River Expedition in Eastern Bhutan

Latest update January 15, 2019 Started on October 25, 2018
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We want to develop an itinerary for river expedition in Eastern Bhutan that would bring ecotourism benefits to communities along the Drangme Chhu. In the long run, we hope this will encourage conservation of Bhutan's wild rivers.

October 25, 2018
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Debriefing

Over a period of over one month, Kira Tenney has trained several young safety kayakers from the community, including Tshering Choki, Bhutan's first female safety kayaker. In fact, as we speak, Tshering is already training another female colleague of hers. In this manner, we hope to develop a profession that will add value to the vitality of this community by developing skills and the expertise that will help eco-tourism in the area.


We are further excited by the potential for involving more local communities along the river, such as Zarkabla, in participating in and benefiting from eco-tourism. Already, this business model is proving successful in that it is employing several rural youth in Panbang, and encouraging them to carefully grow their business sustainably.

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In The Field

The Marang Jungle Lodge is a unique ecotourism establishment managed by RGP. It provides employment for a group of youth from the Panbang area. It offers comfortable tented accommodation with shared bathrooms and toilets. In addition to providing white water rafting trips, RGP also helps out the community in times of disasters by providing river rescue and recovery support services.


Now at camp, Kira Tenney will begin a month-long kayak and whitewater safety training course for RGP members.

Starting from Yonphula airport, it is possible to conduct a two-day (on the river) expedition to come out in Panbang. From here, the proximity to Royal Manas National Park and nearby communities can make for an excellent culture and nature ecotourism trip. Yangbari, Zarkabla, and Marangdut are three communities near the Drangme Chhu that can directly benefit from ecotourism.

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Once back on the sandy landing, we loaded up the rafts and started paddling. Today, we hit a few rapids in close succession - Figure 8, BF Rapids, Camel Hump, 360, and Lady Dress - the bigger rapids all had names. But none of them were more than Class III. Soon we alighted on a sandy beach for lunch. We were close to Yumdang village above. The sun was still hot. Maybe due to the heat, we could not see much wildlife - the animals may have been taking refuge in the cooler shade deep in the forest. We only saw the occasional cormorants and river otters. After lunch, we went through a few more smaller rapids and soon we passed the Marang tributary of the Drangme Chhu. Shortly thereafter, we were at the take out in Panbang, beneath the Nishioka Bridge. Khenda and Sangay Penjor from RGP were waiting for us, and helped us pull our rafts ashore.


After loading the trucks, we drove the short distance to Marang Jungle Lodge, an ecotourism establishment managed by RGP.

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After breakfast we climbed uphill for about ten minutes to a ledge leading to Zarkabla village. Prior to 2002, there used to be 22 households here. Owing to the remoteness of the village, with no road or electricity, most of the people had relocated closer to towns. Only four families stayed behind. Recently, one more family moved back and now there are five households in the village. They still do not have electricity, and the nearest road head is about 3 hours walk away at Yumdang village.


We could see attempts to make rice terrace bunds, but the work was mainly incomplete. There were cornfields closer to the houses. Older houses were made of bamboo, and stood on wooden stilts. Most of the families were building new permanent brick and mortar houses nearby. Outside one house, a diesel-powered rice and corn mill stood in a shed. It had not been used even once since it was installed by the government three years ago! Macaques, bears, and wild pigs raided the crops, according to the villagers. Besides corn, the villagers grew fruits such as guava, mandarin, and jackfruit. They supplemented their food by fishing in the river and snaring wildlife near their fields.

At Tshechula’s house, we were offered roasted corn and bangchang (a type of alcohol brewed from fermented corn). In another house, a woman was weaving a colorful bamboo basket while two kittens played nearby. A wooden phallus, an old hornbill beak with its casque, a dried beehive, and a few tattered astrology scriptures decorated the doorway, protecting the family.

There was an open ledge at the edge of the village that would make a perfect area to set up a seasonal thatch-house tourist shelter for people who would come on river expeditions in the future. That could be one way for the community to make a small supplemental income if river tourism in this area picked up.

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We were all excited to get on the water. Khenda and the team had already inflated the rafts and inspected all safety gear. Kira got her kayaking stuff ready. My colleague Dorji Gyaltshen from the Bhutan Foundation and I got our sleeping bags and necessities into dry bags for the river trip. After a quick breakfast, we pushed the rafts on the water and we were afloat, with Namgay and Thinley, each manning the oars in the two rafts. Sonam Dorji, who trained at Amankora for three months, was in charge of the kitchen. Khenda said goodbye and drove the truck back to Panbang. For the first half hour or so, we paddled on calm water with gentle currents. The road above us slowly disappeared from view. For the rest of the day, we were in total wilderness.


The new recruits were excited to be on their first river expedition. After a while, Sangay and Thobjur complained that paddling was not exciting anymore. ‘We want to be in kayaks!’ they retorted, having never been in one before. They were already excited to train as safety kayakers for RGP. Every once in a while, we pulled the rafts ashore while some of us scrambled on the rocks and scouted ahead to assess the rapids. This was the first river expedition on the Drangme Chhu this year. During the monsoon season, the river is high and rapid. Incessant debris and driftwood that are carried downstream make it dangerous to raft in summer. As the volume of water subsides in the fall and winter, the rapids in certain narrow sections increase their velocity and sections are known to change their categories from class-III to class-IV or above.

After navigating a few big rapids, we pulled ashore to a sandy bank for lunch. Sonam Dorji had cooked rice, hard-boiled eggs, and a banana flower dish for our picnic lunch. The sun was overhead and it was getting quite hot, so a few of us dipped in the river. We climbed back into our rafts and kayak, and set off towards our camp. A few cormorants flew by. I was scoping out the riverbanks through my binoculars for hornbills, langurs, or a serow. Instead, the brilliant iridescent plumes of the Common Kingfisher glinted off the far shore. Two river otters swum past us in the eddy towards the rocks. By the time we got to Zarkabla camp, the afternoon sun was beating down on us. It did not feel like late October! The temperature must be at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once again, we pulled the rafts ashore and tied them on to big rocks, and walked across a rocky river bank to a raised sandy landing. We quickly set up camp. We cut down leafy branches to temporarily set up a sun shade to shied off the sun. The first day was rather easy with not many serious rapids to navigate. As the sun set the temperature became very pleasant. Soon the stars were out again, and we could hear the water splashing against the rocky banks.

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We joined the monks in the main hall for early morning prayers which began at 6:00 AM. After an hour of contemplation and prayer, we visited the alter room upstairs. Following breakfast, we toured the monastery compound before heading on our way. We were all excited that today we would reach our put-in point on the Drangme Chhu. But we had a long drive before that.


About two and a half hours later, we reached the diversion on the main road towards Pema Gatshel district. The few rows of small shops that described Pema Gatshel town were reminiscent of Bhutanese small towns from the 1980s. There was a sense of ‘temporariness’ as if they were all waiting to move elsewhere. It was a bit early for lunch, but we were told that there wouldn’t be much else on the way. So, we went looking for a restaurant. We settled for momo lunch at a small restaurant and gulped the dumplings down with sweet tea. Leaving town, we couldn’t miss the Khotakpa mines – a series of strip mines extracting gypsum from the hillsides. The white denuded slopes could be seen from far away. After about four hours the road joined the new Nganglam-Gyalpoishing highway. We drove one kilometer further south and then reached our destination for the night. We found a nice sandy beach to camp, across the river from Yangbari village.

Ugyen Khenda and the RGP members inspected the rafts, kayaks, life jackets, helmets, and other gear for the river expedition tomorrow. Kira Tenney, our kayak and whitewater safety expert from the U.S., was excited to be finally next to the river! In the group was also Tshering Choki, Sangay Dorji, and Rinchen Thobjur, three new recruits of the RGP. Tshering Choki will train to become Bhutan’s first female safety kayaker. These youth in their twenties, like the older members of RGP, are all from the lower Kheng region in Zhemgang district.

In the glow of the bonfire, I looked up to see a million stars strewn across the sky. The moon was not up yet and the night sky looked wonderfully full. Soon, the moonlight will wash it all over. We were all excited for the possibilities and adventure that lay ahead.

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Tucked away in the forests above Khaling, and within a short distance from Yonphula domestic airport, the Karma Thegsum Dechenling Monastery is a perfect stop for guests visiting eastern Bhutan. There is a nice camping spot near the monastery, next to a chorten (stupa) overlooking the valley below. It is not a fully established campsite yet, but we are discussing with the monastery to establish one here with water supply and toilet facilities if they are interested in hosting occasional visitors for a fee.


In addition to Buddhist studies, the monastery also trains young monks in various arts and crafts such as wood carving and traditional thangka painting. The monastery's environmental education and awareness program is very impressive. They conduct frequent waste management campaigns for the nearby villages and participate in an active reforestation program planting numerous trees. They also educate villagers on the importance of water source conservation. Presently, they are seeking support to identify and label important plants near the monastery compound. The monks also take care of deer and other animals that are injured by stray dogs. In the monastery kitchen, cooking is mostly done on large electric cookers and not on wood burning stoves. Still under construction, the monastery also plans to provide free housing for the elderly from nearby villages who do not have anyone to look after them.

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We did not stop in Mongar as we wanted to get to our destination at a decent hour. Instead, we drove on past the town to Yadhi and stopped for momos (dumplings) at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Later, we had to stop for an hour at a roadblock caused by a landslip. The road-widening works on the lateral East-West highway were still on-going. After the block, we pushed on further east. When we reached Kanglung, we stopped for a short tea break, and then drove another half an hour to our stop for the night, the Karma Thegsum Dechenling monastery in Barshong, Trashigang. We arrived at the monastery at 6:30 PM. We were joined here by members of the River Guides of Panbang, a community based rafting and ecotourism company we had helped set up.


We went straight to greet Zuri Trulku Rinpoche, the founder of the monastery, who was in retreat. He made an exception to bless us, but he was not breaking his silence, so we prostrated to him and offered our gifts. He then gave all of us a Dorje Phurba (spiritual dagger) each, and blessed us for our journey.

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I love the pictures in this! What a beautiful setting.

Thank you - do come visit!

Preparation

Started out from Bumthang at 5:30 am on a chilly October morning. The ground around was still covered in frost as we left a sleepy Chamkhar town behind. We took the old Ura highway which would save us 13 km. A little after crossing Ura village, we could glimpse the tip of Gangkar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world. On the way, we saw several blood pheasants by the side of the road. At the small pass, we paused for a quick breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and cereals. It was too cold outside to enjoy it, so we quickly clambered back into our pickup truck and headed further east. At Sengor, the sun was fully up and it started to get a little warmer. We stopped for a second, but real breakfast - fried rice, butter tea, fried eggs, and ezay (a spicy chili paste).

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Thanks for sharing! I've really enjoyed reading about your journey. Beautiful photos...love the pheasants :)

Our friend, Kuenga Yarphel, who flies for Drukair, informed us that the ATR turboprop plane was grounded for minor repairs and that the only plane that flies domestically will now fly after two days. As time was precious, we decided to travel by road - so, instead of the 35 minute flight to Yonphula in eastern Bhutan, we will drive for two long days to get to our first destination.


We started from Paro at 5:30 am to cross Dochula pass early enough to stop for breakfast in Lobesa. We stopped for tea at Nikka Chhu and pushed on further east to Trongsa for lunch, crossing another 10,000+ft pass at Pelela. A quick lunch at Yangkhil Resort, and then we were on our way to Bumthang. When we descended into Chamkhar valley, it was already 3:30 pm in the afternoon. We could feel the chilly winter air.

Today, we traversed half of the country, passing through temperate forests, sub-tropical pine forests, sub-alpine conifers and rhododendron forests, and now back into blue pine forests. Bumthang, at 9000 ft above sea level, is cold in winter, with night time temperatures well below freezing.

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Expedition Background

Bhutan's rivers have much to offer beyond hydroelectricity. While the export of hydropower is the country's biggest source of revenue, we feel the recreational aspect of Bhutan's wild rivers can be another renewable source of revenue for communities living along the rivers. River-based ecotourism ventures can bring benefit for the communities, who would therefore protect the rivers.


The Drangme Chhu in Eastern Bhutan is one of Bhutan's largest rivers. We wanted to explore a perfect river expedition that would include local communities in the benefit sharing that could result from planned ecotourism in Eastern Bhutan. This part of the country, especially the lower stretches of the river, is home to endangered fish such as the golden mahseer. On land, golden langur, Asiatic water buffalo, tiger, and three species of hornbills abound in this area. The river ends up in Royal Manas National Park before exiting through India on its way to the Brahmaputra river and eventually the Bay of Bengal.

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