Hiking to Phajoding
Posted on September 8, 2010
On Friday afternoon, September 3rd, the five of us, Yuri, Sarah, Atsu, Raffi and Devon, took off on our three-day hiking trip to Phajoding, a monastery situated in the mountains surrounding Thimpu at 4000 meters altitude. .
Our guide, Tsewang, and a team of four other Bhutanese men who had been hired to help the trip run more smoothly joined us. Each one of these individuals proved to be a true pleasure to be around and provided services such as cooking, setting up camp, building the “toilet tent” and guiding the seven horses that carried our baggage over the rough terrain.
Although we had already been in the country for about 6 weeks, the altitude still made it hard to breathe on our steep path up. After a four-hour hike uphill over rocks and mud, we finally reached our camp at six pm. It was a challenge for some of us, but our all-knowing tour guide set an appropriate pace for the entire group.
Several hundred feet from our camp, we came across a temple, where a young monk stood outside practicing martial arts. All alone in an expansive green field the boy stood, surrounded by rolling green hills and dream-like clouds. It was a very touching sight; a boy no older than 7 or 8 completely focused on the task at hand.
Our Bhutanese helpers and the horses reached the campsite a long time before us. When we arrived, warm tea was ready, the tents were set up and the horses released. After a wonderful meal, we retired to our sleeping bags early due to the cold temperature at that altitude. The two girls shared a tent and the three guys shared another one.
Although the night was very cold, we all felt rested and ready to go the next morning at 6AM. A good incentive to actually get up at that time in the morning was a warm bowl of water to wash up that awaited us outside of our tent. After a breakfast of oatmeal, cereal, toast, eggs and a warm cup of tea, we started our climb up the mountain at 8AM sharp.
We had a steep hike up the mountain. Once we reached the top, we engaged in the Bhutanese Buddhist tradition of hanging up colorful prayer flags to relieve the suffering in all sentient beings. We hung our flags to honor Yuri’s friend who had died and Bianca, Sue and Tsewang’s friend who has cancer.
From there we continued our walk to the lakes. Unfortunately it was foggy and cloudy all weekend, which prevented us from clearly seeing the Himalayan mountain ranges. After another five long hours of walking, we finally reached the lakes. During those hours, the group often felt the need to stop and enjoy a snack, upon which Tsewang noted: “Wow, I guess you guys want to eat at every break we have!” Devon, Raffi and Sarah climbed down the rocks to the edge of one of the sacred lakes where they blessed themselves with a touch of the water.
Finally at two o’clock in the afternoon, we met two of the cooks on our way back on the trail. For some reason everything just tastes a thousand times better if you have to work for it for six straight hours. The cold rice, pieces of tuna and chili peppers tasted like a gourmet meal to us.
At some point we walked past skeleton rock which Raffi and Devon still had energy to climb. Tsewang joined them on their free climb up the rocks. Skeleton mountain is known for the Bhutanese ritual of air burial, the tradition in which the corpses of babies younger than two years old are placed on a mountain top so that their souls will be closer to heaven and to provide food for the birds which are considered representations of Buddha. They found some milk bottles, baby blankets, toys and prayer flags near the altar where the babies were placed.
On the way down from the mountain, they were plunged into yet another whiteout. Atsu, Yuri and Sarah were at the assigned meeting point when Sarah received a phone call:
Devon: “Sarah, can the three of you scream as loud as you can?”
Sarah: “Sure! Atsu and Yuri, let’s scream: 1, 2, 3, Aaaaaaahhhhhh!!!! Wait, Devon, why are we doing this?”
Devon: “Well, we’re not quite sure where we are. Scream again!”
Luckily, Tsewang, Raffi and Devon found the rest of us safe and sound.
Toward the end of our day-hike, we visited a monastery on the cliff. At 6PM, after a ten hour walk at 4000m altitude, we finally reached back to our camp. Sarah collapsed immediately, while the others enjoyed yet another cup of tea and a bowl of soup. After devouring our meal at the end of this long day, we were all vast asleep at 7:30PM.
On Sunday, the last day of our trip we visited another monastery on our way back to Thimpu. This time we happened to walk into a ritual that was going on, on this auspicious 25th day of the month of the Moon calendar. About 40 monks, most of them under age fifteen were reciting Buddhist prayers. After prostrating in front of the Buddha, Tsewang invited us to join the monks in their meditation. During a break in the chanting, we were also offered tea and cookies. The monks were observing us curiously. The lama thought that Yuri was the daughter of our tour guide but he seemed to have no problem identifying the rest of the group as foreigners. While the monks left the praying room to have their lunch outside, we decided to continue our journey down to meet our lunch.
After lunch, we reached the base at around 2 PM where our bus waited and brought us back to the Royal Thimphu College. Although the trip had been physically exhausting and very cold, we all agreed that it was a bonding experience that we will never forget.
The Phajoding Trekkers
YURI, SARAH, ATSU, RAFFI AND DEVON