We were down at the bar in town enjoying a local beer (Druk 11000 “Super Strong”) when Randall received a text from a Bhutanese contact he had made, proposing a bike ride the next morning. When he read the message to me, I envisaged a meandering, casual ride around town to help get our bearings, followed by a friendly cup of tea. What was on offer, however, was something very different – a 110km ride from Thimphu to Paro and back again, along the winding roads just above the valley floor. As our first social invitation, we were certainly not going to turn it down, despite not being acclimatised to the 2,350m where we’d landed only two days earlier.
Little did I know, the altitude would be only one of my few challenges. Arriving at Thimphu’s central clock tower square promptly at 9am, I was feeling a little nervous about the ride- while I love my new touring bike, a Surley Longhaul Trucker, it’s design is just as its name describes- made to truck along at a steady pace over long distances. Certainly in Bhutan, this would do, as serious road bikes could not be common could they?
Towards about 10am, after we’d spent the better part of the hour fixing our bikes, we saw two very fit looking Bhutanese men (Tshering and Uguyen) walking towards us. To my surprise, they were carrying some pretty impressive, full-on racing road bikes. Looking at a titanium frame, Shimano Ultegra components, and thighs the size of tree trunks, I knew I was in trouble… It was only over conversation at breakfast, though, that I really understood what I was in for- not only were we heading out with the Bhutanese opposition party leader, but also the 2nd and 4th place finishers of Bhutan’s third annual Tour of the Dragon race, which had taken place just one week before. This race, the most challenging in the country, crosses a distance of about 286km, up and over four mountain passes above 3 000m, and along some pretty rough roads. My Chamonix marathon training from two months before was certainly not going to cut it.
Pushing aside my reservations and allowing my competitive side to take hold, off we went. Biking along the windy road, with the river rushing below and the bright green of rice paddies shimmering in the sun, my sense of exhilaration was complete. It almost made me forget about the head wind, and the fact that I was panting from altitude while going downhill.
Tshering and Ugyen were very kind to wait as I trucked along at my steady pace, but after about 36km towards Paro, I insisted that they continue the full distance while Randall and I took a break to explore the temple below the road. Biking down the dirt road towards the rushing rapids, the ancient building up the opposite side of the hill was positively majestic with rolling clouds and blue sky above. Tamchog Lhakhang, as it’s known, was built as a private temple in 1420 AD by the famous Tibetan bridge-builder Thangtong Gyalpo. He was believed to have originated the use of heavy iron chains in the construction of suspension bridges, and built some 108 of them throughout Tibet and Bhutan. While only one original remains today, this temple did have its own chain link suspension bridge. The deck of the bridge was composed of three sets of chains with iron links about a foot long, a lot of chain link mesh, rusty iron rebar, and little else in between. At least with rotting wood, you can’t see the frigid glacial waters of the Paro Chhu rushing directly beneath your feet! After a significant amount of coaxing, Randall got me to pose very briefly for a photo.
Biking home with the wind on our backs, the smiling faces of children walking along the road reaching out for ‘high fives’ was certainly a more pleasant experience. I’ll skip the part where I got a mild asthma attack from truck fumes on my way up a hill…, but I suppose that’s what I get for going out on such a long ride after two days at altitude. After 75km, the two kilometre ride straight up the steep hill from downtown Thimphu to our home in Motithang completely exhausted me. I carried my bike into our temporary apartment, took of my shoes, and literally lay down on the living room floor and fell asleep (and those of you who know me well, know that I can never sleep during the day).
I’ve done some tough races and rides, but the lingering jet lag, altitude, diesel fumes, a mild asthma incident, combined with the absolute beauty of the Thimphu valley, the sounds of the rushing river, colourfully decorated clanking trucks, and cheering by-passers will certainly make this one of my most memorable.
Let’s see if our Bhutanese cycling superstar friends call us back for another ride. Next time, I’ll be sure to make it the whole way, especially if I plan to enter the fourth annual Tour of the Dragon next year…
by Antonia Gawel, www.bhutanchronicles.com