The trek is not just about nature and physical trekking, but has an intricate mix of culture that is entirely different from the rest of Bhutan and the world
The morning view unfolds slowly, revealing an astonishingly complete village that appears from under the clouds. Beyond the village, the mountains rise from the deep blue mist like ships floating on water. When the sky finally clears, the snowy peak, Gangchen Tag, the Tiger Mountain, looms into view. This is Laya Village.
The settlement at around 4,000 metres is beautiful, unique, traditional, and simply amazing. The traditional village that has lived in perfect harmony with nature is on the verge of being invaded by modern development. Electricity lines and poles have already reached there, a farm road under construction will soon reach near the village. Laya is all set to change. If you wish to enjoy the true Laya, visit it now.
The snowman trek from Laya leads to some of the highest elevations of the Bhutanese Himalayas. Designed for experienced trekkers, the trek demands stamina, endurance and energy. The trek’s worth is embodied in the treasures one can feast on and experience during the trek. Traversing through the most remote areas across high altitudes above 5,000 metres, the camps are sometimes on blankets of snow. Trekkers are taken into the Lunana region and further on to Gangkar Puensum and Bumthang or down to Sephu in Wangdue Phodrang district, depending on the route they choose.
In September 2014, my group managed to trek from Gasa to Sephu through Laya and Lunana following the Snowman trail. We were a research-media team interested to get to Lunana at the earliest. Spending several nights above 5,000 metres and hiking more than five hours daily for 21 days was an experience of a lifetime. Although born in the mountains, not many Bhutanese have trekked on their own, except as tour guides.
A local contractor, who usually caters to foreign tourists, organised our trek. Our tour started with 23 horses, four researchers (Jigme, Nick, Aaron, and I), three staff (Dorji, Lauri, and Damchoe), and three horsemen (Sangay, Dawa and Khandu).
Trekking from Laya to Lunana to Sephu over Tshomo La Pass (4,900m), Gangla Karchung (5,120m), Jaze La (5,150m), Loju La (5,140m), and Rinchen Zoe la (5,320m) and trekking for five days in the Lunana valley exploring the vistas, glaciers, lakes, yak herders’ camps and combing the villages was a complete experience.
On most typical days, the trekkers and an assistant (Dorji) would start at around 8.30am after a breakfast of rice, toasts, eggs and tea. Horses, horsemen and cooks would pack up after the team leaves the camp, catch up with and overtake the trekkers by midday, get to the campsite, and set up the camp and cook dinner for the night.
Dorji’s backpacked picnic lunch would be usually served when we came across a nice spot. Lunch usually consisted of rice, vegetable curry, meat stew and, when available, fruits, tea and juice. Most of the time, rain would play a tyrant when we sat to eat. Umbrellas bought in Thimphu weren’t strong enough to withhold the mountain rains. Neither were Dorji’s new pair of shoes strong enough for the mountain trail nor was Jigme’s waterproof jacket waterproof.
Damchoe’s hot soups in the evenings, after a hard day of hiking, were always a welcome delight. Dinner was usually served at around 7pm after which some hit the sack while others chatted into the night. We did not have a single night when the horses weren’t too close to the tents to enjoy their farts or breaths. The feast was indeed on the second night at Tenchey in Lunana where a bunch of grounded yaks kept blaring right into our tents. The campsite was crowded with yaks, horses, and tents. What an unusual parking congestion!
The sunnier side of the trek didn’t last long, though. One of our horsemen lost his life, one horse got injured and one died when she slipped off a steep trail close to Wache. The other horse that got injured at Narithang was taken back to Laya.
Sangay from Laya, 41-year-old father of two, was a sweet, lean, curly, quiet guy who was bent on completing his responsibility with his four horses. Seven days into the trek and two days before we reached Lunana, Sangay complained of muscle ache. On the following day, he got medical treatment at Lhedi Basic Health Unit. An astrologer from Laya was consulted over telephone. He was provided rest, given warm clothes and was advised to go back to Laya. His health condition kept varying until he breathed his last near Gyentsha, Maruothang. He lost his life on the face of the snowman.
Efforts to airlift him failed due to bad weather. The ground rescue team reached only a day later. The iridium satellite phone, oxygen tanks, high altitude chamber and the first aid-kit did serve their purpose, but none was quite enough. What it made me realise was the fact that even one born and brought up at 4,000m doing the snowman trek often could land up in trouble.
The incident revealed the bare minimum amount of safety and comfort the locals had compared to the foreign trekkers. It reminded me of the issues of climbers and Sherpas in Nepal. None of the horsemen had waterproof jackets or boots. They were hiking in their jeans, sneakers, ghos (traditional cloth robes for men) and plastic sheets on their heads. On terribly wet days, the blankets and sheets that were used as horse saddle packing as well as bedding were too cold for any comfort. Without the option to light a fire with a trekking group, due to forestry or tourism regulations, cold nights are the real causes of cold, sickness and misfortunes. However, other men and women from Laya or Sephu transporting roofing sheets, stoves or clothes to Lunana had the option to camp and light fires.
All in all, it was a very neat experience learning about the farming, trading and social culture of the mountains. We spent many evenings with the local horsemen in their tents, visiting the local houses, shops, and yak herders’ camps to get a full picture of their lifestyle. The highlight of all our experiences was the stories of how the locals got rich collecting and selling the magical fungus cordyceps sinensis. This fungus has turned the nomads into mountain millionaires almost overnight. I definitely think that Lunana valley is a gold mine waiting to be explored. I light-heartedly say that Switzerland is the “Bhutan of Europe” referring to the postcard perfect valleys up north.