This Tour to Bhutan has been organised to give participants access to some of the exceptional flora of this small mountain kingdom, one of the jewels in the crown of Himalayan countries. Our ultimate aim is to see high alpine specialities but in order to reach them we shall also pass through several other habitats including some of the finest woodland remaining in the Himalaya.
This trip to Bhutan is purely a suggested itinerary. It can be booked as it is or alternatively used as a starting point for creating your own ideal tailor made trip to Bhutan.
We shall arrive at the country’s only airport, in Paro, and if the weather is kind, will have had views of several 8000 m peaks including Mount Everest. Our first couple of days will help us to acclimatise to the altitude, visiting the world famous Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, Monastery, and botanising to nearly 4000m by vehicle and short walks on Day 2, but sleeping at about 2300 m by night.
On Day 3 we embark on the most important element of our trip when we start out on the Yaksa Trek. We set out through rice paddies and other cultivations and then for three days we shall be walking through the wonderful woodland gaining height steadily as we follow the course of the Pachhu, the snow melt swollen river. By the end of the third day we are emerging from woodland into heathland. High pastures, screes, rock and mountain tops now come into view, while beyond nearer ridges snow covered peaks beckon. The camps have been selected to allow a sensible pacing by distance and a measured increase in camp heights, but having attained 4000 m at the end of Day 4 we shall have two nights at this altitude to prepare ourselves for the lift to come. The mountain scenery from the camp in 2008 was stunning, with the great bulk of Jomolhari, 7314 m, sharply etched against a clear blue sky as the back drop to our breakfast table. From just down the valley, the fluted snow spire of Jichu Drake, 6989 m, was similarly stark. After a day botanising in the vicinity of this camp, we now turn uphill again, to camp for two nights in a high corrie at 4730 m where snow summits again peek over the rim. This is the ideal launch pad from which to spend a whole day exploring the varied habitats from wet meadow to rock outcrop. We shall reach the Nyile La, a pass whose screes hold many wonderful plants, and, in botanising which, we shall probably climb to just over 5000 m.
We leave camp next day, at first retracing our steps then leaving our known trail to contour round into another high valley whose screes and gullies, and the wet areas by its twin lakes, hold yet more botanical gems. From there we go into exploration mode as we head south over three more high passes, Bonte La, the highest at 4980 m (called Pangte La in ‘A Quest of Flowers’), Takhung La and Thombu La to arrive back at our first camp site in the river valley before our final day’s walk out. These passes were visited by Frank Ludlow in 1949 and we can find no record of them having been botanised in the intervening 60 years.
On a typical trek day, we will be woken at 6.00 am, by a member of the camp crew bringing tent tea, followed shortly by a bowl of hot washing water. By 7.30 am, when breakfast is ready, we will have packed ready for the day’s activity (day pack, and main luggage if appropriate). We leave with our guide just before 8.30 am and spend the rest of the day walking and botanising at an unhurried but steady pace. We stop for about an hour for a hot lunch and arrive back, or at our next campsite, at about 4.30 pm. On days when we are moving camp, the crew will pack up the tents, load the horses, overtake us and have the new camp ready for our arrival. A hot drink will be ready when we arrive, followed by washing water and our evening meal. After eating, we discuss the route for the following day with our guide and have a brief plant session, before retiring to bed.
This will sound very familiar to anyone who has trekked in Nepal, the main differences being that the camp crew is much smaller in Bhutan and there are no tea houses or shops along the way.
It is essential that participants undertake regular walking in the months leading up to the start of the Tour so that you can enjoy to the full what this trip offers. The itinerary gives an indication of the distances involved but botanising inevitably means that you exceed these. Previous experience of multi-day trekking as well as of extended periods camping and botanising in mountains over 3000 m is preferable.
It is accepted practice in Bhutan for the Guide to assess trek participants as to their physical fitness, and their ability to undertake what is ahead. In the event of serious concern he will stop and possibly turn back those who, in his opinion, cannot complete the undertaking.
Every effort has been made to allow gradual acclimatisation to the altitude, but this is a factor which is unpredictable for anyone, even those who on past trips have performed well. On this Tour we camp at over 4700 m and there is the opportunity to go to 5000 m so this must be borne in mind.
Many folk have their own ideas about how to combat the effects of altitude and we always carry Diamox with us and use it if we feel the need. If you plan to use such a drug for the first time, visit your doctor well in advance of the trip and ensure that you have a trial at home so that you understand what the effect is on you before administering it at height.
If anyone were to suffer a bad reaction to altitude and need to lose height the route of the trek allows this during the first nine days by which time a problem should have manifested itself, though even south of the Bonte La there is a downhill exit route.
At valley level conditions are likely to be humid, even hot in sunny periods, becoming less so as we rise towards the treeline. We all appreciate that mountain weather is unpredictable, and difficult to forecast in areas we visit only rarely but our experience is that one should expect rain at some point on most days, that snow may fall on the high passes but not lie long, and that sunny, clear periods, usually from dawn into the mornings, when encountered, afford stunning views, memories and pictures.
Approaching the highest levels on the trek there are extensive screes with pink flowered Eriophytum wallichii, Meconopsis horridula (with electric blue flowers, yellow anthers, in racemose and scapose forms), M.discigera in its deep blue flowered form, Corydalis cashmeriana, Saxifraga andersonii and Androsace tapete, the nodding yellow flowers of Cremanthodium thomsonii, Bhutanthera himalayana and many other exciting plants. Near the passes are Saussurea gossipiphora, S. tridactyla, Primula macrocalyx, Gentiana urnula, Tanacetum gossypinum and compact Fritillaria delavayi.
Along the paths between camp sites we will see Lamiophlomis rotata, Meconopsis primulina, Thermopsis barbata, Pedicularis siphonantha, Primula sikkimensis, P. alpicola, P. calderiana, P. capitata, P. bellidifolia, P. walshii and Sausurrea obvallata. In slightly damper areas, Pedicularis longiflora var. tubiformis , P. integrifolia, Primula tibetica, P. sappharina, Saxifraga lychnitis and S. melanocentra occur.
On well drained slopes at high altitude may be found Soroseris hookeriana, Cyananthus macrocalyx, C. incanus, C.lobatus, Rheum nobile, Swertia multicaulis, Anemone rupicola, pink & white Arenarias and several species of Rhodiola, while in the protection of the bushes are Lilium nanum (in yellow and purple forms), Meconopsis sinuata, M.simplicifolia and Fritillaria cirrhosa.
In addition to these plants of open habitats, we shall see some of the most pristine Himalayan woodland, with a wealth of trees, and herbaceous plants such as Maianthemum oleraceum acuminatum, Primula geraniifolia, Thalictrum chelidonii, Cardiocrinum giganteum, Notholirion macrophyllum, Megacodon stylophorus and sevaral species of Arisaema.
Day 01: Arrival
We fly to Bhutan along the chain of the Great Himalaya and, if the weather is kind, we will have views of several 8000m peaks including Qomolungma, more commonly known in the West as Mount Everest, and Kanchenjunga, before our descent into Bhutan’s only airport at Paro. This is an exciting one as it is done on visual approach without radar, the final few kilometres along a narrow valley between forested ridges and passing Paro Dzong, the fortified centre of administration of the district.
The airport must be one of the most attractive in the world with the terminal buildings being built in distinctive Bhutanese style, and where the staff, dressed in national dress, have a genuine pride in visitors taking pictures of them.
Once we have completed formalities we shall meet our Guide Sonam, the owner of Bhutan Excursions, who will accompany us to our hotel in Paro. During the transfer we look up to Paro Dzong and appreciate its fortress structure as we follow the valley, past the archery ground into the town. From the hotel we shall be able to walk out into this small town to get a feel for daily life and to visit shops.
Day 02: Acclimatization Day 1.
To begin our explorations we set out by vehicle upstream along the course of the Pachhu, the river which runs through Paro, and along which we may see Ibisbill. Crossing the river we rise through forest to a car park from which we look up to the Taktsang Monastery, also known as the Tiger’s Nest, one of Buddhism’s most venerated pilgrimage sites. This is our destination for the day, an acclimatizing steep walk of 3 hours or so, with the first section on forest paths to a tea room, another forest section to a much closer second viewpoint and then by steep stone paths down and up to the Monastery itself. After this wonderful experience we retrace our steps to the vehicle and with a possible stop at a local farmhouse for an inside look at the daily life of a traditional rural family we return along the valley to our hotel in Paro.
Day o3: Acclimatization Day 2.
Today we drive steadily up the valley side to the South West en route for the Chele La, at 3750m the highest road pass in the country, from where we shall walk through the mixed tree and shrub layer out into more open areas. The varied habitats, including rock outcrops, provide an interesting introduction to the flora and exploration of these will give us an appetite for our first Bhutan picnic lunch. In the late afternoon we shall make a slow descent through the forest, with time for botanising, back to Paro.
Day 04: Drukgyel Dzong, 2580m, to Shana, 2850m. 7 hours.
For the next six days we shall have the Pachhu, the river of the Paro valley, as our companion as we follow its course to its source. We drive North, with views across to Taktsang Goemba, to the roadhead at Drukgyel Dzong to begin our trek. Here all our main bags are loaded onto ponies while we carry just our cameras, water bottles, wet weather clothing and umbrellas, and any other personal gear in our small day sacks. At first we follow a track which 4WDs use to service the communities we pass through before we reach the limit for vehicles, the bridge over the Pachhu. Beyond this we are on the path which winds at first between rice paddies, meadows and gardens of traditional farmhouses and then into woodland margins busy with birds. Because it is the well used ‘main road’ up the valley it can be wet and muddy in parts, particularly after our pack ponies have overtaken us. Passing the army checkpoint at Gunitsawa we cross the bridge back over the Pachhu again and walk the final stretch into camp amongst the conifers at Shana.
Day o5: Shana, 2850m, to Thongdu Zampa, 3250m. 6 hours.
After a night with the sounds of the river to lull us we continue upstream heading North to enter the Jigme Dorji Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest of the protected areas within the country. The list of mammals it harbours is very impressive but close to our path, the main trade route through the area, we would be lucky to catch sight of them. We shall see a good selection of birds, and as with the flora, woodland species on this and the next day. We follow the river closely and cross by bridge to our camp at Thongdu Zampa. It should be noted that this was the lunch stop on the AGS 2002 Tour, so you can appreciate how much more friendly our trek pacing is.
Day 06: Thongdu Zampa, 3250m, to Gezampa, 3730m. 8 hours.
From Thongdu Zampa we continue to follow the river and cross back again to have it on our right as we gradually rise. The valley narrows and a bridge takes a path off to link towards where we shall be in a week’s time. Our path takes us through thinning woodland with interesting river flats to a camp on a meadow from which we can look up to high pastures with grazing yaks, high rock ridges and corries. On our approach to Gezampa camp, 3730m, we may see the snow dome of Chomolhari, 7314m, beyond this green and brown foreground. We are high above the river and the pastures between us and it are full of flowers which we can begin to look at this evening if time allows. In 2008 up to 3 Woodcock were roding, their particular dusk display flight, over the campsite.
Day 07: Gezampa, 3730m, to Jangothang, 4090m. 6-7 hours.
Setting out through the broad expanses of Primula sikkimensis and the plants of the nearby meadow even the first kilometre will be time consuming, such is the number of botanical distractions. Our lunch stop on a broad flat meadow, with the river below, has more surprises in store and we begin to become accustomed to seeing yaks and the herders’ dwellings as well as seeing the new hospital under construction. We finally reach a bridge to take us past a huge boulder adorned with prayer flags, beyond which is the stone building at the heart of the Jangothang campsite. Close by, overlooking it, is the ruined Dzong, on which our 2008 party’s prayer flags should still be fluttering and beyond which the enormous snow covered South East face of Chomolhari fills the side valley head. At this time of year we are unlikely to have other trekkers for company but as this is a main supply route there is a movement of traders and carriers coming by on horses and mules.
Day 08: Static Camp. Acclimatization day, local botanising.
As we have two nights at Jangothang, to aid acclimatization now that we have reached 4000m+, this can be taken as a Rest Day if required, with opportunities for botanising close by. There are other options, with an approach towards Chomolhari probably the most appealing. Whatever we choose we shall all probably take the chance to catch up with washing and drying laundry at some point.
Day 09: Jangothang, 4090m, to Nyile La Shong, 4730m. 6-7 hours.
Leaving the campsite we lose our view of Chomolhari as soon as we depart, but in less than 15 minutes the main valley opens out to our left with the Pachhu, which we have followed all the way from our starting point, issuing from the terminal moraine. Beyond this is a huge cirque with Jichu Drake, 6989m, a shapely spire of snow and ice at its head and we should have wonderful views as we cross the Pachhu for the last time and rise quite steeply up the opposite valley side to the shoulder. We enter a long gently rising hanging valley, along which our progress will be punctuated by botanising stops and photography, with the lure of the screes on our left throughout its length. Passing yak herders’ tents, and aware of the beasts themselves, we look across the river to huge side valleys beyond before turning uphill steeply again for the short rise to Nyile La Shong campsite. The trail to camp and welcoming tea is good, but taking a short cut can be very time consuming as the wet pasture in the last half kilometre is full of delectable plants. Our camp is at 4730m in a huge corrie, over the rim of which the snow top of Tsherim Kang, 6526m, appears and, with a waxing half moon at this time, clear night skies would give us a wonderful experience.
Day 10: Static Camp. Botanising corrie to Nyile La, 4890m.
We are camped in the realms of the Tibetan Snowcock and in the first hints of light we shall hopefully be aware of their eerie calls as they feed in the heath above. After breakfast we shall begin our search of the corrie, at first across yak pasture and then moving into an incredibly rich low heath with many sentinel Reum nobile at its upper edge. These are collected for medicine but we should be ahead of the collectors. Continuing round at various levels the screes and outcrops will give us continuing botanical interest until we reach the Nyile La itself, the pass at 4890m, and from which we shall walk up again amongst the cushions of Androsace tapete. Throughout the day the camp is almost continuously visible below and our lunch will catch up with us wherever we are at the appointed time, such is the tremendous service which our crew gives us. We aim to stay high for as long as possible but the wet pasture in the bowl will also be explored before we return to camp late afternoon.
Day 11: Nyile La Shong, 4730m, to Bonte La Shong, 4700m. 6-7 hours.
Today we turn downhill from our high camp to retrace our steps through the hanging valley along which we walked on Day 6. Having already botanised these slopes we should try to avoid too many diversions as we go along here because there is much new ground to explore later. At the end we turn South and contour round, with Jichu Drake to our right and our previous campsite at Jangothang way below us. Once we enter the Tso Phu valley we look along its length to the two lakes at its head and the screes on the slopes on our left as we approach them hold much interest for us, while the damp meadows by the lakes hold a different flora. We rise up at the valley head on the route to the Bonte La and to our campsite at Bonte La Shong, another high camp.
Day 12: Bonte La Shong Static Camp: Botanising to Nachuing La, 4830m.
We are now in exploration mode as we have found no records to show that anyone has botanised this area. As at Nyile La Shong our high camp here gives us close access to high alpines and we shall spend as much time as possible seeking out its treasures.
Day 13: Bonte La Shong, 4700m, to Yaksa, 3800m. 6-7 hours.
The information for the next three days of the trek comes from our Guide, Sonam, as we now embark, in the opposite direction, on the route taken by Ludlow in 1949, and apparently not botanised in the last 60 years. A short steep ascent will take us to the Bonte La, 4890m, the highest pass which we cross by trail on this trek. We will spend time botanising at the top and if it is an auspicious day, we may help the crew to put up some prayer flags as well. On the other side of the pass, we descend past the rocky cliffs of Yaksathang, traverse the wildflower meadows at their base, and camp at a picturesque site with a waterfall at the far end of the valley, just below the tree line.
Day 14: Yaksa, 3800m, to Thongbu Shong, 4120m. 6-7 hours.
We start with a gradual climb above the tree line, past hillsides covered with rhododendron and azalea thickets, before a further lift takes us up over the Tagilung La (Windhorse Pass), 4540m. In very clear conditions Kanchenjunga, 8586m, the third highest mountain on earth is visible from the peak to the East of the pass, and in exceptional air, Makalu, even further off in Nepal. Beyond we descend to grassy meadows where herds of yak graze during the summer months. The campsite is surrounded by snow-streaked peaks.
Day 15: Thongbu Shong, 4120m, to Shana, 2850m. 6-7 hours.
A steep but relatively short climb takes us above the valley to the Thongbu La, 4270m, beyond which we traverse an incredibly beautiful garden of wildflowers. It is intriguing to speculate on what this might contain. Thereafter we begin the steep descent to Shana, where we stopped on Trek Day 1, and the last campsite, as the trail leaves the forest at a hillside above the river valley where the trek will end tomorrow.
Day 16: Shana, 2850m, to Drukgyel Dzong, 2580m. 5 hours.
A relatively easy half day’s walk out, which, though rough and rocky at times, is downhill and is known to us as we walked up it on our first day on trek nearly a fortnight previously. We shall be able to see the crop growth in the intervening time as we walk out through the fields and rice terraces to the end of the trail at Drukgyel Dzong. There our vehicle will be waiting to take us to our hotel in Thimpu so that we can have a shower or bath, or both, before our evening meal .
Day 17: Post-Trek day.
After a night in a bed in hotel at Paro, or Thimpu, we shall spend a day visiting some of the cultural and architectural highlights of Thimpu, as well as having opportunities to visit shops, the Post Office, with its philatelic bureau, and possibly the Herbarium.
Day 18: Departure
After another night in the hotel we make the drive to the airport, say goodbye to our friends from Bhutan Excursions, and proceed to go through formalities, although this word belies the relaxed nature of the process Bhutan style. Take off is exciting with its rapid ascent and the possibility of views to Jomolhari from the starboard side as the plane clears the cloud layer.