A cultural bias that has its roots in harsh landscapes and a harder lifestyle may have worked against adventure sports in Bhutan. But it’s the same wild Himalayan terrain that presents pioneering opportunities in the country, says Karma Singye Dorji of Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions. By Karma Singye Dorji
“Woo-hoo!” the young rider hurtling down the mountain in front of me screams. “Welcome to Bhutan’s Whistler!” He is referring, of course, to Canada’s Mecca for mountain biking.
On either side of me, the dense foliage is a blur. The boys in front of me skid and lean into turns, sending up sprays of dry oak leaves and pine needles. My knuckles, under my gloves, are no doubt white. I try to stay with the group, but pretty soon, it’s a futile exercise. The boys are flinging their bikes over fallen logs and branches, catching air where I come to a screeching halt barely surviving a bone-jarring crash. And most painfully for my ego, I’m having to pick up my bike to walk over the obstacles so I can keep riding. I’m navigating—less than gracefully—the second or third of such obstacles when I realise that the boys of the Thimphu Mountain Biking Club (TMBC) are long gone. I hear the distant echoes of their adrenaline-fuelled whoops and hollers until even that fades and I can barely spot their tiny, quickly receding shapes through the trees and underbrush, throwing miniature clouds of dust behind them as they barrel down the mountain.
That gives me a chance to continue riding at my own pace rather than the breakneck speed of earlier. All hopes of mountain biking cred with the youngsters tossed aside, I begin to enjoy the ride much better. The imminent threat of broken limbs or worse gone, I can hear the occasional breeze through the tall pines and cypress, and frequently, the whipping, twisting, and turning line of the trail brings me suddenly to clearings and overlooks with staggering views of the valley. Small clustered villages with their obligatory gold-roofed temples set on the knolls and saddles of the hills and ridges surrounded by rice fields and prayer flags and, far below, the sedately flowing Mochhu River skirting the edges of the valley’s massive monastery-fortress, the Punakha Dzong, which straddles its confluence like a great white ship at anchor.
Looping endlessly back and forth down the flanks of the mountain, I finally reach the technical section of the trail, where the TMBC boys are waiting for me. We negotiate the final rocky, boulder-strewn series of switchbacks, the boys gleefully and I barely hanging on to my bike. Finally, to my great relief, the trail spills on to a smooth, wide section of paved road next to the Mochhu River. Then we spin easily across a steel Bailey bridge that spans the water, with a lovely view of the 17th-century Punakha Dzong and its colourfully carved wooden cantilever walkway, coming abreast of lush rice-fields where local farmers bent over their work stand momentarily to wave at our motley crew in primary colour helmets, spandex shorts (in my case), and neon-bright jerseys.
In Bhutan, the idea of seeking adventure can be difficult to explain to people of a certain generation. As my father often says, “You want to go trekking? Why don’t you chop some firewood instead?” The idea that I would want to go hiking or mountain-biking for the fun of it often leaves him nonplussed. For a man who just a few generations ago, before roads were built in Bhutan, had no choice but to trek 18 days over the mountains to attend boarding school in India, I suppose the expense of valuable calories and energy for fun seems frivolous. A harsh landscape that takes strength and endurance to survive makes a virtue of conserving energy. This sort of cultural bias is likely why it has taken so long for adventure sports to take hold in Bhutan. It is certainly not for the lack of opportunities. In fact, Bhutan’s wildly beautiful Himalayan scenery rivals those of the more celebrated outdoor playgrounds of the rich and famous: the Whistlers, the Aspens, the Sun Valleys, and the Chamonix’s of the world.
With 10 pristine national parks and wilderness areas covering 42 per cent of the country, beautiful valleys, crystal clear rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests that account for 71 per cent of total area, Bhutan is coming into its own as an adventure destination.
In recent years, enterprising tour operators and quasi-community ecotourism outfits have brought the thrills and spills of whitewater rafting and kayaking to Bhutan. Easy Class I & II paddles—defined as relaxing, mostly calm, flowing water with tiny waves lapping at the edges of the boats—have become popular in Punakha along the Mochhu and Phochhu rivers.
Advanced paddlers can sign up for the heart-racing Class III and IV rapids—described as long, challenging drops, narrow passages, and turbulent water that require precise manoeuvring—on Bhutan’s south-central stretch of the Mangdechhu River (which eventually flows out to India and the Bay of Bengal as the mighty Manas).
There are also fully hosted jungle camps in the subtropical forests of the Royal Manas National Park that include basic amenities and meals with safaris and chance sightings of the endangered Asian one-horned rhino, the colourful pre-historic-seeming great hornbills perched among the trees, and the endemic golden langur primates in the forest canopy.
Another adventure sport well-suited to the terrain of Bhutan—rock climbing—began in 1998 with a nascent group of 18 climbers calling themselves Vertical Bhutan. They established 13 routes on an easy-to-medium-difficulty rock face overlooking the capital, Thimphu. They dubbed it ‘The Nose’.
The routes have names that range from descriptive to intimidating: The Viennese Waltz (for Austrian Stefan Priesner, the UN worker who first climbed it); Sandflies Kisses (“a challenging route infested with sandflies in June”); Once in 12 Years; and the ominous- sounding Dead Man Walking.
Of all the outdoor adventure activities in Bhutan, trekking is by far the oldest and most well-established. Routes that have been open and operated since the birth of tourism in Bhutan, sometime in the mid-1970s, offer the most reliable path to adventure and the best way to take in the incredible scenery and natural grandeur of the Bhutan Himalayas. There are numerous treks—old and new—all across the country, and some with romantic sounding names such as The Thousand Lakes Trek. But none is so beautiful or so arduous as the Snowman Trek, which is billed as “one of the most difficult treks in the world due to altitude, duration, and distance.” To arrange one of these expeditions, one has to first contact a Bhutan- based tour company registered with the Tourism Council of Bhutan. Even if you book your adventure with a travel agent outside Bhutan, such trekking and camping adventures and, indeed, all tours in the kingdom must eventually be handled in the country by a Bhutanese tour operator licensed by the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
That mountain biking has become such an up-and-coming sport in Bhutan is thanks in part to the kingdom’s beloved royal family. His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan (and father of the current king), is regularly seen riding the many recently developed trails around Thimphu. His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, the fifth and present ruler of Bhutan, is a mountain biker as well, and His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the king’s younger brother, is the primary force behind the gruelling Tour of the Dragon, a yearly 268-kilometre mountain bike race, in which competitors climb four passes over 10,000 feet.
Recovering from my ride in Punakha with the boys from TMBC, after obligatory rounds of Bhutan’s nationally brewed Red Panda beer, after the endless recaps of derring-do that accompany such rides with the younger set, after the many jokes about my less-than-stellar-performance, my mind wanders back to what the young biker yelled into the wind at the beginning of the ride. It was, in fact, better than Whistler. It was all the adventure, the challenge, the breathtaking scenery, danger, and adrenaline—without the crowds. Indeed, we—a group of seven riders—were the only ones that entire day on the mountain!
And this is what makes Bhutan so special. Any outdoor adventure enthusiast with a modicum of skills may well find themselves a trailblazer, a pioneer even, in Bhutan. It may take time, patience, connections, and expense to research and arrange your particular experience, but the rewards are immense. In some instances, you could well be the first person to introduce a hitherto unknown adventure sport in the kingdom, like the handful of rock climbers who started Vertical Bhutan, like the group of women in 2017 who completed a first-ever stand-up paddle-board run down a section of the Mochhu River to the bemusement of red-robed monks and betel-chewing farmers walking beside the river.