Trekking in the Bhutanese Himalayas


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.


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.


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 🙂


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 🙂



Snapshots of Bhutan


One of the most fascinating things about Bhutan’s history is how mystical it is. From gods flying on the back of tigers to reincarnation of leaders across generations, it is hard to distinguish between historical fact and religious belief. The underlying reason is that Buddhism is so fundamentally ingrained into the Bhutanese way of life. 75% of the population are Buddhist.

The origin of Buddhism in Bhutan began with the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche. In the early 8th century he travelled from nearby Tibet and brought Buddhism to the region now known as Bhutan. Everywhere we went in Bhutan you couldn’t help but miss representations of Guru Rinpoche from paintings to statues to costumed dancers. Our tour guide, Tenzin, also had a seemingly endless number of stories to tell us about Guru Rinpoche. So as you can imagine, Guru Rinpoche is a really important figure in Bhutan.

To come to the origin of the Bhutanese national identity, you need to fast forward to the 17th century to the story of the “unifier of Bhutan”. Prior to then Bhutan was really only a number of separate states, often considered as a southern part of Tibet. This all changed when a man named Ngawang Namgyal established himself as a religious leader and unified the region of Bhutan separate from Tibet (hence, Bhutanese refer to him as the “unifier of Bhutan”). More than just a religious leader, he was also a military and administrative leader. One of his most important accomplishments was the construction of the system of “dzongs” as fortresses to allow Bhutan to successfully defend itself from Tibet and other rivals in the region. However, when the “unifier of Bhutan” died in the early 18th century, Bhutan underwent a period of instability as regional leaders vied for power and Bhutan again separated into smaller states. Around this period, Bhutan began to have contact with British explorers linked to the East India Company who were in search of goods of value in the regions of Bhutan and Tibet. At times, interactions were hostile including the “Duar Wars” over control of the region of Assam in the 19th century. However, one Bhutanese leader, by the name of Urgyen Wangchuck, found a way to use positive relations with the British to his and Bhutan’s advantage. His support of Britain’s invasion and subsequent treaty with Tibet gave him the backing of the British and credibility with his own countryman to emerge as the most powerful man in Bhutan. In 1907, he was elected unanimously by Bhutan’s chiefs and religious leaders as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan. And so began a new monarchy (among the youngest in existence today) with Ugyen Wangchuck as the first king.

Since then, there have been 5 kings of Bhutan, all coming from Urgyen Wangchuck’s lineage. The second king, Jigme Wangchuck reigned from 1926 to 1952. During his time he oversaw the establishment of a strong alliance with India as they gained independence from Britain. It was during this time that many of the treaties between Britain and Bhutan were transferred over to India and Bhutan.

The third king, named Jigme Dorji Wangchuck is known as the moderniser of Bhutan. Educated in India and England, he saw that a policy of isolation would not be feasible, particularly after seeing China taking control over Tibet. He oversaw the opening up of Bhutan to international relations (including recognition as a country in the UN) along with a series of modernisation projects to build out infrastructure in Bhutan.

The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, took over in 1972 at age 17. He continued along the path of modernisation set by his father. As he formulated his development goals, he emphasised the need for Bhutan to strive for development that is for the good of Bhutan and its people, not just development for development’s sake. In stating this, he coined the term “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) as a counterpoint to GDP. Hence today, Bhutan is famous for assessing the merits of development on whether it promotes cultural and environmental good, not just economic good. Towards the end of the fourth king’s reign, he recognised that for Bhutan to truly be modernised, it needed to follow a path to democracy. The king is quoted as saying “monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth, not by merit.” This process started in 1998 leading to the country’s first democratic elections in 2008. At this time, Bhutan officially transformed from absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy.

The fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk took over in 2006. Since his coronation he has continued along the path set by the kings before him to develop Bhutan along the tenets of maximising Gross National Happiness.

Truly Bhutanese
Bhutan has a number of unique quirks. To name just a few:

  • Tourist visa requirements – A great example of Bhutan striving to maximise GNH, is their approach to sustainable high value tourism. To enter Bhutan as a tourist, you have to organise everything through a regulated tour company, and you must pay a set fee of $250 per person per day (the fee covers all expenses including accommodation, food, transportation, and sightseeing). This is prohibitively expensive for the typical “backpacker” style tourist looking for bars and craziness, and instead you get more of the older/retiree style tourist looking to learn about Bhutanese culture. Christine and I felt like we were definitely among the youngest tourists in Bhutan, which makes sense given that we’re only semi-retired :).
  • The Takin  IMG_6528This odd looking creature is said to have been formed when the “Divine Madman” (another mystical Bhutanese historical figure) threw together the bones of a goat and a cow that he ate and formed the Takin. These animals are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The way they move seems so awkward; kind of like a poorly animated beast in a 1980’s horror film. And their two toed hooves made them look pre-historic-like.
  • Cheese and chilly (ema datse) – Although Christine and I were served new and interesting dishes for each meal every day we trekked, the rest of our guides ate just one meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day: cheese and chilli (ema datse). The guides were initially hesitant to let us try it because they thought it would be too spicy. In the end, the spiciness wasn’t the problem for us. It was that the cheese was so rich that we struggled to eat more than a few spoons full.
  • Target games –

    We learned before we arrived that the national sport was archery. Once on the ground, we realised that archery is only one of many similar target games they play. The Bhutanese love darts and another game where you throw rocks at a target. Christine and I tried it on our trekking tour but were pretty miserable at it.

  • Protective Phalluses –

    Surprisingly, you see phalluses everywhere! Not your Washington Monument style impression of a phallus. The real deal! Generally you’ll see them painted or “hung” at the entrance to houses in order to provide protection. The history behind it, similar to the Takin, is said to date back to the antics of the Divine Madman, who would happily show his penis as a symbol of strength.

  • Chewing “doma pani” although the tradition is slowly being phased out due to health concerns (similar to tobacco smoking in western societies), the tradition of chewing areca nut wrapped inside of betelnut leaves with lime is still very popular with the older Bhutanese. What makes this practice so interesting is that the mixture makes your entire mouth turn red, and all over the place you see these red patches where people have spat out their doma pani out.IMG_6344
  • National Dress: Gho & Kira – Christine and I both thought that the national dress in Bhutan looked really good: women looked beautiful and elegant in the colourful ankle length Kira dresses; men looked dapper and intellectual in the their Ghos.

What we did

  • Paro: The main airport into Bhutan is in the city of Paro. Paro is not the capital nor the country’s biggest city (both of those honours belong to Thimphu) but it is nonetheless rich in history as one of the most prominent cities in west Bhutan. The scenery is beautiful, nested in the Himalaya range. The town is very quaint. The highlight of our time in Paro was the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery (Taktshang Goemba).

    This place is simply stunning, built up high in the side of a mountain. The story behind it relates to Guru Rinpoche, the father of Buddhism in Bhutan, who is said to have flown there on the back of a Tigress and meditated there a while.

  • Trekking in the Himalayas:

    One of the main reasons Christine and I wanted to come to Bhutan was to do a trek in the Himalayas. Christine will write more about this in a separate blog post, but suffice to say, it was a highlight. It was visually spectacular and we felt very rewarded for the effort to hike up those peaks where the air was thin and the wind was cold.

  • Thimphu Tsechu Festival:

    After our trek we spent 3 days in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Although it’s the country’s most populated city, it still felt small and charming. The main attraction while we were there was the annual Tsechu festival, a Buddhist religious celebration of song and dance. Beyond the performances, it was also really fun to see the locals decked out in their best attire.