Trekking In Bhutan During The Rainy Season
- Piet Van Der Poel
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- Travel Blog
Trekking in Bhutan should be an enjoyable pastime, but checking trekking routes can be hard work, especially when it is done in the middle of the rainy season. From July to August 2015, I trekked all existing and some potential trekking routes in Trashiyangtse to check what was needed to make them suitable for tourists. It was the only time I had available, and I gladly accepted the offer. Three of the treks were characterised by driving rain, calf-deep mud, thigh-deep water, swept-away bridges, and overgrown trails, crawling up slippery slopes on hands and knees and lots of bloodsucking leeches.
Definitely not agreeable to any normal tourist! But then, I was not a tourist and I am usually not called “normal”. This was serious work for a not very serious fee. I did it because it was interesting, even enjoyable, if you can ignore the few inconveniences.
Only one of the treks had little or no mud and no leeches at all: the Far-out East Bhutan Trek. It was not just my good luck. All six times I trekked in this area during the rainy season, the trails were fine, although sometimes a bit slippery. Of course, it rains during the monsoon, but mostly during the night. I have never heard of any leech ever having been seen anywhere along this trek. The trek also offers excellent natural and cultural attractions, including some of the most peaceful and impressive sacred monasteries in Bhutan.
In 2016, the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) announced it as a new trek route in Trashiyangtse, and presently it is on the list of treks offered by many Trekking Agencies.
This trek, also known as the Tshenkharla-Omba-Gongza trek, was presented in the 2005 Inventory of Tourism Opportunities of TCB. It was not promoted because only local people knew how beautiful this trek was. The trek was again suggested by a Tshokpa in Toedtsho Gewog during gewog-level meetings about tourism potential in Trashiyangtse in 2014. I had seen Omba Gonpa, built on top of an exposed cliff, from afar. It looked stunning and reminded me of the Tiger’s Nest in Paro, hence its nickname “Taktshang of East Bhutan”.
The trek starts near the ruined Tsenkharla Dzong some walls of which are still standing. Reportedly, this was the first dzong in Bhutan built in the 9th century by Lhasey Tsangma, a prince who fled Tibet. Many Bhutanese nobles trace their origins to this prince.
The trek climbs up a ridge, past another ancient ruins hidden in a grove of trees, to Shakshing Gonpa, which has its annual tshechu usually in the first half of October. Parts of this trail are regularly cleaned by the Nature Club members of Tsenkharla Higher Secondary School.
If you are not yet tired, you can continue up the ridge to Darchen Gonpa, a quaint little gonpa with neys in the pastures above and a muddy lake on the ridge below. Lynne and her brother from Australia, who did the trek in 2015, were very impressed with this serene simple gonpa, where they were blessed with a wrist band cut from “Buddha’s old coat,” that is the coat that used to be draped around the Buddha statue in this tiny monastery.
The trail descends past Nangkhar Gonpa to the Toedtsho River, where the bridge was swept away by a debris flow early in 2015. No worry, there is a new bridge now. From the river, the trail climbs to Omba, where a pleasant homestay welcomes you, usually with milk tea, suja (butter tea with salt), zou (roasted rice) and/or ara (locally distilled millet or maize wine).
Omba village counts 13 households and is clean, pretty and often full of flowers. The oldest gonpa is in a cave at the base of the cliff above the village. A bit further along the cliff is the sacred Omba Ney, where the letter Om is visible on the rock face and holy water oozes from the cracks in the rock. The climb to the gonpa and the statue of Guru Rinpoche on the cliffs is breathtaking but not for those with vertigo.
A challenging crawl through a crack in the rock higher up the cliff gets you cleansed of all your sins. The climb through a narrow, dark and wet crack to the top of the cliff is scary and tricky. And remember climbing down is harder than climbing up, so think twice or thrice before trying this. Moreover, you will not be rewarded by better views.
The next day is a long guided climb through forest and scrub to Shangphula, where one can enjoy sub-alpine vegetation, views, sunset and sunrise. In the rainy season, the clouds moving through the valleys create their own, often stunning, beauty. The deities of Shangphula and Tshongtshongma once fought a long-range battle across the Gongri River. The strange shape of the latter’s peak is due to some good hits by the Shangphula deity. Lynne’s group had planned to stay in the hut of a herder in Shangphula, but that would have been a rather uncomfortable night. Camping is a much better option.
Out of shape or otherwise frail trekkers can take the direct route to Jangphu, where the local shopkeeper has turned his place into a homestay. Capped langurs, the official Trashiyangtse Dzongkhag mammal, can at times be spotted in the forest along this trail. From Jangphu, one often has great views of the Gongri valley far into the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
A level trail takes you from Jangphu village to a junction not far from the border with Arunachal Pradesh. The trail then descends through chir pine savannah with a few fields and some patches of oak forest to the Toedtsho River before climbing to the old village of Kheni, which was once a model village. It is a neat place to wander around while the local people get on with their daily tasks. From Kheni, the trail descends along a ridge to Gongza Gonpa, where Guru Rinpoche was said to have been offered tea when he was subduing demons in the valley. I was offered fruits on all my rainy season visits (by the old caretaker couple).
Gongza Gonpa is built against a large rock under which the Guru meditated. It sits between the Gongri River and extensive paddy fields and is one of the most peaceful monasteries in Bhutan. The gonpa houses a large collection of special rocks, including the Guru’s treasure chest and a dragon’s egg. At Phamkhar ridge above Gongza, hidden among tall grass and bushes, one can see the remains of some walls and moats of defence works to protect Tsenkharla Dzong from Tibetan invasions. Camping at Gongza is an unforgettable experience. A pleasant hike along the Gongri River, past paddy fields and a few sandy or stony beaches, takes you to the end of the trek at the road head near Doksum.
The trek can be done all year round and takes anywhere from three to seven days depending on the daily hiking distance and the time spent visiting the sites and gonpas. The three-day version can be done as a homestay trek by fit trekkers. The more relaxed options require some nights of camping at beautiful camping sites. I enjoyed all my monsoon treks in Trashiyangtse, but the Far-Out East Bhutan Trek was by far the best.