Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Magical Lingzhi Dzong

For the past three decades since I first saw a photograph of Bhutan’s remotest Dzong, its mystic and allure remained unabated in my heart. To me, Lingzhi Dzong was something out of a fable - mysterious, unattainable, hidden somewhere in the cradle of the insurmountable mighty Himalayas.
But early this month, I had the opportunity to sift through myth and fantasy and experience the real deal. I finally made it to Lingzhi! In two days, I photographed the Dzong and the surrounding areas like a man possessed. I climbed all the surrounding ridges so that I can photograph the Dzong from all sides and angles. Like I said to my camera assistant while returning from an early jaunt, if the Dzong were wearing a panty, I have photographed it with its panty down.
Built on a hillock that rises steeply out of the centre of the narrow valley, the Dzong is flanked on two sides by the villages of Zombuthang and Misayue. To the North-West of the Dzong rises the twin peaks of Jichu Drake and Tserim Gung. Viewed from Lingzhi, it is as if Jichu Drake had morphed into something else - it looses its conical shape and assumes a form that looks more like Mount Fujiyama of Japan.
The Dzong’s design is unique in that it does not look anything like other Dzongs around the country. It is obvious that the Dzong is constantly battered by strong winds - the Dzong’s torn and tattered roof bear testimony to it. A substantial number of the roof’s wooden shingles at the fringes seems to have gone missing, making the Dzong’s roof look ragged and unkept. But the Dzong still looks majestic and imposing against the backdrop of the alpine barrenness that surrounds it. Framed against the distant snow-capped mountains and the cascading Himalayan ranges that envelope it, the image is breath-taking and makes for a captivating photographic subject of mythical proportions.
Lingzhi is beyond Shangri-La - it is pure heaven. Those who seek to experience pure wilderness in its wildest form should visit Lingzhi. No other place in Bhutan can match it. The experience starts from the time you enter Jangothang (Jumolhari Base camp) and traverse the terrifying Ngele-La Pass. The beautiful Jichu Drake looms large on your left and keeps you company all the way to Lingzhi. The vast, treeless alpine meadows are crisscrossed with rivers of ice that sparkle and shine in the morning sun. As you climb higher, curiously gazing groups of Blue Sheep that number close to a hundred graze on the mountain sides.
No where else was I so completely boxed in by plunging precipices and enormous mountains that looked like they were going to crush me to death any minute - and yet, gave me a feeling of space, freedom and a sense of goodliness and contentment - as did the isolated but magical valley of Lingzhi.
For those of you who may never make it to Lingzhi in this life time, I post the following two photos so that you too may feel the magic. Over time, if I have the time, I will try and post some more - but I leave for Laya on the 17th so it is unlikely.

If ever someone should ask me if there is something that I want to do before I die, my answer would be: I want to go back to Lingzhi once again.


  1. Your photograph puts the Dzong into perspective.. and one views it with new respect and awe.. and thus kindles in the viewer a curiosity.. a need to know more about the Dzong. Its history. Is it still inhabited? Who lives there? When was it built? Who built it?

    And one then starts to think of the hands that fashioned the structure out of stone and wood using age old traditional building practices.. The photograph shows how barren the land is.. and thus where did the building materials come from? How were they transported?

    Your photographs have given birth to so many questions. Now I look for anwers..

    Thank you sir!

  2. Sir Yeshey,
    I have been following your blog since i discovered it, and every time i read your blog, i just can't believe how people sees world.
    I have been to Lingshi twice but never in my wildest dreams thought that Lingshi Dzong would look awesome with the snow capped mountains...and even without it.
    One of my friends is planning to get one SLR camera under US $ 1000.00, he thought of this (Nikon D3100 Digital SLR and Extra Nikon 55-300mm VR-Lens) and wanted my suggestions. I thought of you and is taking this opportunity. The main objective would be to capture wild animals....which camera or lens would you suggest best for wildlife photography...
    Please advise,
    Thanking in anticipation.

  3. Hi akp,
    Thanks for the visit and the comment. You are right - I cannot imagine what it must have taken to build that Dzong in the middle of wilderness - without any construction material anywhere close by. The hardship couldn't have been anything less than stupendous! How the hell did they transport water, stone and wood needed for the construction? By comparison, I think the construction of Taktsang Monastery can be said to be a child's play.

    I am totally clueless about the historical background of the construction of the Dzong. Hopefully some readers will have something to tell us. All I know is that the Dzong was built to deter the encroachment by the Tibetans.

    Currently, monks occupy the Dzong. I have also seen that the national flag is hoisted within the Dzong's compound. This means that the Dungpa should have his office there too - but I am not sure.

  4. Hi Sangay,
    Indeed, each of us see things differently - and appreciate things for different reasons.

    I am sorry I cannot give you or your friend any advise on the Nikon Camera you have mentioned. I am strictly a Canon man - so I have no expertise in Nikon gear. Should you wish me to give you some advise on Canon gear, I will be happy to do so.

    Regarding the lens 55-300mm is concerned, regardless of whether it is a Nikon or a Canon, I must say that that lens is going to be difficult to manage - unless your friend has cast-iron hands. Such a long lens will cause hell of lot of shake. So, he will have to use a sturdy tripod. I do not know the quality of the lenss but the "VR" in Nikon means that it has built-in anti-shake feature. That should be good - but still I think a trip is a must particularly during times when the light conditions are poor.

  5. Thank you for taking time to reply me.
    Goodluck on your trip to Laya. Don't forget to take the picture of a tree with 9 forking before reaching Laya from Gasa. It is a tree believed to have some mystical power by the native people...

  6. akp and Yeshey,
    In my assumption, the dzong must have made the area barren. It's a wild theory but looking at all the
    Places around any dzong, be it Paro, Thimphu, Wangdue or Punakha (these are the few places I have seen deeply) there is hardly any vegetation left on any hill close the the dzongs, which means everything that was there went in building the dzongs. (Don't take me seriously though)

    Yeshey, your photographs glorify the places so much that I wish to visit all the places I ever saw in your pictures. My mother tells me she spent a part of her childhood there in Lingshi, my grandfather used to be an army officer there. I will visit it some day.

    Sangay, Don't talk about non-Canon cameras to Yeshey. I was once supposed to be visited by him but because my camera wasn't Canon he changed his mind...lol...seriously!

  7. Hi Sonam,
    I know you are kidding when you say that the barrenness of the area was caused as a result of the construction of the Dzong. It has got be the altitude. A reading on my GPS showed that the Dzong is located at 4,020 Meters - that is approximately 13,200 feet. However, it is also true that Dzong construction do consume lots of timber.

  8. I would go with Yeshey,
    The barrenness may be due to the elevation. 4000 mtrs is above tree line,meaning no tree would grow. But, before reaching the Dzong you will be hiking through lots of Betula trees...which in-fact is interesting.
    It is interesting because, if you try to view the place in Google Earth, you will find that one side of the mountain has thick vegetation cover whereas other side is barren!!!!

  9. Hi Sangay
    You are right - just before you reach the end of the descend into Lingzhi valley, a place called Chazhithang (where I camped), the hill side slope is populated with Betula. Also, I climbed the ridges opposite the village Misayue and find that immediately after you cross the small stream, there is vegetation at the lower fringes of the mountain but as you ascend further up, the land is again barren. It is strange, as you say.

  10. The barrenness has to be due to the altitude. All the more reason to admire the labor involved in the construction.

    @Yeshey - A question: how far from the nearest motorable road is the dzong? As in how many day's trek? I'm curious to see if there are any complete surveys on such remote dzongs in the country.

    Also, question about lenses: What lens equipment do you carry on your treks? Am asking more out of curiosity, coz last year on a 10 day trek I had carried just two smaller lenses.. 50mm 1.4f, and an 18-200 (which I bought expressly for the focal range).. and even then it was a pain lugging that heavy but delicate equipment. The 18-200 was useful in its range, but the quality is a let down. The 50mm is brilliant, but of course limited again due to its single focal length.

    Sorry to hear your trip to Laya was postponed by snow.

    Looking forward to more rare/remote photographs.

  11. Sorry Yeshey, that Sonam who comment on 15th Feb was actually me- I don't know how it went in another person's name.

    Anyway, looks like we need to do a thorough research on Lingsi Dzong.

    Hope you made your way to Gasa today. Your Buddha Photograph was out of the world.

  12. It's very beautiful, master. I hope I could go with you to see that one day.

  13. that's an amazing place, somewhere out of the heaven. I wish I could go with you to see that one day!

  14. Hi akp,
    Lingzhi is about four day's trek from Paro. If you can trek at a regular pace - it could take you longer if you are a slow walker. You can also do it from Punakha side - but it will take longer to reach the place.

    The photos are mostly shot with: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L; Canon 35mm f1.4L; Canon 16-35mm f2.8L and Carl Zies Distagon 21ZE.

    The Camera body is Canon 1Ds Mark III. But now I suspect that all that frigid condition to which I take it has taken its toll - the autofocus is no longer working :( More specifically, it is giving me wrong focus if I engage autofocus. So I am now fully on manual focus. That causes a problem for me (since I wear powered glasses)- so my answer is very high aperture - to compensate for any minor mistakes in focusing. This causes its own problem - that of needing to work with slower shutter speed. The other problem with working at higher aperture with digital bodies is that - all that dirt on the CMOS shows up on the image :(

  15. @Yeshey - Those are some lovely lenses you work with! Sorry to hear about the beating the camera body has taken.. If you're taking these shots with manual focus then all the more reasons to be amazed.. manual work is a lost art but it looks like, unwillingly, you have been mastering it... The narrow aperture u've been using works great since the pictures turn out tack sharp.. and i'm sure you use your tripod most of the time to compensate for the slow shutters..

    Regarding the focusing issues while wearing powered glasses.. perhaps you can look into getting an dioptric adjustment lens which fits onto your viewfinder and can make focusing easier even without glasses, or significantly easier with glasses.. I haven't tried it myself, but have heard of others using it.

  16. Hi akp
    Seems like you know a lot about photography. I am glad :)

    Dioptric adjustment lens? Sounds like a dang complicated piece of whatever :) Anyway, yes, I always use a tripod. It works most of the times but not always.

    For instance, I was trying to shoot Mt. Masagang from a ridgetop but the wind was so dang strong, it was practically lifting my camera assistant off his feet. So during such times, even tripod seems useless. But what I did was, reduce the aperture to about f/8 so that I can get higher shutter speed. I can get higher shutter speed at that height because at about 8AM in the morning (that is when I get to the summit of the adjoining ridge), the sun is behind me and it is bright and there are no shadows to worry about. Now I have to see, even with that, whether I have, what you call, tack sharp images :)

  17. Hi PaSsu,
    Frankly, if you do get to learn more about the background of Lingzhi Dzong, please let me know too. I would be interested to learn more.

    Yes, I made it to Laya, Masagang and the base of Gangchen Taag. I will post some photos and articles soon. It was beautiful! But I will be going back again since I think I can do better than what I did this trip. There were days when the sky was overcast ... I think I was a little too late ... I think mid January would be ideal, if I can overcome the problem of icing on the road.

    Actually I think the trick is to get a dare-devil of a pony driver and sweet talk him into daring the icy trails hahaha

  18. Hi Kit
    Long time!

    Ofcourse you can go - you are welcome to join me.

  19. @yeshey - the dioptric adjustment thing is actually a small attachent which goes on your viewfinder.. it adds a separate glass behind your current viewfinder.. and this glass is powered (like eye glasses) so one can see the reflected image off the inside mirrors better.. it'll probably set you back by about $30-40.. look it up, it may help you. :)

    i'm strictly an amateur who doesn't have enough time to go out and shoot a much as i would like.. That's probably why i am so vicariously enjoying your photo expeditions...

    Are all your trips mainly for photography, or is photography a pleasant side effect of your travels? you have a great equipment setup .. (and an assistant too..) so may I assume you have more than an amateur's interest.. :)..

    would love to see more of your work.. dyu have another gallery set up? or are u on flickr? I'm enjoying the uncommon views of Bhutan.. views that even Bhutanese wouldn't have the privilege of enjoying.. let alone the tourists.

  20. Hi akp
    OK … I will google for dioptric and see what manner of beast the thing is :)

    My trips are specifically for photographs. I am working on a project to photograph the high peaks and lakes of Bhutan. My greatest trek is due to come up during end September-early October. You must have heard of the trek called “Snowman Trek” – it is supposedly rated among the world toughest treks. It may take me a month to complete and I want to do it as late as possible – but I am constantly being warned that the passes will be impregnable due to snow if I delay the trip beyond September. But I think I will take my chances since winter months offer me 90% chance that I will get clear skies. I do not mind the snow - in fact I love them - but certainly the rains are a pain in the &%@#!!!! They make everything wet and they are dangerous for my camera gear.

    This blog is the only place where I post my photos – some friends have offered to set up a photo gallery for me .. but I simply do not have the time to organize the photos. I am not on facebook, tweeter or flickr.

    You are rite – I think the tourists and other regular Bhutanese would not get to see the views I do. The reason is they will hardly ever venture beyond the trail. On the other hand, I trek 10-11 hours every day – to reach to points from where I have better view of my subject of interest. Even after I arrive at a camp site, I will still climb a ridge for about 2-3 hours - to arrive at a vantage point.

    Having accompanied me on my last four treks, my horse contractor has accurately observed that photography is not for the lazy and the un-spirited. He says that in his so many years of being a pony driver (he is 54 years old and from Soe-Yaktsa across Bonte-La pass), he has never seen the mountains as clearly and closely as he has been seeing them since he joined up with me :) He thinks our mountains are beautiful Hahaha

  21. Well then, Hats off to you for your dedication and hard work.. and your passion. The project you are involved in sounds beautiful.. such a dream assignment - to photograph Bhutan's natural beauty, inaccessible to all but the most persevering... I can only imagine what a task it is physically & mentally, but with what a reward when make it to your vantage point and see the view you've been aiming for.

    Photography is an extremely difficult and demanding process.. and it always irks me that people think a camera makes the photographer. I always feel like telling them that I'll give them a Stradivarius or a Fender Stratocaster and i'm sure they'll play it like Mozart or Hendrix.

    Your recent shots of Jichu Drake and Ngele La are wonderful.. what is the story behind the rocks, btw?

    Good luck with the project. I would very much like to stay in touch and stay apprised of your works & your treks. And hope to soon see the final results. From your blog posts it is evident that you are a natural narrator, so i do hope you are maintaining copious regarding each trek.. and each shot.. including GPS coordinates and all that.. so that one day we can expect to read about your trips as one does today of the great pioneers like Mallory & Joe Simpson..