Trekking the Mountains of Gods and Spirits
Trekking in Bhutan combines a passion to see what only a few have seen, and a feeling of being at the top of the world on some of the last remaining natural trails on earth. Defined by spectacular lakes, unexplored natural wonders, remote highland settlements that are few and far between, and some of the world’s most endangered species, Bhutan holds a lot of its natural wealth and beauty up in the mountains. Bhutan forbids summiting high mountains as a means not to upset the gods and spirits. And, for this reason, the world's highest unclimbed mountain, Mt. Gangkar Puensum, is in Bhutan.
So, when you are on these pure and serene mountains of Bhutan, you are not alone. You are with our deities and spirits.
Here, we present MyBhutan’s three favorite treks in the kingdom:
One of Bhutan's most accessible treks, the Druk Path links two of the country's top destinations, Thimphu and Paro. The moderate trail traces a 50km (30 mile) arc north between the two towns, skirting turquoise lakes and crossing wind-whipped passes en route. It requires five days to complete.
Trekkers generally walk the Druk Path from Paro to Thimphu, with much of the trail above 3,500m (11,480ft) elevation. Altitude is the most challenging aspect of this trek, which is best tackled March to May and September to December.
The path starts with a long climb (gaining almost 600m/2,000ft over the course of a single day) from Paro Dzong through blue fir and hemlock forest to the fifteenth-century Jele Dzong, perched on a mountaintop overlooking the Paro Valley. Once up in the hills, the trail snakes northwards to Jimilang Tsho, a holy lake cupped by verdant hills and teeming with fat golden trout. Keen anglers should arrange fishing permits in advance. From Jimilang Tsho the trail curves south again, passing several more lakes and cresting a handful of high passes. It offers striking views of Jomolhari and Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world at 7,570m (24,836ft), held to be the home to spirits of three brothers.
The descent into Thimphu threads past a series of meditation sites, goempas and lhakhangs that belong to the eighteenth century Phajoding Goempa, before dividing into several smaller tracks that lead down into Thimphu's hilly outskirts at Motithang.
In a remote corner of eastern Bhutan, there is an isolated land — home to nomads and blue poppies — said to be the home to the migoi, or yeti. In 2003, the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was created to protect the yeti's habitat by forming the world's first yeti reserve.
The Merak Sakteng Trek takes 5–7 days and winds through the untrammeled wilderness of the sanctuary, offering a unique chance to experience Brokpa culture. It includes visits to homestays in Merak and Sakteng villages, and passes through Bhutan's least-visited valleys.
The Merak Sakteng Trek was closed between 1995 and 2010 in an attempt to save the Brokpa's cultural heritage from external influences — and to give the migoi some peace. Since then the route has been reopened. The trail is quickly becoming less traveled with roads expected to reach both Merak and Sakteng soon.
The trail begins from Chaling, a few hours' drive east of Trashigang, looping counter-clockwise through yak meadows to Merak, where some trekkers stop for two nights. Beyond Merak, the trail crests the 4,140m (13,580ft) Nyuksang La pass before dropping down through pristine forest to Sakteng, where it is worth stopping for another two-night stay before trekking on to the trailhead at Jyonkhar Teng.
Mt. Jomo Kukhar dominates the valley of Merak and Sakteng, a mountain revered by the locals who believe their protective deity, Aum Jomo resides in this mountain. It’s considered so sacred that the locals avoid any untoward actions, seek its permission by chanting prayers and hanging prayer flags, and celebrate a two day festival every autumn in her honor.
This trek through beautifully unspoiled Haa district, in the far west of the country bordering Sikkim and the southernmost tip of Tibetan China, has as its destination a sacred lake: Nub Tsho Na Pata, literally translated as “the great lake to the west.” The trail follows an old trade route between Haa and Tibet and feels remote even to local Bhutanese.
On the way to the great lake, trekkers encounter high altitude meadows, alpine lakes, mountain passes, herdsmen and their yak, and a rich variety of wildlife — snow leopards, blue sheep, black bears, sloth bears, blood pheasants, and jara (a kind of deer). Along the way too are rare flora like the yellow umbrellas of Chukha Metho and the Himalayan Blue Poppy, national flower of Bhutan.
Trekkers often discover that the altitude — much of the trail is at elevations approaching 4000m — only hits after this first day. The altitude varies minimally after this elevation is reached, though. Starting from Janadingkha Lhakhang on a hill overlooking Haa Valley, the first day's trek is the easiest leg but is still 4 hours uphill through alpine forests to the campsite at 3700m, from where sacred mountain Jomolhari is first seen. Mt. Jumolhari is believed to be the abode of the most important sister among the ‘five sister deities of Long Life’, the Tshering Chengya. Day two crosses two passes before descending to a valley campground near a yak herders' hut.
The 6-hour hike on day three traverses five mountain passes. The last, at 4500m, is the highest, and it's here that the remoteness really starts to hit. You are level with the clouds and all around you are barren mountainscapes.
The day ends at turquoise Nub Tsho Na Pata with spectacular vistas of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. To the west, you can see the roads of Sikkim. This is the very edge of Bhutan.
Day four cuts a new path around the mountain before recrossing three passes and ending at a campsite next to two lakes at 4200m. The last day is a relatively easy 7-hour hike and the most scenic, with magnificent views of Jomolhari all along the way and another turquoise lake, before the final descent to the lhakhang.
The mountains of Bhutan are considered so sacred that locals chant prayers, burn juniper leaves and hang prayer flags to appease gods and spirits, and ask forgiveness for having set foot on their pure abodes.
MyBhutan takes special care of our mountains and our guests, by making necessary arrangements so that our guests can partake in this special spiritual ceremony whenever they are on these sacred mountains.
STORY BY KARMA YONTEN