Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong: Bhutan’s Remotest Dzong

My following article appeared in the annual "BHUTAN" magazine of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, 2012.

Some eighteen odd years ago, while visiting His Excellency Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering, Bhutan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, I saw this stunning photograph mounted on the wall of the corridor of his home. The photograph depicted what looked like a Dzong perched on a low-lying hillock walled in by enormous mountains. I was captivated by the image. As I stood in front of it and examined it more closely, I was overwhelmed by a sense of wonder at the starkness of the location and its liberating expanse of desolation and remoteness. Much later, I was told that the image was that of Lingzhi Dzong and that it was photographed by Mr. Valdino R. Franceschinis, in the summer of 1987.

What compulsions drove people of the time to build these colossal structures in the middle of such far-flung wilderness? How did they transport construction material such as stone and wood to put together such mammoth structures on hilltops and cliff faces? How did they transport few million liters of water from the stream located few thousand meters lower down in the valley? Where did they get such super human physical strength and the mental tenacity to undertake such grueling hardship at extreme altitudes and in freezing temperatures?

As I stood mesmerized by these questions, I made a silent resolution to myself, a resolution I fulfilled more than two decades later. That day, I promised that I would one day trek to Lingzhi and photograph the Dzong myself.

The Dzong’s exotic location somewhere in the unfathomable northern extremes bordering Tibet gives it an aura of mystery and intrigue. Its construction at such a remote and hostile location pays tribute to the indomitable spirit and the tenacity of the Bhutanese people. Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong is testimony to the hardships and toil our forefathers had to go through, in order to preserve the nation from external threats. Being able to photograph the Dzong would not only satisfy my own artistic hunger but it would help document and archive an important piece of history for the present as well as future generations of the Bhutanese people.

Chögyal Minjur Tenpa constructed Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong in 1668 - to celebrate Bhutan’s victory over the Tibetans in the war of 1667. He was Bhutan’s third Druk Desi from 1667 to 1680. Lingzhi, at an altitude of 4,003 Meters, lies to the north of Paro. The Dzong is built atop a barren hillock that rises steeply from the center of a narrow valley at the base of which are the villages of Lingzhi, Zombuthang and Misayue. It is Bhutan’s remotest Dzong and remains cut off during the winter months.

Trek to Lingzhi takes four days from Paro. Due to its remoteness and the difficult terrain, a trip to Lingzhi is often a once-in-a-life time affair. Thus, considerable thought goes into its planning. Generally, the trek is undertaken during the summer months when the weather is warmer and there is plentiful grass for the pack ponies. However, summer also means torrential rain, blankets of cloud and swirling mists that obscure everything – not the most ideal conditions for photography.

I am a photographer. My mission is to photograph. For that, I need, clear blue skies; I need the mountaintops to be covered in virginal white snow. I need the atmosphere to be clear and crisp; I need the lakes to be frozen and turned into bluish-tinted pancakes with crazy crinkles on their surface. I need unhindered view far into the vast horizons lined with layers and layers of mountaintops merging into a string of snow-capped Himalayan range. I need the night skies to be clear so that I can see the heaven sparkle and shimmer with the radiance of a billion stars jostling for space. In the morning, as I walk out of the tent, I need to see the brown blades of grass wilting under the weight of frost and ice formed on them. I want to be able to capture the Alpine wilderness in all its natural starkness.

For all that, I need to make the trip in the thick of winter.

I embarked on my maiden photographic journey to Lingzhi during the third week of December 2010. After being on the road for three days, we reached Jangothang (Jumolhari basecamp) on December 21, 2010. After a day’s rest, we were to begin our climb towards Ngele-La and from there on, descend into Lingzhi. Alas, bad news awaited us. We were informed that the trail to Ngele-La pass was closed because of ice. Crestfallen, I made my return journey to Thimphu. It was a wasted effort but there was nothing else any one could do. The unforgiving weather conditions at such high altitudes means that one has to be prepared for the unexpected.

But I am not one to give up that easily. I was determined to make it to Lingzhi – one-way or the other. Upon return to Thimphu, I searched the Internet for ways and means to overcome the challenge. I found the answer in: Ice Cleats. Ice Cleats are a sandal type of slip-ons that one slides over one’s trekking boots. It has steel studs on its sole that grip the ice as one walks over it. It prevents the wearer from slipping when walking over icy surface. I ordered 6 pairs from USA and made my second attempt on January 30, 2011. I also bought two short-handled axes - for breaking ice on the trail surface so that the ponies can tread over them without slipping.

On the morning of February 2, 2011, we were all set to tackle the formidable Ngele-La pass that separated us from our final destination - Lingzhi. Perhaps the most dreaded of all the high passes in Bhutan, Ngele-La pass stands at an altitude of 4,702 Meters or 15,427 ft. Every traveller who has to scale this pass goes through moments of panic and fearful foreboding before he undertakes the climb to the summit. The reason is that the pass is most often battered by very powerful winds. It is said that the gusts of wind are so powerful that even fully laden mules would be lifted off their feet and swept away to be deposited at the bottom of the valley. It is quite believable since one can see that even in the thick of winter, there is not a speck of snow or ice formed on the pass, let alone any vegetation. The strong winds blow away everything. It is entirely naked and not a single blade of grass can be seen anywhere. The pass is covered in a thick deposit of fractured rocks and stone pebbles.

It took us 3 hours of laborious climb to reach the top. In between, we had to break ice at about 5 locations and on a number of occasions we had to unload the pack ponies and lead them by their mane over the icy patches of the road. We were lucky that there was no wind on that day. Once we were at the top, the view was breath taking. As I stood at the summit of the pass, surrounded on all sides by infinite nothingness, I felt so small and meaningless.

The plunging mountainsides converged into frozen streams and rivulets of ice at the bottom of the valley. As we descended into the yawning chasm below, we saw a few hundred Blue Sheep grazing all over the barren mountainside. I began to feel a sense of exhilaration in the knowledge that we were now onto our final push towards Lingzhi, my dream destination. As we traversed ridges upon ridges of barren hillocks, I began to feel the crisp winter air rustling around my ears and nose. A sense of excitement began to build inside me as we approached the last and final ridge beyond which stood my fabled Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong. 

The rhythmic thud of my springy footfalls came to a still as I stepped on to the pinnacle of the last ridge that overlooked the secluded valley of Lingzhi. There, at last, in front of me stood the object of my enduring allure - Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong. As I sat cross-legged on the ridge, I heaved a sigh of contentment. Seeping a hot cup of tea poured me by my assistant, I savored the stunning view of the Dzong surrounded by a vast, fathomless expanse of wilderness. For the next three days, I would embark on a marathon photography session and shoot the Dzong from angles that it had never been photographed before. I closed my eyes and imprinted every minute detail of the scene in my mind’s eye. The clarity of a scene is unmatched when seen with one’s eyes closed.

As I reluctantly stood up to descend into the valley where our camp had already been set up, I felt a singular sense of achievement - and a dire need to cry.


  1. Beautiful & moving.
    Thank you. Again. :)



  2. Loved it ! So poignant and informative as well. You should share more of your extraordinary travels with us. Your are not only a remarkable photographer, but a writer as well. You make us wish all the more to be where you have been. All the best.

  3. I agree with the comment above. You are a wonderful writer. You should definitely put a book together on your travels. It wouldn't be so hard to do, because you can take everything you have used here in your blog.

    I look at your blog regularly and find your writing on Bhutan so fascinating.

    For this piece, I really also wanted to see, feel, know what was going on in the Dzong, what it felt like, looked like inside the Dzong.

    I am from Bhutan and live in the States, so it's just wonderful to see Bhutan through your eyes -- the eyes of someone who is nuanced in his view, thorough and passionate about the country.

    Good Luck!

  4. Hi All

    Thanks for the comments ... I actually have an offer to do just that. But I dread the idea of sitting down and writing :( I mean I can write few paragraphs ... but the idea of writing chapters upon chapters ... make me feel jittery !


  5. Hi Yeshey. I enjoyed your article. I met Mr Franceschinis in Durban, South Africa in the nineties. He gave me an autographed booklet with some of his photos in. They are exquisite. I found the booklet today and googled his name thus coming across your article. The booklet is called "Guida alla mostra fotografica viaggio attraverso L'Himalaya." I couldn't find much other info out on him. Regards

    1. I also met him in Durban at that time. I also received a signed copy of his booklet. Found it in a box today and thought I'd google him. Found this. All the best.