A trip to Bhutan is otherworldly, especially on the trails through Bhutan

A trip to Bhutan is otherworldly, especially on the trails through Bhutan

According to Bhutanese folklore, ancient historical kapus – messengers entrusted with passing secret notes between fortresses – pass like the wind through these enchanted forests. As our group hiked a slender woodland trail near the capital, Thimphu, my boots were light and my Toronto lungs were not used to the Himalayan air.

I was trekking cautiously down a slippery slope when our bubbly G Adventures guide, Dorji Bidha, magically appeared with a gift: a “trekking pole” made from a sturdy tree branch, bark A smooth handle was chipped off.

“I saw several people ahead and asked for one of them,”Azo (Uncle), can you make canes for my guests – make them hurry up? ‘” She told me. The kind-hearted man drew his sword and agreed. Only then did Bida notice who she sent, and blushed in embarrassment: “I just knew it was our Minister of Agriculture! “

It’s a touching anecdote, and one that reflects the general attitude in Bhutan: here, it’s everyone’s job to welcome guests.

Writer Wing Sze Tang on the alpine meadows of the Trans-Bhutan Trail.Photo: Yong Si Tang

It’s late September and I’m in Bhutan with Toronto-based travel agency G Adventures as part of an international team of journalists, following in the footsteps of the fabled garps. After the royal ribbon-cutting ceremony at the sacred fortress of Semtokha Dzong this morning, we headed into the woods – trailing the energetic Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, who led the way with a swift entourage of red-robed Buddhist monks.

We’re here for a historic moment: I’ve just landed after Bhutan lifted its pandemic border closures, all for the official inauguration of the Trans Bhutan Trail. The initiative is significant, conceived as a new tourist attraction and a national unity project, linking communities across the country.If measured by buzz alone, the road has been successful, landing time2022 list of the greatest places in the world.

The trail is a revival of the ancient zung lam, a pilgrimage route through the center of the country around the 16th century that was once frequented by monarchs, religious leaders, merchants and travelers of all kinds. Long ago, it was the only way to traverse this small landlocked country sandwiched between China (Tibet) and India. But with the advent of highways in the 1960s, sidewalks fell out of favor. While some sections are still useful for activities such as herding, in general the trail has been lost over time.

The ambition to revive the Trans Bhutan Trail dates back to 2019, and it is about Canada: the work is led by the Bhutan Canada Foundation and its partners, with the support of Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The nonprofit foundation chose G Adventures, known for its culturally immersive and community-aware tours, as the trail’s launch partner.

The trail survey officially began in 2020, with guidance from elders and remnants of chortens (religious monuments) who once pointed the way. Restoration work followed, requiring clearing of a passage through the bush, rebuilding 18 bridges, adding approximately 10,000 stone steps, and adding markers (simple white slashes on trees and stones).

Today, the road stretches 403 kilometers from west to east across the vast terrain from Haa to Trashigaon. We only test our legs on a fraction of them – an end-to-end tour takes about a month.

But we explored enough to get acquainted with four-wheel downhills and aerobic test climbs; rainforests of mist, moss and mystery (it’s easy to imagine why old tales of demon haunts abound); Delicate wildflowers, flanked by mountains. After hours of sweaty walking, we often come across open fields, green terraces and hillsides dotted with rammed-earth houses.

Forests cover more than 70 percent of Bhutan, a global conservation leader.Photo: Yong Si Tang

The trail also crosses over a dozen mountain passes, two national parks (Jigme Dorji and Phrumsengla), nine dzongkhags (districts) and 27 gewogs (villages) – including more remote and rural areas less visited by tourists.

“We are not doing this to build a tourist route,” Sam Blyth, founder of the Bhutan Canada Foundation, explained at a small media gathering in Thimphu. “We wanted to use the trail as a means of community development.” He first came to Bhutan in 1988 with Pierre Trudeau as his expedition partner, whom he quickly fell in love with This country, inspired his philanthropic interest in this country.

Each of the trail’s 28 segments will have a local guide, and each gewog will take ownership of their respective segments, Blyth added. The villages will attract hikers with food, accommodation (such as homestays in traditional farmhouses) and souvenirs, which will help spread needed tourism revenue to hitherto unvisited places.

Bhutan’s tourism industry has long made the country an outlier on the global stage. It didn’t welcome foreigners until 1974, and since then its tourist motto has been “high value, low quantity”. That means making sure travelers don’t overwhelm nature or what this small country can handle. According to the Bhutan Tourism Board, the number of tourists in 2019 was only around 316,000.

In June, the government announced a major (and controversial) change: raising a tourist tax known as the sustainability fee to $200 per person per night.

It remains to be seen how many tourists will turn down this huge fee, but it contributes to the perception that Bhutan is a developing country, and that prices are prohibitively high and exclusive. Still, in an age of rampant overtourism, it’s refreshing to see a country choose the less traveled path.

The fee is intended to redirect investments to good causes, including sustainability, infrastructure and youth programs, and to help fund free healthcare and education for all in the country. With lush lands that are more than 70 percent forested, Bhutan is one of the few places on Earth that can boast carbon negative emissions.

Prayer flags along the Trans-Bhutan Trail, which revives an ancient pilgrimage route.Photo: Yong Si Tang

On our last day, we set off to the most iconic site in the country: Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery, in the upper Paro Valley. While it’s not part of the Trans Bhutan Trail, it’s an essential stop on many of the guided tours here, including the G Adventures tour.

It’s an architectural feat, more stunning than the pictures – I can’t fathom how it was built on the side of a cliff, about 800 meters down the valley. Reaching it requires an almost all uphill hike of about 4 kilometers, passing century-old oak trees and hanging prayer flags. In this spiritual land, it is believed that every flutter of the colorful cloth brings blessings.

Although the road to the monastery is dilapidated, today we share it with only a few horses, a few donkeys and a handful of other travelers. I have no doubt that it won’t be long before the tourists will return. Not the masses, but those who would care, are drawn to the allure of this destination nicknamed “The Last Shangri-La” for its pristine beauty and its insistence on going its own way.

Wing Sze Tang traveled as a guest of G Adventures and Trans Bhutan Trail and did not review or approve this article.

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