The people and the landscape of Bhutan’s Mountain Goddess: a Photo Essay

As we open our 2020 fall expedition to the base of Bhutan’s Mount Jomolhari (slated for October), our Travel Programs Coordinator, Karma Dorji, showcases in words and pictures why, despite the growing impact of tourism and the onslaught of modernity, a trek to the basecamp of the kingdom’s second highest peak remains one of the world’s great hiking experiences.

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Photos & text by Karma Singye Dorji


1. Kado, 26, Mountain Man.

Over the nearly two decades that I have been guiding guests of various nationalities on the trails crisscrossing the lap of Mount Jomolhari (24,038ft), I have fallen in love as much with the mountain as with her people. Having done it these many years, a trip back to the mountain feels more like a pilgrimage to me than a simple trekking expedition. This, even though, in my opinion, the route has become significantly degraded over the years by tourist traffic and a near-tragic clear-cutting of trees along the first section of the route in a mismanaged effort to bring electricity to the region. Many of the people I have guided over the years leave the mountain changed in some deep and profound ways by the power of the landscape, and the kindness, grace and strength of the people. I have personally been inspired by the incredible strength and tenacity of Mount Jomolhari’s children. The mountain has a way of stripping away the inessentials, exposing weaknesses, and demanding strength and endurance. I remember a time, in the early years, when we followed a young boy from Jangothang, a settlement near the mountain’s base who, at times half disappearing in the snow, trudged quietly and uncomplainingly with us, for hours going out of his way to guide us through an unexpected storm even though he got drenched in the subzero temperatures in the process. That boy, whose name I have sadly forgotten, is who I think of when I walk among people like 26-year old Kado who, similarly, was born and raised in the benevolent shadow of the mountain they call their protector. I met him at basecamp, where he spoke to me of his modest dreams: a new roof for his mother’s house, taking care of his elders and providing them a modicum of ease when they retire to the traditional Buddhist life of prayer and meditation. Talking to this quiet young man, listening to his rock-like resolve, I was reminded of one of the most important things we can do in life: be an anchor of strength for those we love.





2. Unveiling the Goddess

When you get close to the mountain, the massive exposed rock face of Jomolhari’s base—streaked by waterfalls and fingers of perennial snow—gives no indication of the sheer magnitude of the peak. Black cliffs disappear under a sea of towering mist that reaches up to the sky, and it is only when the goddess “smiles” through a break in the weather that we see the immensity of her snowy crown. The semi-nomadic people who have lived here for centuries under her gaze believe that Ama Jomo, their Mother Goddess, watches over them and protects their world. Appraising the mountain from the Tibetan side (Bhutan was closed to outsiders then), the early 20th century English explorer F. Spencer Chapman wrote in 1939: “Chomolhari [aka Jomolhari] gives a greater impression of sheer height and inaccessibility than any other mountain I know. It drops in a series of almost vertical rock precipices to the foothills beneath. It is thought by many to be the most beautiful mountain in the whole length of the Himalaya.”


3. Beauty & Respect

The powerful landscape of the valleys around Jomolhari always touches me in the deepest places of my heart. As I leave first camp at Thangthangkha, from where I see the top of Jomolhari's familiar snow cone summit playing peek-a-boo from behind the forbidding range, I can feel the mental chatter of my days quieting down, bringing me to the threshold of an awed silence. No room here for ego, for superficial words or for putting up defensive shields; nor too for the closing of emotional doors. The immensity of the landscape makes tiny specks of us all, and the vagaries of mountain weather reminds us to always tread carefully, respectfully, or else be reminded of our insignificance. As native-born Himalayan guides, it is our great duty and privilege to keep others safe. We take cues from the early mountain weather patterns as well as from the valuable indigenous knowledge that the region's semi-nomadic herders share so generously with us. We listen and we learn from local lore, gratefully accepting the advice of native elders who live in the region; we learn from the experiences of other guides, park officials, local authorities, native biologists and conservationists, always putting the safety of our travelers first. It is a tightrope walk, this partaking in the blessings of the mountain goddess and her people without adversely affecting the culture and the environment in this incredibly beautiful corner of our world.





4. Rich or Poor?

Once we were camped near a yak-herder's settlement, a day’s walk from Jomolhari, at an altitude of some 12,300 feet. There we met the matriarch Keza Om (62, right), head of a family numbering three daughters, one of whom, Zom (30), is pictured here. A niece, two grandchildren, and two sons-in-law, who all live with her, round out the brood. From her seasonal stone-enclosure “roofed” by nothing more than a sheet of fraying tarpaulin, she survives on the milk and cheese produced by her yaks. Keza Om weathers snowstorms, freezing rains, and high winds with unwavering equanimity. “We do the best we can and leave the rest to fate,” she says. There’s not much here and everything is essential: the little plastic containers of cooking oil that have been cut away at the neck to be re-purposed as water buckets, the soot-blackened aluminum pots and pans for cooking meals and boiling milk, the churns for making butter and cheese, the prayer beads around her neck for remembering her daily Buddhist prayers; even the incongruously large tractor tire carried up the mountain by a son-in-law now reincarnated in the meadow outside her yurt as a feeding trough for the herd. Sitting amid such meager, cobbled possessions Keza Om's life seems hard and poverty-stricken. But the depth of her smile and the warmth of her welcome tells me otherwise.



5. Vital Elemental Things

Crossing the high pass of Nyile La, in excess of 16,000-feet, you come upon this view. The first glimpse of the Lingshi Dzong, seen in the distance, always makes me simultaneously think of two very different things. A: that we are, in the overall scheme of things, truly insignificant. And b: that something about the snow-clouds drifting over the muscled slopes and ridges of the high mountains, the occasional roar of a waterfall in the distance, the moan of a calving glacier somewhere near the foot of a peak, the audible shrugging of great banks of snow from a massif (which always makes me think of a jet airplane passing overhead), and the way that we can almost touch the clouds in these rarefied heights of the world, tells me that we are each part of a much greater whole; that all of us are connected to the grand, unfathomable movements of nature even though we may not comprehend it all. Holding such thoughts in my mind, the superfluous melts away, replaced by vital elemental things: Gratitude. Breath. Beauty. And, of course, Weather, with a capital W!




6. Blue Sheep

At the source of rivers, near the lairs of snow leopards, we often see stampeding herds of rare Himalayan Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur). These elegant ungulates were perhaps made most famous by the detailed studies of the celebrated biologist George B. Schaller, who wrote “Since blue sheep are the snow leopard’s principal prey…the two species are ecologically bound to each other.” In Bhutan, local conservationist friends of the snow leopards take heart from such sightings of healthy herds of blue sheep. Depending on size, maturity and season, their coats (“pelage” is the scientific term) range in color from brown to slate blue. The healthy populations of blue sheep, combined with some recent photographs of snow leopards captured using trip-wire cameras, and the increasing accounts of sightings by local yak herders in the Jomolhari region, provide encouraging circumstantial evidence. There are indications that the extremely rare and endangered cat, sometimes called the “ghost of the mountains” because of their elusive nature, continues to survive, and perhaps even thrive, in Bhutan where strong environmental policies protect their precious habitats. Traveling through this incredible landscape I am always reminded of the words of Peter Mathiessen, author of The Snow Leopard: “All is moving, full of power, full of light.”

See a video clip of running blue sheep.



7. Precious Jewel of the Mountains

No narrative of Jomolhari can be complete without mentioning yaks. In the high, arid region where agriculture is near-impossible, the area’s semi-nomadic herders depend on their yaks for survival. “Our yaks give us life,” Apa Penjor, a Jomolhari elder (now deceased), told me over 20 years ago when I first met him to write about a livestock disease depleting the local yak population. “They are like precious jewels for our people.” Cheese, milk and butter from the yaks are bartered in the lower valleys for grains, fresh produce, spices and other provisions in short supply at high elevations. Yak hair is spun into blankets, ropes and yurts; yak dung provides the fuel for fires. When we explore the spectacular slopes and valleys around Jomolhari we often meet local herders on their ancient grazing routes—men, women, children and elders—leading, or sometimes following, the animals they call Norbu Rinpoche, which, in their words, means “the gift that keeps on giving.”



8. The Grim March of Progress

When I first hiked through the region nearly 25 years ago, it was still possible to feel like one had entered an untouched realm protected from the outside world by an invisible force-field, one of those hidden magical lands, the sacred bae-yul, that populate our Himalayan myths. A modern chair, which I saw used by the Drungpa or regional administrator, carried up the mountains by a porter, was the latest, most incongruous item of modernity I encountered back then. I remember being shocked by the sight, one morning, of the administrator sitting on that chair outside his tent, in front of the peak, reading his newspaper! Today, that office chair seems so innocent by comparison. What new things may yet soon become commonplace in the region? While it's easy for us to bemoan the visual pollution of electrical poles and lines cropping up amid such pristine surroundings, who are we deny or even judge the aspirations of Jomolhari’s people for what they deem to be better lives? For one thing, electricity means children can read after dark and do better in school. And yet if electricity arrives, can television—with the good and the bad of programming; advertising; and the generally soul-numbing selling and buying of consumer goods, with its concomitant environmental costs—be far behind? Ultimately, there’s no telling what indiscernible number of modern impulses that electricity will bring to the heart of Jomolhari. These men carrying the steel poles into the mountains were paid by local business contractors tasked by the government to build infrastructure for electricity in the region. The same businesses also cut down swathes of forest along the initial route to Jomolhari in the course of doing that, a sad and surprising oversight in a place where commercial logging is actually banned. Wearing cheap plastic boots and flip-flops, these men were earning Nu. 2,000 a day (less than 30 US dollars) doing the back-breaking work. "I am saving the money so I can help my parents in my village," one young man told me. More recently, helicopter services took to air-dropping these heavy metal poles into the remote interiors of Jomolhari, speeding up the process of change, bringing further intrusions to a place where the thud-thudding of rotor blades were previously unknown.




9. An Entreaty from the Mountains

“When I was young our precious goddess [Jomolhari] was covered head to foot in robes of pure-white snow. Not so anymore,” says our longtime friend and caravan leader Ap Dawa, standing in front of the peak. “But there are many powerful countries in the world with resources far beyond our imagining,” he says. “I would like to plead with them to work together to find a way to reverse the negative impacts [of global warming] and help us protect our precious way of life.” While now in his 70s, Ap Dawa often puts men half his age to shame. Nimble and surefooted, the Jangothang elder likes to lead us on merry chases up and down the high slopes that provide some of the best views around basecamp. As a respected elder he also performs an ancient ritual that has now become a regular part of our treks. From a simple stone altar on the spreading yak meadow in front of Bhutan’s second highest peak (24,038ft), Ap Dawa conducts the time-honored rites worshiping the deity his people call “the Mother Goddess Mountain of the World.” As part of his invocations to the goddess, he seeks her blessings for the protection of all sentient beings in the world from suffering, and for peace and balance in the natural world. We can only hope that such heartfelt prayers will soon be heard in greater numbers all around the world, forcing our leaders to work toward some lasting solutions to save the future of the planet.



10. Protecting the Magic

Despite encroaching modernity, in spite of the damage along the main trail to Jomolhari, the region still remains one of the most magical places in the world. We routinely enjoy such incredible experiences as starry nights in view of the sacred peak when it feels like you're looking up at the entire stretch of infinity. The challenges of preserving the last great untouched places in the world is a collective global responsibility and, in this, Bhutan punches far above its weight. As early as the 1980s, and perhaps even earlier, the kingdom has put its best foot forward with a series of far-reaching environmental policies backed by royal decrees and an overwhelming political will. We take heart from the fact that—as a country that sets aside more than 42 percent of its land mass in a system of protected areas—the Bhutanese government has introduced strong measures to reduce the impacts of tourism: campsites are clearly marked and delineated to reduce environmental damage on surrounding areas, everything brought in must be packed out, and special fees help pay for environmental cleanups. Agencies such as the excellent and wide-ranging non-profit Bhutan Foundation, with offices in Bhutan and the US, help protect endangered Snow Leopards while promoting sustainable livelihoods for local communities across Bhutan (https://bhutanfound.org/projects/snow-leopard-conservation-program/). Meanwhile, forestry and land use regulations and strict environmental protection laws help keep Bhutan a carbon-negative country. Places like Jomolhari have a great beauty and natural diversity that must be preserved as part of our sacred global heritage, an endeavor in which we all have a role to play—the visitors who are fortunate enough to walk these hallowed valleys beneath the gaze of the mountain goddess, the local governments and non-profits that seek to provide services and improved livelihoods while protecting biodiversity and precious natural resources and, ultimately, those of us who seek to share this amazing, glorious, life-changing landscape with the wider world.

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To donate to a project benefiting environmental conservation and cultural preservation in the Jomolhari region, go to Bhutan Foundation's website: https://bhutanfound.org/


To learn more about our upcoming 2020 Trek to Mount Jomolhari, go to: https://www.bhutanhimalaya.com/bhutan-jomolhari-trek



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