I woke up early to the glorious sunshine splashing through my hotel window in Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. It was my third day in Bhutan and my second day of hiking along the Trans Bhutan Trail and I could hardly wait. After yesterday’s hike, I had already fallen in love with the beauty, culture, and mystique of this extraordinary place. Today’s hike would bring us on yet another marvelous adventure. We would begin at the top of Pelela Pass down through a semi-nomadic yak herding community, and on to a traditional farmhouse in the village of Rukubji. It was going to be a day to remember.
When I stepped out onto the balcony of my room at the Vara Hotel, I was mesmerized by the view that lay before me. The entire valley was blanketed in light. I could only imagine what the rice fields must have looked like before harvest time, their crisscross plots covered in vibrant green. I was there in early December and missed the beautiful springtime that runs from March to May and is known for its verdant fields and lush mountainous landscape dotted with blooming rhododendrons. I will have to go back, I thought.
After breakfast, we left Lobesa and headed up to Pelela Pass, one of Bhutan’s highest passes at 3,407 meters (11,177 feet) above sea level where we would begin our hike. Located in the district of Wangdue Phodrang, Pelela Pass is considered to mark the boundary between west and central Bhutan.
Local markets along the way sell fresh produce. Chilis are everywhere in Bhutan!
An hour and a half later, driving through twisting, winding roads, we reached Pelela where we would begin our hike for the day. Singay, my guide, told me that it generally takes eight days of walking from the start of the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) in the western village of Haa to reach where we were today.
Of the 403-km route passing through 27 Gewogs, 4 Dzongs, 21 temples, 12 mountain passes, 5 suspension bridges, 10 cantilever bridges, 77 chortens, and 30 stupas, I would only see a sliver of it in five days of hiking the TBT.
As we descended from Pelela, our hike took us through vast open meadows lined by thick forest. As usual, Singay whistled and sang softly to scare away any wild animals. Yet I would be lying if I wasn’t slightly nervous of turning a corner and running into a Himalayan bear or worse, a tiger.
While in Bhutan, I learned that environmental protection and wildlife conservation are very important (along with cultural preservation). By law, at least 60% of the country must remain forested for future generations. Hence, Bhutan has one of the largest proportions of land designated as protected areas in the world, affording rich natural habitats for wildlife and birds.
In 1999, Bhutan created biological corridors connecting all nine of Bhutan’s protected areas. Per the World Wildlife Fund:
Bhutan’s Corridors represent a bold and innovative vision unsurpassed by any other nation on Earth. Thus, Bhutan can be rightly pointed out as a world leader in attempting to use Corridors as a cost-effective, reliable strategy to conserve meta-populations of wide-ranging species, promote gene flow for all species, and allow species to adapt to climate change.
That day, we were hiking in Wildlife Corridor 8, and per the posted placard at the start of the hike, this corridor is known for several endangered species including the protected Bengal tiger, Dhole (wild dogs), Red pandas, and Himalayan musk deer. The area is also home to takin, leopards, and Sambar deer which are designated as vulnerable status.
While corridor 8 is immense – covering over 577.90 kilometers squared, the likelihood of spotting large wildlife is rare. Most wildlife does not want to come near people. However, cattle and livestock make good prey, especially for female tigers who have to hunt for their cubs. To address this danger, the Bhutanese forest rangers work to track the 103 endangered Bengal tigers to ensure there is no human-wildlife conflict. (For those who are curious to learn more about the world’s remaining wild tiger population, check out this WWF research. I found it absolutely fascinating). If a female tiger is spotted in the area with cubs and has killed livestock, then that part of the trail is restricted to hikers, and the local community (farmers) are warned.
Despite this intel, I still didn’t want to be the exception or take any chance of encountering an unwanted visitor along the trail. Nor did Singay. Hence, Singay whistled, hummed, and sang songs in Bhutanese in a cautious attempt to scare them away.
For hours we did not see a soul except for a group of semi-nomadic yak herders who come down from the higher altitudes of the mountains during the winter months to allow their yaks to graze. Singay told me there are two different semi-nomadic yak herder tribes and you can tell the difference between them based on the color of their dress. Unfortunately, the herders were either in town or resting inside their huts. We were completely alone.
As we continued on our hike to the farmhouse, my unfounded fear of spotting a tiger lurked in the back of my mind. While I had grown up wearing tiny bells on the laces of my shoes when I’d hike in bear country, the thought of a tiger sounded much worse. Hopefully, it was only a thought.
After stopping to chat with a local farmer, we continued on our way to the village of Rukubji where we would rest our weary feet and enjoy a traditional farmhouse meal with one of the Trans Bhutan Trail Ambassadors that Singay helped set up with the TBT organization.
It was shortly after chatting with this man that we ran into a younger farmer speaking rapidly to Singay in Dzongkha, the national language. He asked, “Have you seen my calf? It has gone missing since this morning”. Alarmed I looked at Singay, realizing that we still had another hour to reach the farmhouse for our lunch. I was glad we were in a wide-open field yet still I was slightly unnerved. I’d be dishonest if I said the thought of a ferocious tiger lurking behind the shrubs wasn’t in the back of my overly, imaginative mind.
Wonderful to know that they’re protecting the forest!!
Yes, I agree. It is such a pristine country. I only saw roughly four tourists when I was there and none the five days I hiked. It was the end of the season and had just reopened but a pretty magical place. They are doing a lot to protect the culture, heritage, environment, and wildlife. Wish more countries could.
What a wonderful trip, fabulous wilderness, and I was impressed to learn “the Bhutanese forest rangers work to track the 103 endangered Bengal tigers to ensure there is no human-wildlife conflict”. And what great photographs of this enchanting region
Thank you Sue. It was a pretty extraordinary trip. While you pay a high daily sustainable tax to visit this country, what they are doing to protect its culture, environment, and nature against overtourism is quite impressive. I wonder how long they will be able to keep it up. Thank you for reading.
I hope they can…
Me too. I’ve been doing a lot more writing and research on sustainable travel. Bhutan is one of the few places that is so unique. We were just in Los Cabos, Mexico and it was a tragedy how much it is built up and the locals are being priced out. And, it is in the middle of the desert meaning the 18 golf courses and all the tourist resorts are depleting the water. Makes me sad.
Makes ŷou sad, makes me seethe
Well, yes I agree with your anger. What we are doing to our planet is the worst offense possible on humankind. It breaks my heart over and over again and seems like nothing will ever be done. The older I get, the more disgruntled I get about the state of our planet, our world, humanity etc. Not to mention what is happening in the place I must live, the US. I could go on and on about our violence, gun violence, inequalities and how we are moving backward, but that would just bring me down a slippery slope. The best I can personally do is do my best to advocate and share what I see, witness, and try to give back and make a difference. I fear the future world my future grandchildren and generations will inherit. It is maddening. So now to do the little steps we can each do to help out.
While hiking through meadows with no one else around you except for Singay felt quite frightening at times, I can imagine how peaceful it must have been with all the majestic Bhutanese landscape around you. Although I must admit, if I were you I would probably keep thinking about the possibility of seeing a tiger too.
Yes we had a lot of time to chat and it was quite beautiful. This hike was a little nerve-wracking however because I knew about the female tiger that had been killing calves. It is very rare that you see one but very dangerous if you do. In the next post you will find out more. 🙂
This sounds like quite an adventure.
Thanks Lulu. It was pretty amazing and yes quite an adventure! It only gets better!
I love the way that yak is checking out Singay as he passes him in the meadow! 🙂 What a great hike this looks like. Did you get out as far as Haa? That’s where my high-altitude trek was supposed to be in 2019 (but the snow prevented us from taking it, so we had to improvise). Such a lovely country and people!
Thanks Lexi! I started in Thimphu and went west so I did not get to see Haa but wish I did. I have a feeling I will be back. I see you have a post so I will go check it out. Hope all is well! 🙂
Oh what a fabulous post Nicole. One day I will walk in your footsteps. This all sounds so amazing.
Thanks Alison! Glad you liked it! 🙂
There is such authenticity with your photos and writing ~ and added to this is the Bhutan people themselves protecting their heritage, wildlife, and environment. Something all countries could open their eyes and see making such an effort is such a worthwhile cause. This looks to be such a peaceful and serene country, which adds to the magic you are experiencing. One of these life-changing treks, Nicole, simply beautiful.
Thank you again for your kind words. It was a magical trip! These are the kinds of trips that make me feel most alive and a part of the world. I love meeting people and learning about their lives. It was a very magical time and I hope to go back that way someday.