Discovering misty peaks and monasteries on the newly restored Trans-Bhutan Trail

Charting a dramatic route through snaking mountain passes and remote valleys, the ancient Trans-Bhutan Trail is once again open to intrepid hikers, having been lovingly remapped and restored by an army of volunteers during pandemic lockdowns.

Paro Taktsang monastery, in Paro.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall
By Sarah Marshall
photographs by Sarah Marshall
Published 18 Jan 2023, 11:00 GMT

A thick blanket of mist cloaks the chilly valley, forcing monks to pull their robes tighter as they scurry up and down the temple steps. Today is Blessed Rainy Day, a late-September holiday marking the end of monsoon season and the onset of cool, autumn weather in the mountains. Far away, on a nebulous horizon, breaks in the cloud reveal snowy Himalayan peaks. 

“My grandparents met each other crossing these valleys,” says Bhutanese trekking guide Dorji Bidha, as we stand below the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang temple, surveying the awe-inspiring landscape before us. “My grandfather would bring meat, cheese and butter to barter for rice,” she explains.

Dorji’s relatives weren’t the only people to form bonds using this system of ancient mountain pathways — the network has its roots in the 16th century, when a series of strategically located dzongs (fortified monasteries) sprung up to create a 250-mile route connecting the east and west of the tiny mountain kingdom, ultimately helping to unify Bhutan as a modern state in 1907.

There are tales of traders journeying on ponies, stories of brave soldiers on patrol and legends of garps (royal messengers) who could travel vast distances even faster than the wind, with little rest or food. All of this on paths traversing Bhutan’s roller coaster mountain passes and deep valley floors.

With the arrival of roads in the 1960s, the trail fell into disrepair, explains Dorji. But now the route has been fully restored and relaunched as the Trans-Bhutan Trail — a project that took place largely during Bhutan’s lengthy Covid-19 lockdowns, which only ended  in September 2022.

A hiker crosses one of the many bridges rebuilt along the Trans-Bhutan Trail.

A hiker crosses one of the many bridges rebuilt along the Trans-Bhutan Trail.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

A Himalayan kingdom tucked between India and China, Bhutan revels in the traditions, customs and beliefs that reinforce its own unique identity. No animals are killed in the country (instead, all meat is imported); many mountains have never been scaled (for fear of disturbing spirits); and its citizens still proudly wear their national dress. But times are changing. One of Bhutan’s few female hiking guides, Dorji has been chosen to lead itineraries for escorted tour company G Adventures, which has been given the exclusive rights to sell trips for the trail’s opening year.

Opting to do sections of the trail rather than the full 30-day expedition, I’m one of the first travellers to set foot on the freshly laid stones. Our starting point, over 10,000ft above sea level, is the Dochula Pass, dominated by the Druk Wangyal Chortens: an earth mound on which 108 memorial stupas stand in concentric circles to commemorate the soldiers killed in a 2003 offensive against Indian insurgents. Heads bowed, elderly women clutching prayer beads walk clockwise around the complex, their chants carried to the heavens as whispers on the wind.

Downhill all the way, today’s eight-mile trek begins in an adjacent valley in a tangled forest straight from the pages of a fairytale. Gripping tighter than a constrictor, vines coil around trees and every branch and trunk wears gloves of velvety moss. Beneath my feet, clusters of mushrooms sprout in acid hues of vermilion and turmeric, and I’m tickled by feathery ferns as I push through the undergrowth. 

Almost 70% of Bhutan is covered in forest, and industrial development remains minimal, making it the only carbon-negative country in the world. Perhaps it’s my imagination (or maybe the altitude), but the air here tastes fresher, cleaner and crisper than anywhere else I’ve been.

Left: Top:

Volunteers from the DeSuung project help to maintain the Trans-Bhutan Trail.

Right: Bottom:

Guide Dorji Bidha holds a garland of yak cheese.

photographs by Sarah Marshall

Along the path, a team of forestry volunteers from the DeSuung project, dressed in orange boiler suits, are chopping back foliage and removing fallen branches. “These are the people who’ll be responsible for maintaining the trail,” explains Dorji, who also signed up to work with the project during lockdown “because it was better than sitting on my arse.” 

“These ‘Guardians of Peace’ are on call to fight fires or deal with floods,” continues Dorji, adjusting a badge pinned to the lapel of her kira dress (the national dress for women). It bears an image of the country’s monarch, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. “It’s all voluntary. They do it for love of king and country — that’s enough.”

Much more than a scenic trail, the pathway we’ve taken also has spiritual significance. Known locally as the Divine Madman Trail, it leads us to the former house of Toep Tshewang, which is said to have been struck by an arrow shot from Tibet by the unorthodox 15th-century monk Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman in question. He then journeyed here to defeat evil spirits — we’re walking in his footsteps. Next door, a temple is filled with offerings of decorated cakes, known as torma, alongside instant Yummy-brand noodles and packets of Lays crisps, making it look a more like a holy 7-Eleven than a place of worship.

The story of the Madman provides Dorji with an excuse to talk about Bhutan’s most comical and unexpected religious icon: the phallus — a symbol of the Madman’s sexual prowess. From keyrings and candles in souvenir stalls to murals daubed on houses, the sacred male member seems to be everywhere. Even more bizarrely, the talisman comes in four cartoonish forms.

“One with a giant eye wards off malicious gossip,” reveals Dorji, failing to stifle a giggle. “The one wearing a scarf eliminates sins, and the one with a moustache is to subjugate demons.”

But the most popular, resembling the sort of thing a schoolboy might scrawl on his pencil case, is a spurting organ that the Bhutanese rely on as a spiritual fertility aid.

Although the power of the phallus should be taken seriously, there’s always room for bawdy humour. For the rest of our trek, Dorji takes great pleasure in wafting a votive candle under peoples’ noses, giving them a shock when they realise it’s shaped like a pink willy.

Scarecrows stand watch over a grain crop.

Scarecrows stand watch over a grain crop.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Making tracks

That evening, I return to the capital, Thimphu, where traffic lights that the government deemed too stress-inducing have been replaced with white-gloved officers who directs cars with the elegance and gusto of a conductor guiding a symphony orchestra. Fine-tuning his own performance, Canadian Sam Blyth is sitting in the dining room of the Khang Residency hotel, making preparations for a ceremony to officially open the trail in a few days’ time. 
“Forty years ago, when I first came to Bhutan, I heard about an ancient trail,” recalls Sam as we chat over pints of local Druk beer. “I always dreamt of walking that trail.”

When he broached the idea with the Bhutanese king, the young monarch — a keen hiker — embraced the idea immediately. “The key to the whole thing really was his Majesty,” says Sam, the founder and chair of charity the Bhutan Canada Foundation, which worked alongside the Bhutanese government and the Tourism Council of Bhutan to revitalise the network of pathways. 

“He got it right away. He and I both wanted a trail that was going to restore an important piece of the culture here in Bhutan, that was going to build national unity, that was going to promote health and wellness, particularly among children. Most of all, we wanted to use this trail as a means of community development at a local level.”

Once a decision had been made to go ahead with the ambitious project, Sam set off on a six-month global reconnaissance of the world’s major walking trails. He hiked America’s 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, joined pilgrims on Spain’s Camino de Santiago and even — he chuckles, noting my British accent — learned a lot about “best practice” from people working on England’s South West Coast Path.

Ultimately, Sam believes, the Trans-Bhutan Trail “may be the greatest long-distance trail in the world”, based on its beauty, the culture, the pristine nature of the environment and, above all, “the warmth and welcome” of the people hikers encounter along the way. 

Crediting the dedication and commitment of the 1,000-strong team of Bhutanese DeSuung members who hand-cut 10,000 stone steps and built 18 bridges over 115,000ft of vertical elevation, he declares: “There’s not another country in the world where you could build a 250-mile trail in three years.”

Before any work could be done, a team of researchers had to locate the original paths. Many had become overgrown; wooden stairways had subsided and bridges had collapsed. With few maps or historical documentation, memories were the only tool available.

Monks cross a bridge in the Paro Valley.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Dawa Tshering was one of many village elders who shared their recollections of the routes at meetings held in town halls or over campfires at night. Dressed in a striped tunic known as a gho (the national dress for men), brown rubber boots and a baseball cap, he meets me at the Pelela Pass to begin our 12-mile trek the following morning. 

A three-hour drive from Thimphu, this is one of Bhutan’s highest passes and marks an important boundary between east and west; it’s still a meeting point for yak herders, who bring their animals down to graze during the summer months. Along the roadside, stalls sell brightly coloured woven scarves, made with soft, baby yak wool. Hanging from pillars are garlands of jaw-breakingly hard yak cheese, which has the perversely addictive flavour of Parmesan rind and the texture of an old leather boot.

Still tucked under a heavy duvet of mist, the sleepy valley is slowly waking. Below us, langur monkeys scamper in the treetops, a good omen for our hike, according to Dawa. Despite his age, the sprightly 73-year-old moves quickly, giving credence to those legends of messengers flying faster than 
the wind.

Passing through pastures sprouting with wild blueberries, sweet briar and sprays of white-and-pink Chinese fleecevine, we splash through streams and weave through the wispy fronds of chir pine trees. Covering the slopes, fields of vibrant mustard — blinding even in the overcast weather — are dotted with three-storey wooden houses, where cows were once kept in the basement and grain was stored on the roof. On corrugated rooftops held down by rocks, hundreds of ruby-red chillies have been left to dry in the sun.

When we arrive at Rukubji, most of the village seems to be busy in the fields harvesting cabbages, leaving only a few elderly women spinning prayer wheels at the 300-year-old Kuenzang Choling temple. Dawa invites us for lunch at his younger sister’s house nearby, where she ushers us into a brightly coloured prayer room decorated with effigies of Buddha and garish wallpaper verging on pop art graffiti.

Sitting cross-legged, we share a meal of potatoes sprinkled with sesame seeds, soy-soaked cauliflower and datshi (cheesy chillies). Between April and June, nomads and highlanders come here to harvest cordyceps, Dawa tells us. The precious, high-altitude fungi “which grow on the nose of a moth larvae clinging to a blade of grass” fetch up to $50,000 a kilo and can only be found by painstakingly crawling on hands and knees.

For the rest of the year, farmers focus on turnips and other root vegetables. “Other places are flooded with tourists, but not here,” laments Dawa. “It’s too remote.” But he’s hopeful that will change with the new trail.

Dawa begins to reminisce. “We’d travel until midnight with horses, carrying sacks of rice and chillies from the neighbouring valley,” he says, dewy-eyed, recalling childhood journeys along the route. “We’d camp and party until the early hours. Walking with you today makes me wish I could go back and do it all again.”

Left: Top:

Tsa-tsa cones lodged in rocky niches to commemorate departed loved ones.

Right: Bottom:

A woman spins prayer wheels outside the 300-year-old Kuenzang Choling temple.

photographs by Sarah Marshall

The route to happiness

Waving goodbye to Dawa, I continue with Dorji to our resting site for the night, a camp in the grounds of Chendebji school. We hear news of two Bengal tigers spotted along the trail — a reminder these pristine forests harbour a host of rare species — but the only unnerving creatures we encounter are needle-thin leeches that drop from leaves and wriggle into our socks. 

Along the way, we stop to admire crumbling chortens, once used as signposts; they’re just some of the many relics unearthed and restored along these ancient routes. Guided by the sound of spinning prayer wheels powered by mountain streams, we reach our destination before dark and are welcomed by the school headmaster with bowls of warm popcorn and porcelain cups of milky chai tea.

A weeping cypress towers above an uneven basketball court and a candle-lit shrine where daily assemblies are held. Erected in a neighbouring field, our A-frame tents are made cosy with Persian rugs and hot water bottles, and there’s the option of a shower with water heated on the fire.

As we sit around leaping flames, clutching cans of Druk beer, Dorji entertains us with fantastical tales of a lama that etched the blueprint for a stupa on a shrunken turnip, and a garp whose soul was stolen by a demoness after he refused to let her eat him. Turning in early, I fall asleep listening to a gushing river swollen with monsoon rain, my dreams dancing with psychedelic images of cannibalistic ghouls and misshapen vegetables. 

Buddhism forms the backbone of Bhutanese culture and — whether rooted in reality or not — myths and legends are part of everyday life, making it seem as if the Himalayan kingdom has more than just its mountain peaks lost in the clouds. Far removed from our Western way of living, it’s a country where naked, all-night festivals are held to ward off evil spirits, matriarchal tribes still practise polyandry and happiness is the number-one currency for measuring national wealth.

The Druk Wangyal Chortens — a group of 108 memorial stupas.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Although distances may be short, journeys on Bhutan’s winding roads are invariably long. So, the next morning, Dorji uses our odyssey of hairpin bends back to Thimphu to explain the fundamental basics of Gross National Happiness. “When the fourth king asked farmers how he should rule the country, they told him happiness was the thing they needed most,” she explains, a pink phallus jiggling amusingly from the rear-view mirror as we round every corner. “As long as we are happy, we don’t need anything else.”

Knitted together by a robust form of socialism born of a shared religious or spiritual belief, people genuinely care about each other. It’s evident everywhere — from the tiny tsa-tsa cones placed in rocky niches to honour the dead to the gently didactic road signs reminding drivers ‘No hurry, no worry’.

A shared sense of social responsibility was one of the many reasons G Adventures was brought on board to host trips along the trail. Although not part of any hiking route, a visit to the Choki Traditional Art School is included in its itineraries. Located to the north of the capital, in the Kabesa Valley, the private institution provides free education and apprenticeships to underprivileged 15- to 25-year-olds. During my tour of the complex, I meet young artists who pirouette their brushes over thangkas (elaborate religious paintings) like ballerinas on a royal stage, and accidentally startle a room of gossiping seamstresses who giggle as they leap behind sewing machines when I enter the room.

Since the first tourists came to Bhutan in 1974, a lot has changed. More electricity wires than prayer flags now zigzag across valleys, and the internet has brought with it new ambitions and a desire to encourage entrepreneurialism. 

“We no longer want to be seen as a small, landlocked country,” insists government official Tashi Wangyal when we meet at the Trans-Bhutan Trail’s official opening ceremony at the 16th-century Simtokha Dzong, on the southeastern edge of Thimphu. “We accept change but it’s even more important to cherish what we have,” he says, tapping the upturned tips of his embroidered tsholam boots (designed to mimic the snout of a snow lion, he explains). 

Once prayers have been chanted and smoke offerings made to pacify deities in the rocks and forests, the king’s brother cuts a ribbon and opens the trail, as hundreds of cheering monks, politicians and even the prime minister set off in their traditional robes and hiking boots for a full-day trek.

The mood is joyous as Bhutanese retrace the steps of their ancestors along a path that’s become a pilgrimage. Linking more than giddy mountain passes, virgin forests and remote valleys, the various stages of this route stitch together the very fabric of Bhutanese society, connecting a rapidly developing present with a never-to-be-forgotten past. 

A monk climbs steps to reach the Paro Taktsang monastery.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Getting there & around

There are no direct flights to Bhutan from the UK. National carrier Drukair is the only airline serving the country, flying into Paro, and releases its schedule three to six months in advance of flights. 

Thailand, Nepal and India are the best entry points for UK travellers. Flying from the UK via Delhi is fastest, with the best connection offered by Virgin Atlantic. Thai Airways flies direct to Bangkok, while Qatar Airways operates a route to Kathmandu via its Doha hub.

Average flight time: 16h

Several internal flights operate within the country but the best way to travel is by road. With no self-drive options, travellers must either join an organised tour or arrange transfers via hotels. A levy known as the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) was recently raised to £170 per day but is factored into package prices.

When to go

Clear skies make October to December the best time to visit, with temperatures ranging between 5C and 22C. January and February are colder but beautifully snowy, while April sees valleys awash with colour. Avoid the hot monsoon season (June to August).

Where to stay

Khang Residency, Thimpu. Doubles from £46, B&B.
Zhingkham Resort, Punakha. Doubles from £53, B&B.

More info

G Adventures offers the 11-day escorted Camp the Trans Bhutan Trail for £3,449 per person, including a mixture of camping, hotels and homestays and the daily SDF. International flights not included.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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