From the arrival flight into Bhutan past the peak of Mount Everest, to the adrenaline filled landing at Paro nestled in a deep valley, the journey to the kingdom of the Thunder Dragon was an adventure in itself. As I disembarked the small plane with our group, my first impression was the incredible landscape. Soaring mountains in every direction and noticeably the dense fauna, which grew right to the top of all but the highest peaks; a climate feature of the latitude counteracting the altitude. The architecture caught my eye next, as all buildings from the large airport to the smallest hut followed the same design principles. Not least was the welcoming people, as we were met with the traditional welcome gift of a white silk scarf by our guide team, themselves wearing smart but practical traditional clothing called a ‘Go.’
Bhutan, a country of only 700,000 people, seemed at first glance like a tiny self contained world, with rugged terrain and unusual distinctive culture, but for all this cultural and natural content, one was also reminded of the tiny country of Switzerland, itself a landlocked mountainous nation. Even the architecture had some practical similarities. Our accommodations for the first night were an old Dzong (Fortress), and as we settled down that evening to a hearty meal of curried paneer and red rice, conservation at the table made it clear that the altitude, at 2400 m, was affecting some of the group.
Our Bhutanese adventure began with a hike up to the famous Tiger’s Nest, a monastery perched on a cliffside at 3100 m. Its holy walls had held off invaders for hundreds of years, with only the occasional fire to mar its long history. Stood on the monastery balcony, with the reverberating sounds of throat-signing monks all around, butter lamps burning close by and the view of the mountains below, I could already sense the spiritual element of this trip would be a strong feature.
This SpiceRoads tour was to be one of our Epic rides, an expedition crossing the Bhutanese Himalayas from West to East, before passing into India. Following a deal with the Indian government to widen roads across the country, many of the winding mountain ways were under repair, only serving to increase the difficulty of this tour, which would see the group climbing over 20,000metres and crossing 11 high passes in two short weeks.
Having set up our Trek mountain bikes the day before, the riding itself began gently. A rolling countryside road gradually gaining incline until we began climbing to our first pass at Dochula. At the very top, 108 chortens have been erected as a reminder of the 108 Bhutanese who died during a bloody border conflict with an Indian minority group. From the pass we could see the Bhutanese Himalayas laid out in front of us, sweeping northwards and gaining altitude until snow covered the highest peaks. The climb was rewarded with a long descent into Punaka, where we stayed for the night in a mystical cloud filled valley of rice paddies. The air late at night was so clean and clear that every light in the valley shone as if it was in the same room.
Our journey continued East over the next two days with a challenging 46 km climb to one of the highest passes of the journey, laden with colourful prayer flags at 3400 m. From Wangdu we traveled onward via Trongsa to the center of the country and beautiful Bhumthang, and Jakar a tiny town with a rich history. In Bhumthang whilst visiting Dzongs and eating Bhutanese Yak pizza, we stayed at the famous Swiss Guest House, as guests of Fritz Maurer, a Swiss national who had answered an advert for a cheese maker from university and never returned. Now the founder of the guesthouse, cheese factory and brewery and well into his 70’s. Having introduced the milk cow to the Bhutanese bloodlines; he rubs shoulders with royalty, whilst never having lost the common touch. Fritz regaled us with his tales over breakfast, of having been the first person to own a bicycle in Bhutan, and giving up his bed for a visiting US senator who got stuck in the valley when the snows set in.
Rested and recouped, our group took to two wheels again to ride over the pass to the next valley, where a relatively luxurious camp had been arranged. From now we had entered the East of Bhutan, and accommodation would be scarce, or of such poor quality that camping would often be the best option. As we rode from the Tang Valley, to Ura to Sengor, camping all the way, we crossed passes and camped at over 3100 m, adjusting to the gaining altitude whilst sitting round the bonfire at night. The final pass would be the highest in Bhutan. Thumshingla pass at 3798 m tested even the strongest climbers in the group.
The ride from Sengor to Mongar has been described as the greatest one day ride in the world. A 60 km downhill with barely a single vehicle, which travels from silent Alpine forest and cool dry climate, past waterfalls, and birds, until different species of gibbons appear hooting in the thick humid air, and dense jungle with its cacophony of insects. With a short climb to our lunch spot laid out in the warm sub tropical sun. From here we still had several passes to climb, but the feeling was definitely changing to a general winding down, and despite the tough journey, that feeling was met with some sadness by most.
No-one however, had expected the incredible views that we were afforded in these last few days. From the mountain top hotel at Trashigang to our campsite in the Monastery at Wamrong, serenaded by the monks deep melancholic instruments we were treated to a heavenly sunset which seemed to change every minute but always to a new an more incredible scene. Around us it seemed that the mountains changed from jungle to alpine depending on the direction they were facing or the micro climates in their valleys. The terrain became more and more varied as we approached the border and Samdrup Jonkar.
Our crossing to India was as hectic and different as could be. We passed form the quiet empty streets of Bhutan, to dense population, traffic and animals wandering in the hustle and bustle. It was a taste of India, for a two hour ride which framed the peace and serenity of our spiritual trial that was Bhutan.