“Do you like Snoopy Dog?” my guide, Sonam, asks. We’re on a rhododendron-deep forested footpath on the western border of Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, covering the last stretch of an endurance- and thigh-testing four-day, four-night trek along the newly reopened Trans Bhutan Trail. Today we’re climbing to the Pelela Pass that leads to one of Bhutan’s highest points—a little more than 11,000 feet above sea level. It is considered a boundary between the western side of the country, where I’ve spent the past four days hiking, and the central.
After roughly 4,700 feet of elevation change, four nights of camping in tents, and 40-some miles on this 250-mile trail—so remote, and so new—the conversation has pinballed: from the family tree of the country’s beloved current king (K5, as he’s colloquially known) to its seemingly late-to-the-game decision to open to tourism as recently as the mid-1970s to the shared language of music.
“Snoop Dogg?” I clarify. “No, Snoopy,” he confirms, and I cede. The next 30 minutes I’ll refer to one of the most influential rappers in American history by the name of an anthropomorphic beagle in an equally influential American cartoon. After the rigorous question/answer-style conversation format of the past few days—“Is that mushroom edible? What do I do if we see a bear? Are there tigers here? Will the leech crawl through my sock? What are the rules of archery? Why is there a scrambled egg in the alcohol?”—I’m glad I have something to contribute. “Do you know who Martha Stewart is?” I venture.
If one thing has become clear, it’s that the eight Bhutanese men—English-speaking guides, local guides, chefs, sous chefs, drivers and the only way to cover the trail—I’ve been traversing mountains with know a lot more about my country and culture than I do theirs. Bhutan, to many, is a giant question mark. When I told friends and family where I was going, the most common response was, “Where’s that?” The answer, it turns out, isn’t as easy as it could be. On the west, south, and east, Bhutan is squeezed between Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, though it doesn’t share a border with any of them. Its northern brim butts up entirely against China’s lofty Tibetan Plateau, bordering India on the south.
Bhutan’s 14,000 square miles of landlocked terrain is contained nearly entirely within the Himalayan Mountain Range. Drukair, the national airline of Bhutan, is one of the few in the world to take a flight path that showcases four of the world’s five largest peaks out the right-side window. (Druk, by the way, means “thunder dragon” in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan.) There they are, lined up like guards defending a castle.
Like Snoopy of both rap and cartoon fame, the history of this country, and the Trans Bhutan Trail, is influential. For more than 50 years into the early 1900s when Bhutan gained countryhood from the British crown, the 250-mile, east-west footpath—a portion of which was originally part of the Silk Road—was a vital part of Bhutan’s survival. The trail was used as a pilgrimage route for Buddhists traveling to sacred sites in western Bhutan and Tibet. Garps, or trail runners, delivered mail and verbal messages along its course. Their exploits are legendary, known for traversing the mountains at great speed with little food or water. The path connected hundreds of dzongs (fortresses) that hindered foreign invasion; it was used as a trade route for bartering goods in local villages; and kings and queens traveled its stretches to meet with their people and unite the country. For more than five decades, it was the only way to cross from one end of Bhutan to the other.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Kingdom of Bhutan began to prioritize a modern nation, opening itself up in a slow, calculated manner to the outside world, careful to preserve the reasons why it’s often labeled “the last Shangri-La.” Public schools were built and English began to be taught to schoolchildren in 1961; television, internet, and cell phones came in 1999; and starting in the early 1960s, roads were built to bisect the country, gradually leading to the trail’s state of disuse. Motorized vehicles replaced ponies, yaks, and feet. Over the course of 60-some years, stairways crumbled, footpaths became overgrown, and bridges collapsed.
In 2018, Sam Blyth, founder and chair of the Bhutan Canada Foundation, an organization that seeks to further the happiness and well-being of the Bhutanese through advocacy and partnership programs, as well as the Honorary Consul of the Kingdom of Bhutan to Canada, led an initiative to restore the trail. “Almost 40 years ago when I first came to trek in Bhutan, I heard stories of an ancient trail that extended deep in the remote central and eastern parts of the country. I dreamed of walking it,” Blyth says.
In the depths of COVID-19, Blyth, in conjunction with the king and the Tourism Council of Bhutan, got to work. The team organized workers out of jobs due to the pandemic, local villagers, hundreds of desuungs—volunteers trained to support and build a sense of community, the name meaning “guardians of peace” in Dzongkha—and school-age scouts to piece back together the ancient byway, often guided by village elders, the only living people who remember traversing the route as children. The entirety of the trail was cleared and reestablished, 18 bridges were either rebuilt or restored, and 170 posts with scannable QR codes were placed along the route to educate hikers on its history. “I am sure that there is no other country in the world where a trail of more than 400 kilometers [250 miles], 115,000 feet of vertical, and more than 10,000 stone steps could have been built in less than three years,” Blyth says. The trail officially relaunched in September 2022.
Today, international tourists on the trail are required to go with a local guide. There are several outfitters that coordinate trips, but booking directly with the Trans Bhutan Trail ensures 100 percent of the profits go back to the maintenance and further development of the route. There is no denying the extraordinarily untouched beauty of this country; 71 percent of it is under forest cover. There are nearly neon rice paddies that rise out of the mountainsides like a giant’s stairway. I passed through Avatar-like jungles with mist that rose between the trees, shrouding the view any further than five feet in front of me. Prayer flags, strung between trees and stupas and gold-flecked temples, remind you with every step that this is a deeply Buddhist country, and the five elements of nature reign supreme—sky, air, fire, water, and earth.
The trail, cutting through the country’s interior, is a partnership between visitors to the country and the community of Bhutan. Much like Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart, I explain to my guide, it’s simpatico, one is much better with the other, and vice versa. As we climb to the Pelela Pass, an elevation gain of 5,348 feet, having woven past village homes—where locals offered us cucumbers from their gardens and access to their bathrooms—and through open gates, taken in mountain vistas and monasteries steeped in Buddhist tradition, conversation continues to meander. “What about Elvis?” my guide asks. “Do you like him?”