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Big ride Bhutan: Riding in the world's best tourist destination

In-depth
22 Oct 2019
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The Lonely Planet has selected the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan as the number 1 tourist destination for 2020. We rode there back in 2015

Words Peter Stuart Photography Rob Milton

Why Bhutan? It’s the question everyone has been asking recently. Perhaps it’s to be expected – few people have heard of the Kingdom of Bhutan, and fewer could point it out on a map, so taking my bike a third of the way across the globe to ride in this remote nation has met with a certain amount of confusion.

One glance at this Himalayan landscape, though, and the answer seems obvious. This is true mountain territory. The peaks feel like the prehistoric ancestors of the Alps – they are bigger and steeper, hotter at the bottom, colder at the top, and blasted by Himalayan winds. It’s truly epic terrain to tackle by bike.

We’ve been invited out to sample the roads of Bhutan by Live The Adventure, a travel company that’s promoting Bhutan’s first cycle race – the Tour of the Dragon.

The route tracks across the main national highway (a one-track mountain lane) from Bumthang in the east of the country to the capital Thiumphu in the west, and we’ll be covering the 268km distance over three days of riding.

It takes in three gigantic climbs – the Yutang La, the Pele La and the Dochu La. The three climbs all top 3,000m of altitude, and only brief stretches of the route drop below 2,000m (the summit of Ben Nevis is 1,344m). So far, only mountain bikes have been used for the event, and rumour has it that we’re the first people to ride a road bike in Bhutan.

The Lost Kingdom

Bhutan has been called the last Shangri-La – the mythical mountain utopia. Indeed, the concept of Shangri-La was born in these very mountains. In 1627 a Portuguese missionary called Father Estevao Cacella became the first westerner to make a detailed account of the region.

While staying in Bhutan he wrote of a kingdom named Shambala, a place that he was assured was never far away but which he never managed to reach. The mystic realm of Shambala later formed the idea of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, and in the modern world perhaps no other nation evokes the idea of a lost paradise as much as Bhutan.

The King of Bhutan only allowed his subjects to watch TV in 1999, and it wasn’t until 2008 that the internet reached the population. The national religion is Buddhism, and rather than GDP, the country gauges its success with a Gross National Happiness index, measured by an expansive census investigating the wellbeing of the people.

It’s certainly a complex place. Ancient temples set into the desolate mountainsides overlook neon cities that are expanding fast. Our ride from east to west is like an accelerated history of the nation, with much of the landscape differing very little from the descriptions of unchartered mountain wilderness that those early missionaries wandered through in the 17th century.

That blend of ancient tradition and the modern world couldn’t be more apparent as I climb through a pack of yaks on the final kilometres of the climb to Yutang La, which peaks at 3,400m. The scene would have been little different 300 years ago, aside from the yak herder talking on his iPhone.

As I tip over the summit, the scenery switches from lush and grassy to sparse and dry. The roads may lack modern quality, but they make up for it with breathtaking views. Every metre of the road so far has been as technical as a crit circuit and as undulating as a Grand Tour queen stage. I’m convinced that the hardest cycling races in the world will someday take place on these roads. 

The descent is taxing, requiring me to scan the road ahead for cows or yaks. The surface is sketchy, and I’m wary of hitting rocks or crevices. It’s tough, but it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a road bike. By the time I reach the base of the descent, the mountain valley still drops away for more than 1,000m below me. This is a vast landscape.

The next climb will take me upwards again for 2,000m of elevation over a distance of 70km to the peak. It’s hard to get my head around the scale of this place. It’s time to grab some lunch.

The way of the Dragon

Last year the Prince of Bhutan, a keen cyclist himself, led out the Tour of the Dragon, which boasted only 40 brave competitors. Of them, less than half finished, but I can’t help but be impressed by the Nepalese mountain biker who won in a time of 10 hours and 43 minutes. Averaging 25kmh on the flatter stretches of these roads is incredibly hard – to average 25kmh over these climbs, descents and against the prevailing wind of the valleys is truly phenomenal.

After a lunch of the local speciality, ‘chili cheese’ (cheese, chili and rice – very much an acquired taste), I set off again, rolling up the valley, skirting along the hillside with a vast forest as a lingering distraction from the sap of the mild gradient and the high altitude.

Riding from one wooden farmhouse to the next, dotted at random on the hillside, it becomes obvious how separate the country must have once been. Cut off from the rest of the world, Bhutan existed as a collection of small fiefdoms and warring regions until relatively recently.

Bhutan was first consolidated in 1616, right before Father Cacella’s account of the nation. The King who unified it was a lama (priest) from Tibet who was famed for having lived alone for three years at the top of a mountain, meditating all day and receiving food and water via a pulley. In 1885 the country was united under one dynasty, the Wangchuck family, which still rules today. The current king is referred to as ‘Fourth King’.

The Royal Family and religion are the two hinges of the national identity. Despite ascribing to Buddhism, the Bhutanese still have a strong belief in spirits of all kinds and the roads are lined with altars, relics and shrines.

Often the walls are covered with paintings to welcome good spirits and ward off evil ones, with one practice being to paint large phalluses to drive away the evil eye. In my current state of exhaustion, such murals seem a little surreal.

The Bhutanese take their supernatural traditions very seriously, and one of the favoured tales is of Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, who flew from Tibet on the back of tigress and landed in a cave in the cliffs where he meditated for three years, three months, three weeks and three hours.

A temple now sits on that cliff face, known as the Tiger’s Nest. I could do with a long rest myself. Night is beginning to fall and I still have a few kilometres to the summit. It’s beautiful, though, with mist sitting in the valley below, illuminated by the low light.

After 110km of riding I manage to get to a set of white flags that mark the peak of the Pele La. My legs are totally shot and it’s now pitch black. The first day of the route is over and I’m thankful to get into the photographer’s car to drive to our hotel in the nearby valley of Phobjikha. Tomorrow morning I will return to the summit to begin the long descent to Wangdue.

Down to Wangdue

There’s a scene in Father Ted that has suddenly popped into my head. Bishop Brennan is preparing to leave Craggy Island but is informed by Mrs Doyle that ‘the roads have been taken in’.

It comes to mind because this morning Bhutan appears to have taken the roads in. The descent ahead was meant to be mirror-smooth tarmac, but as part of the constant road building process here in Bhutan, they’ve removed 10km of the road to be re-laid later, leaving only gravel, rocks and dirt.

This route, the Lateral Road, is a significant one. It has played a big part in bringing national unity to the country. Up until 1961 the main way of travelling across the country was by foot or on horseback, and it took six days to reach Thiumphu from the Indian border. The road has been a consequence of Indian and Nepalese efforts to increase international stability, and the Indian Border Road Organisation still maintains the road.

The roads are often thinly laid blacktop tarmac set directly over the dirt and gravel. When freshly laid, it’s heaven, but it quickly degrades to cracks and rubble. The monsoon season and frequent landslides do nothing to help the maintenance of the roads either.

It’s challenging terrain to navigate, and I have to clear the next 10km in less than 20 minutes, as a roadblock will come into action at noon for two hours. The sun is gleaming, and this side of the valley has the exotic landscape of a rainforest, but the road is so technical and undulating that I’m barely able to appreciate it.

I manage to clear the roadblock just as the workmen are whirring into action. Back on smoother roads, this is by far the most leisurely part of the ride, as I head to the riverside town of Wangdue. The surface is perfectly paved and the wind is billowing eagerly behind me as I descend into the valley, with the sun glinting off the river water.

Wangdue is the largest town I’ve seen so far. It has a bustling sense of energy and is surrounded by building works. This valley is sandier and more arid than what we’ve seen so far, and feels more like an exotic Caribbean island.

We grab a spot of lunch and head to the ancient capital of Punaka for the evening. Tomorrow we will take on the legendary climb of the Dochu La, which rises for 37.5km at a 5% average. A trip to the vast temple of the Punaka Dzong, and some hearty self-reflection below the sacred Bohdi tree prepares me for the task ahead.

The last leg

‘The way to the kingdom of Shambala is very difficult,’ wrote Father Cacella in the 17th century. He was right. Climbing the endless slopes of the Dochu La, I realise that travellers must have had to envisage a utopia on the other side of the peak in order to summon the will to cross it.

Of all the terrain on our Himalayan expedition, this is the most distinct. With thick cedar trees and sheer cliff faces, it feels as though I’m riding through the set of Jurassic Park. The altimeter on my Garmin ticks over painfully slowly. When the trees clear, the view across the Himalayan landscape is overwhelming – the greatest panorama in a trip of perfect panoramas.

It’s over two hours before I see a glimpse of the summit. I began in 40°C heat and now it’s just 15°C. When I finally reach the cluster of flags at the top, I roll to a halt at the base of the monument, erected to honour the 108 Bhutanese soldiers who died fighting Indian rebels in 2003.

The climb has been my last true exertion of the journey. From here it’s a coast down to the capital of Thiumphu on a wide tarmac road (two-lanes at points, but cows still roam on the highway), but the wind is against me and even on a 5% decline I find myself pedalling hard to sit at 25kmh.

As I descend towards the capital, I feel a sense of elation from the scale of this journey through new lands and customs. It’s no wonder that legends of a nearby paradise once spread infectiously through these mountains. Even against the savage winds and neverending climbs, the beauty of the region has kept me moving, desperate to see what lies over the next ridge.

Three days in Bhutan

Follow Cyclist’s route across Bhutan’s (single-track) national highway

Our route, from Bumthang to the capital of Thimphu, followed Bhutan’s Lateral Road, which is the main east-to-west highway. On the whole, it’s hard to go wrong as there are few roads to turn onto.

Setting off from Bumthang, the town centre has a small roundabout with a signpost for Tsonga. Follow that road under a big wooden arch out of the town and continue for 268km until reaching Thimphu. We broke up the journey by stopping for a night at Phobjikha and then Punaka on the second day.

Guided tours are provided by Livetheadventure.co.

Cock and bull stories

When visiting Bhutan, watch out for all the penises

Bhutan is filled with phalluses. You can find them painted on the walls of new buildings, hanging from rooftops, on keyrings in cars or carved in vast wood sculptures both in the home and in public. Oddly, they have little relevance to fertility, but rather are intended to ward off evil spirits and malicious gossip.

The tradition is thought to have originated from a 15th century Tibetan lama called Drupka Kunley, who had an odd approach to worship and was nicknamed ‘The Saint of 5,000 Women’. The randy priest would get women to seek his blessing in the form of sex, and his carnal ways became so legendary that his penis came to be known as the ‘Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom’.

Thanks

Many thanks to Anthony Eddies-Davis from Live The Adventure, who joined us on our trip and offered a wealth of local knowledge. Live The Adventure also sourced excellent local guides, Pho and Lekey, who’s knowledge of the region and of cycling was invaluable. Thanks also to Druk Air for assistance with internal flights, and for Nathan Rous for coordinating our contact with Live The Adventure.

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