Explore the tiny remote mystical Kingdom of Bhutan by bike.
Bicycles and Bhutan are a perfect fit. The tiny remote mystical Kingdom of Bhutan is probably the most culturally rich of all the Himalayan Kingdoms and is one of the most inaccessible. Tucked away at the eastern end of the mighty Himalaya, the Land of the Thunder Dragon is a wonderful place for a bike trip with some good paved roads, forests, glacial rivers, wonderful mountain scenery and cultural diversity. The whole country feels serene and is united by its love of the King and GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than GNP. This new trip takes us from Paro in the west to Bumthang in central Bhutan. We visit the remote Haa Valley and the capital, Thimphu. Crossing several passes over 3000m, we get wonderful views over the Himalaya. A side trip to the beautiful Gangtey Valley and Punakha Dzong are added highlights as is a visit to one of the masked dance festivals (on certain departures). There are plenty of long mountain climbs and exhilarating descents so a good level of cycling fitness is required.
Breakfast is included throughout the trip plus 11 lunches and 11 dinners whilst in Bhutan. The meals in Bhutan are usually buffet style and include Bhutanese and Western food. Bhutanese food can sometimes be considered a little bland - this is generally because chillies are frequently used in traditional dishes, and these are often omitted to adapt to foreigners' tastes. However you will find an assortment of meat, vegetable, rice and potato dishes and many examples of the infamous 'Ema Datshi' (chillies and cheese) so there will be plenty of nutrients for your cycle rides! Breakfasts are an assortment of hot food and fruit, and lunches will either be a hot picnic or taken at a nearby restaurant. Please allow approximately £20-25 ($30-40) per day for other main meals in Kathmandu.
Depart London **
Start in Kathmandu and transfer to our hotel. The evening is free to relax. *Standard Hotel*
Today we fly to Paro. The flight is one of the most spectacular mountain flights in the world and takes us over the eastern Himalayas. If the weather is clear, we should get a fantastic view of much of the eastern half of the Himalaya, including Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga and Chomolhari (Jhomolhari). Today’s schedule depends on the flight timings. We will sort the bikes out, have a full briefing and hopefully there will be time for a short and easy cycle ride up the Paro Valley to the ruins of Drukyel Dzong. (If the flight is delayed we may be able to fit in a short but steep ride to the National Museum in Paro. This ride is 12km round trip with 215m ascent and 209m of descent). *Standard Hotel *
Today is the first full day’s ride and it is a tough day. We will try and cycle from the hotel (for those who want to ease themselves into cycling at altitude they can drive out of Paro to approx. 20km short of the Chele La). The road condition is good and the route zigzags uphill for 38km to eventually reach the pass (3810m). It will take about six hours to the top with plenty of rest stops along the way. We will stop at the top for a quick cup of hot masala tea (it is usually windy and cold at the top). On a clear day it is possible to see Chomolhari and Jichudrake, the two most famous mountains in Bhutan. We put on our warm layers before the well-earned and exhilarating 29km descent down to Haa. *Standard hotel*
The Haa Valley is one of the most picturesque in Bhutan. Only opened to foreigners in 2002 it is still rarely visited. The name means ‘Hidden Rice Valley’ and in the pre-Buddhist era it was well known for its animist traditions. The valley has its own guardian called Ap Chendu, who is still worshipped. It is culturally rich with temples and a dzong (a dzong is a cross between a monastery and fortress and today they are used for secular and religious activities). Almost every town has a dzong perched in a spectacular location and the one in Haa was built in 1915. A long but spectacular ride today of approximately 81km, which will take between 6-7 hours depending on the pace of the group. The road is paved (watch out for potholes) and is mostly downhill with some undulating sections. The riding is easy after the exertion of yesterday. It is one of the most stunning rides of the trip. The Haa Valley is quiet and is populated by farming communities. We pass beautiful farmhouses, built in traditional Bhutanese style and fields of rice and potatoes. There is plenty of time to stop and take photographs. We have lunch along the way and then there is some climbing to do in and out of side valleys before a wonderful descent to Chuzom Sa, at the point where the roads join, between Paro, Haa, Thimphu and south to Phuntsoling. Three beautiful stupas in Nepalese, Tibetan and Bhutanese style lie just above the Pa Chu. Once we reach the river and the main highway the road and traffic becomes much busier, so we will take a van transfer for the final 30km or so to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. *Standard Hotel*
We spend the morning exploring the outskirts of Thimphu by bike. We head out of town past the Tashichho Dzong. A very steep but short climb brings us to a nice quiet road towards Cheri. The road undulates through a wonderful forest with a couple more steep but short climbs. We pass a large painted stone depicting Guru Rinpoche before a final descent and ascent to a chorten at Cheri. A welcome break and snack stop allows us to refuel before the cycle back to town for lunch. In the afternoon we visit several of the sights in Thimphu by bus. The Memorial Chorten is one of the most visible structures in Thimphu and if it is open we can visit the Tashichho Dzong, the seat of the Bhutanese government. Late afternoon we drive up to Buddha Point, a 51m high Buddha statue with great views overlooking the whole of the Thimphu Valley. If you are travelling on the Thimphu Festival departure Ex London 22 September 2020, then there is the option to visit the festival for half a day today instead. *Standard Hotel*
An early start today so we can get out of Thimphu before the morning rush hour. The ride starts with a short section of ‘Bhutanese flat’ (i.e. undulating terrain!) for 5km as a warm-up. Across the valley we can see Simthoka dzong and the climb to the pass starts just beyond here. We enter the forest and a great black top road climbs all the way to the pass. Climbing in Bhutan is all about getting into a slow rhythmic pace with time to enjoy the views and stopping for plenty of rests and refreshment breaks. The climb averages 4.8% gradient, so not too steep. Finally, we emerge at the top of the pass, where 108 stupas sit, and thousands of prayer flags flutter in the wind. If the weather is good we may get a glimpse of Gankar Punsum (7570m) which is the highest peak in Bhutan. The top of the pass is 21km into the ride, and the rest of the day is mainly downhill. It is a great 39km descent on good road to Lobesa, where we have lunch. As we descend the scenery and temperature changes as we enter the more sub-tropical Punakha valley. From Lobesa we can see the Chimmi Lhakhang below. This temple was built to honour one of the more folkloric saints of the Bhutanese tradition; Lama Drukpa Kunley. The lama was known for his foul-mouth, alcohol-smelling breath, and insatiable lust towards women, yet he is revered as a great saint by most Bhutanese. It is believed that women who cannot conceive will get pregnant if they are blessed by the wooden phallus in the temple and the phallic paintings on many of the Bhutanese houses are symbolic of him. After lunch it is another 12km undulating ride to Punakha dzong. We will need to change our clothes before visiting this impressive building. Punakha’s small size defies its importance and long history. The dzong in Punakha is used as the government’s winter base due to its lower altitude and warmer weather. It sits at the confluence of the Po and Mo Rivers and is an imposing building dating from the 15th Century. From the dzong we have a short 10 minute drive to our hotel. *Standard Hotel*
Today is probably the toughest cycling day and the road conditions can be variable. We start cycling from the hotel and the first 13km are undulating to the main road (some of this road was narrow and rough in spring 2018). Once on the main road we head east on the new tarmac road. The next 10km undulates easily to a bridge, from where the long climb towards the Pele La starts. The road climbs constantly as it winds its way up through thick tropical forest with great views of the hills all around us and the buzz of cicadas in the air.. Most of the road is great tarmac up past Nobding. A few kilometres further on we pass the last houses at Dungding Nesa. To the left we can see the trail of the old road which was destroyed by a landslip. We head towards the right on the new road which is partly rough and partly tarmac. 4km from Dungding Nesa we come to a small junction – ahead the main road goes to the top of the Pele La. We turn off the main road here and it is a final steep 1.5km to the top of the Lawa La (65km from Punakha), marked by a large white chorten. It is probably quite late afternoon by the time we reach the pass and we will need to put some warm layers on for the final hours ride which brings us right down into the Gangtay Valley to Phobjikha; a beautiful glacial area where the rare Black-necked cranes from Tibet spend the winter. *Simple guesthouse*
This morning we start the day in the bus and drive the 10km to the top of the Lawa La. We get on our bikes at the top of the pass and start with 1.5km downhill to the junction. Joining the main road it is an easy 2.5km, 30 minute climb up to the top of the Pele La at 3353m. This pass crosses the Black Mountains and is the border between Western Bhutan, where we have cycled for the past few days, and Central Bhutan which we now enter. The next 26km is a great winding downhill mostly on good road but with some rougher sections, to Chendebji, where there is a large chorten, modelled on Bodnath in Nepal. We are now in warmer regions, with lush vegetation and waterfalls by the road. The road continues undulating easily down the valley, mostly on rough but wide road, passing a few settlements to a viewpoint, from where we can see Trongsa right across the valley. The valley is very narrow with the road cut into steep-sided walls with the river far below - it certainly is a dramatic ride. After a stop at a viewpoint it is only 13km more to our hotel (the sting in the tail today is that the last 7km are uphill!). Please note that parts of the road from the Pele La have not been finished yet. If there have been heavy rains then parts of the road may be impassable; the leader will determine at what points the group will need to travel in the van but we will attempt to cycle as much as possible. In spring 2018 the group cycled the whole route easily. *Simple guesthouse*
Our last full days cycling, with our final two passes and a great sense of satisfaction as we ride into Bumthang and the end of our journey having ridden halfway across the country. We cycle from the hotel and the climb starts immediately as the road zig zags up into the mountains. It is 28km to the top of the Yotong La at 3425m, and it will take us about 4.5hrs, from where we get great views of the mountains surrounding us and ahead down into the Chumey Valley. We now have 24km of descent into the valley. Dotted with beautiful Bhutanese farmhouses this is a wonderful ride. The valley here is famous for weaving and we may well see some of the locals at their looms. At the end of the valley we come to a junction. Taking the left hand fork the road now winds easily for 4km through a pleasant pine forest to the Keke La, our final pass. From here we have a wonderful descent into the stunning Bumthang Valley. We cycle down through the town of Jakar, with its interesting bazaar and cross the river by bridge. The final 4km takes us easily up the valley to our hotel. Please note this section of the road was being worked on in spring 2018. The ascent to the Yotong La was a mixture of good tarmac and rough road. The descent into the Chumey Vally was mostly rough. The ascent of the Keke La and descent into Bumthang was paved old road. By autumn 2018 most of the section to the Yotong La and down should be completed. *Standard Hotel*
Today we have a whole day to explore the Bumthang Valley; by bike and by bus. There is also an opportunity to witness one of Bhutan's famous festivals (specific dates only). The spring departures feature Domkhar or Ura Festival and, with the exception of the Ex London 7th November 2019 departure (which does not visit a festival), the autumn departures feature Jakar or Thangbi Festival. Festivals in Bhutan are very colourful affairs and are a celebration of the country's greatest Buddhist saint, Guru Rimpoche. Bhutanese come together during festivals to watch various dances such as the black hat dance or the treasure dance which normally have a long history and tradition going back centuries. Most of these are masked dances and the masks themselves have an important significance. Please note that the festivals in the Bumthang Valley are more local festivals, rather than the larger ones at Paro or Thimphu. Dates, timings and dancing can be changed at the whim of the monks or locals. Please note that we cannot guarantee any local festival. If there is a festival we normally visit in the morning and in the afternoon (and for the non-festival departure), for those that wish to join, we will plan an optional cycle ride to Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) which is named after the legend of Pema Lingpa who entered the lake with a butter lamp and returned with treasures and holy books, and the lamp still alight. This holy site, with its bright prayer flags, is a pilgrimage place for many Bhutanese. The round trip is approximately 28km, with 100% paved road. There is also a local brewery to visit, which makes the Red Panda Weiss beer. *Standard Hotel*
Today we will take an early 25 minute flight to Paro. There are spectacular views of the Himalayan mountain ranges during the flight. (Please note that flights from Bumthang are weather dependent). In Paro we will transfer to our hotel and in the afternoon we can visit Paro dzong and the National Museum. There will also be time to wander round the market. *Standard Hotel* * *
On our final full day in Bhutan we will enjoy a hike to one of the most iconic of the countries buildings; the Taktsang (or 'Tiger's Nest') Monastery. This spectacular place is perched on the ledge of a cliff high above the Paro Valley and is still today an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Partly destroyed by a fire in 1998, it has now been completely restored to its former magnificence. We drive a short distance from the hotel and then hike to the monastery; enjoying the fantastic views as we ascend. The trail climbs on a rough trail through the forest to the cafeteria, from where we get our first good views of Takstang. After a cup of tea we continue on up. The views get even more spectacular as we get closer. Finally a steep staircase brings us to the entrance. We can visit the temples that are hewn out of cliffs and wonder at how the monastery was built. Descending to the cafeteria, we have lunch before walking down to our bus for the short drive back to Paro. The walk is approximately 12km round trip. You need trainers or walking shoes for the walk. Sticks are available to buy at the car park. *Standard Hotel*
We transfer to the airport to check in for our flight back to Kathmandu. The rest of the day is free for individual sightseeing or shopping. The iconic sights to see in and around Kathmandu include the famous Durbar Square in the heart of the old city, the monkey temple at Swayambhunath, the Hindu temple at Pashupatinath or the large Buddhist stupa, 'Boudha Stupa' at Boudhanath. Further afield is Bhaktapur, a mediaeval city a few miles east of the capital. Bhaktapur has its own Durbar Square with many temples and statues and a maze of narrow streets, which are generally quieter than the capital. *Standard Hotel*
End Kathmandu after breakfast. For those on group flights, these depart in the morning and will arrive in the UK the same day.
* All breakfasts, 11 lunches and 11 dinners * All accommodation * All transport and listed activities * Tour leader throughout * Flights from London (if booking incl. flights) * Local bike hire
A wonderful trip through some amazing and unexpected countryside, with plenty of hills and friendly people, and a very rich culture.
Tremendous trip from start to finish. Fantastic country which was a privilege to visit.
Great cycling through the beautiful Bhutanese countryside on quiet roads - both wide and narrow. Some ups, some undulations and some superb descents. Despite the advent of technological ‘innovation’ such as mobile phones and Wi-Fi, Bhutan still retains the quiet serenity I remember from my first visit 14 years ago. Interspersed with the cycling there are opportunities to experience some fantastic Dzongs (temples), wonder at superb views and marvel at the colourful festival dancing.
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