Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Travel: The Snowman Trek (Part 1 - Arriving in Bhutan)

So...I did the Snowman Trek last year along with my wife, Miriam. What possessed us to do this, I don't know. But we did it. I think it is now time to write about it and I shall be doing a series of articles over the next few months that outline some details of this wonderful part of the world, with some pictures where possible. We went with World Expeditions, a company that I would highly recommend.


Arriving in Bhutan

Flying into Paro is a gripping experience. After a short stop in Calcutta to pick up passengers, our flight from Bangkok continued over the Ganges delta. It wasn’t long before we saw the Himalaya rising up in the distance, and rugged foothills between the clouds beneath us. To the northwest the Everest massif rose majestically out of a sea of white stratus cloud. It looked like a glistening white island rising out of an off-white sea, framed by the deep blue sky. At least it looked that way if you were lucky enough to on the same side of the plane as I was, those on the other side could only take our word for it! Along with Everest (8848m) there were a number of other peaks in the group including Lohtse (8511m), which towers above the lesser mountains around it. Cho Oyu (8153m) which is on the Nepalese –Tibetan border may also have been visible.

Once I stopped trying to crane my neck to keep an eye on the world’s highest point, I noticed that the hills below were becoming increasingly high and very steep. The word precipitous came to mind. The trees were getting closer and appeared to be reaching up towards the plane as they clung to mountainsides. The valleys were all v-shaped, a sure sign that torrents of meltwater had relentlessly cascaded down them for tens of thousands of years from the high mountains to the north. I wondered what the mountains further to the north would be like, and whether I was going to be fit enough to get up and down the passes.

The plane banked sharply between mountains on either side and we began our descent into Paro. The trees were getting uncomfortably near at this time, almost close enough to reach and touch. Well, I’m sure they weren’t that close, but in an aircraft it is only natural not to see them as close as they were now, and the same could be said for the powerlines below. However, in no time at all we were rumbling along the concrete of the runway towards the arrivals building.

It is not a very long walk across the concrete between the Druk Air plane and the airport buildings, but it seems to take quite a while. This is because most people spend time looking at the mountains surrounding them and taking some pictures. Then they turn around and see what looks like a temple, or religious building of some sort, into which the other passengers are going. This is probably the most welcoming arrivals building anywhere in the world. It is constructed using traditional Bhutanese architectural features, as are most buildings in this country, and is brightly painted, as is the custom here.

Inside there are numerous murals on the walls, all depicting scenes of the Buddha and his experiences. It makes the queuing for passport checks and other formalities seem even shorter than it is. And it does not take long at all.

Once through, we took a minibus to our hotel, stopping on the way to take in views of the magnificent Paro Dzong and also to watch a local archery contest. The dzong imposes itself over the river beneath. It is the administrative centre of the town and its high, white walls remind the viewer that it was once also a fort. If we were here in May, we might have been able to see one of the many festivals held in Bhutan. But we were not. Above the dzong is the National Museum, itself and old fort that had been built to provide a high lookout to warn of approaching enemies.

On a previous visit I had had the opportunity to spend an hour or two looking around it. It is a splendid museum, containing many treasured artefacts, historical information, examples of Bhutan’s famous postage stamps, and examples of traditional dress, all within its circular walls, the different galleries being connected by low passageways that wind their way through the walls. From beside the museum there are wonderful views of the Paro Valley, also called the golden valley because of the lush crops that grow in the soil there.

The archery contest in Bhutan does not use a conventional target, but rather small wooden targets. Contestants are allowed to shout and try to put off their opponents as they aim at the targets. It is a very good-natured sport, and is the national sport of Bhutan. Most villages will have an archery contest. We spent some time here watching, and taking in the atmosphere, but the sun was biting and it was soon time to continue on to our hotel.

Sitting on the banks of the Paro River, the hotel consisted mainly of small hexagonal single-story buildings that contained six rooms, each with a small table and chairs on an outside verandah. The main building was double-storey and contained the lounge, bar and the restaurant.

We were allowed a couple of hours to collect our thoughts before lunch, and it was during this time that I discovered that I had left the keys that would allow me to unlock the steel mesh that encased my pack, at home. This was a good start to the journey! I managed to track down some pliers, courtesy of Sumit, our tour leader, and spent at least an hour painstakingly severing each strand of wire (and skewering my hands) before eventually gaining access to my luggage. The wire was written off, but that did not worry me too much. If anybody wanted to rifle through my smelly trekking clothes on my way out of Bhutan, then they would be most welcome.

After lunch, and still feeling the effects of travelling for most of the past twenty-four hours, we embarked on an acclimatisation climb. This was to the Takstang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery. It was to break us in gently I suppose, but it sits at 3100m above sea-level, and this meant a 500 metre climb from our starting point. Despite this daunting prospect, the monastery is well worth seeing. It clings to small ledge above a sheer drop and was originally built in the late 17th century at a place considered to be where the Guru Rinpoche flew up to a cave on the back of a tiger to battle a local demon. It is a site of considerable significance and is visited by people from all over Bhutan.

In 1998, the monastery was destroyed by fire. It has since been rebuilt, using a cable lift to transport materials up from the valley floor. This was still in progress on my previous visit and I had not been able to access the building, having to be content with admiring its golden roof from afar. However, it is now complete and, after the fatiguing two-hour climb, I was able to walk through the buildings and appreciate the views from this structure and the waterfall that cascades down from mountain above. All too soon, it was time to make our way back down to the waiting minibus.

The descent seemed long, and this was exacerbated by the realisation that it was getting dark, and the damp slippery mud that we had managed to avoid on the way up, being a bit more challenging to see on the way down. It was very gloomy indeed as we picked our way through a path covered with slippery tree roots in the forest at the base of the climb. The coaster bus was a welcome sight, and we were soon back in our hotel. We settled in for a quiet night of repacking and a light dinner, followed by a beer or two. We had an early night in anticipation of the next day’s walk.

1 comment:

B| |B said...

Hi Peter & Miriam,Great! Keep the stories coming.Glad u were in Bhutan.