February 8, 2023

Chicby Karina

Think exceptional travel

Hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail Is the Best Way to Experience the Country

Condé Nast Traveler

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I’ve never been this close to a prince before. His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck is sitting on a wooden throne with his back to a bronze buddha, his bare feet touching the stone floor. The young royal wears neither crown nor jewels: only his orange kabney—a silk scarf draped across his left shoulder—gives away his noble rank. Around him, monks dressed in crimson red chant, the sound sending every hair on the back of my neck on end. The air smells of curdled milk from burning butter lamps, and the monastery walls are draped in silks of every color of the rainbow.

It’s September 28, and I’m inside Simtokha Dzong, Bhutan’s oldest fortressed monastery, just outside the capital city of Thimphu. Following one of the longest pandemic closures in the world, Bhutan—the landlocked Himalayan kingdom that opened to tourism for the first time in 1974—has finally reopened its borders. I’m among the first foreigners to visit the country in almost three years, but that’s not why I find myself in the presence of a prince.

I’m here for the inauguration of the Trans Bhutan Trail, a 403-kilometer route that for the first time in 60 years will allow people to walk, run, or cycle from Haa in the west of Bhutan to Trashigang in the east. The trail dates back to the 16th Century, when legendary runners, or garps, crossed the country on foot to deliver messages between Bhutan’s fortresses. Monks and pilgrims, on the other hand, used the footpaths to visit sacred temples and commute between seasonal residences. The trail was also an important trading route: rice from Punakha valley was traded for yak cheese in the highlands and, over the border, silk was bartered with India.

But the introduction of Bhutan’s first tarmacked road in 1962 meant the trail was soon forgotten. With fewer hikers, bridges collapsed, stone steps crumbled, and the trail vanished into forest and farmland. In 2018, His Majesty the King announced plans to restore the trail to encourage locals and tourists to connect with Bhutan’s more remote communities with minimum impact on the environment. Real progress came in 2020, however. Led by the Bhutan Canada Foundation with the support of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, more than 900 furloughed workers helped to restore the trail during the pandemic, rebuilding 18 bridges and more than 10,000 steps. They also installed 170 “interactive signposts” made from recycled plastic, which today feature QR codes that share the history of each section of the trail.