Bhutan By Bike: Druk Odyssey Part I

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive” -Robert Pirsig

Day 1: An early morning departure from Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu, initiated our four-day Odyssey through the Himalayan Kingdom. Our group of 21 motorcycles made our way out of Thimphu and up the winding road of Dochu La Pass. This iconic pass is adorned with 108 stupas at the summit and is the subject of many a traveler’s photo. As it is still close to the capital city, the road is blacktopped and our group enjoyed the speed and smoothness it afforded us with knowledge that these conditions would not last for long. After the compulsory photo shoot at the top of the pass, we pulled out and began our descent towards Menlingang Primary School in Punakha Dzongkhag (district). With only 18 students from rural households, this school and its students were lacking many necessities. A short detour from the main highway led us up a dirt road where we were greeted with warm smiles from the students and faculty. The young students lined up and greeted us with a chorus of “kuzuzangpo la”: the word for “hello” in Bhutan. We distributed lunch boxes and a crate of books for the creation of a library which was followed by tea (no visit in Bhutan is complete without tea). We couldn’t stay long, as many kilometers on the road were still ahead.

Back on the road, we continued our descent into Punakha and had a quick lunch in the valley. After crossing into the next district, the road conditions quickly deteriorated and our speed dropped accordingly. It is often hard to believe that this rocky, muddy road is the main highway in the country. Despite the occasional mud splatter and back tire spinning out, everything went smoothly and our efforts are instantly rewarded with views of the jungle deep in the valley below juxtaposed by waterfalls and sheer cliffs above us. After what quickly became an arduous climb, we turned off the main road and crossed into the next valley: Phobjika. This sprawling valley was carved by glaciers and is now famous for being the nesting ground for Black Necked Cranes.

After crossing into the valley, the road conditions improved and we made good time to our home for the evening: a farm homestay. After a settling in to our rooms we realized that we still had a couple hours of daylight to explore the area. A group of us headed off for what I thought would be a leisurely ride around the area to take it all in. I quickly realized this would not be the case as the bikes ahead of me turned off onto a small road. While resembling a swamp more than a road, some of the bikes were much more suited for this terrain than my road bike. The bikes ahead climbed nimbly through the mud, while a combination of user error and road tires left me, quite literally, stuck in the mud. Many laughs, pushes, and waterlogged shoes later, I was free. We continued to meander around the area until dusk with only a couple more similar incidents, most of which I was the victim of. We returned to the farm house tired, wet, and with a sense of achievement. After a warm meal and drinks around a bonfire we settled in for the evening.

Day 2: We rose with sun, feeling refreshed and ready for the day’s adventures. After eating a quick breakfast, drinking tea, and loading up our bikes we were off. Today would be a relatively short day as we were returning to Punakha to camp by the river for the night. We climbed out of the valley and instead of descending, we continued up, through the clouds, to the pass. Many of us could feel moisture building in the air and began to realize the descent would not be as easy as we had thought. After a quick stop at the top of the pass, we turned back the way we had come and began our descent. Rain followed us and we quickly became drenched and cold. Not making great time and needing to take shelter temporarily, we pulled off at a canteen for, you guessed it, tea! We tried, largely in vein, to dry off and wait the rain out as the tea warmed our hands if nothing else. Eventually, the rain subsided a little and we were back on the road. Moving slowly down the wet, dirt highway, blue skies became visible in the distance. Eventually, we hit blacktop as we reached the base of the valley and in unison our speed increased. Flowing through the curves of the valley our group took as much speed as we could and the warm air rushed through our clothes drying us. Racing through Punakha, we arrived at our campsite in time for a late lunch. We spent a leisurely afternoon hanging around camp, exchanging stories and smiles when our organizer called us for some games. The first, a snail race tested our balance, which was in short supply for many of us. In what was often a comical test of handling, we concluded with an obstacle course which proved to be a challenge for most to even complete. Those who made it through were rewarded with applause and those, like me, who failed were rewarded with smiles and laughter. Our night was spent listening to classic rock around the campfire. After day two, a real sense of community was felt and we were prepared for the challenging days ahead.

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive” -Robert Pirsig

To be continued…

Photos: Bryan Gensits

Are you planning a trip to Bhutan? Share with us in the comments.

Bryan Gensits


Bryan is currently based in Punakha, Bhutan where he's completing his M. Sc. in Natural Resource Management at the Royal University of Bhutan. He enjoys mountain biking, trail running and trekking.

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