buildings tucked into mountain forest
Photo by Ken Spence Photography, courtesy of the Trans Bhutan Trail
Photo by Ken Spence Photography, courtesy of the Trans Bhutan Trail

What It’s Like to Walk a Trail in the Beautiful Himalayas

No, you don’t have to climb Everest.

Welcome to Thrillist 50, your guide to fun and adventure in 2023. Think of it as your comprehensive roadmap for checking out exciting events and new attractions coming over the next 12 months, going on bucket-list trips, reconnecting with yourself and your community, expanding your mind, and of course, experiencing the flavors we're most excited about this year. There are so many reasons to live like there's no tomorrow. Start here.

Pulling my hood up around my face, I consider grabbing waterproof pants from my backpack to layer over my fleece leggings. The light pit-a-pat of drops bouncing off my rain jacket doesn’t concern me; it’s the thick clouds obscuring the mountains in front that warn of a wet path ahead.

Hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail in the Eastern Himalayas just as the monsoon season is ending in September, at the start of the trail’s official reopening after a 60-year closure, requires a certain amount of preparation. Equally important—I’m reminded when I look up from my pack and see the smiling face of Dawa, the 73-year-old guide who will lead us along the Pelela to Rukubji section—is the ability to enthusiastically embrace the moment.

“This is Dawa, our local guide today,” Dorji says.

I’ve known Dorji for less than 72 hours, and despite her youthful energy and small stature, she’s already become a protective big sister. She douses us in insect repellent (which also serves as a leech deterrent, I learn when she applies a thick layer to my boots and the exposed patch of sock above them where the ankles of my pants are tucked in). She then fearlessly navigates the trail, running up and down to confirm everyone is well-hydrated and accounted for, plus introduces us to local customs (and cheese—so much cheese).

person crossing bridge
Photo by Ken Spence Photography, courtesy of the Trans Bhutan Trail

“We’re so happy you’re here,” she’d said when she met me at the airport a few days prior, offering a white khata, the silk scarf symbolizing purity and goodwill. I’d arrived on an auspicious holiday, Thrue Bab (the Blessed Rainy Day marking the end of the monsoon season), and on the first flight carrying foreign visitors into Bhutan since the country closed its doors in March 2020. “It’s been almost three years without tourists and without work… We’re ready,” she said, smiling.

Now, near Pelela Pass—considered the gateway to Central Bhutan and one of the highest mountain passes in the country at about 11,000 feet—Dawa is standing next to Dorji, leaning casually on his overturned umbrella. He’s donning a knee-length gho, belted at the waist with what appear to be plaid pajama pants, tucked into rubber boots. Dawa’s unbothered air and warm smile are contagious, and I notice the corners of my mouth have already turned up too.

man standing in grassy mountain
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

We follow Dawa down the path, his long legs setting a quick pace—rubber boots notwithstanding. As we descend into the valley, the temperature rises several degrees and the rain slows. I stop to peel off my outer layer when I notice Dawa pointing across the river. I follow his gaze to find a troop of gray langur monkeys perched on the tree branches. Seemingly mirroring us, they pause for a moment, watching us watching them. Realizing we aren’t a threat (or perhaps just bored), they turn and disappear into the foliage.

Weaving our way between waist-high grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers, I’m so enamored with this pocket of beauty secreted between mountain slopes and mist, I momentarily take my eyes off the trail and slip on the wet rocks. The rugged terrain, impossibly idyllic views, sporadic wildlife sightings, and ever-changing weather on the Trans Bhutan Trail require you to be fully present. And the best way to take it all in (and not sprain an ankle) is to slow down.

We spend the morning crisscrossing pasturelands and waterways, sometimes on newly built footbridges and sometimes with the help of Dawa and Dorji in spots where hopscotching from stone to stone is the only route across the river. We stop briefly for snacks and stories. That splash of yellow on the grassy hillside? According to local lore, Dorji tells us, it’s evidence of the mustard seed the Divine Madman scattered when he decided he’d never visit villages whose names end with “bji.”

prayer flag
Photo by Ken Spence Photography, courtesy of the Trans Bhutan Trail

We then pass by a very vocal cow before the trail deposits us into a rural village that appears to be deserted. “Does anyone live here?” I ask aloud, scanning the scene for some signs of life. Other than the shuffling of our boots on the walkway, the village is silent.

An older gentleman appears, waving from a balcony, and we spot well-manicured garden plots between houses, lined with leafy greens. “The villagers here are farmers,” Dorji says. “Today they’re away, harvesting cabbage.”

We round a corner and come upon Kuenzang Choling temple. Three women are walking the perimeter, spinning prayer wheels with each step. “Kuzu zangpo la,” I quietly greet them, not wanting to disturb. We pause and smile at one another, then carry on—them returning to the prayer wheels and us to Dawa’s sister’s house at the bottom of the hill.

Our hosts invite us to sit on cushions in the chosham, a shrine room decorated to resemble a temple’s interior. Here they serve a colorful feast of local cabbage, Rukubji potatoes, chicken curry, phasa pa (pork with radishes and chilies), steamed spinach, fried cheese, and red rice with butter tea. With Dorji translating, Dawa shares memories from his childhood when he’d carry sacks of rice and chilies along the trail. “They’d go in a group and sing on the way. Then they’d stay up dancing, cooking, and eating together,” Dorji says. “When Dawa saw our group on the trail today, it reminded him of those days, and he says he wishes he could go back and enjoy it all over again.”

people standing outside house on trail
Photo by Ken Spence Photography, courtesy of the Trans Bhutan Trail

The trail was the main thoroughfare until the 1960s when the national highway was constructed. As people increasingly opted to travel by car, the trail fell into disrepair and rural villages like Rukubji became more isolated. “People no longer had a reason to drop by,” Dorji says. “Now, opportunities are limited here.”

But, as she and Dawa explain, the Trans Bhutan Trail is offering hope: Hikers can immerse in the natural environment, encounter village life, and learn about Bhutanese culture—and tourism dollars can flow beyond the typical hotspots and help revitalize rural communities.

Dawa tells us he’s already seeing the benefits. “When he walks the trail, he feels energized, younger, and happier,” Dorji says. After spending time on the trail, I completely agree.

monk in front of temple
Photo by Ken Spence Photography, courtesy of the Trans Bhutan Trail

How the Trans Bhutan Trail came to be

The Trans Bhutan Trail is a 250-mile cross-country path built on an ancient pilgrimage and communications route previously used by traders, monks, messengers, and royalty. From the 16th century until the 1960s, the trail was the only way to travel across the country, and it played a major role in the birth of Bhutan.

With the construction of the national highway in the 1960s, the trail fell into disrepair. In 2018, the Bhutan Canada Foundation, the Tourism Council of Bhutan, and His Majesty, the Fifth King of Bhutan, worked together to launch a restoration initiative. Residents, scouts, and De-suups (volunteer peacekeepers) joined the efforts, and during the pandemic, furloughed workers also found employment on the trail.

Today, the trail stretches from Haa near Tibet to Trashigang near India, once again offering the possibility of connection—to communities, to Bhutan’s history and culture, and to fellow travelers.

people hiking up mountain trail
Photo by Ken Spence Photography, courtesy of the Trans Bhutan Trail

Choose the type of hike you want to do

You can hike a section over a couple days or the entire trail over about a month. You can also choose the level of guidance and support you need (great news for travelers that prefer a fully supported hike).

Bhutan requires foreigners to be accompanied by a guide when visiting the country, regardless of whether or not they hike the trail. So while the trail is marked and an app with maps is available, a self-guided hike isn’t currently an option for foreigners. Even if this rule changes in the future, a guided hike is still the best way to go. Foregoing a local guide would mean missing out on the cultural, historical, and ecological insights they offer. Not to mention the benefits of someone to navigate the terrain, weather, and potential wildlife (yes, there are Bengal tigers and Himalayan black bears in Bhutan).

You can join a group and hike some of the highlights of the trail for 11-12 days with G Adventures, the official small group partner of the Trans Bhutan Trail. Or, if you prefer a private trek, book directly with the Trans Bhutan Trail. They have a selection of itineraries to choose from, ranging from one to 35 nights, and a variety of accommodations are available, from camping to 5-star hotels.

view of buildings tucked into mountains
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

Where to eat, sleep, and see more

While you’re trekking, you must take advantage of any opportunity to eat some ema datshi, the national dish of Bhutan. It’s made of cheese and chilies, and you'll find it all over the country. Babesa Village Restaurant serves a particularly good one, along with other Bhutanese food in a heritage house in the country’s capital, Thimphu.

While in Thimphu, you could check out designer threads at Chuni Dorji Privé. Though if you want a more local experience, the vendors at Pelela Pass sell beautiful yak wool scarves.

If you are trekking the Pelela Pass to Rukubji section, consider a stay at Gangtey Lodge where you can hoist prayer flags, participate in a spiritual cleansing, and soak in a traditional-style hot stone bath. Bhutan also has a range of 5-star accommodations across the country, many located along the Trans Bhutan Trail.

And since you’ve already built up your stamina and acclimated to the altitude, consider including an extra day to trek to Tiger’s Nest. This cliffside monastery is even more impressive in person, and there are several viewpoints and a cafe where you can rest and refuel.

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Sunny Fitzgerald is a contributor for Thrillist.