For the First Time in Decades, the Trans-Bhutan Trail Is Open for Business
Here’s what you need to know to get trekking.
If you happened to be an exceptional runner in 16th century Bhutan, you might have scored a job with the Post Office. You’d be a Garp, or messenger—literal job, “postal runner”—who would deliver official letters and secret missives throughout the land. Their significance is the stuff of Bhutanese folklore: There’s a statue of Garp Jaga Darshi in the Post Office in the capital of Thimphu, thanks to his extraordinary height of 7’2” (Darshi, his nickname, translates to “flagpole”). Another, Garp Lungi Khorlo was legendary for his speed, said to be inhuman. Tales of his swift feet are told to this day.
The Garps’s main route was the Trans-Bhutan Trail, a 250-mile artery connecting nine dzongkhags, or districts, each with their own Dzong (fortified monastery), plus 27 village clusters, and one national park. Nestled between China and India, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon was shrouded from the outside world for centuries. Inside, however, the TBT was an artery pumping lifeblood. It was not only the sole means of communication, but also a Buddhist pilgrimage route for religious leaders and a battle trail for soldiers. Most importantly, it was a meeting place for the monarchs of the various Himalayan kingdoms, eventually uniting for the birth of Bhutan in 1907.
The trail thus came to represent national unity. Its most western point is the town of Haa, near the border of Tibet, and on the east is Trashigang, closest to the Indian border. And just this week, when Bhutan reopened to visitors—one of the last pandemic holdouts in Asia—along with it came fanfare for the reopening of the TBT on September 28, the first time after it went into disuse 60 years ago, thanks to modernization and the rise of motorable roads.
The purpose of the event hearkens back to that same national unity, on theme for a country that measures progress by the Gross National Happiness index. “Our mission is to connect Bhutan’s past, present and the future,” says Rabsel Dorji, a Bhutanese tourism professional who worked on the opening. “The Trans Bhutan Trail has been revived out of respect to our ancestors who built it, and as a gift to future generations.”
The restoration is the product of the efforts of The Bhutan Canada Foundation with support from the local government and King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Bhutan's 42-year-old monarch. Local communities and agencies and volunteer organizations also contributed, as well as 900 tourism professionals who were laid off as a result of the pandemic.
If walking in the footsteps of the past in a way never before seen by outsiders is one of your bucket list items, your pockets will have to be a little bit deeper than in pre-pandemic times. Bhutan’s policy has always been “high-value, low-volume tourism” (as a cultural protection, foreign tourists weren’t even let in until 1974). But according to a recent press statement, the Kingdom’s reopening strategy now focuses on “enhancements to its sustainable development policies, infrastructure upgrades, and the elevation of the guest experience.” To that end, it has raised its Sustainable Development fee, a daily charge for tourists, from $65 a night to $200 a night.
A visa is also required and in accordance with Bhutanese law, unless you’re from India, Bangladesh, or the Maldives you’ll have to be accompanied by a guide while in the country. Tours and guides, however, are easy to come by. In addition to those offered by the TBT, groups like G Adventures and Intrepid have specific itineraries that take you deep in the Eastern Himalayas on the trail.
Once that’s all squared away, all that’s left to do is to figure out the best way to tackle the historic pathway. The trail is considered one of the toughest in the world, and authorities estimate that for the average person, trekking it will take about a month. Those 30-odd days will be spent traversing 400 cultural sites, 18 restored bridges, and 10,000 restored steps, gazing at grand Dzongs, crossing over narrow mountain passes, and navigating rice paddies and thick wilderness. You can choose to sleep at a local farmstay (encouraged as a means to promote the local economy), book a tour via the TBT to reserve one of their luxury camping sites, or set up camp yourself at designated locations.
Or you can cut the travel time down by selecting a single section to explore. One of Dorji’s favorites is the mountain pass of Dochula to Punakha Dzong, called the Divine Madman Trail. “The trail follows the legend of the famous Divine Madman, Lam Drukpa Kuenley,” he explains. “Following a prophetic dream, Lam shot an arrow from Tibet with the prayer to show him his destiny.”
According to lore, Lam traced the flightpath of the arrow to where it landed and found it perched atop a wooden ladder, leaning against a house in the Punakha District village of Toebchandanna. “The trail has rich stories of how the Divine Madman spread Buddhism across the region and subdued demons that were terrorizing the locals,” Dorji adds. Illustrating the stories are paintings and sculptures of phalluses along the way. (Did we forget to mention? Lam's madman method of spreading enlightenment was through intercourse.)
You can also bike the trail, as mountain bikes are now allowed. Or make like the Garps of yore and run the whole thing with lightning speed. “Of course, we have ultramarathoners,” says Dorji. “They can complete the trail within two weeks!”