Bhutan Trek 2023 – A Trekking Newbie’s Perspective


May 22, 2023

Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting – Buddha quote

Paro Dzong at night

After 3 years of waiting, maybe not always so patiently, we finally embarked on the “2020” Bhutan trekking adventure in April of 2023. You know that you are in an unfamiliar place when you are already huffing and puffing to reach your hotel room on the third floor and people great you with ‘kuzuzangbo la’. We arrive in the small city of Paro, in a valley at 2,200 meters elevation, at the time of the big annual religious festival or Tshechu, which has not happened in person for the past 3 years due to the pandemic. We walk in a sea of colors and stunning fabrics, as people from near and far wear their finest traditional outfits to the Dzong, the gorgeous combined administrative and religious central building of the province and venue of the festivities. This week it is the place to see and be seen, and we feel simultaneously honored and stunned to be welcome participants in this event. On the last day of the celebrations, we rise before 3 am to experience its climax, the ritual unfurling before sunrise of a huge silk painting, called a Thangkha (or Thongdrel) depicting Guru Rinpoche, Bhutan’s patron saint, and the processions and otherworldly music accompanying it.

After this cultural immersion prelude, we (10 hikers in all) head out for our week-long trekking adventure! A ‘teaser’ first day to get our ‘walking legs’ and used to the tents, primitive latrines, and 2,850 m elevation, is quickly followed by the real thing: two days of 6-8 hours of strenuous hiking uphill in Jigme Dorji National Park at high altitude (for us, not the locals) over rough terrain of big rocks to reach Jomolhari Base Camp at 4,100m! It’s harder than I had feared – 39 km and 1,250m elevation change in two days. We pass many beautiful water falls, a few early blooming rhododendron bushes, water powered prayer wheels, and yaks around scattered small residences, and we follow along the power line that has brought electricity to very remote places, days of trekking removed from the closest dirt road. To our surprise, there is even cell phone connection (with the local SIM card) at all the major camps and the locals carry cell phones and solar chargers in the mountains!

I had no real clue about the logistics of trekking in the Himalayas before starting. It turns out that the 10 hikers have 2 guides, a Bhutanese one in front and a Nepalese sherpa in the back. We also have 6 kitchen staff including a phenomenal cook who prepare delicious food, 4 horsemen and 33 (not a typo) horses and mules to carry a duffle bag for each person, tents for hikers, guides, kitchen staff and horsemen, kitchen and mess tents, plus food for 7 days for 22 people and 33 animals – it’s a caravan!

Jomolhari view from base camp

We stay at Base Camp for two nights for ‘acclimatization’ before the planned further ascent over the highest pass on the trek. At night, temperatures drop to a shocking -15°C and it’s too cold to socialize! The reward the next morning is a stunning view of Mt. Jomolhari, crystal clear and lit up by the rising sun before it reaches our camp!

Acclimatization translates into ‘easy day hikes’ (Bhutanese interpretation), a ‘flat’ valley trail that only climbs 200m for the newbies in the group (like my husband and myself) and a more strenuous alternative for the experienced altitude trekkers. The air is thin up here and breathing is not easy but we enjoy the incredible vistas and the warmth of the midday sun whenever we get out of the strong wind.

Unexpectedly for this time of the year, it snows overnight. This makes the morning views even more spectacular. But our guide literally runs ahead to check out the conditions at the high pass we are scheduled to cross on day 5 and decides that it is impassable for people and animals. We climb up halfway towards the pass to two beautiful pristine glacial lakes (Tshophu) and the highest point we will reach at 4,380m where we take in the spectacular surroundings. With some disappointment, we then turn around rather than completing the planned loop trail, retracing our steps for the over 1,500m rocky descent in 2.5 days, the hardest thing yet us newbies have ever done!

Celebrating the completion of some 110 km of trekking together, we hop on a bus to join the parallel 1818 Cultural Tour group for 5 more days of fascinating visits in Punakha, Thimphu and finally the renowned climb up to the Tiger’s Nest, the 8th century monastery (Taktshang Goemba) established by Guru Rinpoche at 3,120m, which is everything it is said to be and surprisingly easy to reach after the past week.

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  1. Mary Ward

    Heidi, this is such an incredible summary of our trek! Thanks so much for writing it. It was wonderful to do this trip with you and your husband, Chuck. Best regards, Mary Beth Ward

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