Mountain Bike Bhutan - By Clifford T. Krolick Of
Riding The Land Of The Thunder Dragon:
A Journey through the Last Himalayan Kingdom
Clifford T. Krolick
Tattered prayer flags were flapping all around as we and reached the highest point of the day’s ride. “We have just summited the 11,000' Pelela Pass.” said Nyendra Wangchuck, my riding companion. Beyond are mountains upon towering mountains; some snow-covered, others green to the top, all powerfully majestic. (P-094) Clouds surrounded us, creating a surreal atmosphere. I looked down but could not see the valley floor. Close by was the ever-present chorten, a monument marking the sacredness of place; a symbol of Buddha’s mind; a grounding rod for positive energy. I had found Shangri-La! (p-055)
“It is all down-hill from here,” Nyendra said. Although it was December, the sun was bright and warm. (P-068) We munched on Clif bars, drank some water, zipped up our windbreakers, and began our decent along a smooth single lane blacktopped highway with hardly an auto in sight. A biker’s dream! The altitude dropped gradually, switchback by switchback along this amazing 65-mile downhill ride through an astounding panorama. (P-097) We passed waterfalls so close we could reach out and touch them. We flew past brightly dressed smiling people who seemed to appear out of nowhere. We stopped at a small village for a short break of tea and a snack of popped rice and jaw-breaking corn flakes. I wondered if this was a restaurant or a private residence. “Indeed, it is a restaurant,” Nyendra assured me as the gracious young woman served us. I noted the photo of the king hanging conspicuously on the wall.
Refreshed, we continued through dazzling scenery.(P-095) It dawned on me that every sense of my being was engaged and I was in my own personal awakened dream. This is a feeling one cannot obtain in an auto. Only on a bike can your senses experience this festival of sounds, smells, and visual delights.
Whoa! We rounded a bend and stopped short.(P-076) A herd of yaks stood in front of us, blocking the road. These big woolly beasts with the cool horns were easy to cajole along and with a few grunts on our part they let us through.
Miles from nowhere, mesmerized by nature’s majesty, we next came upon a gang of boys playing darts in the middle of the road. (P-066) Spying such odd-looking bikers, they came running. Here was a perfect opportunity to share a taste of mountain biking. In return they eagerly invited us to play darts with them. Their darts were not like ordinary darts. They were heavier and larger and each boy had handcrafted his own. The targets were tiny and set about 150’ apart, and the throw area was directly over the road – the only place flat enough to play. After demonstrating how much we needed to learn about darts and giving them a taste of mountain biking, we went on.
As daylight waned, I was awestruck and humbled by the magnitude of nature's glory. (P-057)The continual presence of majestic mountains, Grand Canyon-like valleys, intricately painted temples, monasteries, and farmhouses perched on cliffs above and below speak to my spiritual identity. (P-067) (P-093)The bike is much more then just a vehicle. It's my vehicle to an inner experience in this magical place.
After hours of coasting we reached our destination: the former fortress, the Trongsa Dzong, largest of the dzongs. That night we spent in Trongsa at the Yangkhiel Hotel perched thousands of feet above the roar of the Mangdechu River. Welcome to the ancient-future: the Kingdom of Bhutan.(P-072)
Bhutan is smaller than the state of West Virginia and located between India and China in the heart of the most spectacular terrain on earth: the Himalayan Mountains. (P-002) Bhutan protects its unique heritage and pristine environment by tightly regulating tourism, intentionally isolating itself from the outside world. Unlike most nations, it measures Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. This last remaining Buddhist kingdom has enjoyed well over 100 years without wars, the arms race, and even without television until 1999.
Bhutan’s official language is Dzonka, but those under 35— who usually manage much of the country’s service and high tech sectors—speak English; it has been taught in the schools since the 1970s. English is used on all signage and several newspapers are published in English.
My adventure began more than a year ago when I received an unexpected e-mail proposal from Nyendra Wangchuk on behalf of AHKE Adventure, a Bhutanese tour company. Together we would promote Bhutan as a biking and cultural destination for Americans and introduce mountain biking to the local population.(P-160) Unfortunately, bikes are rarely used in Bhutan, and today’s lighter, multi-geared bikes could provide an affordable, reliable, and environmentally friendly means of transportation for the Bhutanese people.
Over the course of the year Nyendra, I, and Bhutan’s Ministry of Tourism worked out the details. AHKE designed a biking adventure from Paro in the west across to Tashigang in the east and then south to the Indian border. (P-0001) I would train AHKE staff on the safe, effective use and maintenance of the bikes. Fuji Bikes donated two Tahoe mountain bikes to the venture. It took a full year of planning and preparation before I finally departed my home in Maine for the trip of a lifetime.
Getting to Bhutan is not easy. No international airlines are permitted into the country, so I first flew first to Delhi, India and took a connecting flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. On the way there was Mount Everest, dramatically projecting above us on my side of the plane. Amazing! (P-003)
I spent the night in Kathmandu with Mingma Sherpa, founder of Last Frontiers Trekking and son of one of the sherpas accompanying Sir Edmond Hillary on his Everest expedition. The next morning, I boarded a jet on the last leg of my trip, flying on Druk Air, Bhutan's official and only airline. There are only a limited number of flights into the country and the Paro airport serves all of Bhutan. After passing Everest once again we entered a cloudbank and our descent began, the clouds parting and spectacular mountains appearing below us. Where was the pilot going to put this big bird? We started a series of steep midair switchbacks between mountain ranges, descending slowly with each hairpin turn and finally, far below, I spotted a tiny slice of a runway, squeezed in among mountains. Then, YIKES! We were suddenly down.
Beautifully painted architecture immediately surrounds the traveler upon entering the Paro airport. Bhutan's present culture is grounded in a tantric Buddhist heritage and the country’s daily life, art, and spirituality gracefully illustrate this. In a new place, I try to remain vulnerable to the total experience. This permits the landscape and people to speak to my deeper self. (P-239) (P-004)
I was met by my broadly smiling AHKE Adventure guide, Dorji, who warmly grasped my hand, helped me collect my luggage, and accompanied me to my hotel. The city of Paro is about 7,800' in elevation. I spent the next few days acclimatizing.
Our Fuji Tahoes had arrived earlier, so after checking in and relaxing a bit, Dorji and our driver brought over the bicycle boxes and the first lesson began: assembly. As the bikes came together, excitement grew. Mountain biking, unlike regular biking, requires the efficient use of gears, weight transference and braking. Instruction in these skills was time well spent.
The next day Dorji and I headed off to practice. We took it easy on the smooth, single-lane paved road, commonly shared by animals, people, occasional autos, and work trucks wildly adorned with colorful cultural art.(P-040),(P-024) According to the Ministry of Tourism, Bhutan has only 50,000 cars for its total population of 650,000. The single-lane national highway that we traveled has graded switchbacks of 2% to 6%. This well-constructed road lends itself to easy climbs, unparalleled long descents, and endless panoramic views. Wide shoulders make getting around easy and the few drivers we encountered were courteous and always beeped. We also easily found usable off-road trails. (P-0381) These we traversed with extreme care because of the steep and mountainous terrain. (P-0368)
We pedaled into downtown Paro for some sightseeing. A building boom is in progress there; small shanty shops and homes are dwarfed by the ongoing construction of three and four-story buildings. Happily, these new structures use centuries-old Bhutanese architectural elements: small arched windows, whitewashed facades and raised, vaulted roofs from which chili peppers and grain hang to dry. In Paro’s central square there was a large, beautifully painted prayer wheel, spun by passersby and thus, by belief, releasing billons of prayers. (P-008) The wheels are found all over Bhutan, often set in flowing water to keep them perpetually spinning out prayers.
We biked beyond Paro to visit the sacred Taktsang Monastery, (P-013) the “Tigers Nest,” constructed in the 1st century. A 90-minute hike brought us halfway up, where we stopped to rest at a teahouse.( P-011) Anyone for a cup? After quenching our thirst we completed the scramble and found the monastery perched precariously on the edge of the escarpment, prayer flags flying. Reportedly, in the 14th century, one of the greatest saints of Buddhism, Guru Rimpoche, flew on the back of a tigress to this cliff —thus its nickname.
Back at the hotel, dinner was a bountiful buffet of locally grown rice, vegetables, dried meats, and a variety of hot chili pepper dishes. Bhutanese love hot food and grow plenty of chilies, but will graciously hold back on the heat if it’s requested. They are happy to have visitors and enjoy serving a common drink called ara, a tasty rice wine, which is offered and consumed like water, but don’t be fooled—it’s strong.
The next day Dorji and I made our way to Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, population: 100,000. Nyendra was waiting for us and eager to master the bike for our journey across Bhutan.
For practice, we cycled to the National Institute of Zorig Chusum (Thirteen Crafts). Because of its commitment to perpetuating its Buddhist cultural tradition, Bhutan retains a rich artistic and spiritual heritage. Students here learn ancient methods of handcrafted arts and crafts; power tools are rarely used in Bhutan.
After stumbling upon an archery match, our visit to Thimphu was complete. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. (P-018) The archer aims for a target almost 100 yards apart, and when he hits the mark, all participants join in a small song and dance of celebration.
Nyendra and I began by pedaling up to Dochula Pass, where our driver was waiting with hot tea. At 9,400’ the views of the snowy Eastern Himalayan Range were outrageous. (P-021/P-023) (P-022) Dochula Pass boasts a staggering 108 chortens, commemorating His Majesty, the 4th Druk (King) of Bhutan and his military success. We spent the night at Hotel Zangdopelri, just outside of Punakha. We visited Chimi Lhakhang the next morning, a small 15th century temple considered a shrine to fertility where childless couples often make pilgrimages.
The following day we continued east, coasting along the beautiful Tsang Chu River for about 20 miles, passing chortens and then crossing the river and heading up to the hilltop town of Wangdu. (P-034/ P-037) After lunch we cycled to the sound of a rushing river, climbing through an ever-narrowing spectacular canyon. (P-103) Bhutan has untold numbers of roaring rivers and streams cascading down slopes everywhere! Just below the pass we headed down, zipping through an exhilarating twenty miles of switchbacks toward the village of Gangtey, at 9,000 feet. A local boy chased us for a while on his clunker of a bike. (P-047)
Just before dark we arrived at the Hotel Dewacheen where the staff immediately offered us hot, moist towels to freshen up and stowed our bikes. After a welcome shower we made a beeline for the dining room!
Next morning we pedaled through the village where we came upon our cycling friend from the night before. He suggested a road leading to some great single track. (P-050)The trail took us through a pine forest and then out into a vast open valley where we spied Black Necked Cranes—Gangtey is their winter nesting grounds. (P-051)
We stopped at lunchtime at one of the larger farmhouses in the valley.(P-053) It's not uncommon, especially in rural areas, to be able to find a meal at a farm, and the woman of the house was happy to offer us homegrown potatoes and spinach. Bhutan is a matriarchal culture, where women traditionally own the family property and manage all affairs.
That evening we treated ourselves to a traditional hot stone bath, readying ourselves for the next day’s ride. From the top of Pelela Pass, we then descended through the stunning Mande Valley. At day’s end we reached the massive Trongsa Dzong, a fortress built in the 1640s to defend against invaders. (P-070) Dzongs are excellent examples of the country’s architecture and cultural heritage and are now used as regional administrative centers where, as is traditional in Bhutan, spirituality is an equal partner in shaping political decisions.
After our night at the Yangkhiel Hotel in Trongsa we were driven up to Yotongla Pass, elevation: 11,500.’ After coasting almost 30 miles through Chumey Valley, known for its beautiful woven woolens, we entered Jakar Village in the Bumthang region, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. With the Swiss Guest House as home base, we biked to the 8th century temple of Jampey Lhakhang and Kurjey Monastery. (P-081/P-080)
The following days were spent riding and visiting spiritual sites as we traveled east to the top of Sheytangla Pass. Beyond was the stunning Ura Valley but, with much traveling ahead, we pushed on to the highest point of our journey, Thrumshingla Pass at 12,400.’(P-086) A road sign at the top read, “Just bash on through”—warning us of many sharp turns. This sounded like an awesome challenge, so Nyendra and I sent our support vehicle ahead and we began an astounding downhill ride of nearly 80 miles. I never imagined that the scenery could get even better, but as we headed south into a milder climate through a mix of old growth pine, hardwoods, and 30’ rhododendrons,(P-077) I was awed by the mounting beauty of our surroundings. (P-114/P-116) Snaking down the Ura Valley, we passed waterfalls and vertiginous drops offering dreamy views. In one day we had dropped an impressive 10,000 feet. In a matter of hours the climate had transformed from alpine to subtropical.
North beyond Autsho we headed far off the beaten path, climbing higher and higher until, near the end of the day, we came literally to the end of the road. A group of villagers were there to meet us, and together we transferred our gear to pack horses. We were on our way, hiking and biking, to Kurtoe, a breathtaking village where some of Nyendra’s family lived. (P-122) That night, in a celebratory observance of 100 years of peace and prosperity under Bhutan’s monarchy, I joined in the dancing, singing, and imbibing of the potent ara.(P-132) A village-full of friendly, gracious hosts accepted me joyfully into their midst, and invited me to their homes where pictures of present and past kings were displayed proudly, showing the love and respect all Bhutanese have for their monarchy.
In the morning the horses, packed with our gear, followed as we hiked and biked further up into this breathtaking valley. The high peaks were getting closer and the roar of two rivers rushing from glaciers above was impressive.
We continued on to the even more remote village of Chusa to visit Nyendra’s grandparents. (P-123 / P-124) These simple Himalayan farmers, now 80 years old, have lived in their Shangri-La valley without the benefit of access road, electricity, or indoor plumbing all their lives. I met Nyendra’s sister, husband and children and several other relatives. (P-131)
Soon there was tea, and a hearty meal, and then, for me, an extraordinary opportunity: I was offered a chance to climb the mountain to Rinchen Bumpa Monastery, a sacred site used by Guru Rimpoche.
That night we slept in the house’s prayer sanctuary. Many traditional Bhutanese maintain a shrine for their own personal religious practice and spiritual refuge. Usually a room is designated as the shrine and it is filled with important symbols of their rich Buddhist tradition.
Guided by a family member, we headed out in the morning for a challenging four-hour climb to the monastery. As we reached the top I was aware of a profound sensation of wholeness and tranquility.
Ahead, another chorten beckoned. As we proceeded around it, a huge round 100’ tall rock appeared beyond. (P-138/P-137)I was told that this rock was Guru Rimpoche’s sanctuary and that he scribed his revelations on it as if he were writing a book. We climbed it on a not-for-the-faint-of-heart trail and then another route, even more hazardous, led to a cave in the rock used by Rimpoche. Finally, we worked our way back along another tightrope of a trail, passing many ancient and worn inscriptions.(P-147) Atop the rock we were encircled by snow-capped peaks and deep green valleys. It was clear why Rimpoche found inspiration here.
And Even More
After one more night with Nyendra’s grandparents, we biked and hiked back to our vehicle and drove to the town of Mongar. (P-149) We were nearing the end of our trip, but there were several more adventures: experiencing the top of Korila Pass; coasting by bike towards Trashigang, the easternmost point we were to travel before riding south to Samdrup Jongkhar and India. We decided to visit one final temple and pedaled along the Gami Chu River towards Trashiyangtse to the 8th century shrine of Gomkora Lhakhang. (P-155) It is said that here the Guru Rimpoche subdued a demon.
Throughout the final days of our trip, as we journeyed through the tropical landscape, towering mountains and pristine vistas were always around the next bend. The magic of riding my bike through this Bhutan’s treasure of visual and cultural riches had truly made me appreciate the importance of the country’s policies that protect its heritage and environment. Venturing into this unknown land without any preconceived notions, I discovered a gracious, loving people, a unique and amazing culture, a country of unimaginable beauty and an unparalleled riding experience. I am already planning a return trip.
Special thanks to the generous support of Sock Guy, Clif Bar, Fuji Bikes, detours, and to the support of Bhutan's Ministry of Tourism and Trade and AHKE Adventure Staff.
Cliff Krolick is a biking adventurist and since 1991 founded and operates
Back Country Biking Center in Maine. When in Maine he's guiding mountain
biking tours and doing instructional seminars on biking at his center.
When abroad he is leading tours in Ecuador,Tuscany,Italy, and
now the exclusive biking outfitter www.bikebackcountry.com from the USA
guiding tours in Bhutan
and partnered with the Bhutanese company AHKE Adventure