Bhutan untamed: Snow leopards on the Snowman trek
Published: 19th September 2013 02:25 PM |
Reading down the list of options on the spa menu thoughtfully placed beside my Bhutan hotel bed, I like the sound of the traditional hot stone massage and the full-body salt exfoliation and scrub followed by a relaxing soak. A mani/pedi would also be welcome, come to that.
There is a school of thought, however, which dictates that such pampering can only be indulged in if it has been earned via appropriate amounts of physical effort and associated exposure to harsh elements. As it happens, it's a view I hold myself. And I'm in a good position here, since I have just completed the Snowman Trek. It's the longest, highest and reputedly toughest of the numerous walks in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
The hotel manager was so impressed by our group's feat in doing it that he insisted on buying us all drinks in the bar, although his admiration may have been connected to our age and striking dissimilarity to the few other groups who generally complete the route – these being mostly fit-looking young Europeans who live near Chamonix, or hardy and ageless all-weather-shorts types with thighs carved out of teak. By contrast, we are a quintet of mild Brits who will not see 60 again, and who prepared for this adventure with some strolls in the Alps and a couple of days on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.
Despite its reputation, the Snowman isn't actually all that fearsome. In essence it's a wonderfully varied and remote 17-day hike, taking in astonishing Himalayan scenery and offering the opportunity to observe some of the world's rarest wildlife. If you can walk up and – often more difficult, down – steep mountainsides for between six and eight hours a day, adapt to the altitude, and handle the camping, then you will love this unique trip as much as we did.
The first essential is to take proper time to acclimatise. The flight into Paro, which lies at a height of 2,300 metres above sea level, should be followed by a couple of days of relaxation before attempting anything more strenuous than perhaps a walk up to the Tiger's Nest, the Taktshang Monastery, which, with its extraordinary position on a high cliff, is a visual icon of the country.
Paro itself is a quiet little place set among rice paddies, with a decent museum and a spectacular fortress dzong (a hybrid of monastery and governmental offices). There are numbers of dzongs across the country, and these and the rituals of the country's black-hat sect of Buddhism are the principal attractions for non-walkers.
We duly visited some of the sights on our way eastwards, across country via the busy capital, Thimphu, and Punakha to the Bumthang Valley. The journey took an admittedly gruelling two days by minibus on switchback roads. Bumthang itself is a fertile area of orchards and paddy fields, with quiet villages and monasteries set between sunny hillsides.
We stopped here for another two days of sightseeing, and spent our evenings chilling out at the rustic Swiss Guest House where the Swiss owner makes his own cheeses and brews a delicious weiss beer under the name of Red Panda. We also visited the Bumthang tsechu (festival) of dancing and singing.
By the end of this week of travel and limbering up we were all champing to get walking. Early next morning at the trail head, accompanied by Kesang, our charming guide, we met up with our four-man camp crew and the two pony men who were leading a string of 16 pack animals. An hour later we were on our way.
The second essential for a successful trip is to select the right tour organisation. Ours, Guides of Bhutan, specialises in outdoor activities as well as cultural tours and the high quality of the trekking organisation showed from the very outset.
Our camp team looked after us impeccably and were excellent company: Kesang could talk ornithology or Buddhist history with equal authority, our gifted cook Leki made us three delicious and varied hot meals every single day, and sometimes in the evenings Dorje, Pema and Wangde sang beautifully and performed traditional dances for us. We lived in high-quality new tents furnished with carpets and mattresses, and when it was cold we were even provided with bedtime hot-water bottles.
Our planned route led northwards from the village of Dur almost to the border with Tibet and a close-up view of Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world, then angled through the Lunana mountains to the village of Thangsa, a settlement so remote that it is seven hard days' walk in any direction to the nearest road. It then turned southwards again and eventually curled back to reach an outpost of civilisation at Sephu.
On the way we crossed almost a dozen high mountain passes, climbed from dense bamboo and cedar forest up to the tree line and far beyond, past waterfalls and over rocks, skirting glaciers and high lakes and ducking under vast white peaks, all the time following a thread of a path used for centuries by traders and tribes people.
The terrain varied daily, almost hourly. Within hours of leaving the minibus we were meeting the tracks of meadow bear and leopard, and we saw a flock of Himalayan blue sheep. On the fourth morning, climbing towards the Nephu La pass, we met a huge, fresh paw print. We thought it might be a big Himalayan bear but the pony men – their animals shying away from the scent of it – told us it was a tiger.
From steamy forest to heavy frost, sun to snow, we met all weathers and temperatures. For much of the time we were walking and sleeping at an altitude higher than the summit of Mont Blanc. In these conditions it is vital to eat and sleep well, and this we did. We quickly adapted to the routine of walking and camping.
The days started at about 6am, with a cup of tea and a bowl of hot washing water brought to our tents. After that it was a scramble to pack our bags ready for them to be strapped on to the ponies, or the yaks which joined the convoy once we reached the higher altitudes. Then we ate a breakfast of hot porridge and eggs in the mess tent while the crew struck the camp. Most days we were walking in clear weather by or 8am, and a couple of hours later we'd stop in sunshine for a cup of the masala chai carried by Dorje in a Thermos. After another two hours walking there would be a hot lunch – curry, vegetables, rice, and fruit.
Usually the pack train overtook us by the middle of the day and the crew went ahead to set up the next camp for us. The afternoons brought mountain cloud, sometimes rain or snow.
Every evening we were served a three-course dinner – soup, curry and vegetables and rice, followed by pudding – but on most nights it was simply too cold to do anything before or after but zip up in our sleeping bags. So there was plenty of time to read and think. After days so packed with activity, it was restful and soothing to lie in the warmth and listen to the weather raging a foot overhead.
After Thangsa, the short window between the end of the monsoon and the beginning of winter closed abruptly when the snow arrived. Kesang was anxious that we might not be able to cross our highest pass, the Rinchen Zoe at 5,330 metres. We just made it in knee-deep drifts up and over the high rock crest. We stopped briefly in the thin air to add prayer flags to the festoons already there.
The snow was exciting enough, but for me the best moment of all came later. Kesang and I were walking behind the group when he suddenly stopped and held up his hand. Ten feet away I saw the leaves stir. There was a flash of a long, lean body with russet-tabby fur and dark, distinctive spots. Kesang and I gaped at each other, too amazed to speak. It was a snow leopard.
It was a wrench to leave our camp team. After so many days the idea of a vehicle and a road seemed outlandish, but I was happy to see the minibus waiting for us. We made the long drive back to Paro, where the luxuries of the spa at the glamorous Uma Paro Hotel seem not so much permissible as essential.
Visiting during the most popular Paro and Thimpu festival times – the only two weeks (one in spring and one in autumn) in the year when the country is overrun with tourist groups and its roads are clogged with buses.
Souvenir shops in Thimpu and Paro. Much of what's on offer is imported and overpriced. The choice of souvenirs elsewhere is improving and includes textiles, wooden handicrafts, paintings, prayer flags, prayer wheels, prayer beads and very colourful stamps. The Bhutan Postal Service will even produce a stamp with your photo on it.
Purchasing old and used items. Customs authorities will not allow them to be taken out of the country if they have not been certified as non-antique. If you are unsure, ask your guide for advice.
Independent travel to Bhutan is not encouraged; tourists must book through a tour operator, and a minimum price for packages is set by the Bhutanese government. Druk Air flights to Paro via Delhi, Kathmandu or Bangkok (drukair.com.bt) are usually included.
Rosie Thomas travelled with Guides of Bhutan (020 7193 5239; guidesofbhutan.com), founded by Phil Bowen, a British adventurer. A 26-night/27-day trip, including the 17-night Lunana Trek plus four nights’ full board at the five-star Uma Paro and five nights’ full board at standard-class hotels, costs from £7,550 per person, including return economy-class Druk Air flight between Delhi and Paro, transfers and taxes, visa fees and royalties.
Exodus (exodus.co.uk), KE (keadventure.com) and Mountain Kingdoms (mountainkingdoms.com) also offer cultural or activity-based tours to Bhutan.
British passport-holders need a visa, issued upon arrival (having been applied for in advance by the tour operat or to Bhutan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry; Tourism Council of Bhutan: tourism.gov.bt). British travellers visiting Bhutan via Delhi will require a double-entry Indian visa (in.vfsglobal.co.uk).
Where to stay and eat
Standard-class hotels are clean and simple, but for a treat, upgrade to a luxury hotel, such as the five-star Uma Paro or the new Uma Punakha, which are low-key but glamorous (comohotels.com/umaparo/uma-como-paro-bhutan; doubles from £400 per night full board). Or try the Amankora five-star Lodges (amanresorts.com/amankora/home.aspx; doubles from £1,000 per night full board).
The Swiss Guesthouse, in the Bumthang Valley, is modest, rustic and charming (swissguesthouse.bt; doubles from £100 per night full board). Homestays can sometimes be arranged: ask a tour operator.
Real Bhutanese cuisine tends to be too hot and spicy for Western palates. Most food served in tourist hotels and restaurants is a series of variations on curry, rice and vegetables, or else “European”.
On trek, the food can be excellent.
What to take
Well-fitting walking boots. Trekking poles are useful on long descents and for river crossings.
Comfortable clothing that can be worn in layers. A day-sack to carry water, snacks, sun cream, a hat, gloves and waterproofs (the weather can change very quickly).
A first-aid kit containing blister plasters, painkillers and antiseptic.
Eco-friendly detergent and a line to sling between tents.
Sunglasses with side pieces if there is a chance of meeting snow.
Nights in camp can be extremely cold, so take a good four-season sleeping-bag and a Therm-a-Rest.
A solar-powered charger, such as the PowerMonkey Adventurer. The weight limit per kitbag tends to be 15kg, so physical books are not an option – take a Kindle or similar.
Walks and treks are mostly on established pilgrimage and village trails, and providing you are fairly fit there are no particularly difficult sections, although some trails are steep and rocky and can be slippery after rain. Riding-ponies can sometimes be hired. The Lunana Snowman Trek is graded “hard” so is more suitable for keener walkers.
The Inside track
Visitors will come across BST – Bhutan Stretchable Time. Rather than insisting on a strict itinerary, arrive with an open mind and let Bhutanese serendipity creep in.
Mountain biking is growing in popularity. Guides of Bhutan offers on-road sightseeing and off-road biking trips to suit all abilities.
More sedate travellers may wish to receive a Buddhist blessing in a temple, to visit a farmhouse for tea, or to take a cookery lesson.
Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, Queen of Bhutan. A blend of personal memoir, history, folklore and travelogue.
The Blessings of Bhutan by Russ and Blyth Carpenter. Essays about the authors’ experiences and understanding of Bhutanese life.
Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming (marriedtobhutan.com), one of the few Americans to have lived in Bhutan.
Facts About Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon by Lily Wangchhuk. Published to mark 100 years of the Bhutanese monarchy.
Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon by Robert Dompnier. Photographs of the landscapes, monasteries, dwellings, people and craftwork.