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Cycling Chelela Pass in Bhutan

On a cross country highway that averages 17 curves per kilometer, bicycles are the perfect mode to explore Chelela Pass and Bhutan's almost infinite hill trails.

Adventure begins on a trip to Bhutan even before touchdown. Considered one of the most challenging airports, Paro International, the country’s only air link to the surrounding world is approached over the jagged peaks of the Himalayas strewn with cloud coverage. The plane threads a maze of green valleys until the Paro river hoves into view and then suddenly goes into an abrupt dive almost skimming rooftops across the city until it comes skidding to a halt on a runway that seems far too short.

This is the first impression most chillip — outsiders — get of the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Shrouded in mystery and tradition it is one of the least touristy countries on earth. Bhutan draws those interested in experiencing traditional Himalayan culture but also hikers, bikers, and kayakers from around the world to take on the hills and rivers of the kingdom.

“As a destination, Bhutan is the essence of ‘off-the-beaten-path’ and it is truly a place for hikers and bikers to enjoy all year round. Spring and autumn are excellent times to visit especially if you want to witness a festival or go camping high in the mountains but the winter is grand too with warm sunny days,” says long time cycling guide Phillip Bowen.

With little motorized traffic, there is only one red light in the entire kingdom, and on a cross country highway that averages 17 curves per kilometer, bicycles are the perfect mode to explore Bhutan’s almost infinite hill trails. Among all the rides though the most popular is freewheeling the highest trafficable spot in the country; at nearly 4,000 meters the Chelela Pass attracts both serious cyclists and casual day-trippers for its views of distant snow capped peaks and its uninterrupted 35-kilometer descent through ancient forests and homesteads to Paro city.

Situated between it’s dominant neighbors India and China, this tiny country of slightly more than 800,000 is the only Vajaayana Buddhist nation in the world, a distinction that is evident in every facet of it’s society. Only connected to the outside world via television and internet service since the new millennium, the Bhutanese have been especially careful of engaging in too much international influence too quickly; all tourists are required to conduct visits through an agency and to be accompanied at all times by a local guide.

ABOVE: Cycling Chelela Pass.

For most that arrive via plane to Paro the first couple of days will be spent acclimatising to the altitude. There’s no shortage of ways to fill the time as the area is rife with historical wonders and modern attractions with nature trails.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable icons of the country is the Takstang Palphug monastery, or Tiger’s Nest as it is more commonly known. Perched on an outcropping of an otherwise sheer cliff at 3,000 meters, the Tiger’s Nest can be reached by foot on a four-hour hike that takes visitors through lush pine forests and along strings of fluttering prayer flags. Paro Dzong, the fortress on a heap of jewels, is among other historical architectural sites popular within the city. Paro’s five storied, towered citadel — which serves today as both administrative offices and home to the central body of monks in Bhutan — attracts visitors for it’s classically tiered design and the views it offers over Paro town.

For hardened cyclists taking on the ascent to Chelela Pass can take up to eight hours of climbing the serpentine road, meeting locals and observed by wild monkeys and grazing yaks along the way. The temperatures can shift 15 degrees celsius through the climb as the air thins and the distant Himalayan peaks come into view at the pass’s ultimate elevation of 3,810 meters.

Most cyclists skip the toil of the ascent and get an “uplift” to the pass in a comfortable van, lunch on emma datshi (think fondu infused with chili peppers) and some momo’s among the surrounding edelweiss and blue poppy while taking in the snow-capped vistas of Mount Jomdhah and Jichu Drake. Riders can choose to push forward to the Ha valley on the other side of the pass, most though return back to Paro. A few though will turn the prayer wheels to the left and descend off piste on a network of single track trails that drop 1,300 meters over the rocky steppes and dense forest before connecting with logging roads and monk’s trails that will eventually lead back to Paro.

“The road surface is OK, there’s minimal traffic and it never gets all that steep so if someone can handle a bike and is strong enough to keep pulling the brakes for 35km that’s fine. It really is a freewheel from top to bottom without any need to turn the pedals at all.” Bowen says of Chelela Pass.

Those with weary bodies from the day’s excursion can find relief in a traditional Bhutanese style hot tub, a coffin shaped wooden bath treated with artemisia leaves and heated with roasted river stones before going out on the town. Nightlife choices have expanded in Paro over the previous decade to include gastro pubs serving international and fusion dishes along with craft beers in remodeled, traditional homes and buildings.

The Bhutanese recognise how well mountain biking pairs with their home’s natural topography as the sport becomes increasingly popular. Even His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuck, seen by his people as a living deity, is an avid cyclist, ensuring a future for visitors who want to test themselves against the Land of the Thunder Dragon.