Trip Review Monks in Paro Black Mountain Guide Karma Dorje Bhutan Black Mountain Trek Review of an October 2006 JOURNEYS Signature Trip By Will Weber The Black Mountain area of southern Bhutan recently opened to foreign visitors. JOURNEYS travelers were among the ﬁrst American visitors to this area, which is rich in cultural and natural history. Arrival in Bhutan However many times you may have ﬂown into mountain airports, landing in Paro, Bhutan, in a full Airbus A-319 makes you fully appreciate pilot skill, navigation instruments and human frailty. Landing safely here is an especially pleasing experience. You need that jet to arrive here, but once you deplane that big piece of technology seems so out of place. Our group of 14 gathered in the Olathang Hotel in Paro, up the hill from the main town. Bhutan has many new hotels, but this has been one of our favorites. Enormous prayer wheel 2 of 4 This was my fourth trip to Bhutan. Bhutan, though it is the smallest nation in Asia, seems to oﬀer a never ending source of inspiring “next-trip” temptations. Our Black Mountain trek was such an event. Karma Dorje, JOURNEYS long-time trekking guide, had oﬀered a long standing invitation to come to his home village in the Black Mountain area. The government ﬁnally opened this area to foreigners, allowing us to accept his invitation and verify his tales of abundant hornbills, large troops of rare Golden Langur monkeys, and enormous sub-tropical forest dating back to the legendary times of the great founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, who commissioned some of the very trails we would walk. November is a good time to visit this area. We had hoped the heavy monsoon rains would have ended and, because the areas we would trek were below 6,000’ feet in elevation, the temperature would not be n the trail too cold. We encountered neither rain nor frost on the trip. It was the Our group o harvest season and many of the higher hillsides were brightened by the colored foliage of birch and poplar trees. In short, the climate, trail and the visual environment could not have been better for this trip. We timed the trip to include the November Full Moon near a historic Buddhist temple where special ceremonies were being conducted. Hitting the trail The full moon rising over distant eastern mountain ranges was a wonderful prelude to campﬁres and dinner under the clear skies. In several of the villages we visited local people who welcomed us with dancing and singing. We were invited to join in, and we sensed the sincerity of the invitation. Having praised the beauty of the trek, it is only fair to describe the rigors of the trip. It is a long drive from the Paro Airport to the Black Mountain Trail head. The drive with side trips and sightseeing interludes took three days. While the roads are narrow and speeds low, the roads are very scenic. There were almost always waterfalls, high Himalayan peaks, or densely vegetated forest slopes in sight. We took a warm-up hike to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery on our ﬁrst day and visited other impressive Dzongs at Punakha and Trongsa. After three days of driving we were ready to walk. The trek began with a steep descent down a very poorly structured trail. Some of the participants expressed concern that ﬁve days on trails like those of the ﬁrst day might be more than they were prepared to take on. Fortunately, the trails got better and the steeper uphill sections oﬀered the option of riding mules. Assistance from the Bhutanese staﬀ was always at hand and there was ample time to ﬁnish each day’s hiking, The ﬁrst day was the hardes even at a slow pace. This is a trek with lots of ups and downs on simple t trails which require a fair degree of ﬁtness. Some of our participants in their sixties and seventies struggled at times, but all ﬁnished in good health and spirits. Some even did a little extra hiking, because they wanted a little more exercise. This is probably one of the easiest treks in Bhutan, especially since it does not involve high altitude, a pass crossing or risk of snow, even in winter months. From comments of staﬀ and local people, this trek is most pleasant October- March. In other months it could be quite hot, wet, or both. We encountered very few biting insects, though long sleeves and slacks were in order during the evenings. Golden Langurs and Great Hornbills As a birder and nature enthusiast, I was eager to conﬁrm Karma Dorje’s observations of hornbills and Golden Langurs. In fact, to everyone’s delight, two kinds of hornbills and the langurs were quite common. We probably encountered six diﬀerent troops of Golden Langurs. In groups of 5-16 they leapt, fed, and climbed through the 3 of 4 tall canopies of the forest. Mothers carried and cuddled very young animals. Each animal seemed perfectly clean and groomed as if it had just had a shampoo. The golden fur stood out in the sunlight. We never got very close to the Langurs, but often they paused in canopy openings to stare at us as we stared at them through cameras and binoculars. Hornbills were also common. The local specialty is the beautiful rufous-necked hornbill. Pairs of these birds call to each other in the forest and often perch on bare branches of emergent trees. The Larger Great Hornbill, rare throughout mot of its range in Asia, was also quite common in these vast forests. These birds are huge with ﬁve foot wing spans. When ﬂying, they make loud whooshing sounds. At one location a group of L angur four birds landed on the top of a tree downhill from our campsite, putting them at eye Golden level. Even the non-birders in the group were very impressed by these symbols of great forests. There were many other birds, barking deer, giant squirrels and martens. While not the season for rhododendrons to bloom, there were a number of attractive blooming trees in the forest. The Rhythm of Trekking Our daily routine on trek involved waking to hot tea or coﬀee and washing water delivered to our tents shortly after dawn. If not in a two-night campsite, we would pack our gear before enjoying a hot breakfast around a rekindled campﬁre while watching the rising sun as it illuminated the surrounding forest and peaks. By 7:30 AM we were usually ready to hike. A local guide led the way, making an eﬀort to point out wildlife and other observations of note. Several of our staﬀ spoke English. As our group of 14 trekkers broke into parties sharing a similar pace, Bhutanese staﬀ were nearby to oﬀer interpretation, facilitate interaction with people along the way, or just to make sure that areas where the trail was very steep, muddy or slippery did not present undue diﬃculties. We had two accompanying riding mules who were available Enjoying a campﬁre for uphill assistance. There was no limitation on how fast or slow participants could choose to walk. Periodically, we all caught up with each other to trade observations, share a snack, or beneﬁt from Karma’s brieﬁng. Meals on the trek were sumptuous, healthy and surprisingly multi-coursed. There is a serious limitation of fresh and western-style ingredients in remote Bhutan, but we always had soups, salads, fresh vegetables and a meat course, plus dessert. Even the lunches were hot. The cook prepared them before breakfast and stored them in a clever stacking thermos of serving dishes. Rice, potatoes, and Indian-style breads were the usual starch components. Squash, spinach, tomatoes, cauliﬂower, carrots, beans, and cabbage were the seasonal vegetables. Meals in the hotels and guest houses were inevitably served buﬀet style. The last dish on the buﬀet was Lunch tim e! usually the very hot cheese and chili pepper dish preferred by the Bhutanese. Some trekkers who prefer spicier foods might have wished for more local seasoning, but when we tried a little more local ﬂavoring the consensual acceptance of the group required a milder, less seasoned approach to group meals. Bhutanese beer was often available and even the local concoctions of chang and arack seemed to be available in every village. We made a brief stop in Thimphu, and several members of our party extended their trip to spend two extra days there. There are a number of very comfortable hotels in Thimphu and there is a very nice crafts market and other shopping available. While the local people we met on the Black Mountain trek made interesting crafts for their personal use, they were not producing them to sell and we did not want to coax people to part with anything that they had not already predetermined to sell. We did pay a generous price for sacks of tangerines, guavas, 4 of 4 and apples. Reﬂections on a Memorable Trek I felt that this was a great trek for a variety of reasons. Clearly, local people enjoyed our presence and wanted us to stay in their villages. While village life in this part of Bhutan is very simple and basic, we were well provided for and it seemed the people we met were content, cheerful, healthy and living stable lives. There was an absence of conﬂict, Trekking past a village temple longing, or discontent about being trapped by circumstances. We managed just ﬁne without electricity, hot showers, telephones, and refrigerators. The trekking was sometimes diﬃcult, but never boring. I felt like the rhythm of leaving one quiet village, hiking all day through the towering trees of a mountain forest, and arriving at another quiet village was a pattern I could have repeated for many more days. It was like the beginning of an extended trance that was broken when we reached the road and re- boarded our coach back to Paro. I will probably not be so lucky to take this wonderful trek again, but based upon this Harvest time on the terraces experience, I deﬁnitely will take another trek in Bhutan if Karma Dorje assures me the proposed route is at all comparable to the Black Mountain Trek.