Hidden Himalayas: mountain climbing the brand new Trans-Bhutan Path



As we trample down the bumpy farm monitor that leads into the village of Babzur, we cross a bunch of ladies sitting round a hearth shaded by a tin-roofed pergola. In a manufacturing line, they’re rolling dough, shaping it into fats circles the scale of their palms, then dropping the blobs into boiling oil. They cease and squint curiously as they see us.

After 4 hours of mountain climbing — having climbed to three,047 metres above sea stage, tripped over ferns and trudged by mud — my information Singay Dradul and I regarded bedraggled. Singay is carrying a vivid orange poncho over his conventional Bhutanese gown, the gho; I’m in a cobalt-blue rain jacket with a mountain climbing pole. Conscious that I stands out as the first foreigner these Bhutanese ladies have seen in nearly three years, I cease, not sure how they are going to react.

Map of Bhutan

The Himalayan kingdom’s borders are lastly as a result of reopen to vacationers on September 23, after one of many world’s lengthiest pandemic closures. Those who come can be topic to a brand new “sustainable improvement price” of $200 per individual per day, designed to manage numbers and shield the nation’s conventional tradition, however they can even discover a new attraction: the 403km Trans-Bhutan Path. Appropriate for strolling, operating or biking, the route dates again to the sixteenth century and stretches from Ha within the west of Bhutan to Trashigang within the east, but it surely fell out of use a long time in the past. Restoring it has taken 4 years; I’ve been allowed into the nation early to preview the path with two of the guides accountable for its mapping and last inspection.

In Babzur, one of many ladies stands and shuffles over. She smiles, revealing a set of pink enamel, stained from chewing betel leaf. “She desires to know when you’d like some tea?” asks Singay. As the girl pours me a mug of the candy, milky brew, Singay explains in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, that we’ve been mountain climbing alongside the traditional path, east by dense forest from Chamkar City in Bumthang. The girl appears impressed but additionally perplexed.

Now in her seventies, she tells us she remembers strolling the identical route way back, barefoot, by solar and rain, carrying her baby on her again, lugging water and meals. Again then, there was no various. From the best way she throws her arms within the air and shakes her head, I don’t want a translator to elucidate it was an arduous journey. After I ask her if she’s glad the path has been restored after years of disuse, she pauses, then laughs. “Sure . . . however I’m additionally glad I can now go by automotive!”

A woman wearing a hat smiles at the camera. Behind her walkers continue up a trail
A cow herder on the path, close to the village of Rida
Cloud-covered hills and green valleys
The view from Pumola. The route runs from Ha within the west to Trashigang within the east, stretching for 403km

Bhutan’s first motorable street didn’t arrive till 1962, connecting the capital, Thimphu, to the Indian border. Earlier than that, the one method to transfer by this mountainous nation was alongside the ancestral trails, which for hundreds of years carried garps (runners ferrying messages and mail) and monks, who moved residences with the seasons. They have been additionally important buying and selling routes, the place silk and porcelain was bartered over the border and, domestically, rice from the west was traded for buckwheat and yak cheese.

The journeys have been gruelling, with leeches and foraging bears including to the trials of the terrain. “The factor you’ll come to grasp about Bhutan is that it’s a small distance however a protracted journey,” Galey Tenzin, my different information, had instructed me on the primary day as we wound by the mountains, throughout slopes thick with pines and cypress bushes. When you resolve one hill there’s inevitably one other one ready for you.

Because the street community unfold within the Sixties and ’70s, the previous foot trails fell more and more out of use. Bridges and stairways collapsed. The challenge to revive a most important artery connecting all 9 provinces started in 2018, led by the Bhutan Canada Basis, an education-focused charity, the newly created Trans-Bhutan Path, a non-profit fashioned for the challenge, and the nationwide authorities. Through the pandemic shutdown, some 900 furloughed staff helped with the path’s restoration, rebuilding 18 bridges, greater than 10,000 steps and putting in 170 “interactive signposts” that includes QR codes that walkers can use to entry native historical past.

Guided journeys on the complete route — passing by 27 gewogs (villages), 4 dzongs (fortified monasteries), 21 temples and a dozen mountain passes — take 36 days (and value £17,910) however the route could be damaged into sections of as little as two days. Over the course of 5 days, I clock some 70km, from simply exterior Trongsa (within the centre of the nation) to Ura (additional east), staying at small inns, farm stays and campsites.

A bridge across a river and a man walking on the trail
Strolling in Tangsibji
A tent with bright flags behind it and a rug and chair in front
Camps on the path are arrange prematurely of walkers’ arrival © Jamyang Rinchen

“The path is sort of a strolling museum,” says Singay. Solely the day earlier than our tea encounter, we had walked from the village of Geytsa to the Jakar valley throughout historic stepping stones positioned in marshy areas, and on muddy paths so trodden by folks and animals, they’d fashioned canals. We handed chorten, small stupas or non secular monuments that served as freeway markers and locations the place voyagers would cease for the evening. Then descending into Jakar, after mountain climbing for 16km, we stumbled upon a prayer wheel, which might have signified the beginning of that part of the route. “The ladies would stroll the boys to the prayer wheel earlier than they started their journey to Trongsa,” stated Galey.

The path passing by meadows
A view down towards a cluster of red roof buildings, with mountains behind them
The Dzong, or fortified monastery, at Trongsa

Whereas a giant goal is to protect this historic route, it’s additionally an opportunity to increase tourism to much less trodden pockets of the nation, largely within the east. The primary trickle of vacationers solely arrived within the nation in 1974; although numbers have grown markedly, the bulk nonetheless keep on with a comparatively small circuit within the excessive western valleys, nearly at all times trekking to see the Tigress’s Nest, the monastery masterfully carved right into a mountainside close to Paro that has turn out to be the poster for the nation.

On this path, travellers can dig slightly deeper, experiencing a combination of mountain climbing and tradition — a lot of the path is thru extra inhabited elements of the nation than the excessive mountain areas that function on lots of the current trekking routes. Whereas these usually contain wilderness tenting, the brand new path additionally provides extra regionally pushed experiences like staying in homestays and farmhouses.

However whereas eager to encourage tourism as a approach of diversifying past agriculture and hydropower, Bhutan stays cautious. In addition to the day by day $200 price (which is able to, in response to the vacationer board, fund “transformative programmes that protect our cultural traditions, shield our heritage and setting”) vacationers might want to rent a information — a compulsory requirement for trekking and all journeys exterior the cities of Thimphu and Paro. Self-drive automotive rental is forbidden, and guests should keep in lodging that has been formally licensed by the vacationer board, or designated tenting areas. “We noticed what occurred in Nepal,” says Daw Penjo, a former Bhutanese international minister, who hosts me at his household’s ancestral dwelling, newly opened to friends as Selekha Farmhouse Homestay.

Singay agrees. “As a result of globalisation we’re shedding elements of our tradition,” he says, as we proceed our hike south after tea in Babzur. “The path reconnects us to those small communities and our ancestors; and it reminds us of who we’re.” Each he and Galey have walked all 403km of the path as a part of their inspection; they know each inch of it. “You see corners of the nation you by no means knew existed,” says Singay.

Later that day we arrive at Mebar Tsho, the sacred Burning Lake, the place pilgrims are crouching in an uneven line atop a rocky vantage level above the hazel-coloured water. They’re craning up to now over that one slip of a foot they usually’ll absolutely tumble in — I’m instructed this occurs lots. “They are saying that when you look onerous sufficient, you’ll be able to see heaven,” says Singay.

A young girl stands on a rope bridge
Native kids crossing a suspension bridge . . .
A line of children cross a suspension bridge
. . . on their method to faculty

An ornate pagoda-like bridge with a roof and flags
A bridge in Katsho, Ha, on the western finish of the path

Because the solar begins to sink we arrive at our campsite, arrange by the staff from Trans-Bhutan Path on the sting of Phomdrong village. From afar it appears like a rural patch of Switzerland: set on a mountainside, beneath the tree line, the inexperienced pastures dotted with conventional Bhutanese buildings, with intricate wood frames and roofs. After two full days of mountain climbing, my legs are exhausted, so I recline in a lounge chair because the day winds to night, watching because the cows and canines journey over our man ropes and villagers run prayer beads by their palms.

Three ladies wearing vibrant kiras stroll over from the neighbouring stone constructing. They’re evidently curious however cautious to ask questions, so Galey strikes up a dialog within the native dialect explaining that we’re strolling the path. They rapidly launch into an animated dialog — they too have walked the path to Trongsa (in the wrong way to the one we’re taking) to commerce buckwheat and cheese. It took them three days one-way. “You haven’t walked the paths like we walked the paths,” the one lady teases, as she eyes our mountain climbing boots. An invitation comes subsequent: would we like to affix them subsequent door as they put together buckwheat noodles?

In a darkish stone room lit by a large fireplace, I see one other manufacturing line of ladies operating the buckwheat dough by a noodle machine, then dousing the noodles in boiling and chilly water earlier than tossing them right into a bowl. One lady palms me a cup and fills it with ara (rice wine). She retrieves her personal cup from the entrance pocket of her kira and fills it. Extra tales unfold — the ladies walked the path barefoot, slept underneath the bushes and carried buckwheat pancakes of their kiras. They bear in mind the identical chorten we handed, that it was usually occupied by different travellers. She sloshes extra ara into my cup.

Two monks in red robes laugh with a backpacker
Laughing with the monks at Punakha
The ornate roof of a building can be seen with a green hillside behind it
A water-powered prayer wheel within the Trongsa space

After the warming rice wine, Galey, Singay and I return to our tent for dinner. Over plates of buttery pink rice, roast hen and asparagus cooked in cheese, the exchanges go on. Galey confides he was conceived on the path (his mother and father met throughout a buying and selling journey) and Singay’s grandmother was given a uncommon silk jacket that was transported alongside the path from Tibet. Each of them solely learnt of those anecdotes when their households found they have been working as guides on the brand new route.

I rapidly perceive that the reopening of this historic path isn’t solely about preserving it, it’s about unlocking these untold tales as effectively. Out of the blue they’re in all places — slipping out like a time capsule that’s been flung open. They’re hidden alongside the paths, and within the prayer wheels and chortens, in addition to within the folks, each younger and previous. To reap this information as a traveller — effectively, the brand new vacationer tax appears like a small worth to pay.


Mary Holland was a visitor of Trans-Bhutan Path (transbhutantrail.com), the non-profit that led the restoration challenge and now runs journeys alongside the route; proceeds from journeys go in the direction of conserving the path and supporting native communities. Packages begin from £215 for a three-day trek from Thimphu to Punakha, rising to £5,760 for a 15-day tip, with 10 days of strolling, from Paro to Bumthang; costs embrace lodging in inns, guesthouses and campsites, however not the $200-per-day levy. Quite a few different operators are additionally operating journeys alongside the path.

For extra on visiting the nation see tourism.gov.bt

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