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Madness Guide Deana Zabaldo in Bhutan

Mad­ness guide Deana Zabal­do recent­ly trav­eled to Bhutan to scout new trekking adven­tures. She has shared the blog of her trip with us, to show the beau­ty of this unique place in the Himalaya.

Good morn­ing, world. 13,800 feet.

From the 10th-15th cen­turies, Bhutan was a land con­ducive to spir­i­tu­al trea­sure-hunt­ing. Trea­sure-find­ers, known as ter­tons, were gen­er­al­ly monks with spir­i­tu­al pow­ers that allowed them to see and bring forth trea­sures includ­ing rit­u­al objects and sacred texts. The area where I’m trekking holds the sto­ry of one of these trea­sure-hunters and is filled with trea­sure lakes, but it’s the gor­geous alpine val­leys I’m long­ing to see.

Alpine lake that is home to a sacred yak deity – herders make offer­ings here as they head to high­er pas­tures in the spring or low­er pas­tures in the fall.

Pack hors­es com­ing up the trail.

The trek runs almost entire­ly between 12000−14,500 feet, which is a par­tic­u­lar­ly sweet spot for trekking for me. The earth is still green (not entire­ly rock and ice, though that has its own stun­ning appeal). Wild­flow­ers and rhodo­den­drons spread across rocky crags and around a series of alpine lakes. The weath­er is tem­per­ate enough to have tea out­side in the after­noon, be mes­mer­ized by the Milky Way at night, and take an ear­ly morn­ing hike just after dawn, though a cold wind stirs up some days and rain driz­zles down some nights.


The region­al leg­end is that a Bud­dhist trea­sure-find­er drained a lake and revealed rit­u­al objects such as drums and trum­pets, but the peo­ple were more inter­est­ed in the gold at the bot­tom of the lake. Angry, he threw away the reli­gious trea­sures – each item form­ing a lake where it land­ed – and let the water back into the lake, drown­ing the peo­ple whose only trea­sure was gold.

Per­haps a lake formed by rit­u­al objects?

Head­ing out for a few days of trek scout­ing (which means walk­ing a 5 – 6 day trek in 3 12 days), we are a team of 4: a guide, a cook, a horse­man (with 4 pack hors­es), and me. We will not find a sin­gle vil­lage in this wide wilder­ness and have all our sup­plies with us, though a few yak herders are now encamped along the way as the cold weath­er push­es them to low­er pas­tures. I eat rice morn­ing, noon, and night like a local, keep pace ahead of the hors­es, and track hik­ing times and camp­sites. Although we cov­er a lot of ground, the days are still per­vad­ed with peace and ease. I gaze out at the moun­tains while drink­ing tea, car­ry stones to repair rock chort­ens, and hike with a per­pet­u­al (and slight­ly goofy) smile across my face. The wind and the clouds, the rhodo­den­drons and rock faces, the shim­mer­ing alpine lakes and stark high pass­es – trea­sures abound.

Jigme the Guide and me.

Tser­ing the Cook whip­ping up break­fast in the camp kitchen.

Jigme the Guide chants prayers as he fix­es prayer flags come undone by the wind and sug­gests lit­tle side trips. Because I nev­er met an alpine lake I didn’t like, I fol­low him off trail, up what feels like 500 feet but is prob­a­bly less, to check out a few extra lakes. Along the trail, I pick up can­dy wrap­pers and oth­er plas­tic tossed aside by locals…and after see­ing me, Jigme starts doing the same. We become the trail clean-up crew. Tser­ing the Cook makes deli­cious meals, pro­vides an end­less sup­ply of tea, and chews betel nut night and day giv­ing him a red-stained smile. He’s been the cook on my last 3 treks in Bhutan and has walked more of the coun­try than any of us. Dor­je the Horse­man ties up the loads in the morn­ing, hob­bles the hors­es at night, and wran­gles unruly black Nor­bu and stub­born brown Min­du. Shoo­ing rogue hors­es back onto the trail is a team effort. Dor­je tells me his biggest prob­lem at home is that he doesn’t have a pow­er hand-tiller. They are very expen­sive, even to rent from a neigh­bor, so he still uses oxen to plow the field. Edu­ca­tion and health care are pro­vid­ed by the gov­ern­ment, so it’s not sur­pris­ing to me that farm­ing tech­nol­o­gy is his biggest con­cern. For his part, Kar­ma the Horse begs like a dog at meal­times and earns him­self some rice or a trea­sured apple…treasure, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

Kar­ma the Horse begs like a dog at mealtimes.

~Words and pho­tos MM Guide Deana Zabaldo