The Tiger's Nest Monastery is an icon of Bhutan. All of the effort required to get there (around a 3-hour hike) is 100% worth it. It's located 3100 meters high and you have to climb 1500 steps. It actually caught on fire a few years ago and several monks died. Restoration efforts started a few years back and today the monastery is beautiful. Unfortunately, you can't film or take photo in the interior. There's a cave in the monastery where the monks isolate themselves in the most intense silence and darkness for months on end. There are various chapels on the inside and many more stairs. The view of the Paro Valley are spectacular and I'd say it's one of the best view in the world.
Until 1955, Punakha was the capital of Bhutan and today it remains the winter seat of the central monastic body. It has an altitude of 1,220, whereas the highest point in the rest of the country is over 7500 meters high. Therefore, it has the most mild climate in all of the country. At the junction of the two rivers, Pho Chhu (male river) and y Mo Chhu (female river) stood in a sort of picnic where the view of the castle, the dzong-on whitewater descending from the Himlayas is impressive and both serene. Bhutan's bridges are one of its most iconic images, and the most popular is probably the Punakha bridge. A flood in 1958 took the bridge that had been built while the dzong in the seventeenth century. Because Switzerland was a great international cooperator, which is actually a country that is similar to Bhutan because of its terrain and rough surface, in 2006, undertook the reconstruction of the bridge, which went from 35 meters to 55 in length because of the flood, but retains the same look as the old one, a pedestrian bridge and cantilever-type cattle, that now hides under some strong steel cables. In May 2008, the new bridge became open, and this was just a few months before the coronation of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo on Punakha Dzong itself. Very interesting, isn't it?
To the east of the province of Punakha, the old capital of Bhutan, lies the Wangduephodrang. Its dzong, built in the 17th century at the confluence of two rivers, overlooks a beautiful valley with rice paddies. Even though we thought we'd miss the Tshechu festivals due to the dates we chose to travel, thanks to the good work of our guide Tashi we could at least see a dress rehearsal of the Wangdue Tshechu, less frequented by tourists than the one in the capital, Thimphu.
Paro is the main entrance point for visitors in Bhutan. Its airport is among the 10 most dangerous in the world. In the recesses of some of their monasteries, many have wanted to see its kingdom, which was described by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon in the year 1933. The most important attraction of the whole country is Taktsang Monastery, known as the Tiger's Nest. It is more than 3,000 meters high, and our guide, Tashi, had the sense to let us little hike to get to it, but we were tired for the last day of our visit to this small Himalayan country. It was a great culmination for our trip.
After visiting a workshop and textile crafts store in the capital of Bhutan, where we saw women's clothing consisting of a skirt or sarong called a kira and a small jacket ( a Toedgo) and then tried the menswear, called the Gho which consists of a long gown with sleeves, in which the length of the bottom is adjusted by the belt, which also then serves to create a bag, according to Tashi, our guide: "The biggest pocket in the world". After that we went to the National Institute of Arts and Crafts, which in dzonkha, the main language spoken in Bhutan, is called Chusum Zorig - translated as the 13 crafts. We were able to watch students at work, weaving, working with clay on Buddhist-themed sculptures, thangkas painted or wooden masks. Finally we visited a handicraft factory of paper items.
This is one of the longer treks passing close to the Tibetan border. To travel in Bhutan you must be accompanied by local tour guides and pay a fixed daily fee. However a portion of the fee is used to fund Bhutanese health and education projects and for trekking (we were accompanied by five people with no additional costs) the final price seems reasonable. We used the Yu-Druk agency which has a female CEO.
We start from Paro. This is the only international airport in Bhutan and the landing alone is an experience, flat land is at a premium here.
On day 1 our guide picks us up from the Gantey Palace hotel and we take a four wheel drive to the ruined Drugyel Dzong. Here we meet up with the team who are to care for us over the coming days; two horsemen, the chef, his assistant and a raggle-taggle collection of donkeys and ponies to carry all our camping equipment. Once all the equipment is loaded we set off firstly through farmland and then into the woods crossing numerous foaming rivers. After passing the military base we arrive at our first camp Shana. On arriving we are given tea and biscuits, our first taste of the generous hospitality of the camp crew.
Day 2, a long climb gaining nearly 700 meters on muddy trails. Despite two days acclimatization in Paro we really start to feel the altitude. We are extremely thankful to finally arrive at Soi Thangthanka campsite and find the camp crew has arranged everything perfectly, more tea and biscuits and a delicious dinner including red rice and chili with cheese (ema datshi, the national dish).
Day 3, six o'clock bed tea and a fine view of Jhomolhari. Today the trek is shorter only 17km to Jhomolhari camp at 4044m. We pass out of the forest onto the higher plateau, passing stupas, prayer flags and encountering for the first time the famously bad tempered yaks.
Day 4, rest and acclimatization day. The camp site is crowded with other trekkers as this is the entrance point to the high passes. We make a short hike up a valley towards Jhomolhari and soon find ourselves alone except for blue sheep and vultures. Jhomolhari (Goddess of the holy mountain) at 7315m is a sacred mountain for the local Buddhists and once you have laid eyes on the mountain it is hard to look away.
Day 5, today we turn towards Laya leaving the majority of the trekkers behind and crossing our first high pass, the Nyile La at 4890m. The climb is long through the barren red rock valley, but fortunately we are surrounded by dramatic peaks including the Toblerone-style Jitchu Drake and Tserim Gang. Once over the pass we stop for a much appreciated hot lunch of rice, vegetables and spicy chutney prepared by the chef at breakfast and carried by his assistant Dawa. The descent is just as long and when we finally arrive at the Lingshi campsite we are exhausted but revive sharing a campfire with the horsemen.
Day 6, a frosty start and a shorter day. We pass through the village of Goyok where they still practice sky burials and we are invited into a yak herders tent for our first taste of yak butter tea. Bhutan was cut off from modern technology for a long time however in a 2001 a state run mobile network was put in place and this has revolutionized life for the Bhutanese. You will frequently see old yak herders in traditional dress with the latest Sumsung pressed to their ears. Next to the cooking fire in the yak herders tent you will normally find a Chinese solar charger and a selection of mobile phone cables. Passer's-by often stop for a chat, some butter tea and to recharge their phones. Our campsite is the pretty village of Chebsia close to the Tibetan border and source of a fine range of Chinese contraband items.
Day 7 another high pass (Gombu La 4440m) and when we arrive at our campsite it is snowing. Fortunately the chef prepared a cherry cake for our dinner. The food he is able to prepare using only a portable gas stove and a pressure cooker is incredible. We are extremely grateful.
Day 8 we give Dawa our spare waterproof poncho and set off in the snow for Jare La (4785m). It is rumored that snow leopards can be found here but we don't even see a paw print. The snow turns to rain and we stop for some shelter and another cup of yak butter tea. After a tricky river crossing and some serious log balancing we arrive at Robluthang campsite. The crew light a fire and socks and boots are dried.
Day 9 the big day Sinche La (5000m). This is tough, a long morning of slow zig-zagging paths without seeming to make much progress. However the feeling when we finally arrive at the stupa on the rocky pass under fluttering prayer flags is tremendous. Surrounded by mountains, what an achievement! Bhutan truly is the kingdom of happiness.
Day 10 we wake up at Limithang campsite and are rewarded by the most amazing view of Tiger mountain (Gangcheta) in the early morning light. In the night the naughty ponies have decided to return to the Sinche La and so we get to spend the morning enjoying the view whilst the horsemen go off to retrieve them. Today we head for Laya. It feels strange when we arrive, Laya has a school and a shop and is the most densely populated place we have visited in days. We readjust handing out stickers to the local children, watching the boys practicing archery and are invited into the traditional house of one of the villagers.
Day 11, the original plan was to have a rest day in Laya but we find out that the hot springs at Gasa are open again after a landslide. So we start to descend following the Mo Chuu river, camping on a riverside beach for the night.
Day 12 one more pass, Bale La at a measly 3900m. Along the path we pass the Indian workers who are putting in pylons to carry electricity to Laya. Bhutan is changing fast. Early in the afternoon we arrive at the heavenly Gasa hot springs. Bathing in hot water, what a joy. The royal family have a small palace here so that they too can enjoy the waters.
Day 13 a relaxing day slipping in and out of the four large wooden baths of varying temperatures with other Bhutanese and trekkers taking advantage of their therapeutic properties.
Day 14 an early morning exploration of the beautiful Dzong of Gasa then the final descent to a the road where we sadly part company with our superb camp crew. We transfer to a four wheel drive vehicle for the drive to Punhaka, a hotel and a much needed Red Panda beer.
200km and 5000m total ascent. Trekking in Bhutan seems timeless, following paths trodden by people and yaks for thousands of years. But Bhutan is undergoing a rapid transformation which will hopefully improve the lives of the Bhutanese. Bhutan good luck with your future, stay happy.