Mountain biking in Bhutan: did someone say tough?

November 17, 2016
The rough and rocky bike track in Bhutan.

Mountain biking in Bhutan is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

I love exploring a new country by bike so it’s almost a given that I book a bike tour of some sort.

The mountain bike route for Bhutan was my idea. I clearly recall my conversations with the travel agent requesting she add it to the itinerary. I also remember reading the detailed day-to-day plan of our two-week holiday so I knew that day one of our adventure involved an 8-kilometre climb to an altitude of over 3,400 metres.

No problem, I thought, we can do that. Take it slow, nice and easy. We’re both relatively fit. We’ve done some training in an altitude centre to help acclimatise to high elevations. We both love a challenge and haven’t been beaten by one yet.

Why Bhutan?

So what was it about Bhutan that attracted me?

I’d wanted to visit this tiny Himalayan country for many years. I’d read a book about an Australian woman who moved there with her baby and husband and seen a documentary about the Bhutanese way of life and their commitment to Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product.

I was curious about how a country could remain relatively removed from the commercialism and consumerism of the Western world. And I wanted to explore the mountains. I’m a city girl through and through yet I love visiting remote destinations, leaving the trivialities and complexities of home life behind. The simplicity of life in less sophisticated countries is extremely alluring.

Don’t underestimate the impact of high altitude

We started our bike journey from the town of Gangtey in the Phobjikha Valley, which is a long, slow drive from Thimpu via Punakha (read more on Punakha in the Guide to Bhutan.)  The Phobjikha Valley is most famous for being home to the rare black-necked crane, which flies in from Tibet during the winter months (late October to early February).

Before tackling our first hill on the bikes we visited the Black Crane nature and information centre and were lucky to spy a few black cranes in the nearby fields and see an injured one rehabilitating in the Centre. It was a relaxing start to what proved to be a much tougher day than we could ever have imagined.

We reached the start of the bike track and gingerly headed off. We’d been a little alarmed to learn that our Bhutanese guide had only been on the route once before, and that was a recce a few days ago. He told us he navigated the route on a motor bike and fell off three times because the road was so bumpy and challenging.

We hadn’t travelled very far before JJ, my travel partner and I, stop, in a mild state of shock.  We can cycle for about 90 seconds before we’re completely puffed out, heart rates racing, desperately gasping for air and a rest!

The altitude is one thing. The roads are another. They’re woeful! Steep, incredibly rocky and jagged, impossible to get any traction and forward momentum. The degree of difficulty literally stops us in our tracks.

Beaten by the back roads of Bhutan?

After about two kilometres of seriously hard yakka, JJ wants to put the bikes in the back of the support truck and walk. I refuse to give in so early and so easily. He’s worried about survival, I’m worried about being beaten by the back roads of Bhutan.

I struggle on determinedly.  Stop. Catch my breath. Start again. Stop. Catch my breath. Continue. We reach about half way up the mountain and common sense kicks in. It’s day one of our holiday. We’ve got a long way to go, we’re here to enjoy ourselves and we’re in this together.

We put the bikes on the back of the truck and walk to the Tsele La pass at the top (3430 metres) and are very relieved with our decision.

We discover the road down the other side isn’t any better. It’s rocky and unstable and you need to have your breaks on 100 percent of the time. But it’s downhill so it’s doable. And fun.

We had to get off and walk our bikes up the mountain as riding was so tough.

Mountain biking in Bhutan at high altitude was much tougher than I imagined.

Is Bhutan the steepest country in the world?

So began our 3-day adventure mountain biking in Bhutan.

As our trip unfolded we came to realise that Bhutan is possibly the steepest country in the world and I should have done more research and asked a lot more questions before agreeing to our itinerary. The reality though is that it’s still early days for biking in Bhutan so there’s not a lot of information out there.

But as is often the case, the overall experience adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. We’re in remote territory, it’s beautiful, we’re well off the beaten track, the air is clean and fresh.

Lunch on our first day of biking was a picnic in a paddock with barely a soul in sight and not a tourist for many, many miles. To me, when so many places across the world are crawling with tourists, it’s holiday nirvana to have a place to yourself.

Staying with the locals – as authentic as it gets

After such a hard first day’s riding, I was desperate for a warm shower and somewhere to put my legs up and chill out.

That’s where the second shock of the day came in!

We stayed with a family in a farmhouse in the tiny village of Gogona where most locals are subsistence farmers. Our hosts generated income by providing milk to the cheese factory next door.

Their farmhouse was extremely rustic. The main house was on the first floor and access was via a steep ladder. No stairs here. There weren’t any dining table and chairs either – we ate crossed-legged on the floor, huddled around the bukhari, the traditional pot belly stove, where all the food was cooked.

We slept on the floor on thin mattresses. The toilet was literally a hole in the ground way out in the back paddock. And of course, there was no such thing as a shower. This was as authentic as it gets.

That afternoon we walked down and visited the local school. The soccer field had tree branches for goal posts and the school classrooms had plastic to cover the windows. It was bare bones basic. Because it’s such a small village with limited facilities older children leave the village to go to school in larger towns.

We were the first-ever visitors to stay at the farmhouse and it felt like such an honour. Most travellers who venture this way are trekkers and camp each night. Our guide told us that the ‘father’ of the house was embarrassed at not having dining chairs and a table but we loved eating their way. It was an extraordinary experience and we wouldn’t have changed a thing.

It made me think about how we live in such a disposable society. In the western world where we have regular street clean-ups, you can find discarded furniture of all varieties – dining tables, chairs, beds, desks, TVs – that literally gets thrown out, crushed and dumped in a tip.

We were the first visitors to stay at this farmhouse in the tiny Bhutanese village of Gogona.

We were the first visitors to stay at this farmhouse in the tiny Bhutanese village of Gogona.

Our host at our farmstay in Gogona. We ate some of the green vegetables drying out over the pot belly stove - bukhari - for dinner that night.

Our host at our farmstay in Gogona. We ate some of the green vegetables drying out over the pot belly stove – bukhari – for dinner that night.

Our dinner at the farmstay - rice, egg, veggies and potato with cheese.

Our dinner at the farmstay – rice, egg, the green veggies (like spinach) and potato with cheese.

Food in Bhutan is pretty basic – mostly locally-grown rice and vegetables with some eggs and occasionally beef or chicken. The Bhutanese love chillies and their national dish is chilli cheese. We weren’t game to try the chillies, largely because we didn’t want to have to drink lots of water and get up in the freezing night to go outside to the toilet!

Have a drink with the locals

The next day the cycling improved marginally.  The climb wasn’t as steep and we rode back up to about 3,500 metres. The road wasn’t much better though and again we had to get off and push our bikes across the mud and wood log sections and bridges. We covered 17 kilometres on day one and about 25 on day two but it felt like a whole lot more.

The second night we stayed with a monk in another tiny village, Khotoka. The town is close to the logging areas of Bhutan and somehow massive trucks made their way along the water-sodden, muddy roads to the village.

Again, we were the first-ever visitors at this home stay but we had a ‘luxurious’ double bed, western toilet, a heater, a lounge to sit on and even a TV to watch the two local TV stations! There was only a drizzle of hot water though.

Khotoka was very small yet it boasted several general stores. We visited a couple of them and enjoyed a local beer and wine in one that doubled as a bar. We took our wine home with us and shared it with our host over our dinner of rice and veggies.

Having a drink at a general stores cum bar in the village of Khotoko.

Having a drink at a general store cum bar in the village of Khotoko.

Carrying our bikes across the muddy track.

Carrying our bikes across the muddy track.

Mountain biking in Bhutan.

Thank goodness for the downhills!

We made it!

On our third and final day of cycling the road started out very muddy, riddled with large potholes. But it was mostly downhill on a dirt road that we shared with a few jeeps, trucks and some big road-improvement machinery.

By the time we arrived at our destination, Tiki Zampa, after another 20 or so kilometres we were pretty filthy but had massive smiles on our faces. Not only had we survived but we’d seen some spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains and rice terraces along the way. We’d also stumbled upon a colony of monkeys in their natural habitat.

We headed back to Punakha for the night where we enjoyed a night of comfort at the Zhingkham Resort, with a hilltop view of the stunning Punakha dzong. The hotel was probably the best we stayed at for our entire holiday. Luxury.

Trip notes:

  • Don’t do what we did unless you’re super fit. It was super tough. Find some flat roads, perhaps the one between Paro and Thimpu, instead. At least spend a few days riding to acclimatise before tackling the steep, high hills.
  • Mountain biking in Bhutan is still in its infancy and bike hire is expensive, about $USD40 per day. Our bikes were great though and we felt very lucky that we didn’t get a punctured tyre on the rocky roads.
  • As always, I took my own bike seat and was so grateful. The roads were very uncomfortable so the extra padding was a godsend.

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