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Thursday, 1 January 2015

Trip Report for Druk Path trek in Bhutan during December 2014

Photo: view of Mount Chomolhari from near Jili Dzong
In December 2014, I visited Bhutan in order to develop and expand our program of treks and tours in this country. The Mountain Company has been operating trips in Bhutan since 2006 and has successfully organised the Complete Lunana Snowman trek six times. To find out how our groups got along please take a look at our Trip Reports for Snowman trek. The Snowman trek is certainly the hardest trek in Bhutan taking 29 days to traverse from Paro to Bumthang crossing eight Himalayan mountain passes over 5,000m.

Since 2006, we have organised several other treks in Bhutan such as Chomolhari Base Camp and Laya Gasa however we are now planning to expand our portfolio of trips. I was interested in shorter treks in Bhutan that also have amazing Himalayan views as I understand not everyone has the time and budget to be away trekking for a month like on Snowman trek! After doing some research I found two treks in Bhutan, the first one is the five day Druk Path and the second one is the three day Owl trek along Kitiphu Ridge near Bumthang.

We flew to Paro on November 29th and were lucky to get superb views of the Himalayas from the plane. We decided to fly with the new airline called Bhutan Airlines and were able to get seats next to window on the left side of the plane with views of Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Chomolhari among many others. In the past there was only one airline flying to Bhutan called Druk Air and during the peak trekking months of April, October and November it was difficult to obtain tickets.

Photo: view from Bhutan Airlines flight to Paro
We started the Druk Path trek on December 1st and having checked the weather forecast we were expecting a week of settled and sunny weather. In fact December can be one of the best times of year to trek as over the last ten years in the Himalaya there has usually been a high pressure resulting in blue skies and clear views of the Himalaya. Of course it will be abit colder in December however a trek like Druk Path (with maximum altitude of 4,200m) is fine as long as one brings the right clothes and gear i.e down jacket, fleece layers, hats and gloves, warm sleeping bag etc.

It is worth pointing out there is always a risk of having snow on the ground at this time of year, if so, the horses carrying the luggage may not be able to proceed.

Druk Path starts in Paro on the road above the National Museum and finishes in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. This trek follows a quiet forest trail then above tree line up through yak pastures. Given clear weather you will see the spectacular view of the Himalaya along the Bhutan - Tibet border including Mount Chomolhari, Jitchu Drake and Gangkar Punsum. Along the way there are a number of beautiful high mountain lakes.

It is possible to walk Druk Path in four days although this means walking some long days. Others prefer to take longer and opt for the six day Druk Path however on balance I think five days is about right for reasonably fit walkers. As you can see below there was only one longer day from Tshokam to Jana Tsho taking about 7 hours. I have described our itinerary and our trek below.

Day One: walk to Jili Dzong camp- four hours walking
We drove up the road to the watch tower above Paro Dzong where we met our trek crew. Then we walked along a jeep track for an hour passing several farmhouses and apple orchards. On the way we saw an archery competition with several families having a picnic. The trail winds up through blue pine forest and after an hour and half we arrived at a mani wall where we had a break. 

There are good views looking back to Paro valley and soon Jili Dzong is visible at the top of the ridge. After another hour we stopped for lunch in an grassy area and then afterwards ascended through more blue pine and fir forest. There is lots of old man’s beard hanging off the trees and this is always an indicator of good air quality. Higher up on the trail there was bamboo and rhododendrons. We walked through yak pastures near the pass (3,520m) and from here we descended a short way to our camp in a meadow below Jili Dzong.

Photo: start of the trek in Paro above National museum
Photo: view of Paro valley and farmhouses at start of Druk Path
Photo: archery competition
Photo: mani wall at Damche Gom
Photo: walking in blue pine forest on Day One
Photo: blue pine forest
Photo: Guides, Tashi and Tashi, walking through yak pastures towards the pass
Photo: pass below Jili Dzong
Photo: campsite below Jili Dzong
Day Two: walk to Tshokam- four hours walking
The sun arrived early this morning so we sat outside to eat our breakfast cooked by Dawa and his helper, Haba. After breakfast we walked back to the pass and up to Jili Dzong, this is located in an impressive spot on top of the ridge. From the Dzong there are views of Paro valley far below while in distance the Himalayan peaks can be seen including Mount Chomolhari. 

The trail follows the ridge and then enters forest of blue pine and rhododendron. After crossing to the east side of the ridge the trail continues through rhododendrons and cedars to the camp at Jangchhu Lakha, then further along the trail we stopped for the night at Tshokam camp.

Photo: Jili Dzong
Photo: walking on ridge near Jili Dzong
Photo: view of Paro from Jili Dzong
Photo: view of Mount Chomolhari
Photo: Tshokam camp
Day Three: walk to Jana Tsho- seven hours walking
This was a truly wonderful day as we had clear blue skies and the view of the Himalaya mountains was spectacular. There are two trail options and I would recommend you take the high path along the ridge where you get the best views of the mountains. From Tshokam camp we climbed up on a small path through forest for ½ hour to get above the tree line, for the rest of the day we followed the trail through grassy slopes scattered with rhododendron and juniper bushes. The view to the south is to the Dagala mountain range, in this area there is a trek called the Dagala Thousand Lakes treks.

Along the high trail from Tsokam there are a number of passes and after four hours we reached the ridge where there is a good viewpoint of Mount Chomolhari. We followed this ridge for ½ hour before descending through forest to Jimilang Tsho lake where we had a late lunch. After lunch we passed through rhododendron forest and after crossing a minor pass we ascended to our campsite near the lake at Jana Tsho.

Photo: taking a break above Tsokam camp
Photo: high trail to Jimi Jimi Lang Tsho
Photo: minor pass on high trail to Jimi Lang Tsho
Photo: view from ridge
Photo: walking along the ridge on high trail to  Jimi Langtsho
Photo: walking along the ridge on high trail to  Jimi Langsho
Photo: Mount Chomolhari seen from the ridge
Photo: Jimi Lang Tsho (lake)
Photo: view of Jana Tsho (lake)
Photo: camp at Jana Tsho
Day Four: walk to Phajoding- six hours walking (also an extra hour to walk to our camp in the foesrt below the monastery).
This was another classic day trekking in the Himalayas, after an ascent from Jana Tsho we crossed a small pass and then contoured past another lake called Simkotra Tsho. Today we walked over seven minor passes, the best view is from Thujedraj where the whole vista of the Bhutan Himalaya can be seen from a rocky viewpoint. I would recommend walking up this hill located to the left of the pass to see the Himalayan vista including Mount Gangkar Punsum (the highest unclimbed peak in the world). You can see the whole of the Bhutan Himalaya from Mount Chomolhari in the west through to the Lunana peaks of Masangang and Table Mountain to several unnamed peaks in the east.

The last pass is Phume La where it is also possible to see Gangkar Punsum again however by the time we reached here the mountains were obscured by clouds. From Phume La one looks down to Phajoding monastery and Thimphu valley below. We descended to Phajoding and visited the monastery then descended further to a camp in the forest next to a derelict house.

Photo: pack horses on the trail
Photo: on the trail to Phajoding
Photo: dogs always follow the trek groups
Photo: first minor pass
Photo: walking with a dog
Photo: Mount Chomolhari
Photo: Thujedraj pass with rocky viewpoint
Photo: Himalayan view from Thujedraj pass
Photo: walking towards Phume La pass
Photo: view of Thimphu valley
Photo: chorten on Phume La
Photo: Phajoding monastery
Day Five: walk to Motithang- two hours walking.
On the last day of the trek we descended through the forest to the roadhead at Motithang where we met our driver. After a visit to Takin reserve we drove to Peaceful Resort and checked in for the night.

During Druk Path we used GPS SPOT where we checked in at each camp and main passes during the trek, to view our the trail on SPOT Adventures website mapped onto Google Earth

As you can see from our photos we experienced excellent weather during our Druk Path trek in December. One needs a good sleeping bag for the nights however overall we did not feel too cold especially as sun always hit camp in the morning before we had breakfast. The other advantage of doing this trek in December is the trail is quiet with few other groups, we saw only three other trekkers during these five days.

You can also trek Druk Path during the peak trekking months of March April, October and November and being Bhutan it is unlikely the trail will be too busy with other groups. I would not advise trekking in Bhutan from May to September as during monsoon months it will be rainy and you are unlikely to get any mountain views.

If you are looking for a short trek where you can see the Bhutanese landscape including views of the Himalaya I would recommend Druk Path as a great choice. I think the best of exploring Bhutan is to get out into the hills for a few days rather than only driving to the main places such as on the classic tour circuit of Bhutan.

If you are interested in joining Druk Path trek please take a look our website. Please get in touch if you have any questions or would like further information.

Roland Hunter

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