The flight into Bhutan is an adventure in itself and a perfect introduction to the terrain of the country. As the plane approaches the Paro it must make two turns while the mountain peaks tower above. The airport is one of the few flat patches of land around and the obvious choice for the countries only airport at present. There are only two flights a day into Bhutan so everyone will arrive before midday. You will be met at the airport by the local team and transferred to the hotel. At lunch we will do a tour briefing to discuss the 2 weeks ahead.
For those who have the energy and are not jet lagged from their travels to Bhutan we take a little time in the afternoon to see some of the sights of Paro. You will get to visit your first dzong. A dzong is a Bhutanese fortress which were constructed at strategic locations throughout the country. They contain both temple and administrative offices of the district government. Almost every town that we stay in on the trip has a dzong and the local governments still work with their grand walls. Dzong are build with high sloping walls, inside you'll find detailed woodwork and courtyards. The main dzong in Paro was constructed in the 15th century and still houses the administrative offices of Paro. What was once the watchtower for the dzong is now the national museum and this will be our next stop. The museum holds a great collection of artefacts from Bhutanese history and will be the place where you can start to wrap your mind around the complexity of the Bhutanese Buddhist belief which is full of gods, demons, saints, historical figures and kings.*In September 2011 a large earthquake in the region caused damage to the Paro Museum, and forcing it to close for repairs. If the museum is sill closed at the time of your tour alternate arrangements will be made.
It's time to hit the bikes for our first ride in Bhutan. Paro sits at a height of 2200m so we take it easy today and do an short ride to get used to the altitude, warm up the legs, get used to the bikes and see a little more of Paro Valley. Towering over the northern end of Paro Valley is Jomohari (7314m), Bhutan's second highest mountain. Beyond the mountain range is Tibet. The glacier on Jomohari feeds the river flowing through the Paro Valley. We will ride 18km from our hotel up the valley to the end of the sealed road where Drukyel Dzong sits. This dzong was built in the 15th century but destroyed by fire in 1951. We will explore the ruins and if we are in luck and the weather is clear you will have a wonderful view of Jomohari. As we descend back down the valley we will stop at two local homes. At the first stop we will enjoy a display of traditional Bhutanese dance including the dramatic mask dances that take place during the many festivals that take place throughout the country. Normally our local partners don't include cultural shows, however this one is special, as much for the setting as the displays of song and dance. At the second stop we will drop in on a local farming family to take a peek inside their home and have a cup of tea. It is intriguing to be allowed the opportunity to visit a house and see what they look like from the inside.
It is time to leave Paro and begin the ride across Bhutan. This first point to point ride is the easiest, our Bhutanese friends describe this day as flat as you will only be riding between 2100m and 2350m throughout the ride, although the road ds undulate and there are actually no flat roads! Leaving Paro we follow the valley downstream until the point where the Paro and Thimphu Rivers meet. A set of 3 stupas marks this point. From here we follow the Thimphu River upstream and into Bhutan's capital, um, city. The valleys here are narrow and there are few settlements along the way. As we get closer to Thimphu the valley opens out and the last few kilometres are through the new development areas.
Thimphu, the largest settlement in Bhutan, is home to only 80,000 people and sits at approximately 2350m above sea level. The city has the feel of a small town – there are no bright signs, all architecture (including the petrol station) must follow the traditional style and the only set of traffic lights were removed years ago.
As this is a short day of riding we should get in nice and early and have time to visit the dzong and if energetic maybe cycle uphill to the site of what is being claimed as the world's largest Buddha image. It is 51m high which to us isn't high enough for the claim but it is probably the highest in a certain pose or something like that – impressive all the same and you get a great view down onto Thimphu as you ride up the 5km climb.
The first challenging climb of the tour starts this morning, a 16.4km climb up to Dochula Pass at 3110m. Before the real climbing begins though you have 5km of 'Bhutanese flat' to warm up the legs. Climbing in Bhutan is all about getting into a rhythm and working your way slowly up the mountains, taking in the scenery and enjoying the view. The climb averages 4.8% gradient so it is not too steep. We will stop as often as needed to give adequate rest, plus the support vehicle will be on hand at all times should you feel the need to get a loft to the top. The valley that you climb is steep sided and covered in pine forest. At Dochula Pass we'll take a good break and explore the memorial 108 chortens as well as celebrating the first pass of the ride by putting up prayer flags. If we are lucky we may get a view onto the highest peak in Bhutan (Gankar Pumsum – 7497m) and the whole of the Eastern Himalaya.
The Pass comes at the 21.4km mark of the day and you'll be happy to know that you'll barely have to pedal again for the remainder of day as the next 42.6km are downhill! The roads here are narrow and winding so you'll need to hang on and maintain good control. The descent averages 4.5% over the whole distance to our hotel in Wangduephodrang at an elevation of 1300m.
Up the valley from Wangdu sits the small town of Punakha where we will ride to on this leisurely day ride. Today is considered flat by Bhutanese standards as there are no longer climbs or descents. After only 6km is the first stop today where we take a short walk to Chime Lakhang, a 13th century temple that was blessed by 'the divine madman' and is considered a fertility temple where childless parents come to pray for children. After passing through 'new' Punakha town we reach the Punakha Dzong. Punakha's small size defies it long history and importance. For over 300 years until 1951 the dzong in Punakha was used as the government's winter base due to it's lower altitude and warmer weather. The dzong sits in a picturesque site at the confluence of the Pho and Mo Rivers and is another grand structure from the
15th century. We will take time to explore the dzong and enjoy a picnic in the area. Retracing our route back downstream for 5km we cross the river and continue the ride passing through new Wangduephograng before climbing up to old Wangduephodrang. The town planners have decided that the old town is too chaotic, the roads too narrow and the general plan too unwieldy so they are moving everyone to the new town which is 2km upstream on a nice open, flat piece of land. This is a good chance to see the town before it is moved. We will pass through here again tomorrow but tomorrow's ride is a long one so it is better to see today on this more leisurely ride.
*On the 24th June 2012, the beautiful Wangduephodrang Dzong was completely destroyed by fire. It was one of the oldest and most substantial dzongs in Bhutan built in 1638. Renovations were underway when the fire started and so most of the historic relics had been put into storage and were saved from the devastation of the fire. Re-building is already underway to restore the dzong to its former glory.
Without a doubt today presents the greatest cycling challenge on any of our local partner's bike rides in Bhutan – a 55km climb that sees you ascend just over 2000m up into the Black Mountains. So prepare yourself mentally and take on the challenge!From the hotel the climbing pretty much begins immediately, at first through habitated areas and then through dense forest. The first 16km are not steep climbing and there are even some sections with small descents. This is in a narrow valley. But after 16km it is up all the way to 55.2km at an average of 4.7%. gradient The first 5km or so of this part are through farming area with lovely terraced fields above and below the road. Once out of the farming area we ride through thick oak and rhododendron forest. The gradient ds increase near the end of the climb with the last 1.4km to the highest point at Lawala Pass (3300m) climbing at 8.5%. Going down into Gantey for the final 11km sees the road deteriorate and become closer to being described as unsealed. Gantey is one name of the area of the Phobjika Valley, a glacial valley where the rare black-necked cranes from Tibet spend the winter. Dwarf bamboo, eaten by yaks, is the prominent vegetation. Our hotel in Gantey ds not have 24 hour electricity. Lights go out at 9pm but after today's ride you probably won't mind.
We will take a day to enjoy Gantey as well as rest our legs after yesterday's ride. There are two good options available for those who want to be active – one is a walk and one a half day bike ride. We will determine who wants to do what and work out a schedule.
The longest day of the tour shouldn't prove to much of a challenge now that you've warmed up to the roads of Bhutan. We start the day by climbing 11km back to Lawala Pass (3300m), descending slightly, then climbing 3km more to the highest point of the day – Pelela Pass at 3390m. This point is traditionally considered the border between western and central Bhutan. The next 18km brings a fast winding descent but then things level out a little and while still descending the gradient is much more gentle. At the 66km mark we enter the Mangde River valley where Trongsa sits at the far end and the next 9km are again steeper downhill. All along this section the town can be seen in the distance but seems to be unreachable. The valley is very narrow, the road is cut into the steep sided walls and the river is far below making for a dramatic ride. After a stop at a viewpoint where the town, dzong and our hotel can be seen just across the valley it is still a surprising 10km of riding until the hotel with the last 5km being uphill. Trongsa town sits at an elevation of 2100m.
The final day of riding brings more climbing, the highest Pass of the tour and a great sense of satisfaction as you ride into Bumthang have ridden halfway across the country over the kind of terrain that a Tour de France cyclist faces. Setting out of Trongsa the climbing starts immediately as the road zigzags its way up into the mountains. It is hard work but the scenery is spectacular which great views of the mountains all around. It is not until nearly 30km after setting out that you will reach Yotongla Pass, which at 3400m is the highest point of the trip. Very much a reason to celebrate.With our hotel in Bumthang sitting at 2600m there is some fun downhill riding ahead. The first 11km are a fast descent but once into agricultural Chumay Valley the next 14km are a gradual descent and there are even a couple of small uphills parts. The final Pass of the tour is the easiest, only a 3.8km climb and then there's a 5.4km down before the flat few last kilometres ride into Bumthang. Time to celebrate with a locally produced Red Panda Beer, Bhutanese whiskey, or for the non-drinkers locally made organic apple juice. A huge achievement for any cyclist, our Paro to Bunthang ride will make for great memories and even better dinner table stories about cycling in the mystical land of Bhutan over giant Himalayan mountain passes!
Bumthang epitomises the clean living ideals of Bhutan. With everything from cheese to weiss beer produced organically in the valley it can feel something like a Garden of Edan. To explore the sites of the valley we will take an easy walk to explore Bhutan's oldest temple, the local farmland and the family temple of a local friend. For those with the energy we will also hold our own Bhutanese dart competition where you can try your hand at hitting a tiny target from 30m. Hitting the target is worth it for the song and dance that your local team mates perform in your honour!
There is only one road crossing Bhutan from west to east - this is the road that you have spend your time conquering. In order to return to Paro we load up the support bus and start the long drive back over all those Passes you climbed. The drive to Wanduephobrang will take much of the day.
Heading back to Paro we should arrive before midday which gives time for those who still have some energy for an afternoon walk up to one of Bhutan's most venerated places, the Tiger's Nest Monastery, which is precariously perched on the side of a cliff 900m above the Paro Valley floor. The walk will take all afternoon but is worth the effort to view the amazing architecture of this temple and the cliffs that it sits upon. In the evening we will celebrate our last night together after an epic ride.
Depart Paro and onward arrangements.