Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Tengboche Monastery | A Chance Encounter with the Rinpoche

Tengboche monastery with the Lhotse wall and Ama Dablam behind- Everest is in the clouds
How I Got An Audience with  the Rinpoche of Tengboche Monastery, Nepal 
Guest Post and Photographs by Jacquelyn Sy

I seem to have a knack for getting up close and personal to gloriously, majestic nature places and sometimes, to great, holy people. I thank the high heavens and personal alignment for this supreme auspiciousness. Every time it happens, my invisible body soars to make a giant sweeping kowtow with my arms spread wide open in receiving exuberance; my forehead kissing the ground beneath in deep appreciation. My heart is humbled with overflowing compassion. As if in that blissful moment, every thing that my gaze touches is filled with love. These are truly the times I feel the most alive and exhilarated. And the kindness of those I meet on the path, the pure souls with heartfelt smiles and open hearts who are the bridges for my next journeys and beyond are truly my dearest angels. Most of them I may not see again for they are from remote places, but they are remembered with so much fondness. It is my hope that with each remembrance and reminiscing of them, a beautiful, white cloud puff of goodness goes their way.

One such encounter happened in the midst of my Himalayan hike late last year:

We have reached the town of Tengboche. Except for long stretches of rocky terrain, gigantic snowcapped mountains, and huge canvases of blue skies, there is nothing here except for flimsy, wooden lodgings for hikers and the beautiful, majestic Thyangboche Monastery – the last Tibetan Buddhist monastery deep in the heart of the Khumbu, surrounded on all four corners by a sweeping panorama of the Himalayan mountains.

Looking from the monastery at the lodges of Tengboche and Kangtega and Thamserku behind
After dropping off my pack at the room I share with another hiker, I looked out at the beautiful mountain window view, and realized that it was going to be freezing cold that night. The hundreds of hikers in this thin building are all sharing bathrooms. There are no showers and no heating. We have one lightbulb in the room. All electricity will be out by 10pm. This is actually a better condition compared to the next days. As we hike nearer to the Everest, we will not even have electricity, and the toilet will merely be a hole in the ground with no flush.

At this point, you may ask what I was doing there. There really is no solid answer except that I went because I could. I wanted to experience the beauty of the Himalayas. I wanted to get out there and have a taste of the fabled Everest that everyone gushes about, and satisfy a curiosity. To experience living on this planet, that is all. This tour that was led by esteemed Himalayan photographer and author Sujoy Das was full already, but he still managed to squeeze me in. All the signs were green so I went.

The chorten at the monastery
Even though I was really tired and cold, I managed to lift my leaden legs and trudge on to Tengboche Monastery for their special ceremony at 3pm. What kind of ceremony it would be was unclear to me, but it sounded good. I saw my fellow hikers all waiting to enter the main prayer hall. Two of them were gushing about having met briefly with the Rinpoche, their eyes wide with excitement. I listened to their story. I didn’t know before this what a rinpoche was. Apparently, a rinpoche (translated as “precious one”) is the next rank after the Dalai Lama, and rinpoches are also reincarnated lamas.

My two fellow hikers said that there was an English interpreter. But when they asked a question about a world economic problem, the old holy man just gave a smile. Why they asked such a question is beyond me but it seemed the Rinpoche does not endeavor to be a philosopher or an economist.

This might be it, I thought. When he sees me, he would recognize a fellow spiritual kindred soul and open his arms wide to welcome me. I smiled at my wild imagination.

I further picked up from their conversation that the Rinpoche would be open to receive visitors at 5pm. “5pm?!” I thought. It would be almost dark by then and the wind would be howling cold. Besides, I would need to use my flashlight to find my way back to the lodge. I have to find a way to get to the Rimpoche before that time. I trusted that my visualization would lead me there somehow.

We entered the main prayer hall and sat on soft, square red cushions. The radiant beams of sunlight streamed in from tall windows bathing us with its soft rays. Juniper incense smells wafted in the air filling our senses, and the guttural, trancelike chanting from the monks filled the surrounds. The room swirled with soft drumming, singing bowls and tinkling bells accompanying the most soothing prayer chants. I sat in glorious meditation with my eyes closed, smilingly beatifically as I let the sounds and the setting take me into that peaceful, blissful journey of just being. Just before opening my eyes, a beautiful pink lotus flower appeared unfurling its resplendent petals in the abyss of my mind. I breathed the sweet nectar of peace and bliss in that timeless moment.

After the ceremony was over, people started leaving. I loitered around the monastery grounds thinking of how to gravitate towards the right door that would lead to the Rinpoche’s quarters so they could welcome their unwelcome visitor. Maybe a nice girl’s charming smile would make every thing alright.

There were too many doors and hardly a soul in the back compound. I meandered aimlessly up and down, back and forth. After a while, I couldn’t believe I had to give up my quest and trudged out to the main gate. But inside, I was still hoping. I saw a group of monks standing around in hearty laughter near the gate. Something tells me to go say hello.

Jacquelyn with the monks
“Hi.” I said to this gang of monks who told me they were either 17 or 27 years old, or something to that effect. They asked me where I came from. Most couldn’t speak English, so one or two would translate. They asked how old I was. I gave them my usual, cheeky answer: “100.” They grinned and looked at my mud-splattered hiking boots, “We don’t believe you are a hundred, but we believe your shoes are.” I laughed with them at their brilliance. They asked me, “Who are you?” I don’t know what came over me but in the spirit of lighthearted jest and overzealousness, I said, “I am a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.”

They broke into merry laughter. These monks really do have a sense of humor. I am fast becoming their telly of entertainment for the evening.

The monk who spoke the best English had a birthmark near his right eye. He peered at me seriously, and asked, “Do you want to see the Rinpoche?” Oh, wow! I nodded my head vigorously and gave them my mega-watt smile. He said the Rinpoche’s bodyguard would accompany me. A young monk in jogging pants and a red robe came over.

The monk with the birthmark further asked me, “Would you like a white scarf? It’s to receive blessings from the Rinpoche.” I didn’t know what the white scarf was for but asked hesitantly, "How much is it?” He looked at me somewhat sternly, “It is free. We do not ask people to pay. How many do you want?” Not wanting to impose, I said, “One, please.” He said, “Don’t you want more for your family?” I had wanted to say, “Yes, give me the maximum.” But I stopped myself from taking great advantage and took one.

The young monk bodyguard led me down the cloistered alley to the Rinpoche’s quarters. I was greeted by a boisterous, white poodle. I came in and saw the Rinpoche deep in prayer. A sutra scroll laid out before him. Prayer beads on one hand and the other hand raised following his lips in recitation. He merely acknowledged me, the unwanted visitor. I felt like a fly that came to disturb one who was in deep prayer, and had to be swatted. He looked at me momentarily under heavy eyelids. For a moment, I was lost in the shining, dark pupils of his small eyes that seemed to cover them entirely. The air was thick with prayer.

The young monk gave him the white scarf, he touched it lightly. He also gave him a red string, which he also touched lightly. I didn’t know what to do with it. The young monk told me to wear it around my neck. Later on, it dawned upon me that the scarf and the red string were supposed to be charged with the Rinpoche’s positive energy, and would be beneficial to one who wears them. My spirits lifted the moment I wore them. In fact, that night was my deepest, most relaxing sleep in the whole 2.5-week Himalayan hike. I was so reinvigorated the next day that I was ahead of the group and hiking so effortlessly.

With the Rinpoche of Tengboche
As I exited the Rinpoche’s room, the young monk with the kind, sweet smile was not finished with his helpfulness. He offered me chai tea. I couldn’t believe this extreme good fortune. Free chai tea in the boonies with the holy man in the next room chanting his sutras? Sure! He came back with the chai tea as he told one monk to vacate the area, and turned on a small electric heater for me. He let me savor the most soothing tea quietly by myself in their small, simple room that doubles as their sleeping area. It was heavenly. My favorite tea bringing warmth inside my body, defrosting my cold bones. A soft bed to sit on resting my tired limbs and sore muscles. The electric heater providing additional warmth and relief. Peace and bliss the ambiance of this unadorned, cozy space. It beats any afternoon high tea experience I have ever had in the swankiest hotels. My nose kissed the hot steam rising as I savored the tea slowly and fully, my alpaca gloves cupping the mug tenderly.

When he came back to check on me, I was finished with the precious tea, completely relaxed and blissful. As I waved him goodbye by the monastery gates, my heart pregnant with gratitude, and both of us with super big smiles as if we had just won the lottery, I was floating on cloud 9. A lotus flower blossomed in my heart for this sweet, simple kind gesture from a stranger to a happy girl visitor from afar. At that moment, we were strangers no more but good friends sharing very few words and a silent understanding.

Truly a beautiful encounter I shall cherish forever.

Jacquelyn Sy trekked with South Col Expeditions to Everest Base Camp in November 2012.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Tsum Valley Trek | South Col Expeditions April 22nd to May 6th 2018

The remote Tsum Valley  is a  trip  that should not be missed.  Tsum comes from the Tibetan work 'Tsombo', which means vivid and we can only agree. The people are not well off , since they have been bypassed by development for centuries, but this means their unique culture has remained intact.

However a road from China is already pegged out and will cause rapid change. Tsum is said to be a beyul, one of the hidden valleys which Padmasambhava blessed as refuges to be discovered when the planet is approaching destruction and the world becomes too corrupt for spiritual practice. They are valleys reminiscent of paradise, which can only be reached with enormous hardship often referred to as a "Garden of Eden".

Who should join this trek?
A good choice for regular hill walkers, high level of fitness required.
1) Walking times: average 5 to 8 hours walking per day
2) Altitude: up to 4500 metres - there is no pass to be crossed.
3) Terrain: for some of the time following well-travelled trails although also likely to encounter rough and rocky conditions. There are steps to be ascended and descended as in all Nepal treks.
4) Remoteness: the trek is in a remote mountain area and a long distance from the roadhead and the nearest cities.
5) High altitude insurance including emergency evacuation insurance by helicopter is compulsory for this trek.
6) Prior trekking experience is recommended for this trek.


Day 1 – Kathmandu to Arughat 495m by vehicle and then on the Soti Khola 606m
Day 2 – Soti Khola 606m to Maccha Khola 849m 6 – 7 hours
Day 3 – Macchakhola 849m to Jagat 1500 m 7 to 8 hours
Day 4 – Jagat to  Lokpa 2240m  7 to 8 hours
Day 5 – Lokpa 2240m to Chumling 2386m 4 to 5 hours
Day 6 – Chumling 2386m to Chokhang Paro 3031m 4 to 5 hours
Day 7 Chokhang Paro 3031m to Nile 3361m 3 to 4 hours
Day 8 – Nile 3361m to Mu Gompa 3700m 3 hours
Day 9 – Rest Day Mu Gompa
Day 10 – Mu Gompa 3700m to Rachen Gompa 3240m 5 to 6 hours
Day 11 - Rachen Gompa 3240m to Chumling 2386m 6 to 7 hours
Day 12 - Chumling 2386m to Philim 1570m 7 to 8 hours
Day 13 Philim 1570m to Dovan 1016m 5 to 6 hours
Day 14 Dovan 1016m to Lapubesi 823m 5 to 6 hours
Day 15 Lapu Besi 823m to Soti Khola 606m to Arughat 495m to Kathmandu.

 USD 1300 for foreign passports and INR Rs 80,000 for Indian passports. (Meals not included). Please budget an additional USD 25-30 per day  for meals, hot water in flasks, battery charging, wi fi charges, gas showers  in lodges etc. 
The cost is per person for Kathmandu to Kathmandu  as per the itinerary given.
Costs given above are at current rates and may change without notice. Changes if any will be notified 2 months before the trek.

Costs include: 

  • Transport from Kathmandu to Arughat and Dharapani/Besisahar to Kathmandu in our own vehicle. 
  • All permits including Manaslu and Tsum  Restricted Area permit, ACAP and MCAP permits and TIMS as applicable. 
  • All accommodation on the trek on twin sharing basis. There are no luxury lodges on this route and accommodation will be basic without attached bathrooms.
  • Hotel accommodation in Kathmandu one night on the way in and one night on the way out is covered in a good mid range hotel with breakfast. 
  • Cost of porters/guides for the trek. Please note that porters will carry one duffel bag or backpack not exceeding 10 kgs in weight for each trekker comprising of personal items, clothing, sleeping bag etc. 

Costs not included

  • Meals in Kathmandu 
  • Breakfast lunch and dinner on the trek is not included. Desserts, drinks, and exotic items listed in the lodge menus are not included. Alcohol, cold drinks (coca cola, sprite, beer), juices, ice cream etc on the trek. Bottled drinks; boiled, filtered or bottled water; alcohol; snacks etc
  • Client travel and medical insurance of any kind. Emergency evacuation costs if needed. 
  • Hot showers (Rs 200-300 per shower); Personal clothing and equipment; sleeping bag; down/ goretek jacket, medicines for personal use etc. 
  • Air fare from residence country to Nepal and back
  • Tips to porters and guide at the end of trek. Please budget USD 50 per head as tips to the common pool

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ama Dablam | Mountain of Dreams

Ama Dablam from Khumjung - dawn
Ama Dablam (6856 metres) is possibly one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Located in the Khumbu region of Nepal it is it the "jewel in the crown"   for all trekkers to the Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar. The mountain was first climbed in 1961 by Mike Gill (NZ), Barry Bishop (USA), Mike Ward (UK) and Wally Romanes (NZ) via the Southwest Ridge. They were part of the Silver Hut expedition led by Edmung Hillary in 1960-61. 

I have been photographing Ama Dablam for more than twenty years now. 
Some photographs of the mountain taken over the years are in this post:

Ama Dablam from Dzongla below the Cho La Pass

Ama Dablam from Pheriche after a winter snow storm

Ama Dablam from Pangboche at dusk
Morning light at Kyanjuma near Namche Bazar

Ama Dablam from the climb to Chukung Ri in the Imja Khola valley

Lammergier floats towards the peak of Ama Dablam on the trail between Pangboche and Dingboche

Reflections in a lodge window - Sonam Lodge Pangboche

For more photographs of the Himalaya do visit www.sujoydas.com

Friday, February 2, 2018

Bhutan | Nub Tshona Pata Trek March 25th to April 1 2018

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The Nub Tshona Pata Trek is one of the off beat routes in Bhutan located in the Paro-Ha region. This five day walk is an ideal introduction to trekking in Bhutan before taking on the longer walks like the  24 days Snowman trek. The itinerary can be completed within a week with a rest day in Paro on the way in.  Few groups do this camping trek so in all likelihood in March we should have the trail to ourselves. There are some places available for this trek so do get in touch if interested.

Who should join this trek?

A good choice for regular hill walkers, good level of fitness required.  It is a camping trek using tents.
1) Walking times: average  6 to 7  hours walking per day  uphill and downhill.
2) Altitude: up to 4350 metres
3) Terrain: for some of the time following well-travelled trails although also likely to some rocky conditions near the pass .

This is a full support camping trek with kitchen crew, ponies, guide and tents. Mobile phones etc will not work on the trek but will function in Paro and Ha.

Day 1 Fly into Paro
The flight into Paro on the wings of the Dragon, finally lands after making a couple of acrobatic maneuvers while negotiating the high mountains surrounding the small air strip in the Paro valley. We spend the first day acclimatizing and maybe visiting the Paro Rinpung Dzong. Altitude 7330ft/ 2235m.

 Day 2 Excursion to Taksang (Tigers Nest) monastery in the morning and then drive to our hotel at Ha in the evening. 
We spend the morning hiking up to Taksang Monastery, the most famous monastery in Bhutan. Taksang means “Tiger’s Nest” so named because Guru Rimpoche reportedly flew to the site on the back of the flying tigress in the early 8th century. The monastery perches miraculously on a cliff nearly 2,700ft above Paro’s valley floor. Break along the way for tea and snacks in small tea house and after this drive in the evening to our first hotel in Ha. Alt: 9480ft / 2890m

Day 3/ Haa 2890m to Tshokam 3622m: From Kajena (2735m) we leave the car and start walking through the Kajena village. The village has preserved the beauty of its traditional lifestyle and architecture which is unexploited by most visitors. This is just the beginning of a great trekking experience. The trail climbs upward for 2 & ½ hrs through, pine forest and beautiful flowers until we reach the DradenTashiChhoelingShedra (also know as Bjanadingkha monastery). The monastery was built by Lam CholayShacha Tenzin in 1773, the founder of Sangchoko monastery in Paro. The monastery was handed over to the DratshangLhengtshog by the community, when the villagers migrated to Kajena village. At and around the monastery different types of butterflies flutter around while you have a spectacular view of the Haa valley from the monastery. Visit the monastery. Lunch can be served here. From here it’s a gradual up hill climb till you reach a serene meadow of Tshokam (3622m). On the way wild mushrooms grow in the season and one can find edible Rozitescaperata (Dungshishamu), Kato shamu, JichuKangro, waleyshamu and many other edible mushrooms.
Walking Time:Approx 6-7 hrs Difficulty: Moderate with gradual ascend
Highest Elevation: 3622m Campsite:Tshokam (3622m)

Day4. Tshokam 3622m to Womji 3600m: The Trek starts with the gentle climb to the Talela Pass: 3780m. The trail passes through the forest of Blue pine and rhododendron forest. The gradual ascent continues to the Yak Harders camp at Tshojo, climb further to Gochula pass (4350m) After the pass the trail follows a ridge and then descends gradually to your camp at Womji. Today’s trek is approximately 7 hrs. Overnight at camp.

Day5. Womji 3600m to Tshonapata 3850m : Today’s trek starts with a steep climb through Juniper forest and rhododendron forest to the Gochhila pass (4350m) you will have spectacular views of the whole Tshejala range. Continuing on to Tshejalum, you will pass several Yak herder’s camps , you will enjoy the alpine flowers. After crossing the Tshejalapass and to overnight at Tshonapata.

Day6.  Tshonapata 3850m to Tsojo 3780m:Today we will resume the same trail till the Gochhila pass and take a new trail through the rhododendron forest and scenic views of mountains. Drop down to the camp to the lake Tsojo to the new campsite at the meadow of Tsojo.Alt: (3780m) 6 to 7 hours

Day7..Tsojo – to Haa (trek ends ) drive to Paro . 4 hours walk and 2 hours by car
your trail descends gradually through the forest of Juniper and rhododendron till Talila pass, which you will cross to reenter the Haa valley , Your trek finishes here and you will drive  back to Paro for the night. Alt:2320m.

Day 8 - Fly from Paro to your home country.

March 25th 2018 to April 1st 2018


The cost of the trek is Rs 65,000 for Indian passports including taxes.  The Government of Bhutan charges a fixed sum of US $ 250 per day from all foreign passports or $2000 for this trek. 
 The cost per person for Paro to Paro (8 days ) as per the itinerary given earlier 
Costs given above are at current rates of 2017 and may change without notice. Changes if any will be notified 3 months before the trek.
Costs include:
Pick up from the airport and drop at airport
All Bhutan entry permits and trek permits.
Bhutan visa fees ( for foreign nationals)
Government Royalty and taxes ( for foreign nationals )
Transport from Paro to roadhead and pick up at the end of the trek
Two nights accommodation and breakfast in Paro in good standard hotel on twin sharing basis.
One night accommodation at Ha with dinner and breakfast at the hotel on twin sharing basis.
All accommodation in tents on twin sharing basis  and meals on trek for three days as per itinerary; breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cost of guides/cook/helper/ponyman and ponies as needed for the trek.

Costs not included
Flight Costs from home country to Paro and back.
Airport taxes if any.
Lunch and Dinner at Paro  and Ha
Client travel and medical insurance of any kind. Emergency evacuation costs if needed.
Bottled drinks; boiled, filtered or bottled water; alcohol; snacks etc
Personal clothing and equipment; sleeping bag; /down/ goretek jacket, medicines for personal use etc.
Tips to guides/cook/helper/ponyman at the end of trek.
There are fights by Druk Air and Bhutan Air from Delhi and Kolkata to Paro. You will have to connect to these flights from your home cities.

 For more details please contact Sujoy Das sujoyrdas@gmail.com or +919831054569


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