Cycling in Bhutan
The first known bicycle in Thimphu was a Hong Kong made Raleigh racing bike, imported around 1971 by Prince Namgyel, then Minister of Trade, Industry and Forests, who wanted to set a good example and cycle to work.
Back in 1993 when I first arrived in Bhutan, bicycles were rare in the capital Thimphu and mostly belonged to expatriates. More bicycles, mainly ridden by Indians, were circulating in the flatter border towns in the south. In Thimphu you could not buy bicycles or spare parts and if your bike needed to be fixed you had a problem if you could not do it yourself.
The first known bicycle in Thimphu was a Hong Kong made Raleigh racing bike, imported around 1971 by Prince Namgyel, then Minister of Trade, Industry and Forests, who wanted to set a good example and cycle to work. His first trials at cycling failed miserably. He asked the advice of Fritz Maurer, then a development worker in Gogona, who noticed that the bicycle had been assembled ‘upside down’, or at least some parts of it. After fixing it, he demonstrated the art of cycling and then cycled to Phuentsholing and back.
In those days drivers had tremendous respect for bicycles on the road and usually would pull over to let Fritz pass. Villagers would just gaze in disbelief. However, by the early 1990’s respect for bicycles, especially among truck drivers, had vanished and getting them to let you pass on a down-hill run was virtually impossible. But horses along trails still had a deep respect for mountain bikers and would only pass if you pulled your bike at least a couple of meters up the slope above the trail.
At the start of the 21st century, some of the more opulent and/or corpulent Bhutanese took up mountain biking, mainly for exercise, on tarmac roads. In 2002 the first mountain bike sale and repair shop opened in Thimphu. Bicycles became a more common sight, especially during weekends and now bike lanes adorn some of the roads in Thimphu. In East Bhutan bicycles were virtually absent and people still gazed at me. I was probably the first cyclist riding from Trashi Yangtse to Thimphu, or exploring the trail from Phobjikha to Wangdi via Gogona and Kotokha and the cultural trek in Bumthang on a mountain bike in one day.
After the fourth King and the then Crown Prince took up mountain biking, the sport really took off. More bikers took to trails and forest roads and a few mountain biking trails were built, especially near Thimphu and in West Bhutan. Others, including more royals, joined the fun and in 2010 HRH Prince Jigyel and a groups of serious bikers rode the first Tour of the Dragon, a one-day 260 kilometer ride across four high passes with some 4,400 meters of climbing. I had a go at this reportedly toughest one-day mountain biking race in the world. Definitely not a piece of cake, but doable if you are in good shape, have trained a hell of a lot, manage to survive the heat of Wangdue valley, and if your legs do not cramp up.
Nowadays when I cycle the 23 kilometer and 900 meter climb from Thimphu to the nearby Dochula pass at 3,150 meters, I can’t stop myself from thinking about the good old days when traffic was light, road cuts were half of what they are now and a small cosy teashop sat on the top of the hill above Dochula. Cycling tourists often follow this route to Wangdi or Bumthang and occasionally all the way across Bhutan to Trashigang in the East. Personally, I rather cycle along the roads in East Bhutan, where traffic is still light and most of the roads still have not been environmentally unfriendly widened. Recently I explored a new 160 kilometer mountain biking route mainly along farm roads in Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse in East Bhutan, with some very interesting side trips. Side trips may take you to a yak-herding village, to some of the most idyllic, impressive and peaceful monasteries in Bhutan, ruined ancient dzongs, roosting sites of the threatened black-necked cranes, and butterfly and bird watching areas.
Piet is an MTBiker, hiker, amateur-lepidopterist, geomorphologist, working in Bhutan.
by Piet Van Der Poet