When I started marketing the 5 day Druk Path Trek in Bhutan in April end through my company Ease India Travel, I knew what to expect from the trek. I had undertaken it twice in two different seasons (Spring & Fall), and had completed them successfully.
But I didn’t know what to expect from the marketing because this was the first time I was throwing in this trek in a holiday season that would coincide with the summer breaks in India. I thought I would probably get 2 sign ups (for some reason I kept picturing two males), but I also knew that even that would be challenging. First reason being, it is a tough trek and needs a high fitness level from participants. The second reason – its an expensive trek.
Treks are a bit expensive to undertake in Bhutan as the trek group comprises of a trek guide, cook, attendant and horse boy. Since burning of wood is not allowed in the wilderness in Bhutan, we are constrained to carry gas cylinders, food stock for the number of days of the trek, and all camping gear, on mules and horses. The campsite is elaborate and has a kitchen tent, a dining tent, sleeping tents and a toilet tent.
After we put in a lot of effort in marketing, and by the time April arrived, it had become clear that all the four participants on the trek would be women. A four women trek team heading to the Himalayas. Who’d have thought!
As I finalised the finer details of the arrangements with my Bhutanese partner, he also assigned a woman guide for our group of four!
Excited at the prospect of the all women team, we met at Kolkata airport and began our journey. On day 01, we roamed in Paro, seeing the sights that would give everyone a taste of Bhutan. Our friendly guide, Tashi, was also very chatty and my guests learned about Bhutan’s religion, spirituality and reverence for nature from her.
On day 02, we were to climb to the Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan’s most iconic monastery. This was an acclimatising climb for us and we made it in fantastic time. The camaraderie was palpable and we slowly got to know each other.
The following day, we embarked on the 5 day trek. The climb was hard, especially on me. I always take time to get used to the altitude and the rigour of the steep climbs. My past experience also proved that I’d be fine by day 02 of the trek – once my lungs got used to the lack of oxygen and I controlled my breathing.
In the evening, we settled into our campsite. The temperature dropped as dusk fell and my guests got a sense of what they should expect in the following days as we climbed higher and camped at higher altitudes.
Unfortunately, one of the guests came down with a cold that night and she woke up the following morning with a heavy head and a blocked nose. Breathing was proving to be challenging. All of us were carrying innumerable medicines – from altitude sickness to fever, to balms for aches and pains and even a crepe bandage for emergency first aid. But only one odd pill for cold, which proved useful temporarily.
Day 02 of the trek – from Jele Dzong to Chokham – was tough on her. The altitude made it even worse. She had slowed down considerably and we knew that she would not be able to handle the climb on day 03, where our campsite (a lakeside camp called Jigmelang-Tsho) was at 4100 metres above sea level, unless she got better. Even worse – the longest walk of the trek was on day 04 – from Jigmelang-Tsho to Labana.
Ginger tea, soup, a hot water bag to keep her warm – the trek staff assented to all our requests. We wanted to keep her warm. She spent the evening curled up in her sleeping bag as we spent it playing cards and a new version of Uno taught by Tashi.
We contemplated and worried about the remaining days. Cutting the trek short by two days was suggested and discussed with a heavy heart. If we were to cut the trek, the decision would have to be made that very day as we would move to a no network area by the following morning. If we needed hotel bookings in Thimphu and a car to pick us from where we finished the trek untimely, we needed to call my partner immediately.
By dinner that night, we decided that we would take Tashi’s suggestion. We would trek down from Chokham to a place called Narethang and camp there. The following day – i.e. day 04, we would come down to the village where the car could pick us up. This wold be a short 2 hour trek. Chokham to Narethang would take us about 4 hours of descend.
Calls were made to my partner in Thimphu and plan finalised.
We went to bed with a heavy heart, but we knew that we couldn’t risk climbing further up with her health in a delicate condition.
Sending her back to Thimphu with one of the trek staff while the others continued with the trek wasn’t even suggested (it was mentioned by my Bhutanese partner in the passing later). Our camaraderie and friendship was already at the stage where we felt her sadness and there was no way we were ditching her.
On day 03, we woke up and readied to leave the campsite. Mentally we were all ready to start the return leg of our trek. She came out of her tent and she looked a lot better. She even felt a lot better, she said.
She gently suggested – Could we go to the next campsite as per plan, Jigme-lang Tsho, and then to Thimphu on day 04 since the climb on day 04 was too long and she wasn’t confident she could do it?
I agreed immediately! Tashi made a few quick calls and we also decided to change the route to Jigmelang-Tsho. We decided to go via Narethang. It would avoid at least 3 hours of steep climbing. This decision was exciting to everyone, because now, we’d be able to go to the highest altitude campsite on this trek.
After we crossed Narethang, it began raining gently and then it started snowing. The path upwards to Jigmelang-Tsho was steep, full of stones and water bodies. But I am yet to see something more beautiful on the Druk Path!
The moment we reached Jigmelang-Tsho we knew its going to be cold; clouds were hanging heavy on the campsite and it was bone chillingly cold. By late evening the snow fall became heavy and according to Tashi, it may have been almost -9 degrees celsius that night.
The following morning we found our way towards Narethang and then further down to the base of the trek. It was a long day with steep descends and intermittent rain. But there was a spring in our step!
Because we would be in a hotel room taking a hot shower after 4 days and would get to sleep in a cosy warm bed! One of the ladies had had a tough time using the makeshift toilet tent and she was looking forward to using a proper one!
That night at dinner, we recounted our experience and we couldn’t believe that we had actually completed the trek! Almost 50 kms over 4 days, most of them steep, steep climbs – from 2200 metres to 4100 metres and back. Even if we had done day 5, we’d have, at best, done about 5-7 kms more.
To me, though, the best part of the trek was how we had all become companions. How we had watched each other’s backs. How we had enjoyed the solitude, played cards, and bonded over stories of our respective families. How we had accommodated our co-traveller when she fell ill. We functioned like a cohesive unit. Everyone adjusted – one to the lack of vegan options on the trek, the other to the lack of a proper toilet. How no one, not one of my guests, took me aside to complain about the other, despite the frequent change in plans. And no one lost their cool, demeanour or sense of humour.
Most of all, I was grateful that we had made it and seized the day – we trundled on and completed 4 days of the trek – despite the odds!
I pray that I get such guests to accompany me on every trip. Amen to that!
About the Druk Path
This trek that starts from the city of Paro and ends at the city of Thimphu in Bhutan, meanders through absolute wilderness, spectacular sights and high altitudes (highest is 4200 metres above sea level). In fact, at one point on the trek, we even camp at 4100 m ASL.
The trek path is so remote that the chances of encountering even an animal, is negligible, forget humans.
In 5 days, we were to cover about 55 kms and the trek, though not considered very difficult, needs a certain degree of fitness, especially to cope with the high altitude and lack of oxygen.