As a warm up for the overnight hike, we first took the steep but manicured path up to Tango University of Buddhist Studies located about nine miles north of Thimphu. This was our first opportunity to get to know Norbu, who would be our guide for a west-to-east crossing of Bhutan after our time on the trail. While the monastery was mostly inaccessible due to renovations in process, we certainly enjoyed the atmospheric exteriors with valley-wide views. We also gazed upon the rock outcrop shaped like a horse's head, thus giving Tango its name.
When we returned to the trailhead, Sonam, Tashi, and their friend Sonam "Two", were waiting for us. The camp crew had already departed with the pack horses on a trail leading up the opposite side of the valley from Tango. We followed in their tracks, albeit at a much more leisurely pace while chatting with each other, marveling at the occasional rhododendron, and documenting all that the trail offered.
We reached Drolung Sangacholing Drubdey goemba for a lunch prepared by the camp crew, which was also the turnaround point for Sonam Two due to some family commitments. While we lost one of our team, we picked up another. After paying our respects to Buddha, we left the monastery following a resident lama in crimson robes with a bright red hat and backpack to match. He pointed to a sign reading, "Ancient trail to Punakha Kabesa begins from here." The hand-lettered sign was the only official acknowledgement of our intended route for the remainder of the journey, which is why we were beyond fortunate to have him as our local guide.
He paused again at an opening in the vegetation just after rounding a bend in the trail. He pointed at some fairly distant hilltops, indicating our camp for the night. We were surprised to hear that the estimated time of arrival would be just one hour. After all, those hills looked pretty far away. Then our elderly lama-guide took off at a brisker than brisk pace that only Norbu was able to match. It quickly became clear that "one hour" was calculated at monk-speed rather than tourist-speed!
The trail wove its way in between old-growth conifers in a forest blanketed with moss and draped with lichen, both eerily quiet and beautifully enchanted. It didn't matter that one hour turned in to three. The lama waited patiently for us whenever our distance grew long enough to have trouble spotting his contrasting red amongst the various shades of green, like a cardinal flitting through the forest. We took breaks to drink cool, fresh water from small springs, eat snacks, and laugh. The Bhutanese shared a communal bag of the leaves, nut, and lime for chewing doma, a longtime cultural tradition that is a daily routine for many, but a bit too intense for our uninitiated taste buds. The peace of the forest washed over all of us, but none more so than Sonam and Tashi. Besides the usual busyness of running a growing travel business, they had just survived a couple of particularly hectic weeks as clients' flights from Kathmandu to Bhutan were disrupted as a result of the massive earthquake in Nepal. This brief escape from the office was a valuable opportunity to take a breather and reconnect with the reasons why they switched careers to create Bhutan Swallowtail Tours.
We knew we had reached camp when we suddenly emerged from the forest into a meadow sprinkled with blue tents standing at the ready for their weary occupants. But rather than settling in, we were called over to a herder's hut that the camp crew had claimed for their base of operations. A table and camp chairs were set up for late afternoon tea, which we enjoyed with views of Thimphu in the valley below us through the skinny remains of young trees still standing after a somewhat recent wildfire. We certainly felt a world away from that not-so-distant city which we had woken up in that very morning.
Seeing Thimphu from this perspective was impactful for Sonam and Tashi as well, prompting them to share concerns about its pace of development, sprawl, and even pollution. My first reaction was to inwardly dismiss their concerns as being "quaint," as most cities in the world deal with these issues on a much larger scale and will never have an ounce of Thimphu's charm. But Sonam and Tashi, like many Bhutanese, are quite worldly people; they see the same patterns and consequences of global development beginning to be replicated in their home. Just because Thimphu doesn't fit my definition of a "problem city" doesn't make the proactive nature of its residents to preserve their incredible quality of life any less admirable.
As the temperature dropped quickly with the fading light, we bundled up in down jackets and gathered around a campfire. After a cozy dinner in the nearby mess tent, we returned to the fire's warmth and were shocked at what suddenly appeared from within the herder's hut: a beautifully decorated homemade birthday cake! Somehow, the chef and his assistants had whipped up a delicious cake from a basic kitchen that certainly didn't included a proper oven. We all sang "Happy Birthday" to Matt and enhanced the celebration with toasts of Bhutan's lovely whiskey. Matt reciprocated the evening of surprises with his own campfire tradition of spinning poi, this time with LED balls since we haven't dared to travel internationally with the ones that light on fire. It was a wonderful finish to a wonderful day.
The next morning we ate breakfast al fresco with clear blue skies revealing snowy peaks beyond the forest. Just as we were setting out, yaks began filing in to the meadow, followed by a few herders and two adorable Tibetan Mastiff puppies. While the herders weren't exactly expecting to find a tourist camp set up at their shelter, the little dogs were the most surprised of all and decided that barking "ferociously" while keeping a safe distance was the best approach to dealing with our presence. These semi-nomadic herders follow seasonal patterns of migration between winter and summer pastures, just as monks historically shifted resident monasteries based on the seasons, both using the very trail we were exploring for alternative tourism in Bhutan.
We tackled the remaining uphill portion of our hike within an hour and reached Zetola Pass, marked by a white chorten and a cairn of rocks and other natural offerings carried to the top by passersby. We left our own offerings of flowers and pine boughs before beginning down the other side. At first the trail felt similar to the previous day, but it soon descended steeply through different habitats. The further down we went, the more challenging the path became, often with loose rocks obscured by fallen leaves. It was obvious that very few people walk this way, which only added to the sense of adventure. Additionally, Sonam and Tashi thought it highly probable that we were the first foreigners to travel this route, which certainly added to our sense of accomplishment. But we still had a long way to go before we could truly feel accomplished.
The slope mellowed as we transitioned into lush semi-tropical forest. How was it possible that we were so hot and sweaty after needing jackets and hats just a few hours before? The trail provided new challenges to keep things interesting. We improvised stream crossings and flicked ticks from our clothes. Our fearless lama guide, now sporting a red sleeveless tee with his robes tucked up in his belt, wielded a small machete to open up the faintest trace of an overgrown path.
Despite having had a decent amount of outdoor pursuits in various environments, I have somehow been lucky enough to avoid dealing with leeches. No longer. Perhaps because of my inexperience, I observed them stretching up and reaching out towards my boots with more scientific curiosity than anything else. Tashi, on the other hand, knew leeches all too well from her previous position covering a remote area of Bhutan as a news reporter. When I pointed one out, she would let out a minor squeal of disgust and run a ways down the trail, but inevitably there was another leech waiting for her there.
Having underestimated the intensity of the day, our packed lunch felt like a light snack and our collective energy began to wane as the afternoon progressed. Well, with the exception of the spritely lama who kept estimating just one more hour, even though hour after hour passed by. Fortunately, the amazing biodiversity of our surroundings provided inspiration to keep going, whether it was fascinating fern fronds or a frog that reminded us of a Klingon. Sonam found a vine with an edible stem that he recognized from his youth with a tart but pleasant taste. The lama also collected some edible flowering plants while he waited for us to catch up.
As the dense vegetation gradually thinned and we passed by a few fenced fields, we knew we must be close to civilization once again. We reached a settlement of farmhouses staggered down the valley and were welcomed in to the house of the horseman who had tended the pack ponies up at our camp. He had not returned home yet, but his wife was expecting us and our appetites. He had offered his home as an option for getting a heartier lunch and called her on his mobile when we accepted. We sat on the floor to eat her delicious dishes of spicy peas and potatoes with red rice closer to dinner time than lunch time, but that only made us even more appreciative of the home cooked meal.
The blissful state of relaxation that comes with a full belly after exertion made it more difficult to leave than the bloody socks I had to put on again after following the custom of removing ones shoes upon entering a home. My scientific curiosity about the leeches had gotten a bit more personal when I discovered a blood-bloated one in each of my boots upon arrival. I decided the anti-coagulation properties of a leech bite are really impressive after having to applying pressure with tissues for the duration of the meal to get them to stop bleeding. Ecological blood donations aside, Matt and I were curious about life in this village and would have loved to spend more time there, perhaps spending the night in our spontaneous host's home. When other adventurous travelers make their way there, I hope they have the chance to.
It was not too much further before we reached a rough dirt road where we met vehicles to whisk us away to hot showers and a comfortable bed in the town of Punakha. Before we said goodbyes as our team parted ways, we looked back at the hills making up the far end of the valley. We had been there, somewhere up there, just a few hours before. We had explored a little spot on earth that only a handful of people know about and even fewer go. There are not many countries in the world where you can have a true wilderness experience in a short distance between major population centers. But then again, this isn't your average country. This is Bhutan.