But where’s Bhutan? Was the most common response I got when I spoke of my next cycling trip. And that’s what makes this small kingdom nestled in the Himalayas so special. It’s still undiscovered… – By Joanne McLeod
At the 11th hour, and at a loose end, I decided to take the opportunity of fulfilling my wish to cycle in the Himalayas. This hidden gem lived up to all expectation. Bhutan was in self-imposed isolation for hundreds of years. The people lived content in their landlocked country nestled in between China, Tibet and India, until the fourth king decided to allow visitors. And they don’t just allow anyone to visit. Visas are expensive and numbered, so only a few foreigners can visit, and always accompanied by a local guide.
Arriving in Bhutan is no mean feat either. As one approaches the airstrip, descending below the houses on the towering mountains either side of you, in a neat figure of eight, you hold your breath as the enormous plane turns sharply yet again, almost brushing the long grass unperturbed on the mountainsides. It’s such a tricky descent, there are only eight pilots in the world qualified to land there. And that’s what sets the tone of the exhilarating adventure that lies ahead.
It was a mountain biking trip, but not in the classic sense. It’s not off-road and singletrack. But rather on Bhutanese roads with Bhutanese traffic. Cars only came to the kingdom in the late 1960s. And those were few and far between – an oddity more than the norm. So they built roads, of which there were none, for the tiny jeeps that came from India.
The roads are therefore very narrow, and now very well used. Potholes, ruts, ditches, cows, dogs steep cliffs and swerving two-way traffic is what makes this trip essential on a mountain bike. And since the current king, whom his subjects adore, has a newfound passion for mountain biking, Trek bikes, all with 26-inch wheels, are now available to rent.
Something else you learn quickly, is there are no flat roads in Bhutan. You are either going up or down. And a Bhutanese ‘flat’ is still uphill.
We cycled across most of the country. And it’s a country like nowhere else on earth. Unspoiled, uncommercialised, beautiful. We cycled from ‘village’ to ‘village’, across suspension bridges crossing kilometre-wide rivers. We cycled through fields of wild marijuana and rice, past prayer flags and stupas, temples and dzongs. We climbed 30 kilometres into the mist and found young monks burning incense and contemplating the 108 chortens built on the mountaintop.
We descended for an hour and a half, through jungle and pine forests, and breathed in the world’s cleanest air, scented with fresh pine needles. We climbed 55kms, through sunshine, then mist then rain, to 3 400m above sea level (twice the altitude of Joburg), and stood, catching our breath overlooking Eden.
Monkey gods, elephants, and flaming phalluses protect homes, rivers, bridges and people. The further east we cycled, the deeper into the Himalayas we were absorbed, the less the people and cars and brightly painted trucks we saw. The only noise other than the wind in your hair on yet another glorious descent, is the wind chimes and bells from the water wheels spewing prayers and good wishes into the clear, thin air.
No matter where we arrived, the accommodation was lovely. Be it in Thimphu where all the town’s traffic is directed by one lone policeman (they took the traffic light down due to popular demand), or the remote Gangtey Valley. It can be as simple or luxurious as your budget allows. The food is delicious. All of it. Don’t be under the impression you’ll return home thinner. Fitter and a better climber, yes, but never thinner. Tasty noodles and oriental tasting chicken with cashews and the standard chilly and cheese sauce washed down with Druk beer was our reward after every day’s cycling.
We were greeted by monks, nuns, school children in their traditional dress, men in their ‘gos’ with shoes and socks. And always with a smile. The Bhutans’ wealth is measured very scientifically by GNH, gross national happiness. And it’s something they all live by in this tiny Buddhist kingdom.
Now that the fifth king has fallen in love with cycling, and their new prime minister has partaken in the annual ‘Race of the Dragon’, a 260km cycle race across Bhutan, not for the feint hearted, the GNH has swelled.
Mountain biking is a new sport here. Bhutan is still largely undiscovered. It’s a spiritual journey. A collision of the senses, sight, sound, smell, taste. It’s a gift, a peaceful journey in the world’s rarest biodiversity. It’s true what they say about Bhutan, happiness is a place. And what better way to discover that, than by bicycle?
Joanne McLeod lives in Johannesburg with her two sons when she’s not pedalling a mountain bike in a foreign land.
Want to ride in Bhutan too? Contact Grasshopper Adventures on www.grasshopperadventures.com for information.
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*Originally published in TREAD Issue 27, 2014 – All rights reserved