Author and cyclist Tomas Belcik, fresh from writing Bhutan by Bicycle, his latest book, tells us why the Land of the Thunder Dragon is best explored using pedal power. If anybody should know, it’s certainly him.
Hi Tomas. An obvious first question: why is cycling such a good way of exploring Bhutan?
Bhutan is hailed as the last Shangri-La, and on a bike you enjoy the country’s scenery a lot more than you can in a vehicle. When you cycle you experience everything a step at a time – from the gradually changing views of the mountains to the pristine forests.
This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that Bhutan has been developed more responsibly than other countries. The young king who took over from his father almost a decade ago has taken some careful steps to modernise the country, namely by upgrading its roads.
What kind of bicycle do you ride?
I cycle on a hybrid bike, which is basically a touring bike suited to long-distance road cycling. This is the most popular type of cycling in Bhutan, though there is the option to mix up time on the road with riding the relatively modest network of single-track trails. These are typically found in western Bhutan in the more developed areas, and tend to stretch for several kilometres.
Is this trail network likely to be expanded in the future?
Yes, absolutely. There are some excellent trails that intrepid Bhutanese mountain bikers have traversed, and while they’re not yet suitable for western tourists, this will likely change in the years to come. Soon mountain biking in Bhutan will mean going off road and staying off road.
Part of the reason is that the Bhutanese are generally willing to accommodate tourists’ requirements, provided that the necessary safety requirements are adhered to.
Are the roads good quality? And what’s it like with all those slopes?
Yes, the roads – save for some potholes – are generally good quality, and they’re getting better all the time. I can think of some incredible sections – split between awesome climbs and equally awesome downhills, with a mountain pass in between – that have virtually no traffic at all.
The climbs, which can be continuous for 20, 30 or 40 km and generally have inclines of between seven and ten per cent, really are incredible. I actually prefer some of the climbs because on the descents you have to continually brake, so your hands eventually get tired.
How fit do you need to be to cycle in Bhutan?
I don’t need to work out per se before a trip because, when I’m home in Colorado, I tend cycle around 30 km a day. If I’m planning a new route in a country I’m unfamiliar with then it will usually take me a couple of weeks, after I’ve arrived, to get into my rhythm.
Most people on a Bhutan cycling holiday will be in the country for a couple of weeks, with time in the saddle generally limited as not everybody will be an experienced cyclist. There’ll obviously be stop-offs along the way, with an hour, sometimes two, spent at attractions and monasteries.
You’ve cycled all over Asia. How do you go about planning your trips?
I tend to look at some interesting points on a map that could potentially be connected by bicycle. That said, I don’t usually have a fixed route between two points – I do some research on the roads in between but when I get there I definitely improvise by going off on tangents that look interesting.
Take cycling in India, for example. While the main highways, though best avoided, aren’t impossible to ride along thanks to relatively quiet traffic and large shoulders, I tend to use the district roads. There are the state roads – typically two-lane highways – too, but the district roads are the most exciting, usually because you’re only sharing them with the odd bullock cart. They’re not usually the most viable option on Google Maps; rather they’re something to discover once you’re en route.
Talking of Google Maps, do you rely on GPS?
Definitely, though not so much in India and Bhutan. Compared to Korea or Japan, most people speak English and most of the signs are in English, so it’s surprisingly difficult to get lost. But I also use GPS because I travel alone, which allows me to maintain my own pace. My trips are exploratory by nature, so without someone to bounce ideas off my GPS gives me a bit of certainty.
What’s your favourite cycling trip?
Aside from Bhutan I’d have to say one of my Indian cycling adventures. Rajasthan is definitely up there because it’s so rewarding – Rajasthani culture is so colourful, from the people’s garments to the forts and palaces that dot the landscape. If I was to suggest a first-timer’s cycle holiday to India I would certainly recommend Rajasthan.
I also love cycling between Mumbai and Goa – by taking the train or flying you’re missing out on some of the most spectacular stretches of the Konkan Coast. Then there’s the trip I did between Tamil Nadu and Kerala over the Western Ghats, cycling through the national parks and the tea gardens around Munnar. That’s an especially spectacular route.
Are you OK cycling in the heat?
It’s generally fine in the hills, but the heat can get pretty intense between Mumbai and Goa. I did the trip in October and November, but it would have been less oppressive in late December and January. Staying hydrated isn’t a problem because bottled water is available everywhere. At about ₹25 a litre, it doesn’t cost much to stay hydrated.
Where are you and your bike heading to next?
I’ve still got a long list of places to get through – I want to go to Cuba next but I’m keeping 2016 open for the time being. Life is basically one long cycle ride for me!