Trekking in the Bhutanese Himalayas

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Exhilarating, strenuous, cold, remote, stunning, and very rewarding. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind when summarizing our recent 7-day trek to the Jhomolhari base camp in the Bhutanese Himalayas.

I was very much looking forward to this adventure and being back in the remote wilderness. I must admit, however, that I tend to romanticize those type of trekking trips, somehow forgetting the unavoidable painful moments. But Christian and I love the challenge. And with that challenge comes appreciation and a sense of accomplishment. And that’s what we feel looking back on our Himalaya adventure.

The incredible thing about an organized trekking tour (you have to book through a travel agency to get a tourist visa to Bhutan) is that you really “just” have to carry yourself up (and down) the mountains. Everything else is taken care of. Tenzin, our tour guide, brought us up to speed with Bhutan’s history and every imaginable story about Buddhism; our horse guide took care of our seven pack horses; and three other guys managed the camp. Yep, that’s right: 5 men and 7 horses supporting just the 2 of us! Sounds like luxury camping. But wasn’t. The whole experience was still an adventure. It was physically challenging (we hiked an average of 15km a day with an average altitude difference of 1500-2000m), it was hard to breathe (our highest pass was 4890m), and it was cold (freezing temperatures at night which made sleeping through pretty much impossible). But it was so worth it. Here is a glimpse of our daily “life in the mountains”:

Day 1: Talking about challenges, we didn’t even make it to our starting point on Day 1. Heavy rain in the days before our hike had caused some landslides, blocking the road. Our driver, determined to navigate through the narrow opening on the street, tried to make it through. That turned out to be a bad idea. The car slid to the left and hit a huge rock. Luckily, the damage wasn’t too bad.

There was no way, however, to drive any further so we packed up our stuff and decided to walk instead, adding 3 extra kilometers to the 22 kilometers planned for that day. And the fun was only about to begin. The rain had turned the rocky trail into an enourmous mud slide. What we expected to be a long but leisurely hike through the sub-tropical forests ended up being an 8-hour balancing and rock-jumping exercise.

Exhausted but proud of our progress, we reached the camp side where hot tea and a glimpse of the stunning Jhomolhari summit, Bhutan’s second tallest peak, awaited us.

Day 2: We woke up to sunny skies and a crystal clear view onto Jhomolhari. Just beautiful.

Energized we set out to conquer the next 17km of the trek, hugging the valley floor and a fast flowing river.

Close to the 4000m altitude mark we came through a small village. Really just an accumulation of a handful of houses. It’s hard to imagine to live in such a harsh climate. The place is snowcovered from November to March and people mainly live off yaks and sheep. Despite being remote, the people were quite inviting. A group of villagers that were catching up (outside in the cold) happily posed for pictures. And some school boys took the opportunity to practice a few English phrases with us.

After one more hour we reached the base camp (4080m) with spectacular views onto the 7314m high Jhomolhari. It got cold pretty quickly so we bridged the time until dinner, snuggling up and reading in our sleeping bags. Besides the actual hike, dinner was the main highlight of the day. We couldn’t wait for our daily dose of hot soup – the best imaginable thing when it’s cold outside. Well, actually, there was something that topped the soup. When we all huddled in the kitchen tent that night, our crew produced a whiskey bottle. Not being a big whiskey fan my enthusiasm was limited. But, hey, try that stuff with some hot water. It’s magic! The perfect way to warm up before jumping back into your sleeping bag.

Day 3: Our acclimatization day. In order to avoid altitude sickness, the itinerary plans in an acclimatization day at the base camp. While we had woken up to clear views, that soon changed.

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We set out on a 4-hour hike up to the actual base of Jhomolhari and got caught in a hail storm before it started to snow a bit. Crazy how you can get all types of weather within a couple of hours.

Back at the camp in the afternoon, the sun reemerged. Time for some hooping with the crew! This turned out to be super fun. Our horse guide had the funniest technique and everyone cracked up laughing. Once dusk was upon us, the typical routine kicked-in: reading, dinner, mystical stories in the kitchen tent over our shot of “hot-water whiskey”, some more reading, bedtime 🙂

Day 4: This was a tough day with an ascent of 800m followed by a descent of 1000m. But also very rewarding. We passed yak herders through a stunning scenery with crisp blue alpine lakes and rivers. The weather gods kept challenging us with a hail storm during the last 200m of our ascent. But we made it up to the highest point on our route (4890m), cold and sweaty at the same time!

The amazing outlook was shortlived, however, as we needed to make a 1km vertical descent back down to our camp. Again, the scenery made up for the workout. Our path led us through rocky cliffs, wildfower meadows, various nomadic settlements and provided incredible views onto gigantic waterfalls.

Our camp was tucked away in a beautiful small opening in the wood right next to the river. Optimistic about the sun that broke through the clouds, I took a little “shower” in the river. But, somewhat predictably, the weather turned rainy and cold within minutes so my enthusiasm was shortlived. I jumped back in my usual 5-layer outfit immediately. The attempt to start a cozy bonfire was rained out. But we had gotten a few minutes of warmth.

Back to our usual treat: a bit of hot whiskey and hot water bottles. Yes, our crew prepared hot water bottles for the night for us! This was another nice surprise. Reminded me of my childhood when I was sick and my mum would tuck me into my bed with a hot water bottle. Without our little “heaters” I would have probably woken up even more times during night.

Day 5: Both Christian and I thought we had the hardest day of the trek behind us. Happily we jumped “out of bed”, stretched our stiff bodies and eagerly awaited our hot coffee and breakfast.

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Our cook kept surprising us with new items. That day he produced pancakes. Strengthened, we continued the journey. But it was not as easy as expected. The previous four days of intense hiking in altitude must have taken a toll on us. Both Christian and I moved in slow motion, our bodies feeling incredibly tired. Like snails we dragged ourselves up the first 200m past hillsides lush with rhododendrons before gradually climbing above the tree line again. And then we hit the last killer ascent, a steep 550m climb up to our last pass (4520m) on the trek. Mentally, this was the toughest stretch for Christian and me. But I also knew it would be our last big one. And again, stunning views from the top. Only one more hour downhill to our camp for the day!

Arriving at the camp, Tenzin, our guide, surprised us with a Druk 11000. Druk is one of Bhutan’s national beers. The Druk 11000 is an extra strong version with 8%. We were happy 🙂

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Day 6: Our last day of hiking. One more last, steep ascent before venturing into a 1.6km vertical, rocky downhill path. The weather gods on our side, we had sunshine for the whole day. After arriving at the camp site around lunch time, we ventured out to meet locals in the nearby village.

While enjoying a beer at a local grocery shop (really just a room with some basic goods), we got a peak at “doma”. Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese culture. It’s made out of betel nut, betel leave and lime (synthetic calcium carbonate). You chew the mixture which makes your mouth go slightly numb and stains your teeth red. It’s spat out after chewing, so you can see doma stains on the ground all over the place in Bhutan. These days the government is trying to reduce the use of it given its addictiveness and negative health implications. But it’s so ingrained in Bhutanese culture that people, especially older ones, won’t give up the habit.

Two little girls, just back from school, were curiously peaking through the shop window. Happy that I had brought the hoop, we attempted to teach them how to do it. Very timid at first, the girls barely dared to touch it. But with a little encouragement they went for it, and had a lot of fun.

Back at the camp there was one more game we wanted to try. A typical Buthanese stone-throwing game. Sounds pretty simple (i.e., just get the stone as close to the target as possible). Turns out it’s not. Both Christian and I were pretty bad at it. Our trekking crew, unsurprisingly, “rocked” the game.

With a little bit of nostalgia, we enjoyed our last trekking meal that evening. Our cook surprised us again – this time with empanadas and a pizza! What a treat on our last night camping. Satisfied, we stumbled into our tent and, admittedly, were both looking forward to a proper shower and sleeping in a real bed again the next day 🙂

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