Trekking in Bhutan – Dagala 1,000 Lakes Trek

After a preparatory hike in Bhutan to Tigers Nest that went well, and taking diamox to help us acclimate to the altitude, we felt ready to undertake a 4 night/5 day trek to experience some beautiful mountain scenery in Bhutan, as well as to get some needed exercise.

Only one problem: the night before we left on our 4 night/5 day trek, Tom tripped on the stairs to our hotel room and bruised his knee (as well as broke his android phone screen). By the next morning, he was feeling every step up that he took. While it wasn’t the way to start a long and grueling trek, he took some high-strength Ibuprofen and wrapped his knee in a newly acquired Ace bandage, we set off with our guide from Yak Holidays.

Luckily, Tom’s knee didn’t cause a problem, but that didn’t mean it was smooth trekking for us. We realized that we are not cut out for spending sub-freezing nights bundled in sleeping bags, inside pup tents and having to walk about 100 feet across rough terrain in the night to reach our toilet tent built around  a hole in the ground.

The altitude also challenged us. San Francisco hills weren’t quite sufficient to train us for climbing and breathing at high altitudes at the same time. Tom had more trouble than Joyce (since Joyce walks at least 10,000 steps a day up and down hills in SF). But she lent Tom some much appreciated moral support as she waited for him to catch up. But enough for our travails. What about the trek itself, and of Yak Adventures’ performance as a tour organizer and guide?

Strangely, for such popular tour, at such a popular time of year, we ran into no other trekkers over the entire five days. Perhaps it is the strict limits on the number of trekkers allowed on each trek, perhaps the steep cost ($250 per person minimum per day) or perhaps it was, as our guide speculated, just because those trekkers who wished to do Dagala Lakes simply chose to begin on different days. Regardless of the reason, other than a troop of six government park department officials (including their horse tenders) and one yak herder, we spent the five days in solicitude–with our guide, cook, cook assistant, two horse tenders and seven horses (horses used to carry tents and provisions, not us).

Even stranger than the solitude was our inability to get precise descriptions of a popular trek. Every description we read was different and each, according to our guide, was wrong. So, combining the information we found with our guide’s (Lal) assistance and our own observations, here’s where we think we trekked:

  • Day 1. The first day’s trek, 5 km and about four hours with a 550 Meter elevation gain, took us from Khoma to Geynikha. We overlooked farms and rice paddies before entering a conifer forest to a 2,800 meter high small area(called Geynikha) under trees at which we camped. As with each of our sites, the supply team beat Lal, Joyce and I to the camp and had the kitchen and mess tents (in which the crew would sleep), our tent and the toilet tent up–and were already prepping for dinner. Food, for all three meals per day, were different, innovative and generally more interesting than the buffet dishes we got at Western hotels in the  Bhutan cities.
  • Day 2. This very rigorous 10 km, 6-hour hike to Gur, with an elevation gain of 1,040 meters (about 3,300 feet) climbing to 10,300 feet. It provided full view of the Dagala Range (which we were hiking) to the high peaks of the Bhutanese Himalayas, including the country’s second tallest peak. The hike passed through oak, spruce and larch (a tree) forests, into birches and rhododendrons. The night was a lot colder than the previous night. Once daylight faded at 6 PM, we ended up snuggling down into our sleeping bags as our hands were too cold to hold flashlights to read. Fortunately, we fell asleep fairly easily at that hour (yes, for those who know Joyce, that is even early for her for bedtime).
  • Day 3. This equally rigorous trek took 6.5 hours to travel the 12 km to Labatamba. The reason; it included big elevation declines, gains and then another decline to our camp. The trail reached a crest of 4,520 meters (just over 15,000 feet), the highest point of the trek. While the day provided some extraordinary views, we had to pay for them. At that altitude, the trees and bushes had disappeared. We spent the entire day in tundra, with grasses, lichen and tiny flowers that barely survive the rugged conditions, rocks strewn randomly across the landscape and tiny shallow "lakes" that form from melting snow and rain from the high peaks and that we can easily traversed atop rocks. We also trekked through snow and a very windy terrain. Given that the trail is used primarily (in addition to by trekkers) by yak herders and woodcutters, it is fitting that we spent the night at a stone yak herder hut….well, we were in our cold tent outside of the hut, but our crew slept in the stone structure. With the wind blowing, we spent a very cold night in our tent, wearing everything we brought with us. Our guide gave us some water bottles filled with hot water to try to help us stay warm. It partially worked, but we were quite cold.
  • Day 4. Another 6-hour hike. While we traversed only about 8 km and ended up about 1,000 feet below our starting point, it too was pretty rugged. We began the day with a long, steady climb to a 4,500 meter saddle, with more great tundra and mountain views. Then came a long decline to our camp. Another cold night with clouds and the beginning of something our guide had warned us since the beginning of the hike–a long, very steep descent through a field of mud in which it was impossible not to fall.
  • Day 5. It was indeed a long (about 7 km) and steep (about 1,000 meters) decline. And while we certainly hit some muddy stretches during the 2.5-hour downhill finale to our trek, we escaped the rain which would have made the muddy trail very slippery. We walked through all stages of forest, shrouded in beautiful fog. As a bonus, we also walked though the middle of a yak herd and saw our first wildlife (aside from insects and a couple of birds) of the trek–a pair of Himalayan monal pheasants that we managed to flush as we got too close to their nest. The greatest reward, however, was getting back to our Thimphu hotel, and its soft bed and very warm shower.

In hindsight, we were ill-prepared for this trek. In spite of all of the research we did, we didn’t feel we had sufficient data in advance about the trek. The descriptions were wrong and either we didn’t ask questions the right way, or didn’t ask the right questions. For example, we didn’t have a clue as to how cold it would be at night and didn’t know we needed our own sleeping bags.  The sleeping bags we ended up borrowing from the tour company were not sufficient to keep us warm. And, we wish we had more layers of warmer clothing and warmer gloves. And, maybe it was the cold or the high altitude, but we would have been happier with 1-2 nights of camping instead of 4.

No, we are not campers, but we’ve done some fabulous treks in the past with camping for 4 nights—Yosemite, New Zealand, Manchu Pichu.  This was our least favorite. Not because of the guide or service. Not because of the scenery. Not because of the altitude (Manchu Pichu was 16,000 feet). To be honest, we cannot put our finger on the exact reason. And we would recommend a trek in Bhutan and would recommend the tour company. But perhaps you can better prepare yourselves—mentally and physically–than we did.

IMG_8270IMG_8269IMG_8265IMG_8263IMG_8248Joyce and Tom at top of snow portion of trekTom trekking day 2view on day 4-001view on day 4IMG_8320IMG_8319IMG_8318

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