A Monestary in Bumthang
By Renée Le Verrier and Andy Meyer
Tour Highlights
Country Bhutan
Time of Year May
Tour Group Cycle the World
Miles per Day 31-90
Road Conditions Mostly Paved
Terrain Mountains
Weather Hot & Dry
Riding Days 9
Evelvation Gain 46,000 Ft
Total Miles 500
Contact [email protected]
Our route through the kingdom of Bhutan
Biking through Paro
B
icycling through Bhutan is like traveling through the fairy tales of childhood. Myths and fables of gods and dragons abound. Chalet-style homes are painted in mosaics of lotus flowers and exotic animals. Snow-capped mountains seem to meet the sky, dogs truly are man?s best friends, and the king promotes Gross National Happiness.

Almost the exact opposite side of the globe from New England, Bhutan is and feels like the other side of the world. Its history is peppered as much with mythological events as with chronological ones. Spirits, legends, and reincarnation are a part of daily life. The name of the country itself, the name known to its native people "Druk Yul" is a part of that history. It translates as Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Wedged between the world's largest and most populous nations - India and China - this tiny Buddhist kingdom is mesmerizing in its unique culture, charming
The bikes were always a curiosity
people, and breathtaking scenery. Only 100 miles
A rickety water-powered prayer wheel
east of Mt. Everest, the cycling is challenging at best. The one main road across the country runs from east to west; the mountain ranges trickle down from the north to south, their source the high peaks of the Himalayas on the border with Tibet. Travel by bike means pedaling uphill or braking down. Of the four passes, or las, the highest, Thrumshing La, topped out at 3,750 meters (12,400 feet). In the west, towns were set atop mountains where they nestled in valleys in the east. Either way, we spent mornings climbing and afternoons descending. We averaged 5,175 feet of climbing per day.

The flight into the eastern city of Paro from Delhi was the first introduction to our upcoming mountain adventure. First, the pilot announced the names and
A local Paro Store
heights of the Himalayan peaks seen from the airplane window. He had to keep the plane steady as everyone rushed to the left side for a glimpse of Everest. We were lucky. Skies were clear, and there it was rising from the clouds. Next, we started our descent into Bhutan. The Paro valley is short, with just enough room to land a fairly small plane (it held about 50 passengers at full capacity). To get down through the jagged mountains, the pilot did in the air what a cyclist or driver would do on the road: he followed the switchbacks. He ran full tilt to the right just before the left wing nearly brushed a peak then swerved to the left and the ground dropped off again to the right. This roller coaster landing lasted about twenty minutes. Happily, after the first turn, the pilot's voice could be heard over the speaker in impeccable English, "Not to worry, folks, I've done this before."

Checked out by the locals
We were greeted by clear mountain air and gorgeous scenery even at the airport. It's the Asian version of landing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Airport staff in national dress greeted us: men in ghos (knee-length belted robes) and women in kiras (belted floor-length jumper-like dresses). They spoke excellent English and made our entry into their country smooth. Paro is a small city with one main strip as its downtown. As with each of the towns we visited, the shops boast bright, intricately painted exteriors with huge open windows shaped like archways. The custom is to lean in the window and chat or conduct business. The Paro Dzong (monastery) on the edge of town is well worth a tour. Scenes from the movie "Little Buddha" were filmed there. And, true to the movie, young monks in scarlet robes did get distracted from the studies to eye us and giggle as we passed.

Lois and the monks
The first day of cycling came after our night in Paro. It proved to be the only flat riding of the trip. Though there were no hills, we worked our way rather slowly to the capital city of Thimphu. The pagoda-style of houses, the colors, the prayer flags, the curious children, the landscape kept our eyes darting as we jumped off the bike again and again trying to capture it all in our minds and cameras.

We spent an extra day touring Thimphu before heading out on our first pass climb to Wangdue Phodrang. The passes here are like few I have seen before. The valleys would start out warm, with a small road heading gently uphill. The grades were reasonable, and the hills didn"t seem terribly out of the ordinary. As the hours went by, the inclines would almost never change. A few towns would help change the scenery, and I drank more water than ever before in my life. All of a sudden, around a corner that looked just like all the others, the sky would open up, prayer flags were everywhere, and the Himalayas were all
The view from Dolchu-la, our first pass
around us. It looked and felt like we had just climbed to the top of the world.

The next day's climb brought us to Trongsa then the central city of Jakar, also named Bumthang. We based a three-day trek from here before heading into eastern Bhutan. After passing through Mongar and Tashigang, we crossed the Indian border in Samdrup Jongkhar.

The road across Bhutan was
Scenic Overview, with a 2000 ft drop
always interesting; wide tires were a must. Generally paved, they are wide enough for about one-and-a-half cars. Luckily, the transition from road to shoulder is gradual, so it was fairly easy to ride on the dirt and grass when trucks drove by. Other obstacles proved more interesting. It was almost impossible let go downhill because of the switchbacks, and there was often a surprise waiting just around the turn. These ranged from a group of bulls hanging around in the road (yaks at
Prayer Wheel
higher altitudes), to a landslide that took the road out, to a road crew repairing what used to be pavement. Road repairs are not done in quite the same fashion as in the United States. In Bhutan, there are several families repairing the roads, tending to a variety of tasks: One group hammered rocks by hand to make gravel for the foundation of the road. Another group stoked the wood fires, heated the oil, and poured it onto the road. A third group smoothed the road.
A truck with painted transaxle
Needless to say, our tires picked up a few souvenirs in these spots.

Despite the way the roads were built, they managed to wind through some unbelievable country. Hacked right into cliffs on amazingly steep and unstable mountainsides, the roads wandered through country that featured minor landslides on a regular basis. It was not uncommon to stop at a turn, and look straight down a several thousand-foot cliff. Railings didn't exist.

Most days began with a 20-mile uninterrupted climb. While they were long and hot, the steady inclines allowed plenty of time for the imagination to wander. The downhills were something else. These would range in length from 20 to our all-time record of 58 miles for a whopping 10,500-foot continuous descent. On this descent, the temperature at the top was 58 degrees. Pine trees, a chorten (a round, stone Buddhist monument; ride three times around clockwise for good luck), rhododendron, prayer flags, Himalayan
peaks, and patches of snow marked the top. On the way down, we could hear cuckoo birds calling, and hardwood forests started to take over from the pine trees. After an hour, the birds were replaced with cicadas, and palm-like trees emerged as the temperatures approached 90 degrees. Off the side, the road could be seen winding down the valleys seemingly forever. After another two hours, the forests had ended, and the palm trees started to give way to desert conditions. The valley was dry, around 100 degrees, and blooming with cacti. The most troubling part of the downhill was knowing that most of that drop was going to be made up again before the next day was over.

Uphill and down, houses and monasteries dotted the roadside. It was not uncommon during a stop for monks and families to come out and talk with us. Often, they spoke some English. A few times, we were invited in for butter tea (which has salt and butter instead of cream and
The start of a long downhill
sugar). The risk of getting sick was far outweighed by the magic of talking to people from a different world.

Accommodations ranged from camping to resort-style lodges, including a night's stay in what we later nicknamed the Mouse Motel. They were the cute fuzzy kind of mice, and even the hotel cat seemed to be a Buddhist. It sat placidly watching them scamper about. For the most part, the hotels were clean and comfortable. But for the barking dogs. Dogs are the next in line to man according to Bhutanese beliefs in reincarnation. Dogs rule the streets by day lounging in traffic circles as trucks ease around them. Riding by these yawning creatures in daylight makes it hard to believe how loud they can be after the sun goes down. By night, they bark and yelp out constant territorial battles all night long. Earplugs proved to be a good investment.

Most meals were provided by the hotels and served buffet-style. This is common
A Row of Chorten
throughout Bhutan. While the Bhutanese are no comparison to the French or Italians for cuisine, food was healthy and plentiful. Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs and toast along with very tasty mini bananas. Our Bhutanese tour guides set up lunch stops along the route, handing out combinations of hard-boiled eggs, cheese sandwiches, juice boxes, and chocolate. Dinner, again buffet-style, included rice – lots of rice – sautéed vegetable dishes of cabbage and carrots, fiddlehead stews (surprisingly good), more potatoes, and fruit, often watermelon, for dessert. No fried stuff, no pizza, no ice cream. But every hotel served bottled water (don't drink from the tap), sodas, and beer (except on Tuesdays; we never learned why) and no one left hungry.

Bhutan tourism charges on a per-day basis to be in the country. The fee covers various items like hotel, food, vehicle and driver. One can travel in Bhutan on his or her own
or in groups; a Bhutanese tour guide service is provided as part of the fee. We traveled through a US cycling tour group, Cycle the World, and, in retrospect, would not choose to tour with that company again. The Bhutanese guides that Cycle the World hired were from Etho Metho Tours and Treks and were wonderfully helpful and always cheerful. Their command of English was very good and they often aided in translating into Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. We pedaled past some surprised and happy faces after greeting them with kuzo zangpo la (hello) or nodding a polite kadinchhey (thank you) after purchasing something at a local shop. In addition, they were experienced drivers, not a small feat on those narrow winding switchbacks without guardrails.

The US touring company, however, proved to be a disappointment. First, it allowed too many people to sign up. Rather than the more manageable size of 15-20, particularly for the first time they toured in such a remote place, there were 33 in the group. In a country of only 600,000, many of whom do not live in the villages, our number
Three times (clockwise) around the Chorten
was assault on most towns. Some hotels couldn't accommodate such a large group, so people had to camp outside. This in itself was a disorganized deal: the first ones in got the rooms. Translated: the first people in tended to be those who chose to sag, meaning the tired, sweaty riders who opted to pedal the whole route pulled in to a tent instead of a bed and bathroom. In addition, the tour leader left early most mornings to be sure of having enough time to ride the full day'

s mileage. This left the task of organizing to the Bhutanese drivers, which they handled remarkably well given so little guidance or instruction. It seemed that the US tour leader's priority was to ride rather than to lead.

That was the only down side of the trip. We were lucky to have spectacular weather (it rained one or two nights and the one day we weren't cycling)
Kula Kangri
and only minor stomach ailments (thanks to plenty of Cipro). Sometimes difficult, always an adventure: biking through Bhutan made us believers in their legends, magic, and way of life. We'd go back to again experience the challenge, charm and serenity of the Land of the Thunder Dragon.


© 2000 LeVerrier, Meyer All rights reserved. Revised: Tuesday, February 06, 2001