After clearing customs and immigration you will meet your Bhutanese leader and drive a short distance via the main street of Paro to our accommodation at the Mandala Resort. At some stage of our visit, we have planned visits to the main part of town, and a visit to the National Museum. It will depend on our time of arrival into Paro, and when trek preparations are completed. The touring program will take in the grand Paro Dzong which dominates the valley and is the most important Dzong (fortress) in Bhutan. It is the model by which all other dzongs are constructed. The watchtower above it, Ta Dzong, is also an impressive building that houses the National Museum that is very informative. Old costumes and battle dress, together with priceless jewellery and specimens of the kingdom's unique flora and fauna are included within the museum. Downtown, there is a mixed collection of shops selling basic goods, and also handicrafts of wood, cloth and metalware. Archery is the national sport and practised throughout Bhutan. Shooting ranges lined by willow trees can be seen during our travels, as well as some traditional style bridges.
A really exciting and informative day as an introduction to this wonderful country (described in part above). The Paro valley is truly beautiful, being a location for various farming activities, including commercial quantities of asparagus, strawberries and shitake mushrooms for export, plus various grain and vegetable crops. It is a patchwork of colours delineated by well kept traditional design farm houses that are ornately decorated. All of the slopes surrounding the valley are forested and the hint of mountains beyond is alluring. Our morning is spent exploring and appreciating the Tigers Nest Monastery or Taktsang, as it is known in Bhutan, a short drive from our resort. It takes us about 1.5 hours to walk up the winding trail steeply through chir pine forest to a tea house and excellent vantage point. Another 30 minutes or so takes us to the monastery. The monastery is the divine resting place of the Guru Rinpoche, revered as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism.
It is a short drive of approx 20 minutes up the Paro valley to Drukyel Dzong, which was originally built as a fortress in 1647 to guard against Tibetans invading the Paro Valley. We continue the drive to Shana (1-1.5h drive) from where our trek commences. On this scenic drive we pass through farm country made up of fields of rice, wheat, barley, mustard, potato, and radish as well as herds of cows. The traditional Bhutanese two storey, timber and stone houses can be seen here. We also gain our first views of the summit of Chomolhari (7314m) at the head of the valley. We get under way and take a break for lunch where it suits us, as we are carrying a packed lunch. Initially the trail is wide and flat, as it meanders steadily through lightly forested fields, which in recent years have been the site of the ongoing large-scale Bhutan Government project to bring electricity to the isolated villages further up the valley. It is a reasonable day's walk today, our first day's trek, taking us past Overnight camp Thongo Zampa.
We now trekking within Jigme Dorje National Park, the largest protected area in the country (4350 sq kms.) which extends beyond Laya to Lunana in the east and all the territory to the south. Whilst it is a protected wilderness, the park management which is based at Gasa, has to cope with the needs of lowland farmers and semi-nomadic yak herders. There is an amazing variety of species of plants and animals in the park at both high and low altitudes. The forests are tall and thick, comprising a variety of oaks, maple, birch, larch pine and allders that will be replaced by more and more rhododendron and pines as we trek higher. There are numerous different varieties of the former, and depending on the onset of warmer temperatures after winter, flowers will be in bloom, or past bloom, as the lower altitudes flower earliest. As we climb higher the rhododendron species change from the common rhododendron arboreum (Nepal's national flower) to griffithianum and cinnabarinum.
Many of the camps we stop at are not settlements as might be implied by them having a place name. Most are merely clearings beside a water source, which are also suitable camping sites for seasonal yak herders and workers who are involved in the large scale electrification project that will bring electricity to this region of Bhutan.
We continue higher to the camp at the base of Chomolhari, a superb alpine setting. Jichu Drake (6794m) rises to our right, with a fine, elegant ridge running down toward the pass that we will cross on our next trekking day. We camp in the vicinity of yak herders from the Paro Valley, who, like their counterparts in Southern Tibet, live in woven yak wool tents throughout the summer months. By now we are above the treeline and the area is characterised by low tundra of juniper and rhododendron setosum, while blue sheep have also been spotted in the higher rocky outcrops.
An important day is set aside for acclimatisation. A side trip up the small valley towards Chomolhari takes us to a dramatic viewpoint towards the glacier and imposing face of this 7000m mountain. Alternatively we may make a scenic excursion up to Sopu lake set adjacent to Nye La pass, both will be worthy photo excursions. As far as mountaineering is concerned, these two peaks, like the rest of Bhutan, have seen little expedition activity from outsiders. Doug Scott successfully climbed Jichu Drake in 1988 on his third attempt, demonstrating that conditions are not so easy on this far east location of the Himalaya being first in line geographically for monsoonal influences.
From camp we commence our ascent over rolling slopes of grassland and small brush to the Nye La (4850 metres). This is a relatively long day on the trail, so if this is your first Himalayan pass just take your time, particularly on the final steeper stages just below the pass, where grasses give way to scree and sand. The views enroute to Jichu Drake will inspire you. From the Nye La we leave Chomolhari and Jichu Drake behind and make a steep descent through stands of pure rhododendron to Lingshi village. Of particular note is the Lingshi Dzong, built to protect this and the other outlying villages of Bhutan from the periodic raids from Tibet.
Today is the most difficult day so an early start is essential. We begin our walk opposite the dzong and ascend gradually through the valley until the stiff climb to Yale La pass at 4950 metres the highest point of the trip. The final push to the top of the pass is hard work, but certaionly worthwhile! The panoramic view of Mt.Chomolhari (7314m), Jichu Drake (6794m) and Tshrim Gang is breathtaking. After the pass it is a long descent to our camp at Shodu (3950m).
The path follows the Thimchu River descending through rhododendron, Juniper and pine forests. The view of the cliff facing rocks and water falls are stunning. The trail gradually ascends after 3 to 4 hours to the ruins of Barshong Dzong and our camp for the night.
The path descends for a while joining the Thimchu river and gradually ascending and descending through thick bamboo and pine forests. We walk for around 2 hours to reach our old campsite at Domshesha before continuing for another 3-4 hours to Dolam Kencho and the roadhead. Transfer to Thimphu. Overnight hotel.
This morning there is ample time to get a feel for the country's capital or do some shopping in the bazaar. The main Secretariat building, the Tashichho Dzong is the most prominent building consisting of the main Secretariat, the National Assembly Hall, the Office of the King and the Throne Room. Its remarkable construction is in traditional Bhutanese style completed without the use of nails or metal of any kind. There is a large Stupa dedicated to the late King HM. Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, regarded as the founder of modern day Bhutan. Then there is the Handicraft Emporium with famous weaving, woodcarvings and paintings and also the Post Office - Bhutan's exquisite stamps are world-renowned.Our last night in Bhutan is spent at the comfortable and relaxing environs of Mandala resort (or similar).
Trip concludes after breakfast with a transfer to the airport.