Tucked snug between Tibet and India, the Kingdom of Bhutan’s secluded mysticism captures the attention of travellers from around the globe. What the tiny nation lacks in territory is eclipsed by its reputation: Bhutan, “Land of the Thunder Dragon” and creator of “gross national happiness,” an index that trades gross domestic product for collective wellbeing.
Hugged by the Himalayas, Bhutan is not exactly convenient to reach, nor cheap. Traditionally, international visitors pay $200-$250 USD to visit, per day. Unlike many destinations where rampant overtourism has commodified culture and landscapes, tourism in Bhutan is mindfully managed.
In 2022, the country will debut the completion of an ambitious, “slow tourism” project. Come March, for the first time in more than 60 years, The Trans Bhutan Trail will officially reopen, inviting visitors to journey along the ancient 403-kilometre route, one joyous step at a time. Travelling by foot or bike will connect guests with residents to learn about Bhutanese life and culture, combining active travel and cultural immersion with the benefits of community tourism.
What is the Trans Bhutan Trail?
With origins dating to the Silk Road, the Trail threads together a network of remote Dzongs (fortified monasteries architecturally distinctive to Bhutan and Tibet) and connects east to west. The route was once traced by traders, Buddhists on pilgrimages and Garps, long distance trail runners who would travel on foot at great speed to porter mail and communicate important messages, often without breaking for food or water.
Remarkably, the Trail was the only way to traverse the Kingdom until the construction of a national highway in the 1960s. Roads eased arduous mountainous journeys and consequently, the Trail’s stairways and footpaths gradually fell into disrepair.
As COVID-19 tore through the world in March 2020, trail restoration kicked off with a team of surveyors clearing jungle overgrowth and fording rivers. The entire effort witnessed 900 furloughed local workers reconstruct 19 major bridges, 10,000 steps and 405 total kilometres. Communities extended their hospitality to the labourers while elders shared stories of the past and children looked on. Following two years of extensive reconstruction, Haa in the west was reconnected to Trashigang in the east. What’s more, the restoration recovered an invaluable collection of generations-worth of Bhutanese stories and history.
Faris Mohammed | Punakha
The Trail’s opening ceremony will take place in March 2022 and as of April, international tourists will take their first steps along the ancient route, providing much-needed economic benefits to rural communities along the way.
Once officially open to the public, G Adventures will be the first group adventure operator to depart with guests. It was a selection appointed by the Bhutan Canada Foundation, the non-profit that led the restoration of the Trail.
“[Bhutan is] a country we’ve run tours in for more than a decade and have long admired for its commitment to the happiness of its people and sustainable way of life, which are both philosophies that align with our values as an organization,” said Yves Marceau, vice president of product at G Adventures. “Trails have historically connected remote communities and helped distribute much-needed income to local people as travellers move across the landscape.”
Past collides with present
Courtesy of G Adventures | Punakha Dzong
In Bhutan, the world’s only carbon negative country, the Trail represents the intersection of an ancient past colliding with an optimistic, sustainably managed future.
“As well as providing income opportunities for local people, especially youth, in rural communities, the restoration of the Trail is a community-based project designed to preserve an ancient cultural icon and provide a sustainable experience for travellers,” remarked Sam Blyth, chair of the Bhutan Canada Foundation and lead donor for the Trans Bhutan Trail. “Economic benefit will flow directly into the local communities as a result of community tourism, whether via homestays, the purchase of supplies for multi-day trips or the employment of guides… [The Trail] enables the children of Bhutan to continue to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. It’s our vision that one day the Trans Bhutan Trail will be considered one of the great walks of the world.”
Courtesy of G Adventures | Bumdrak Camp
G Adventures’ two new Bhutan itineraries fall under the company’s “Active” trip style so guests should expect three-to-four hours of hiking each day. Per the website, trips will operate seasonally (spring through fall) given the nation’s mountain climate. Bookings are now open.
Camp the Trans Bhutan Trail
11-days; $3,899+ CAD per person
Inaugural trip departure: May 15, 2022
Covering some of the best portions of this 403 km trail, travellers use their own two feet to experience breathtaking, diverse landscapes and timeless villages from a different era. Featuring idyllic camping spots and overnights in comfortable local homestays, this tour provides a glimpse into Bhutan’s rural and spiritual life that is only possible off the beaten path.
Courtesy of G Adventures | Bumdrak Camp
Highlights of the Trans Bhutan Trail
12-days; $5,199 CAD per person
Inaugural trip departure: May 1, 2022
Explore the happiest country on Earth while walking along the same path used by royals, monks, and traders for thousands of years. On this 12-day tour, travel and trek along the best portions of this historic trail, venturing from east to west, hiking high mountain passes across lush river valleys and through villages from a different era, stopping to soak in local history, culture, and customs along the way.
COVID-19 in Bhutan
Bhutan’s borders are currently closed to foreign nationals, but they are expected to reopen to tourism ahead of the Trans Bhutan Trail’s official opening ceremony in March 2022.
According to Reuters, as of December 24, 2021, Bhutan had reported just three deaths linked to COVID-19 and 2,659 infections. The double-dose vaccination rate among the nation’s 12-and-older population is 93 per cent.
Bhutan’s public service broadcaster, BBS, reported it is “the first country in the South Asian region to administer [third] booster doses.