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The Lay of the Land

Geographically Bhutan forms a giant staircase. Starting in the south, from a narrow strip of land in the plains of India at an altitude of 100 m, the elevation rises to high Himalayan peaks over 7000 m in the North on the borders with Tibet.

The Great Himalayas

North of the country they lie along the boundary with Tibet. At its highest the peaks of Jhomalhari ( 7314) and Kulha Gangri ( 7554) dominate. Four high mountain passes cross this barrier, but for the most part it remains a snow-clad barrier – 20 % of the country is under perpetual snow. Trekkers can reach limited areas in this region.

Ibisbill Rofous-Necked Hornbill White-Belied Heron Black Necked Stork Satyr Trogopan Spotted Laughing Thrush Blood Pheasant Himalayan Monal Birds of Bhutan

The Inner Himalayas

These comprise a maze of broad valleys and forested hillsides ranging from 1100 m to 3000 m in elevation. Almost the entire population of the country and all major habitations lie in this zone. Mountain chains also run North-South at a height of 4000-5000 m, dividing Bhutan into Western, Central and Eastern regions. The principle of these is the Black Mountains - running North –South to form the watershed separating the two main river systems. Lesser ranges further segment each of these regions into smaller valleys, separated from the next valley by a high pass at an average altitude of 3000 m. The Indian border roads organization has overcome these barriers to communications by linking them by the East-West highway running for over 600 kms – this road with its branches interlinks all the valleys and connects then to India.


Western Bhutan is made up of the valleys of Ha,(2700 m), Paro, (2200 m), and Thimpu, (2300 m) - the capital of Bhutan, is the center of government, religion and commerce.  Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang at 1300 m form a single long valley, separated  from Thimpu by a high ridge crossed by the 3050 m high Dochu la pass. Punakha (1400 m), the ancient capital is situated at the confluence of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, and is blessed by a wonderful, temperate climate. The Dzong here, built in 1637, is winter residence of the Je Khenpo and central monk body. Wangdue lies to the south of Punakha and is the gateway to central and eastern Bhutan. The Wangdue phodrang Dzong is strategically located high on a ridge above the Sunkosh and Tangchu rivers. Western Bhutan is a land of rice paddies and orchards. The villages are formed of large houses accommodating several generations, with walls made of rammed earth, and straw. The upper stories have handcrafted colorful wooden windows of traditional pattern. Wooden shingle the traditional roofing material is being replaced by corrugated iron or slate. The mountain slopes are covered with coniferous and deciduous forests. All the valleys have reminders of the past – monasteries, temples, and fortresses. These valleys are the abode of the Ngalong; “the first to rise” meaning the first to convert to Buddhism They speak  Dzongka – the language of the Dzongs – now the national language of Bhutan.

Central Bhutan, is made up of several regions, which speak Kha with variations. The Black Mountains at an elevation of 5000 m, have traditionally marked the boundry between Western & Central Bhutan. The 3,300 m high Palela – covered with forests of magnolia and rhododendron, is the main crossing The most southerly part is called Khyeng, a region blessed with semi-tropical climate and covered with dense jungle. Tronga is in the geographic center of the country. It lies North of Khyeng astride the Central highway – its impressive Dzong strategically located to dominate a gorge cut by the Mangde River, which has been the ancient route over the Black Mountains. It is connected with the Bumthang group of valleys over the 3400 m high Yutongla pass. Bumthang is composed of  a group of four valleys at altitude of 2700 – 4000 meters. Chumey and Choekhor are mainly agricultural, whilst Tang and Ura practice Yak and sheep herding. The mountains are covered with dark coniferous forests, rice gives way to buck wheat, and the houses are build of solid stone and are more sparsely decorated than in Western Bhutan. Bumthang is proud of its rich art and history. Its religious traditions are alive. Its monasteries are its main attraction.

Eastern Bhutan lies across the Donga range running North-South and crossed by the 3780 m high Thrumshing la. From this high pass the terrain drops precipitously to the Low valleys of  the Kuri Chhu The main habitations are Mongar and Trashigang at an elevation of 650 m – 1400 m. The landscape changes dramatically. Instead of rhododendron and pine forests, broadleaf subtropical forests overgrown with epiphytic orchids and waterfalls are encountered. It is the most densely populated part of Bhutan with many remote and isolated valleys populated by ethnic minorities. The local language is Sharchop. There are many low passes connecting the valleys.

The Southern Foothills

This mountain chain runs West to East and separates the Doar plains from the Inner Himalayas rising to an average elevation of over 2000 m  The Daurs Plain drops sharply away from the Himalayas into the large tracts of semi-tropical forest, savannah grassland and bamboo jungle.Phuntsholing in the western part of the country and Sumdrup Jongkhar in the East are the two land exit and entry points to India in the Doars.

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Bird photographs by Yashodhan Bhatia,

Ronald Saldino,  Niels Poul Dryer, Ketil Knudsen
Kalypso Adventures & Gurudongma Team

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