Try whizzing past locals on a State Of The Art Mountain Bike and you’ll realise that Mountain Biking is a relatively new phenomenon in this rugged Buddhist kingdom.
Few people ride mountain bikes in Bhutan. Maybe it’s the rugged terrain or that the mandatory dress (Gho /Kira) is not conducive to bike riding. But the experience is nothing short of exhilarating. bhutan has some of the best places in the world to cycle.
There are plenty of good reasons to Mountain Bike in Bhutan
o Bhutan has immense areas of undisturbed nature and even cycling along its “highways” one sees a lot of it.
o The views are often stunning, but you are advised to stop before you look.
o The climate in spring and autumn is quite pleasant for cycling,
o None of the main roads are very steep. The steepest gradients are around 7%,
o Out of the urban areas there is little traffic.
The best way to start Mountain Biking in Bhutan is on the tarmac roads. Leave the cars, trucks and exhaust fumes behind and follow the journey of the rivers. From the capital Thimphu the road winds gently up the valley following the beautiful Thimphu River /Chu. As you pass through the small settlements of Taba and Denchencholing there is no shortage of kids to cheer you on, give you a high five and low 5 as you ride past, or a push up the hill if you’re lucky!
The road climbs high above the river, gently winding its way up the valley past farm houses and through the settlement of Begana where we stopped to visit friends, have a well earned break, and see what produce was for sale.
The valley starts to narrow and the Thimphu Chu becomes a rushing torrent of beautiful translucent green. Glimpses of river are seen below as the road takes you past a few side streams and a large rock mural of Guru Rinpoche who first brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 7th century.
Across a traditional Bailey bridge, the road swings left, following the river as the valley narrows further. A gentle climb leads through forests of oak and rhododendron with views of delightful picnic spots below.
The road ends at Dodena with a welcome drink stop. A short walk across a covered cantilever bridge leads to a chorten and a popular picnic spot.
Before the road ends a tarmac road to the right winds it way up to a view of Tango Goempa (monastery) high above. A walk up to this picturesque three-story monastery takes about an hour. A permit is required to enter the Llakhang or temple, which your guide can arrange.
Riding back down the valley is nothing short of exhilarating. Clean fresh air fills your lungs, white puffy clouds hang suspended over tall craggy ridges, with a backdrop of triangular snow capped peaks at the head of the valley. Its tempting to go flat out but its best to keep your speed at a controllable level, so go for slow, or relatively slow that way you can catch glimpses of the passing scenery as well.
Biking the trails and tracks
Mountain biking on the trails and tracks is very different in Bhutan.
Not only is it fun to do but the scenery is fantastic. Even little rest stops next to a group of prayer flags or a chorten is special. For those who are faint hearted the main tarmac roads around Thimphu and its valley provide ample enjoyment, but if you are a little mad, plain stupid or get duped into doing something with friends, then the trails up into the mountains and ridges are the go. Be prepared for some huffing and puffing as you carry your bike along some of the old trading routes. There are some forestry roads that provide relatively easy access up, but even these can be a lung-busting event if you are not acclimatised to the altitude. You generally need at least one week to get acclimatised to the altitude (Thimphu is about 2300 m above sea level).
Once heading uphill on the trails you often meet locals coming down and all are interested and bewildered by what you are doing and more importantly “Where are you going?” Locals are always very friendly and full of good information about which trails to follow, which is fortunate as there is a plethora of trails and tracks to follow (or more importantly – not to follow). Actually, most villagers assume that you are lost if are carrying a bike up a small trail, and they may try to show you the shortest way to a tarmac road, which is often where you just came from.
Most of the forests around Thimphu and in the surrounding country are grazed by cows and the higher pastures (above 3000m) by yaks in winter. Yak meadows often provide an excellent spot for a lunch stop and provide fantastic views. You may be lucky and see a couple of yaks but stay clear of them, they have vicious horns. Sometimes a yak herder’s dog may also hassle you but a squirt with the drink bottle or threaten to throw a stone and they stay clear, often barking until you are far away.
As you climb up, the vegetation changes from the pine forests and oaks on the lower slopes, to rhododendron forests with hemlock, fir and juniper. Then the long awaited downhill sections arrive. Some can be bone jarring shaking rocky paths. Others can be exhilarating windy runs. On one ride, we ended up on the main highway near Dochula pass (3400m) and had a great ride back to the capital along the tarmac. It was on a Sunday afternoon and there wasn’t much traffic. Due to the windy roads, most cars travel about 30km per hour and on a bike you can often catch and pass them. Drivers and passengers give you plenty of encouragement and often pull over to allow you to pass.
One of the must dos for those interested and who love long downhill runs is the descent from Chele La (the highest road pass at almost 3800m in Bhutan) down to the bridge just south of Paro. It’s a fantastic run. From the high pass on clear days you get views of the greater Himalayas including Mount Chomalari. Then it’s a windy paved road downhill for 35km, dropping from nearly 3800m at the pass to 2230m down in the Paro valley. There is hardly any traffic and the descent is not too steep or dangerous, we took it easy and averaged about 35km/hr on the downhill taking just over an hour to do the run. At one time going past a yak meadow we had to yell out to some young yaks to “get out the way!” – I don’t think they had ever seen mountain bikers before and looked very startled!
There are plenty of great views, one which sticks in the mind is the view through the tall cedars looking up to a distant nunnery perched halfway up a cliff.