Bhutan by bicycle: Missoula business owner helps promote bike travel in rugged country

Although many involved in the recent UM trip were there to study organic farming in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Gallego, owner of Missoula Bicycle Works, was there at least in part to think about cycling.

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Published January 24, 2007 by The Missoulian 
By Michael Moore of the Missoulian 

MT– One way to think about the topography of Bhutan is to visualize a map of Montana.

“Take that map, crumple it up and you'll have a pretty good idea of Bhutan's topography,” said Alex Gallego, who just visited the country as part of a University of Montana-sponsored trip. “It'll be about the right size and the right shape.”

The wrinkly, furrowed map is just another way of saying mountainous in the extreme. The kingdom of Bhutan, about an eighth the size of Montana, sits in the eastern end of the Himalayas, sandwiched between India on the south and Tibet on the north.

Although many involved in the recent UM trip were there to study organic farming in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Gallego, owner of Missoula Bicycle Works, was there at least in part to think about cycling.

Bhutan, which for years was essentially closed off to Westerners, is slowly opening its doors to tourism. And the government is insistent that the coming wave of visitors be done right, in ways that respect traditional Bhutanese culture and traditions. The country also wants to see tourism develop in a way that doesn't wreak havoc on the country's well-protected environment.

“It's a great country to see by bicycle, but they want to make sure that everything is done in a sensible manner that's good for the country,” Gallego said.

Generally, all tourism in Bhutan is arranged through the government's travel visa program and conducted in the company of guides. The price of the visa is a relatively steep $200 per day, but it's less expensive than it seems, Gallego said.

“That's pretty rich, but once you see that it covers all your travel, no matter how you get around, all your lodging, three meals a day and the guide's services, it starts to seem pretty cheap,” he said. “About the only thing it doesn't include are gifts and any sort of alcohol.”

On UM's trip, which began Dec. 30 with a 30-plus-hour flight and wrapped up on Jan. 18, the group's guide was Wangda Tobgyol, who runs a licensed guide service and is an avid cyclist. Tobgyol and two friends have ridden the length of the country by bike, and he's very interested in adding cycling to his list of offerings.

“He really wants people to be able to see Bhutan by bike, but they don't have much information about putting together workable routes, and they also need some help with taking care of the equipment,” Gallego said.

Bhutan, Gallego said, is an “incredibly fabulous place to see on a bike.” The country has excellent roads, but because of the mountainous terrain, they're winding and slow to travel. Gallego made several lengthy rides while in the country, and was able to easily outdistance cars on downhill sections of roads.

“We could keep up going uphill, too,” he said.

Bhutan, which has about 750,000 people, has but one bike shop and could certainly use another one. Tobgyol has passable skills as a bike mechanic, Gallego said, but he needs to know a lot more before he could lead trips that would likely require significant maintenance on the bikes.

With that in mind, Tobgyol plans to come to Missoula this summer to work in Gallego's shop.

“That way, we can get him to be a top-notch mechanic, so he could open a full-service shop and be able to train his own people,” Gallego said.

Gallego said he might then play a role in bringing good bikes and components into the country, but what he's really interested in is helping Tobgyol set up routes for future riding tours.

“I'll have an ongoing discussion with them about how to craft the routes so that they're manageable for riders,” Gallego said. “They know everything about times of various festivals, the sights people would want to see. I'll just be looking at it from the perspective of whether these are routes people can actually ride.”

Once those routes are set, Gallego said, cycling tourists will see a country with a rich connection to its past, a place that's adopted some modern changes without losing its sense of identity. It's a place where the queen herself has hiked much of the country, Gallego said.

“It's a very spiritual country, where people really seem to be in touch with their day-to-day lives,” he said. “And it's one of the coolest, most unique places you could ever see by bicycle.”

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com