Communities come first on Bhutan’s restored long-distance hiking trail, which promotes slow travel and socio-economic opportunities for remote villages.
Bhutan’s Guardians of Peace emerged from among the spruce trees glowing orange in their uniforms, climbing quietly over moss and mulch with the stealth of a streak of tigers. They stopped to chat, curious to see our hiking party, before scooting ahead to cut through a fallen tree with a chainsaw to clear our path.
After this small Himalayan kingdom reopened in late September 2022 after a two-year closure, I was one of the first people to set foot on this path – one of 28 sections along the country’s newly inaugurated 403km Trans Bhutan Trail, running from east to west Bhutan. The hiking route starts just outside Paro in the southern province of Haa and slices roughly through the middle of the country, passing through provinces including Thimphu, Punakha, Trongsa and Bumthang before ending in eastern Trashigang.
On my first day on the trail, I was covering a section near the capital Thimphu that started at the cloud-choked Dochula Pass, where locals burnt offerings to summon friendly gods. Descending, we were quickly swallowed up by a Jurassic-looking virgin forest. Canopies hung together like spongy quilts above the trail. Insects wailed like banshees. Old man’s beard, which only grows in ultra-pure air, clung to branches like thick spider webs. It was an all-too-rare glimpse of what a forest can look like when nature comes first – the orange-clad guardians are some of its national caretakers.
For avid travelers, there are few enigmas left in the world, but Bhutan is surely one of them. It only opened up to tourism in 1974, and when it did, it took a no-nonsense approach to protecting its culture and its natural environment. Driven by Buddhist principles, sustainability rules here, and community well-being drives policy.
Welcome to the country that famously measures progress based on Gross National Happiness – an index that is based on pillars such as good governance, health, education, environmental conservation and sustainable socio-economic development – rather than GDP. It’s one of the world’s only carbon-negative countries, and it’s legally mandated that at least 60% of the country must always be covered in forest (it currently stands at more than 70%). That’s not to say they get everything right – single-use plastics are still an issue here, for example – but the endless swathes of wilderness through which the TBT cuts showed a country largely undisturbed by land clearing, where ripples of forest-encrusted mountains stretched on like the reflection in an infinity mirror.
Pre-pandemic, a hefty daily tourist fee acted as a natural cap on visitor arrivals. With the reopening of the country, change is afoot, though it won’t make it any cheaper to visit. The daily fee was ditched in September 2022 to give visitors more freedom over how and with whom they book to travel in Bhutan. But being a sustainability pioneer doesn’t come cheap, and Bhutan has upped its Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) tourist tax from US$65 to US$200 a day to “support Bhutan‘s economic, social, environmental and cultural development.”
Whereas before, visitors would pay US$200-250 a day for an all-inclusive tour package, including the SDF fee, now you’ll have to pay the higher SDF on top of individual costs for food, accommodation and transport. Ultimately this will make the country even more exclusive. But is it worth it for those who have the money? Even one day into my trek, I could tell the answer was absolutely yes.
A national effort
The Guardians of Peace – De-suups, in Bhutanese – are a national volunteer group made up of local Bhutanese from all walks of life that have helped clear old pathways to create the TBT, retracing an ancient route that dates back around 500 years. Establishing this new trek has been a national effort, encompassing village communities and more than 1000 Bhutanese from across the country. Work began in 2019 and continued during the pandemic, when furloughed workers across industries joined the project to help complete the work of clearing land, reconstructing 18 major bridges and building or restoring 10,000 steps. It is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious projects the country has ever undertaken.
After our encounter with the guardians, we continued downwards into the deep cut of a valley gorge, where we crossed a wooden bridge over a thrashing river, and the trail led us past an earth-rammed chorten, or stupa, with ferns growing out of its crown. These sacred Buddhist markers, containing religious relics and sometimes human ashes, played an important role in the resurrection of the Trans Bhutan Trail. In some remote stretches, they were the only remaining signs of the ancient trail route – waymarking treasures buried under 60 years of vines and monsoon muck.
“In our lifetime, each one of us is meant to build a chorten. That’s the Buddhist way,” said my guide Karma Dorji. “There are many different types of chorten, and we believe that some are wish fulfilling.” After 10 km of hiking steeply downhill to reach the river, my calves burned. I admit that, despite the natural beauty, I took this as an opportunity to wish for my speedy deliverance to our camp. The TBT is a technical trail – easily doable for those of a decent fitness, but certainly challenging.
It wouldn’t be my only opportunity to make a wish or say a prayer. The trail invites walkers to discover and embrace Bhutan’s genuine, deep-rooted sense of spirituality. It gives visitors the chance not just to explore the country’s villages and chorten-filled countryside but also its remote, welcoming temples. Our camp that night was a pop-up of leaf-green tents on a mountain plateau beside a small monastic school for boys. We were given an impromptu tour by Karma Sonam, a gentle 11-year-old novice monk keen to show off the temple’s paintings of Drukpa Kunley. The Divine Madman, as he’s also known, was a revered monk who traveled to this valley from Tibet and reformed the way Buddhism was practiced here. His brother subsequently built a temple in his honor in the 15th century.
Resurrecting ancient trails
The 16th-century route on which the TBT is based was once a great leveler that knitted disparate, remote villages together and was walked by all, from rulers and traders to pilgrims and politicians. The trail fell out of favor in the 1960s and 70s when a major road-building project connected most villages to a national highway.
“When we started on the project, there were bits of the trail that had completely disappeared,” said Sam Blyth, founder of the Bhutan Canada Foundation, which has spearheaded the project in a unique public/private partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan and Tourism Council of Bhutan. In the eastern half of the country, the main language is Sharchop, which is an oral language. This meant there was no written record of where the trail was. “We had to hold town hall meetings with the elders who had walked the trail as children to actually find out where it was,” said Blyth.
At an inauguration dinner in Thimphu, Blyth said that health and wellness, education and community engagement are just as important to the TBT as visitor numbers. All profits will go back into further development of the trail and increasing economic opportunities within the communities that it runs through.
At each point where the trail intersected with tarmac, it felt like a crossroads between ancient and modern Bhutan. Close to roads, we found small communities cradled in the lap of nature. Chillies – Bhutan’s cash crop and a ubiquitous staple of the local cuisine – hung from wooden shop shutters. Brightly painted tigers, dragons, snow lions and garudas (mythical bird-men) – symbols of discipline, generosity, purity and fearlessness – leapt from the walls of local houses. There was a thrill to passing through communities who would have seen so few tourists, but I was also relieved to find most locals indifferent to our presence. Welcoming, yes, but there was none of the hoopla common in over-touristed corners of the world.
Accessible to all?
If you were to walk the Trans Bhutan Trail from one end to the other, it would take 36 days and cost almost US$ 20,000. It’s undoubtedly the ultimate slow-travel adventure and bucket-list trek – but one only the super-rich will be able to tackle in its entirety. Yet the way the trail is broken into sections and crisscrossed by roads means that visitors can pick and choose which sections they’d like to hike for smaller, more accessible point-to-point adventures. As an extra incentive, trekkers receive a TBT ‘passport’ that will be stamped for each section of the trail completed.
Traveling by road between trail markers afforded a different view of the country, too. One of vertiginous switchbacks curling around mountains and chillies drying on rooftops, of prayer wheels that chime day and night thanks to hydro-power from Himalayan waterfalls, and mini stupas cupped inside mountain rock crevices so the dead can be lifted up by the energy of high winds.
One night, I had the opportunity to stay in one of Bhutan’s uniformly beautiful traditional houses in a village squared by rice paddies and connected by a rope bridge to Punakha Dzong – one of the four fortresses linking the TBT like a string of pearls. Trekkers have several accommodation categories to choose from on the TBT, including five-star rural lodges and pop-up camps, but basic homestays in traditional houses are being developed as a core component of the trail experience so that the local communities can make money from it. My host, Dawa Zam, said she believes the new path will bring many benefits.
“Just by passing by, you might eat something or buy something. I think the Trans Bhutan Trail will definitely help the local villages,” she told us over a meal of buttery fried turnip leaves with dried beef and village-harvested dandin dshering rice, as we sat cross-legged on floor rugs.
Trekking into tiger country
After the homestay, we crossed into central Bhutan’s Wangdue region, whose name translates as ‘place of power.’ We descended past another TBT trail post with a QR code that provided more information about the flora and fauna of this trail section. To our surprise, it wasn’t long before the path opened up into an entirely different landscape of alpine meadowland rippling with playful rivers, stepping stones and log bridges. The earth beneath our feet had a sweet, potent smell like honey.
“In another couple of months, this valley will be full of yak,” said Karma, as we brushed through patches of Alpine primulas and artemisia, a medicinal plant used as an antiseptic, against a backdrop of boarded-up shelters used by yak herders. We stopped suddenly to observe a magnificent common hoopoe bird with a rust-colored head fan, preening itself on a branch.
The tantalizing anticipation of wildlife hiding just out of view was one of the many joys of the trail. One night, we went to bed joking about the bears that might snatch us in our sleep: the Himalayan Black bear and the Sloth bear both call these mountains home. On another hike, we saw claw marks down a tree. As well as over 600 bird species, the country is home to endangered animals such as snow leopards, red pandas and, particularly in this area, a growing population of Royal Bengal tigers. The latter have been pushed into Bhutan’s borders as poaching and logging encroaches on their habitats in neighboring India and China.
After around 10km through the alpine meadow, we reached Rukubji, a hushed thicket of wooden houses that have been handed down from generation to generation and are still only reachable by farm track or on foot. Centuries of relative isolation have preserved one of Bhutan’s oldest languages here, but today there are as few as 1000 people who speak it.
Between cabbage patches and chili beds, we met Wangmo, the grandmother of Namgay Rinchen, one of our guides. Almost toothless and dressed in a simple, ankle-length red khira with a single strand of wooden beads around her neck, Wangmo told us she remembered walking the trail as a child to visit Rukubji’s neighboring village. It’s been more than 60 years since the trail has been in good enough shape for her to make that trip.
Aware of so many disconnected people like this in Bhutan’s more remote villages, the creators of the TBT are hopeful that the trail will help revive rural social structures, stymie urban migration and keep local communities intact. And would Wangmo walk the trail again, even at 85? The gleam in her eyes said it all: “I would love to.”
Lorna Parkes’ trip to Bhutan was organized by the non-profit Trans Bhutan Trail.