1 Wilderness Treks

Trekking over multiple days is not for everyone. There are no showers, running water or fresh clothing to snuggle into on cool mornings. Gone are the evenings when you can tiptoe barefoot to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Instead you have to pull on musty hiking boots and grab a headlamp to scurry outside to the toilet tent. But the payoff is mighty impressive. This chapter will take you along on three unforgettable treks through the wilderness of Bhutan and Iceland. In the first section we tackle Bhutan’s highest and longest trek, the Snowman trek. Then we shift eastward to the country’s most secluded and protected region to traverse between the alpine villages of Merak and Sakteng. The third section explores the eastern Lónsöræfi region of Iceland, a glacial wasteland where we escaped the crowds.

Let us start by exploring the enigmatic country of Bhutan. It lies in the Himalaya Mountains, with China to its north and India to its south. The country places top priority on its traditional culture and pristine environment. In fact, Bhutan’s constitution holds every citizen accountable as a trustee of the country’s natural resources for future generations, and holds the Royal Government responsible for conserving and protecting the environment. Foreign tourists must come with an approved local tour company and pay a fixed day rate as set by the government. This approach helps ensure high-quality, low-impact tourism. It seems to be working. The country ranks as one of the ten most bio-diverse regions in the world, and it is the only carbon-negative nation on the planet. Sixty percent of Bhutan’s land is protected, and logging for export is prohibited. This small kingdom makes a big impact.

During the first trek in this chapter, we traversed the northwestern corner of Bhutan. We crossed a route that had enticed us ever since we first visited the country in 2010. At that time, we learned of Bhutan’s most difficult trek, the Snowman trek. Due to high altitude, unpredictable weather and lack of infrastructure, only fifty percent of trekkers who attempt the journey actually complete it. The Snowman daunted us as much as it inspired us. In 2017, we tackled the trail ourselves. Between the summer monsoon rains and shifting winter snows, a sliver of opportunity opens from mid-September to early October to attempt this legendary track.

For me, the effort required to reach such isolated spaces made it all the more worthwhile. I would not give up an evening spent at five thousand metres on a Himalayan plateau beneath black boulders, creaking glaciers and the shadow of Gangla Karchung’s serrated ridge. Nor will I forget an encounter with a herd of takin, the national animal of Bhutan, foraging along a yak herders’ trail in northwestern Bhutan. These odd-looking Himalayan creatures resemble a cross between goats and muskox and gave us a quintessential Bhutanese welcome before they scurried away in the dense undergrowth.

That said, there are always moments of weakness. I recall the sixteenth night of our seventeen-day trek. We had camped next to a creek, alongside a picturesque valley overflowing with vegetation. It had been raining on and off for days. Streams became “boot cleaners,” a nickname earned after we had walked through a special blend of mud formed from dirt, rain, yak droppings and horse dung. As I slapped my hiking boots together before bringing them inside the tent, bits flicked across my face and into my eyes. I initially swore with disgust and aggravation. Then I caught myself. I had chosen this path. After a slow inhale, I grabbed one of my last wet wipes and eased back into our cozy, though slightly dank, tent. Life could certainly be worse.

During our second trek, we shifted to the far eastern region of Bhutan, which opened its borders to foreigners only in 2010. Our route stretched from the town of Merak to Sakteng, a village that can be reached only by walking for one to two days, depending on your route. We passed through highland forests where thirty-five species of rhododendron grew among broadleaf and coniferous trees. Rare red pandas and, according to local legend, the fierce yeti are known to lurk in these forests. In the words of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is a “lost world of biodiversity waiting to be discovered.”[1] This protected alpine is also home to a semi-nomadic people, the Brokpas, who welcomed us to share in their sacred ceremonies and local dances, brought alive in Chapter Four: Rare Festivals.

While just over two hundred thousand tourists visited Bhutan in 2017,[2] ten times that many people—over two million—travelled to Iceland during the same period.[3] A ring road circles Iceland and directs visitors to the island’s most popular sites. Icebergs bob in lagoons, glaciers groan and geothermal pools ease travellers’ muscles, achy after a day spent exploring. These are the images most people take from Iceland. Our target was something different, a lesser-visited part of the country. We wanted remote and rugged. We wanted unique.

East Iceland, the last of our three treks covered in this chapter, answered our call. We spent four days in the eastern Lónsöræfi region, encountering no one until our last night, when we met the caretaker of that evening’s hut. We found solitude in a barren expanse, brightened in places by colourful rhyolite canyons that looked as if they had been transplanted from a strange metallic world. The apparently empty öræfi—meaning an untouched wasteland or desert wilderness—of East Iceland showed its personality through tiny mosses and colourful rhyolite. Here we met Iceland’s exquisite emptiness, and it was an honour to glimpse it.

So, when this world feels too small, too connected by global networks and more chaotic by the hour, consider lacing up your hiking books and going far, far away. The minor hardships encountered on the way wash away from memory soon after the first warm shower. What remains are memories stuck in your mind forever. Those endearing moments are what I focus on in the upcoming sections, the glory beneath the grit.


Bhutan—Tackling the Snowman Trek

Challenge yourself to Bhutan’s highest, longest and toughest trek, climbing passes of over five thousand metres in elevation

The Experience

I tried to gently close our room’s heavy wooden door, but its shrill squeal shattered the silence of the guesthouse. “Did the local wildlife wake you up, too?” our friend casually asked. It turned out that minutes before, a mouse had leapt from its crevasse in the stone wall and landed in a bellyflop squarely on her face. I was not sure how she remained so calm. Rodents are my nemesis, the one type of creature that invariably send chills of disgust sweeping across my shoulders. For the next hour, my husband and I shot beams from our headlamps at every scuffle we heard, each tremble of dust, which occurred far too frequently in our close-quartered room.

Two friends, my husband and I were staying in the Koina guesthouse, a rustic stone building located in one of Bhutan’s most isolated Himalayan regions. In our room, four foam mattresses covered most of the ground, leaving just enough space for our packs and hiking boots. I tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore the mental image of a mouse settling down inside one of my boots or gnawing into my pack. Finally, I tucked my head underneath my sleeping bag and fell into a restless slumber. Sometime during the night, our friend was woken a second time when the aspiring Olympic mouse once again dived off the wall and landed smack onto her head. Our upcoming sixteen nights in tents were looking better by the minute. The next morning brought the appearance of another rodent, but of a different sort. When we visited the attached outhouse, an unmoving waterlogged rat sprawled beside the squat toilet’s water bucket. Not long after, we heard the caretaker giggle—and that was the last anyone saw of the unfortunate critter.

The primary caretaker was away, likely organizing supplies, so his wife managed the guesthouse by herself. The rock building was used mainly by traders and yak herders from villages higher in the mountain range, typically transiting supplies they had bought or were going to sell in the more populous town of Gasa, where we had started our trek. This hut was a busy transit point. We had heard stories of the guesthouse filled with up to one hundred travellers at a time. They would sleep on a stone floor, perhaps with a foam mattress if the traveller was lucky enough to nab one, snuggled tightly together so everyone could fit inside. Luckily during our stay, our trekking crew was the only group spending the night. Four rooms fanned out on either side of one central area, each approximately three metres by four metres. One of these was the caretaker’s kitchen-cum-shop-cum-bedroom.

We watched as she carried another supply of branches into her room to keep the old wood stove alight. She was a welcoming lady and a tough lady. She had little privacy, with the door to her room open for much of the day. The battered stove kept her niche warm and ensured that someone could usually be found huddled on the floor, more than likely rocking a warm mug of tea. She did not seem to mind our company inside her cozy space. Her sturdy but well-worn wooden stool sat behind the stove. A formerly silver-coloured kettle shared the stovetop with a large blackened pot, now a matched set tarnished by smoke and flames. She occasionally stirred the pot of steaming goodness. Before long, she filled a mug of the creamy masala ja (spicy tea with milk) and handed it to me. With my first sip, visions of the day’s mud faded, and I felt a subtle smile settle across my face.

It rained all night on that first night of our seventeen-day trek. We were in northwestern Bhutan, not far from the Tibetan border. The full Snowman trek can take up to twenty-five days along yak herder trails, but we had lopped off the initial section, as we had covered it in 2010 as part of the Jomolhari trek. We would camp in wilderness most of the time because only a handful of basic villages exist at these high elevations. Most inhabitants are yak herders who move to lower ground for the winter. For now, the rainy season was still upon us, but the winter snows would soon arrive and could make the passes uncrossable. With full Gore-Tex rain pants and jackets, we left the relative dryness of the hut and launched into day two.

Soon after we left the Koina guesthouse, the trail turned narrow. A steep scree edge sliced down the slope to our right. Some sections looked freshly washed away, but the trail remained relatively intact. A lone backpack lay on the gravel ahead of us. Two shiny rolls of corrugated sheet metal had come to a rest about twenty metres below. We noticed a stranded horse among the dirt and thickets, relatively unscathed. His harness hung useless as he shifted slightly and peered up at us. We heard his handler, the owner of the abandoned backpack, before we saw him behind a clump of bamboo stalks. Reeds crumpled as he slashed a pathway back up to the trail for the horse.

Most buildings in this region have zinc-coated metallic roofs. They offer durable, waterproof shelter. But without roads to supply such materials, rolls of the metal have to be hauled in on the backs of horses. This particular horse had been carrying just such a roll, as long as his back and practically touching his eyelashes. We had passed many strings of similar horses, all carrying rolls balanced lengthwise between their ears and tails. A few carried other necessities packed inside canvas sacks. It was a difficult balancing act. The horses needed to hold their heads down to avoid the sharp edges since the metal rolls jiggled with every step. It was not uncommon to see drops of blood splattered along the metal’s rim or scrapes near a horse’s ears or mouth. For the horse at the bottom of the scree, it was a lucky day. He could walk away. We thought of the horses carrying our trekking supplies. They were behind us and still had to cross this loose path. Fifteen horses in total were needed to carry our tents, food, gear and cooking equipment—enough to last seventeen days for our team of ten people. We were currently short three horses, which would join us from the town of Laya, a few days’ walk ahead.

We later learned that the royal family was planning to visit Laya in a few weeks. New tents and buildings were being constructed for the grand affair, which explained the stream of horses bringing supplies. Later that day, we met two young men who each carried a two-metre-long steel post on his back. The first man’s pole balanced against a pine tree as he took a break. It was not an easy feat to wield such a piece on your shoulders along a windy, slippery and arduous pathway. It made me feel like a novice as I watched each step closely to avoid slipping, with only a day pack to carry.

We heard stories of how Bhutan’s present king would visit similarly remote villages unexpectedly and in disguise. He wanted to see the real life of his subjects without the superfluous facade that comes with a typical royal visit. Perhaps it was these wanderings that spurred the improvements to the quality of life in remote Himalayan communities that we had heard so much about. For example, the road where we had started our trek was newly constructed. I use the past tense softly, as it was a work in progress rather than a work completed. A four-wheel-drive vehicle was still required to get through, and even our truck struggled through the thick sludge, ruts and rocks that formed the road. Huts made of canvas and tin had been strung along the edges of the work zone to house construction workers, mostly from India. I felt guilty walking past with moisture-wicking clothing and carbon hiking poles, frivolous luxuries compared to their basic conditions.

Kobelco excavators were the most commonly used equipment along these treacherous ravines. At times, we would come around a corner and find an excavator teetering on the edge of the road while its bucket chipped away rock and dirt. A few machines had been abandoned, many of them missing some critical part or listing at an awkward angle. We were told that two drivers had recently lost their lives on a section of the road we had passed through. The locals had mixed feelings about the road. It would ease access and hopefully bring prosperity to residents, yet such negative signs indicated the valley’s local deity, or “protector god,” was unhappy. Apparently, plans for a lama to conduct a cleansing ceremony were progressing, but bringing lamas to such a remote area was a costly affair. It was thought that a religious ritual would change the deity’s disposition and, in turn, protect workers from further accidents. Basically, it was an attempt to get the gods on their side. I was certainly glad to have left the construction zone after our first morning.

On the afternoon of our second day, the gods showed us their favour. After a steep, slick section, the trail flattened and transformed into a dry, leaf-strewn pathway. Not far ahead, we spotted a herd of odd-looking creatures. The esteemed Lama Drukpa Kunley allegedly conceived of these species in the fifteenth century. Folklore recounts how he stuck a goat’s head onto a cow’s body after a particularly delectable meal of goat meat and beef. This incredulous act created what is now Bhutan’s national animal, the takin. Eight of these peculiar animals sauntered through the trees towards us, munching grass and sniffing the ground. Their carefree pace abruptly stopped as they stared at us while we gawked back at them. Their muzzles were rounded like a moose’s. Their horns were small, more similar to a water buffalo’s curved crown than the straight pointed horns of a goat. The colour of their fur ranged from a golden hue to tones of dark chocolate, melding with the shadowed forest. Within moments, the lead animal veered into low shrubs and headed uphill where the trees thickened. Two young takins disappeared as soon as they stepped off the path and into the scrubby bush.

That night, we camped near an army post, down the valley from the village of Laya. A river raged below our campsite, and dense forest spread above us. We had passed the three-thousand-metre mark. While we were enjoying what we felt was a well-deserved cup of ja, two strangers popped through our dining tent’s doors. One man wore a light-grey down jacket, not the fatigues one might expect from a soldier. We listened to the man’s clear English with an Indian lilt as he explained that the pair were from a team of four men posted in the valley. Bhutan, being a small nonviolent Buddhist country, relies heavily on India’s military protection. Curious to see their camp, we readily accepted their offer to follow them. The Indian military camp lay just beyond the Bhutanese army camp, where we had earlier plugged in our rechargeable camera batteries, grateful for such a rare luxury in this remote valley. Otherwise, we relied on solar panels with a compatible battery pack.

The Indian base turned out to be different than my image of an army base. Inside the gate, a well-tended garden was cultivated in perfectly aligned rows. The quieter man pointed out bunches of coriander, spinach and garlic sprouting through the soil. Before long, they brought steaming mugs of masala chai to a picnic table. Four wee puppies then bounded into the yard, tumbling over one another. They were one month old and had definitively embedded themselves in camp life. As we sat around the table, our second day felt rather surreal. I had not expected to be enjoying flavourful tea with soldiers in an idyllic setting of lush forests, babbling rivers and cheerful puppies. After chatting for a while, we strolled back towards the Bhutan army barracks. By now, a few army families were working at various chores around their post. We talked with them as much as we could in our limited Dzongkha, declined to buy a woollen hat from an entrepreneurial army wife and collected our fully charged camera batteries.

Our third day was a rest day, or down day. We climbed four hundred metres to the town of Laya. The path was well used; after all, it provided the only access in or out of the village. Shaggy yaks stood off-duty and watched us walk past. They barely moved, raising questions about their reputation as skittish creatures. Cattle grazed in fields closer to town. For such an isolated community, there was a surprising number of new homes under construction. We soon learned that not only was the royal family coming for a visit, but the residents of Laya were also building new homes for themselves. Local entrepreneurs had mastered a rather unique livelihood—they harvested caterpillar fungus—and business was booming. The coveted cordycep mushroom had earned the people of Laya much more than their traditional yak herding or cheese making ever had.

The cordycep fungus attaches itself to young caterpillars. When the caterpillars hibernate, the cordycep infiltrates their bodies and essentially mummifies the unlucky larvae. The fungus continues to live inside its host and eventually emerges as a spike on top of the caterpillar’s head. This spike is the target of cordycep pickers. The fungus thrives in the high-altitude ranges of the Himalaya, like those surrounding the village of Laya, and has become a lucrative commodity over the last decade. Prices have soared as demand for this traditional medicine has shot up, particularly in China. The shrivelled mushrooms have been dubbed the Viagra of the Himalaya. Prices are reported to range from US$10,000 to US$50,000 for one kilo of the precious mushrooms. Our assistant cook had his own bag, which he was filling with the traditional love elixir in hopes of earning some extra cash when he returned to the city. I have since read that supply has started to subside, blamed on either warming temperatures or overharvesting, so the windfall gained by so many remote communities like Laya over the last decade may start to wither.

The greatest demand for caterpillar fungus came from China, and both the Laya and Lunana regions, which we were crossing, bordered Tibet. A busy trade route had developed between these mountainous districts. However, a few months earlier the government of Bhutan had closed its borders with China. Tensions with its massive neighbour were mounting. News reports focused on the Doklam plateau, a no man’s land between China and Bhutan that sits near India’s Sikkim territory. In June 2017, China had begun to construct a road leading up and into the disputed territory. Because India provides Bhutan’s military protection and because their own sovereign border lies close by, they played a key role in the situation. The Diplomat newspaper delved into this issue in their article “The Political Geography of the India-China Crisis at Doklam.”[4] Chinese armed soldiers were also rumoured to be crossing into Bhutan’s western region of Ha, which we had visited in 2010. The government of Bhutan warned that anyone trying to cross the border into China would be shot, quickly stifling the cordycep market.

As far as alternative industry, Laya had one guesthouse when we visited. Piles of wood created a low fence around the house, a stockpile for heating and cooking that should last the winter. Inside the yard, a cement basin supported the single water tap used by the guesthouse, with a bar of soap set conveniently beside it. The rest of the yard was filled with an assortment of black cable, metal bowls and plastic tubs. The owner led us up a ladder-like staircase to a small open-air landing. Before we turned a corner, I noticed the white skull of a yak resting on the floorboards. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dim room. Sunlight entered through a couple of small windows, which did little to brighten the low-ceilinged room. Beyond the wooden table and plastic chairs where we were served butter tea, a traditional hat hung on the wall. The women of Laya prefer this thatch hat, which is woven into a conical shape. It may not be warm or cozy, but it certainly exudes a distinctive fashion sense. As we sat around the wooden table, the drizzle outside turned heavy. Steep hills in the distance faded behind an opaque mist while droplets dripped off the guesthouse’s metal roof. Butter tea is not my favourite drink, but the warmth and dry location made it enticing enough to stay awhile.

The streets of Laya meandered along a course that had naturally evolved as each house was built or a family’s needs expanded. Recent steady rains had turned the narrow tracks into a gooey mess of mud mixed with animal droppings. At one point, the pathway split. One direction wrapped down through a home’s front entrance while the alternative connected with a few neighbouring houses. If we wanted to reach the fifteenth-century dzong (“fort monastery”) at the end of town, we would have had to climb over a fence and onwards through someone’s buckwheat field. Instead of intruding, we watched from afar. From the small temple, freshly painted boards flashed in the sunlight, and echoes of hammering drifted our way. The dzong had been damaged in a recent earthquake, but we were assured its original foundation stood strong.

Before heading back to our campsite, we passed through Laya’s schoolyard. The school was built in the shape of a U with doors facing towards the centre field where we stood. Posters with English phrases hung on the walls. A few brave kids said “Hello,” and we answered back in the local Dzongkha, “Kuzuzangbola.” About two hundred children attended this primary school, although we could see only a handful as we walked past. They travelled from their home villages across the entire Laya and Lunana regions to board at Laya’s school. Older kids went farther south to attend a senior boarding school in Gasa, the town where we had started our trek.

Back in camp, a new tent had been raised while we were away. It was not large, perhaps half a metre square, but high enough to stand in. This was our shower tent. Even though we were only three days into our trek, the thought of a cleansing shower was tantalizing. Wet wipes were fine, but a sudsy shower would be sublime. I slipped open the tent’s door flap. There stood a stick, stuck relatively firmly into the ground. A plastic sack hung from a notch of a broken branch. A hose ran from its base and ended at a spray nozzle. The concept seemed solid. It relied on gravity to force the water out once a release valve was opened.

In practice, the contraption did not function so smoothly. Once I turned the cap to open the water flow, water spilled out of the base of the water bag instead of funnelling through its hose. After several futile attempts to tighten and adjust the contraption or to squat on the ground underneath the bag of dripping water, I decided to try a more basic approach. A tin bowl of warm water had been set on the ground in the shower tent, and this turned out to be a far more effective way to splash and scrub. After bathing I felt slightly better, but left the tent with more grass and mud on my feet than when I had entered. And my enthusiasm for another shower on the trek quickly dissipated. The jumbo-sized baby wipes that I had stuffed inside a Ziploc bag would have to suffice.

Over the next few days, we continued our climb. Tall pine trees and billowing rhododendrons gave way to scrubbier bushes. Boulders emerged from thickets, their hard edges softened by patches of moss and splotches of white lichen. The path followed the Rhodu Chhu, a frothy river beside which yak herders had built the occasional stone hut. For one night, we camped on a grassy bank near the water’s edge. Our cooks used one of the huts for their kitchen and turned its spacious dry interior into our dining room.

By our fifth day, Tsomo La beckoned us. In Dzongkha, la refers to a mountain pass, and we would cross several high passes along the Snowman trek. Throughout the Himalaya, prayer flags are hung across passes to catch the wind. Each string of flags has five swatches of cloth that correspond with the five elements: blue for sky, white for clouds or wind, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. The flags are imprinted with prayers or mantras, which are believed to be carried by the wind and scattered as blessings to whomever they touch.

We climbed two false summits before reaching the actual Tsomo La at 4,900 metres. My husband and I were the first to arrive. The wind was eerily calm for such a high ridge. I clambered on top of some rocks for a better view. Farther west, the domineering Mount Jomolhari rose to a height of 7,314 metres. We had hiked to its base camp, Jangothang, in 2010.

As is the custom, we had brought a string of prayer flags.[5] We pulled it out and tied one end of the string to a rock and the other to an existing flag already tethered securely. Piles of flat rocks had been stacked at the pass, and their pointed tips provided convenient anchors for fastening flags. A muddied old yak horn was also wedged into one of the larger piles. The wind whipped the splashes of colour in an endless flutter, embodying the music of the passes. It also brought mist, a damp thickness that soon condensed into droplets. Before long, we were clothed in complete rain gear and had pulled out our pack covers and given in to the urge to continue moving. We tramped towards a vaguely visible lake shrouded in drizzle. The mood of the deluge shifted once more, and transformed it into sleet. Pellets ricocheted off my jacket before changing again, this time into tiny snowflakes.

The weather’s fickle personality seemed to feed our sense of isolation. We all turned inward, lost in our own thoughts as our feet carried us farther. Hat off. Jacket off. Jacket back on when the wind picked up again. A cluster of blue sheep scampered along the rocks in the distance. They looked more grey than their namesake hue. We hiked on. The views started to open up. Spiky peaks of the Gangla Karchung range became visible. A rumble sounded in the distance. It reminded me of thunder, but it was a different type of crash. One of the fingers of drifting ice that grasped these peaks had lost a chunk of its icy tips. Fog rolled in. Its white puff slithered across the slate-coloured mountain range, and the fusion of light and dark merged into a haunting aura.

Huge black boulders lay around our campsite, daring me to climb atop them in search of the perfect post-hike resting spot. I succumbed. From the edge, I could look straight across to a giant glacier, dirty with grit and ever so slowly pushing its way across the rocky face. Nature’s strength was clear here. It was impossible not to feel a sense of awe, of respect, and a little sadness that there are so few perfectly magical places like this left in the world. After a long day’s hike, just standing there watching the snow, rock and fog swerve above me filled me with energy. The sheer silence, beyond the occasional rumbling when a glacier calved, felt intoxicating. My motivation for the days to come surged.

Our camp sat at an elevation of nearly five thousand metres. A breed of ravens that live above four thousand metres soared overhead. Plant life at this height was particularly striking. Stalks of wild rhubarb with leaves that had turned a creamy colour grew here and there, their white horns poking out from the mountainside and contrasting with the grey rock. Deep purple flowers nuzzled another plant’s slender leaves that stretched low to the ground. Elsewhere a brilliant blue flower bloomed when the sun shone but clamped shut by early evening and stayed that way until dawn warmed it open again.

The next morning, clear skies exposed the great peak of Teri Gang, soaring to a height of 7,300 metres. Our guide said it was the first time in three years he had been able to see its peak from the pass that lay just beyond our campsite. The remainder of the day felt like an endless downhill traverse. We passed a pack of blue sheep grazing to our left. One youngster seemed to have overdosed on its morning caffeine. While its elders munched tufts of grass, it ran. This little guy raced circles around the flock and often hopped onto a massive boulder for added mountaineering practice. To our right, a glacier arm ended at an avocado-coloured lake. It looked innocent, but local alpine communities have been flooded in recent years as the glaciers have melted and receded. With the thawing ice, boulders loosen and create a hazard to the glacial lakes’ fragile balance, causing them to overflow. We were told that a team of scientists from Japan were installing monitors in a nearby glacial lake. These devices were intended to send warnings to nearby residents and meteorologists if waters suddenly rose.

As we dragged our aching feet into camp about seven hours later, we were met by more than our horsemen. Four hairy yaks were lined up on the grass between the creek and the lush hill that enclosed our camping area. Each yak had a red tassel dangling from its ear, likely a marker to indicate who it belonged to. Their owner had tied them to a single rope but worked with each animal one by one. First, he tied the yak’s legs. Then the yak herder gave a twist to the animal’s tail. It was not an aggressive move, more of a suggestive manoeuvre that encouraged the beast to lie down. From there, it was given its allotted salt dosage. After heavy hauling and a long day’s walk, this essential mineral was just what the animal needed. The yak herder then untied it, and it was free to wander for the remainder of the night.

We saw this same exercise later in our trek, except it took place in a family’s front yard. Three daughters worked the rope while another person tried the tail-twisting trick. This group did a lot of sidestepping, circling and occasionally dipping down in an attempt to pull the animal to its knees. Their yak performed a similar dance in return. We watched for about ten minutes. They proceeded to prod and play with the animal until it finally laid on the ground, ready for its salt lick.

The four yaks at our camp were members of a group of eleven. As I crept out of our tent in the morning, they stood together. Their bodies steamed as the cool air touched their matted fur. The yaks were connected to a central rope. Shorter offshoots circled their forehead and horns before being knotted to the main line. The animals were fed from this position. I imagined they felt as groggy as I did. Then their gear was loaded, tightened and adjusted before they were ready to go. They stood resolute, sometimes scratching a leg with a turn and rub of their horn. They may not have known, but their lives were about to change. Families from this high mountain range had been yak herders for generations. However, as new technologies crept into their consciousness, children were losing interest in the trade. After all, it was a hard life living outdoors, camping continually, searching for clean water and hauling everything you own day after day. Those eleven yaks that we watched were being led to the nearest town. The father had decided to sell his herd. His health had deteriorated. His eldest son had died, and his daughter—at six years of age—was too young to manage the animals. So he was left with no choice but to sell and retire his family’s tradition. Although the mountains felt idyllic to us as visitors, life here presented an entirely different reality.

Yaks grazing near Thoencha
Yaks grazing near Thoencha

I thought about the yak herder’s situation and considered how life moves in unexpected ways. Is it all just a game? Do we reset the go button every morning when we wake and define the day’s path by how we respond to events that are continually lobbed our way? That process of being served, assessing and reacting is really just a volatile game of endurance that is repeated every morning. It does not matter where we live, what job we toil at or what type of family we were born into. We all have to face what is thrown at us, kick it back and play on.

That day we walked past a milky river named Pho Chhu. Delicate mauve flowers grew behind moss-covered rocks, and rows of bleached white scree alternated with red-tinged rock. At one point, two red sections framed a white strip of scree and reminded me of the Canadian flag in abstract art form. We had reached the Lunana region. This is one of the most remote areas of Bhutan. Most people survive in these tough mountain conditions by herding yaks, harvesting caterpillars or both. We passed the small settlement of Woche on a plateau. Below, valleys intersected with near-vertical slopes shrouded with juniper trees and shrubs. Vegetable gardens, fields of buckwheat and red potatoes grew between the houses. White-crusted peaks reminded us we were deep in the Himalaya.

One lady carried an armful of buckwheat in her arms while her baby’s wide eyes focused on us. He was bundled in thick layers of warm clothing and strapped onto her back with a band of handwoven material. We watched as a family harvested their field of buckwheat; some sliced, some piled and some tied the bundles into neat bunches. Another lady sat in her garden filling a white sack with red potatoes. She wore a long skirt made from woven wool. Everyone was completely relaxed when we arrived. They smiled and carried on as we walked past their homes. I could not help but notice a sense of health and contentment here. They were a beautiful people, with clear skin and perceptive eyes. Although the area was remote, houses were built in Bhutan’s distinctive style. Wooden slats bisected whitewashed walls. The wood was painted with an intricate design of flowers, animals and other small patterns. Background colours alternated between dark grey and a soft orange.

During our trek, this idyllic geography was not always inclined to such perfection. Blue skies turned grey. I unzipped all the ventilation slats on my rain jacket. Although we were high up in the mountains, it still felt muggy. I thought of stopping to remove my boots and pull on waterproof pants, but they kept out not only the wet, but also any airflow. The trekking pants I wore dried quickly and would be much cooler, so my waterproof pants remained folded at the bottom of my pack. Instead, my bottoms started to turn a motley pattern of blue, darker where the raindrops accumulated. Twenty minutes later they were an even shade of dark blue.

I had never worn gaiters much prior to this trek, but they kept the slop off my pants. Imagine sliding into a tent with sticky pant legs—and not just from water and dirt. These trails were used by animals. With animals come plops that quickly get mixed into the mud. We did not need that extra scent seeping into our dreams.

Although we were trekking in the middle of the Himalaya, we passed through a valley filled with sand. Low knolls and wide expanses made the scene look more like a desert than a mountain range. A few buildings came into view in the distance. Was it a mirage? No, this was the town of Thoencha. It would be our home for our ninth and tenth nights, which marked the longest continual trek my husband and I had done. We were halfway through. As we settled into camp, most people from town came out to take a look. We were the circus who had come to their town, or so it seemed. Kids giggled, curious about these funny strangers. They loved to pose for photos and then look at themselves in our camera screens.

Local lady and her child near Thoencha
Local lady and her child near Thoencha

For our rest day, we walked a couple of hours up the valley along a ridge. I noticed a hut in the distance. It was made mostly from stone, with a blue tarp across part of the roof. Two children played outside. Later I noticed they had moved closer to me. When they were within earshot, I called out “Kuzuzangbola.” They stopped in silence. The older sister slowly walked nearer but continued to play with her younger brother, pretending not to see me. I sat down. They edged closer. And closer. Soon they were standing a metre behind me. I tried my greeting once more. They stared back. The little boy’s nose ran. Their clothing was somewhat tattered, but there were enough layers to keep them warm. I made an attempt to find out their names by pointing to myself while saying my name. When I opened my hands in their direction, they stared at me blankly. I continued with my mimes but did not get a word out of them. Twenty-five minutes later, I decided to move along.

Although education in Bhutan is free, parents must buy a national uniform for their children to attend school. This expense is too much for most yak herders, so I doubted either child had or would get any education. This is the reason that many kids are sent to monasteries or nunneries. There, they can get an education and ease the financial burden on their parents.

By day twelve, we faced our second-highest pass, Jaze La, which reaches 5,150 metres. It was initially hidden from view, around a few curves at the end of the valley we were hiking through. The air seemed different on this day. There was not a sound to be heard besides the crunching of stones beneath our shoes. Grey glacier arms poked around spiky mountain peaks. Rocky banks lined the valley. White lichen splashed across grey rocks as if Mother Nature had tried to reflect the glaciers of the massive landscape above us. Bushes with vibrant red leaves lit up the slopes and poked out from behind boulders. Their colour contrasted with the greyness everywhere else, as if they were sending a warning: “Don’t mess with us. We may be small, but we are mighty.”

In some sections, the trail nearly disappeared, so my husband and I followed the assistant cook. He had diligently carried our lunch every day, a countdown until noon when his load would be lightened. He was a quiet young man, more focused on clicking photos and gathering medicinal plants than on becoming a professional camp chef. He did not say much as we climbed the valley. We covered five tiers before we finally reached the ultimate pass. At the end of each level, a flat, sandy section made it easier to gulp down a few extra swigs of the thin oxygen. The ambience felt off. I listened and heard nothing. This was the meaning of pure silence. Not even the call of a raven pierced its calm, and the normally eccentric breeze had disappeared. The pass itself was a vacant plateau. Prayer flags, most of them faded and worn thin, settled across rocks. I knew the sun would quickly dull our new string of flags.

As we crossed into the next valley, a new shot of colour entered the scene. The grey facade cracked. Cobalt moraine lakes speckled the lower levels beyond the pass. Birds flitted overhead, and flowers in blue and red sprouted from sparse soil. The landscape seemed to have found its breath.

On our thirteenth day, we hiked through mist, rain and sleet. On this twenty-third day of September, Bhutan celebrated the auspicious Blessed Rainy Day, which was supposed to mark the end of the rainy season. We should have enjoyed sunny days and dry paths ahead. But climates change, and the rain clouds seemed out of sync with this festive turning point. Even the wee blue flowers had decided to clamp their coloured petals shut, with no sun to warm them open. The scenery varied over the day. A fuzzy fungus spread across a hillside, as if some rogue 1970s carpet salesman had unrolled a multi-toned orange shag to cover the rubble. Nineteen kilometres later we arrived at camp, and the sun finally decided to make an appearance. Our moods lightened, and that night we fell asleep to the sound of the crew singing from the cooking tent.

Our crew was an interesting mix. One chef used to be a monk, and the horseman had previously been the regional representative for his municipality. Our assistant cooked planned to become a professional truck driver, and our guide originally trained as a nurse.

By day fourteen, we had yet to tackle the highest pass. This would be the day. Rinchen Zoe La reaches 5,320 metres. Beyond the mere physical challenge, this day’s walk dished out an array of delightful sights. My husband had been trying to get the perfect sunrise photo over the past few days, easing himself out of our tent by five o’clock in the morning, day after day. Today was different. Frost had crusted our tent, making it one of the coolest nights we had spent, and squirming out of a toasty sleeping bag was distinctly less inviting. But on this particular morning, his nemesis, the mist, had conveniently decided to slip away. In its place, blazing beams tickled the peaks all along the valley down from our camp, like a jagged smile filled with a mouthful of golden teeth. This was an exciting start to what turned out to be a memorable day.

The trail may have been pebbly and grey, but it was far from dull. A glint to the right caught my eye. We climbed a little higher and found a turquoise lake poised utterly still. Farther up, a second lake showed a different expression. This water was less intense. Instead, it had absorbed a pile of sediment, so it looked more like a green milkshake than a mountain lake. The atmosphere was hushed as we climbed. The ravens had disappeared once again. Only the rustling of prayer flags could be heard once we turned the final bend and came within a few metres of the pass itself. Reams of prayer flags had been placed here. Their bright colours fanned out from the trailhead like a spider’s web, reaching for the higher rocks and boulders that surround Rinchen Zoe La.

After saying our thanks for reaching this height, we trooped onwards. An occasional yak herder’s hut had been built near the trail. Sometimes all that remained was a lone rock wall, waiting for its next use. Other times, a large blue tent had been set up as the modern version of a yak herder’s home.

This brings me to the main disappointment along this trek, the garbage. In 2010, my husband and I hiked the nine-day Jomolhari trek. There had been no stray refuse on that route. Random medicinal plant pickers kept to themselves and left no trace. There was nothing but rough ground and wooden fences around the vacant yak herders’ huts. So I was taken aback to find sections of the Snowman trek strewn with chip bags and beer cans. I had expected it to be surrounded by even more pristine wilderness than the Jomolhari trail. To be fair, this mess was not everywhere. Few tourists attempt this trek, and most reputable companies carry out any garbage that cannot be burned. That said, there are always exceptions. We were told that the tourism council coordinates annual garbage-picking campaigns; however, I could not help but think it created a self-perpetuating job for those who discarded the rubbish and were later paid to go back and collect the very junk they had tossed. There must be a better way to reallocate the funds and incentivize cleanliness.

During our final trekking days, our daily climb switched to a daily decline. We would soon leave the dramatic peaks and glaciers that had become our neighbourhood. It was as if the landscape had come together to throw us a send-off party. Steep rocky ravines came alive with shrubbery in tones of yellow and green. We passed the sacred lake of Om Tsho. A crown of prayer flags fluttered around the rivulet where its sacred waters flowed. Waterfalls jumped out of crevices and danced in eccentric leaps across black rock. I turned back the way we had come to look at a crag on our route. It was cut so narrowly into the scree along a natural snake-like crease that it was barely visible. Ahead, a small lake of blue essence embraced the morning sun. A bleached yak skull balanced on a boulder, still clutching the long horns of a beast no longer in this world. Although the blessed Om Tsho sat well above us, this little pond felt more spiritual. I could only imagine the pilgrims who would camp on the grassy bank and the ceremonies that would transpire.

We tramped lower and lower. Mist often diluted the air, and vapour clouded the valley. The Nikka Chhu, a gentle river, guided us. Silver fir and pine trees covered the hillsides, and fuchsia flowers sprouted from low bushes. Near midday, the trees gave way to a small clearing. The ground had turned into a sludge of muck and yak dung, an indistinguishable gooey mess. This meadow surrounded an enterprising business, the only one we had seen for days. The wooden store was protected from yaks by a rail fence. I peered into the dark shop through the window. It had no glass and doubled as the sales counter. My eyes gradually adjusted to the shadowy room. One wall was dedicated to the local Druk beer and whiskey bottles. The remainder of the shelves were piled with instant noodle packs, soft drinks and bags of chips—not exactly the healthiest essentials. Everything would have been carried in on the back of a yak or some hard-working horse. A lone caretaker managed the shop. He spoke no English, and our three words of Dzongkha took us only so far. A few grey curls sprouted from his head to frame the widest grin I had seen in the Nikka Chhu valley. Actually, he was the only person we had seen in the valley. His smile was unique nonetheless. Most of his front teeth were missing, but that smile never faded. Perhaps he was relieved to have some company for an hour on this otherwise lonely afternoon.

Soon after we arrived at our campsite, a warm mug of spicy ja was ready. I think this might have been the favourite part of the day for the horsemen, who had finished unloading everything and could chill out for the rest of the afternoon. Our guide was nursing a sprained ankle and headed towards our final destination, the town of Sephu, to try to catch a cellphone signal. We later learned that he camped in an empty hut before reaching Sephu. Soon after he settled in, a troop of wild boars scurried past, and he managed to catch a video of them with his phone. Later, a bear tried to enter his hut, but our guide scared it off. Once again, our tent seemed preferable.

The Snowman trek is one of those experiences where the journey is far more rewarding than the destination. Our final few steps carried us up a knoll. There stood a wooden sign, marking that we had arrived at the town of Sephu. I scanned the meadow. One farmhouse sat at the end of a gravel road. A few horses munched grass. We camped our last night in the field. That afternoon, we lounged in the folding chairs that we had grown accustomed to sitting in for every meal over the past seventeen days. Our driver had arrived with a case of Druk 11000. I must admit, I am not a fan of lager, but that lukewarm bottle tasted good.

The Basics

Most useful item to pack: Scarpa Kailash GTX, Zanskar GTX or your favourite waterproof hiking boots, with the added protection of a layer of Zamberlan’s Hydrobloc waterproof treatment applied in advance

Useful words in Dzongkha: kuzuzangbola (“hello”); kaadinchheyla (“thank you”); la (“mountain pass”); mani (“carved with prayers, such as on a small wall or pillar”); and momos (“dumplings”).[6]

For more, refer to visitbhutan.com/useful_words_phrases.html.

For further travel information: Bhutan requires most foreigners to travel with a government-approved tour company and pay a regulated day rate. The government’s intent is to promote high-quality, low-impact tourism. Whether you prefer to travel independently or on a group tour, it should cost about the same because of the standardized pricing system. The Tourism Council of Bhutan provides loads of information at tourism.gov.bt/plan/minimum-daily-package.

We first used Rainbow Tours & Treks in 2010, and the founder, Sonam Wangmo, has grown the company into one of the larger operators in Bhutan. Sonam continues to take an active role in running the business. You may even meet her while staying at the company’s own Naksel Boutique Hotel & Spa, located just outside of Paro—home of Bhutan’s international airport. Further information is available on their website: rainbowbhutan.com.

Rainbow does an excellent job at organizing high-quality, personalized trips. For our trek, they provided all essential equipment including warm and clean sleeping bags, sleeping mattresses, pillows, hand towels and two-person tents. They also coordinated virtually everything related to the trek including guides, permits, meals, cooks, horsemen, horses, first aid amenities and all camping equipment.

Route: My husband and I had wanted to tackle the Snowman trek ever since we first visited Bhutan in 2010. It was then that we heard of this infamous twenty-five-day trek, purportedly the hardest hike in the world. We would need to train. We would need to save, for Bhutan is not a cheap country to visit given the mandated day rate. Seven years later, we were ready. There are two variations to the Snowman trek. The first ends in Sephu, while the second ends in the village of Duer and includes a stop at a hot spring.

We opted for a modified version. Since we had previously hiked the initial route as part of the Jomolhari trek, we cut this out and started from Gasa. This reduced the duration to seventeen days. The longest hike we had done up until this point was nine days, and at the time we had sworn never to do such a long trek again. So seventeen days was daunting enough.

This trek is arduous. You need to train in advance, both physically and mentally, to get through so many days of continuous hiking at high altitudes in changing weather conditions. The weather window is brief and uncertain. If you leave too early, you risk getting caught in the monsoon rains and extremely muddy conditions. If you depart much later, the snows can cause havoc. Weather patterns fluctuate from year to year, so even within these parameters, the decision is not completely clear. We started our trek on September 11 and completed it on September 28. Our guide later told us that a group who attempted a couple of weeks after us were caught in snow and had to be airlifted out of the valley. This predicament is not uncommon. Estimates indicate that only fifty percent of trekkers complete the Snowman trek. The biggest risks are getting snowed in on one of the passes or having to turn back because of altitude sickness.

We followed the guidance in Lonely Planet’s Bhutan Travel Guide coupled with Rainbow’s local advice. Acclimatization days were hugely beneficial for getting accustomed to the elevation gain and easing into day-after-day hiking. These days were called “rest days” on our itinerary; however, we still hiked for a few hours. On most days we covered sixteen kilometres and approximately one thousand metres of elevation gain or loss. That correlated into six to eight hours of hiking each day.


Bhutan—Treading Mystical Lands along the Merak to Sakteng Cultural Trek

Hike through one of the last untouched zones in Bhutan alongside semi-nomadic highlanders and alpine biodiversity

The Experience

It was the wispy tail of smoke that first caught my eye. The silent, ashen haze spiralled upwards from the hilltop above and to the right of where I was walking. Rectangular white prayer flags hung from hand-cut poles that stood near a small group of people sitting around a fire. Flags in yellow and red also hung nearby. They rippled in the wind like a flight of doves rushing ancestral prayers to the cosmos. My eyes darted back to the trail. It was strewn with rocks and splattered with animal dung, making it impossible to look away for long.

We had started hiking less than half an hour earlier from eastern Bhutan’s isolated village of Merak. The route headed farther east to reach even more remote communities accessible only by foot. It would take us two days to hike from Merak to Sakteng and another full day to hike from Sakteng to the nearest road.

The pathway I followed veered left, and a cluster of juniper trees blocked the gathering from view. My eyes soon gravitated higher where another stream of smoke swivelled towards the sky. Once again, a small band of people huddled around smouldering branches. They sat in an open area, likely where animals often grazed. A spindly tree trunk, barren of most of its branches, stuck out of the ground at an unnatural angle. Instead of a prayer flag, this pole held a clump of scrawny twigs at its tip. I instinctively knew that the people were not cuddling together for warmth, nor were they preparing a meal over a fire. Their stone houses stood nearby, freshly whitewashed, indicating a certain level of prosperity.

The Brokpas, a semi-nomadic community, live in this region. These highlanders have their own distinctive language, dress and customs. These families were Buddhist, yet they were practising an ancient pagan ritual, a practice kept alive for centuries. An undercurrent of Bon beliefs flows throughout these remote hill villages of Bhutan. When Guru Rinpoche, the “precious master,” originally brought Buddhism to Bhutan, he allowed people to integrate their existing belief system into Buddhism. In effect, residents adopted a hybrid faith with layers of their old Bon beliefs filtering through their new ideology. To this day, local Bon deities continue to be honoured. Deities are believed to protect a particular area, such as a valley or a mountain. It was for just such a local deity that smoke danced into the sky on the day we were hiking.

Bon practices are conducted by each family, not by a communal priest or spiritual leader. I looked across the hill and could see slight movement among the group. The eldest father would be leading the ritual. On this occasion, a sacrifice was made, which could have been anything from a rooster to a sheep or local cow, depending on what the family could afford. The carefully prepared liver and head were believed to remove obstacles, bring wealth and heal the sick if offered in the prescribed format. Pieces would be added to the coals, eventually rising as elements of the smoke and carried across the valley. This community handed down such pagan practices across generations but kept them private compared to the more widely accepted Buddhist traditions.

Is this not the epitome of tolerance, where one person can believe in two faiths? As an outsider, I found it confusing how one could sacrifice an animal as a gift for a local deity while believing in Buddha’s premise of nonviolence. Likewise, Buddhism does not condone killing another creature of any kind, yet most Bhutanese ate meat. The clearest explanation I received was a practical one. People need to eat. They need protein. If an animal has been killed by someone else or by accident, or apparent accident, then the Bhutanese found it acceptable to eat it while giving due respect. In the process, they gave thanks for the animal through prayers. The slaughterhouses were based in India, and the meat was imported to Bhutan. In essence, a practice had been built to fit the people’s perspective. As far as the Bon sacrifice, I presume their prayers of respect for the animal and the purpose of its offering satisfied a higher spirit and superseded the act of killing. Essentially, pragmatism beat definitive rules.

The sacrificial ceremony I was seeing continued unabated. They were too far away and too engrossed to be distracted by a few strangers walking by. I wondered if they had enjoyed a prosperous year or were trying to atone so that a better year would come. Was their deity satisfied or did it need placating?

The people of Merak are gradually emerging into the modern world. A couple of years before our visit, electricity had been introduced to the town. Slight shifts were visible. Mobile phones could connect to the national network, and portable solar panels hung from windows. The road—if you can call the two rutted tracks that needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle to manoeuvre a formal road—had been completed a few months before. Prior to this, the town of Merak had been accessible only by foot—be it on your own feet, by horse, by dzo or by zhom. A dzo is the male and a zhom the female cross between a yak and a local cow, resulting in a strong yet more docile animal than a purebred yak. Both the males and females had smooth black horns that curved across their heads and long-haired tails that nearly dragged on the ground.

I looked back across the town where shiny new roofs reflected in the sunshine. Rows of rocks had been placed on top of the metal sheets to ensure the roofing did not blow away. The stones also acted as pseudo-shelves for assorted items placed on the rooftops. Most homes splayed their favourite vegetable, the chili, across the top to dry. Baskets of wild mushrooms also shared the space, shrivelling in the open air. Dirt streets merged into front yards, consistently swept clear of clutter, leaving only the ridges from broom bristles as evidence. This was one of the tidiest towns I had come across in Bhutan. The pathway leading out of town was not speckled with empty chip bags, Druk 11000 beer cans or discarded plastic containers, as I had noticed along sections of the Snowman trek. This place had a different feel, one of order and pride.

We were hiking alongside a few men from the town. They had put our gear and food into handwoven baskets and strapped them onto the backs of their dzos and zhoms. A handwoven extension was fitted around the leather pack strap and beneath the animal’s tail, adding cushion so as not to rub its skin raw. This piece was typically bright in colour with pink and beige triangular designs. Nine dzos and zhoms hauled our gear, supplies, food and anything else needed for our trek. Such trade was one way that tourism was helping the local economy, but on a small, sustainable basis as it went directly to the individual families who owned the animals. The heart of the locals’ lifestyle remained entrenched in herding and farming, using the same methods their grandparents had been taught.

We had entered a protected environment, the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. Its boundary encompasses a 650-kilometre valley including the villages of Merak and Sakteng. Eighty-three percent of the people living in this remote region rely on livestock to make a living.[7] Although these hills are covered in forest, patches have been cleared to grow crops. Some areas open into alpine meadows. This secluded area is also home to the endangered red panda and vulnerable snow leopard.

I could not help but consider whether the delicate balance of tradition had been ruffled as modern changes edged closer. We were told that some locals resisted the government’s decision to open the region to tourists. His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the King of Bhutan, had visited the town of Sakteng to discuss the transition. He and the queen would have hiked along the same path we now followed. The king supported an approach to progress that would prioritize the protection of Sakteng’s traditional practices.

Harvesting buckwheat in Sakteng Valley
Harvesting buckwheat in Sakteng Valley

When we passed through, there were no other travellers in any of the villages we passed or along the trails. So far, this region has remained the remote oasis of past generations. We savoured our glimpse into this isolated area. The path was not arduous. The first and highest la (“pass”) reached 3,900 metres and seemed more a high ridge compared to the lofty passes we had crossed on the Snowman trek. Coloured prayer flags, worn translucent from the constant beating of wind, fluttered as we neared the pass. Piles of stones marked its highest point. Farther down the other side of the ridge stood a yak herder’s stone hut. Pitchfork-like poles rose near the building. They were actually bare tree trunks wedged into the ground with twigs that stretched skyward tied to the poles’ tips. Although ominous from a distance, they were placed out of respect and as a local custom. Farther along the path, rhododendron and juniper forests filled our view. Shrubs grew in most of the space beneath the trees. Moss took over where the brush stopped. We came across an occasional grass paddock, thick with mud and tufts of grass for grazing dzos and zhoms.

Midway through the first day, a light mist started to fall. In our earlier Snowman trek, the transport sacks had been lined with plastic to ensure everything remained dry. We had a new crew for this trek, and I had not seen them line the bags with plastic sheets when the animals were initially loaded. When I asked our guide, he shrugged and replied indifferently. We were nearing five weeks together, and I sensed his anticipation to return to his family. Within a few minutes, however, our entourage of dzos and zhoms stopped, and the head herder tethered one of the larger beasts. From beneath some bulky sacks on a neighbouring dzo, he yanked out a double-layered canvas sheet with blue on one side and bright orange on the other. As the dzo stood relatively still, occasionally ducking his head or shifting his weight from one leg to another, the man pulled, tucked and tied the plastic sheet around the exposed baskets. The mist strengthened into a steady rain. I noticed the dzo owner’s blue rubber boots, which had endured many similar days.

The dzo and zhoms were a relaxed bunch; in fact, they often seemed a little too relaxed. Following our cook’s lead, we all shouted “choo choo” to the animals in the rear of the group to help keep them moving. My husband jumped out to the side of the path on more than one occasion to block a wandering beast or nudge another along. Eventually the forested path opened into a broad pasture. Resident zhoms glanced up at our oncoming party, and a few even trotted over to offer a sniff of a greeting. The local herder’s hut looked inviting, as the rain had saturated virtually everything else. I attempted to sidestep the deepest puddles and mucky sections, a futile effort. A few front-runners picked up their pace. This was a good sign.

Each step brought a clearer view of our camp up ahead beyond the field we were crossing. This location was referred to as Miksateng and had an elevation of 3,080 metres. As we got closer, we could see a few structures. Each had a roof, held up by a few wooden pillars. At one point, these open-aired roofed constructs had been a brilliant concept by the tourism council. They would offer cover from the rain and a reasonably dry site to pitch a tent. Unfortunately, one key aspect had been overlooked: maintenance.

At least three of the structures had collapsed. The others remained upright, tested by itchy dzos who used the posts to scratch their necks and do a full-body rub. So our tents were set up well away from the wobbly roofs, safe in the middle of the mucky field. The cooks took over one of two stone structures. The other solid building contained a row of toilets that had overflowed into a stagnant mess. Our toilet tent’s freshly dug hole became unexpectedly appealing.

The herders had unloaded their animals and let them roam for the evening. Baskets, sacks, bags and piles had been sorted and doled out to their appropriate owners. However, something was missing. The green duffle bag my husband and I had packed with warm clothing, camera gear and a few toiletries had not arrived. I had handed it over to be loaded but failed to double-check that it was actually transferred when we switched into the four-wheel drive vehicle at the junction to Merak. By nine o’clock, our driver had confirmed it was resting safely back inside his van. I suspect there was confusion since it was the same bag we had purposely left behind for the Snowman trek, whereas we wanted it on this trek instead of our larger packs. Luckily these trails are well travelled. The dzo herders had connections in the valley and knew someone travelling to Sakteng the next day, the same day we were due to arrive in the village. Sure enough, at around three the next afternoon a young man walked up to our guesthouse—the only guesthouse in town. He had the straps of our green duffle bag slung around his shoulders and a wry smile on his face.

The Basics

Most useful item to pack: A small duffle bag for toiletries and spare clothing—double-check it actually gets packed on the dzos and zhoms

Useful words in Dzongkha: kuzuzangbola (“hello”); kaadinchheyla (“thank you”); lam (“trail”); Jogey-la (“Let’s go”); and chhu (“river”).[8]

For more, refer to visitbhutan.com/useful_words_phrases.html.

For further travel information: Bhutan requires most foreigners to travel with a government-approved tour company and pay a regulated day rate. The government’s intent is to promote high-quality, low-impact tourism. Whether you prefer to travel independently or on a group tour, it should cost about the same because of the standardized pricing system. The Tourism Council of Bhutan provides loads of information at tourism.gov.bt/plan/minimum-daily-package.

We used Rainbow Tours & Treks in 2010 and on this trip in 2017. Rainbow does an excellent job at organizing high-quality, personalized trips. For our trek, they provided all essential equipment including warm and clean sleeping bags, sleeping mattresses, pillows, hand towels and two-person tents. They also coordinated virtually everything related to the trek including guides, permits, meals, cooks, first aid kit and camping equipment. All transportation except international flights is part of the tour package, including private vehicle, four-wheel-drive vehicle as needed and herders for the dzos and zhoms used during the trek. Rainbow is a full-service tour company and can arrange your entire trip around Bhutan, not only the trekking piece. Further information is available on their website: rainbowbhutan.com.

New treks across Bhutan are emerging to help reduce the impact on the environment by spreading travellers across the country. Ask your tour company about new routes. You can also check the Tourism Council of Bhutan website; however, their route information is fairly generic: tourism.gov.bt/activities/trek.

Route: We spent four days and three nights on this cultural trek, including a rest day to explore the extraordinary town of Sakteng. For more information on the trek, refer to bhutan.travel/activities/treks/merak-sakteng-trek.

We started early on the first day to drive from the city of Trashigang to Merak. The final two hours of the journey required a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the newly constructed yet rough dirt road. Merak lies literally at the end of the road. Here, dzos and zhoms were loaded and we started the trek. Based on Rainbow’s trip notes, we climbed 633 metres and descended 1,073 metres over sixteen kilometres of trekking on the first day. This took about six hours.

Day two was a shorter walk with less altitude gain and loss compared to our first day. We hiked for about four hours over four kilometres. There were gradual ups and downs along the trail, but nothing overly arduous besides sidestepping slick muddy sections.

Day three was spent in the village of Sakteng. We hiked to the Borongshi Goempa (“monastery”) high on a hill overlooking the valley, watched a yak dance, cheered a weekend darts match and participated in a traditional women’s welcome song. More of our time in Sakteng can be found in Chapter Four: Rare Festivals.

Day four started with a four-hour walk to the barely-there village of Taktu, where our trusty driver met us with his van. From Taktu, we drove to the city of Mongar.


Iceland—Finding Solitude in Eastern Iceland

Escape the crowds to experience a wasteland, a near empty expanse where, during the last ice age, volcanic heat mingled with glacial freeze

The Experience

Why would you visit a wasteland? The word conjures visions of emptiness—vast, boring nothingness. Well, a group of ten of us plus our guide did exactly that. Our small group came from France, Belgium and Canada. We all wanted to see Iceland, but not the Iceland that most visitors experience. Iceland offers a myriad of attractions along its tourist-friendly ring road. We chose to go deeper. Where would locals want to go?

During the first four days of hiking from Eyjabakkar to the Jökulsá river valley, we were alone. We did not meet a single human being except for the caretaker at our last night’s hut, the Múlaskáli hut. Imagine walking for hours and seeing nothing but nature’s expanse—no buildings, no infrastructure, no roads and not even a trail for much of the walk.

Rocky rubble covered a rolling landscape. We walked for twelve kilometres on the first day. Our packs were filled with everything we would need for four days along with a share of the group’s food. Sausages, salami, apples and loaves of bread were carefully stuffed into every vacant space of my thirty-five-litre pack. It was large enough for this excursion but small enough to fit inside the overhead storage bin on the flight to Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik. Rain pants, gloves, a toque and a Gore-Tex jacket were essential for this fickle environment, even during the height of summer.

Our trekking guide, Dieter Van Holder, at a glacier stream
Our trekking guide, Dieter Van Holder, at a glacier stream

Remnants from previous rains speckled the ground. Lime-green moss softened the rocks and grew like a shawl caressing every stream. Glassy droplets of water balanced on tender shoots. When you looked closely, the beads looked more like glass marbles encasing tiny diamonds than like any sort of liquid. Throughout our four days of hiking, we did not once have to boil water or use water purification tablets. Few animals roamed these regions, and humans were even less frequent. Glacier streams remained pure, unlike streams anywhere else I have been in the world.

Leaving Egilssel hut near Lake Kollumúlavatn
Leaving Egilssel hut near Lake Kollumúlavatn

Although the first day’s walk crossed gravelly terrain, the second day looked as if a lazy tiler had tossed shard after shard of rock fragments across the ground. Flat slabs were left wherever they had landed. Thicker and rougher stones occasionally distorted the image. A smattering of orange, white and black lichen camouflaged rocks, as if a bad case of acne had exploded across the landscape. Our vista changed dramatically on the third day. We entered Arctic tundra and then passed through an Arctic forest. Craggy cliffs lunged down deep river valleys that sliced through the landscape.

Our guide directed us up a nondescript hillside that appeared to be no more than a gravelly knoll. But he knew of a secret viewing spot. I scanned the horizon. It looked much as it had for the past hour, a barren expanse split in half by a jagged canyon. We neared the cliff edge and peered into a valley. Mountains of rhyolite spread before us. These were not bland rocks. Silica within igneous rock flashed shades of light blue, green and ochre. The sheen of these rhyolite deposits awakened with a life of its own. It reflected the sunlight in bands of varied colours that spread across the canyon’s banks. Basaltic rock stretched upwards into tall pillars that looked like alien ghosts. Chunks of the same deposit curved into a partial bridge, promising to cross the valley yet falling short on its delivery. These geological formations date back five to seven million years, from the last ice age. This was a place where history began—not the human story, but where land was reshaped at the dawn of our world. This view was the most impressive part of the entire trek.

Overnighting among such panoramas was perhaps the second-best part. We did not have to squeeze into tents but slept inside huts. They were basic but well maintained and stocked with three essentials: cookware, a wood stove and mattress-topped bunk beds. Our second night’s refuge sat above Lake Kollumúlavatn. For the bold, the lake provided an icy bath, but other than two gutsy French ladies, we remained cozy in our woolly layers. It was worth waiting, as we found an unexpected touch of luxury at our third night’s shelter. For 500 króna, equivalent to approximately US$5, we could melt away any stiffness with a hot shower. This final hut even had flush toilets, a distinct advantage over the previous hut’s nearly brimming outhouse. However, the presence of an on-site ranger suggested we were approaching civilization. The closing memory of this remote oasis came late in the night as my husband snapped photos of green northern lights flashing overhead.

The next morning, we all tramped off with the ranger. He joined us for the first twenty minutes until we reached a section of new wooden steps. He had built the stairs and wanted a photo of their inauguration. Before the steps, nine rocky outcrops stood like fingers along a ridge above us. As strange icons often do, these spires had earned their own local folk tale, which the ranger told us. Once upon a time, an ogress lived in these mountains. Unfortunately, her lover lived far away, and he never visited his sweetheart. So the ogress had to walk across the hills to see him. Luckily, she was a quick-paced walker, for ogres turn to stone if touched by sunlight. So she always visited at night, cloaked in darkness. Time passed, and life ensued. It came to be that the ogress had eight baby boys. When they were old enough to make the journey, she wanted them to know their father. On their return home, the young boys could not walk as quickly as their mother. They raced as fast as they could but could not beat the dawn’s rays. Ever since, the ogress and her eight sons have stood as rock pillars on the mountaintop that would have led them home. The rangers had added their own epilogue to the story. If a ranger starts to think about inviting the ogress for an evening soirée, it is a sure sign to flee the remote hills and get back to society. The ranger we met limits his time at the hut to two months a year. Then he returns home to do “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

Although we felt far from humanity, our guide ensured that we did not get lost in the wild remoteness of East Iceland. Except for the random trail markers we saw on our last two days, most of the hike followed no discernible track. Our guide relied on GPS, downloaded trail guides and advice from fellow guides gleaned before we departed. His information was perfectly attuned to the rugged reality, until the last day. We had been walking for a number of hours towards our final destination in a river valley just inland from the coastal highway. We were to meet a man in a van, somewhere at some time in the morning. The GPS trail appeared to drop down a cliff below which surged a river. The crucial section that we would be walking along was blocked from view.

With changing water levels and erosion, the route marked on the GPS tracker was not necessarily the present moment’s preferred line. The group convened. Our guide scoped out the surrounding area, and a few of us walked in smaller groups to investigate potential alternatives. I was impressed with our guide’s approach. He explained the situation and why he hesitated to follow the trail recommended on his GPS. He summarized our options. Ultimately, he recommended another route as the safest path down. We all agreed and followed his lead. Considering we were a group of people with different backgrounds and languages in unknown territory, the situation could have turned volatile. I found it interesting how the guide chose to be open about his uncertainty but brought us along during his decision making. Transparency and clarity prevailed. Later, after we had climbed down into the river valley, I looked back. We had chosen wisely. The alternatives would have landed us either deep in the river or stranded on a cliff.

Far too soon, our escape from the crowds ended. As we walked along the riverbed, a lone white van approached us. Sure enough, the someone, somewhere had materialized. We climbed into the van, lost in our own thoughts as we headed towards the town of Höfn. Over two million tourists visited the small island country of Iceland in 2017, and we had managed to escape them during our four-day trek. But our serenity was soon shattered. We pulled into Skaftafell National Park—within the greater Vatnajökull National Park—where busload after busload of visitors swarmed the parking lot. Is there such a thing as tourist shock? People wandered everywhere to catch their own glimpse of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier and its surrounding lagoon. The nearby Svartifoss waterfall was another popular attraction.

My husband and I walked along a paved walkway that led right up to Skaftafellsjökull, “a glacier tongue spurting off from Iceland’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull.”[9] The icy blue tones that you might imagine in a glacier were hard to see up close. Instead, its dirty truth became visible. Most of the ice was smothered in black pebbles and ash-coloured gravel. This beast had been slowly rolling into the valley, absorbing soil and forcing boulders aside. Skaftafellsjökull is receding, as are most glaciers in Iceland. It melted into a lagoon where its spirit drifted and memories transformed into icebergs. The remains of the glacier’s powerful arm either thawed or broke off and floated slowly along a channel towards the sea. A few icebergs were stranded, partially stuck on shore or wedged together in an unmoving mass. Yet, as the minutes passed, fragments shifted. Blocks melted into lumps. Some tipped over. They would all eventually reach the sea, either by drifting or simply melting away.

Another way to escape the crowds lay directly above us. Mount Kristínartindar towered 1,126 metres above Skaftafellsjökull. The majority of visitors went no farther than the Svartifoss waterfall, which looked like a giant water faucet. Columns of basalt hung all around like litmus paper testing the water. We hiked past Svartifoss and kept climbing. Gravel and grass tufts pocked by mossy patches and mountain flowers covered the hillside. Kristínartindar’s peak looked far off. Eventually, we came to a creek of fresh gurgling water, perfectly placed to refill water bottles before the final slog. A series of stony switchbacks led to the top. At the summit, I found a logbook and pen tucked inside a metal box, inviting climbers to leave a record of their ascent. A handful of other folks arrived during the thirty minutes we spent lounging on what felt like the top of the world. Our group had found our sliver of serenity once more.

Our moment was interrupted by a loud rumble that sounded like a plane passing overhead. A second outburst followed. I looked down and across the vast Vatnajökull ice cap. Glacier arms spread from its centre cap through every valley that I could see. I counted four in total. The icy arm of Skaftafellsjökull—the same glacier we had walked to on the previous day—stretched around Kristínartindar’s eastern side. A similar shaft wrapped the western side of the mountain and ended in a massive ice cliff. Giant waterfalls of ice occasionally appeared like a poof of dust as they crashed to the base of the glacier. This great plunge of snow and ice resounded across the valley, causing the rumble we had heard. Ice, snow, rock and empty skies filled the space around us. This was Iceland—pure, powerful and dazzling.

The Basics

Most useful items to pack: Full rain gear—remember, it takes a lot of water to create a country named after ice

Useful words and phrases in Icelandic: halló (“hello”); góðan daginn (“good morning”); takk (“thank you”); (“yes”); nei (“no”); and Geturðu sýnt mér á kortinu? (“Can you show me on the map?”).[10]

For further travel information: Icelandic Mountain Guides offers a wide range of tour packages, from day hikes to multi-day backpacking trips across Iceland, Greenland and even Antarctica. They also include some not so physically active tours for those interested in a more relaxed visit. Our guide had excellent experience, and the equipment provided was of high quality. Our seven-day tour was called The Wilderness of Glaciers, East Iceland Trekking parts 2 and 3. The four-day trek in the Lónsöræfi region from Eyjabakkar to Höfn was part 2, whereas the day hike up Kristínartindar was within part 3. For more information, see mountainguides.is.

All accommodation except in Reykjavik was provided as part of the Icelandic Mountain Guides package. In the capital city, we stayed at two places. Both are good options, but be aware that hotels in Iceland are intrinsically expensive.

Rey Apartments are smack in the centre of town. The kitchenette allowed for a nice break from eating in restaurants, and our room was spacious. The owner offered helpful local recommendations and advice. For more information, visit rey.is.

Slightly farther from the centre, but perhaps more homey, is Guesthouse Galtafell. You can pick your preferred style of room. The main house has a classic style, whereas the newer building beside the house offers a more modern, clean-line aesthetic. For more information, see galtafell.com.

Domestically, we flew with Air Iceland Connect. Each seat pocket held a travel journal. Passengers were free to write their own thoughts, memories or whatever they were inspired to add. I flipped through the pages of the journal in my seat pocket. About a third of its pages were filled with handwritten stories from previous travellers. The notebook in my husband’s seat was filled with an entirely different set of memories from those who had sat in his seat before him. One child’s handwritten story stood out for me. They wrote about losing a grandparent shortly before visiting Iceland and how their travels through Iceland helped them deal with the loss. They wrote about the beautiful things they saw in Iceland and how it made them feel better. It was a simple yet poignant story, not something I expected to find in the seat pocket during our morning flight. For booking details, refer to Air Iceland Connect’s website: airicelandconnect.com.

If travelling to Iceland via Copenhagen, Denmark, keep an eye out for Lagkagehuset in the airport transit hall. It is hard to miss the aromas of their freshly baked goods and the tempting takeaways displayed on their counters. Their yogurt and muesli with rhubarb and fruit was my particular favourite.

Route: We trekked for four days in Iceland’s remote Lónsöræfi region. To reach the beginning of the hike, we flew from Reykjavik to Egilsstaðir, drove a short distance and then began trekking in the Eyjabakkar area. We hiked past Geldingafell mountain, then on to Lake Kollumúlavatn and down the valley of the glacial river Jökulsá. Each night we stayed at a different mountain hut. On our fourth day, a van from Icelandic Mountain Guides met us along the riverbed and shuttled us to the nearby town of Höfn.

For the remaining three nights, we camped in Vatnajökull National Park. The highlight was a nineteen-kilometre day hike up the Skaftafellsheiði trail to the summit of Kristínartindar. We returned along the Sjónarnípa path.



Searching for Unique Copyright © 2018 by Nancy O'Hare. All Rights Reserved.

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