Sunday, April 21, 2024

Bike-free in Bhutan

(Warning:  no actual cycling is described in this blog.  If this is likely to aggravate, please step away.  Otherwise, enjoy a write-up which is to all intents and purposes, completely standard, with a focus on the exercise and on-the-road aspects!)

I find it hard enough to keep in touch with my family, despite living in the same city as very many of them.  Sarah left Mongolia over 20 years ago now, a country that in most respects is diametrically opposed to New Zealand.  Technology and our stage of life are both helping immensely, but I sense a growing imperative to connect with her small family, now spanning three generations:  sister Saruul, niece Tsomoo, and great nephew Urin.  

Some six months ago, a seed was sown to tick a few boxes simultaneously.  About 15 years ago, Saruul began aspiring to visit the kingdom of Bhutan - a small country in the eastern Himalayan foothills, tucked between India and the Tibet region of China.  As I'd come to learn, the country has been significantly influenced by Mongolian culture, and would give Sarah and Saruul glimpses of what Mongolian life might have been like pre-Stalinist purges, which all but destroyed the large number of buddhist monasteries across the country.  

Tourism in Bhutan doesn't have a long history - in fact, borders were opened to tourists for the first time somewhere between my birth in 1973 and Sarah's in 1974!  To mitigate the environmental and cultural effects tourists can have, a "high value, low impact" policy was instituted in 2008, and this has been tinkered with since, via a steep daily rate for every visitor into the country.  

For a change, I enjoyed taking a back seat (if I was in the vehicle at all!) for planning this trip.  At Saruul's suggestion, Sarah got in touch with Om Travenza, a travel agent based in Thimphu, the nation's capital.  Over the months leading up to the trip, from my vantage point, Om was fantastic to deal with.  At our request, her initial itinerary was revised to include a bit more walking, and she otherwise made getting organised painless.  She took charge of the visa application process, flights to Bhutan on the national airline Drukair (from Bangkok for Sarah and I and Kathmandu for Saruul), as well as insurance for our time in Bhutan.  In my most cynical moments, the web presence and gmail address worried me a little, but that was totally unfounded.  

Such are the quality of modern "on the fly" planning tools, I've taken to doing as little homework about our holiday destinations as possible, so as to maximise the number of pleasant surprises.  Our Lonely Planet books look lovely on the bookshelf, but my eyesight is increasingly finding the font size hard to cope with!  Nonetheless, had I translated Om's itinerary onto a map, I'd have anticipated a visit to four valleys, each running vaguely north-south.  We'd land at the spectacular Paro International Airport in the western-most valley, and each day or two would move further eastward, spending time in each of the Thimphu, Punakha and Phobjika valleys, before returning to Paro for the happy ending of every tourist's visit to the country, a pass of the so-called Tiger's Nest Monastery.  

Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, and Phobjika Valleys in Western Bhutan

Day One - Paro to Thimpu

After a day of nursing mild cold symptoms in Bangkok, and an early flight to Paro International Airport via a touch-down in Dhaka to pick up a few more passengers, we began our approach into Paro.  The landing was something else, from initial views of snow capped mountains, through to our slow descent into an increasingly tight valley, to the final ducking and diving around landforms that disrupt a straight-line approach.  

I'd come to learn that the landing from the north would have been even cooler, as the plane overflies the runway before doing a big U-turn when the valley widens, followed by an even more technical final approach.  (Plenty of videos on youtube to enjoy!)

The terminal at Paro International Airport

The surprises came thick and fast thereafter.  The walk from the plane to the spectacular terminal was refreshingly uncontrolled.  Not only was photography fine, but we seemed able to wander to our hearts content, apparently constrained only by common sense!  The terminal itself was beautiful, and constructed in typical Bhutanese style.  

English-language welcome was a sign of things to come

We had printed copies of the E-visa we'd each been issued, and at the immigration counters our passports were stamped for entry until the date we were due to leave.  Saruul had arrived an hour or so before us, and as we connected with her soon after retrieving our luggage.  We soon met Singye, our guide for the week, and Tshagay, our driver, both lovely young men, dressed in traditional Bhutanese national dress.  

Photo: Tshagay

The next hour or so on the road alerted us to various interesting facts:  many Bhutanese do wear national dress; English is the language of education, and is spoken by most (almost all signage was in English); while the road surface tends to be good (no potholes etc), the speed limit is commonly 40km/h or 50km/h, and this tends to be observed as an upper limit, and not a target!  

Handsome gate to commemorate one of no-doubt many Indo Bhutan Friendship Projects

We stopped for lunch in Thimphu, where we were treated to ema datshi, aka chili cheese.  Essentially sliced chili in a cheese sauce, we were told this is a popular dish at any time of the day!

After lunch, we made various short stops at tourist attractions, each involving some amount of walking - slowly, on account of the thin air.  According to the web, Thimphu is the world's fifth highest capital city, at around 2300m above sea level.  These stops included a facility demonstrating the traditional home construction, and we took a short walk to our first Buddhist monastery.

Southern suburbs of Thimphu

Following that, we drove up a narrow road to find one of the world's largest sitting Buddha statues, and some incredibly chilly winds!  Back down into the relative warmth of the city, we took a lap of the Thimphu Chorten (National Memorial Stupa), by which time the phrase "always clockwise" was well instilled in my brain!

We may have been poking fun at some royals...

With dinner time approaching, we were all touristed out, and so drove up the hill to meet Om.  Not only an accomplished travel agent, she also was the proud owner of a boutique hotel on the main road east from Thimphu.  There we were treated to great conversation, food, and lodgings, and slept well in anticipation of our first proper walk the next morning.  

Day 2 - Lungchutse Hiking Trail

Our goal would be the Lungchutse Monastery, offering views of the Himalayas when the skies are clear.  Often done as an out-and-back from Dochula Pass (3200m above sea level, climbing up to 3600m over 3.5km!), Singye suggested we start from another monastery, and who were we to disagree!

Ready to roll, so to speak

The drive was short, but not without surprises, including road side stalls and signs of sizeable communities living in the hills.  About half the drive was off the main road, on a very long drive way through challenging terrain, and sealed with hot-mix.  

Hungtsho village

Starting a walk at 3000m is no mean feat at the best of times.  Saruul had the disadvantage of being generally less active than Sarah and I, but on the other hand lived in UB and had spent a week in Kathmandu on her way to Bhutan (both about 1400m above sea level).  Sarah and I were no strangers to exercise, albeit at sea level, and we were both nursing mild cold symptoms (including a bit of phlegm and coughs).  Accordingly, we set off slowly!

Immediately I started hankering for my mountain bike.  It was very hard to tell how manageable the steepest gradients would have been in the rarified air, but by and large, this would have made for great mountain biking, particularly in the opposite direction!

A very grand style

After about 90 minutes, we came to the intersection with the main track from Dochula Pass.  There we just happened to meet another group, who excitedly reported spotting a red panda down below.  Going in search of it ourselves would add an estimated 20 minutes to our walk, and without any hint of bias, Singye asked if we wanted to go down. We gave him the thumbs up, and started walking briskly down the hill - with gravity on our sides it seemed to be no problem to move quickly!  Perhaps the thrill of the chase helped as well.

As we descended, our sense of anticipation grew, all the while hoping that the animal would (a) still be there, and (b) that we would look in the right place!  Neither seemed certain, but as luck would have it, we were soon admiring a beautiful creature in its natural habitat.

We'd already learned that Singye was 36 years old (one 12 year zodiac cycle older than Kaitlyn and Khulan, as it turned out) and had been guiding for 15 years.  Despite being barely 24 hours into our visit, he made it clear that this was far from normal.  In fact, this was the very first time he'd seen a red panda!  In that context, I was amazed at his restraint and deference to our wishes - the choice to take the detour had been entirely ours to make.

Until Singye's friends saw this photo, they didn't believe he'd actually seen the panda, sightings are so rare!

Overloaded with cuteness, we eventually tore ourselves away.

A red panda, in the wild!

It took us about 35 minutes in total to do the down-and-back trip, and then another half an hour to get to the monastery.  After a sandwich, we did a lap of the building ("... always clockwise ...") but unfortunately didn't get the views of the Himalayas which are typical at some months of the year.  Nonetheless, the nearby ridges were still impressive.  


We were all fascinated to know if we'd get a second sighting of the panda on our way down.  Reinforcing the decision we'd made, it was no longer there, adding to the sense of good fortune we all felt.  

For virtually every moment of the descent, I imagined being on my mountain bike.  Overlooking the challenge of getting the bike to the top, on the face of it, it seemed like it would make for the most enjoyable trail for someone of my capabilities - feature laden without being overly technical.  

From time to time we'd pass prayer flags, and these were particularly abundant near the trail head.  

Tshagay was there to meet us, and we drove straight to Om's for lunch.  Just as that was coming to an end, a disturbance in the trees across the valley turned out to be a posse of grey langur monkeys - another rare and auspicious sighting.

After lunch, we visited the Simtokha Dzong - a large 400-year old fortress, that serves both religious and adminstrative roles.  In order to enter, Singye had to don a white scarf over his national dress.  We also stopped by an archery range - targets are 130m apart, and we sat a mere 15m or so from the target, totally exposed to a wayward arrow.  Based on the attitudes of the locals around us, I suspect getting hit by an arrow is even rarer than seeing a red panda!

It happened to be Om's birthday, and we were invited to her home for dinner.  There we met her uncle, who is a Rimpoche, or senior buddhist monk.  We were all privileged to receive a blessing from him in the family's shrine room, which accounted for a significant proportion of the home.  

What a day full of unexpected and rare treats.  Deep down, we all knew we would struggle to beat it!

Walk stats:  8km walked, 3000-3600m above sea level, a chilly 10 degrees

Day 3 - Trans Bhutan Trail and Temple of the Divine Madman

After breakfast, we had a brief opportunity to dress like Bhutanese, at which point I much better understood how Singye's outfit was engineered (I was intrigued by the two pleats at the back of his garb, which turned out to be the sides pulled back).  

The Trans Bhutan Trail is pretty much what it says on the can - a 400km route from one end of the country to the other.  It runs up the gully below Om's place, and after a very short drive up the road, we began our attempt to connect into it.  Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and it told us that we should have started 50m further up the road.  

Marker post for the Trans Bhutan Trail

An original pilgrim route, and in use for centuries, at least in this valley, the trail was being overrun by progress - farming activity or other private development.  In the forest, the trail was typically marked by white paint on the trees.  Intersections were marked, and the configuration of the two pain splashes served as a direction marker.  

Right turn ahoy, due to the position of the top bit of paint

From time to time Singye would explain the often-times religious significance of some man made object or other, but this was mostly forest bathing at its best.  

A road ran on the back side of this wall, but using it would have been at odds with clockwise passage

As the time passed, I found it quite hard to work out where we were in relation to the road to Dochula Pass, since we were generally at the bottom of the gully.  What was certain was that we would cross the previous day's access road, but exactly when that would happen was anyone's guess.  Unlike on the previous day's walk, I didn't think much about my MTB - this section would have been laden with hike-a-bike.  

Nek minnit...!  I remained photographer while Singhe took on the role of rescuer

Just before we actually did reach the driveway, we took a short break in a clearing which featured a pair of stupas.  As with many others we'd see during the week, each contained a large water-spun prayer wheel, and one of them was functioning as designed.  A 20m long water race above it diverted some of the stream flow, which ensured the prayer wheel in perpetual motion.  It wasn't clear who was reaping the benefit of that, but for the time being it was us.  

At the driveway, Singhe warned us that the track condition was about to deteriorate, and offered to call for the van.  Despite the steep valleys, and buildings and other infrastructure that used traditional construction methods, at no point on our entire visit did we appear to be without cell coverage.  We three visitors had all declined an offer of a local SIM, so we weren't glued to our phones, but Singhe was regularly using his.  In this case, Saruul did accept his offer, and we left her waiting for collection.

I really do think I would have enjoyed a life as a civil engineer, and while I do love pristine nature, man's intrusions on it do generally fascinate me.  A god-awful low frequency hum got louder and louder as we climbed, and I eventually asked Singhe about it.  I'd never in a million guesses have anticipated his answer - it turned out to be one of Bhutan's bitcoin mines - and I suppose it must have been the cooling system that we could hear!!!  

Since getting home, I've seen an article claiming that Bhutan is one of only four countries that use 100% renewable energy.  (Another three countries are within a rounding error of 100%, and NZ is 16th, based on 2022 data, at 85%.)  Bhutan's geography is prime for hydroelectricity generation, and alongside being a major export (to India), clearly some of it is being used for crypto mining.  

Rhododendrons were in bloom, and were everywhere

One final source of fascination was to understand how Bhutanese harvested timber.  A fallen tree below the track had been processed where it fell, cut into planks before those were hauled out of the forest - possibly one by one on someone's shoulder.  

When we reached the pass, we met Saruul at a restaurant, where we enjoyed the warmth and good food, and her company once more.  Once we were done with lunch, Sarah and I committed to one further section of walking.  The style of the track changed once again, and this had me yearning for my Yeti.  I suspect that if I'd had it, I'd have either ended up walking a fair bit, with or without the need for some first aid.  The trail was steep, and there were sections of stone steps which seemed both challenging and unforgiving.  

After about 40 minutes on foot, we joined Saruul in the van, and then ensued an insanely long descent - while Dochula pass sits just shy of 1000m above Thimphu, the Punakha Valley, into which we were descending, was another 1000m lower.  More bike cravings ensued!!! 

The long drive gave Singhe plenty of time to tell us the curious story of the Divine Madman, and by the time that was over, we had a good context for the star of the afternoon's stroll, the phallus.  En route to a temple in honour of the madman, we passed a multitude of souvenir shops, each laden with ornately painted penises, and some creative mashups, the grandest of which was an airplane with 80cm long fuselage and jet engines all paying tribute to the fascinating local legend.  

At our hotel, it was time for a wash.  Sarah got a bit of a fright to discover a tick on her belly.  There were some small marks on her skin, but with Saruul's help (and greater expertise in these matters), we managed to convince ourselves these were where it had been hanging on, rather than feeding.  It was a crazy ending to a day full of fascination and surprise, just what you need on holiday!

Stats:  13km walked up and over Dochula Pass, and another 2km walk later through ride paddies and running the penis gauntlet.  Max altitude 3200m, min 1300m

Day 4 - Punakha Valley attractions

After breakfast we took a short drive up the valley, and set off on a walk to a spectacular multistoried monastery, perched high above the river.  Sarah and Saruul just beat a small bus load of tourists onto the first swing bridge of the day, and it was the first time we didn't feel like we had the place to ourselves.  

We initially climbed slowly through rice paddies - these were empty, and surprisingly shallow (probably no more than 10cm of water, when in use).  When the track tipped up and we began the climb in earnest, there was no obvious sign that our altitude training was paying off, even despite a lack of urgency in our pace.  About two-thirds of the way up the hill the track split, and of course we headed onto the loop in clockwise direction.

Singhe briefed us about the monastery just before we entered the main grounds.  As was customary, we ditched our shoes outside, and I stowed my hat.  There was prayer underway on each of the three floors, independent, but somehow coordinated.  Officiating on the top floor was none other than the deputy to the Chief Abbot of Bhutan, and Singye gratefully received his blessing.  We were able to exit to the roof by taking another steep staircase, and a policeman there ensured we did not traverse the area directly above the senior official.  

After making our way down the hill, and after negotiating a series of terraces, we spent half an hour on a lovely river trail.  My eyesight was more than up to the task of identifying some rafters, but wasn't sufficient to convincingly identify what might have been an otter's head.  

After regrouping with Tshagay and the van, we accepted a suggestion to go to see the longest swing bridge in Bhutan.  

Photo: Singye

It would have been rude not to cross it, and given the sun was out in force, it was delightful to be able to have a mid-stroll ice-cream on the far side. 

After another short drive, we stopped in a park on the river bank.  There, we had lunch in a gazebo, which was lovely despite a very strong wind that had decided to join us.  It was a nice setup - food had been prepared offsite, and we were one of three groups being fed in this open air restaurant.  

A few minutes walk down the road was an impressive cantilevered bridge over to the Punakha Dzong - a fortress that serves as both the adminstrative and religious centre for the valley, and a tourist attraction to boot.  

The fortress was itself spectacular, but one of the most fascinating features of the buildings wasn't man-made.  There were some huge beehives hanging above the main entrance into the inner courtyard. 

At first glance, the brown exterior of the hives looked like it might be dirt, but every now and then a visible shimmering effect would confirm that the brown colour was from the bees themselves.  A+ nature.  

After not pining for a bicycle for most of the day, we began our drive to Phobjikha Valley.  The road ascended over 2000m, and had some very appealing sections that I would have loved to have knocked out under my own steam.  There were a few small villages on the way up, which immediately were translated into places to stop for sustenance, and then we started passing yaks!  The van made it all effortless, but ones ability on a bicycle to not only see everything but photograph it, is unsurpassed!

It was dark by the time we reached our hotel, itself sitting just below 3000m above sea level.  We'd been told a bit about our destination - a popular domestic tourist destination, and a place the locals refer to as "Little Switzerland", and we looked forward to getting the lay of the land when we could properly see it!  At dinner time we sat near a young German woman who was dining with her guide, and enjoyed swapping notes with them both.  

Stats:  just shy of 6km to see the first monastery, then short walks to follow.  

Day 5 - Gangtey Nature Trail

I passed through Switzerland very briefly during Le Cycle Tour de France in 2018, but what I saw when I looked out the window in the morning reminded me much more of Mongolia!  Wide open spaces, livestock, and no fences to speak of.  

Apart from its tranquility, one of the claims to fame of the valley is that it is a winter haunt for a few hundred Black-necked Cranes, who leave Tibet for the slightly warmer conditions here.  After breakfast, we visited an information centre, where we learnt a bit more about the bird, and conservation efforts to protect it and its habitat in the valley.  

Karma (wounded and unable to fly) and Pema (for company)

The drive across the valley floor had been very rough, so we walked back across to the start of the Gangtey-Phobji Nature Trail, another section of the Trans Bhutan Trail.  After passing a stupa and doing a lap, we admired a local doing some basket weaving (getting ready for the potato harvest, Singye suggested) and meanwhile keeping an eye on his livestock down below.  He was a lovely sight, and Singye surreptitiously slipped him a small donation by way of apology for the disturbance and attention.  

Passing through a pine forest, and while admiring some recently cut planks, a massive shadow passed near by.  Singye suggested it had probably been a Griffon vulture.  Whatever it was, it must have been huge.

Back out in the open we passed through a small village, and I admired the range of construction methods these fine folk have command of!  Despite extensive woodwork, nails were not traditionally used.

The last bit of the walk was steep, and we sat in the sun for a while before knocking the last 20 minutes off.  After Sarah's fright the previous evening, we checked in on the odds of picking up another unwelcome traveller, before actually sitting down!  

The walk ended at another fine monastery, where my personal highlights were of the avian variety.  Circuling over us for a few minutes were half a dozen Griffons, maybe wondering if we were going to collapse after the hill.  Inside, we enjoyed watching some ravens adeptly drinking from a leaking tap.  

All good things must come to an end, and what awaited us was a long drive all the way back to Paro.  It was a whopper, but a late lunch stop, a short break at Om's hotel, and a tiny bit of touristing (a 600 year old iron chain bridge across the river just before we reached Paro) broke things up nicely.  Our hotel overlooked the airport, and so before turning in for the night I checked the morning's flight schedules on FlightRadar, lest iit would be convenient to geek out over a landing or two.  

Stats:  5km recorded and a further kilometre up through the village to the monastery.  2800-3000m operating altitude.  Zero ticks.  

Day 6 - Bumdrak Monastery Campsite

After a solid sleep, I woke to discover I wasn't the only one anticipating a bit of planespotting! 

Indeed, one of the early arrivals was taking the northern approach, of which we had a good view.  Before landing to the south, the plane first flew low above the runway in the northerly direction, before disappearing from view for a few minutes, during which time it pulled a U-turn in the valley.  When it reappeared, the plane's wings were at no point level until moments before it touched down - a very impressive sight indeed. 

Worth zooming in to find the plane!

After breakfast, we finished packing for our penultimate hike of the trip.  Warm clothes and toothbrush were the order of the day, as we would be camping overnight, high above Paro (and at 3800m no less).  For the most part, we'd walked in t-shirts, but we knew a cold wind was very possible, so packed conservatively.

Singhe had enjoyed a night at home (he lives in Paro, while Tsaygay and Om are based over in Thimphu), and was in his usual good spirits as we set off in the van.  We first passed through Paro and soon after began a long ascent on another beautifully sealed road that had more of a driveway vibe to it than anything else.  

We soon bade Tshagay farewell, and started our walk through regenerating forest - still in recovery mode after a massive fire during the pandemic.  We'd driven to an elevation of 2700m, and already were high above Paro. This gave us stunning views over the city and down the runway, partially obscured by a spur that planes have to swerve around before touching down.  

Two Scandinavian women and their guide were in the process of passing us when there was a bit of a commotion ahead.  We all did well to get out of the way of four ponies who were on their way down to the trail head to pick up supplies.  They'd arrive at the camp not long after us - the young fellow escorting them later told us he is a Sherpa, and having spent the last 9 years living at the camp becoming well and truly accustomed to the altitude, knocks the return trip out in under 3 hours!  Fit guy!

The trail was steep, and invited the same curiosity I'd felt during most of our walks - what would it be like to try to ride?  We were walking pretty slowly, and while I felt like I was getting more than enough oxygen to support that level of effort, there was always the hint that there wasn't much to spare.  Climbing effectively on the MTB, particularly when it is steep, is an all out aerobic effort - not the sort of thing that works out well in thin air!

After passing some yaks mooching beside the track, the ridge flattened off a bit, and we had a snack in a small shelter.  We could see things were about to steepen up again, and at the top of a cleared strip through the forest (for powerlines), we could see our lunch spot!

I was carrying Saruul's bag, both to take a bit of load off her, but also to speed the walk up a little.  I enjoyed walking at my own pace, and drifted off the front of the group a few times.  Aside from the solitude, that brought with it the benefit of some long rests, which generally involved finding a good looking rock to sit on.  That invariably gave me a good view of the track below, which in turn had me fantasising about being on my bike.

Despite the intimidating view from below, the lunch venue came soon enough, and we found a table set for us behind a well placed dirt wall.  We were sheltered, both from the warm sun, but more importantly from a cold wind that was blowing.   Two young men (the "lunch boys") had carried hot food down from the camp above, and a thermos of hot water to make instant coffee.  It all hit the spot nicely.  

Singhe had warned us that the track above was also steep, but mercifully, the higher reaches of the mountain didn't feel harder despite the increasingly thin air.  As promised, the track eventually flattened off, and our trudge started to feel more like a regular walk.  

When Sarah and I arrived at the camp, we were warmly welcomed and ushered to a table.  There we found hot tea, and a bowl of fresh popcorn, and while we barely made a dent in it, it was much appreciated, and a bit out of character (not something we'd been served before).  

We had the option to add a 2-hour walk to visit a Sky Burial site, a further 400m vertical above the camp.  Singhe had told us that while almost all Bhutanese are cremated, this is not the case for infants, who are brought to mountaintops like this one, and are left to nature.  Sarah and Saruul noted that sky burial is also still common in Mongolia (but for all ages).  I'd be lying if I said that I had an abundance of energy and any desire to squeeze in more exercise, but the primary driver to stay put was out of respect for the intimate practices of the local people - it was bad enough visiting temples while they were in use.  

This decision felt even more sound when soon after the weather clagged in, and for a time it was even snowing!  By this stage we'd put on all the clothes we'd carried up the hill, and I was wearing four layers under my raincoat when Sarah and I joined Singhe to check out the nearby monastery.  Unfortunately it was locked up, but that didn't prevent us from ascending some steep staircases on the outside of the remarkable structure.  

Bumdrak Monastery

Sarah and I had a double bed in our tent, and we hunkered down in it under an impressively heavy set of covers.  This served the dual purpose to both while away a bit of time and to keep warm! Whenever we poked our heads outside, it was still snowing!  

At the specified time we relocated to our private dinner tent, to find Saruul already there and enjoying a cup of tea beside a gas heater!  Before dinner was over, the staff delivered to us three hot water bottles, accompanied by the pro tip "if your feet are warm, you are warm".   

The weather turning made for a dramatic end to a remarkable day, full of interesting experiences, cultural, natural, and technological.  

Stats:   8km walked, from 2700m to 3800m elevation. 

Day 7 - Tiger's Nest Monastery

After a messy sleep, where I struggled a bit with temperature control, and wasn't always able to tune out the sound of the tent flapping in the wind, I woke with a bit of a headache.  This seemed likely due to the altitude - Sarah and I slept at 3200m when we crossed the Andes back in 2019, but this had upped the ante considerably.  I also suspected caffeine withdrawal, which I tried to do something about over breakfast.

On a more positive note, there was plenty to take my mind off my aching mind.  We had woken to beautiful clear skies, and spectacular views across to some big mountains, themselves sporting a fresh dumping of snow.  

After breakfast, we finished packing up and started our descent towards one of Bhutan's claims to fame - the spectacular Tiger's Nest Monastery, more correctly known as Paro Taktsang.  While the track we'd climbed on was well worn in, and hard to miss, it was clear that this route was much less popular.  

As we descended, our sense of anticipation grew, but there were other things to enjoy en route, including another monastery which had been hosting a meditation session for years, if the sign was to be believed. 

Tiger's Nest is perched on the side of a massive cliff, and doesn't come into view until you're almost there.  Most visitors walk from below, and once we reached the intersection with this main track, the difference couldn't have been more stark - we literally saw more tourists on approach to the monastery than we'd seen on the rest of the trip, including at the airport!

Paro Taktsang and behind it, the ridge we'd walked up the previous day

This involved a steep descent to below the monastery, followed by an equally steep climb.  Someone at the trailhead was clearly doing a roaring trade in walking stick rental, I was fascinated to note.  

Cameras were forbidden in the monastery complex, and were put in a locker for the duration of our visit (along with our GPS units, which clocked up a few kilometres while locked away - Sarah's 3km more than my own)!  Once we'd finished our tour, and had retied our shoelaces for the final time, we retraced our steps back to the intersection, slowly but surely.  

The path down was well worn.  I was intrigued to see that there was a parallel route used by small horses, which served as a shuttle service for folk who wanted to reduce the amount of walking they'd need to do, but didn't completely eliminate the need for some fitness, and altitude tolerance.  The steep descent was a bit hard on the legs, but we got some great views of the monastery before we were done with it.  

Our snack supply had been exhausted by the time we got to a cafe not far from the end of the walk.  Singhe recommended we forgo food there, keeping our powder dry for nicer, cheaper options in Paro itself.  We survived until that late lunch, and followed that up with a bit of souvenir shopping on the main drag, during which time we were buzzed by a Drukair plane bringing in another plane-lot of visitors eventually bound for the Tiger's Nest!  Singhe told us that no matter the duration of one's trip, the last full day was always the Tiger's Nest - all the better to acclimate somewhat, but also to finish off with a bang, as we just had.  

Stats9km walked, give or take, and 1200m elevation between start and end points.  

* * *

Before heading to bed, we said farewell to Saruul.  Her airport pickup was at 5am, and she was happy for Sarah and I to squeeze in another couple of hours sleep before our own departure.  As the original instigator of the trip, she admitted to having had a wonderful time, and her only regret was that she was now without a dream destination!  I hope that she was proud of all the walking she'd done also - close to 50km over the week, and in thin air to boot.  

Between breakfast, and check out, I managed to attend the first hour of my monthly Faculty Management Team meeting, thanks to an unexpected switching off of daylight savings, and the modern miracle that is Zoom.  Singhe and Tsaygay whisked me away from that, and we were bidding them farewell at the airport minutes after.  

Ka kite ano!

I'd had a wonderful time, with many contributing factors - one notable one being that I'd not been in charge.  Sarah and Saruul had done a great job of finding Om, and she and Singhe had designed a fantastic range of activities for us.  I can heartily recommend Om Travenza to anyone contemplating visiting Bhutan.  

Singhe was a fantastic guide - incredibly knowledgeable about the various places he took us to, of buddism, and of Bhutanese culture.  Incredibly polite - to the extent that he always seemed uneasy when I held the door open for him - any to all intents and purposes, a native speaker of English, he was great company, fit and strong, and very interesting.  He did his job so well, and in a way that made us relax.  We didn't spend as much time with Tshagay, but he played his role perfectly too, and we enjoyed our time in the van.  

I enjoyed the built environment - from the fascinating local construction methods (homes, fortresses, bridges and others) and the surprisingly shallow rice paddies, to the remarkable Paro International Airport flight paths and the horribly out of place and intrusive - but otherwise fascinating - crypto mine up in the hills!  

The natural environment was often times breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude.  The steep valleys, rivers and streams, healthy forest including the flowering rhododendrons, were all really nice to see, especially when we were on foot.  Unfortunately the air quality wasn't great in the Punakha Valley, but at least we had the ability to leave it after a couple of days for the relatively pristine condition elsewhere.  

We got incredibly lucky with our exposure to wildlife:  seeing the red panda (and being with Singhe when he saw it) may well be a highlight of our lifetimes, and it was also very awesome that Sarah wasn't bitten by the tick (good luck in the sense of avoidance of bad luck)!  Griffons and grey langurs were also novel, and it is hard not to get excited when you see a yak.  

Finally, the cultural elements were also fascinating, from the obvious sense of national identity, interesting (and at times challenging) practices, and also the significant role Buddhism plays in the country.  Much of this was enriched for me by travelling with Sarah and Saruul, and discovering the deep connections between Mongolians and Bhutanese.

The trip was wonderful, despite the regular bike withdrawal symptoms I experienced.  On the other hand, the format enabled us to have some real quality time with Saruul, eliminated a huge amount of logistical strain, and didn't put us in a position where we had to confront how underpowered we currently are!  I would like to visit this region again - Nepal perhaps - in the hope that the style of trails is not unlike those we sampled in Bhutan. 

If you were able to put up with the ignominy of reading a walking story on a biking blog, thank you.  The writing process was noticeably different, but I can't promise I won't do it again in the future!