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Merak - Sakteng Trek

 

Brokpas, the semi-nomadic yak herders of Merak -Sakteng

 

 

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Visit remote valleys of far eastern Bhutan

In the far eastern Bhutan, further east from Trashigang, right up to the Assam border, in a region known as Merak-Sakteng, lives a tribe of nomadic yak-herders called the Brokpas. The area became officially open to tourism last year (2009) and since only a handful of foreign visitors were allowed to tour this remote highland region. Undeniably, being remote and isolated, Merak and Sakteng offer pristine nature and unique culture. The freshly created community-based tourism program is aimed to benefit the local inhabitants, namely to supplement their livelihoods, while assuring sustainable development and minimum environmental and cultural impact. Visiting the Merak-Sakteng villages at the early stage of tourism development promises an unforgettable experience.

Merak and Sakteng valleys fall within the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, one of nine protected areas in Bhutan. The area is also part of the Bhutan Biological Conservation Complex. The Sanctuary protects the easternmost temperate forest ecosystems in Bhutan and includes endemic vegetation species such as eastern blue pine as well as scores of endemic bird species found only in Eastern Bhutan.

The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was set up to protect the elusive Migoi, or yeti, which is historically rooted in the belief system of the Brokpas and part of their worship ritual practices.

Other wildlife in Merak-Sakteng forests includes snow leopard, red panda, Himalayan black bear, barking deer, Himalayan red fox and the hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel.

The Merak and Sakteng highlands possess also a rich variety of bird species. If you are an avid bird watcher and are considering to visit Bhutan on a bird-watching tour, this is a must-see destination in Bhutan!

The Sanctuary is typical of the diversity of Himalayan terrestrial ecosystems, combing alpine meadow, temperate forest and warm broad leaf forest. According to the surveys conducted by the World Wildlife Fund some 203 species of plants, 119 species of birds and 18 species of mammals have been confirmed in Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Brokpas remain semi-nomadic, migrating through the seasons with their yaks. During the warm summer they frequent highlands, in the cold winter months they move to the warmer lowland pastures. While during the winter months most family members travel to lower elevations with the yaks number of family members remain in their highland villages. The Brokpas still engage in the barter system, trading cheese, butter and dried meat for grains and other goods that are not readily available to them. Their staple crop grown in the vicinity of their villages is buckwheat.

The first glimpse of the Brokpas confirms that their origin lies in Tibet whence they had migrated from some 500 years ago. Men wear animal skins over their clothes which as that worn by women is made of home-spun cloth woven on simple back strap looms. All Brokpas wear a distinctive yak felt hat with characteristic five tassels spun to channel water runoff from the top of the hat needed especially during the rainy summer season.

Merak and Sakteng are the two main Brokpa villages. The villages are compact settlement and the houses are built of stones with small windows. The architecture of the Brokpa strongly resembles that of other high mountain dwellers of the Himalayas, whether the Layap of the Laya Gasa region of north-western Bhutan or the Lhomi Tibetan of the Upper Arun River and other regions of Nepal Himalayas.

 

 

 

BHUTAN TAILOR-MADE TOURS

Sakteng-Merak Trek

5-days trekking, 20-days total,

exit Bhutan to Assam, India


The following is the proposed itinerary if time is of essence allowing for 5-nights in the Merak-Sakteng area only. The sample itinerary starts from Chaling heading to Merak first because of the steep climb to Nagchungla pass if the trek should be undertaken in reverse, coming from Sakteng.

Day 1: Trashigang – Chaling (7050 ft) – 7 hrs – Damnongchu (10131 ft)
Drive from Trashigang via Rangjung to Chaling and trek to Damnongchu. Damnongchu camping area is located past Mindrula at an elevation of 10,880 ft above sea level.

Day 2: Damnongchu – 5 hrs – Merak (11480 ft)
The trail from Damnongchu to Merak follows along the river bank with gradual ups and downs. The final stretch goes gently uphill to Merak village. The campsite, located before the village, has fine views of the surrounding mountains and the village itself.

Day 3: Merak – 7.5 hrs – Miksa Teng (9400 ft)
Trek from Merak to Miksa Teng is a little more challenging as it ascends over the scenic Nagchungla pass. Cross Nagchung La and descend to Miksa Teng campsite located in a clearing surrounded by rhododendron trees, particularly beautiful when the flowers are in full bloom.

Day 4: Miksa Teng – 3.5 hrs – Sakteng (9850 ft)
Trek from Miksa Teng to Sakteng, an easy and enjoyable route through beautiful woods, then follow along the river until a short climb to reach the village of Sakteng. If lucky, you may be able to spot a red panda among the trees. The Sakteng campsite is on the outskirts of the village.

Day 5: Sakteng – 6.5 hrs – Jyonkhar Teng (6100 ft)
Trek mostly downhill to Sakteng to Jyonkhar, and camp near the river and the village.

Day 6: Jyonkhar – 5 hrs – Phongmay / Radhi (6500 ft) /Trashigang
Trek to Phongmay or Radhi further down the trail, where the trail ends and motorable road begins. Both villages are very scenic and particularly enjoyable to visit. Radhi, referred to as the "Rice Bowl of the East" is also well-known for its weaving, woolen textiles called Bura.

 

Extended Tourism Months

While Merak-Sakteng can be ideally visited during the spring and fall, lesser attractive months of the year should not be overlooked as Merak-Sakteng like Bhutan as a whole is a viable year-round destination and even summer and winter seasons offer unique opportunities to experience this remote and exclusive area.

 

1. June Pink Poppy Season: Blue poppy wildflower

The Nagchung La area up to the top of the pass is very scenic in June, when Pink Poppy blooms. While it main rain frequently, the rain is not constant but the nature is lush and colors vibrant. Tourists may tour the area but are not allowed to cross the pass at this time of the year due to possible landslides on the other side of  the Nagchungla pass.

 

2. Winter Season:
A) Visit to Merak and Sakteng villages only:

While in general the main reason for not wanting to tour Merak and Sakteng in winter months is the cold and that Nagchungla pass is closed due to heavy snow, and also possibly because many Brokpas leave their villages at that time of the year. On another hand, fact is enough Brokpas remain to cater to tourists and being allowed to  visit just up to Merak or Sakteng, the key Brokpa villages, this is a unique opportunity to enjoy the solitude of winter amidst the pristine nature and a few natives with handful if any other tourists around.

 

B) Merak – Danglingtsho (Khaling) Trek:

This trek, though not as yet open to tourists promises to become another option for tourists to trek in the remote parts of eastern Bhutan. Further south and of much milder climate on account of lower elevations, Merak - Khaling route will be feasible for trekking from October to May.

 

Other tour options in Merak-Sakteng area:
 
If you wish to spend more time in the area it is well worth it to spend a day in Merak as you can not only rest but have an opportunity to explore the village as well as the neighboring village of Ganggu and interact with the Brokpas.
 
It is also recommended to spend a full day in Sakteng village. As Merak, Sakteng is permeated by the myths and belief in the existence of Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, and the worship of Aum Jomo, the protecting deity of the Brokpas. The Sakteng valley is also larger than that of Merak and has more villages
in its vicinity to explore than Merak.
 
Last recommended add-on constitutes a roundtrip climb of Jomo Kungkhar a mountain near Merak village. This short side trek offers to explore the myth of the refuge of Aum Jomo, an important Brokpa deity. This trip is especially fascinating to do in the spring when a 5-day festival is celebrated by the Brokpas to propitiate the spirit of Aum Jomo. The trip to Jomo Kungkhar is done as two days, one night add-on to the Merak-Sangteng trek itinerary.

 

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Bird-watching in Merak Sakteng

 

 

 

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Difficulty Level

Overall rating on a scale of four (easy, moderate, strenuous, very strenuous) moderate

 

 


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