Tusker Trail has just run its first trek in Bhutan, four years in the planning, and it has proven to be a trek of a lifetime. It has become so popular, that Tusker has added a second departure in 2013 – the first one is already full.
Bhutan is a tiny country in Asia that is half the size of Indiana, and sees as many tourists in a year as Germany does every four hours. Because of the dramatic Himalayan geology, Bhutan’s landscapes are a stunning combination of mountains and valleys. And it’s just this reason why Tusker Trail’s Eddie & Amy Frank decided to scout Bhutan as a place to trek.
Eddie & Amy had Bhutan in their sights for 4 years. Working hand-in-hand with a local Bhutanese company and expert Bhutanese guides, they have created a trek in western Bhutan that will leave you spellbound.
Less than 500 people trek this route every year. Compare this to 40,000 on Kilimanjaro, and you soon realize that the trekking regions of Bhutan are relatively untouched and pristine. In Bhutan you find more charm, scenic beauty and cultural treasures crammed into this small kingdom than anywhere else on earth.
The camp and kitchen will deliver the same comforts and treats that have kept you smiling on your previous climbs and treks with Tusker Trail. The Bhutan trek is tough and remote, but the experience of trekking through the pristine forests, amongst the tallest peaks on our planet, will change your life forever – guaranteed.
At the hinge between Asia and the Sub-Continent, the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, sits the remote nation of Bhutan. Measuring only 200 by 110 miles, is has fewer than a million residents, making it the least populated country in South Asia, and the last remaining sovereign kingdoms of the Himalayas. Culturally, geologically, and biologically, it is a blend of India and Tibet’s natural and cultural landscapes, and is known throughout the world as the last great Shangri-La. For centuries, geographical isolation coupled with government restrictions on entry shrouded Bhutan as a mythic kingdom. Recently, however, the restrictions have eased and the nation known by its people as The Land of the Thunder Dragon is now open to the modern trekker.
Uniquely positioned on the southern edge of the world’ highest mountain range and the juncture of two tectonic plates, Bhutan hosts a wide diversity of ecosystems from low lying tropical forests to glaciated mountain peaks that rise as high as 24,000 feet above sea level. Within the nation’s small borders are alpine slopes covered in buttercups, blooming jasmine, and purple primroses; dry hillsides sparsely covered in oaks; conifer forests with stands of laurels, chestnuts, maples and magnolias above an undergrowth of bamboo and rhododendron; and tropical lowlands whose canopy is a tangle of evergreen hardwoods including bauhinia and teak. Often, a traveler can pass from one of these biospheres to another in less than 40 miles.
The mighty Himalayas can be thanked for much of this diversity. Technically three parallel mountain ranges – the Outer Himalayas that rise to only 3,000 feet, the 6,000-14,000 foot high Middle Himalayas, and the famously tall Inner Himalayas which scrape the sky at altitudes of upwards of 27,000 feet – the Himalayas trap monsoons that rise out of the Bay of Bengal every year. Moving northwesterly, the storms dump their precious load in the lush eastern part of the country, leaving the west to thorn and sage scrub, while the mountains’ northern slopes and bordering Tibetan Plateau are devoid of rain almost all together.
A relatively young mountain range (forming less than 25 million years ago), the Himalayas are unique in that they have no plant and animal species that are specifically native to their environs. Instead, the sharply rumpled landscape is populated with a healthy mix of flora and fauna native to India, Southeast Asia, and Eurasia. In neighboring Nepal, botanists have counted at least 6,500 different species of flowering plants. Because of Bhutan’s isolation, such a conclusive catalogue has not been undertaken, but scientists agree that its diversity exceeds even that of Nepal.
Before the Himalayas, however, were the rivers. Key to its biological melting pot, Bhutan’s four major rivers have remained largely unchanged as the Himalayas grew up around them. Instead, these primordial rivers sliced deep valleys into the mountains, creating not only the visually arresting Himalayan landscape, but also a corridor between the drier, colder north and the lush temperate to tropical south. Today, Bhutan’s mountains boast wolves, bears, snow leopards and blue sheep, while at slightly lower elevations one can find monkeys, red pandas, flying squirrels, and a wide variety of small cats native to the Sub-Continent.
Sliding towards India, Bhutan’s great rivers open up in the alluvial plains of the south. There, savannah grasses and mixed jungle border the deciduous forest thickly blanketing the Shiwalik Hills that rise to the humble height of only 4,900 feet. In the narrow Duars Plain, Bhutan grows the majority of its food – rice being the most common commodity – and accounts for the majority of Bhutan’s arable land, which is only 2% of its total territory.
Attributed to its small and well taken care of population, unique brand of Buddhism, and relatively late entry in to the modern, industrial world, Bhutan is credited as one of the most conservation-minded nations on the planet. Over thirty percent of its land is under government protection, which includes four national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries, and one strict nature reserve that prohibits people except for scientific purposes. Not only do these protected areas aid threatened and endangered species, they also play a vital role in safeguarding the headwaters of rivers that supply fresh water to highly populated areas in India and Bangladesh.
Until 1974, traveling to Bhutan was nearly, if not completely impossible. That year, in an effort to raise revenue for the tiny country, the government began promoting its unique culture and beautifully intact natural environment to travelers around the world. The catch however, was that any travel was strictly limited and must be done so with a licensed tour company. These measures were designed to protect Bhutan’s land and culture against the impact of high volume tourism. Even today, mountain climbing is prohibited, giving the nation the most virgin peaks of any mountainous nation. Some travelers may find that such restrictions hamper their inner wanderlust. But trekking in Bhutan as part of a professional group has a number of benefits including providing greater insight into the once isolated culture and helping to navigate the maze of mountain passes that link one Eden-like valley to the next.
In 1933, the British novelist, James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon, a fictional account of “Shangri-La.” This mystical valley was defined by its physical beauty, peaceful population, esoteric Buddhism, and total isolation from the rest of the world. A Himalayan utopia, Shangri-La entered into the imagination of the West as the epitome of Eastern wisdom, spiritual harmony, and natural beauty. Since the novel’s release, dreamers have looked for the valley that inspired Hilton’s novel. Some have suggested that the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan is the original Shangri-La while others argue that China’s Yarlung Zanbo Grand Canyon holds the true identity.
Regardless, in a world wracked with political strife, environmental degradation, and poverty, Bhutan’s intact traditional culture, devote Buddhism, natural wonders and poor, but happy population point to the last great Shangri-La.
Keep your eyes open, as Tusker now explores and treks through the remote regions of this Shangri-La.
The Tusker Bhutan trek is scheduled for October 30 – November 13, 2013. The group size will be limited to only 16 members.