My moment of reckoning arrives when I say yes to a fateful trip that sparks childhood memories of leisurely hikes in the green valleys of my youth and so much else besides.
It begins when― after too many years of urban indolence and monotony― I choose to accompany my friend and his group, through the eloquent forests of central Bhutan, in the district of Trongsa.
The Journey Begins
My heart beats like a macaque in a canary cage, whether from the strain of the demanding hike, the indescribable lushness of the trail, or the presence of my trekking companions it is hard to tell.
In front of us the Mangde River boils and churns, swollen with brown silt and driftwood, rushing to merge with a distant sea. On its banks, freshwater herons make elegant apostrophes over this season’s fallen leaves.
Lapwings dart in and out of view.
It is restorative considering our six hour drive from the capital, Thimphu, and our overnight stop in Trongsa town where gaggles of monks shoot pool and snooker under a low-watt bulb, a smattering of local patrons hunched over glasses of beer. The drive to Riotala where our hike begins was much better with bright swatches of fragrant flowering trees.
Into the Jungle
A quick check of my gear reveals a flashlight and a lighter where an impressive array of trekking equipment bristles from my friend’s pockets and bags.
Regardless, we jump eagerly onto the trail sliding down rocky, twisting descents with porters singing songs that insinuate their way into the woods, muting our talk and enhancing my conjurations of the self-formulated topography that awaits us.
Soon only the soft crunch of my hiking boots on fallen leaves and gravel sets the rhythm.
Later in the day, we arrive at a rickety bridge slung low over the river from which begins a strenuous and sun-exposed two hour climb to the valley ridge.
Above us in the trees, we spot a noble family of Golden Langurs, their fine facial furs lit by the sun. Considered auspicious, the sighting of these rare and endemic monkeys revitalizes my spirit and sends the group scurrying for their cameras.
Next, the wind blows us onto a forested saddle and ahead of us on the path is Nyimshong village, silhouetted on the ridge against the splendor of a sinking sun. All around us the colors deepen, lonely clouds scudding to the horizon, perils past (or so we think), and the purity of silence reigns, relieved by the occasional melody of a wayward song bird.
Later in the evening, the songs of the forest are taken up by the young women of Nyimshong who are known for their natural talent for singing and dance, even if they smile a little too demurely at their toes.
The hike from Nyimshong to Nabji(1,300 m) is pretty much a straight shot. The gentle trail undulates through a lush broadleaf forest teeming with avian and mammal life and I find I have developed an uncanny knack for perceiving each tree in incredible detail: I see the ones overhung with swinging nests, ones from which millions of ants hang like goiters, trees that are covered with creepers, and arboreal wonders with a myriad varieties of wild orchid in every bough and crook.
Unspoiled by a modern road this area is arguably the most ideal birding spot on the trail, if not in all Bhutan, likely boasting the full list of this region’s reputation for harboring over 395 species.
Even for an amateur such as myself, I am able to spot such rare beauties as would turn any member of an international birding community green with envy. To wit: The Blue Winged Minla, Ibis Bill, Rufous Bellied Eagle, White Throated Laughingthrush, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Sultan Tits, Blue Fronted Redstarts, Golden-throated Barbet, Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, Rufous-throated Wren Babbler, the enigmatic Chestnut-breasted Partridge and the endangered Beautiful Nuthatch and many others whose names I do not even know.
In the evening comes a feeling of a sustained optimism, combined with a sense of relief and release.
Nabji means “the promise”, a name the place was given after Guru Rinpoche mediated a covenant of peace between the warring kings Sendha Gyep of Bumthang and Naoche – literally meaning “Big Nose”.
Sealing their truce for all time, the Guru miraculously enabled them to stamp their fingerprints on a stone pillar that now forms the core of a shrine around which the village temple was built.
The morning hike to Korphu(1500m) only takes 2 hours.
Seen from above, Nabji is a verdant carpet dotted by white, yellow and red scarecrows.
A view of the colorful if distant Zhemgang dzong and town and softly cascading waterfalls soothe the spirit, while the haunting cry of an eagle echoes in the soul.
The next day, we head early for Kudra (1500m) since this part of the trek is the longest and the most challenging. It is rumored that this part of the trail has long fallen to disrepair and boasts the worst stretches on the trail unmarked by habitation.
Fortunately, despite our initial fears, the trail turns out to be a pleasant mix of ups and downs, punctuated by streams, waterfalls, cliffs and hardy vegetation. We spot the Great Himalayan Squirrel swinging from trees, and the lively Rhesus Macaques perched on a mountain spur as if summoned from the sets of an Indiana Jones movie.
Unseen but also present are Red Panda, Musk deer, Himalayan Black Beer, Tigers and clouded Leopards. Scats of barking deer lie adjacent to the trail.
When we finally arrive in the village of Kudra our biological batteries are fading fast and my somnolent legs tread with a life of their own. Totally famished and exhausted, we pitch our tents and supplement dinner with some canned mackerel and a lick of “good ole Johnny Walker” who really takes the credit for keeping us walking. Suddenly, everything around seems surreal and the bond of the trail is cemented by much laughter.
The Nabji Korphu trail lies in the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, located in central Bhutan. The trail is a low attitude trek (between 1,000 and 1,500 meters) which traverses through six different villages located inside the park. The best time for trekking between November to April.