Having closed its borders when Covid hit, the little Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan finally opened them again to tourists in September. Those that come must pay a $200-per-day “sustainable development fee”, up from $65 before the pandemic, which is designed to control numbers and protect the country’s environment and culture. But there’s also a new attraction to enjoy, says Mary Holland in the FT – the Trans-Bhutan Trail, a 250-mile hiking path spanning the country. The route dates back to the 16th century, but fell out of use decades ago. Its restoration has taken four years.
Winding through forests and over mountain passes, it opens up areas far from Bhutan’s main tourist sites and offers daily opportunities to meet local people. Bhutan has pursued a deliberately slow and careful path to development, famously emphasising “Gross National Happiness” over Gross Domestic Product. The country’s first motorable road wasn’t built until the 1960s, so memories of long, “gruelling” journeys on ancestral paths such as the Trans-Bhutan Trail are still common, and hearing people’s stories of them is part of the pleasure of walking it.
The path is often very steep, and offers spectacular views of snowy Himalayan peaks, but for the most part it crosses lower, more populated areas than the country’s well-trodden high-mountain trekking routes. Scattered along it are 21 Buddhist temples and four fortified monasteries (dzongs), as well as countless stupas and prayer wheels. The trail runs from the town of Haa, in the west, to Trashigang, in the east, and passes through 27 villages, with traditional wooden houses set amid high, green pastures. Nights are spent in small hotels, farms or campsites, and there are 170 wooden posts bearing QR codes along the way, enabling walkers to access information on local history and culture. Visit transbhutantrail. com and tourism.gov.bt for more information. Private operators also offer trips along the whole route or sections of it.