- Words and photography by James McCormack
Ride around Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Test yourself on long climbs, plunge down adrenaline-surging descents and dawdle around quiet backroads. And touring by bike, you’ll not only feel closer to the amazing countryside, you’ll find it easier to meet Bhutan’s phenomenally friendly people.Why?
The tiny, unspoilt Himalayan country is one of the most enigmatic on the planet. It shut itself off from the outside world for years, with just a trickle of people flowing in and out. Bans on both TV and the internet were only lifted in 1999. For tourists at least, this isolation is now Bhutan’s greatest asset, for its traditional, deeply Buddhist culture has remained largely intact. But the country never shut itself off entirely and English is widely spoken. In fact, schools don’t just teach English, all lessons are in English.
Strangeness was afoot, thought Kuenzang Lhadon. Eighty years old, she had just walked from her house in the Bhutanese village of Olatang down to the local stupa where, as she did every day, she prepared to die. Or as Kuenzang Lhadon considered it, prepared for her beautiful new life. She did this by walking around and around the stupa, 60 revolutions in all. While she did so, she spun the bright, painted prayer wheels and recited mantras. This would clear the path for her reincarnation.
Kuenzang never left Olatang nowadays. The village was peaceful and she was happy there. Besides, she was too old. It is better, thought Kuenzang, that she just stayed in Olatang, visiting the stupa daily, reciting the mantras.
But in the middle of praying, Kuenzang looked up at Gorena Hill. This was strange. Very strange indeed. She had never seen such a thing, and she clutched her string of prayer beads a little tighter. Were they devils? They moved down the narrow paths of the steep hill as if they were gliding, faster than any man could run. And they wore garments the likes of which she’d never seen. Then the three of them skipped off the bare hill and into the forest. When they reappeared they were closer now. This was unbelievable, a sight Kuenzang thought she would never see in Bhutan. Because now she could see the three of us for what we really were: mountain bikers.
It was not surprising Kuenzang looked at us in disbelief. In the entire Himalayan kingdom there were 50, perhaps 100 mountain bikers. The king himself was one of them. In addition, tour groups of foreigners often cruised the country’s quiet roads. But of those who rode single track, using the footpaths and mountain trails of locals, now you were down to a dozen. If that. Two of them were my fellow riders, Ugyen Tshering (otherwise known as UT) and Kuenzang Tobgay.
Another was Yarab Drukpa. All three were guides at Uma Paro Resort, where I was based for one of the most outrageously good gigs I have ever had the good fortune to score as an adventure writer.
Mountains and monasteries was the billing; a week of MTB-ing around the enigmatic Himalayan kingdom, each night, bar one, returning to the über-luxurious and stunningly beautiful Uma Paro. There, amazing meals and surprisingly good local brews, along with my private villa and butler, awaited. When Bhawani first said he would be my butler, I thought this was merely a quaint Bhutanese turn of language. But no, he really was my butler. If I turned my head, my beer was filled. If I stood up to leave, my jacket almost magically slid onto my back. Fruit juices would appear. Snacks. Wake-up calls. Reminders. Folded clothes. At the week’s end, every last scrap of mud was cleaned off my bike so it looked shining new.
My private villa, meanwhile, was the size of my Sydney apartment, only with exposed wooden beams, traditional Bhutanese frescoes painted on the walls, a bathroom as large as my lounge room, and a dedicated massage room where I could have my legs and back worked on after a day’s ride. All in all, it was ridiculously sweet. Along for the ride were three Pommie travel writers, Charlie, Ben and Mark; Paul the PR guy; and Ollie, a Scottish photographer.
I may as well get this out of the way now: much is made of Bhutan’s emphasis not on GDP but GNH – Gross National Happiness. To be honest, I was heartily sick of GNH before I’d even landed. Every story, every blurb, every blog I’d read about Bhutan seemed to erupt with breathless and gushing exaltations of the concept. Druk Air’s in-flight mag referred to it on almost every page.
But the Shangri-la nature of the country is easily overstated; like any country, really, sadness still exists. There are problems with alcohol. Litter can still be found. Thousands of Indian migrant workers live in what are essentially shanties. And people still want not just peace and happiness, but things, goods, trinkets. One of them included the GPS cycle computer stolen off my bike the one evening I didn’t stay at Uma Paro.
That said, Bhutan did seem different. People seemed genuinely happy. And goddamn if they weren’t friendly. Photogenic, too, for that matter, and extremely obliging when foreigners in outlandish cycling gear rocked up and pestered them for photos. And while Western dress wasn’t uncommon, it seemed most Bhutanese were still happy enough in traditional garb.
Yarab, head guide at Uma Paro, was one of them. He met me at the airport dressed in a gho, a traditional grey tunic. More importantly, though, he wore a flashing grin. “Did you like the landing?” he asked while draping a tashi khaddar, a white scarf of goodwill, over my neck. “It’s one of the top 10 most dangerous airports in the world.” He seemed proud of this, although I’ve since been told this isn’t strictly true; Paro airport has never had an accident. This seems a minor quibble, though, for the final hard left on approach banked so close to the brown fields below it seemed the plane’s wing tip wanted to tickle the earth.Driving to Uma Paro, just five minutes of bouncing roads away, Yarab filled the time with small talk. “I know Aussie songs,” he said. “Like The Pub Where They’ve Run Out.”
“Yes, no drinking, no beer.”
“Ahh, Slim Dusty. The Pub With No Beer.”
“Yes, Slim Dusty. And I know You Get Tired And You Drink More.”
“I don’t know that one.”
“Yes, you drink more. More whisky. Bigger whisky.”
“Mental As Anything? The Nips Are Getting Bigger?”
“Yes, that one. And I know John Williams.”
“John Williamson?” I was determined not to ask which song, though, in case he broke out with Hey True Blue and I got the damn thing stuck in my head. I knew from experience – painful experience – the more inane, the more hated the song, the more likely it was I’d catch it as an earworm on one of the long ascents to come.
Hitting the road
It was several days until the first of those climbs. In the interim, Yarab and UT led us around Paro’s quiet roads. We rode through fields bare and hard, all crop stubble and cracked earth as the country approached winter. We rode over suspension bridges festooned with prayer flags. We rode past squat farmhouses built in the traditional style, where out the front chickens and mangy dogs with pendulous teats scratched around in dirt yards, and next to them played snot-nosed but ever-smiling kids, watched over by rose-cheeked mums and wrinkled oldies. It was pleasant, sedate riding.But on the third morning we left Paro and set off for our first real test – the 17-kilometre ascent of Dochula. We started gently enough, descending past more farms and temples and ruins, and following the incised gorge of the tumbling Paro Chhu river. Along the way, road signs made cryptic announcements:
“SAFETY FIRST. SPEED AFTER WARDS.”
“SHOOTING STONE. DRIVE CAREFULLY.”
“DON’T BE A GAMA IN THE LAND OF THE LAMA.”
Just beyond Thimphu – while still not large enough for even one set of traffic lights, Bhutan’s bustling capital seemed to have erupted into a sprawl of architecturally forgettable apartments – we at last lined up for the climb. And it was hot. Yeah, that’s right. Hot. In December. It seemed unbelievable. It was the Himalayas, after all, and I’d planned not on needing sunscreen but, rather, winter riding gear.
To that end, I’d packed a long-sleeve jersey, thick gloves, even toe booties. None were necessary. Later I learnt Thimphu’s latitude puts it as close to the equator as Brisbane. But while the lower slopes were baking, after an hour’s climbing the air had grown cooler and the treetops impressively high. The road was full of dappled light, shaded by old-growth pine, fir and spruce. Higher still were groves of rhododendron and trees draped with long-flowing mosses that glinted like tinsel in the late-afternoon sun. The hairpinned road was not without traffic – there were battered Tata trucks belching black clouds of exhaust and old buses bearing from each window the tell-tale streaks of motion sickness – but it was neither constant nor heavy. In fact, signs of life were few. Houses and farms were rare. There was a single truck stop, where several shacks had clustered. And at an immigration post, a few stalls sold apples and walnuts and strings of chugo – dried yak’s cheese. I was able to resist the temptation of the latter.
Mostly, though, it was just forest, quiet and still. I had, thank God, forgotten about John Williamson et al. Instead, I settled into an almost serene rhythm and listened only to the mantra tapped out by my legs. By the time I reached the 3150-metre Dochula – where views of jumbled spires and ice-capped rock tumbled across the skyline, where an entire forest had been webbed by prayer flags, where 108 white glowing stupas had congregated as if to applaud me for riding all the way to the top – I felt almost cleansed.
There was a payoff, of course, and it turned out to be with interest, for the descent to Punakha, our destination for tonight, was double the length of the climb. And it was fast. Crazy fast. Blisteringly, eye-wateringly fast. A heady cocktail of breakneck speeds, hairpin corners, massive drops, careening straights, high-speed sweepers, swerving trucks, lax road rules and blind overtakings, all as night approached and darkness swept the land.
Oh, and here’s the truly scary bit: none of us had lights. Granted, we could have dismounted and descended in one of the jeeps. But as if. How often do 36 klicks of unadulterated downhill present themselves? Correct. Never. To hell with the onset of night. We were riding.
Pursuits of madmen
Dochula was merely the first in a sequence of ripping descents. But from then on, they were primarily single track. From the village of Talo the following day, UT and I plunged a vertical kilometre through thick forest: oak, alder, daphne, rhododendron and wild walnut. After days of stark-brown landscapes showing little sign of life, the fecundity here was startling. Strangler vines covered entire trees, ferns sprouted thick, and moss was everywhere, dripping from branches and carpeting the ground. The earth itself was spongy, soft and rich with decay. Creeks rang as they tumbled crystal down folds in the hills, and the birds, they sang; warblers, UT told me, and great barbets. And the descent’s lower portion was dominated by the view of Punakha Dzong, renowned as the most beautiful fort in all Bhutan.
Gorena downhill, the one back near Paro where we met old Kuenzang Lhadon, followed. But the best came last, when UT, Kuenzang Tobgay and I climbed to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. There was one small catch, however – the famed 17th-century monastery was fantastically, precariously perched 900m high amidst sheer cliffs, with access via a switchbacking trail far too steep to ride. There was no choice but to carry the bikes the whole way.
It was manifestly an idiotic endeavour, and streams of people descending – pilgrims, monks, families, couples, tourists on strings of pack horses, and most impressively, two tottering old ladies who appeared deep into their eighties – told us so, at least with their expressions. But some said it explicitly; one of them was Ben, now descending on foot with the other Poms.
“You are mad,” he said. “Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad.”
“Yes, we are madmen,” granted Kuenzang. “But our destination is Tiger’s Nest. So we are divine madmen.” Then, despite the slogging ascent, he went back to singing, something he and UT had been doing all day.
“What are you singing?” I’d asked earlier.
“Love songs,” he said. “My wife stays very far away, in southern Bhutan. And I work here. I see her twice in a year. So when I am in the midst of intoxicants I sometimes miss my wife. It makes me sometimes to sing out, sing out some love songs.”
“So that’s why you call yourself Mr Lonely?”
“Yes. But UT, he is Mr Number One Choosy.”
This was a high bar, for according to Kuenzang, choosiness was common amongst Bhutanese men. And that wasn’t all. “Bhutanese mens are very naughty,” he told me. “They like to be with many womens. And they like thin, good-looking, intellectual womens. But at the same time, mens are quite crazy about selecting their womens for marriage who are virgins.
“It is,” he lamented, “very difficult.”
I arrived at the top in a sweaty mess. My calves were quivering. This wasn’t helped by the final several hundred stairs to access the monastery. Which, I’ll add, was amazing. Almost preposterously so. But I shan’t bang on much about it; Tiger’s Nest has been mentioned in pretty much every Bhutanese travel story ever written. The descent, conversely, never; because of the difficulty in getting bikes up there, it has been ridden perhaps just a half dozen times in the past 400 years. Three of those times by UT.
And oh boy, was it glorious. There were sections that flowed and twisted and had deep-walled berms to rail; others were steep and technical, with tight switchbacks and rock gardens. Above all it was fast and without doubt one of the finest descents I’ve ever had. Perhaps even top three. When I rolled back into the carpark I was absolutely beaming, blissed out and on an adrenaline high. The feeling lasted for days.Here’s the thing, though. When I returned to Australia, I realised, cheesy as it sounds, the smiles Kuenzang Lhadon in Olatang gave that day seemed equally as memorable. It occurred to me that while I’d travelled halfway around the world to experience a mountain-biking ecstasy that can barely be repeated, Kuenzang had tottered a few steps to the local stupa to find a peace and joy she’d probably find every day until she left to start her beautiful new life. I’ve always liked thinking adventure takes us to better places, but Bhutan reminded me that better places are always a state of mind.
And you don’t even need to travel to find them.
Bhutan’s visa costs are somewhat notorious. What’s less well-known is that of the $200-a-day figure bandied about, just $65 goes to the government. The remainder can go towards hotels, food, transport, guides, etc, which is probably what you’d be spending at the very least anyway.How?
Stay at Uma Paro (uma.paro.como.bz/). Nestled in pines in the hills above Paro township, the resort is Bhutan’s last word in five-star luxury. The food is superb, views grand, and the staff amazing. And Uma’s mountain-bike guides deserve special mention. Our group had wildly divergent abilities, but Yarab and UT kept us all happy. Very happy. And if you’re an avid mountain biker who wants single-track, there are very few guides who can take you to it; Uma’s are an exception.When?
Spring (March-May) and autumn (September- November) are the most popular tourism months. But off-peak periods still offer great travelling, with the advantage of fewer tourists. And don’t be afraid of going in winter. In the valleys at least, it is surprisingly mild.
- For more info, hit up Bhutan and Beyond.