Treasure Lakes Trek – Nubsonapata

November 1, 2017

in Bhutan

Good morning, world. 13,800 feet. 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. 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. 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 aways 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.


Heading out for a few days of trek scouting (which means walking a 5-6 day trek in 3 1/2 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.

With my guide, Jigme Jigme the Guide and me


Camp kitchen and Tsering the cook whipping up breakfast.  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 Karma the Horse begs like a dog at mealtimes

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