Are we there yet?” asked Swati, gasping for breath. It was Day 2 of our 12-day Bhutan trek, and we were already wondering if we had done something really dumb by signing up for this “moderately difficult” Himalayan trek. We are in our mid-40s, and in reasonably good shape—provided we tuck our stomachs in. However, casual day-trekking—done with panache, thereby creating a false sense of fitness—had been the limit of our experience. Accompanying us was our daughter Shunori, 17-going-on-18, and our son Rishab, 12-going-on-15.
High points: (top) Walking past rhododendrons on the first day of the trek; (left to right) Ramesh, Rishab, Swati and Shunori at the Jangothang campsite, at the foot of the Chomolhari. Photographs Courtesy Ramesh Ramanathan
The trek was the culmination of a commitment we had made to ourselves two years earlier—family time together before our daughter headed to college. I was the designated trip planner. And so, general destination ideas started floating around as early as December—Brazilian rain forests, a week-long trip down the Amazon, and so on. Nothing specific, just doozies that sprang from magazine sightings of National Geographic-style photographs.
By February, I was beginning to panic—we hadn’t yet nailed an idea, and we only had a two-week window in April in which to execute the “trek plan”. I did the wise thing, what every successful Kaun Banega Crorepati participant does—I phoned a friend. Rekha Menon is the sage of outdoor activity—trekking, bicycling, distance running, you name it. She has been active since she came out of her mother’s womb, saying “Wow, that was a marathon!”
Rekha was patient: “You haven’t really trekked before—no, that one-day walk in the Nilgiris doesn’t count.”
“What about the three-day Western Ghats stint in the middle of the monsoons, with leeches up our crotch and our shoe soles tearing apart?”
“Doesn’t count, because we returned every night to a warm, dry room and great food.”
Rekha said that if we were serious about trekking, we should head to the Himalayas: “There’s enough to keep you busy for a lifetime.” She helpfully provided packing advice and added sympathetically: “If I thought you guys would do this regularly, I would suggest that you buy some gear. But...” giving us the up-down appraisal, “for you, I’d say just borrow stuff from us.”
So it was decided. The Himalayas! Yay! But that’s 2,500km of mountain ranges. I had a vague sense that we needed some specifics. Good things happen to those who work hard in life, and so, I got lucky. Sometime in early March, in a Delhi airport lounge, I ran across a high-school buddy whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years.
“Hey, Ramesh, is that you? Boy, you’ve greyed, man!”
“Nariiii! Thanks for the compliment. Seems like you aren’t doing too badly, with that prosperous Indian pot belly of yours.”
We got talking. Along the way, I said, “Remember Boy Scouts and how you were a slave driver? With the 40 proficiency badges and the president scout drill?” He laughed, we reminisced, and I asked, “You still do the outdoor stuff?”
“Oh, yeah! It’s a big part of my life. Am a trekking nut, in fact there’s a whole subculture of folks out there, doing this stuff in India, and our tribe is growing. We look like regular folk by day—chartered accountants, doctors and so on. But come the weekend, or full-moon night, and we transform into these trekking cultists.”
Turned out he treks several times a year, short two- or three-day stints and the longer version as well.
I asked him for advice on the Himalayas, we got into details, and he promised to inundate me with emails and links. Which he did. Over the next two weeks, I read up on all the Himalayan treks, and Google-Earthed the key trekking spots. There are essentially three broad trekking areas in the Himalayas: the Ladakh/Jammu and Kashmir region in the north-west; the central Uttaranchal region; and the eastern stretch from Nepal-Bhutan to Arunachal Pradesh. Each has its charms and challenges.
After a lot of family debate and research, we settled on Bhutan. We wanted a trek that was strenuous, but not stark in terms of natural landscape. “Go to Chomolhari,” Nari advised. “It’s a beautiful nine-day trek and you could take an extra couple of days before and after. Moderately difficult.” Indeed!
Moving along: (top) One of the hundreds of wooden bridges on the trek route; and sharing a meal at Bahadur Singh’s (left) outpost. Photographs Courtesy Ramesh Ramanathan
Six weeks later, we were ready to trek. We had gone to the adventure store on Museum Road in Bangalore and loaded up on the trekking goodies—sleeping bags, shoes, rucksacks, flashlights, double-layered jackets. SMS to Rekha—“We are in this for good!”
Getting to Bhutan put us on a flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra (the closest Indian airport to Bhutan). We couldn’t get tickets on the only daily flight to the Bhutan capital, Thimpu, because it was full, and so we had to take the road. The drive was uneventful, border towns on both sides bustled with commerce. Interesting factoid: Bhutan has a sprinkler system installed at the checkpoint which hoses the wheels of the cars driving in from India—they are a far cleaner country than us, and you could see the difference in the streets and footpaths. Tells you that cleanliness has little to do with wealth.
The drive took longer than planned because of a landslide. So, instead of reaching Thimpu that evening, we lost a day. That turned out to be critical when we did the trek, since we lost our one day of acclimatization before high-altitude trekking. Of course, ignoramuses that we were, we knew little about all this.
Thimpu is a small town with one main road that snakes from the airport to the hills, with a scattering of buildings set around a few hundred yards. It is idyllic—Bhutanese architecture, a river running through, pleasant people. Overall, an energetic sense of peace, as opposed to a desultory languor.
A quick round-up of our Bhutanese team: Tilak—handsome, chiselled, slow-on-the-uptake, 24 years old (last two unrelated)—was our guide. He had Penjor as his assistant. Penjor turned out to be like Lothar from the Mandrake comics—quiet, strong, capable of solving most unexpected problems with sheer physicality. He wielded a traditional Bhutanese forest knife like a surgeon wields a scalpel. Doji was head cook, and Kadu his help. And then there were the two mule-men, whose names we never got, because they would mysteriously appear from and melt into the mist with their mules.
The first day of the trek started like a regular trek—lovely scenery, gushing stream, rhododendrons in bloom. We set off from just outside Paro, at a historic but somewhat nondescript dzong (old Bhutanese temple/fort), surrounded by a small settlement. Tilak suggested we carry our own rucksacks—the children readily agreed, I complied partially (took a day pack rather than the whole sack), and Swati politely declined.
Within a few hours, the enthusiasm had dampened, and from a bunched, chattering group we had become a well-spread-out single file, beginning to become familiar with the rhythm of trekking and the personal zone that envelopes one quickly—aware of the overall process, participating in sporadic discussions, but for the most part, focusing on thoughts that swirl around the footsteps of the march. We had no sense of what was in store each day. Yes, I had the trek all mapped out, I had read enough of the route, etc., but it hadn’t registered at a visceral level.
When we finished the first day, we had covered 17km and climbed close to 300m, starting from Paro at 2,600m. The camp was already set up, with Doji, Kadu and the rest having gone ahead of us. It was picture-postcard perfect: by the stream, with gurgling waters. Two tents for us, one for Tilak, one for the kitchen, one for dining, and a small cute green gazebo which was to serve as the loo. Rishab went into it, came out bemused and asked, “So how is one supposed to go, there’s nothing in there except a small pit that’s been dug into the ground.” We all laughed. Swati said: “Yup, that’s it. When you’re finished, just scoop some dirt into the pit. Welcome to the real world ecology class!”
There are things about treks one doesn’t focus on when reading or watching films about them. Baths, for instance. Forget about it. No running water, but also, it’s freezing cold and the limited supply of heating oil/gas is meant for the food. So all you get is a small basin of hot water every morning to brush and clean your face. I got used to wetting a small hand-towel and rubbing myself clean, kind of. Shaving was like in the Western movies—small mirror hitched to the tree, blade swishing in the basin, birds chirping overhead. And the dark—you can’t see the end of your nose, and there’s no respite till daybreak. A small flashlight is fine to make sure you don’t trip over stuff, but provides little comfort in terms of the human desire to “know” one’s surroundings. And the smallness of the tents. We had decided to split the tents by gender—Swati and Shunori, and Rishab and I. At around midnight on the first night, I heard Swati’s anxious voice outside my tent, whispering, “Ramesh, I need to talk to you!”
Groggily, I asked “What’s up?” as I zipped open our tent. It was below 0 degree Celsius outside.
“I can’t sleep in the tent—am feeling completely suffocated and claustrophobic.” We learnt later that many people face this and the only way is to break oneself in—set up a tent at home and sleep in it for several days. If only we had known... So we spent the night with the tent flap open and the wind slicing through. This was the pattern for the rest of the trip, and it got worse as we climbed higher.
We woke up on Day 2, tired but happy. If this was the worst that the trek had in store for us, bring it on! Breakfast was toast, omelettes, tea, and we were off by 8am. Tilak warned us it was going to be a long day of trekking. By midday, we were exhausted—the climb was getting steep, the path was rough. We broke for lunch earlier than scheduled. The food was awful. Swati was beginning to get altitude sickness, and Shunori was getting the flu, possibly triggered by the food. Only Rishab was like a mountain goat. An hour after lunch, it was getting close to impossible. Progress was painfully slow—I would measure 100 steps, and we would take a break. After a couple of hours of this, we asked Tilak where the camp was. He pointed up nonchalantly and said, “about half an hour”. This got us hopeful, so we gathered our energies and pushed ahead. A half-hour later, we asked again, only to get the same response. This went on, repeatedly. It was like Laurence Olivier drilling Dustin Hoffman’s teeth in Marathon Man. At one point, Swati was doubled over, throwing up. I exploded, “Tilak, how far IS it, really!” He looked at me, resignedly, “Sir, if I tell you, you won’t believe me.”
“Half an hour.”
“I don’t believe you!”
Penjor, always by our side, quiet and oozing reliability, looked at me and lifted a finger—1 hour. He then pantomimed with his hands pumping like pistons—“if we walk fast”. Yeah, right!.
The climb felt like it was vertical and through a rocky pathway. Penjor had made walking sticks for each of us, which I had dismissed as unnecessary earlier in the day, and now thanked him silently for providing us with. We clambered behind him, completely drained and disoriented. After what seemed like an eternity, we came to a clearing, where the two mule-men had backtracked from the campsite to help us out. Only 5 minutes away, Tilak shouted to me from the front and grinned. Thankfully, he was telling the truth.
The campsite was dark when we arrived. Shunori, who was running a 102-degree temperature, threw up by the stream. Swati was a bundle in the tent. Doji came with mushroom soup, which looked extremely unappetizing. I asked Rishab to have the soup in the tent, since no one had the energy to move. Ten minutes later, I heard an exclamation, “Oh, shucks!”
“What happened?” I asked, rushing out.
“The soup spilled,” he said. All over the equipment and the sleeping bags. “This is the night from hell, but it will end,” I thought to myself as I went to clean up the mess. As I walked out, I looked up and saw a fantastic, blazing night sky, filled with millions of stars. The gleaming white peak of Chomolhari—at 7,800m, Bhutan’s highest mountain—was visible even in the dark, almost fluorescent. I realized that we were in a dish of a valley, surrounded by mountains, and by the side of a rushing stream of freshly melted snow. Wow. No time to really enjoy this. Maybe tomorrow.
The next day was bleak. Clouds had completely taken over the sky and a persistent drizzle greeted us as we came out of our tents. There was no sign of Chomolhari. We were wiped out, defeated by the trek. Sick, tired, hungry, grubby. Shunori looked at me accusingly and said: “I thought we were going to have fun on the trek. This isn’t fun at all.”
Over breakfast, we talked to Tilak. How bad was the rest of the trek? Could we do it, or were we fooling ourselves?
“To be honest, I’m not sure,” he said. “More than a quarter of Chomolhari trekkers don’t make it.” Now we find out! I could feel the stares from the rest of the family.
“You could go back, but it will take two days, like it did coming up. Or, I could arrange for a helicopter if there is an emergency.”
He informed us that if we were to proceed, we would reach the highest campsite the next night, at a place called Jangothang, at an altitude of 4,100m, close to the foot of Chomolhari. If we could make it till there, we had a day’s break, and we could then decide to either push ahead or return, because it marked the mid-point of the trek. We decided to take the day’s break immediately and take stock the next day.
Day 4 was equally bleak, and while Swati got better, Shunori was still sick. Very reluctantly, we came to the conclusion that we needed to turn back—pushing ahead meant potentially having to retreat more if anyone fell ill. Tilak didn’t help when he said that “only four people had died of altitude sickness in the past five years”. As we finished our tea, I said, “If the clouds part and we can see Chomolhari, it’s a sign that we should keep pushing ahead.” The others nodded weakly.
As I came out of the tent, I zipped myself up and looked expectantly north for a break in the clouds. No luck. The others came out, we packed, the tents were folded and we turned south to head back. I glanced back one last time—and saw a break in the clouds. Surely this was a sign!
“The clouds, they are opening up!” I shouted. Shunori looked back wearily, hoping that it wasn’t true. Swati said, “It’s Shunori’s call.”
She looked at my face, saw the unvarnished desire to reach Jangothang and gamely said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Half-afraid, half-unsure, we turned back uphill and began Day 4 of our trek. We went past the treeline and the landscape changed dramatically, with the forests giving way to open meadows. Seventeen-plus kilometres, 8 hours—but the terrain was flatter, gentler, easier on the muscles. Along the way, we passed a ramshackle cluster of tin-roof sheds from which an Indian soldier emerged.
“Aap India se hain? (Are you from India?)” he asked eagerly, introducing himself as Bahadur Singh. I stopped reluctantly, anxious not to lose time. “Yes, we are from India,” Swati said, smiling generously—an indication of what we could actually turn this trek into. He offered us tea, but we said we would take him up on our return.
A few hours later, Tilak paused for us to catch up and told us that there was a building with a satellite phone connection which he would use. He suggested we carry on, adding that he and Penjor would catch up with us. We trudged ahead. Soon, the skies became dark and it started raining. Hail followed and after that, snow. Gently at first, and then at a furious pace. The path was getting obliterated and there was no sign of the guides! We debated whether to stop or keep going, and voted to move ahead.
Barely 10 minutes later, Rishab and Shunori spotted the campsite! We had arrived at Jangothang, the highest camp on the trek at more than 4,000m. Whelps of joy followed, with even Shunori smiling through her fever. It was still wet and dreary, but who cared. We had made it!
There was another camp with British trekkers who took us in while our tents were being pitched and gave us hot chocolate and biscuits, and medicine for Shunori. It kept raining and snowing through the night. Swati could barely breathe, with her altitude sickness and claustrophobia, but we felt somehow at peace. Dirty, dishevelled, tired, but wow, what a feeling!
Almost as a reward, the skies cleared completely the next morning. I peered out from the tent flaps to see—Chomolhari! The magnificent mountain, barely a few hundred yards away, all shimmering in fresh snow. And snow-capped peaks all around. A few stray yaks feeding, piping hot tea from the kitchen, and the scene was complete—it felt like nirvana.
We ate our best breakfast of the trip—Swati taught Doji how to make aloo parathas. We talked excitedly about the way down, promising ourselves that we would take an extra day, but not trek for more than 4-5 hours each day. That we would stop wherever we wanted, take in the scenery, the river, the yaks, anything that caught anyone’s fancy.
And this is what we did for the next four days. Had lunch in the middle of the river one day, getting pedicures with fresh stream water and stonewashed pebbles. Lit a campfire another night. Went for a swim and bath in the icy-cold waters. Stopped off at Bahadur Singh’s outpost and shared a meal, then stayed on for the evening, and sang Uttaranchali folk songs with him into the night. Shunori’s fever broke along the way, Swati’s altitude sickness disappeared. One night, we talked of how we got married, the little details that we would never have time for back in the city, and the children listened in rapt attention, interrupting a million times. Shunori and Rishab walked together on many days, chatting and exchanging laughs as Swati and I watched from half-a-mile behind.
We literally traipsed back into Paro, still dishevelled, still tired as hell, but completely transformed. The last night of the trek, we sat in the tent and talked of how the trek had changed each of us. We had learnt a lot—about the raw power of nature, about how incredibly pampered we had all become, about how, like much of life, the word “enjoy” can also mean “endure”, about appreciating silence not for 1 minute or 10 minutes but hours at a time. Most importantly, about how it gave us what we had set out to achieve —an extraordinary time together as a family.
Our resolution as we left Thimpu a few days later—a “moderately difficult” trek every year for the rest of our lives.
Trip Planner / Bhutan
The only international airport at Bhutan is located at Paro. The national air carrier Druk Air, Royal Bhutan Airlines is the only airline that operates to Bhutan from
Delhi (one-way fare is around Rs12,000) and Kolkata (around Rs5,000). You have the option of travelling to Bagdogra in northern West Bengal, a military airport open for civilian flights to tourist spots such as Bhutan. The one-way cost of flights from here is around Rs2,500. Current flight schedules for Druk Air are available at www.drukair.com.bt However, tickets cannot be purchased online and have to be bought through tour operators. Contact Etho Metho Tours and Treks Pvt. Ltd at 00975-2323162 and Ibex Expeditions at 09810087319 or visit www.tourism.gov.bt for more details.
Road: Small buses and cars will take you from Jaigaon, West Bengal, near the Bhutan border to the town of Phuntsholing in south-western Bhutan, where you can obtain entry permits. The travel time from here to Thimpu is about 6 hours. Indians do not require a visa; they only need to carry a passport to obtain a permit.
Getting around: Medium-sized buses (20-22 seats), small buses (8-12 seats) or cabs will take you around. The buses are well-maintained and comfortable.
How to prepare for the trek
Mandip Singh, managing director, Ibex Expeditions, says it’s important to be in reasonably good shape. “Hit the gym or go for walks for a few weeks before the trek,” he adds. The major essential items to carry are a fleece jacket, a waterproof jacket, a sleeping bag and trekking shoes. The travel company will provide a comprehensive list of other essentials. Tents are provided by tour operators and are standard for everyone.
According to Singh, a 10-day trip could cost Rs5,000-8,000 a day depending on the kind of accommodation you opt for—it can range from budget hotels and super-deluxe hotels to five-star properties.
Bhutan map: Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint. Trip planner: Text by Rachana Nakra / Mint
Ramesh Ramanathan writes the fortnightly column Möbius Strip for Mint.
Write to email@example.com