Upon returning to Thailand, we were met with quite an unpleasant surprise. We had dropped our bikes off at Velo Thailand, a shop with good feedback from other bicycle travelers. We liked the idea of supporting a hip neighborhood business rather than the slicker high-end chain stores around the city. We had opted for an "overhaul service" with the outlook that paying a little more for prevention would save us headaches down the road. Unfortunately, we would have been better off following the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality.
As we stood on Thrumshingla Pass, effectively delineating central and eastern Bhutan, a herd of cattle followed by a train of pack horses meandered by. Our guide, Norbu, struck up conversation with one of the seasonally nomadic herders heading to summer pastures. The older man had come from the eastern region of Norbu’s family roots. It didn’t take too long before they figured out their relationship—uncle and nephew! Have I ever mentioned that Bhutan is small country?
Down the other side of the highest pass of our journey, Norbu connected with another uncle and cousin he had not seen for many years, but this time it was prearranged. They had hiked down from their village with a bottle of a homemade spirit called ara, an essential element of social interaction, especially in eastern Bhutan. We sipped ara and ate hard-boiled eggs on the side of the road while they had a chance to catch up, but as always, we had to keep moving on.
We turned off the main east-west road onto a dead end route heading north to Lhuentse. Norbu pointed out his native village across the river valley and high above us on a steep hillside. We wished for his sake, as well as ours, that we had time to hike up there. Instead, we spent the night in Autsho village, and continued the tradition of an evening exploration in search of spontaneous interaction with its residents.
As though exploring hidden trails with our Bhutanese friends was not incredible enough, our adventure was set to continue with a west to east crossing of Bhutan. I wish I could say it was on our bicycles, but that caliber of adventure will have to wait for another time. Perhaps someday we’ll return for the Tour of the Dragon, an extreme bicycle race that nearly every Bhutanese we meet makes sure we know about when they learn that we are cyclists!
Still as part of Bhutan Swallowtail's Hidden Trails project, we explored a third trail with a small team assembled by Sonam and Tashi, the company's founders. The historical route linking Thimphu to Punakha turned out to be a truly adventurous case of "so close yet so far away."
As a warm up for the overnight hike, we first took the steep but manicured path up to Tango University of Buddhist Studies located about nine miles north of Thimphu. This was our first opportunity to get to know Norbu, who would be our guide for a west-to-east crossing of Bhutan after our time on the trail. While the monastery was mostly inaccessible due to renovations in process, we certainly enjoyed the atmospheric exteriors with valley-wide views. We also gazed upon the rock outcrop shaped like a horse's head, thus giving Tango its name.
When we returned to the trailhead, Sonam, Tashi, and their friend Sonam "Two", were waiting for us. The camp crew had already departed with the pack horses on a trail leading up the opposite side of the valley from Tango. We followed in their tracks, albeit at a much more leisurely pace while chatting with each other, marveling at the occasional rhododendron, and documenting all that the trail offered.
I understand the traveler's dilemma, having been there myself many times. With a limited amount of time, you want to make sure you see the best of what the country has to offer. Yet so does everyone else, which often comes at the detriment to the quality of your experience (not to mention the actual destinations). What's more, the attractions that are heavily promoted as must-see, iconic, and legendary may not be the places that truly capture the essence of what you seek. As difficult as it may be to skip over those known entities, more often than not, you'll be amply rewarded for heading down that alternative untrammeled trail, safely hidden from the masses.
This was certainly the case with our excursion to Dodey Drak Monastery, just a little way from Thimphu. Sonam and Tashi, the founders of Bhutan Swallowtail Tours, parked outside of the security gate on the road leading to the fourth king's residence, a modest cottage tucked away in a forested side valley. After meeting up with their multi-talented friend Sonam "D", we walked past the security guards after little more than a "Kuzuzangpola!" greeting. We tried to imagine approaching an ex-president's residence in the United States in the same manner. We had a feeling that it wouldn't go so well.
In search of threatened places, cultures, and species…before they're gone.