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Adventure

Mountain biking in Bhutan

Adventures

There's more to mountain biking in Bhutan than speeding down winding roads past monasteries and snow-capped peaks.

"WHEN YOU RIDE ON a mountain bike, you see a lot, you touch it. When you ride in a car, it's like watching television," says mountain biking guide UT (short for Ugyen Tshering).

Until the 1960s, there weren't even any roads in Bhutan - people got around on foot, yak or horse - and the country's best-known downhill bike ride, the Chele La Freewheel Descent, just outside Paro in western Bhutan, has been going only since 2004.

All of which adds to the adventure. The ride begins with a 90-minute drive to Chele La which, at 3988m, is the highest road pass in Bhutan.

As the winding road climbs from Paro, we (UT, our driver Karma, and me) pass roadside larch and maple trees in their autumn colours, and chortens (square Buddhist structures) with streams running through them, turning wooden prayer wheels.

On reaching Chele La, we look down into the Paro Valley and ahead to the Haa Valley. The dominant feature of the pass, however, is thousands of fluttering white flags on vertical poles.

They're funeral flags, printed with prayers to the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenresig, and erected in high places in clusters of 108 (an auspicious number in Buddhism) so the wind can carry the prayers to Chenresig and invoke compassion for the deceased.

On a clear day, you can see Mt Jomolhari (7314m) from here, which straddles Bhutan's northern border with Tibet.

It was first climbed in 1937 and again in 1970, but in 1994 Bhutan's government closed all peaks over 6000m and prohibited mountaineering in 2004 to preserve the country's alpine environments and out of respect for its mountain people, to whom many of Bhutan's peaks are sacred.

As a result, Bhutan's highest mountain, Gangkar Puensum, at 7570m, is the world's highest unclimbed peak.

Bhutan: a place of prayer

From the pass, UT and I set off on an easy two-hour hike to a remote nunnery. At first, the narrow track climbs to almost 4000m above sea level, making it hard to breathe, but we're soon traversing past Himalayan rosehip, fir trees and juniper bushes.

Then we enter a dark forest of tall larch, silver fir and rhododendron trees. The nunnery, Kila Goemba, is quiet as it's Sunday, when many of the nuns visit their families. It was built in the ninth century as a place for monks to meditate and became a nunnery in 1986.

Now it's home to about 45 Buddhist nuns, ranging in age from 15 to 80. We walk past their living quarters, cubby-like shacks built at the base of a high rock wall, with maroon robes on washing lines, stacks of firewood and solar panels supplied by Uma Paro, the hotel that pioneered this hike-and-bike tour.

At the nunnery's temple, we take off our shoes and go inside. Like most Bhutanese temples, it smells of incense and yak butter (used for oil lamps on the altar), and is peaceful too. Forty-five minutes later, we're back at the road, where Karma has set up a picnic lunch and lit a fire, to warm us up.

Mountain biking in Bhutan

Riding - instead of driving - feels freer and more comfortable; even the most seasoned traveller can succumb to car sickness on Bhutan's snaking mountain roads.

We also see more people: women and children washing at a stream, families winnowing rice husks, kids playing soccer in a field of rice stubble and a settlement of Indian road workers, whose grimy-faced children gather around our bikes when we stop to say hello ("Kuzuzangpo!").

Halfway down, we walk our bikes up a high embankment beside the road to find two families enjoying a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath. All over Bhutan, there are wooden tubs built into the ground in forests like this, for anyone to use.

People fill the bath with river water, heat stones on a wood fire, then put the stones into the bath. As the stones heat the water, they release healing minerals, making this a traditional Bhutanese remedy as well as a muscle-soothing way to spend an afternoon.

Towards the end of our two-hour ride, the road becomes one curve after another and leaning into the bends is like skiing. There are loops where we ride through 360°, with views of the entire Paro valley all the way around, and we pass some steep-looking single-track short-cutting between them (for more of a challenge than the road ride).

Before we know it, we're loading the bikes onto the back of the 4WD. It's been an incredible day: a scenic mountain drive, a hike to a remote Buddhist nunnery, a forest picnic and a downhill ride back to Paro.

The icing on the cake comes when we return to Uma Paro: a cup of masala tea followed by a hot stone bath, with chrysanthemums floating on the water, for added magic. 

Source: Australian Geographic Outdoor Sept/Oct 2011