14 days The Great Bhutan Mountain Bike Ride

the-great-bhutan-mountain-bike-ride

The rugged, mountainous landscape of Bhutan lends itself well to both on-road and off-road mountain cycling and the sport is seeing increasing popularity among both visitors and Bhutanese alike. There are varieties of cycling routes available ranging from smooth journeys on paved roads to challenging off-road dirt trails that wind through rough terrain. The sport offers a certain intimacy with the environment that is seldom experienced in vehicles. With better roads replacing the old, and with the increasing number of off-road roads, cycling in Bhutan is now becoming a very unique and original way of seeing and interacting with the country, people and the Bhutanese environment.

Most biking in Bhutan goes through well paved roads while others travel on dirt roads and mountain trails. Traffic is still relatively very light and the experience very intimate. The more adventurous have the option of making side excursions for more “off-road” ventures if prefer. The trails accommodate most types of frames: including MTB, Hybrid, and Road, depending on your biking style and experience. Biking trails mostly meander through small towns and villages in rural areas. It’s just you, your bicycle, the tour group and the agrarian and natural scenery.

There are also numerous opportunities for optional hikes with a bit of climbing thrown in. There are some challenging climbs with one in particular that is more than seven hours. You peddle the pads over two miles (3400 meters) above sea level. Your effort is rewarded with a breathtaking view and an unforgettable experience. Riders should have an adequate level of fitness and stamina and be experienced enough in the art of mountain biking. Tours are fully supported by a van following riders. The van allows riders to rest should they require it. Many of the biking trails lead through small villages and temples which can provide interesting and informative diversions should you wish to take a break.

Day 1: PARO (L/D)

Upon arrival at Paro International airport, you will be met by your guide. In the afternoon, you will have an opportunity to explore the beautiful town of Paro and pick up your mountain bikes.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Paro.

Day 2: TAKTSANG MONASTERY OR TIGER’S NEST (B/L/D)

After breakfast ride about an hour to the trail head. Then hike up to Taktsang monastery or Tiger’s Nest which clings to a sheer rock face at a height of 2600m above sea level.
The main temple was built around Guru Rimpoche’s meditation cave in 1684. This incredible monastery clings to the edge of a sheer rock cliff that plunges 900 meters into the valley below. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava, the tantric mystic who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in 747 AD, flew here on the back of a flying tiger, Dorji Drolo.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Paro.

Day 3: PARO – HAA (B//L/D)

An easy ride down the Paro valley from your hotel and you will pass through farmland and scattered hamlets to reach the start of a climb to the Chelela. Setting off on the first big climb, you gain height gradually and at some of the turns you will have glimpses of the snow-capped peaks of the Bhutan Himalaya to the north. Mount Jhomolhari and Jichu Drake are the biggest peaks at the western end of the country. After approximately 36km, which may take as long as 5 hours, you reach the prayer flagged summit of the pass at around 3822m. After such a short time in the country this is quite a high altitude and anyone not feeling up to the challenge can opt to hitch a ride on the support vehicle at any time. At the pass, there will be a snack lunch and plenty to drink before the breath taking 20 km descent. After an initial cruise between the trees, you head down into the valley by way of a series of 10 hairpin turns.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Haa.

Day 4: HAA – THIMPHU (B/L/D)

The destination today is the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu, which is 110km from Haa. Thankfully this is all on a good and fairly level road with very little traffic. Start out very easily for 40 km and then follow the Haa river gently downhill heading towards the south east and then northwards to a junction with Bhutan’s main East-West highway at Chuzom (2068m).

Then follow the Thimchu upstream through a mixture of rice fields and coniferous forest. We will find a suitable spot for a lunch stop and then continue, via a narrow gorge and a widening path of the valley at Namseling. Finally, the suburbs of Thimphu begin to appear and we see the impressive Simtokha Dzong in the middle of the valley. Thimphu is the only large settlement in Bhutan and is spread out across a wide valley. Thimphu has a special charm and it is fascinating to sit and watch a gathering of local people in the town square, wearing their traditional dress and going about their business in a typically unhurried Bhutanese way.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Thimphu.

Day 5: THIMPHU – PUNAKHA (B/L/D)

Today the road from Thimphu up to the Dochula at 3050m involves a 22 km ride and a height gain of 670m. The hillsides on either side of the road are covered in a luxuriant temperate forest with an abundance of rhododendron and magnolia. The lower slopes are even more lush with orange trees, bananas and bamboo. Several species of deer and monkeys make their home in this forest. A support vehicle will meet you at the pass and we will stop here for rest and refreshment.

The pass is marked by many prayer flags and chortens, and it offers a magnificent panorama of the Eastern Himalaya, including the giant 7000m peaks of Lunana in north-eastern Bhutan.

The road downhill from the Dochula into the Punakha valley will leave you speechless – 1700m of descent through lush forest and jungle – spread over a distance of 50 km. After a quick shower and change at your hotel, take the bus for a side trip to Punakha, Bhutan’s old capital. Lying at the junction of the Mo (Mother) Chu and the Pho (Father) Chu, Punakha Dzong is the winter home for over 1000 monks. Every year the Punakha festival celebrates the famous victory over the Tibetans, who were repulsed whilst trying to recapture the sacred statue of Avalokiteshvara, brought to Bhutan by Shabdrung. We have a sightseeing tour of the magnificent dzong which was built in 1637 and largely restored following a flood 10 years ago.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Punakha.

Day 6: PUNAKHA – GANGTEY (B/L/D)

The Central Road across the Black Mountains was completed in recent times and its completion brought about great changes to the people of central Bhutan. We leave our hotel and cycle down to the river and the valley bottom – one of the lowest points of the trip at 600m above sea level. Then there is a short climb to the village of Wangdue before a relatively flat road for 20km to a bridge across the river just past the village of Tikke. Here you stop for a tea break before beginning a long climb over the Black Mountains. This is a deceptively long climb, gaining almost 2000m, to a junction with the side road to Gangtey, a few kilometers beyond Nobding.

Crossing the pass, you descend into the Phobjikha valley, which is one of the few winter homes of the black-necked crane, which migrates here from the Central Asiatic Plateau in November. A short descent leads into the valley and to your hotel a few kilometers beyond the small village of Gangtey at 3000m.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Gangtey.

Day 7: GANGTEY – TRONGSA (B/L/D)

If the black-necked cranes are around, you will hear their distinctive calls from your hotel close to their feeding grounds. These birds are tolerant of people and regularly feed near human settlements and domestic livestock, perhaps because local religious beliefs protect them across much of their range.

Later you will head eastwards once again, continuing over the Pelela at 3300m. There is a good chance that you will see langur monkeys in the fores. At the pass the forest opens out a little and you may see yaks grazing by the side of the road. Looking back from the pass, it is possible to see Jhomolhari at 7219m. The Pelela is traditionally known as the boundary between Western and Eastern Bhutan, and the landscape which spreads out on the far side of the pass is different from that on the western side.

Another amazing descent of 1530m follows. It is downhill almost all the way for a further 60 km to Trongsa. Lunch at Chendebji, a magnificent stupa built to ward off the demons of the valley. After crossing a bridge at Nikachu, you will enter the Trongsa district and follow a dramatic section of the road carved into the side of a cliff high above the Mangdechu. The scenery is beautiful – forest as far as the eye can see and with Trongsa Dzong visible from 30km away, at the end of the valley. Trongsa means “new village”. It was founded in the 16th century, which is relatively recent for Bhutan! Hopefully, there will be time in the afternoon to look around the amazing dzong which is situated on a spur over the Mangdechu, with a commanding view in every direction. The altitude at Trongsa is about 2200m.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Trongsa.

Day 8: TRONGSA – BUMTHANG (B/L/D)

The road out of Trongsa climbs rapidly through a series of hairpins and there are great views back to the dzong and across the valley. After passing through cultivated fields for a while, you will re-enter the forest and at a distance of 30km from Trongsa you reach the Yotongla at 3400m. Descending to a low point of 2650m at a village called Chumey, the scenery is once again totally different as we enter the broad Bumthang valley. After a short climb to Kikila, you turn a corner for a great descent into Bumthang. From almost 20 km away you can see Jakar Dzong high above the village. The altitude at Bumthang is about 2600m.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Bumthang.

Day 9: BUMTHANG – URA (B/L/D)

Today’s ride means a height gain of 900m to your fifth pass – the Shertangla, after almost 40 km of biking. The Ura Valley is the highest of the Bumthang valleys. It has extensive sheep pastures and just before the pass there is a panorama of the mountains of Lunana to the north. You descend from the pass by long loops through meadows and fields to the Ura village. Here you will be camping in one of the few flat places in the valley. The altitude here is about 3000m.
Dinner and overnight camping in Ura.

Day 10: URA – MONGAR (B/L/D)

Bhutan’s highest road pass! Today is a long day and if you wish to cycle the whole way, you will need to set off at first light. After a short descent to a bridge, start climbing immediately to the Thrumshingla at 3800m. The ascent over 30km is quite gradual and the scenery is stunning, as you pass through dense forest of conifer and rhododendron. The climb is actually split into two parts as there is a minor pass on the way to the Thrumshingla, followed by a short descent to a bridge across a river. The pass marks the last of the high altitude climbs.

You will have lunch on the pass before setting off on what must rank as one of the most enjoyable and breathtakingly beautiful descents in the biking world. From the pass, the road plunges 3200m to the valley floor at 600m. The whole descent, over 85km passes through dark conifers, then a mixture of deciduous and coniferous woodland before entering the semi-tropical zone at an altitude of around 1800m. Bamboo and an array of rare plant life lines either side of the road. The 20km between Sengor and Namling has the reputation for being the most hair-raising section of the road across Bhutan, but is just perfect for mountain bikes. Hewn out of the side of a cliff, and above a steep drop for most of the way, this is truly an exhilarating part of the trip. By the time you reach Lingmithang, the temperature will have risen considerably.. After 5 hours and 85km of solid downhill fun, most people will be simply speechless. The sting in the tail is a final 20 km climb to the village of Mongar at an altitude of 1600m.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Mongar.

Day 11: MONGAR – TRASHIGANG (B/L/D)

Another great descent today, but first you have a further 20 km to climb en route to the Korila at an altitude of 2400m, the first of two relatively minor passes. The road then descends rapidly through cornfields and banana groves and after 10 km it reaches the start of the famous hairpins at Yadi (1500m) – 30km of interminable bends before arriving at a bridge across the Sherichu at 600m. This will be the second longest descent of the trip, a sparkling 1850m! Now in a hot tropical climate, you can enjoy a very pleasant ride along the side of the Gamrichu to the bridge and check post below Trashigang. A steep 10 km climb finishes off quite a hard day’s biking. Trashigang sees very few tourists and facilities are limited, but we stay in the best place in the town. Trashigang’s altitude is about 1100m.

Dinner and overnight at a guesthouse in Trashigang.

Day 12: TRASHIGANG – KHALING (B/L/D)

By now you will have reached the most easterly point of your journey as the road now heads south for 200 km to Samdrup Jongkhar – Bhutan’s eastern road border with Assam. This day is another tough one and often catches people out! At first there will a hot climb for 30 km to the university at Kanglung, then a further 10 km to a small pass at 2450m, with views of the peaks of north-eastern Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. From here it is downhill till the village of Khaling, which is famous for its weaving and handicrafst. We camp 10 km beyond the village in one of the few flat spots in the valley! The altitude at Khaling is about 2100m.

Dinner and overnight camping in Khaling.

Day 13: KHALING – SAMDRUP JONGKHAR (B/L/D)

Today you will climb to another minor pass at 2450m before descending to Wamrong at 2000m where there is a check post. Unlike western Bhutan, where the road goes over passes between one valley and the next, the road here follows ridges almost the whole way and is marked throughout with stone chortens. A long climb with the road switching from left to right across the spine of the ridge, leads to a high point at 2450m and then down through two small settlements. The road descends rapidly to the plain through dense tropical forest with an abundance of teak and bamboo. In Deothang there is a large memorial chorten dedicated to those who have lost their lives building the road across Bhutan. A few km beyond the village lies a police check-post and a few km beyond that is the town of Samdrup Jongkhar. Afterwards, you will cycle to the border gate for photographs and then return to your hotel in town. Here a small celebration will certainly be in order as you will be one of only a handful of people who have completed what is arguably the most beautiful and challenging bike ride in the world.

Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Samdrup Jongkhar.

Day 14: SAMDRUP JONGKHAR – GUWAHATI (B)

After breakfast, our Indian based representatives will take you on the three hour drive through to Guwahati International Airport in time to meet most early afternoon domestic and international air connections.

Cost on request