Bhutan’s Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek
We hiked for five days in Bhutan and didn’t see another tourist. We had the mountains, the walking trails, the camp sites, the lakes, to ourselves. In a world where over-tourism is becoming a major concern for some countries, this was utter bliss.
I’d wanted to visit Bhutan for many years, after being inspired and intrigued by their commitment to Gross National Happiness, so at odds with our own rampant consumer culture.
Because those beautiful Himalayan mountains are made for walking, we signed up to do the Dagala 1000 Lakes trek.
We’d opted for this hike over the better known Chomolahri trek because of its relatively short duration and moderate degree of difficulty. The Chomolarhi trek is said to be to Bhutan what Everest Base Camp is to Nepal. JJ, my travel partner, had never been to altitude before.
While previous alpine experience is not essential, our travel company did stress that a high degree of fitness is required. That’s because hiking at altitude is challenging, and it’s impossible to predict how your body might react to the conditions.
We started excitedly from a town called Geynekha (2,800 metres) which is a short drive from the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu. We had a support crew of four – our guide Tenzin, our very experienced head chef, his offsider and the horseman. We were a party of two trekkers – a novel experience for me as I’m used to travelling in small groups of eight to sixteen.
The first part of the trek was a bit of a shock after the car ride: it was so steep it felt as though we were walking vertically! After several hours of uphill hiking we reached a huge rock platform that offered a picturesque view of the valley below, and a perfect lunch spot. We were hot and sweaty from the exertion and had to peel off our many layers of clothing.
That was probably the last time we felt hot on this five-day hike. When the sun goes down at night, temperatures plummet to below freezing. Each night we ate in our dining tents dressed in our thick down jackets, beanies and gloves. Sleeping was also a very frosty affair, and any items left exposed would freeze overnight.
On day two we enjoyed stunning views of the Bhutanese Himalayan peaks and the Dagala Range as we crossed through yak herders’ camps. The locals had already left the mountains to escape the cold, winter months ahead, so we were alone in this vast, open landscape. It was an extraordinary experience trekking without another soul in sight; although it feels very isolating, it affords plenty of time for reflection and introspection.
The highlight of the day was raising some prayer flags at Lake Utsho, a stunning aquamarine lake where golden trout are said to flourish. Utsho is at an altitude of 4300m, and both JJ and I were feeling the effects of our ascent. We’d scaled more than 1500 vertical metres in less than 24 hours.
The next day we crossed several passes of more than 4,000 metres and felt very chuffed when we reached a pass at just over 4,600 metres, the highest JJ had ever been. While the going was slow and tough – often you’re just focussed on putting one foot in front of the other – it’s incredibly rewarding, and you feel a wonderful sense of achievement.
After a challenging day of climbing and scrambling across rocks, ice and snow, we arrived at what turned out to be our most memorable campsite, Panka. We camped by the stream in the valley, a wide-open space surrounded by spectacular mountains. When we woke the next morning, everything was frozen, including the now rock-solid stream!
While adventure travel may not be everyone’s idea of fun, it certainly throws you out of your comfort zone. As we left our frozen campsite to climb back up to yet another peak of over 4,000 metres, we could see the next pass looming up ahead. It looked easy enough to reach, but at altitude, the degree of difficulty intensifies. While I boldly declared to JJ that we could reach the top with one rest stop, we had to stop and catch our breath four times.
It was a very humbling experience.
While there are nowhere near the 1000 lakes that the name of the trek suggests, we soaked up the pristine natural environment that the Bhutanese are so keen to preserve, and felt alive and inspired in this untouched environment. It was a bit of jolt to arrive back in ‘civilisation’ at Thimphu and really made us appreciate our time alone in the mountains.
If you’re up for a physical challenge, if you like a quiet, remote location without Wifi, disconnected from the Western world but with a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains and unspoilt landscapes, then put Bhutan on your travel list.