Druk Path, Day 5
Technical Information is based on Dan’s watch. Below is the link to today’s trip information.
The rain had stopped falling by the time I crawled out of my sleeping bag and pulled back the fly on the tent. Nope – no rain: it was a wet snow.
The camp was quiet as we gathered our stuff and packed our black bags. The water level in the camp had risen overnight and now some of the stepping stones were underwater. I was glad to be leaving this campsite, although I wish that I had seen it under better conditions. The lake down the hill looked like it had a lot of potential and the small waterfalls coming down from the hills above would have been nice to explore on a warmer and drier day.
Hooray for waterproof boots!
Breakfast was a somber affair. Many of us were tired of the wet hiking and the cold camps. Chunjur had indicated that today’s hike would be a relatively short one (“Four hours. Plus plus.”) and tomorrow’s hike was three hours of downhill on a very muddy trail. While we nourished ourselves with toast, eggs and marmalade, Matt proposed to the breakfast club that we ask if we can combine both hikes into one. Yes, it might be a long day, but it would be worth it to end up at a hotel with hot showers and warm beds. He had me sold on the idea!
The group was mostly open to this idea, but a few people were content with the existing plan. We asked Chunjur to come in to the dining tent and Matt made his proposal. Chunjur looked thoughtful as he contemplated the idea and then suggested that when we reach the campsite later today, we re-visit the question. Fair enough – let’s get started!
One of the porters, cheerful as always
Today’s hike would reach the highest point on our trek – 4,090 meters (13,418 feet) but there would be nothing to see. The clouds that were currently dropping a wet mixture of rain and snow on the landscape ensured that the glistening, snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas would remain invisible to us.
The hiking itself wasn’t too bad. I am disappointed that I didn’t take more pictures, but the moisture and cold temperatures put a slight fog on my lens, leaving me with little choice of “if” I wanted to take pictures. So every once in a while I would catch up with Dan and remind him that he has a camera and he should use it.
(Dan’s) Early morning scenery
Considering that we were headed for our highest peak, I didn’t feel the elevation gain wear me down like it had on earlier days. If anything, I felt invigorated and cheerful. The rain/snow was cold, but my constant hiking movement meant that I felt warm. I was wearing just about every layer of clothing I had brought with me, including a twenty-year old Gore-tex jacket and water resistant pants. The key word there is “resistant”: about an hour into the hike and the pants had soaked through. But still, I was keeping warm by keeping moving.
(Dan’s) That’s me in the red, ascending another hill
(Dan’s) And here I thought I’d never see a snow-capped peak on this trek!
(Dan’s) Dan’s friend Ash, the real reason we’re on this hike
(Dan’s) The girls from Luxembourg
(Dan’s) Typical trail conditions today
(Dan’s) Ah, the views!
My feet were wet. Not because the boots leaked, but because the “water resistant” pants had soaked through to my liners underneath, which had then transferred the water down to my socks and now it sloshed merrily in my boots. Trapped there, of course, because the boots are waterproof.
I was surprised at how happy I was today. I really enjoyed the trail and the snow made me smile. I was warm enough and somewhere, in the back of my mind, was the thought that this could also be the last day of hiking. Actually, that part made me a little sad: I was enjoying the hiking today. What I really wasn’t looking forward to was another night of camping.
(Dan’s) Me catching up to the group
(Dan’s) One of the lakes that we passed by
(Dan’s) One of my favorite shots from Dan’s camera
At one point I caught up to the group at a prayer flag pass. They didn’t immediately start to hike away like they normally did as the back of the group caught up. Then I heard someone say that this was the highest point – we had made it! Irrationally I started to cry. I had been so worried about this trip, the hike, if I would be able to do it and just how comfortable and happy I would be during it…and now it was almost over. I was enjoying myself and now that the end was in sight, I didn’t want it to end.
(Dan’s) Most of the group at the highest point
(Dan’s) Annnnddd…heading back down
The trail took a turn downward and became more difficult to navigate. The mud was slippery, causing a few of us to fall. Our group strung out again but this time, due to the low clouds, we frequently lost sight of each other. I was in the middle and would pause to make sure those behind me knew which direction to take, all the while making sure that I didn’t lose sight of the person in front of me. Unlike every other hiking trail I’d been on in my life, there was no rule here in Bhutan to “stay on the trail”. Often a trail wasn’t even visible, as the tracks spread out across grassy fields. And the pack animals that followed us each day made their own way through the forests, creating multiple parallel trails. So it was important in this section, where there really wasn’t much of a single trail, to stay in sight of each other. The last few meters were especially tricky, since there were now buildings, fence lines and gates to navigate around. We finally all convened at the campsite, where a hot lunch was waiting for us.
This campsite was nothing like the previous ones. Here there were actual wooden buildings, and a real toilet, and well-drained tent sites. There were other buildings nearby that looked to be someone’s farm of sorts and even a monastery – we were no longer in the wilderness. But we were cold.
We stood inside one of the dry, wooden buildings and ate our lunch and drank hot tea. After the food had been eaten we continued to stand around, waiting for Chunjur to arrive and make the decision if we would all camp here, or if we could continue down the mountain to Thimphu and our hotel. I was freezing. My clothes were soaked. The only dry clothes I had with me (which technically weren’t even “with me” because they were on a horse somewhere on the trail) were a pair of shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. I was not looking forward to spending the night here, inside a less-than-adequate sleeping bag in less-than-adequate clothing. What was taking so long?
Finally Chunjur came back to where we were waiting and asked us to split into two groups: those who wanted to camp and those who wanted to continue. Only four wanted to stay, but twelve of us were ready to go. Chunjur then did what I never expected: he said that the twelve would go to the hotel, but the four could stay here. He would guide us down the mountain and then – incredibly – hike back up to spend the night at the campsite with the others. We’re talking about a three hour (plus plus!) hike that dropped 1,100 meters in just under 6 kilometers. Chunjur would make the hike and then immediately turn around to hike back up! With my absolute incompetence in gaining elevation, I was in awe.
I was also shivering. My teeth chattered. I couldn’t wait to get started and get the blood flowing once more. The group was slow to move, but eventually we were on our way. Chunjur had warned us that the way was steep and muddy. I thought of the short bit of “steep and muddy” just getting to the campsite and wondered what it would be like to have three hours of the same. Ah, no worries: the reward would be worth it. Besides, slow and steady wins the race.
Bonus! Second half of today’s hike
The trail crossed by the monastery and then became a road, wide and inviting and easy to navigate. After half an hour of hiking in the relative openness of the road and in the rain the trail darted off into the forest, but the falling rain wasn’t thwarted. The trail was indeed muddy, but it wasn’t very slippery. I had my trekking poles and with their support I zipped my way down the path.
Looking up the trail
Honestly, compared to the steep trail that led us down to the lakeside campsite a couple of days ago, this trail seemed almost flat. It was easy. It was fun. I was on a run!
A river runs though it (hard to see the elevation change in this shot)
(Dan’s) One of the more challenging sections
At the top, near where we had lunch, was a monastery. Actually, there are a few monasteries nearby and the area is called “Phajoding“. The trail we were one was a popular one for locals to travel to visit these monasteries. We passed a number of these pilgrams as they made their way up the mountain, often wearing simple sandals and carrying umbrellas and large packages.
Petra and I exited from the forest together and saw a bus waiting for us on the road below. Most of the group was already there, standing around in the light drizzle. Behind us was Sarah and one of the guides (always someone at the end of the line to keep an eye on us!). With Sarah’s arrival, we boarded the bus and departed for the hotel. It was a celebratory feeling in the bus as we made the thirty minute drive into town. Chunjur, on the other hand, simply turned around and headed back up the mountain.
Because this hotel night had been unplanned, Chunjur had done even more work than just escorting us to the bus. He also arranged for an additional night in town, and since the confirmed hotel for tomorrow did not have room for us tonight, we were going to stay in a different hotel. Chunjur arranged for the bus to pick us up at the trail head, our suitcases (which had been waiting for our return to civilization) to be delivered to the new hotel, and our black bags to be delivered the next day. What a hero!
Our hotel, Hotel Norbuling, was nice. Simple, clean and warm. We were handed room keys and dispersed to our quarters. Our suitcases would arrive in an hour and until then, Dan and I were essentially prisoners in our room, as we had nothing else to wear. So we took hot showers, rinsed the mud off of our boots and pants and hung our stuff up to dry. And then we waited.
The restaurant next door
After our suitcases arrived we could dress properly and leave the room. There was no plan for the evening, save for a dinner buffet in the hotel at seven o’clock. Most of us drifted down to the lobby, to the only place with comfy chairs. People were reviewing photos on their phones, uploading pictures to Facebook or just chilling with a bottle of beer until it was time for dinner. I thought that having a hot meal in a real restaurant would be a welcome change, but I think that the food on the trail was better. I have no idea how the cooks managed to fed us so well from food carried for days on the backs of the pack animals, but they did.
Tomorrow we’d get our bags, the rest of the group would join us and we’d move to our new hotel. We had a busy day ahead of us, but this evening it was all about watching TV full of commercials from India. India advertises a lot of motorcycles on their channels, which was interesting to see. We were fortunate (?) to even have a television to watch, as Bhutan lifted the ban on television only in 1999. It was the last country in the world to introduce television. and an article in The Guardian does not paint a pretty picture of the results of this integration to modern times.
The large bed, the soft pillows and the thick comforter felt amazing and I fell asleep quickly.