Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bhutan's Druk Path Trek. Day 2

After an uneasy night's sleep in the sleeping bag I woke up some time in the night.It was still dark outside and my watch told me it was still 5 am. I wanted to catch the sunrise so I left my cozy sleeping bag rather reluctantly and ventured outside into the chilly morning air.A cold wind was blowing immediately sending a shudder through my body. I looked around the campsite taking in the night time view.Unlike Roopkund (comparisons were inevitable no matter how much I resisted) where the snow capped mountains faraway always gave the campsites a heavenly atmosphere,here in these campsites there wasn't much to look out for in the night. I strolled around the campsite a bit and waited for the sunrise. The sunrise when it did come was a disappointment.The sun rose up quickly and turned the night sky first into a bloody orange colour and then into a sparkling blue. The day was clear and the weather good. But not good enough to give us any views of the peaks that lay around us.

Amidst this warm morning we had our breakfast of porridge,sandwich,boiled eggs and bananas. Durgaji asked how we were holding up. Ishita Didi was feeling a bit sick and she did not have much for breakfast. We suspected the food she had in our hike to Taktsang for her upset stomach.Then Satya was feeling a bit uneasy. We put this to the altitude. He was having problems getting acclimated. The rest of us were in good health. Abhishek was in high spirits, cracking jokes. Surpassing my expectations ravi was in excellent condition showing no signs of any fatigue or health issue. Then Amit too was at completely at ease. As for myself barring a couple of hours of headache the day before I was good.

 After that breakfast we started off for the days trek.The target for the day was to reach a campsite known as Jangchulakha at 3385MSL.
Rhododendron Flowers
We retraced our steps to the monastery we took the day before and walked past it to catch a trail.This trail passed through a thick forest.We walked through this for some time to emerge into an area where the rhododendron flowers were in full bloom.The flowers shone bright blood red against the dull background of brown and black. Durgaji plucked one and casually put in his mouth.He was munching on it as I looked on with amusement.He urged us to try one. Barring Amit and myself none of the others even showed any interest. I looked around a bit and plucked the one which looked a bit fresh.A bit hesitantly I put it in my mouth. It tasted a bit sour. I did not take another one and joined the others.

Right out from this rhododendron flower we walked into a landscape filled with thin tall trees protruding into the clear sky. They were devoid of any branches and leaves. They carried with them a most desolate and dry feeling.A short walk among them later we were back in the forest cover.

At one section we emerged from the thick forest cover into an opening by the side of a hill.Here the trail clung to the edge of the hill and the views from this point were spectacular.Layers of hills carpeted with the dark green foliage stretched till the horizon. This was a short section and once again we were enveloped by the trees all around.

We halted for lunch at 12 noon.Again the food was terrible. I almost choked on those thick rotis.
After lunch we started off again.An hour later I could spot our campsite far away placed in the middle of a clearing. There were not many trees around.It looked a bit like a meadow but with a smattering of bushes here and there. Repeating the previous day's routine we flung our bags on the sheet and laid down for a bit of a rest.

Satya taking a little break
After sometime we got up and chose our tents. It was still 2 in the afternoon and we had a lot of time on our hands. Some of us slept while others took strolls around the campsite. In the evening it started drizzling so most of the time was spent inside the tents huddled together chatting.Rains in the mountains is a wonderful thing.The spatter of the raindrops on the tent covers with the dark clouds gliding over the hills outside creates a hypnotic atmosphere.After a quick dinner we retired to our tents and were fast asleep in a couple of hours.
First view of our campsite

One of our tents

Quick Facts
Starting Point- Near Jele Dzong (3360MSL)
End Point - Jangchulakha (3610MSL)

Other Days Posts-
Hike to Taktsang Monastery
Day 1

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Bhutan's Druk Path Trek. Day 1

After that grueling hike to Tiger's Nest the day before we were 'warmed up' for the first day of our Druk Path Trek. 'Druk' means 'Dragon' in Tzongkha,the most spoken Bhutanese language. Druk Path is one of the most popular treks of the country as it is short and offers wonderful views. As I mentioned in my Prologue post, I chose Bhutan and the Druk path trek after a lot of research. The definite highlights of the trek to which I was looking forward to were the chance to spot Gangkhar Puensum,the highest unclimbed mountain in the world and Chomolhari, the second highest peak of Bhutan.

On our first day of the trek we had a hearty breakfast in our hotel and then we started off in our coaster for the trek's starting point.We bid goodbye to the staff of the hotel as this was the end of our stay in Paro and we were to finish our trek in Thimphu,the capital of Bhutan. The starting point of the trek is near the National Museum which lies on the outskirts of Paro. We reached the starting point after 30 mins.Our support team was already waiting for us. There were 3 porters and a few horses. All the equipment and food stuff was packed and ready.As soon as we reached, after a brief round of introductions, whoever had opted to give his rucksack for the horses to carry, gave away their bags. Only Satya, Ishita didi and myself carried our bags.Our starting elevation was 2540MSL and the time was 0840Hrs. We started off, six of us, with our bags and sticks.There comes a phase 15 to 20 minutes after a trek starts when you feel that this is a lot harder than you thought than it would be.The bag feels heavier and your lungs cry for rest but as time passes these feelings fade away.This happened to me on every trek.
A farmhouse

Initially,the trail is wide and passes by a few picturesque farmhouses with apple orchards but we couldn't spot any apples.We passed by a small dwelling where an adorable toddler was playing around in the veranda. We stopped here for a bit and enjoyed the little kid's antics. We scampered off when we heard Durgaji calling out for us.

The surroundings at the beginning of the trek were a bit dry. There were few trees scattered around and far away we could spot the rugged mountains.Everything was deathly quiet with only our chatter breaking the silence now and then.At one point the silence was broken by a roar of the engines of a plane which slowly came into our view as it took off from the Paro Airport.It took a sharp turn as we were looking.We stood there watching the plane make its turn and slowly disappear into the crystal blue skies. With it was gone the roar of the engines and once again we were immersed in the silence.
Mani wall

We were gradually gaining elevation and Slowly the dry barren landscape turned into a green one and we were beginning to get enveloped by the trees.After an hour we reached a wall.This is called the mani wall.The altitude here is 2860MSL. Satya was using the google tracks application to measure our distance and till that point we had covered 3km. This mani wall marked the end of our gradual ascent and from here onwards the trail took a sharp ascent through a dense forest.There was not much change in the scenery for the next couple of hours as we trudged along the leaves covered path.

At around 12 noon it was decided to have lunch. We all sat down under the shade of a few trees. The sun was warm and the shade offered a welcome respite from its heat. The lunch itself was nothing much.A mashed potato,a banana, a sandwich and a tetra pack of fruti. Food was one of the major disappointments of the trek agency we employed.

After lunch we resumed walking and an hour later we as we were walking up over a particularly steep section we could see a Monastery far away. This was the Jele Dzong Monastery mentioned in the trek schedule.(The time was 1205Hrs, the altitude was 3400MSL at that Point and the distance covered was 6.42km.)

The monastery was still faraway and the path was uphill but Sangayji encouraged us by saying that our camp lay downhill.We finally reached our camps at around 1pm. Our campsite lay at 3360MSL and we had covered a distance of 6.75Km from our starting point to our campsite.The tents were already set up by our support team who had overtaken us during the trek. There in between the tents a sheet was laid out on which were placed some of our bags. I walked over to this sheet and flinging over my bag on it sat down myself.The camp site was beautiful.Located at the foot of a hill on which stood that Monastery,the campsite was surrounded by shrubs and bushes for the most part with trees jutting here and there.Far away we could see mountains but for the most part we couldn't see any snow covered peaks because of the hazy weather.

Pushing aside my bag I laid down there on the sheet, under the open sun. The sun shone warmly on my closed eyelids as my chest heaved up and down taking in the air.It felt wonderful after that tiring trek. A few others joined in too. Seeing this Durgaji cautioned us not to fall asleep as it may lead to loss of sleep in the night disrupting our body's time table. He was right and it is always better not to fall asleep in the afternoons there. Since the Campsite lay at an altitude of 3450 MSL, a high altitude zone,we started to feel the effects of the altitude. I was having a mild headache and some uneasiness.

Ravi and myself chose a tent for ourselves and took our things in. I unpacked my sleeping bag and got in to take some rest. Inspite of our guides warning not to take any medicines I took my migraine pill and syrup because as I like to say to myself, I know my body best.After 30 minutes I was slipping into an uneasy sleep. As I was teetering between sleep and being awake I was woken up by satya calling me out for a walk to the Monastery.
Our campsite 

I woke up rather reluctantly and with a lot of persuasion. I in turn woke up Ravi and together we got out. The others except were already ready and we all walked off in the direction of the Monastery.It was another uphill climb and with a lot of whining we reached the top. The Monastery lay at the top of the hill with a winding path approaching it on the other side. As we approached it I could make out that it was damaged in many parts and looked a bit worn down. From the path we took from campsite we emerged to the side of the actual entrance and here and there I could make out patches of wall broken.

The Jele Dzong Monastery
Sangayji went inside first to ask for permission.He came out with a young monk following him. The monk was a sprightly lad of eleven years.We followed him and entered from another entrance. He took us over creaky stairs and past dust filled walls to a huge hall. This hall was dominated by a massive statute in the middle. This was spectacular. Out in the hills, miles away from anywhere,in the middle of nowhere,inside this ancient monastery, was this huge statue.I was overawed by it. The walls were lined with shelves containing books and other stuff. We asked the monk about the history of the place. He didn't say much but quietly went away and brought with him a sheet of paper which he handed over to us. There was a brief history about the place written on the sheet. We sat down on the wooden floor and read it.There wasn't much written there which I didn't already know. After spending some time there we moved out. It was a pity pictures aren't allowed.That massive statute sitting in that hall was a sight to behold.

After a bit of casual strolling around the perimeters of the Monastery we made our way back to the campsite. We spent the time till dinner with casual banter. Dinner was served around 7 30 pm in the Dining Tent. I don't remember what was served on that day but during the whole trek the standard fare consisted of different combinations of rice,dal,rotis,soup and a couple of vegetable curries.
After dinner we had nothing to do and the cold was creeping in, so we decided to call it a day and tucked into our sleeping bags. Of course another hour passed with talking from tent to tent and then finally we slept.

Quick Facts
Starting Point- Near National Musuem (2540MSL)
End Point - Near Jele Dzong (3360MSL)
Total Distance - 6.75Km
Total Time- 4 Hrs 25 mins
Mid Point- Mani Wall (2860MSL)

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Hike to Taktsang Monastery,Bhutan

Day 1 of my Bhutan Trekking Trip. Click here for the prologue. 

Today,on our first day in Bhutan, a visit to Taktsang Monastery was scheduled.Owning to the location of the monastery this also served as a warm up for the upcoming trek. Taktsang Monastery or the Tigers Nest as it is popularly called is a Buddhist Monastery perched on a cliff in the Paro valley of Bhutan. The present structure grew from a temple built in the 1692 on a site where Guru Padmasambhava,the most revered teacher in Bhutan, is said to have meditated. The name Tigers's Nest is believed to have come from the legend that stated that Guru Padmasambhava came to this temple from Tibet flying on the back of a Tigress.

Apart from the spiritual and the religious aspects, the most striking aspect of the temple is its incredible location.The whole temple clings to the side of a cliff and looks right out from a fairy tale.I had looked up the pics on the net before the trip and I was mighty excited to finally see the structure with my own eyes.

The day had begun quite nicely. I woke up to bright sunny light spraying into my room.As I lay in bed I saw that Ravi had already gotten up and was looking out from the window. I jumped out and joined him. For the first time we had a good view of the Paro city.The day before we had arrived in darkness to the city and also in our tiredness we couldn't get a good view.Now in broad daylight the city looked gorgeous. From my window I could see the street which lay diagonally ahead. The street was lined with buildings in traditional architecture.Like I mentioned in my previous post its mandatory for all buildings to follow Govt rules which include having a traditional look. On the clean pavements, people were going about their daily chores.Men in their ghos (traditional dress) and women in their beautiful and graceful kiras hurried along.There were kids in their colourful ghos running to school. It was a sunny day and this scene woke me up completely. We got ready and hurried downstairs for our breakfast. Soon others joined. The hotel staff had prepared for us a typical Indian meal.Though we enjoyed it we made it a point to ask them to make us a Bhutanese meal so that we could enjoy the local cuisine.

After the breakfast we got into our ride, the cute looking Coaster and started off for the monastery. The bus wound its way through the spotlessly clean and ordered streets of Paro as it coasted (what else?) along at a gentle pace. The surroundings were beautiful all around.The day was sunny and the weather pleasant. After a drive of around 50 mins we reached the site from where our hike to the famed monastery was to start.

The Climb. (Alt. 2480 MSL)
Having got off from the bus I looked around at the surroundings.We were standing at the foot of the series of hills,on one of which stood that spectacular monastery but we couldn't see it yet as we were surrounded by trees all around. Immediately before us lay the path as it started out from the middle of a row of souvenir shops. There were a lot of tourists already present and still more were arriving in vehicles most of them being coasters and imported cars.Looking at this rate of incoming tourists and keeping in mind the climb of 3 hours before us, our Bhutanese guide,Sangayji nudged us to start walking on the trail. We did so and soon fell into the rhythmic walk that comes with treks.The area was covered with trees and bushes.Here and there some rocky terrain popped up but overall the trail wasn't that exciting.Soon we passed by a prayer wheel.This was the second time we were seeing a prayer wheel.It was placed inside a beautiful structure and was driven by the flowing of a stream running through it.The usual prayer wheels have chants written on papers stored inside them and it is said that  rotating them has the same effect as orally reciting them.The prayer wheels which we were seeing here were turned by water and it is believed that the water which touches the prayer wheels becomes blessed and carries its purifying power into all life forms. There were three of these structures, one after the other on the same stream and it was very beautiful to look at.Reminded me of the poem 'The brook' but this particular brook was made more beautiful with the prayer wheels and the structures which housed them.We took a few pics here and then moved on. As we were walking a horse passed us by with a tourist sitting on it.Suddenly the horse gave a jerk and she shrieked something to her friends who were a little behind us. I could make out that the language was Chinese. There were a lot of tourists from China and Japan I later observed.Coming back to the lady on the horse, a guide ran to her and comforted the horse who then resumed its casual stroll and the lady relaxed.

After sometime we reached a plain area from where we could spot the monastery lying far away on another hill.We stopped here for sometime to take some rest.I sat on a rock in front of a magnificent prayer wheel carved with colorful figures.I looked around. Ishita didi was fiddling with her DSLR setting it up and tuning it.She had this bulky cam pack strapped on which looked a bit funny but served her purpose excellently.She could take out her camera very swiftly and I know,for a photography enthusiast, how important that swiftness is.I shifted my gaze to Abhishek. He was sweating profusely and looking at the still faraway monastery. It was the same with Ravi. He too was sweating heavily.In fact it looked as though I was the only one not sweating much. Satya and Amitji were deeply engrossed in a conversation while looking at the prayer wheel behind me.A bit ahead there was a row of small prayer wheels. This was exactly of the kind I saw in the central plains of India in chhattisgarh. After this quick and welcome break we started off again. After another round of walking uphill for quite some time we reached a small cafe set up by the Bhutanese govt.This was a welcome stop. As soon as we reached the cafe (2800 MSL) an elderly man came up to us and offered us coffee.We gladly took a cup and settled on one of the benches there.The view from here was breathtaking.There were lots of tourists here.I looked around to see if I could strike up a conversation with anyone but everyone was either in groups or in pairs.So I let it go and concentrated on my coffee instead. When it was time to go we found out that the coffee was Rs 120 each.We were surprised by this exorbitant price but had no option but to pay and move on.We,then resumed our trek over the trail.
the cafe

The Monastery ( 2950MSL)
As I rounded off over the next bend over the well maintained stone stairs I saw the monastery emerge in front of me. For the first time the structure looked very near and huge. It lay just ahead on the next hill . From this point I could make out the entrance and the different levels. I could spot a large number of tourists near the entrance.The stairs from this point first descended to a bridge that ran over a small waterfall.After crossing this bridge I could see a few small structures to my left in the caves in the hill side. One of them was the place where a disciple and later companion of Guru Padmasambahava did her meditation.And the crevices in the rock were crammed with 'tsa-tsas', small reliquaries containing ashes of the dead.

From here the stairs ascended again and soon we reached the entrance of the Monastery. Here there were a couple of Bhutanese soldiers and a number of monks in their bright red robes. I smiled at a few as I walked by towards a small room where we were required to keep all our belongings including mobiles and cameras.After being frisked by the guards there we walked inside. There lay ahead of us another set of stairs.I heard a few groans behind me from tired tourists frustrated at seeing another set of stairs to climb.I muffled a laugh and looked around to see how our group was doing. Everyone was excited and I saw no signs of frustration.

We moved past a slow walking couple and entered a small corridor at the end of which lay the main chamber. Here we were asked to remove our shoes which we did and entered.The entrance was small and quite nondescript but the in the center of the room lay a huge statue of Padmasambhava. There were all kinds of scrolls,candles,butter lamps, small figurines and books all around.The thick smell of incense hung over the room as some tourists stood respectfully near the door while others bowed down before the statue. Our guide told us a few bits of history of the place. I already knew most of it from the book I read about Bhutan before coming.We stood there for ten minutes and then moved on to the next area.This other room looked like a study. There was a raised seat near a window surrounded by books,scrolls and other stuff. This window offered spectacular views of the surrounding valley.We then moved on to the third room which was the candle room. There were hundreds of butter lamps here and the strong smell of butter hung in the room. There was an attendant helping out those who wished to light a lamp.There were fixed prices for different sized lamps. The minimum was Rs25 or 25 Ngultrum. We then spent some time near a vantage point which offered some magnificent views of the surrounding valley. Then it was time to go.More tourists kept coming by the minute and Sangayji made us move out. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour for the tour of the Monastery. I am not much of a spiritual person and I was only interested in the location, architecture and history of the place.On all three accounts I was thrilled by Taktsang. The only person who was a bit spiritually inclined in our group was Amitji. He even spent a few minutes meditating, sitting on the floor in one of the rooms.

The descent
We retraced our way over the same path to reach the Cafe in the afternoon.Here we had our lunch. The food is expensive there and whatever spirituality we had experienced in the Taktsang vanished at the sight of the bill. So be advised to bring a lot of cash with you while hiking up to Taktsang.The food for lunch there included the local Bhutanese dish 'Ema Datshi' which is nothing but Chili and cheese.If you have a weak stomach I strongly suggest you don't have it. If you have a trek ahead then it is not worth taking the risk. After that lunch we went back the same way we came from and reached the row of souvenir shops at the base. We bought a few souvenirs there.
After our small shopping we went back to our hotel. It was late afternoon by then and we spent a few hours huddled inside our rooms.In the evening we went outside for a stroll. The weather was cool and there was a very thin drizzle falling. Our day ended with a delicious dinner.

Things to note
1. Take enough cash with you if you plan to eat at the Cafeteria on the way to Taktsang. All the items there are very expensive.
2. Do not buy stuff from the shop near the cafeteria. They sell souvenirs at thrice the normal cost. You can buy stuff from the shops near the starting point.
3. The hike up to the monastery is tiring.Make no mistake about it.So be prepared.
4. When you pass by a prayer wheel always do so from the left side.You always have to rotate a prayer wheel in the clockwise direction. So always pass from the left while rotating it.
5. All the altitudes mentioned above were noted from my Suunto Vector Altimeter watch.Please note that it is based on the barometric pressure method of determining altitude and may vary slightly with the actual altitude.

that's me!