Jomolhari trek

Bhutan

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Bhutan does things differently. A devoutly Buddhist, semi-closed Himalayan kingdom, it has preserved its ancient, essentially Tibetan, culture by avoiding the easy rush for western modernity. Its previous King spoke (famously) of pursuing Gross National Happiness rather than GNP.  Its environment is largely pristine: 70% of the country is still virgin forest, unlike the mess that is Nepal to the west; its rivers are green-blue-spumy, rather than carrying the muddy detritus of erosion.

The Jomolhari Trek in the far north-west is reputedly Bhutan’s best walk, an eight-day horseshoe which follows ancient tracks beneath the spine of mountains separating Bhutan from Tibet, then turning eastwards to descend the valley high above Thimpu, the country’s capital.

This is a demanding expedition, with four bitter nights spent at over 4,000m and two passes over 4,870m, but superlatives fail to do it justice and it fully deserves its high Walkopedia rating.  It has everything one could want from a walk, including (unless you are very unlucky) a competent and charming Bhutanese support platoon.

The trail starts at the ruined Drukgyel Dzong (fort), perched romantically amid trees at 2,580m on a spike above the Paro valley, home some 20km downstream to the country’s airport.  The track meanders beside the river through terraced rice fields, golden, harvest - ready when we were there, and villages of traditional Bhutanese houses, two storey wood and whitewash constructions with a space below the roof where winter fodder hangs to dry.  While officially a poor country, these are not the houses of people on the breadline: they clearly have the headroom to keep them decorative and comfortable.

The track gradually steepens, the forest takes over and the farms become more isolated.  Distant peaks, patterned with snow, loom at the end of side valleys.  Stands of prayer flags patch the hillsides or are silhouetted on the ridges far above. The pine, oak and birch woodland is less view-obscuring than, say, the redwood forests of North America; dappled light, vigorous undergrowth and constant glimpses of high peaks and crags are the order here.

We reach an army barracks around 4pm; this is border country, and the Bhutanese army train their Indian counterparts in mountain warfare here.  Two muddy scars gasp up a sheer looking hillside; the local version of assault courses.  Prayer flags are incandescent in the slanting afternoon sun. 

After an hour or so while our permits are reviewed, we walk on upstream, across the river from the barracks, busy family homes and, up the hill, what looks like a smart officers’ mess.  We trudge into our campsite in a meadow above the river soon after, we settle down to tea and discussion of the day’s events, and are overtaken by darkness at 5.45pm before we have done any of the sensible camping things such as unpack or wash.  Novices.  A delicious supper is produced by Kado, our cook.

We emerge the next morning into deep shade, wood smoke hanging in the cold, still air.  The ponies have been rounded up and stand patiently above the tents, awaiting their day’s load.  The sky is again cloudless, and the shadows retreat down the hillsides before our eyes.

This is gorgeous walking, cool shade alternating with sunny glades as we climb deeper into a cloud forest of oak and pine dangling trails of moss above a riot of ferns.  We travel steadily to the lonely house (and shop) at Sing Karap, the last dwelling before the ancient trade route to Tibet across the Tremo La pass turns steeply off to the west.  The gorge narrows, and we lunch on pork and beans on a mossy rock high above the river, mossy streamers festooned from the branches in front of us.

We are now in utterly virgin forest of pine, fir, birch, holm oak; still not too thick, and undergrown by rhododendrons and other shrubs and, beneath them, grasses, ferns and shy little flowers.  We are in a high gorge, the river roaring below us as we clamber up and down the side walls.  We are now well over 3,400m and it has become an exhausting trudge.  We finally reach a major junction of the river, overlooked by a white chorten, and head on up the northward branch.  The walking is gentler now, and we start to enjoy our surroundings again.  At 5pm, we flop into the slightly scruffy Thangthangka campsite at 3,600m.  We are more efficient about the boring bits today, and then get stuck into long cups of tea and supper, marked by an impressive makeshift cake and a surprise bottle of wine for Reggie’s birthday, under a blue plastic sheeting which operates as a wind tunnel; we are teeth-clatteringly cold as we fall into bed at 9pm. 

The morning brings hints of frost in the cold, smoky campsite and restorative eggy bread and honey.  The morning's walk up the beautiful valley is steadier, with the occasional glimpse of the snowy bulk of distant Jomolhari, our destination,  through thinning forest and patches of bright yellow autumnal larch.  We pass a fine mani wall and some lonely homesteads basking in the brilliant sunshine.  We are emerging above the treeline into grassy hillsides, already frost-browned, with snowy crags far above.  The lee sides of the hills carry massed ranks of Prussian green rhododendrons. Above it all is the deepest, purest blue sky imaginable.

We lunch amid ancient, struggling pines, wind-sculpted into bonsai shapes.  Soon after we reach the surprisingly prosperous looking hamlet of Takethang, the last permanent habitation up this valley, on a plateau of close-cropped grass and little blue alpine flowers, now properly beyond the tree line.  Below us, the river is now milky glacier melt. 

This feels like another world from the lower Paro valley, and is snowbound from November until the end of March.  From here it is another hour’s walk through moraine and nibbled grass until prayer flags appear on a boulder in the distance; around another corner, we see a ruined dzong on an outcrop and then, up a western side valley, the white vastness of 7,316m Jomolhari disappearing into its afternoon blanket of cloud.  It is a miraculous view. 

Our tents have been pitched between great boulders, near a solid stone hut.  We gulp down tea and biscuits while paying homage to the view, then retreat into our mess tent.  It is already getting very cold, and it is not yet dark.

After a very cold night, I emerge into crisp air; frost crusts our tents.  I climb a little way up the hillside, and enjoy the shadow retreating back down the valley from the foot of Jomolhari, which gleams serenely in an empty sky.  Suddenly the sun is above the ridge across the main valley, and the campsite is in brilliant, warm light.  My down jacket is off in seconds.

Today is an “acclimatisation” day, with an expedition to a lake at the back of a side valley.  We set off toward the almost ridiculously jagged peak of Jichu Drakye (6,989m). Eiger, schmeiger. We cross the river and labour painfully up the steep far hillside.

At the top we enter a wonderful high valley, its close-cropped pat-sprinkled grass testament to a large summer yak population; dark cliffs soar on each side.  A long, mercifully gradual, walk up beside a rushing stream leads around a moraine deposit, where we get quite close to a herd of reclusive blue sheep, which look closer related to mountain goats than sheep, and up to a magnificent lake which was reputedly stocked with trout by an earlier king.

The view back from the far end of the lake is one of the best I have seen anywhere.  Beyond the sky - reflecting waters, long grassy banks sweep down from each side of the valley, with dark crags to each side framing Jichu Drakye's perfect white pinnacle, itself backclothed by a still-clear sky.

A further short climb gets us to a higher lake and a very different view: a horseshoe of cliffs, with a waterfall dead centre, encircles the end of a more forbidding, if wild and romantic, view.  Were it not far the snowy ridge high behind, it could easily have been the end of a Scottish glen.  We eat pots of bathetic noodles.

An uneventful trek gets us back into base while it is still warm. We loiter with our tea while the prayer flags flutter on the great boulder beside us. A couple of eagles swing over us, then drift away as a squadron of courageous choughs dives in to mob them.

Intense cold sweeps in with sunset, and after a spell in our tents we repair to a corner of the hut for supper - another delicious multi-coursed affair - and very competitive cards.  A very cold, early-waking night follows.

The next day, the fifth of our trek, is our first Big One: the crossing of the Nyile La pass.  We set off at 8am, after a “condemned man ate a hearty” breakfast, up the main valley, then labour up the opposite wall to another hanging valley nearer  magnificent Jichu Drakye. We ascend this steadily, revelling in the stark beauty around us, before a really quite nasty climb up to a yet higher valley takes us to a heap of prayer flagged stones from which we survey the tranquillity of the empty, autumnal glen we have climbed from as it swings round to its snow, scree and rock terminus some kilometres away.  A huge lammergeier, its wings 5m across, circles above us several times, its shadow like that of a small airplane on the hillside.

Half an hour’s climb up the valley gets us to the foot of the final scree-scramble to the pass; after layering up for the evident gale which tugs at the prayer flags far above, we struggle briefly but painfully up to the pass.

At the top is the mandatory pile of mani stones and prayer flags, rather thinner on the ground than they would be in Tibet.  All around is superb desolation. A moment of strong (and not so quiet) satisfaction: we are at 4,870m.

After a rapid descent of a steep shale slope, we reach a surprisingly sheltered patch of grass, and guzzle another delicious lunch which emerges, hot, from a stack of insulated tins.  Across our new, nascent, valley, yak paths criss-cross a desolate yellow ochre hillside.

A long walk down the increasingly pretty valley, which is dotted with bright red and yellow bushes back-dropped by a dark rhododendron slope, takes us after a couple of hours to a little whitewashed chorten on a ridge; on the far hillside, across a deep glacial valley, squats the lonely Lingzhi Dzong, miraculously caught in a brilliant flash of sunlight against the dark ridges ranked behind it.

To our left is another glacier tumbling from the back of Jichu Drakye, the heaped relics of lateral moraines by our high vantage point boasting its previous extent.

A laborious scramble down through a rather charmless birch and rhododendron forest gets us to our tents beside another solid-looking hut on the valley floor, which we reach with relief.  Once again, it is already in shadow and getting bitterly cold, an icy wind whipping down off the glacier.  After time in our tents, we congregate in the corner of the hut (really very warm, considering the glassless windows and open door), where we assess our day, eat superbly yet again (we never cease to marvel at Kado the cook’s ability to produce those multi-dish feasts in the middle of nowhere) and indulge in some vicious cards, followed by a really bitterly cold night, despite (in my case) wearing six layers inside my new, expensive mountain sleeping bag.

We haul ourselves up into a cold, frosty morning. At 7.30am, we are climbing back out of the valley, emerging into bright sunshine at yesterday's ridge-top.  We enjoy the enthralling views back up towards the Nyile La and across the deep valley to the Lingzhi Dzong.  We then start a long haul up the beautiful Mo Chhu valley, vivid autumnal bushes all around, crossing frequent side-streams.  The steady tramp is a perfect way to gain height at this altitude, even fun.

Behind and far below, Lingzhi Dzong, brightly lit, is framed by the steep valley sides, a white dot in a huge, empty landscape.

All good things come to an end, and we cross the river and begin a slow, painful slog up to yet another hanging valley, splintered peaks to each side and a high, jagged ridge ahead, tiny prayer flags indicating the Yeli La just visible far above us.  After a reasonable walk up the valley floor, we struggle up to the pass, winding through tumbled rock before joining an ancient path built into the final cliff.  Unbelievably, a Bhutanese soldier-hiker, who I last saw in the valley bottom way below, now appears to jog straight up the almost vertical hillside to reach the cairn at the pass, hardly our of breath, at the same time as we gasp up to it.  Another achievement, at 4,930m, but it is bitter and cloudy, so, after some regulation photos we descend to a small, desolate lake for a quick lunch in the lee of a bank.  From there it is a long descent to Shodu, down a series of valleys which would have been beautiful in the sun, but are bleak and Scottish-looking under the slatey sky.  We reach our small, sloping campsite in the deep Wang Chhu river gorge at 3.45pm, facing a long, bitter night.  Supper is a huddled experience in the cooking tent, and we take to our sleeping bags soon after.

We emerge to another bright, frosty morning, and start off down a ravishing gorge, gradually getting higher above the wild torrent.  We zigzag down an ancient path built into a nearly vertical fissure, and progress down the deepening canyon, crags of yellow rock soaring far above us.  The trees get stronger and the bushes larger, and then we are in the forest again.  Autumn has advanced in the four days we have been above the treeline: bright yellow leaves fall around us as we tramp along.

Another massive lunch on close-cropped grass in the shelter of a mossy boulder strengthens us for a long climb to the ruined Barshong Dzong, on its rock a thousand feet above the river, luxuriating in the reds and golds of the foliage around it.

Thence a long downhill scramble to our campsite in a riverside glade. We are very ready to stop walking when we finally emerge in a small clearing by the river.  We are on our own and it is much warmer, almost mellow.  We wash and change at our leisure and loiter over tea, biscuits and supper as the night rolls in, eventually warming our legs by the fire until late at night - well, 9ish.

Our final day consists of a long, rather weary, climb and then descent through beautiful, varied forest in dappled sunlight.  It remains utterly peaceful and remote, and we see no one all day, bar the odd trader leading his ponies, until, after a long, painful clamber down a nearly sheer cliff, we spot figures lurking behind a tree.  Elsewhere in the third world, one might worry about robbery, but here it is clear that a Cold Beer Ambush awaits us. Wrong: it's gin and tonic.  We are so lulled by to our slow, silent rhythm - and tired - that we find conversation hard, but we manage somehow to chatter valiantly with Chambula Dorjie, our exuberant organiser, as we savour the end of an outstanding walk.
 

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