Paving the Way in Bhutan

The revival of a once-important trade and pilgrimage route lies at the heart of an ambitious community-led tourism initiative.

A view of Trongsa Dzong, the largest fortress-monastery in Bhutan. (Courtesy of Trans Bhutan Trail)

Adventure-seekers hankering for a Himalayan sojourn will soon have a new way to experience Bhutan. This spring, travelers can look forward to walking or cycling the breadth of the country thanks to the reopening of the 403-kilometer Trans Bhutan Trail, an ancient trading and pilgrimage route connecting the district of Haa in the west to Trashigang in the east. Along the way, it passes through the more well-known valleys of Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha, as well as Trongsa and Bumthang district in the central heartlands of the kingdom.

Dating back at least five centuries, the Trans Bhutan Trail was once the main channel of communication between settlements that sprung up around Bhutan’s dzong, or fortress-monasteries, and allowed Buddhist pilgrims based in the east to visit holy sites in the western part of the country and Tibet. But the route eventually fell out of use in the 1960s, when the construction of roads made it much easier to get around.

The ambitious restoration process began in 2018 as an initiative led by the Bhutan Canada Foundation; the NGO worked in tandem with the Bhutanese monarch and the country’s tourism council to make its vision a reality. No less than 900 local builders spent the next four years clearing and rehabilitating the trail, which crosses 18 major bridges and encompasses around 10,000 stairways. Avid trekkers looking for the ultimate challenge will need to budget a little over a month to walk the entire route from end to end, while those with a little less time on their hands can opt for half-day or full-day hikes in certain sections or treks lasting between three and seven days.

The Trans Bhutan Trail will be officially opened to local people in March, marking the route’s revival some 60 years after it was abandoned. Then, starting in April, the Bhutanese government will issue a limited number of permits allowing overseas tourists to trek parts or all of the trail. Travelers can expect a diverse range of accommodation en route, ranging from campsites and rustic homestays to full-fledged hotels. There are also 400 historic and cultural sites along the trail, including several landmark dzongs worthy of a World Heritage listing. But arguably the bigger draw is the rare chance to set foot in remote areas that have seen very few foreign visitors to date. It’s just the kind of escape post-pandemic travelers will be seeking when border restrictions finally come down.

transbhutantrail.com

Trekkers will be immersed in Bhutan’s natural beauty. (Courtesy of Trans Bhutan Trail)

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