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BHUTAN’s ANCIENT TRAIL RESTORED

WORDS CATHERINE SMART – Project Director Trans Bhutan Trail

It was a hard day, once the GPS data was processed after the survey we run in April 2020, we realized that the vertical difference between Lingmithang and Latongla in Eastern Bhutan – a distance of about 12km – was over 2km, from hot rhododendron jungle to snow.

Like other sections of the ancient trail across Bhutan, it was clear that the hands of the ancestors had been busy, kilometre after kilometre of crafted dry-stone staircases. At one point, on a particularly steep step I reached forward and placed my hand into a carefully carved handhold. Possibly hundreds of years old, someone generations ago was easing my way. It’s the kind of moment that brings chills to any trail builder.

©Trans Bhutan Trail

Initiated in 2019 – based on the vision of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuch – with support from the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Bhutan Canada Foundation, the Trans Bhutan Trail will restore and reconnect the centuries old historic East West path that runs across Central Bhutan. Used by messengers, monks, merchants and armies for thousands of years, until the 1960s it was the only way to travel across this unique, small, but mighty country.

©Trans Bhutan Trail

430km in length crossing 12 passes with over 20,000m of vertical, the trail connects 10 Dzongs (fortresses still actively used as centres for defence, government and religion). So far over 400 religious, cultural and heritage sites have been catalogued along its path which cuts through towns and villages and multiple climactic zones.

Deep forests cover over 70 per cent of the country, which is one reason Bhutan is one of only two carbon-negative countries on earth. It’s also home to 770 species of birds and some of the world’s most endangered animals, from the Royal Bengal Tiger and Snow Leopard, to the Red Panda, Black Necked Cranes and White Bellied Heron. It’s no wonder Bhutan is one of the 10 biodiverse hotspots in the world today.

©Trans Bhutan Trail

Last year was set to be exceptional for tourism and trekking in Bhutan. Though the country has been a textbook case of how a nation should respond to Covid-19, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the tourism industry. Throughout 2020, Bhutan had been successful in mitigating the risks and preventing the transmission of COVID-19. Until August 11, 2020 there was zero community spread. While the Bhutanese international borders were closed, domestically there was some semblance of normal life.

In this context, much of the physical work revitalizing the Trans Bhutan Trail rapidly took off. In an extraordinary pivot, the government provided funding to hire unemployed tourism workers and others impacted by the pandemic. Following the initial survey and re-alignment of several sections, Gups (local government leaders) in 28 Gewogs (Counties) which comprise the trail, coordinated workers to clear, bench, bridge and drain 90% of the optimal route. Over 700 strong, trail crews are near completion of phase 2 of the restoration process. This has contributed to local economies during difficult times and will make it possible for the first through-hike in the spring of 2021. Gups expressed gratitude for this initiative, seeing the value of the historic preservation of this ancient trail.

“This project not only maintains the old trail but, also engages local community in building opportunities in different ways. It will help bring international tourism to the front line and also provide educational opportunities to the younger generations telling stories of how our fore-fathers once used to walk on that trail and its importance to them.” – Dop Sahri Gup.

©Trans Bhutan Trail

Already revitalized sections of the trail have provided villagers with better access to their fields, pastures and temples. The Covid-19 hiking boom has also meant increased use of the trail for domestic tourism. As we enter Phase 3 of the project, we are near launch of the trail passport website and app. Campsite, homestay and other accommodations are also in the works. As are preparations for the trail to be used as part of education and national youth service programs.

When I first discussed with Galeo Saintz, International Chair of the World Trails Network, in early 2019, he reminded me that first and foremost, a trail is about story. Those words certainly resonate in the mountains of Bhutan. Our team is grateful to the many friends we have met through the World Trails Network. In preparing, planning and troubleshooting we have drawn from the global experience and benefitted from the knowledge and generosity of several network members – be it technical expertise, budgeting, community engagement, education programs, trail apps or composting toilet.

Thank you, international friends. We look forward to walking with you. 

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