Thursday, December 15, 2016

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure, Act IV

For Act I, go here
For Act II, go here
For Act III, go here

Act IV: Trek Happens

Scene I: Gasa camp after first night

You can see from Act III that I go completely non-linear when it comes to being cold. Now, think about this. I've got this delightful friend Walt back at home who studies and practices Buddhism, and finds deep meaning in everything from typically weighty stuff like sunsets and friendships to mundane things like mosquito bites and mice infesting your garage. He knew three things about me and my trip to Bhutan: 1) I haven't sought deep meaning to anything in my life, ever; 2) I would be exposed to Buddhism for the first time in my life; and 3) 1 and 2 would clash mightily at some point.

Learning of my gloves/hat mishap upon my return, Walt was unsurprised. He informed me that the Buddha can be quite a prankster, drowning someone in the very thing they need to face in order to force them to just get over it and find equilibrium. Some form of karma, perhaps? Walt figuratively put a mirror up to my face and said "why were YOUR gloves lost? why your hat? why not anyone else's?" Indeed, I was forced to confront (one of) my biggest fears--being cold--at the most inopportune time and place one could conceive: camping in the Himalayas. All while everyone else hummed along, not minding the cold, but having everything needed to deal with it. Could there be some sort of lesson here?

His questions blew me away. Why? Well, see, I hadn't told Walt yet that I would also lose Tin-Tin's gloves. Yup. That comes later, though. Let's start with the morning of Trek Day 1.

Light finally dawned. I could hear Sherrie moving around in the tent, so I started crawling out from under my layers. She took one look at me and cracked up. "Don't EVEN." I grumped. "Did you sleep in all that?" she said through her laughter, looking at me. Only my eyes were visible, the rest covered with purple helmet and puffycoat, neck gator (covering my mouth and nose), gloves, two sleeping bags, etc. etc.

"It was cold. I had to protect myself."

"God, you are going to be a mess, aren't you."


We actually had a relaxed first morning--before getting on the trail, we visited Gasa's monastery, on a hill overlooking the community of Gasa and the sweeping canyon of the Mo Cchu ("Mother" River), or just the Mocchu.

Gasa Monastery. Views--these monks can pick 'em

There, Ugyen pointed out the Mocchu canyon and described our first day of the trek and the general philosophy of "hike high, camp low." Most of our first day's hike we'd be following the beginning cut of a new road being constructed to connect Gasa and Laya. The road is only seven miles long at this time, and angles upriver and uphill along the canyon wall of the Mocchu, and then stops. Somewhere around that point, we'd head down "to water" to go lower in elevation and camp, where it would be slightly warmer. We would then be on the historic trail that has been the primary route between the two communities for a very long time. Before we left the monastery, we took a pre-trek group shot.

I think we're ready!!!
--Norris's photo--
We then walked through town to the new road--our first trail--and looked at each other in anticipation. A resounding cheer was heard, and we were off!

Our first path, leaving Gasa

Scene II: Trekkers on Uphill Trail
Mocchu Canyon

It really was a beautiful start. Constant uphill, but spectacularly so.

We continued upwards, trekking poles plunking into dirt in time with each step. Step-plunk, step-plunk, step-plunk, step-plunk, step-plunk. After the first fresh and exciting couple miles, our rhythm settled into a consistent pattern. A few of us paced faster, and guide Phuntsho stayed with them; some were more relaxed, and Ugyen stayed with that group. Lynn and I found that our pace matched perfectly, and we were in between the two groups, accompanied by two dogs that had decided to follow us from Gasa. We enjoyed the company and wondered how long they'd stay with us.

Our ponies. Ponies and crew stay behind to pack up camp, then
pass us along the trail, arriving at our next camp
in advance of us. Camp is usually set up by the time we arrive.
--Jim's photo--

--Jim's photo--
Casual conversation puttered out as the miles slowly passed and as the incline of the trail persisted. Pretty soon, short sentences were the norm. "Stop. Nice view. Water break." "OK." "Ready?" Nod.

After a particularly long break from even that, I heard Lynn's quiet, calm voice:

"This uphill is relentless."

That stopped me in my tracks; I had to chuckle. Calm, cool, hiking pro Lynn. One descriptor. Relentless. I had been thinking all sorts of curse words, but she captured it perfectly. Class act all the way, that Lynn.

The seven miles of uphill road took us until mid-afternoon. While it hugged the side of the canyon, it was only at certain points where we could still see the Mocchu. It was getting smaller and smaller while we were hiking ever higher. Now, it was a thread, barely visible.

Right around then, we wondered exactly what Ugyen meant by "go down and camp by water." I figured there would be some side stream we would traverse to. Lynn said she thinks we'd be camping along the Mocchu. I looked down at the thin blue thread. God no, please don't tell me we started hiking AT the river down there, hiked away from it all day long, only to hike back DOWN to the river at the end of the day. That made zero sense. Well, yes, said Lynn, I think that's the plan.

Can't see it, but the river is waaaayyy down there.
And we're up here.
And that indeed was the plan. Hike high, camp low. At the end of the road, when most of us had gathered together (dogs, too), our guides pointed to a trail that we had not seen because it fell so steeply off the roadway you had to know it was there. Downward, ho. Down, down, down, and down some more. Well, almost all the way to the Mocchu. We ended up slightly above it at Koina camp, a small area with an old building, a place for the ponies, and a place for our tents, along the Koina Cchu, a tributary of the Mocchu. The team with the ponies had passed us during the day, and had camp mostly set up and dinner rolling.

Koina camp

A typical pony bridle; often, a bell was included.

I named this fellow Butterscotch. Some called him Benji.

Sherrie giving "Mocha" some tidbits.

Wild goat near Koina seen by a few of us as we approached camp, end of Day 1.
(not me, though....rats. Norris's picture)

Our "kitchen"

Scene III: Trek Day 2, Koina to Laya
Uphill Trail, with some Downhill Parts 
That We'll Forget About Until We Walk Up Them on the Return Trip

Trek Day 2 started just fine; clear and bright. Last night, Sherrie, Emily, Russ, and I had wrangled one of the rooms in the building at Koina from the crew (I think to their dismay; we're sorry). I for one had the best sleep I had in several days. Supplying my daypack with water and essentials needed for the day, I reverently included Tin-Tin's gloves, not trusting them to stay put in my duffel carried by the ponies. What if that pony ran off? What if that duffel bag fell off the cliff? How could I manage without Tin-Tin's gloves? I even showed Ugyen the gloves before they were socked away in my pack, saying "these are gold, Ugyen, these go with me at all times." "Tin-Tin is a good man," said Ugyen. I agree.

Tandin (Tin-Tin), who stayed back in Gasa.
A photo worth posting again! Thank you, Emily!
Our goal today: Reach Laya. The first half of the day was lovely and almost casual (except for our front end set, who got off trail and hiked "a bit" extra). We had a steep climb out of Koina, but then a series of gentle ups and (what we thought were) short drops (clue: they weren't, as we found out on the return hike), often following the Mocchu.

Here's a short clip of the ponies crossing the Mocchu River:

After lunch, I bet that our entire group would agree that the hardest part of the trek was upon us; the last few hours of hiking up to Laya.

--Karma's photo--

Getting closer!
We were approaching 13,000 feet in elevation, and facing a solid uphill that never seemed to end. As deep as I could breathe, my lungs could not fill up. Soon, every turn of a corner had most of us hoping to see cluster of buildings; a gate; more people; hell, even a different dog would do; please, ANYTHING signifying proximity to a community--but no. We all have our personal story of how we overcame the mental stress, exacerbated by physical exhaustion, of not knowing when the uphill would JUST STOP.

Not everyone had a breaking point, though. But I did--yay, me. After what seemed like the billionth turn-and-hey-look-more-uphill! I started to lose it. Exhausted, my throat started closing shut as a way to stop myself from dissolving into tears, and then I was unable to breathe. I had to sit down and have a whiny-tantrum-breakdown thing. Since I was not able to observe myself, I asked neighbor, group member, and friend Jim--who helped me push through--to fill me in on just exactly what transpired.

According to Jim, my hiking buddy Lynn and I had started to slow down as the constant uphill got to me (I slowed down; Lynn stayed with me). Jim, his wife Cathy, and a few others caught up to us. Jim describes me as seemingly dejected, and most definitely out of my comfort zone. Many of us were at that point, as none of us really knew how much further we had to go to get to Laya, but I seemed especially so. "Defeated" was one word that struck him.

We started hiking together, and then I hit the fateful turn in the trail that was my last straw. After I imploded, Jim knew I needed some form of support, so I heard "we are all going to do this,""we're with you every step," and "it's not much further" (although he admitted later he had no clue how much further we had to go; none of us did). The support from Jim meant more than I could say at the time.

Norris, on the other hand, said something to the tune of "Suck it up, Sue. You gotta keep going." See, this is the thing. At some point, hiking in the Himalayas, yes, it's all on you. No one can call some emergency service and get a helicopter, or a team with a horse, or anything, to come get you. Getting through this? It was totally up to me, and I either sit here and die, or keep moving. So far, I wasn't dead, so I had to keep moving. Both Jim and Norris, in their own ways, got me going again. Thank you both.

Jim offered to take my daypack, which spurred me out of my funk enough to say "NO. I'm taking my own pack, let's just GO." We trudged forward, stopping and going; walking and resting.

Not a lot of conversation was happening. The world boiled down to whatever was one step in front of you. Until Jim said the magic words.

"Look, there's a bird on top of that tree."

Raising my eyes from staring at my boots, I looked up to see a bird I knew I had never seen before. A "life bird." Any birder knows that if you see a bird you've never seen before, you REALLY want to see that bird. And, there he was:

Jim's bird. Thank you, Mr. White-winged Grosbeak.
Yes, there is this white spot at the front end of the yellow wingbar.
I whipped my binoculars up to my eyes. Yup, new bird! Snapped the above photo, and excitedly pointed it out to the others. Jim describes later: "You went from 0 to 60 in nothing flat; it was astounding." I don't know about going from 0 to 60, I felt more like Frankenstein's monster slowly coming to life, with that bird being my shock treatment. But it worked, and Jim was thrilled. Cathy later told me that the rest of the hike, perhaps a bit less than a mile at that point, Jim kept looking for birds--any bird--solely to motivate me. He's never paid attention to a bird in his life, and now he was looking at every flit and flutter in the trees, hoping to find something to keep my spirits up. Now THAT'S a friend.

Finally, a prayer wheel stupa and a welcome gate appeared. We had made it! Well, not quite. Sorry; turns out Laya is close, but still UP THERE. But not too far--just a leetle-teeny bit more up.

Approaching Laya

Still uphill...

Scene IV: Barn in Laya, Bhutan
Happy Group of Trekkers

See that farmhouse up there? That's our camp! Thank Buddha, because--surprise!--I was getting cold.

Beautiful barn, no?
Ugyen must be friends with everyone in Bhutan. He knew a lovely family who welcomed us to their extremely nice barn that had an upstairs loft, offering floor space to anyone who wanted to sleep there. About five of us jumped on the chance, including guess who. Since the chill was setting in, I opened up my daypack to dig out the few layers I carried for just such a time, including the treasured Tin-Tin gloves.

Wait, what? I pulled out my purple helmet, compressed vest, fleece jacket, and my cheap $2 knit gloves, all sandwiched in between protein bars. Where are Tin-Tin's gloves? THEY WERE IN THERE THIS MORNING. Ugyen saw me pack them! What? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I stood there, dumbfounded, staring into an empty daypack.

Here we go again. Think back, think back. I peeled off, and then put on, a layer or two throughout the day. One time we were all grouped up and I took out the fleece jacket. Could the gloves have tumbled out without me seeing them? Two large black gloves? TWO? Both? Without me noticing either one, or anyone of the group behind me?

Shame, shame, shame on me
Buddha, seriously?

I have to say, though, that the angst over not having gloves--yet again--was not even a noticeable blip on my radar anymore. Why? Because of this thought: "I have to tell Tin-Tin I lost his new gloves." That, my friends, is far worse. Am I cursed??? What will Tin-Tin do? My obsession with being cold faded in comparison. I had those silly cheap knit gloves, so....whatever happens will happen. I give up. I guess I was just tired of fretting about it. Ah, now I see how the magic of Buddha works; whatever will be, will be, and equilibrium was found (except for my nervousness in telling Tin-Tin).

I didn't have the guts to tell Ugyen or anyone else right away. When I finally did, Ugyen, bless his heart, concealed any "you idiot!" expression, and calmly said, "Don't worry; Tin-Tin will understand." Wow. Surrounded by people who have their **** together can be both comforting and disconcerting at the same time. How do they do it. Sigh.

Ugyen planned three very special events for our group while we were in Laya. First up was to take place at the farm house this evening. A group of Layap women would showcase cultural dances in their traditional costume. We were thoroughly entertained, even dancing ourselves, and learned about their well-known Layap hat, a decorative (but to me at the time completely non-functional since it would not keep any head warm...) woven conical hat coming to a point, with multiple strands of colorful beads draped down the back of the head.

Side note--before arriving in Laya, Ugyen told us we'd see the "traditional Layap hat," and I thought dreamily "oh good, probably one of those double-knitted, extra warm earflap-type hats made of yak wool, I can buy one, and then I'll have a hat!" Another harsh reality shoved into my face. No woolly hat for me. I give up, purple helmet it is, and now I was even one step closer to equilibrium.

All in all, the evening was a fascinating, unique experience that brought together two different worlds in companionable fun.

Cathy joining in a dance

Ugyen having some fun!

I'm not the only cold one here---

Ugyen explaining the details of, and meaning behind,
the Layap hat design

Thank you to our new Layap friends for an evening we'll never forget! 

Scene V: Trek, Day 3
Morning in Laya

As mentioned, two more activities were planned by Ugyen before we hiked back to our Koina camp. First up was a visit to the Laya school. 

Rural Bhutan schools were of special interest to Becky, who was working on a cultural integration project for their education ministry; as such, our group made special efforts to visit local schools, meet teachers, principals, and students, and support their needs with donations of supplies and funds. It was one of the most rewarding aspects of our entire trip.

The Laya school not only had a garden with signs complete with nature-inspired quotes, one of the lessons that day was the value of nature in its own right. The teacher interacted with students through the tale of The Ladybug Garden to ensure they understood the connection of all things, the dangers of removing one component of our natural system, and its unintended effects on others. 

Inspirational quotes at Laya school, with Butterscotch still part of our group!

Bhutan mandates all classes are taught in English, except for
their native language course, Dzongkha.
Now, I don't know if it was physical exhaustion (the hike, the not-so-great sleep over multiple days), the stress of a couple mental implosions (the glove/hat chaos and the when-will-the-uphill-stop breakdown), or a combination of both, but my emotions were right at the surface. Seeing these kids from a remote Layap village in the Himalayan mountains calmly understand that all things in nature are connected, I about lost it. What a powerful image. We said our goodbyes, and I was hardly out the schoolroom door when I ran to Becky, gave her a hug of thanks, and wept silently at the beauty of it all. 

Becky: "You get it, don't you?" Sobs catching in my throat, I could only nod. "You're kind of a mess, aren't you?" Yeeesssss, I knoooowwwww...." I wailed, in an explosion of both tears and laughter. What is it about this country, can I not just feel one emotion at once?  

Sniffling, I joined the rest of the group as we then walked to our next event, that of the inauguration of the Layap region's new mayor. This event had ceremony pomp and Layap dancers (some from the previous night), as well as the opportunity for us to sit in the "special guests" tent and personally meet the new mayor. We were chalking up unique experiences, thanks to Ugyen and his efforts!

It was then time to say farewell to this incredible part of the world and the generous, kind, and friendly Layaps. We will never forget you.

But wait. We had one more task at hand. Remember in Act II, Sherrie and I remained the only two of our group who had not placed their prayer flags in a spot where sky, water, and trees meet? We wanted to find the perfect place, and we found it. Just near the gate and religious stupa welcoming all to Laya, Sherrie and I tied our length of prayer flags together, and each end to a tree. Not only were we armed with much more than the blue sky, the clean, rushing water, and the majestic trees--we had made it to Laya, we had DONE IT.

This was more than sending out prayers or wishes, it was giving thanks to the spirits and gods for our experience together as a group and as two women who have been friends for over 20 years, and will be friends for the rest of our lives.  

Now we can head back!

The return trek was about as exhausting as the first two days, with more uphill walking than we remembered as being downhill in the first go-round. Why is that? Regardless, we all made it back to the camp at Koina, and then to the road the following day--the last seven miles that was a long stroll downhill. This time, Tin-Tin and the van met us partway up, and drove us the last two miles back to Gasa. That is, all of us except for my tough friend Sherrie, who insisted on walking the entire way back.

Scene VI: Day 4, Back in Gasa

Butterscotch ended up staying in Laya and did not follow us as we left. We don't know who he latched onto next. We last saw him basking in the sun, not a care in the world. Mocha returned with us, as did two new Laya dogs. They stayed with Sherrie and I, and then with Sherrie, keeping her company as she walked the remaining two miles back to Gasa after Tin-Tin picked us up in the van. Sherrie got in the van in Gasa, and that's the last we saw of them.

Instead of tent camping that last night in Gasa, we were able to secure enough guest room space at the hot springs. On our walk from there to the springs, people with cell phones saw our obviously American group and were waving their phones, shouting out the latest news--the results of the our presidential election ("Hello!!! Did you hear who your new President is??? Look!!!"). And that's when and how we found out. We enjoyed a soak (albeit with some political discourse), a bit of clean-up, dinner, and laughter as we reminisced about our most incredible trek experience. Then, we slept.

I broke the news to Tin-Tin. His calm, sincere response: "Oh, Suzanne, that's all right. Do not worry." Later, I tried finding gloves in the shops in Thimphu to no avail. My Camelbak pack is now a part of a special birdwatcher/van driver's supply of field gear, and that makes me smile.

Stay tuned for Act V: One and Two Days Post-Trek: Dressing up to watch cranes dance. Coming soon!

For more information on our tour company, please visit Druk Leisure Tours.


  1. Isn't it amazing how we learn that things happen for a reason - a lesson I have learned repeatedly on many occasions. And if at first the universe doesn't succeed in our understanding, it tries again with something more powerful, more meaningful, until you "get it". Looking forward to the next act.

  2. Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!!! You killed me Sue with these Acts! I laughed and cried for you. What an incredible experience. Thank heavens there are little birdies that high up. And ay ay ay the gloves! I wonder who is wearing them now? The plot thickens. You must go back. I can't wait to hear more in person. You missed your calling as a writer....all these years wasted as a bio.

  3. Sue, I feel like I've been on your trip (without the pain, suffering, agony and panic). It was a great read. What a treat!