Bhutan Black Mountain Trek

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					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

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
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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
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                       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
                      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
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,
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 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.