The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan is truly unique, and one of the most fascinating countries in the world to visit. From the concept of Gross National Happiness, a defining principle of government that puts the happiness of the people above all other considerations, to the unique architecture, and hardy Bhutanese people. The tiny mountain kingdom is often described as the Switzerland of Asia, its rugged and often breathtaking natural beauty, rivaled only by its deep spirituality. It’s no wonder that the tiny mystical nation is synonymous with dragons.
Original Expedition in 2017.
Prior to the Pandemic, I had cycled across Bhutan once before. An ambitious route over 14 days, 11 high passes, and some of the world's longest climbs. At the time, the country was going through a complete renovation of the road system, resurfacing and widening the tiny mountain roads which had served the few vehicles in the country since motorized transport was introduced in the 1950's. The trip was as spiritual as it was challenging, we spent many nights under canvas, sometimes outside monasteries where monks would chant, throat sing and play mesmerizing sounds late into the night.
My overriding memory of that trip, apart from endlessly climbing or descending, was the skies, which seemed to change every time you looked at them, we were often above the clouds looking down on heavenly battle scenes playing out between clouds and sun. I had never heard the term 'extreme blue' until seeing what felt like the edge of space from the top of the passes surrounded by prayer flags and sometimes feeling the effects of the altitude bearing down.
Our weapon of choice for that early expedition was the full suspension mountain bike, and mine earned its keep especially on the 60km+ downhills where disc brakes were an essential feature. I remember saying over and again, this will be a very different place to ride once the roads have been upgraded.
Fast forward to 2022, and WeAdventure were one of the first groups to return to the country, to literal tears of joy for our local guides, who had waited patiently as we reassured them of our commitment to come as soon as travel reopened. Our full group of 14 riders had been equally patient as I had regularly updated them in the months prior to announcements and discussions in the country's parliament and our strong belief that we would be able to get in when the time came.
A Major shift in Tourism Fund contribution.
When Bhutan reopened for unquarantined tourism, the Sustainable Development Fee rose from US$65 per day to US$200 per day for most visitors. Amongst other worthy projects, the government has already confirmed that the increased development charge will be used to offset the carbon footprint of tourism, improve carbon-neutral infrastructure and upskill workers in Bhutan’s tourism sector, supporting Bhutan’s recovery from the pandemic. This contribution allows the country to keep inbound tourism numbers low, benefitting the country while reducing the impact of visitors. Our WeAdventure tour includes a contribution 1,800 USD per person to the fund.
Unlike the earlier trip, WeAdventure crafted this new Bhutan experience to better balance the active element of climbing the Himalayan peaks by bike, with cultural interactions and immersion in nature. Starting with the flight from Bangkok into Paro and one of the world's most adventurous landings, we rode to Thimpu, the nation's capital and one of the highest in the world, without even a single traffic light. From Thimpu the real adventure began, as we conquered our first pass climbing through pristine forest on excellent quiet roads to the Dochula Pass, adorned with 108 stupas and looking out to the Himalayan peaks ahead. We dropped down for an exciting 40km downhill through a nature reserve all the way to the alluvial Punakha Valley. Stopping by wayside farmers' markets to sample fresh organic produce and take lunch at a café popular for its locally sourced vegetables. In the afternoon we took a short hike to The Temple of the Divine Madman where we had our first taste of the spiritual side of Bhutan. Our accommodations throughout the ride had been carefully chosen, and our residence in Punakha was especially impressive looking out across the valley and river below.
Continuing the balance of achievement and discovery, we explored the Punakha Valley, by bike and on foot, crossing the country's longest suspension bridge before exploring the “castle of great happiness” and the Khamsum Yuley namgay chorten. A temple built by the Queen mother as a dedication for world peace and to benefit all living beings. In the afternoon, a group of us took to the river, rafting around 15 rapids from class 2-4. Bhutan's glacial rivers offer some of the best rafting in the world, and certainly didn't disappoint!
From Punakha, we rode to Gangtey, Valley of the Cranes, via a world class ride over Lawala Pass at 3,300m/10,800ft, followed of course by an exhilarating descent into the enchanting glacial geography of Gangtey Valley. The group were treated to both culture and nature, with a visit to Gangtey Monastery, a 16th century structure exemplifying traditional craftsmanship and architecture at its best. Our experience was timed to co-incide with the arrival of the Black necked cranes, who's mating dance is as symbolic as it is enchanting. we took a break from the saddle, to explore the forested valley on foot, trekking around a nature trail which offered us great views, and intimate experiences with nature, especially the incredible variation of birdlife which the peaceful and carbon negative nation Bhutan is renown for.
Our return to Paro proved to be one of the more challenging, but also the most rewarding rides so far. We conquered not one but two passes, then rode for almost 50km downhill through breathtaking scenery and multiple environments, from alpine to deciduous, then jungled rainforest ad into the valley floor. The standout moment had to be coming across a troop of Himalayan Langurs just relaxing by the road, and seemingly happy to be observed from a short distance by our group. The ride ended at the Punahka Dzong, another fabulous example of Bhutanese architecture which like the traditional clothing and thin mountain air, shapes the ambiance of the country.
Our final riding day was the most challenging by far, climbing to the edge of the Har Valley and Bhutan's highest Motorable road, Chele la Pass. Once again the mountain roads did not leave us wanting, as we climbed a snaking road up and up until I was feeling the effects of the altitude, but with regular breaks we pushed on to be rewarded by the ultimate gemstone and views to die for. We placed prayer flags at the summit before returning down the endless switchbacks to Paro.
The Tiger's Nest.
No Bhutanese life would be complete without visiting the Iconic Tiger's Nest, and the same can be said for any guest of the Dragon Kingdom. We began our climb early in the morning, passing pilgrims and walking with locals and monks along tree lined paths worn from centuries of passage. As we climbed, the guides told me that a rumor was circulating of a royal pilgrimage today. This seemed to be confirmed, as when we arrived at the gold and red adorned monastery clinging to the sheer cliff face next to a huge waterfall, the monks seemed busy preparing for an important ceremony. We explored the building, and sat in on some Buddhist chanting before starting our descent. Around half way down, as my group rounded a corner, guards approached us and briefed us to the protocol. I had heard that the former Queen, mother to the current King Jigme, was visiting, but it was the princess who came trekking up towards us. As her royal highness passed, she stopped, and asked our group about their trip and even mentioned that her son was an avid biker. The group, glowing from this encounter and attention, continued down, only to be stopped again, and then came the Queen Mother on horseback. Again, her highness stopped and asked the group how they were enjoying Bhutan, and showed genuine interest in our trip.
As we took off flying through the valley before climbing above the Himalayas, and with a clear view of mount Everest in the distance, I reminisced on one of the most fulfilling and worthwhile experiences of my life.