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Friday, 2 January 2015

Trip Report for Kitiphu Ridge trek in Bhutan during December 2014

In December 2014, I visited Bhutan in order to develop our program of shorter treks in this country. I posted a blog article yesterday with the Trip Report for Druk Path describing how we enjoyed excellent weather and superb views during this five day trek. As discussed in this article my plan during this visit was to find short treks in Bhutan that have good views of the Himalaya, beautiful landscape and also cultural interest too.

From speaking to several friends I heard good reports about the three day trek along Kitiphu Ridge (also called the Bumthang Owl trek). So we decided to walk this trail to find out whether Kitiphu Ridge would be a good objective to promote for future groups. From reading the Bhutan Tourism Monitor report I gather there were only 71 tourists who completed Kitiphu Ridge trek in 2013 so it was unlikely to be too busy especially in December.

There are several variations of this trek however after discussion with our Sirdar, Dawa, we decided to start at Gyetsa village near Chumey and walk along Kitiphu Ridge to end the trek at Dur village. Now having completed the trek there is no doubt this is the best way as you walk in a northerly direction with views towards the Himalayas.

During Kitiphu Ridge trek 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

Photo: start of trek at Gyetsa village near Chumey
Photo: crossing bridge near at roosting area for black-necked cranes
Photo: black-necked cranes in flight near Gyetsa village
Photo: black-necked cranes near Gyetsa village
Day One: From Gyetsa village to Tharpaling monastery- three hours walking.
We started this trek on December 10th at Gyetsa village and we were very lucky as shortly after setting off we saw a flock of black-necked cranes fly over us then land in the fields outside the village. On our return after the trek we found an article on Kuensel Online explaining how the numbers of cranes overwintering in this area has increased significantly from only five or six birds for last twenty years. It is wonderful to hear about the healthy population of cranes and it was a fantastic experience to unexpectedly see them at the start of this trek.

Photo: view down to Gyetsa village
Photo: looking up the ridge to Tharpaling monastery
After walking across the fields and crossing a bridge over a small stream we walked on a path up through pine forest, there were good views back down to the fields around Gyetsa village. After 45 minutes we reached several traditional Bhutanese farmhouses and a private monastery. From here we followed the ridge up through more forest and along the way we passed prayer flags, mani wall and an old gateway (probably marking the old trail from Trongsa to Bumthang) with a beautiful mandala painted in the roof.

We could see Tharpaling monastery above us near the top of the ridge and after about three hours walking we arrived to our camp in the grounds of the monastery. Our tent had been pitched next to eight stupas and it was wonderful to have a cup of tea watching the nuns walking koras while spinning their hand-held prayer wheels.

Photo: traditional Bhutanese farmhouse
Tharpaling is a cluster of isolated monasteries at an altitude of 3,700m and one of the gompas is located with a cliff behind. Tharpaling is an important monastery complex founded in 1352 by Longchen Rabjampa during his enforced period of exile from Tibet. There are usually more than 100 monks however during the winter they head south to a warmer place so in December we only saw a few caretaker monks. Outside the main assemby hall are eight stupas built in 2011 commemorating the major deeds in the life Shakyamuni Buddha.

Photo: row of eight stupas outside Tharpaling monastery
Photo: Tharpaling monastery
Day Two: From Tharpaling monastery to Shonath camp- six hours walking
After breakfast we walked up through the monastery complex and visited one of the temples to attend a morning puja (religious ceremony). Above the monastery we followed the trail up to a pass on Kitiphu Ridge where we saw our first views of the Himalayan peaks to the east. As one walks up the grassy ridge to the first view point bedecked by prayer flags Mount Chomolhari becomes visible to the west. We passed through a section of forest with blue pine and rhododendron before continuing on more grassy slopes to the second viewpoint. From here one looks down to the Bumthang valley far below and we clearly saw Jakar Dzong located on a hill top.

Photo: walking along the trail above Tharpaling monastery
Photo: walking along Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: view of Himalayan peaks from Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: Kitiphu ridge
Photo: view of Bumthang valley from Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: lammergeier above Kitiphu Ridge
At the end of the ridge is Mount Kitiphu (4,050m) and it is from this point we saw Mount Gangkar Punsum. At an altitude of 7,570m it is the highest unclimbed peak in the world. At this high point there are many prayer flags, a large Buddhist prayer umbrella and a shrine for pujas. We arrived at Mount Kitiphu in early afternoon and had lunch while enjoying the view. After taking many photos we started the walk down Kitiphu Ridge and on the descent we saw two large lammergeier (bearded vulture) flying in the sky high above us.

Photo: view of Himalayan peaks from Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: Mount Kitiphu at 4,050m
Photo: view of Mount Gangkar Punsum (7,570m) from Mount Kitiphu
Photo: descending from Mount Kitiphu
Photo: walking along Kitiphu Ridge
Further down Kitiphu Ridge after passing a yak herder's hut we reached Drange La (3,600m), at this pass we descended through a beautiful forest of spruce, fir, rhododendron and bamboo for about 45 minutes to our camp in a grassy clearing called Shonath. In the forest around this camp are many owls, hence giving the trek its name, however sadly we did not hear any hunting that night.

Photo: Shonath campsite in the forest
Photo: ponies used for carrying our luggage
Day Three: From Shonath Camp to Dur Village- two hours walking.
It is a short walk out through blue pine forest to the road head at Dur Village. After exploring the village and saying farewells to our horseman, we were driven to Bumthang where we checked into Swiss Guesthouse for the night. In the afternoon we visited two monasteries in Bumthang valley starting at Tamshing Gomba and then walking over the suspension bridge to Kurjey Lhakang. Kurjey Lhakang is an important place as has the body print of Guru Rinpoche preserved in a cave inside the oldest temple.

Photo: walking through forest of hemlock and juniper
Photo: river near Dur village
Photo: Dur village
Like for Druk Path trek once again we had perfect weather for Kitiphu Ridge trek. As discussed in my Trip Report for Druk Path I would recommend trekking in the Himalaya during December as the weather is normally sunny (never guaranteed!) and the views of the Himalayas tend to be clear with less haze than often experienced in other months. Of course there is a risk of getting cloudy weather with precipitation at anytime of year however you have a good chance of dry and sunny weather in December.

Kitiphu Ridge would be a good choice for a December trek as the camps are not too high in altitude with highest near Tharpaling monastery at 3,700m. Therefore it should not be too cold however you certainly need to bring along warm clothes and a good sleeping bag to enjoy the experience!

My view is that Kitiphu Ridge is wonderful trek and I would highly recommend considering this option if you are looking for a short trek in Bhutan.  During the three days on Kitiphu Ridge trek we visited monasteries at Tharpaling and Bumthang; walked through forests of blue pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, rhododendron and juniper; saw lots of birds (black-necked cranes; lammergeier, nut crackers etc); met monks, nuns, yakherders and locals from Dur village. Once onto Kitiphu Ridge the view of the Himalayan mountains is superb and gets better as one ascends up towards Mount Kitiphu where the impressive Gangkar Punsum can be seen on a clear day.

We have not yet set up Kitiphu Ridge on The Mountain Company's website however we will do so soon. Please get in touch if you are interested in this trek and we will provide more information and tailor an itinerary for you.

Roland Hunter

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