough from the path to avoid being seen and keeping distant of the yaks!  Tashi says that if they come at you it's best to yell, throw and wave something, not to run...I feel more comfortable doing that for a bear than a horned yak!  We stopped to see a yak herder's tent where a lady was churning yak butter, then stopped for lunch in a house....It was drizzling when we got up and could easily have been a Juneau day in October....They say that Bhutan is the origin of many flowers now common to gardeners around the world--that up till the 1800's people still perused these mountains for new species.  It certainly does seem that way from the plants I've seen, especially around Paro; snapdragons, cosmos, marigolds (double and single) the size of me, something resembling poor man's orchids in many colors, asters, monkshood, meadow rue, strawberries, and many more I can't remember.

Day 4, Jangothang to Lingshi.  Awoke to clear skies and a spectacular view of Mt. Jomulhari; watched the sun make molten gold of her slopes as we ate breakfast.... At the top of the first valley-side we wound for several miles up a gorgeous start valley with brownish vegetation and barren slopes of all shades of pink and brown and grey.  The landscape looked just like the picture at Shey Gompa from The Snow Leopard.  Saw lovely alpine flowers that looked like blue gentian, juniper scrub, dwarf rhododendron, edelweiss, little blue star flowers, and bright orange-red barberry.  On the way I saw a glimpse of a tan marmot and ...another flock of blue sheep!  This time I went up the mountain after them for a closer look.  With binoculars, I had wondrous looks!  Huge horned males...we even saw them tussle a little bit and heard them digging in the rock slide.  Hiking was miserable...headaches the whole way, gasping for breath, every step torture, I even felt close to throwing up once.  My initial enthusiasm for Bhutanese cuisine has waned somewhat....The one course we've had several times stills thrills my taste buds, though, the Bhutanese peaches!  To die for, tasty and tart--I do wish I could take a tree home and grow them myself.  Although light is usually quite dim at dinner, I think they are green.  I'm still amazed at what they've brought with them; the more new food appears, the more I understand how nine horses are necessary!

Day 5, Lingshi to Chebisa. Well, once again we've retired to our tent early as the wind whips about this valley from several directions and it started to sprinkle earlier.  The hike today was moderate and we executed it in about four hours.  Most of it was a relatively smooth straight trail midway up the mountain.  At Lingshi we passed underneath the regional dzong type building and visited the elementary school, looking at the classrooms hung with English words and pictures and filled with tiny chairs and tables.  All the 30 or so kids on break in the front yard bowed to us individually and said "good morning, ma'am" or "good morning sir" so charmingly.  Whatever one might say about romanticizing Bhutan, I've never seen children so universally happy and polite and healthy.  So here we are in paradise, camped next to a charming stone village in the middle of a yak field.

Day 6, rest day at Chebisa. We rose today near the village of Chebisa in a thick fog, making me fear that my clothes would not dry.  But just as I was hanging them up anyway, the mist lifted and soon the sun broke through.  We looked across the river at the village coming alive, herders on the mountain chasing down yaks, women milking them and then letting the calves have a share, or vice versa.  Across the yak field at the outhouse a lady let two calves out of a tiny little roofed pen.  Kids were leading horses this way and that, people and cats were emerging from houses, and just now an entire herd of yaks crossed the river by our tent and reentered this field.  I can see people preparing wheat for the winter.  Yesterday we stopped for lunch in another lovely village called "Yagee" (or something), literally "Happy Village."  We wandered around a little, passing courtyards piled with wheat.  People were cutting the grain from the stalk and filling baskets with it.  The houses here are stone and set close together with intricate little passageways between them--Larry says it looks like a medieval village, stacked close together and surrounded by terraced fields.  Two huge flocks of snow pigeons just flew overhead and landed on the hillside and vultures are soaring over the mountain.  We watched several land at the top earlier when it was still misty, spreading out their grand wings to dry.

Day 7, Chebisa to Shomuthang.  Our second pass today....We headed out at 8:30, straight up the mountainside.  Straight up.  It was all yellow alpine meadow full of yaks.  Our horses passed us up just after my first "bushes break" in the last clump of trees and stayed above us most of the way up the mountain--it felt like they were taunting us, watching the two of us labor up the hill panting and them moving on just as we stopped to break.  Great looks at more vultures....We descended from the other side of Gobula (the pass), through carpets of three foot high rhododendron all over the mountain.  The rest of the hike was on low mountainsides through a light forest of juniper (?) trees and shrubs and berry bushes.  The ground was tan and the air smelled sweet.

Day 8, Shomuthang to Robluthang.  I slept warmly last night listening to the rain.  Amazingly it has rained every day so far but never while we've been hiking!  ....We have a real feeling of being in the Himalayas now, with hard passes on either side and not other way out, (save, perhaps, military helicopters).  Actually, at last night's camp there was a H landing pad from some people snowed in last November, early November.

Day 9, Robluthang to Lemithang.  They changed ponies on us, no longer taking young gray Mindu but a rusty pony with a white blaze down her nose; apparently she's a riding horse and they fitted her with a saddle and stirrups just in case we couldn't make it over the pass.  We only used her to cross a flooded river; she stumbled along behind her leader, having no shoes to soften the rocky bottom.  As far as I can tell the Bhutanese have no concept of pleasure riding, as we get blank looks or chuckles as though we've made a joke each time we mention it.  I am proud of myself, and Larry, for making it over Shingela--16,170 feet--the highest and last real pass of our trip.  Our cook Oko has been teasing the horsemen, (who are from the village below Jomulhari base camp), about the passes getting snowed in so they'll have to stay in Laya.  They were joking about it at lunch at the base of the final ascent up Shingela and suddenly a few flakes started to fall!  Snow!  We struggled up, stopping to gasp for breath every forty steps, (I counted).  I left a chocolate for the mountain on one of the lotsas, (stone piles), at the top, took a few pictures, enjoyed the grand exhilaration of having done it and being up so high, and then descended through more and more snow and finally hail.  A golden eagle sailed over our heads on the way down.  At the bottom of the mountain we saw a strange geological phenomenon.  In a valley perpendicular to ours was a large scar, barren and gray, along the whole edge that we could see at a uniform level.  It looked like a giant glacier had recently scraped it away, a theory that was given credence by the massive terminal moraine that we skirted at the bottom.  It must have been at least 150 feet tall!  There was a lovely green lake beyond.  But the strange thing was that the glacier had apparently not touched the side of its valley.  There was a tall pile of rubble at the base of the mountainside at the valley's edge, sloping toward the opposite side.  Could it be a lateral moraine nearly as large as its terminal?  Why didn't the glacier fill the valley?

Day 10, Lemithang to Laya.  Laya...a magical place, a city high in the Himalayas.  Yes, not a village, more like a city.  Suddenly the architecture, which was more utilitarian after we left Paro Valley, is supreme, the walls straight with mortar, the woodwork very find and some even painted.  There are two monasteries here and many small clusters of gorgeous houses all along the side of this mountain high above the river.  House sites are interspersed with wheat fields, now harvested, and little streams.  I thought Chebisa was the lost paradise but I've changed my mind--it must be here, in the town of Laya.  Across the valley beyond the river, which can be heard faintly but is out of sight, are steep forested slopes ending in jagged peaks, the highest of which are laced with last night's snow.  It is a lovely, peaceful place.

Day 11, rest day in Laya.  Last night we had Laya dancers by our open fire, circling and singing at the same time.  Most of the steps seem fairly repetitious and for once I sympathize with jaded anthropologists calling Eskimo dances monotonous.  Bhutanese singing seems to be largely symbolic, almost always starting about nature--the mountains, rivers, forests, sky, plains, etc.  Tashi gave us an example, something like this:  The tall mountains, covered in snow, (the snow is taller than the mountains), I am a snow lion and when I walk through the snow it melts before me.  Or, in other words, the singer's sweetheart left him/her.  This morning we hiked up to a monastery half way up the mountain behind the town.  It didn't look that far, but all the tiny ridges on the way up turned out to be terraced wheat fields, (a few being plowed with yaks and hand plows), and we had to make numerous stops along the way as though we were climbing Shingela again.  The  monastery caretaker was off to a nearby village performing a puja, or ceremony, so we couldn't go in, but it was worth the hike to see the many fields and houses from above.

Day 12, Laya to somewhere in the mountains above Koena.  The hike today started out as a very pleasant trail, following the river, bright light aqua, and passing gorgeous waterfalls and scenery.  Soon we left the alpine and cypress zone and found spruce, (Tashi says fig?), larch and bamboo.  Our initial good speed was to change all too fast, and not because the trail turned back up the mountainside!  For lunch we sat among larches by the flat edge of the river and waited for the horses to catch up, for they had lunch with them.  We had our lunch with more yak meat, (it's pretty good, not unlike strips of beef), and then took off.  Unfortunately, the horses got ahead of us while we ate and for the next several hours we torturously labored behind them.  The horsemen stopped every ten feet or so on the uphill stretches to wait for the ponies to move.  The scenery along the river was still gorgeous, the steep rocky sides overhung with vegetation plunging toward the bottom of the gorge, but Larry and I could ill appreciate it while stalking, (sulking?), behind the trail, smelling foul, runny pony poop and rather unpleasant Laya body odor.  We did finally pass them up after a request to Tashi and began a torturous climb up another mountain beyond our intended camp at Koena, (we left it for the other trekking party who caught up with us in Laya), with new energy, trying to keep ahead of the horses.  Larry and I stumbled on up the mountain as the sun set, eventually staying the night in a makeshift, sloping camp on a shelf at the edge of the trail.  Larry called this day the "Bhutan Death March."

Day 13, on to Gasa Tsachu.  I'm a little tired tonight, after rising in the middle of the night for a bushes break and then the rash on my hand was itching so much it kept me awake until I finally put some neosporine on it.  After crossing Gobula on the side of the mountain, (having hiked most of the way to the pass on the previous day), we had lunch in Gasa and then came here, a lovely downhill stroll through semitropical foliage.  We descended rapidly from spruce this morning to fir and bamboo, ferns and creeping plants, and back to asters in Gasa.  At camp, before bathing in the hot springs, we heard barking deer in the forest above us.  A tiger was in Gasa last night.

Day 14, rest day at Gasa Tsachu.  The springs are a bit busier today, being Saturday, and we had to share the TB bath, (the one below the king's), with another man.  We did take a shower beforehand so I actually stripped and washed up; the shower is a tube pouring out warm water with much more gusto than the shower in Gantey and with no sprinklers, but also an open window on one side.  This didn't deter me, as only a nun occupied the hot springs nearby.

Day 15, Gasa Tsachu to Geon Damji.  It's a lovely day, clear and breezy and pleasantly warm with clouds just slightly obscuring high mountains in the distance where we came from.  The whole trail today was beautiful, winding through what I would call tropical jungle, huge trees covered in vines and mosses, ferns, and flowers, huge tropical-type undergrowth, groves of thick bamboo, and countless bird and insect calls.  We even heard a monkey from a distance!  When we talked about Bhutan having everything from tropical forest to temperate zones to alpine Himalaya country I assumed that meant all this variety within the border, having obvious geographic strips of vegetation with jungle in the south, alpine in the north, etc.  I didn't realize that we could walk down from the high country and reach tropical foliage in two days!

Day 16, Geon Damji to Tashithang.  Despite the heat our spirits were high this morning as we descended through gorgeous tree ferns, banana trees, waterfalls, rock cliffs and other familiar "tropical foliage" alongside the aqua Mochu, rushing to meet the Pachu in Punakha....

Tashithang, and the end of our trek.  Our high, relieved spirits were not dampened by the fact that our car was not yet there, (it was supposed to meet us at 11:00 am).  We all had a "Jumpin'" mango drink, Tashi, Oko, and I, just like a commercial, us relieving our thirst after a long hike, and sat in the shade.  Our ponies came, they got out our chairs.  It's noon...they get our luggage for us and put out lunch--uncommonly delicious this o'clock.  Tashi takes a ride toward Punakha to see what the trouble is.  The other group has arrived--no ride for them, plus they've been ousted from their hotel, (could it be our hotel too?) 3:00 pm...tea and cookies are brought--all the horsemen are waiting for higher wages so now they'll have to camp here as it's too late to go back.  Still we wait.  There's been a truck broken down in the road blocking traffic.  Tashi doesn't return but the other group gets out.  We see white-throated laughing thrushes, a brief glimmer in what's turning out to be a wearisome day.  Had we walked, (only 10 miles), we'd have been there by now, in our hot showers.  Finally, 4:30, our van comes, our day in Punakha gone, as the road is so bad it takes an hour and half to go the10 miles, and it'll be dark by then.  Tashi bickers with the horsemen, counts their money for them several times, (money borrowed from us since there was confusion with the drivers), refuses the old lady's offer to sell her Laya hat to us, and we take off.  A pretty road but ghastly in its ruts, narrowness, and tight curves.  I'm made nauseous by the Britannia cookies but make it to Punakha where we find we've been boosted from our new, 90's hotel by a larger tour group and wind up down the hill at what looks like a lovely Bhutanese home.  The inside is strange and narrow, obviously redone with weird animal posters on the wall that read things like, "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others," (ponder that)!  We do have a bathroom, a tiny little room with stains and buckets for dripping water.  The toilet leaked, (when we could get it to fill), the water heater, (it never heated water as far as we could tell), leaked, and since there was no shower curtain, the spray nozzle that only reached to our shoulders soaked the whole room.  All in all it was miserable and we shivered in cold water trying to get clean.  There were silverfish in the sink.  That night, the dogs barked so loudly it kept me up much of the time, finally falling asleep with the pillow, (so flat it was hardly worth sleeping on), over my head.  Tsewing's cousin told us that yesterday was a very bad day to start a journey!

The next day we traveled to Thimphu and spent two days touring the city and visiting the monasteries.  After another night in Gantey Palace in Paro, we flew to Nepal where I immediately got traveler's diarrhea and spent a day in bed.  We did a hasty tour of the cities of the Kathmandu Valley in four days before braving the airport for the long trip home.  Bhutan far exceeded our expectations; its natural beauty, human culture, and inhabitants are yet unparalleled in any place I've traveled.  Though I'm sure all Bhutanese tour companies take great care of their visitors, Sakten Tours and Treks could not have been improved their service.  Many thanks to our guide Tashi, cook Oko, assistant cook Karma, and all our horsemen and Bhutanese hosts.

Click for enlargements and captions
(photos are in chronological order)

Kluane Hike
Chilkoot Trail