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.