Hidden Himalayas: hiking the new Trans-Bhutan Trail

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As we trample down the bumpy farm track that leads into the village of Babzur, we pass a group of women sitting around a fire shaded by a tin-roofed pergola. In a production line, they’re rolling dough, shaping it into fat circles the size of their palms, then dropping the blobs into boiling oil. They stop and squint curiously as they see us.

After four hours of hiking — having climbed to 3,047 metres above sea level, tripped over ferns and trudged through mud — my guide Singay Dradul and I looked bedraggled. Singay is wearing a bright orange poncho over his traditional Bhutanese robe, the gho; I am in a cobalt-blue rain jacket with a hiking pole. Aware that I may be the first foreigner these Bhutanese women have seen in almost three years, I stop, unsure how they will react.

The Himalayan kingdom’s borders are finally due to reopen to tourists on September 23, after one of the world’s lengthiest pandemic closures. Those that come will be subject to a new “sustainable development fee” of $200 per person per day, designed to control numbers and protect the country’s traditional culture, but they will also find a new attraction: the 403km Trans-Bhutan Trail. Suitable for walking, running or cycling, the route dates back to the 16th century and stretches from Ha in the west of Bhutan to Trashigang in the east, but it fell out of use decades ago. Restoring it has taken four years; I have been allowed into the country early to preview the trail with two of the guides responsible for its mapping and final inspection.

In Babzur, one of the women stands and shuffles over. She smiles, revealing a set of red teeth, stained from chewing betel leaf. “She wants to know if you’d like some tea?” asks Singay. As the woman pours me a mug of the sweet, milky brew, Singay explains in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, that we’ve been hiking along the ancient trail, east through dense forest from Chamkar Town in Bumthang. The woman looks impressed but also perplexed.

Now in her seventies, she tells us she remembers walking the same route long ago, barefoot, through sun and rain, carrying her child on her back, lugging water and food. Back then, there was no alternative. From the way she throws her arms in the air and shakes her head, I don’t need a translator to explain it was an arduous journey. When I ask her if she’s glad the trail has been restored after years of disuse, she pauses, then laughs. “Yes . . . but I’m also glad I can now go by car!”

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

Bhutan’s first motorable road didn’t arrive until 1962, connecting the capital, Thimphu, to the Indian border. Before that, the only way to move through this mountainous country was along the ancestral trails, which for centuries carried garps (runners ferrying messages and mail) and monks, who moved residences with the seasons. They were also essential trading routes, where silk and porcelain was bartered over the border and, domestically, rice from the west was traded for buckwheat and yak cheese.

The journeys were gruelling, with leeches and foraging bears adding to the trials of the terrain. “The thing you’ll come to realise about Bhutan is that it’s a small distance but a long journey,” Galey Tenzin, my other guide, had told me on the first day as we wound through the mountains, across slopes thick with pines and cypress trees. Once you get to the bottom of one hill there’s inevitably another one waiting for you.

As the road network spread in the 1960s and ’70s, the old foot trails fell increasingly out of use. Bridges and stairways collapsed. The project to restore a main artery connecting all nine provinces began in 2018, led by the Bhutan Canada Foundation, an education-focused charity, the newly created Trans-Bhutan Trail, a non-profit formed for the project, and the national government. During the pandemic shutdown, some 900 furloughed workers helped with the trail’s restoration, rebuilding 18 bridges, more than 10,000 steps and installing 170 “interactive signposts” featuring QR codes that walkers can use to access local history.

Guided trips on the entire route — passing through 27 gewogs (villages), four dzongs (fortified monasteries), 21 temples and a dozen mountain passes — take 36 days (and cost £17,910) but the route can be broken into sections of as little as two days. Over the course of five days, I clock some 70km, from just outside Trongsa (in the centre of the country) to Ura (further east), staying at small hotels, farm stays and campsites.

A bridge across a river and a man walking on the trail
Walking in Tangsibji
A tent with bright flags behind it and a rug and chair in front
Camps on the trail are set up in advance of walkers’ arrival © Jamyang Rinchen

“The trail is like a walking museum,” says Singay. Only the day before our tea encounter, we had walked from the village of Geytsa to the Jakar valley across ancient stepping stones placed in marshy areas, and on muddy paths so trodden by people and animals, they’d formed canals. We passed chorten, small stupas or religious monuments that served as highway markers and places where voyagers would stop for the night. Then descending into Jakar, after hiking for 16km, we stumbled upon a prayer wheel, which would have signified the start of that section of the route. “The women would walk the men to the prayer wheel before they began their journey to Trongsa,” said Galey.

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

While a big objective is to preserve this historical route, it’s also a chance to expand tourism to less trodden pockets of the country, mostly in the east. The first trickle of tourists only arrived in the country in 1974; though numbers have grown markedly, the majority still stick to a relatively small circuit in the high western valleys, almost always trekking to see the Tigress’s Nest, the monastery masterfully carved into a mountainside near Paro that has become the poster for the country.

On this trail, travellers can dig a little deeper, experiencing a mixture of hiking and culture — much of the trail is through more inhabited parts of the country than the high mountain areas that feature on many of the existing trekking routes. Whereas those typically involve wilderness camping, the new trail also offers more locally driven experiences like staying in homestays and farmhouses.

But while keen to encourage tourism as a way of diversifying beyond agriculture and hydropower, Bhutan remains cautious. As well as the daily $200 fee (which will, according to the tourist board, fund “transformative programmes that preserve our cultural traditions, protect our heritage and environment”) tourists will need to hire a guide — a mandatory requirement for trekking and all trips outside the cities of Thimphu and Paro. Self-drive car rental is forbidden, and visitors must stay in accommodation that has been officially certified by the tourist board, or designated camping areas. “We saw what happened in Nepal,” says Daw Penjo, a former Bhutanese foreign minister, who hosts me at his family’s ancestral home, newly opened to guests as Selekha Farmhouse Homestay.

Singay agrees. “Due to globalisation we are losing parts of our culture,” he says, as we continue our hike south after tea in Babzur. “The trail reconnects us to these small communities and our ancestors; and it reminds us of who we are.” Both he and Galey have walked all 403km of the trail as part of their inspection; they know every inch of it. “You see corners of the country you never knew existed,” says Singay.

Later that day we arrive at Mebar Tsho, the sacred Burning Lake, where pilgrims are crouching in an uneven line atop a rocky vantage point above the hazel-coloured water. They’re craning so far over that one slip of a foot and they’ll surely tumble in — I’m told this happens a lot. “They say that if you look hard enough, you can see heaven,” says Singay.

A young girl stands on a rope bridge
Local children crossing a suspension bridge . . . 

A line of children cross a suspension bridge
 . . . on their way to school

An ornate pagoda-like bridge with a roof and flags
A bridge in Katsho, Ha, at the western end of the trail

As the sun starts to sink we arrive at our campsite, set up by the team from Trans-Bhutan Trail on the edge of Phomdrong village. From afar it looks like a rural patch of Switzerland: set on a mountainside, below the tree line, the green pastures dotted with traditional Bhutanese buildings, with intricate wooden frames and roofs. After two full days of hiking, my legs are exhausted, so I recline in a lounge chair as the day winds to evening, watching as the cows and dogs trip over our guy ropes and villagers run prayer beads through their hands.

Three women dressed in colourful kiras walk over from the neighbouring stone building. They’re evidently curious but cautious to ask questions, so Galey strikes up a conversation in the local dialect explaining that we’re walking the trail. They quickly launch into an animated conversation — they too have walked the trail to Trongsa (in the opposite direction to the one we are taking) to trade buckwheat and cheese. It took them three days one-way. “You haven’t walked the trails like we walked the trails,” the one woman teases, as she eyes our hiking boots. An invite comes next: would we like to join them next door as they prepare buckwheat noodles?

In a dark stone room lit by a giant fire, I see another production line of women running the buckwheat dough through a noodle machine, then dousing the noodles in boiling and cold water before tossing them into a bowl. One woman hands me a cup and fills it with ara (rice wine). She retrieves her own cup from the front pocket of her kira and fills it. More tales unfold — the women walked the trail barefoot, slept under the trees and carried buckwheat pancakes in their kiras. They remember the same chorten we passed, that it was often occupied by other travellers. She sloshes more 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 in the Trongsa area

After the warming rice wine, Galey, Singay and I return to our tent for dinner. Over plates of buttery red rice, roast chicken and asparagus cooked in cheese, the exchanges go on. Galey confides he was conceived on the trail (his parents met during a trading trip) and Singay’s grandmother was given a rare silk jacket that was transported along the trail from Tibet. Both of them only learnt of these anecdotes when their families discovered they were working as guides on the new route.

I quickly understand that the reopening of this ancient path isn’t only about preserving it, it’s about unlocking these untold stories as well. Suddenly they’re everywhere — slipping out like a time capsule that’s been flung open. They’re hidden along the paths, and in the prayer wheels and chortens, as well as in the people, both young and old. To reap this knowledge as a traveller — well, the new tourist tax feels like a small price to pay.

Details

Mary Holland was a guest of Trans-Bhutan Trail (transbhutantrail.com), the non-profit that led the restoration project and now runs trips along the route; proceeds from trips go towards conserving the trail and supporting local communities. Packages start from £215 for a three-day trek from Thimphu to Punakha, rising to £5,760 for a 15-day tip, with 10 days of walking, from Paro to Bumthang; prices include accommodation in hotels, guesthouses and campsites, but not the $200-per-day levy. Numerous other operators are also running trips along the trail.

For more on visiting the country see tourism.gov.bt

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