“Woo-hoo!” the young rider hurtling down the mountain in front of me screams. “Welcome to Bhutan’s Whistler!” He is referring, of course, to Canada’s Mecca for mountain biking.
On either side of me, the dense foliage is a blur. The boys in front of me skid and lean into turns, sending up sprays of dry oak leaves and pine needles. My knuckles, under my gloves, are no doubt white. I try to stay with the group, but pretty soon, it’s a futile exercise. The boys are flinging their bikes over fallen logs and branches, catching air where I come to a screeching halt barely surviving a bone-jarring crash. And most painfully for my ego, I’m having to pick up my bike to walk over the obstacles so I can keep riding. I’m navigating—less than gracefully—the second or third of such obstacles when I realize that the boys of the Thimphu Mountain Biking Club (TMBC) are long gone. I hear the distant echoes of their adrenaline-fuelled whoops and hollers until even that fades and I can barely spot their tiny, quickly receding shapes through the trees and underbrush, throwing miniature clouds of dust behind them as they barrel down the mountain.
That gives me a chance to continue riding at my own pace rather than the breakneck speed of earlier. All hopes of mountain biking cred with the youngsters tossed aside, I begin to enjoy the ride much better. The imminent threat of broken limbs or worse gone, I can hear the occasional breeze through the tall pines and cypress, and frequently, the whipping, twisting, and turning line of the trail brings me suddenly to clearings and overlooks with staggering views of the valley. Small clustered villages with their obligatory gold-roofed temples set on the knolls and saddles of the hills and ridges surrounded by rice fields and prayer flags and, far below, the sedately flowing Mochhu River skirting the edges of the valley’s massive monastery-fortress, the Punakha Dzong, which straddles its confluence like a great white ship at anchor.
Looping endlessly back and forth down the flanks of the mountain, I finally reach the technical section of the trail, where the TMBC boys are waiting for me. We negotiate the final rocky, boulder-strewn series of switchbacks, the boys gleefully and I barely hanging on to my bike. Finally, to my great relief, the trail spills on to a smooth, wide section of paved road next to the Mochhu River. Then we spin easily across a steel Bailey bridge that spans the water, with a lovely view of the 17th -century Punakha Dzong and its colorfully carved wooden cantilever walkway, coming abreast of lush rice-fields where local farmers bent over their work stand momentarily to wave at our motley crew in primary color helmets, spandex shorts (in my case), and neon-bright jerseys.
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