On our last evening in Bhutan back in January, we met the co-owners of Bhutan Swallowtail, the small, innovative company with whom we had booked our tour. We were honored to learn that Sonam and Tashi had taken an interest in our blog and the "Before It's Gone" theme of our travel. They shared about an initiative of their own design that encompasses elements of cultural and environmental preservation through the promotion of historically significant--yet largely forgotten--trails.
Sonam and Tashi were quick to recognize the wealth of disappearing trails in the Thimphu area, as well as their unique position as owners of a travel company to do something about it. They have committed to investing the effort required to research, ground truth, and document up to seventeen routes near Bhutan's capital city as a resource for alternative tourism. Even as part of a short visit to Western Bhutan, these trails will no doubt offer tourists a wonderful opportunity to see beautiful parts of the country, literally off-the-beaten path, while simultaneously helping to preserve its cultural history. With so much overlap in our interests, Sonam and Tashi kindly invited us to return to Bhutan in order to take part in the development of this exciting project.
Stepping off the plane in Paro for "Bhutan Take Two" was a certainly surreal moment. Not only were the clusters of traditional farmhouses among terraced fields a sharp contrast to the chaos and concrete of Bangkok, but everything felt familiar and different at the same time. The pure freshness of spring air had replaced the bite of winter, and all that was previously brown was now green. If the weather cooperated with us for the next few days, it certainly seemed like the perfect time for trail exploration.
After taking the afternoon to settle in to the aptly-named Peaceful Resort on the outskirts of Thimphu, we met Sonam, Tashi, and their friend for dinner. Between bottles of Druk 11000 Super Strong beer and entertaining stories to distract us, we eventually managed to go over the logistics of the next few days. As we heard the descriptions and details from them, our excitement grew to new heights. Had we not been exhausted from an early flight (and a bit tipsy from multiple rounds of beer at elevation), it may have been difficult to fall asleep that night.
The next morning, Sonam, accompanied by Tashi's sister Lhamo, drove us out of Thimphu up the winding road to Dochu La, a 3,050-meter pass. One hundred and eight eye-catching stupas that are clustered on an earthen island in the middle of the road marked our arrival to the top. Vehicles passed by on both sides, but always kept the stupas to their right to show respect for their religious significance. Some cars even made a complete loop around them, known as a kora, before continuing on their way.
The trail we were seeking allegedly begins just beyond these stupas, but we had a bit of trouble spotting it. After driving up and down the switchbacks on the other side of the pass a couple of times, we finally connected with the trailhead that had been obscured by piles of rock from a road-widening project. This truly was a hidden trail!
In all seriousness, it is truly a historical one as well. A long-running tradition of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and the dratshang (central monk body) is to spend summers in residence at Thimphu and winters in the slightly milder climate of Punakha. The biannual shift was of course carried out on foot, cresting Dochu La via the same trail that we were in search of. Nowadays, the migration occurs by vehicle, and could easily be completed in a day. However, they honor the tradition of a much longer journey by spending the night in the village of Thinleygang, a historical, and now symbolic, stopover.
Following in the footsteps of countless monks before us, we descended down a sparsely vegetated ridge and soon entered a dominantly coniferous forest. Evidence of spring was abundant, from the electric green new growth on fir tree boughs to the delicate wild strawberry flowers carpeting the sides of the narrow trail. While Bhutan's stunning mountain vistas are often obscured by clouds in the springtime, focusing on the details of a diverse forest proves just as wondrous of a natural experience.
To help us appreciate those details, we were joined by a young and passionate ranger from the Royal Botanical Park that we were hiking our way to. Ngawang was a walking encyclopedia of the scientific names of nearly every species of flora and fauna we spotted. We namely saw rhododendrons and butterflies, but as a designated biological corridor between two extensive national parks to the north and south, the park's biodiversity includes over two hundred species of bird and more than twenty mammal species, many of which are rare and elusive. Recent video footage of a Royal Bengal Tiger within the park is helping to document that this endangered species's habitat extends to much higher elevations than previously thought.
As environmental educators ourselves, we were particularly interested to learn about the park's recent foray into EE for school groups. With easy accessibility from Thimphu, this is currently the only unit in the National Park system to offer education programs and recreational facilities aimed at the Bhutanese public. Participating students spend the day rotating through three activities--a nature hike focused on species identification and adaptations, games with an ecological theme, and boating on a small but scenic lake. Ranger Ngawang explained that these are proactive efforts to counter the rapid urbanization of the Thimphu area.
At one point, our trail intersected with the road at an opportune spot where a few people were selling food to passersby. We got a nice energy boost from a tasty cup of salty rice porridge punctuated with bits of fresh cheese, called thup, and continued onward and downward. By then, the firs and pines had transitioned to broad-leafed forest with a lush understory of ferns.
Despite our leisurely pace on the mostly downhill trails and the "cup o' thup," we had worked up an appetite by the time we reached the main entrance and headquarters of the park. Fortunately, we had a hearty lunch prepared for us in the park's restaurant. It was our first time trying nakey, lightly fried fern fronds, and they were much more tender and delicious than I anticipated!
Overcoming the inevitable laziness induced by a full belly, we managed to leave the sunny patio of the cafe behind and explore more of what the Royal Botanical Park had to offer. Many rhododendrons were in bloom in the demonstration garden showcasing the 29 native species found within the park. The other 17 species found there were brought in from other parts of Bhutan. With a little more time and luck, we might have been able to spot red panda on a trail lined with young bamboo shoots.
However, it was already late afternoon, so we opted to stroll around the boating lake and check out the visitor center before heading back to Thimphu. Whether exploring this area as a day trip as we did, or on the way as part of a tour heading east, our hike highlighted some of Bhutan's impressive biodiversity with the bonus of touching on its fascinating history at the same time. With Bhutan Swallowtail's Ancient Hidden Trails project underway, we hope that future visitors to Bhutan will soon be rewarded by following in our footsteps as well.