Sometimes on the road it is good to have an out-of-body experience, just as a reminder of how extraordinary travel can be. I had one such moment on Bhutan’s East-West Highway, a thin ribbon of hardtop that doodles its way across the eastern Himalayas. We’d just topped the 3,390m Pele La pass, and were about 30 minutes into a long, twisting descent, when I saw half a dozen huge birds riding the thermals high above. “Griffon vultures,” shouted our guide Phub Tshering from behind. “Something must have died.”
For a moment, I saw us through their eyes. Three cyclists and their guide careering down a single-track road in a kind of madcap fairground ride, swerving around yaks, dodging landslips, hollering at macaques, listening out for the guttural roar of the occasional gaudily-painted truck on blind corners, and peering apprehensively over the far edge, where the drop-off was sheer. Even if something hadn’t yet died, you couldn’t blame the vultures for running the numbers.
It was, all in all, a strange kind of lunacy, choosing to cycle through one of the world’s most mountainous countries. The locals clearly thought so too; why go to all the time and effort of pedalling up these hills, they asked, when bringing up the rear of our procession was a perfectly good minibus? It was a good question, to which there turned out to be good answers, as I discovered along the way.
The remote kingdom of Bhutan, with a population of 700,000 in a Denmark-sized chunk of the Himalayas, squashed between India and China, is an idiosyncratic place. It has become famous for eschewing the pursuit of gross domestic product in favour of gross national happiness – to be achieved by conserving nature and cultural values while encouraging sustainable development.
It is a country that for most of its existence has been ruled by monks from mountain dzongs (a combination of monastery, castle and court), and latterly by good-looking kings and queens. A country that didn’t have TV until 1999, where Buddhism remains all-pervading, where tobacco and plastic bags are banned, and which tried and rejected the traffic light.
It is a place where a man may have many wives (the fourth King, who abdicated in 2006, has four – all sisters). The national sport is archery, the national dish is a goo of chillies and cheese. Schoolchildren and all government workers are obliged to wear national dress, so that all the men, in gho robes, appear to be wearing kilts and the schoolgirls, in kira, look as if they are training to be airline stewardesses.
Above all, it is a country in an intriguingly embryonic state, having just embraced democracy (the first elections took place in 2008), and with grand plans for the future. The government, attempting to become a green technology pioneer, recently agreed a deal with Nissan for the provision of hundreds of electric cars, to be used on official business and as taxis. More significant is its drive to develop hydroelectric power, both for domestic use and for export.
Aware that these idiosyncrasies, set in a spectacular landscape, add up to a destination that is hugely attractive to international travellers, Bhutan has contrived its own approach to tourism too. Its policy of “high value, low impact” sets a minimum price of US$250 per day and issues visas only for guided travel. As a result, visitors tend to come in one of two main ways: either as trekking parties, to set off into remote valleys, or as cultural tourists, who get carried from dzong to dzong like prize puddings, only stepping out to take photographs or eat lunch in government-designated restaurants.
Now, however, there is a third way: by bicycle. With its stop-anywhere, hear-everything, smell-anything capability, the bike allows for impromptu interaction with people in a way impossible on conventional minibus tours.
A couple of days before the Pele La descent, for example, wheeling birds of prey would have spotted us in a playground. That day we’d been to the hilltop monastery of Chari Gompa at the head of a holy valley, where caretaker monks chanted in the temple and meditating colleagues camped out in caves, sending out their requests for supplies by text message. We were returning from the Gompa by farm track, with sunlight slanting through high pines, when Phub Tshering (aka PT) suggested we stop at a school, and let the kids have a go. What followed was something of a free-for-all, with every boy wanting to try the bikes but not everyone being able to reach the pedals. Watching the older ones struggle to understand the concept of gears, I thought it was a bit of a metaphor for the country as a whole: stuck in low gear but very intrigued by fast-forward possibilities.
On another day, the vultures would have seen me having a breather outside a high altitude “hotel” – a shack that served rice – talking to a 17-year-old girl waiting for her school exam results. They would determine whether she was going to be selected by the government for a future career or whether her future lay in staying half way up a mountain pass, serving rice. Our interesting conversation wouldn’t have taken place if I had been ferried around in a car.
Despite being on two wheels, we ticked off all the big sites. Our route started in Paro – where Bhutan’s only international airport is located – then pressed east, taking in capital city Thimphu, ancient capital Punakha, the remote high valley of Gangtey and ending with one of the most exhilarating flights in the world, from Bumthang back to Paro.
Having a support vehicle following us around made sure that we didn’t miss out on anything. It was there, for example, to whisk us off to a tsechu (festival) in Punakha Dzong, a large riverside monastery from the 17th century. Outside, families were having picnics while, inside, a dazzling group of animal-costumed dancers was twirling around a sinner brought before the gates of heaven, in a parable watched by hundreds of villagers in equally spectacular traditional dress. It was hard to know where to look – at the performance, or the audience.
Of course, this kind of cycling is not for everyone. With days ranging from 40km-80km, you do need to be properly bike fit, but although the thinner air left us sometimes short of breath, none of the group was affected by altitude sickness. There were some difficult surfaces – a tricky pine needle-covered off-road section high above Punakha for example. From its vertiginous switchbacks, the Bhutanese houses, with their big metal roofs, looked like tin tacks pressed into the valley wallsto stop the rice terracing from sliding downhill.
Happily, whenever we were on the road, drivers showed us a mix of astonishment and respect – apart from one occasion, when we were brushed aside by a gleaming white Range Rover, a hugely incongruous machine in a land that places such emphasis on tradition. “Don’t you feel envy?” I asked PT, gazing after it. He shook his head. “When I see that I think he is a lucky man who had good karma in a previous life. But he also needs to behave well in this one or else, when he is reincarnated next time, he will come back as a worm.”
Even outside the monasteries, spirituality was ever-present. The landscape itself was forever at prayer, and not just because of all the stupas, temples and gompas. Hillsides were adorned with stands of tall white prayer flags, like puffs of smoke; streamers of multicoloured “wind horse” flags spread webs across rivers and passes; water-turned prayer wheels filled the valleys with clanging bells, steadily earning merit for a future life.
Andrew Eames was a guest of Mountain Kingdoms. Its Cultural Cycling Tour of Bhutan is a 17-day itinerary with eight days of cycling (graded “moderate”), and includes all meals and hotels. It costs £3,645 per person, including visa, flights and transfers. The next tour is November 3