Thursday, 25 July 2013

Hike to Bjele Se (Cat Mountain) aka Talakha Peak

For months I’ve been staring up at Talakha Peak - known locally as Bjile Se - Cat Mountain - the pyramid shaped peak that sits high above our village and the Thimphu Valley.

Its grass covered summit rises up above the tree line appearing variously peppered with snow, shrouded in mist or crisply framed against the clear blue sky, looking almost naked against the forested ridge lines and valleys below.

Talakha Peak in Winter
The view towards Bjele Se from Pema's house

In my mind it stands as the gateway to Dargala, the alpine area above the ridge line where many of my students’ families still live traditional yak-herding lives moving their animals to freshest pastures in the plains and mountains below. It forms the central point of the Dargala Thousand Lakes Trek and in my imagination resides as a treeless land peppered with glacial lakes and alpine flowers.

'Sir go Bjile Se?' asks a student as I sit looking up at the mountain and munching on my rice and potatoes.
'No but I'd love to visit. Does anyone know the way?'
'Pema Wangchuk, sir! From class VI!'
'Sir, we go Bjile Se, sir! Tch tch tch' says Pema with his idiosyncratic click of the teeth. 'Visit Dargala Sir! Tch tch tch. My home place, sir. Tch tch.”

That night Lu and I make plans, call our compadre Dave – of high BCF vintage to come  and join for the hike. The date is set, camera batteries are charged, hiking boots pulled out of suitcases hidden under beds.

The hike is planned for a Sunday morning. Pema Wangchuk enlists three of his best mates – all from Dargala to accompany us on the trek. A fourth boy, famous for his ADHD tendencies at school badgers me to let him come until I finally relent. I find out later that he has never been to Dargala despite both his grandparents coming from the area. The boys agree to come to our house at 6:30am to start the walk.

Next morning, knocks on the door at 5:30am.

It's too early! Tell them to come back later.

Morning boys! Didn't we say six thirty?

Can’t sleep sir! Ready sir! Go early sir!

We might need a few moments...

The boys sit on the floor in the kitchen as Lucy packs rain jackets and I fry rice with eggs and spinach.

Strong tea is made. Lots of milk. Lots of sugar.

We dish up plates like troughs and the boys wolf it down wordlessly, slurping loudly on their tea.

It's 5:45.

Dave has phoned the night before to say he can’t make it but then suddenly appears, motorbike helmet in hand.

Woke up at 3:30! Couldn’t get back to sleep so jumped on the bike and here I am!

He eats half a loaf of Season’s bread with Lucy’s homemade plum jam and then we’re off. 

We stop at Pema Wangchuk’s mother’s house – a beautiful traditional Bhutanese house on the other side of the village. The boys eagerly show us various yak products hung around the house: yak pelts drying in the sun, a black woven blanket made from yak’s wool, yak’s meat drying about the wood stove, yak bones cleaned and drying to make jewellery. Pema’s mother is a beautiful graceful woman who warmly welcomes us into her house and plies us with hot tea and rice snacks.  We learn that she is the owner of the house, built on land granted by His Majesty as kidu (land grant) and that Pema is her son from a second marriage after her first husband passed away. I get a strong sense that she is the focal point of her family and larger community, an indication of the strong matrilieanal traditions that exist in some parts of Bhutan.  

Mother and Son (Photo by Dave)
After the boys have stocked up on instant noodles and packets of Indian made cakes and biscuits, we take off up the mountain, leaving Chamgang at 2770m. There is no gentle incline for us here. I had thought we might have taken the nice, amenable forest road up to Talakha monastery and then followed the ridgeline up to the peak. But keen to cut down time, the boys take us up a shortcut: a steep muddy incline between towering oak and larch. After an hour or so we reach a clearing coloured by patches of wild irises and a small hut where Pema’s family bring their yaks for milking.

The boys are blurs of infectious energy as they zip ahead of us and drop back to make sure we are not getting lost: they cut branches out of our path, pick edible plants for us to sample, demonstrate how certain plants are used as kitchen tools and explain how cancerous growths on birch trees can be carved into traditional phobs (cups) for drinking arra and making offerings.

Tenzin and mighty, mighty fungus...


We eventually reach the ridge line behind the monastery from where we can look down into two very different forests on either side of the ridge. Ancient, ethereal forests of fir rise up towards the treeline in the adjacent valley, their deep green branches adorned with the gentle pastels of hundreds of strings of ‘old man’s beard’ a filamentous lichen that grows in many high altitude forests in Bhutan.

The effects of altitude conditioning kick in as we pass the 3500m mark: breath becomes short and heart rate climbs. Clouds move in and across Bjele se and the valleys below move in and out of thickening mist. Climbing a narrow goat track overlooking the adjacent forest our guides let out a long low whistle. A large male dzo (a yak-cow hybrid) is trundling its way obstinately up the path before us. The boys let out a series of expert grunts and whistles before landing a few choice pebble throws against the beast’s side. 

Bos Grunniens (or at least half thereof...)

“If yak angry sir, tch tch,” Pema tells us. “Have to hit, tch tch, with rock in the head or…ani…” he says  gesturing to invisible horns above his head.

At anywhere between 300 to 1000kg, I can see why a few pebbles to the flank wouldn’t do much to deter a charging yak. Luckily the boys are good shots.

Nearing the treeline, alpine flowers start appearing, including native azaleas scattered between moss covered granite boulders. Clearing the treeline and with only hundreds of metres to the peak at 4220m, thick clouds come spinning in from the south and we get well and truly caught in a deluge. Somehow (kerosene I think) the boys get a fire going and we huddle under umbrellas on the edge of the exposed ridgeline. We wolf our packed lunch of biryani and bread and with no sign of the mist or rain abating we hightail it back down the mountain.

Azaleas with Talakha Peak in the background

The mist, the mist...

Almost there..

Reaching Pema’s family’s hut we stop to light another fire and dry ourselves off. High on the joys of alpine accomplishments and an open fire, the boys break into a spontaneous recital of a traditinal Bhutanese folk dance they performed at the school concert the month before. This leads Dave to teach them a bit of traditional reggae shufflin’ to some Bob Marley played off his mobile phone. Outside the hut the boys spot this paw print of belonging to a local Himalayan Black Bear. 

Moments before Bob...

Bear prints...

Reaching Chamgang around 2:30pm we again stop for tea at Pema’s mother’s and then ramble back to our house where a wok full of chow mein and a few cold Red Panda wheat beers do an excellent job of helping us (adults) celebrate our lucky adventures. The kids get to suck down a few cans of lychee juice which seems to keep a smile on their dials. 
Happy days on the way down...

Pema and Clouds (Photo by Dave...)

Home sweet home... (Photo by Dave)

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