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Bhutan offers a wide variety of high altitude treks ranging from 3 to 23 days like that of the whopping Snowman Trek. Most of these treks go over 4000 meters high. One needs good tolerance for long distances, cold winds, thin air, rain, snow, rugged terrains and high altitudes to successfully complete these treks.
Everyone may not be born with the same physique, however the basic craving for exploration and experience is a birthright, and ultimately what can get us through these intense yet rewarding treks. This specifically applies for the people who seek to experience the rich Bhutanese forests in the winter. However, the authenticity of certain treks have been eroded. For instance, the 3-day Bumthang Cultural Trek and Gangtey Trek are no longer viable as the farm road cuttings have spoilt the once interesting routes.
In Bhutan, unlike Nepal, we use horses to carry food, equipment and baggage instead of Sherpa porters which makes a huge difference in the experience. Similarly, Samtengang Winter Trek has also been marred. We have set out on our search for a new alternative route, a mission to restore the true essence of trekking in Bhutan.
And yes! We discovered a new authentic trek!
This was how it all started, we planned out our adventure. It would be a relatively small group with my friend Jigme, two other friends, Chef Tenzin, Tashi and Dorji as our helpers (strong men in their thirties) and myself. Dorji carried a power saw so as to clear the trail and push aside any fallen dead trees on the route. We hired 5 horses from Wangchuk, a local cow herder from Punakha valley. Wangchuk and his family spent most of their time in the forest looking after their cattle.
On the 22nd of November 2019, we drove 12km north of Thimphu valley, passing through Kabisa village along the stream, on a Bolero pickup truck. It’s a bumpy ride on a windy track road among pine forests with a sight of the countryside – my adventure oriented brain thought that perhaps this would be a nice mountain biking trail for amateur track riders.
We camped on a wide open meadow surrounded by tall pine trees near a stream called Chambina. My Suunto Core altimeter watch read 2664m /8737.9 ft., whereas my friends, dependent on the altimeter on their cell phones read indicated higher than mine. Upon some lengthy discussion and further scrutiny on whose reading was more accurate, we learnt that the GPS based altimeter reading on smart phones always read higher than altimeter watches which are based on atmospheric pressure. As GPS based altimeter deduce their readings from signals from the satellite, they depend heavily on factors like radio speed and ionosphere obstructions. Thus, they always tend to overestimate 121m (400ft) more. Navigators must be alarmed using such apps.
Soon we were joined by Wangchuk and his five horses. The next morning, our Chef Tenzin conjured up a breakfast with rice, beef and Ema Datshi (chilli cheese). After loading all our belongings, we headed on a gradual ascent on track road with a mule and four horses at our tail, with the sound of their scintillating bells. After 15 minutes of walking, we made a left turn up through pine, rhododendron and maple forests. Here, we met a few people working on a big fence, which they said was to house Takins. From the road junction above, we took a right trail uphill to Barnakepa at 3135m. Chirpings of common nut crackers and yellow-billed blue magpies could be heard from a distance. Barnakepa was a large sloppy meadow surrounded by tall pine and hemlock trees with a soothing breeze passing through, the perfect spot for lunch. As I looked around I could tell that the locals thought the same as I found traces of yak herders left behind.
My backpack, Sonam 35L bought in Kathmandu last winter from a local brand, contained a one litre water bottle, a pair of sunglasses, some prescribed medicines, a hat, a face towel, a bottle of red bull and a few apples and bananas. Banana is a good replacement for potassium lost from your body as a result of sweating. My Canon EOS 700D in its pouch almost weighed two kilograms, and on top of that, I was getting heavier as we moved further and higher. After gaining elevation and walking uphill, we came to Sinchula Pass at 3315m, the highest pass on this entire trek. The pass is adorned by a small Bhutanese type chorten with a few prayer flags. Along the ridge to the right is a mountain biking trail going to Dochula Pass on the Thimphu-Punakha highway, but we do not take this trail. Taking the trail on the right, we descend through deep forests to a lunch spot; Chuluzangsa at 2828m. Walking on a flat trail for a while, we again descend to a small hunchback meadow, Dushipang at 2323m where we camped for the night.
Assistants Phurba and Tshering helped Wangchuk to unload horses and also pitched our sleeping and dining tents. Wangchuk fetched water from the stream beneath the campsite, while chef Tenzin was preparing dinner. Trekking is a joint effort. Everyone has a role to play, and a slight lag of cooperation may break this sustainable chain and bring chaos to the trek. We went to bed early after a voracious meals cooked by Tenzin; an experienced mountain chef who can conjure a tasty meal on any altitude. Tenzin has done almost all treks in Bhutan, including the heavy-duty Snowman Trek.
When we woke up the next morning it was already 7am, I could hear altitudinal birds twittering around us from tall trees and bushes. Wild orchids, ferns, bamboos and daphne were a common sight on our downhill trail. As there had been a light rain the other day the trail was slightly muddy. We arrived at Gedhothusazam River suspension bridge and a trail junction; the left trail led to Chorten Ningpo in Kabisa village, which many sheepish tour operators complete out of hearsay. Jigme and I wanted to offer something different, something off-the-beaten track to our customers and so we were exploring this new route.
Walking for about 15 minutes on the right trail, we could see amazing views of the village. A female host of a farmhouse was kind enough to offer us some local wine – ara. We bought some fresh radish and rice from her for our dinner. Taking the trail between the village and the forest line, we crossed 5 farmhouses. As we walked past the last house, we crossed a stream and navigated upstream on many switchbacks through thick undergrowth of mosses, bushes and trees. Tashi and Dorji walked ahead of us cutting and clearing dead fallen trees on our way with their chainsaw. Wangchuk’s father was also there to help clear the bushes. He was carrying a 303 British rifle, gifted to him by the Third King of Bhutan. On asking why he was carrying that, he said that that was just to protect his cattle from wild animals – tigers, foxes and bears found in the forest. He warned us not to let loose our horses at night and to keep them pegged near our tents.
After hiking uphill for a while, we arrived at the small saddle-like pass marked by a small black stone chorten masked by the thick bushes and trees. Going downhill through tricky switch backs, hopping over muddy puddles, stones and fallen logs we arrived at a tri-junction called Margay. Taking the middle trail, we reached the elongated meadow with traces of cattle herder’s temporary huts. Continuing on a flat trail with slight gradual descent we finally arrived at the Lake, popularly known as the Kabjihoka Tsho (lake). Locals say that one would take at least a day to walk the entire circumference of this lake. Tashi having been born and raised in the village nearby retold us many stories regarding the lake. He went on to storytell about the solo water buffalo that resided near the lake who belonged to the Lake Deity. The villagers however killed it and then gathered to feast. But the meat couldn’t be cooked even after days went by. Kabisa, the village down below the lake was then cursed, so its residents would forever live hand-to-mouth. Indeed, according to the locals, Kabisa villagers never get rich like the villagers nearby.
Tashi then narrated the tragic story of the six boys. Six school boys were on an unguided hike to the lakes above Phajodhing, a four hour uphill hike above Thimphu Valley. The boys lost their way back, got scattered in the forest. Out of the six, 5 were found dead in the thick forest out of starvation, just above Kabjihoka Tsho Lake. The boys were lost for 7 days and couldn’t be found by the search team deployed by the government or their parents – only one got back alive to the village below the Lake.
We camped at the periphery of the Lake. The lake was full of trout fish which was stocked by our 4th King of Bhutan. Abundance of water, vegetation and temperature make the area conducive for many bird and animal species to thrive. Pygmy wren babbler was common birds we saw on a thick over growth of mosses, bushes and small trees. These song birds are found at an altitude of 2000m and are fond of lakes and streams.
The next morning we spent some time enjoying the lake as well as the natural and undisturbed beauty around us. It was the last day and we took it easy as all we had today was an easy downhill trek. Retracing our steps back to Margay, we took a left trail to Tabatsa; a large marshy meadow. The left trail would lead to another Lake called Row Tsho, meaning a lake resembling the horn of an Ox. Taking the trail on our right, we walked uphill for a while and then descended till we got to the stream. After crossing the stream and walking through a flat trail we arrived at the farm road and then continued our walk along the farm road to Chorten Ningpo. We were already in Kabisa Village as we could tell by the superb views of the surrounding villages.
Chorten Ningpo has a big monastery with 30 monks. The old oak tree in front of the Monastery is a central point of Buddhist oral history. In the 15th century, the Buddhist saint, the Divine Madman, and his brother Ngawang Chogyal were cooking dinner, on the other side of the hill in Jilligang, with the fire they had started using some twigs. Seeing a group of demons having a meeting on the other side of the hill, the Divine Madman threw a burning twig to subjugate them. The twig that he threw has now grown to this big oak tree in front of this monastery.
After a well-deserved rest here, we hopped on a Bolero pick up truck to Punakha. The memorable drive through the villages with the views of the Mochu River, as we arrived at Punakha Valley, was the perfect way to reflect on our amazing journey and discovery of yet another hidden gem of a trek in Bhutan.
We have scorched a new winter trek. We have not published this itinerary on our website for privacy reasons. If you are interested in this trek, you can write to us at [email protected] for a detailed Itinerary. From our experience, this trek will not let you down.
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