The Ups and Downs of Bhutan

It’s very dark now, and there’s a ripe tang of diesel and pine cone in the air. I give my bicycle brakes another squeeze then spill forward into the night, a moth in the headlights of the oncoming trucks. Another of these monsters grinds up towards me, part of a dotted line of rush-hour traffic edging along the mountainside. It passes in a clattering roar, squeezing me to the road edge. To my left lies only blackness, a sheer drop to the valley floor perhaps, or a neck broken on invisible trees.

Either way, oblivion is at my elbow, just a misjudged pot-hole away. And there are many of these to be misjudged. I should stop. I should wait. Death or injury is a genuine possibility – and I don’t even know the name of the town I’m freewheeling towards. Even if I make it there intact, I might miss it in the rush, carry on this mad spiral for hours more through the night. But for some reason – and I can’t explain it, I know it’s not rational – I just speed on downwards, through fizzing nocturnal insects and dust. Another hairpin bend, and I still haven’t got the hang of these brakes.

It’s a jolting, only-just-in-control manoeuvre. Head on, another HGV rises: bright, white light in the void. That smell of diesel again, the blue smoke of the thunder dragon. Thunder dragons. They’re all over the place around here, but usually of a more mythical, tourist-friendly variety. Bhutan is Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, and travel brochures for the country regularly call on a mythology made up of unlikely creatures performing astounding feats.

I’d already climbed breathlessly up to the Taktsang monastery – Bhutan’s best-known site – an impossible building plonked halfway up a cliff face in what appears to be a one-fingered rebuke to gravity, elderly hikers and sensible planning laws. It’s commonly known as Tiger’s Nest, because a Buddhist master called Guru Rinpoche is reputed to have flown there on the back of a tigress to subdue evil spirits. Raise an eyebrow at the local Buddhists and they’re likely to nod energetically. It’s all real, they insist: a dash of legendary colour on the long road to enlightenment.

Non-legendary, modern-day Bhutan is exuberant in a different sort of way. ‘Gross National Happiness’ is its ongoing mantra, revealed on government posters and rhapsodised at length by tour guides. This tiny Himalayan outpost, just twice the size of Wales, may be perched between two fire-breathing economies – China to the north, India to the south – but the spiritual calm of the populace counts for more, apparently, than the rush of inward investment that might mend these craters in the tarmac, or provide a few crash barriers.

Back in 1972, the then-king Jigme Singye Wangchuck pronounced that economic progress had to be managed according to the country’s Buddhist principles, and since then nothing has happened in any great rush. Television arrived only in 1999; the mobile phone network is box fresh. So, a big yes to subsistence farming (crops harvested by hand, cattle pulling the ploughs) and no thank you very much to unsustainable development, billboard advertising and – refreshingly – cigarette-smoking.

Visitors are encouraged, but they still number only in the tens of thousands annually. Even with a chunky daily tourism tax, that doesn’t raise the sort of money needed to create the infrastructure that will stop me wrapping myself round a tree trunk. Did I mention that I don’t have any lights? Or reflective gear? The whole moth idea is more strategy than analogy. I’m using the beams from the oncoming trucks as a guide for where I should be going.

When there’s a gap in the traffic I can see almost nothing: dark blues on blacks. Somewhere below me is Chris, another – faster – journalist, who’d coaxed me patiently up the mountain in the afternoon. And far beyond him, no doubt, will be the Australian, a technology addict who’s imported his own heavily sprung bike especially for this trip and has festooned himself with onboard tachometers and video gear.

He’s presumably made it to the bottom already and will even now be uploading a greatest hits compilation of skids and wheelies via his Bluetooth headcam. To me, the Australian appears slightly deranged. Earlier, he’d decided to cycle up the hundreds of steps that lead to Tiger’s Nest, occasionally pausing to film himself doing it. It appeared rather sacrilegious, but the Buddhists didn’t seem to mind. My approach to cycling is somewhat different from his, and can be summarised thus: flat is best.

At home, I potter to work and back on my ageing Ridgeback Cyclone, but I don’t pretend to get a kick out of it. Nor can I demonstrate any zen in the art of pedal-cycle maintenance. It takes a good few weeks of the gears jamming in ever-more outrageous ways before I’m prepared to run the gauntlet of a bike shop, where I tend to be patronised and ripped off in equal measure. I choose quiet roads and parks for my commute, part of an almost Bhutanese desire to embrace serenity and avoid the violent maelstrom of London’s major roads.

In this and, I’m sure, in many other things, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has the better of me. The son of Jigme Singye, the fifth king of Bhutan is apparently a huge fan of mountain biking, particularly the annual Tour of the Dragon race, where cycling maniacs rush from Bumthang in the east of the country to the capital, Thimphu.

It’s a 268-kilometre ride that – despite ludicrous ups and downs – is completed in a day. Biking is booming; it’s Bhutan’s big thing. So what am I doing here? This is no place for a dilettante. These are the Himalayas I’m pedalling up and down, for goodness sake; it’s like going from flying a kite to piloting an F-15 fighter plane with no training in between. In truth, I hadn’t thought I’d make it to the top of any mountains – and certainly hadn’t considered pursuing the activity to the point of danger. Instead, I’d come to Bhutan intent on writing a story about a country where many of those subsistence farmers live several hours’ walk from a road; where prayer flags flutter over wire bridges and prayer wheels creak and spin; where rice terraces adorn the slopes and temples stand grey in the morning mist; and where deep valleys cleft a landscape that’s puckered and folded and pressed and contorted and pushed up into the highest mountains in the world.

On the plane from Delhi, the pilot had pointed out Everest on our left. Even viewed at a distance, nose pressed against my tiny double-glazed plastic window, Everest looked pretty darn Everesty: square and stern, part of a seriously monumental bit of planet. At that moment I became convinced that my puny pedalling skills would be shown up immediately. Others more powerful of thigh would take the initiative while I rode in the back of the truck we’d been promised. I’d put pen to paper, while others put pedal to metal – or whatever the cycling equivalent was.

Yet here I am, hurtling down, down, down. I may not be wearing anything reflective, but you may be pleased to know that I am wearing a helmet. Not that I’ve encountered any traffic police, apart from a man directing matters at a crossroads in central Thimphu. Other than stuff about dragons, the guidebooks make a great play of the fact that this chap is the human equivalent of the only traffic light in the country. Red-amber-green means nothing here; the road signs are also somewhat haphazard, set at rakish angles.

A few days before, a man called Yarab had kitted us out with what were, to be honest, somewhat underwhelming hardtail bikes. Scuffed, battered – well let’s just say the Australian was looking pretty smug as he polished his own bouncing beast. For his part, Yarab didn’t seem too concerned about anything very much. ‘The journey is the happiness,’ he told me. ‘Not the destination.’ Well, for this journey I’d bought a pair of padded lycra shorts – my first foray into cycling synthetics. Hot and rather chafing, they didn’t make me feel happy at all.

However, my shorts and I loosened up a bit on our sedate tour of the terraced fields of the Paro Valley, where it’s still a novelty to see Westerners making fools of themselves. Infants waved as if my sideburns reminded them of Bradley Wiggins; old men grinned, teeth stained red with betel nut juice; schoolchildren tittered in their neat, pressed uniforms. We paused regularly for cows to be herded past us, and also to admire a strange procession of bright red phalluses painted on walls for good luck.

The real event was still to come. It would take more than a comedy penis, I suspected, for me to navigate the climb from Thimphu to the Dochla Pass, along what was laughably called the National Highway – all of one-and-ahalf lanes wide. I slept uneasily that night, disturbed by Bhutan’s after-dark chorus of barking dogs. In the end, though, Chris got me through it; he’d done bits of the route of the Tour de France in the past, he said, and was certainly frighteningly fit. He was soon talking me upwards; indeed, I quickly realised that all you need to cycle twenty-three kilometres up a mountain is a bit of company. And quite a lot of rest stops. And cereal bars. And water. Lots of water.

The lycra shorts didn’t help at all. From swathes of blue pine and green oak, we progressed to thickets of rhododendron and then sparser vegetation as the air thinned. I won’t deny it: it hurt quite a lot. Pain swelled along the backs of my thighs, in my arms and in my lungs. Yarab would occasionally circle back – he got to the top twice in the time it took me – to chide me onwards. Now, though, lost in the night and plummeting back downwards from the summit, I’m genuinely worried that I’ve taken a wrong turning – not that I’d seen any options left or right.

My wife would not be pleased at my situation. We’ve got kids, you know. Two of them: both young, both boys, both perfectly capable of doing stupid things on bicycles. I hold hands with them on the way to school, and we wait patiently for the Green Man before crossing the road. She might think I should be setting them an example, not hurling myself off a mountain out of misplaced bravado. I wonder, suddenly, what the small print of my insurance policy says about cycling off the side of a 3,140-metre-high mountain in the dark. Is it under the same section as trampolining, or is it more like base jumping?

Perhaps I can make amends for my foolishness by enrolling the boys on a cycling proficiency course the minute I get home – assuming I get home. But you know what? If I’m honest, at this moment I am utterly, inexcusably, glad that it is dark. I am, in a delirious, irresponsible, almost unhinged way, relishing the extraordinary difference between this black-blanketed mountainside and home. Travel insurance, parental responsibility – both are, really, not what being in Bhutan is all about. It’s as if, by being a third of the way around the world, a string has snapped between me and my life in London. In real jeopardy for once, I feel utterly alive.

This, I tell myself, breathlessly as I hurtle on, is why I love to travel; this is why I came here. To exist in this moment. I push on, speed up. Now, perhaps, I’m taking more risks on the corners. My heart pounds faster. It’s the adrenalin talking, of course: the sum of two hours of exhausted pedalling upwards, then this foolish downward plunge; the reverse equivalent of the bends. Normal service is often suspended when we travel; we sense danger differently. Yes, we’d be rightly scared walking down an unfamiliar street at night, but at the same time we can be strangely relaxed at not wearing a seat belt in a taxi in Dubai, or choosing to ride pillion on a moped in Vietnam, or deciding – unaccountably – to take up bungee jumping for an afternoon in New Zealand’s Queenstown.

Our inbuilt road signs become wonkier the further we are from home, a match for Bhutan’s any day. In this brief moment of clarity, I’ve just remembered the place where I am falling to. Punakha, one-time capital of Bhutan. I hope they serve beer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the beer in Bhutan is also called Druk. Once you’re on a roll with a dragon theme, I guess it’s hard to stop. If I live through this, I’ll need to celebrate – and what better place to toast my continued existence than in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere? ‘From Dochula to Punakha is fifty kilometres,’ Yarab had said, gesturing forward as he welcomed me to the top of the mountain. Panting, my legs weak, my mouth dry, I’d looked up, following the line of his arm.

Beyond a hundred or so squat grey chortens lay spread a snow-clad panorama of Himalayas far mightier than the hill I’d just managed. ‘There,’ said Yarab, gesturing to the row of sharp, white shark’s teeth, ‘is Kang Bum. And there,’ he pointed, ‘is Gangkhar Puensum, the highest in Bhutan.’ It’s a vision – clear blues and whites, stark in their clarity – that will stay with me for a long time. Yes, yes, it made the slog to the summit worthwhile, but a good view will do that the world over.

More pertinently, I have never felt so small. Close up or far away, the Himalayas always offer a humbling sense of perspective. We were late to the viewpoint, though, the result of my low-geared, wheezing, upward journey. The Australian was long gone, helter-skelter down the other side, and Yarab was concerned that night was falling. ‘When it gets dark, you should stop,’ he said. ‘The support truck can take us the rest of the way to Punakha.’ Words uttered long ago now. Night falls fast in the Himalayas, and the support truck and I are far, far apart. Out there in the dark, the highest mountain in Bhutan watches over us. Unseen in the velvety night, its bulk towers over me, over Chris, over the Australian and his headcam, over Yarab and the HGVs. Prayer wheels spin and flags flutter in the night-time breeze.

A country founded on belief systems utterly unlike my own prepares for slumber: breathes in, breathes out. I am a mote on its surface, a dark, buzzing insect: careless, flying further into the night. And I am, in my own way, enlightened. The journey is the happiness, not the destination. I pedal downwards, towards the valley floor.

Ben Ross is Head of Print for Telegraph Travel (The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph). He was previously Travel Editor of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. He began writing about travel in 2001.