After a magical day hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail from Pelela Pass to the village of Rukubji where we stopped to enjoy a traditional Bhutanese meal at a local farmhouse- it was time to move further east to Trongsa. It was day four of my hike along the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) and it was hard to believe how much we had already covered.
Since we left Paro, we had driven 226 kilometers along snaking mountainous roads with three hikes along the way, stopping for the night in Thimphu and Lobesa. We were literally only scratching the surface of this mighty ancient 403km trail that passes through 27 gewogs (villages) and nine dzongkhags (districts) of Bhutan. To hike the entire TBT, it would take 28 days and a lot of camping. The further east we traveled, the further back in time it felt and the more isolated it became. I only saw a couple of tourists at my hotel but no one on the trail.
Trongsa is a small village strategically positioned between the beautiful fertile valley of Punakha and the cultural heartland region of Bumthang in Central Bhutan. Separated both east and west by high, deeply-forested mountains, Trongsa is most known for its breathtaking dzong (fortress) which is perched high above a gorge with a drop so sheer to the south, it almost looks like it is floating in the clouds on a misty day.
The Trongsa Dzong (fortress) was first built by Ngagi Wangchuck as a small meditation room in 1541 after legend says “he discovered self-manifested hoof prints belonging to the horse of the protector deity Pelden Lhamo”. Trongsa, which means ‘new village’ in the local dialect, soon sprung up around the site and the Dzong was built in its present form in 1644 and then enlarged again at the end of the 17th century. It is the largest fortress in Bhutan and is deeply connected to the crown. The first two kings of Bhutan ruled from Trongsa and its importance to the kingdom continues to this day. Per tradition, the crown prince must spend time at Trongsa before taking over the throne.
At first glance, the Dzong takes your breath away due to its sheer size and placement atop a carved ridge high above the roaring waters of the Mangde Chhu river. The Dzong represents the magnificence of Bhutanese craftsmanship and traditional architecture and painting at its finest. Narrow stone stairs, alleys, and corridors connect a labyrinth of buildings. There are 23 unique lhakhangs (temples) in all, and it is home to around 450 district monks who spend their winters in Trongsa, before heading to Bumthang for the summer.
After our tour of the Dzong, it was time to head out for our next hike located at the Yotongla Pass (3,436 meters, 11,270 feet). Once again, I tried my best to focus on the winding roads and not get too car sick as we crawled up to the pass. Along the way, my guide Singay explained the meaning of the various prayer flags. Of the five colors, blue stands for sky, white for air and wind, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth. Beneath the colors, the flags have woodblock-printed images and texts representing various Buddhist teachings and knowledge. I loved how the prayer flags seemed to be dancing in the sky.
As we walked along the trail, I learned that this section is historically linked to the Royal family who used it regularly to transfer on foot between royal residences in Trongsa and Bumthang. Once the main highway was built in the 1960s, the trail was no longer used as the main thoroughfare and was left in disarray. The revival of the ancient trail after 60 years of misuse was a vision by His Majesty the King to preserve Bhutan’s unique past from the threat of growing modernization that has left the old trail and its history almost forgotten. It was quite a feat to accomplish its restoration but will be cherished for years to come by travelers and locals alike. “It is like a walking museum of history and culture” Singay often said. And he was right.
From Yotongla pass, the trail descends through meadows and forest until we reached the Gyeltsachhu (Gyeltsa River). Once again, we did not see a soul on the trail and Singay often hummed or sang songs to ward off any unwanted surprise visitors (such as a Himalayan bear or tiger) who roam freely through these lands.
We enjoyed lunch at a colorful local eatery and I realized how much I’d learned about Bhutan in such a short amount of time. Singay and Dorgi, our driver, had become fast friends of mine and I never stopped laughing in their company. I also became quite fond of Bhutan’s staple dish, ema datshi (chili with cheese) after eating it almost with every meal.
After lunch, it was back in the car and a two-hour drive to Bumthang, the furthest east I’d go on my trip to Bhutan. Bumthang is known for its buckwheat and its traditional Yathra weaving, a special kind of weave made with thick hand-woven wool and intricate traditional designs. It is only made in this part of Bhutan as the weaving depends on the climate and Bumthang gets cold in the winter months making wool clothing a must. Girls are taught as young as eight years old by their mothers and grandmothers and the tradition has been passed on for generations.
Most of the weavers can be found in Chhume Valley, and we made a stop at the Druk Yathra shop to check it out. Singay pointed out the different stages of weaving such as the natural ingredients they use to make dyes, and the traditional backstop looms the women use for weaving. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to watch the women weave as it was nearing dinner time and the store was about to close for the day. There are a couple of well-known weaving centers in Bumthang where you can spend some time watching women weave. I would have loved to have time to visit one. (To learn more click here).
Weaving is just one of the many arts and handicrafts that can be found in Bhutan. I met an American woman at one of my hotels who was traveling from east to west of Bhutan solely to check out the different weaving communities. In the east of Bhutan where the weather is much warmer, women weave their garments out of raw silk. I learned that each piece of woven clothing is unique and tells a story just like each hike along the Trans Bhutan Trail. For its small size, Bhutan has a lot of diversity and uniqueness to be explored. I was looking forward to our hike the next day through the Pima Choling Nunnery and the buckwheat valleys of Bumthang. It was sure to be another magical journey!