Crossing Bhutan's Lunana plateau on the Snowman Trek
In October 2013, Heather McNeice and her friend Krista set off to trek 240km across the Lunana plateau in Bhutan, following the Snowman Trek route. After a wet and muddy start, they enjoyed sunshine, clear skies and stunning Himalayan views. They were blissfully unaware that Cyclone Phalin was bearing down on the east coast of India, causing havoc with the weather in the eastern Himalayas and adding some unexpected challenges to an already strenuous trek. Heather’s book, Yak on Track, is the story of their journey and we share a taster here.
Our route to the Treasure Dance
Naked monks, with a white gauze covering their faces, prancing around a bonfire in the courtyard of an ancient monastery, at 1am: this centuries-old performance, called the Treasure Dance, takes place once a year at Jambay Lhakhang temple, in central Bhutan. My friend Krista and I planned to finish our 240km trek through Lunana, Bhutan’s most remote and inhospitable plateau, on the night of the Treasure Dance. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But we very nearly did.
Krista and I had cut our teeth on the Jhomolhari trek the previous year and were ready for a challenge. The route across the Lunana plateau makes up the latter two-thirds of the Snowman Trek route, a 24-day odyssey that starts outside Paro in western Bhutan and sweeps in an arc along the northern border, passing through the village of Thanza, Bhutan’s highest and most isolated settlement. Unable to be away from home for a month, Krista and I would skip the first section of the Snowman route to start in Gasa, a village to the north of the Punakha Valley, and finish in Bumthang in central Bhutan.
A wet and muddy start
Accompanied by Norbu, my regular Bhutanese guide, Rinzin, our trail guide and a veteran of eight Snowman Treks, three support crew, three horsemen and 23 horses, we set off from Gasa. We walked along a new dirt road, just one of many being blasted into the mountains, replacing the ancient footpaths that have, for generations, been the highways of this remote kingdom. With felled trees and torn up earth, it was a less than spectacular start to the trek and I was glad when, after a couple of hours, the road gave way to a beautiful forest trail. Not yet accustomed to the altitude, we slogged up to the first pass of the trek: the Bari La, rising to 3900m. Although there wasn’t much of a view, I was glad of the chance to stop and catch my breath.
Day two began with a downpour, as we sloshed through water-logged mud that slurped and sucked at our boots. For the next two days, rain was never far away. Everything was wet, our trousers caked to the knees in mud. We wondered ruefully why we hadn’t brought gaiters. A simple stone hut, marooned in a bog at Rodophu and shared with a collection of rugged yak men, provided a welcome shelter on our third evening. From there, the trail wound up steeply to the 4900m Tsemo La pass. We were well above the treeline, the desolate landscape scattered with ‘noble rhubarb’, one of the few plants that can survive at these altitudes. A caravan of yaks emerged through curtains of mist, chaperoned by the ghostly figures of their herders. With wooden saddles strapped to their backs, they were laden down with hessian sacks and wicker baskets, perhaps the herders’ provisions for the winter months. I looked back and, in an instant, they were gone, swallowed by the cloud.
The following night’s campsite at Narethang was dramatic and unforgettable, our tent pitched at the base of a glacier. Thankfully, the rain of the past few days began to clear. With the clouds gone, the temperature plummeted overnight and we awoke to a cloudless sky and a shimmering frost inside our tent. The huge slabs of ice on the glacier were almost pale blue in the shrinking pre-dawn shadows, not yet touched by the warmth of the sun. And another delight: the thrill of changing our mud-splattered trousers for a clean pair, before we set off for the steep climb to the Karchung La pass and 360-degree views of turquoise green lakes and ridge upon ridge of snow-capped mountains. Later that morning, we stood high above the end of the Tarina Valley, awe-struck by the hanging glaciers that twisted and turned down from the snowy peak of Terri Kang, flowing into glittering glacial lakes, the colour of lapis lazuli.
The homes of Lunana
The population of Lunana is just a few hundred households who live for part of the year in a handful of hamlets. We passed through several of these settlements: clusters of stone-built two-storey homes, usually perched on a south-facing slope. Some had the shingle roofs of old, held in place by smooth river rocks, while others were of corrugated tin. Many houses had wooden beams running across the front of the buildings, beautifully carved and painted with flowers, animals and auspicious symbols. The ubiquitous Bhutanese phallus was much in evidence. This symbol of good luck, painted on homes throughout the country, is associated with Drupka Kunley, known as the Divine Madman. Born in the 15th century, he remains one of Bhutan’s most unorthodox and best-loved saints and is said to have used his ‘thunderbolt of wisdom’ to enhance his Buddhist teachings. Phallus paintings and sculptures are believed to keep evil spirits at bay and bring good fortune.
Lhedi village is the administrative headquarters of the Lunana region, our destination on day seven. It sits on a ledge above the Pho Chhu river, with the snowy bulk of Table Mountain filling the horizon at the end of the valley. Like all the other settlements in Lunana, there are no shops and no vehicles. But there is a school: the Lunana Primary School. We had brought gifts of books and stationery and were invited by the headmaster, Tenzin Thinley, to present them at assembly the next morning. Tenzin explained that many of the 44 students lived several hours’, and in some cases days’, walk away and, as boarders at the school, wouldn’t see their families for months at a time. Those who went home during the school year often didn’t return: instead moving with their yaks to far-off pastures. I was struck by the isolation of this remote teaching post and the difficulty of delivering an education to the children of the semi-nomadic herders who call Lunana home.
Four hours after leaving Lhedi we arrived at the village of Chozo and the only other school on our trek route. Norbu led us between the village houses to the ancient Chozo monastery, which seemed on the verge of collapse. We saw no one. The low, sonorous sound of Tibetan horns reverberating from a nearby home was the only indication that there was anyone here. The dzong too was empty, silent. As we stepped into the paved inner courtyard, a dove soared from the tower, disturbed by the unexpected visitors to its lofty nesting place. We found the school, housed in a single room on the first floor of this dilapidated building, the solitary teacher and his little class of 11 students thrilled with our gifts of books and stationery.
Thanza: the half-way point
And then on to Thanza. The villagers here see only a handful of trekking groups each year and we soon became the focus of attention for a posse of inquisitive children. They were fascinated by our cameras and iPads, drifting off only as the sun sank behind the mountains and the temperature dropped like a stone. It was a freezing night in Thanza.
We enjoyed a leisurely rest day in and around the village, meeting the locals, marvelling at the large woollen hats, like brown Busbies, worn by the women, watching weaving on a wooden back-strap loom and children playing simple games with a couple of rocks and elsewhere with sticks and a discarded tin can. We took care to steer well clear of dozens of snorting, beady-eyed yaks that wandered at will between the houses. The slopes around the village were dotted with the remnants of yak herders’ huts. A thin spiral of wispy smoke snaked skyward from one, but the others, missing their tarpaulin roofs, all seemed deserted. The herders were on their way down to lower pastures with their herds for winter.
I felt sad to be leaving Thanza the next morning, a remote and beautiful place that remains almost untouched by the outside world. What a privilege to have glimpsed life in one of the remotest corners of the Himalayas. From here, we had a steep climb ahead of us but we set off in high spirits, perhaps a little too blasé about the perfect trekking weather we had enjoyed since leaving Narethang. As we watched banks of cloud roll in towards the end of day 10 we couldn’t have imagined how drastically that perfect weather would change.
Our next day was a big one, crossing the highest pass of the trek, the 5345m Gophu La pass. As we climbed up to 5000m again, every breath was an effort in the thin, cold air. We trudged slowly, on a snowy trail, before skirting the shore of Tshorim Lake, a stretch of water the colour of beaten tin that merged into the grey slopes around it. Norbu stopped to sprinkle a few drops of water from his drink bottle, an offering to the local deity. Finally, we were at the pass, almost the height of Everest Base Camp, where we gave thanks by shouting ‘Lha gyal lo’ (may the gods prevail), the traditional Bhutanese acknowledgement on reaching a pass. Tiny snowflakes sparkled. It was freezing cold, I was exhausted, but it was magical.
During our short time at the Gophu La, lighting butter lamps and stringing up prayer flags, the weather quickly deteriorated. A gathering storm accompanied our descent, the wind lashing us with freezing sleet that soon turned to snow. Lunch was a perfunctory, miserable affair, huddled behind a boulder in a futile effort to shelter from the snow. I ate only because I knew I should. By the time we reached camp at Zanam, it was snowing heavily. Anxious about the ominous weather, cold and breathing hard at close to 5000m, I didn’t sleep well. All through the night, it snowed.
By lunch time the next day, Krista and I had arrived at Minchugang, a deserted herders’ camp. We were keen to press on, to get one of the next day’s three passes under our belts. But it wasn’t to be. The horses were a long way behind us, struggling in the challenging conditions. When they eventually arrived, they looked miserable, wet and bedraggled, snuffling the snow in a futile effort to find grazing. They were too exhausted to continue, so we too would stay put, our tents pitched among a collection of ruined and crumbling yak herders’ huts. Norbu explained that the horsemen were concerned about the welfare of their exhausted animals. Would we be prepared to skip the following night’s campsite at Worithang, he asked, and continue to the next night’s campsite at Dhur, about a 1000m lower, where the horses could graze? Krista and I agreed to give it our best shot.
For the second consecutive night, it snowed heavily. In the morning, the pallor of the world around us was like marble, the camp unusually quiet. Eventually, Norbu appeared to report that all the crew were sick, whether struck down by altitude sickness or something else, we weren’t sure. But the delayed start in the appalling weather didn’t bode well for the long day ahead. With three passes to cross, it was to be our toughest day. The next 12 hours were a test of stamina as we waded through knee-deep snow in a white-out. Krista and I watched anxiously as Rinzin scanned the horizon for some hint of a landmark. There was none. Just a never-ending whiteness. We lost the trail, floundering around among boulders in a steep, snow-filled gully. No one was in the mood to eat and there was nowhere to stop for lunch so we pressed on, at times clearing a path for the horses. In a deep basin, avalanches rumbled.
Late in the afternoon, the weather finally began to clear. But our elation at seeing blue skies again was tempered by a stand-off with the crew about where we would camp. They proposed that we should continue in the dark to reach Dhur, as we had discussed the previous evening. But having walked all day through snow, with no food, and with no clear idea of how long it would take to reach Dhur, I refused, suggesting instead that the horsemen go on without us and return the next morning. In the end, they too stayed at Worithang, too tired to keep going.
The new day dawned bright and clear but Norbu had some worrying news: two of our crew, including Rinzin, our trail guide, couldn’t see, having been blinded by the searing light on the snow the previous afternoon. Rinzin had to be guided by one of the other crew members as he walked, stopping intermittently to remove the scarf tied over his eyes, for a quick squint to confirm we were on the right track. The walk to Dhur took almost the entire day, in daylight and clear weather and I was glad I had dug my heels in to insist we stay at Worithang. Dhur is famous throughout Bhutan for its hot springs, believed to have potent healing qualities. After many days without a shower and nights camped on snow, frozen to the core, a soak in a tub of steaming hot water was heavenly.
The grand finale
Now only now two days’ walk from the end of the trek, surely we must be descending? But no. It was a relentless four-hour climb from Dhur up to the final pass of the trek, the Djule La (4550m), where we stopped to enjoy another stunning panorama, albeit with menacing clouds gathering, before descending to our last night’s campsite at Tshochenchen, at a mere 3900m. The next morning, when two young Bhutanese men arrived in camp, laden down with heavy backpacks, we were bemused to discover they had been sent to rescue us. They had been dispatched by the trekking company who, unable to contact us, assumed we had been stranded in the blizzard and were now wasting away with dwindling food supplies. At least they hadn’t forgotten us and our rescuers were relieved their mission was over before it had truly begun.
Just a short time after our return to civilisation that evening, at the end of an arduous 24km day in the rain, we stood shivering in the courtyard of Jambay Lhakhang. At some unearthly hour of the morning, the naked dancers finally emerged to perform the Treasure Dance, strutting in pairs around the leaping flames of a bonfire. It was a remarkable spectacle. And what was even more remarkable was that we had made it on time, despite the atrocious weather, to witness one of Bhutan’s most sacred festivals. It had been an extraordinary journey.
We have a copy of Heather's book Yak on Track to give away. Please let us know if you'd like one by emailing email@example.com. We will contact the winner in January.
Heather McNeice was born in Northern Ireland and worked for many years as a solicitor for a major international law firm in London, before relocating to Noosa, on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Australia. She is married with three children. Heather is a keen hiker and has been organising treks in Bhutan annually since 2011. She has raised close to £150,000 for an education program in Bhutan that funds disadvantaged children, many of whom are the victims of domestic violence or living in extreme poverty, to go to school. More information here: Bhutan Girls 2018
Heather’s first book, Yak on Track, tells the story of her trek through Lunana. It is available for purchase from The Book Depository.