Prayer flags float in and out of my camera frame, pulsing with the light breeze that blows across the Dochu La, the 10,330 ft pass we just summited. Beyond the flags is a collection of 108 chortens arranged atop a small hill in a neat oval that the road circumvents. Chortens house relics of religious significance and are places of offerings. These are simple, squat and square whitewashed affairs with slate roofs and a gilded crown at their tops. Far in the distance is the Himalayan range and the border between Bhutan and Tibet. Separating us from the mountains is a multitude of lush, deeply carved river valleys. In two of them, the Mo (mother) and Po (father) rivers will be the focus of the next few days of our kayaking trip.
During a typical stop at Dochu La you’ll usually see more chillups (foreigners) than Bhutanese, a result of Bhutan’s growing popularity as a tourist destination and the fact that the country’s only international airport is just 2 hours to the west in the town of Paro. Most people that come to Bhutan are on cultural or trekking tours that, sooner or later, pass this way. Our merry little band of Americans, Bhutanese and Nepali, with our truckload of kayaks, stands out from the crowd.
Our trip started two days earlier at the airport in Paro. After our arrival we had a quick lunch then drove up the Paro valley and the start of the hike to Takstang monastery -otherwise known as the Tiger’s Nest. Our timing meant that we were going up as others were coming down, making ours the only group at this otherwise popular destination. Takstang clings to the side of a cliff and dates back to the 8thcentury. This is where Guru Ripoche, revered for bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, is said to have arrived on the back of a flying tigress.
Our second day we outfitted boats, packed the van and drove down valley to the lower Paro river. We put in opposite a monastery on crystal clear, low flows. It ia good to hit the water and feel the haze from the long journey to Bhutan wash away. Further downstream at Chuzum, the confluence of the Paro and Thimphu rivers, we turned the corner onto the Wang Chu.
Our flow doubled and the difficulty of rapids increased as we paddled amongst huge rocks sprinkled with undercuts. Rapids became steeper and longer but by eddy hopping the lines were clear. On one occasion we saw a group of rhesus monkeys scrambling along the shore! Conveniently, the road, that had been high above us, sloped back down to the river for a perfect take-out. We loaded the truck and van and head east to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital.
This is my fourth visit to this remarkable Buddhist kingdom. If asked where I have seen the greatest physical change in Bhutan it would be as you enter the capital on the road from Paro. Multi-story apartment buildings, huge by Bhutanese standards, are going up in record numbers. They are fully rented out before completion, with many more planned. They are a symbol of the urbanization that is taking place in Bhutan. Ironically, across the valley and high up a ridge, we can see one of the world’s largest sitting Buddhas also under construction.
After a night in Thimphu we drove up this pass, Dochu La, and now make the descent into the Punatsang Chu valley, the river created by the union of the Mo and Po rivers. We turn up valley past the temple of the Divine Madman and come to the confluence of the Mo and Po where we take a break to walk out on a small bluff, watching the waters of the two rivers swirl and mix below, glacial milk and carribean blue! Directly opposite us is the Punakha Dzong, a massive structure of high walls, towers, red roofs and ornate woodwork. This one-time fortress, built in the 16thcentury, now serves dual purpose as monastery and government offices. Continuing further up valley we have time to get in a quick run on the Mo chu from the put-in known simply as Sonam’s. Much bigger than the Wang Chu, the Mo is fluffy, fun class IV. We paddle to our luxury base camp just before dark.
The Mo and Po valleys are home to farmers. Hard working people that still do most of the work by hand. Right now they are working long days to bring in their rice before the winter. Each paddy is drained, the rice cut and laid out on the ground to dry, a vulnerable time for the rice should it rain and spoil the heads. After drying, the grain is threshed by beating the stalks over a tarp. Dried some more, the grain is separated by slowly pouring it from head height and letting the wind carry the chaff away. Dried stalks are piled high, tamped into tight structures that resemble a small hut complete with a rice stalk roof and topknot. The stalks will serve as fodder for their animals during the winter months.
Going further upstream on the Mo the next day, we encounter much harder rapids. Our pace slows as we take time to scout, ponder, and paddle. We do one long portage before reaching the run we did the day before. The repeat run to camp goes quickly. We leave the boats at the river’s edge and walk up to camp for a late lunch. Back on the water for an easy paddle to our take-out we reach the trailhead for a hike to a ridgetop temple with a commanding view of the valley.
The next morning we pack up and drive up the Po Chu. The van stops when we encounter deep mud. Transferring into the truck, we complete the drive to a small village and schoolhouse. I had heard rumors of being able to go further up the river than here at the end of the road, but a quick scout of the trail on foot reveals the hike-to-reward ratio didn’t look good and we opt for the standard put-in. An hour paddle downstream our driver Chandra is waiting for us with a hot lunch. These guys sure spoil us! Paddling easy water down to the confluence with the Mo Chu we float past the Punakha Dzong. Here monks in red robes are concentrating on their studies along the banks.
At the take-out we change into “temple worthy” clothes for a visit to the Punakha Dzong. Built of stone, brick, rammed earth and beams held together using timberframe techniques, dzongs used neither blueprints nor nails! This Dzong once served as the center of government for all of Bhutan and most recently played a significant role in the wedding of the fifth king and his queen and his coronation in 2008. The Dzong was built by the Shabrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 16th century. He is credited with unifying the country after centuries of internal and outside conflict. So important was his presence to peace in the country at that time, that his death was kept a secret for fifty years.
Crossing a Bhutanese-style cantilevered bridge over the Mo Chu we ascend a steep set of wooden stairs to an entry hall adorned with two large prayer wheels and colorful murals. Beyond the hall one enters an expansive courtyard paved with large slabs of slate.
At the near end, our view down the courtyard is blocked by a large chorten. Behind the chorten grows a large bodhi tree, the type that Buddha was said to have been sitting under when he attained enlightenment. Framing either side of the courtyard are intricately carved posts that support a second story walkway with equally ornate handrails. On the far end of the courtyard is a broad, nearly windowless wall that stands some five stories tall. During special celebrations the monks will suspend a giant tapestry that covers this wall. Himalayan Buddhism is rich in symbolism and there is no shortage of it here depicted in murals, woodcarvings and statues.
We walk the labyrinth of hallways and courtyards arriving at the far end of the dzong where we observe protocol by slipping out of shoes and put away cameras before entering a temple room. What awaits us takes out breath away. There is not a square inch of the walls and ceiling that are not covered in some type of iconography or colorful wall hangings. Three walls of the large room are covered in murals that depict the birth, life and death of the Buddha. There is a enormous chest, like that of a pirate’s buried treasure only much, much larger, that contains the 5-story tapestry awaiting the next time it will be hung in the entry courtyard. Glass cases hold statues of different religious figures. The ceiling and upper parts of the walls are painted with 1,000 buddhas and fabric “victory banners” hang from beams. The large wooden floor planks have been polished by the centuries of shoeless monks and other visitors shuffling over them. Parallel rows of low benches topped with red seat cushions lead our eyes to the front of the room. Here three large statues stare back at us: Buddha, Shabdrung and Guru Rimpoche, their forms draped in colorful robes. This whole exotic culture pins you to the moment!
The reason for this trip was the opportunity to do a first descent. The lower stretches of the Dang Chu were first run in the late 90’s. On a trip last year, I heard that a new road would be going in to access a small village located on the opposite side of the river further up valley. Hard-to-obtain topo maps revealed that the gradient on the Upper was doable. On our drive east, occasional glimpses into the valley from 1000 ft above showed a low-volume, technical run in a lush setting. Small farms on the other side suggested footbridges might exist along the way. Armed with this information we pushed on toward our next town, Trongsa, the farthest east we would travel to paddle, to get more warmed up. We would save the Dang for the return trip.
Roads in Bhutan can best be described as contour lines. The mountainous terrain requires that the road snake in and out of the numerous valleys and ridges. The main road is nothing more than a lane wide. Travel is best measured in time, not distance. The 90 miles from the confluence of the Mo and Po Chu to Trongsa takes 6 hours! We’re here for two days of paddling on the Mangde Chu.
The first run starts upstream of the village and finishes at the base of a steep trail leading into the Dzong, one of the largest in the country. Thank goodness we are able to arrange porters to carry our the boats up. The downstream run, emma datsi canyon, is named for the spicy national dish of chilis and cheese. It provides plenty of challenging rapids and lives up to its name!
Heading back west, our excitement built as we neared the Dang Chu. We figured we had two and a half to three days to complete the run. Rather than paddle and portage heavy boats with overnight gear, we opted to take advantage of the few trails and hike out each night. Cold beers, hot meals and warm beds would ensure we’d be well rested for each days paddle!
What we found shortly after putting in was nothing short of classic; a super fun, very continuous class IV/IV+ run situated in an intimate riverbed draped with a lush canopy of vegetation.
We had one or two short portages that first day and when we hit a footbridge at 2:30 pm, it was decision time. Darkness falls at 5pm and temps drop quickly in the Himalaya when the sun dips behind the mountains. Knowing we couldn’t make the next bridge anytime soon and that dark would be upon us in a couple of hours, we stash boats and hike out.
We suspected our next day would be the crux. During the drive we could see cliffs that pinched the river canyon far below and knew it contained some of the steepest gradient. Sure enough, we encountered many stout rapids this day.
When necessary, the portaging was mostly dragging boats through the lush forest while keeping an eye out for stinging nettles, and chuckling about the marijuana growing wild. During the final portage we nearly lost a boat as it shot into the river -but eddied out! A missing dry bag was found shortly downstream, sidesurfing a hole. Below here the once friendly, perfect-for-boofing rocks, became angular and made the rapids feel more serious.
By 2:00 p.m. we hit a footbridge. Using waypoints on our GPS we knew there was another bridge not too far downstream and we decided to go for it. But very shortly we encountered a steep drop that we knew was going to suck valuable time away. Glancing up from the river we saw a farm. Further up the hill we saw a truck rumble by on the road. So we stashed the boats and hiked out for the night.
Day 3 on the Dang finds us optimistic that we’ll finish the run by noon. Scouting the rapid that turned us away the previous day, we find a line and run. The character of the river starts to ease up a bit but it remains continuous. At a quick portage around a log we realize we are less than 1 km from our take-out. Pulling up to the bridge we are beaming.
What a fun run! Still, we want a little “dessert” to top off the day. I knew of a Class IV run downstream that would make the perfect capper to our kayaking in Bhutan. Paddling strong and as a synchronized group we blaze this delightful creek with barely a hesitation.
The trip is at an end and it’s time for the group to leave this land of gentle, fun-loving, and curious people. Their way of life is a step back in time with their temples, ancient monasteries, and stunningly pristine rivers. We were awed by all of it! It was the trip of a lifetime. Some in the group are already talking of returning. I smile because I know I’ll be back again next year.
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