The following day we continued east, coasting along the Tsang Chu River for about 20 miles, passing chortens and then crossing the river and heading up to the hilltop town of Wangdu.? After lunch we cycled to the sound of a rushing river, climbing through an ever-narrowing spectacular canyon. Bhutan has untold numbers of roaring rivers and streams cascading down slopes everywhere! Just below the pass we headed down, zipping through 20 miles of switchbacks toward the village of Gangtey, while being chased by a local boy on his clunker of a bike.
Next morning we pedaled through the village where we came upon our cycling friend from the night before.? He suggested a road leading to some great single track. The trail took us through a pine forest and then out into a vast open valley where we spied Black Necked Cranes on their winter nesting grounds.
We stopped for lunch at one of the larger farmhouses in the valley. It's not uncommon, especially in rural areas, to be able to find a meal at a farm, and the woman of the house was happy to offer us homegrown potatoes and spinach. Bhutan is a matriarchal culture, where women traditionally own the family property and manage all affairs.
That evening we treated ourselves to a traditional hot stone bath, readying ourselves for the next day's ride over Pelela Pass and into the Mande Valley.
After our night at the Yangkhiel Hotel in Trongsa, we were driven up to Yotongla Pass, elevation: 11,500 feet. After coasting almost 30 miles through Chumey Valley, known for its beautiful woven woolens, we entered Jakar Village in the Bumthang region, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. With the Swiss Guest House as home base, we biked to the 8th century temple of Jampey Lhakhang and Kurjey Monastery.
The following days were spent riding and visiting spiritual sites as we traveled east to the top of Sheytangla Pass. Beyond was the stunning Ura Valley but, with much traveling ahead, we pushed on to the highest point of our journey, Thrumshingla Pass at 12,400 feet. A road sign at the top of the pass read, "Just bash on through," warning us of many sharp turns. This sounded like an awesome challenge, so Nyendra and I sent our support vehicle ahead and began an astounding downhill ride of nearly 80 miles.?
I never imagined that the scenery could get even better, but as we headed south into a milder climate through a mix of old growth pine, hardwoods and 30-foot rhododendrons, I was awed by the mounting beauty of our surroundings. Snaking down the Ura Valley, we passed waterfalls and vertiginous drops. In one day we had dropped an impressive 10,000 feet. In a matter of hours the climate had transformed from alpine to subtropical.
North beyond Autsho we headed far off the beaten path, climbing higher and higher until, near the end of the day, we came literally to the end of the road.? A group of villagers were there to meet us and together we transferred our gear to pack horses. We were on our way, hiking and biking, to Kurtoe, a breathtaking village where some of Nyendra's family lived.
That night, in a celebratory observance of 100 years of peace and prosperity under Bhutan's monarchy, I joined in the dancing, singing and imbibing of the potent ara. A village-full of friendly, gracious hosts accepted me with joy into their midst, and invited me to their homes where pictures of kings were displayed proudly, showing the love and respect all Bhutanese have for their monarchy, past and present.
In the morning the horses, with our gear, followed as we hiked and biked further up into the valley. The high peaks were getting closer and the roar of two rivers rushing from glaciers above was impressive.
We continued on to the even more remote village of Chusa to visit Nyendra's grandparents. These simple Himalayan farmers, now 80 years old, have lived in their Shangri-La valley without the benefit of access road, electricity, or indoor plumbing all their lives.? I met Nyendra's sister, husband and children and several other relatives.
Soon there was tea, and a hearty meal, and then, for me, an extraordinary opportunity: I was offered a chance to climb the mountain to Rinchen Bumpa Monastery, a sacred site used by Guru Rimpoche.
That night we slept in the house's prayer sanctuary. Many traditional Bhutanese maintain a shrine for their own personal religious practice and spiritual refuge. Usually a room is designated as the shrine and it is filled with important symbols of their rich Buddhist tradition.
Guided by a family member, we headed out in the morning for a challenging four-hour climb to the monastery.? As we reached the top I was aware of a profound sensation of wholeness and tranquility.
Ahead, another chorten beckoned. As we proceeded around it, a huge, round 100-foot tall rock appeared beyond. I was told that this rock was Guru Rimpoche's sanctuary and that he scribed his revelations on it as if he were writing a book. We continued on a not-for-the-faint-of-heart trail and then another route, even more hazardous, led to a cave in the rock used by Rimpoche.
Finally, we worked our way back along another tightrope of a trail, passing many ancient and worn inscriptions. Atop the rock we were encircled by snow-capped peaks and deep green valleys. It was clear why Rimpoche found inspiration here.
And Even More
After one more night with Nyendra's grandparents, we biked and hiked back to our vehicle and drove to the town of Mongar. We decided to visit one final temple and pedaled along the Gami Chu River towards Trashiyangtse to the 8th century shrine of Gomkora Lhakhang, where Guru Rimpoche is said to have subdued a demon.
Throughout the final days of our trip, as we journeyed through the tropical landscape, towering mountains and pristine vistas were always around the next bend. The magic of riding my bike through Bhutan's treasure of visual and cultural riches had truly made me appreciate the importance of the country's policies that protect its heritage and environment.
Venturing into this unknown land without any preconceived notions I discovered a gracious, loving people, a unique and amazing culture, a country of unimaginable beauty and an unparalleled riding experience.? I am already planning a return trip.
Special thanks to Fuji Bikes, Clif Bar, Sock Guy, Kenda Tire and Detours.
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Cliff Krolick is a biking adventurist. In 1991 he founded Back Country Biking Center in Maine, which he still operates. When in Maine he guides mountain biking tours and holds instructional seminars at his center. When abroad he leads tours in Ecuador, Italy, and now Bhutan as the exclusive biking outfitter from the U.S. partnered with the Bhutanese company AHKE Adventure (bhutanecoventure.com).