Cycling is my favourite way to explore a new city or country. Bike riding tours in Bhutan are still in their infancy, and cycling in this mountainous country is not for the faint-hearted. My partner and I, both competent cyclists who’ve done a few biking holidays, signed up for a three-day bike tour in Bhutan and got way more than we bargained for. Nothing could have prepared us for what was in store.
We started our bike journey in the town of Gangtey, situated in the picturesque Phobjikha Valley in central Bhutan. Gangtey is about 135 kilometres from the capital, Thimpu. It’s famous as the home of the endangered black-necked cranes, which fly in from Tibet each winter. Our first stop was the Black Crane Nature and Information Centre, which we visited before setting of on our ride.
Our first day started with an eight-kilometre climb to the top of a mountain pass, Tsele La, at 3,430 metres. The road was a steep, rocky back-road, so we didn’t have to contend with other vehicles. We just had to battle the altitude and our breathlessness.
The road was so steep and uneven it was hard to get any traction. We had to stop constantly to rest and recover our breath, and we were genuinely stunned at how challenging it was. At times, we got off and just pushed our bikes up the hill. Even that was hard work.
As we climbed higher, we came face to face with yaks grazing in the bush on the side of the road. Views of the beautiful valley below slowly emerged through the trees.
Thankfully, our support truck didn’t venture too far in front of us. After several kilometres of painstakingly slow, arduous progress we threw the bikes in the back of truck and walked to the top. Sometimes it’s okay to say ‘enough’.
The ride down the other side was just as tough, but for different reasons. I get a little nervous if I pick up too much speed, and the rocky and uneven road was now a steep downhill. I had the brakes on for the whole bumpy descent–about nine kilometres!
We overnighted in the remote, rural village of Gogona, where the locals are subsistence farmers. We stayed with a local family in a very rustic farmhouse and ate our dinner of rice and veggies on the floor with the family. Trekkers who come through this area normally camp, and it was a privilege to be the first travellers to homestay here.
From Gogona, our second day of riding offered slightly different challenges: mud-soaked tracks, bridges made of wood logs and deep ditches in the ochre-coloured dirt roads. While the climb wasn’t nearly as steep, we had to hoist our bikes high and carry them across the muddiest parts.
We were lucky to have blue skies and sunshine on our ride up to Shobe La at 3,475m, another long, slow journey with plenty of stops to catch our breath and admire the stunning vista of snow-capped mountains. The descent was a refreshing change in scenery, cycling down through the shade of the rhododendron and pine forests.
Our privilege that night was staying with a monk in his private home in Khotokha village. The food was standard Bhutanese fare: red rice, vegetables in a cheesy sauce and eggs. We also had enough daylight to explore the local town, meet some of the villagers and have a drink at the local ‘pub’, a general store that doubled as a bar.
On day three we had to hop in the truck to make our way through the next stretch of road, it was simply too difficult to ride on. Recent rains had taken their toll on the dirt tracks, and it was very rough going. The potholes were massive, and even the truck struggled at times.
Once we passed the worst of it, it was a relief to get back on two wheels and into the fresh mountain air. The beauty of this day’s ride was that it was pretty much all downhill, zigzagging down endless switchbacks, with beautiful views across the valley and overlooking rice terraces below.
While during the previous two days we were the only ones on the road, today we encountered a colony of monkeys as well as a few jeeps, motorbikes, trucks and tractors that were working on road maintenance and improvement.
By the time our journey came to an end at a place called Tiki Zampa, we were dusty, dirty and in good need of a shower. Ironically, we felt like we were just getting warmed up, and wished we had a few more trails to explore!
Article by Diana Watts.
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