“Tashi Delek, Bhutan.” – Part Two

A 'rare' view of the mountains on the way to Bumthang.

A ‘rare’ view of the mountains on the way to Bumthang.

The story so far: Our ride across Bhutan started from Siliguri on the India side. We rode through Phuent Sholing, Paro, Thimpu and Punakha, gathering many fascinating experiences and seeing many remarkable sights. This journey begins at the ride from Punakha to Trongsa. For Part One, click here.

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Bikes slicing through the landscape.

Bikes slicing through the landscape.

Day 5: Trongsa, 140 km

Saying goodbye to Punakha wasn’t easy, because we had the most fun there. But the ride to Trongsa was one of the most picturesque. It highlighted the different terrains that one comes across in Bhutan. From high cypresses to spindly deodars, pink flowering trees and creepers with snow-white flowers, the mountains had them all. As we moved higher up, the air got thinner and the wind, nippier. Every cell was firing away double-time.

Green pastures that are ideal for cattle grazing.

Green pastures that are ideal for cattle grazing. The little black dots on the bottom right of the picture are yaks.

Trongsa is a compact hill town, with one of the oldest and biggest monasteries in the country. The town also has a museum, which I am told is fantastic.

The mighty Trongsa Dzong.

The mighty Trongsa Dzong.

The monastery was walking distance from the place we stayed at – 300 stairs away, to be precise. After Paro, I just didn’t have the desire to exert myself again. Fortunately, others felt the same way too, so we ended up taking bikes to it. The monastery looks pretty intimidating from the outside, almost like it’s touching the sky. All white and oxidised red on the outside, the colour tones inside are mostly blues.

Inside the Trongsa monastery.

Inside the Trongsa monastery.

The monastery is home to a couple of cats, the calmest of their kind I have ever seen. As I crouched to take a picture of them sunbathing, I noticed a fiery red flutter from the corner of my eye. It was the rooster.

Seconds before the chase.

Seconds before the chase.

Thoroughly fascinated by it, I crept as close as I could to take a picture of it as well. It walked around warily, always keeping an eye on me as I went clickety click. A few seconds later, it moved away in the opposite direction while I continued taking pictures of it. Next thing I knew, the sly fox came straight at me like a homing device, clucking loudly and flapping its wings. The cats were watching the whole thing from their place under the sun and everyone else was too busy trying to figure out what was happening: a rooster chasing a fully-grown woman around the monastery courtyard? Really? I ran for a full 30 seconds before someone decided to intervene and chase the rooster away. And believe me, 30 seconds is a long time when you have a more-than-healthy rooster with a razor-sharp beak desperately wanting a bite of your ankle or any other body part it can get a grip on. And boy, could the damn thing run.

Every toddler has its own personalised pram. :)

Every toddler has his or her own customised pram in Bhutan. :)

Day 6: Bumthang, 90 km

Bumthang was a series of greys, greens and blues all the way. Sunshine was busy playing hide and seek with the houses in the valley, and the people were busy being content.

Cypress trees close to Bumthang.

Cypress trees close to Bumthang.

Yaks grazing on the way.

Curious yaks watching us pass.

We visited the local brewery, where they use recycled Kingfisher bottles for their beer. The most prominent feature of the brewery, though, was the seven-leaf cannabis growing in abundance. Mary Jane’s like a weed (pun unintended) in Bhutan; you can spot it everywhere. The law forbids people from plucking/growing it. The fines are pretty hefty – 50,000 Ngultrum and over five years in jail. There’s also a cheese factory, a fruit pressing unit and a burning lake close by in Bumthang town, but we were too late to visit any of those.

Growing just outside the brewery.

Growing just outside the brewery.

Cheese cubes strung together in a local store.

Cheese cubes strung together in a local store.

Day 7: Mongar, 180 km

Bumthang had given me a glimpse of Bhutanese bird species. While I spotted a few pretty ones, I was clueless about their names. It didn’t help that they were constantly moving, making it really hard to shoot them. That changed on the way to Mongar, though. When we stopped for Maggi (read breakfast), we realised that one of the bikes had a puncture. About an hour and a half was spent trying to fix it, during which time some very colourful birds got comfortable with our presence and went about their flying without worrying about us.

A black-billed Magpie, one of many flying around near our breakfast stopover.

A black-billed Magpie, one of many flying around near our breakfast stopover.

We transitioned from plateaus to mountains again, going all the way up to Tumsi La pass – one of the highest motorable roads in Bhutan. Of course we stopped at the pass for a break. Of course I got off the bike. Of course I took pictures. What didn’t go according to plan was my getting back on the bike again. Because I’m short, getting onto the 500 cc Enfield is like climbing a mountain. I try to appear as cool as possible doing it, but sometimes it’s a serious struggle. On Tumsi La, I almost made it into full sitting position, but my camera bag had other plans. Let’s topple her over by getting snagged on the back seat rod, it thought.

Part of Tumsi La's ground is marked for posterity by me.

Part of Tumsi La’s ground is marked for posterity by me.

Like a puppet, I proceeded to role play my camera’s wicked intentions. I can see it all in slow-mo now: the leg on the other side of the bike slowly moving up as gravity pulled my other leg – by now suspended mid-air – and with it, my body, to the ground. Before I knew it, I had landed hard on my side. No broken bones, just bruises and a throbbing knee, thanks to my backpack. My elbow suffered a very painful scrape, despite my jacket being on. So, yes, there were cloud-covered trees, the chirping of birds, absolute stillness… And in the middle of the picture perfect setting was me, sprawled on my back awkwardly, wondering what the hell just happened.

The rest of the ride was uneventful.

Riding into the clouds after the fall.

Riding into the clouds after the fall.

As one moves along Bhutan, one notices the facial differences among the people. This was most apparent in Mongar, where facial features appeared flatter than everywhere else.

A game of football in progress as we entered Mongar.

A game of football in progress as we entered Mongar.

Day 8: Trashigang, 120 km

Pine forests line the route to Trashigang. We stopped for tea on the way and happened to meet a group of medical administrative officers. I got talking to them, wanting to know more about the country from the locals. I was told that education and healthcare are absolutely free in Bhutan. No matter how serious the illness and where you have to be treated for it, the government will sponsor it. It’s the same with education as well, but there’s a glitch to this – you have to score above a certain percentage to be sponsored by the government for further studies. My next question was an obvious one: how does the country manage to sustain itself if these were free?

What better than the scent of pines to keep you company on your ride?

What better than the scent of pines to keep you company on your ride?

The answer was hydroelectricity. Bhutan supplies power to India’s border areas and other countries. The water was fast depleting, though, a gynaecologist said. Bhutan was beautiful, but global warming and the democratisation of the country were fast changing that. The king was the head of state, but the new round of elections had new candidates with political interests and a hint of dirty games. This was upsetting news, because by then I had fully made up my mind that I would pack my bags and make Bhutan my retirement home when I was done with the ways of the world. I bade the locals farewell with reluctance, wanting to stay and pick their brains about everything remotely Bhutanese. We continued onwards, stopping on the way near the river Manas for pictures while some of us tried our hand at archery along with the locals.

Bhutanese boots, mostly worn by royalty or people during celebrations. They cost nothing less than 3,000 bucks.

Bhutanese boots, mostly worn by royalty or people during celebrations. They cost nothing less than 3,000 bucks.

Trashigang is more Indian in nature and dialect than any of the other towns across Bhutan because it’s closer to the border. It is also the best place to shop for local things. Home to the royal guest house, the hill town offers great views of the valleys and mountains all the way to the horizon, with roads snaking their way around terrains. It rained that evening, and all of Bhutan was a mass of blurry grey, with pitter-patter sounds everywhere.

7:30 a.m at Trashigang.

Early morning after the rains.

I was extremely fascinated with her nose ring. As she walked past us with her little grandson, i asked her if i could take a picture. She smiled shyly, but managed to keep her face neutral while i shot.

I was extremely fascinated with her nose ring. As she walked past us with her toddler grandson, I asked her if I could take a picture. She smiled shyly, but managed to keep her face straight while I shot.

Day 9: Samdrup Jongkar, 160 km

The border town adjacent to Darranga on the India side, Samdrup Jongkar is mostly a place for traders and businessmen to stop for the night. The vegetation is different from most of Bhutan and resembles the Indian kind more.

A river runs through it.

A river runs through it, on the way to Samdrup Jongkar.

Although the mountain views are stunning, the road to Samdrup is the worst of the lot. No surprise that BRO was doing the construction, and we had at least 15 kilometres of really tricky road to navigate.

Back-breaking roads.

Back-breaking roads.

For reasons that I cannot understand, everybody was on a mission to ride their bikes into each other’s backsides that day. Consequently, the bike ahead of us crossed a speed bump at one point of the journey and stopped, so that we had to hit the brakes really hard. The bike skid and toppled over, taking my rider and me with it. My ankle was trapped under at an awkward angle, but fortunately, the bike was lifted off it before any damage could be done. I was holding the camera, so it fell with me, but that too suffered nothing more than a few scratches. Again, had it not been for my backpack, I would have been pretty badly hurt.

Another town on the way to Samdrup Jongkar.

It feels like the houses just spilled down the crevice between the mountains like waterfall.

Prayer flags dot the landscape across Bhutan. This particular location, though, crept up on us out of nowhere. It's a green pasture surrounded by  pure white prayer flags fluttering away. Peaceful and dreamy place.

Prayer flags dot the landscape across Bhutan. This particular location, though, crept up on us out of nowhere. It’s a green pasture surrounded by pure white prayer flags fluttering away.

More than anything else, the fall was unexpected. The rest of the journey went smoothly, though, and the view of the mountains against the seven-leafers growing on the roadside more than made up for the mishap.

A last view of the mountains before we were to cross the border into India.

A last view of the mountains before we were to crossed the border into India.

Day 10: Darranga, 60 seconds

The day we were supposed to cross the border, I visited the Samdrup post office to buy stamps for my dad. Bhutanese stamps are pretty and very colourful, and you must buy some for yourself.

On the walk back, I thought about Leh. About how I was angry to leave because I didn’t want to go back. I evaluated my feelings to see if there was anything remotely similar to it again, but no. The time I had spent in Bhutan was fulfilling and enriching. Most importantly, it was calming. I learnt so much, saw and experienced so much. It didn’t feel alien, and I wasn’t afraid that I would never see it again. Bhutan felt like home. It felt like I would be back. And as I looked back on the mountains, their stillness reassured me of that feeling. I may not go back this year or the next, or maybe even a few years after. But I will go back, and maybe the country will be different in many ways, but still mean the same to me. It will be my retreat to heal and gather myself together.

One sees signs across Bhutan that say Tashi Delek. The meaning of the words is fluid, ranging from ‘welcome’ to ‘best wishes’ to ‘thank you’ to ‘may good things come your way’. When I crossed the border to India, that’s what I said to Bhutan. Tashi Delek, beautiful country, for helping me re-discover myself. And Tashi Delek, so that you may continue to be as content and free and untouched as you are.

In Bhutan, where there are kids, there are likely to be outstretched hands for a high-five, or alternatively, just wave with gusto.

In Bhutan, where there are kids, there are likely to be outstretched hands for a high-five, or alternatively, just wave with gusto.

QUICK NOTES

Food:

Mostly beef, pork, chicken and fish. As you move deeper into Bhutan, fish is difficult to find and replaced by Yak meat. Eggs are available everywhere. Vegetarian options include cheese momos, Maggi, local greens, dal, rice, puris with potato curry and Ema Datshi – the national dish of Bhutan with base ingredients of cheese and chillies.

Accomodation:

More or less standard across the country. The rooms are well-maintained, with western bathrooms with water heaters, toilet rolls and towels.

Weather:

Pleasant. Cold higher up in the mountains. I carried five pairs of jeans and plenty of tees. I used floaters for local sightseeing, but for treks and the ride itself, I wore hiking shoes. Carry rain covers for your luggage.

Vegetation:

Beautiful. Many times, you’ll come across breath-taking views as you take a turn on the road. You can also go trekking into the forests. I’ll probably try it next time.

Wildlife:

Bhutan is 70% forest and protected wildlife areas. A variety of cats, birds and monkeys can be found here. No yeti spotted to date, unfortunately.

Further reading:

I received a copy of ‘The History of Bhutan’ by Karma Phuntsho for review from Random House India during my trip. It’s a brilliant book with A-Z of everything about the country. I’m reading it right now, and I would definitely recommend that you get your hands on it.

tashi Delek, Bhutan. I'll miss you.

Tashi Delek, Bhutan. I’ll miss you.

Getting there: There are flights to Bhutan from most metros, but I’m not sure if these are direct or stopovers. Alternatively, you can fly to Bagdogra and ride from there.

Go if: You want to get away from it all.

Tales from Kodagu.

A coffee estate in full bloom.

No matter how many times you go to a place, you’re always bound to see a different side to it. Or something new about the same things you see and do. The Coorg trip over the weekend that just went by was a lot like that. Visiting Kodagu – the name locals call Coorg by – was a thing I had to do at least once every year: there’s just something really soothing about rows and rows of coffee, pepper, vanilla and spice plantations and roads that wind through them. The visits sort of took a back seat over the last two years because I wanted to explore more of North India and new places in the South. When I checked the holiday schedule for this year and saw the long weekend, I decided to use it to renew my connection with the estates of Coorg. I’m happy to say that we are on genial terms again and Kodagu doesn’t feel like a scorned lover any more.

Fingers of God at Virajpet.

It took us around 10 hours to reach Coorg, only because we stopped several times to take pictures and just generally sight-see. The honey comb-like shimmering of the sun from between the Eucalyptus, Teak and Areca nut trees made me fall in love with the late-afternoon light all over again. We stopped at a coffee plantation that was in full bloom, so the entire place was a sea of green and white. Dreamy, dreamy setting. I discovered new wonders of my camera, walked through random rocky streams, bonded with the monks at Kushalnagar and recharged my batteries.

It was a new experience in so many ways, but what I loved most about this trip was the stories I gathered. Little tales about people, places and history – just the kind of thing I like.

Exploring a stream in the middle of nowhere.

The wild ones.
Somewhere off Virajpet, after many stops to shoot birds in green fields and climbing the barricade of a coffee estate to take pictures of the flowering plants, we passed through a stretch of jungle. And there, we saw elephants. Not one, but three. There was this hilariously cute elephant, standing and sleeping. Its tusks were tucked into the bark of the tree it was standing against; its eyes were shut, its trunk hanging limp and mouth wide open, snoring. To catch a sight like that is one of life’s little pleasures. However, we noticed that the elephants had chains around their ankles and necks and a man and woman were hovering around it. Apparently, the family is friends with the wildlife in the area – they’re so much a part of the surroundings that the animals have accepted them as one of their own. In turn, every time an animal falls sick, the family brings it to their clearing and takes care of it till it gets better. This time, one of the elephants in the herd was sick, so they got the entire herd and were taking care of them. Funny that we struggle to coexist with nature in the cities only to find the perfect example of it tucked away in a little jungle clearing.

*Snore*

When foreign soil becomes home.
Our home stay, Honey Valley, was deep in the lap of the Western Ghats, nestling at the base of Coorg’s highest mountain and surrounded by nothing but forest. Completely cut off from civilization, Honey Valley is simple, basic and beautiful. Only 4X4 vehicles can make it through the path all the way to the home stay, so we were picked up in a jeep and taken to the top where the place was. What with being lulled to sleep by the swishing trees and cicadas, waking up to birds chirping and the jeep rides through winding kachcha roads with a valley on one side and plantations on the other, the holiday was everything I wanted and more. Miraculously, I was up at 5:30 on the first day at Honey Valley to see the fog lift and leave behind crests and troughs of trees glittering with dew. And of course, I went mental taking pictures of flowers and birds.

The home of the couple that runs Honey Valley.

Honey Valley is run by an ageing Coorgi couple and their son. But there are two other people as well – non-Indians, both. One of them, Jonathan I think, happened to pick us up from the junction in his jeep, and he told the story of his growing up on Australian terrain very similar to that of Honey Valley’s. He had been in Coorg for many, many years and had made the place his home, although he did visit Australia to meet his father from time to time. If you go, you’ll catch him running around everywhere bare feet and wearing a lungi at most times, folded up and tucked in at the waist. Jack, the other foreigner, lives there as well and is a business partner with the Coorgi couple’s son. Together, they’ve opened another home stay further down the slope from Honey Valley. Oddly, despite the two places being so close, the parents and son meet only over weekends.

A view of mornings at Honey Valley.

The Coorgi saree.
The traditional saree is worn with the pleats in the front and pallu of the saree draped over the shoulder and trailing behind, but you’ll find that most women in Coorg wear their sarees with the pleats at the back and a part of the pallu pinned in the front at their shoulder. There are many legends associated with the origin of this style of saree-wearing, the most popular one being that the goddess Cauvery submerged herself into the ground and emerged as a river that would sustain the people of Kodagu. Harsh winds blew as her husband Agastya tried to stop her, turning her saree backwards. To date, Coorgi women wear their sarees the same way.

Little monks walking in the wind.

Nature above everything else.
No matter where you go, you’ll always see a Coorgi home surrounded by lush greenery. They have great respect for nature and believe nature to be their god and religion. Apparently, those who own land and practice agriculture leave about ten percent of their land uncultivated and untouched, just so that Mother Nature can take her own course and bring to life whatever she wants on that patch of land.

5 a.m dew.

A different kind of Prasadam.
We were in Kushalnagar on Sunday, belting Chicken Momos at Hotel Golden Star. There were monks dressed in yellow and maroon everywhere, riding Avengers, eating, shopping, basically having a good time. (I’ve always wondered how the Buddhist monks are such cool people, but I haven’t found the answer to that yet.) When we entered the Golden Temple, the sight of a giant Dalai Lama vinyl draped over the first shrine greeted us. We wondered what was up. Then, above the hum of the crowd, we heard the mesmerizing sound of prayers happening in another shrine. We walked over and stood as if in a trance as the cymbals clanged together, the giant drum (I don’t know what it’s called) was beaten and the chants flowed. It’s music that elevates the soul – there’s no other way to describe it. There was a Dalai Lama poster kept in the inner sanctum as well.

The Golden Temple, Kushalnagar.

Still curious, we went to the main shrine, the one with the giant Buddha. I walked in in anticipation of getting some fabulous shots of the Buddha and stopped dead in my tracks three seconds later. There was no giant Buddha, only a huge Dalai Lama vinyl covering it. A monk soon put our curiosity to an end: it was the Dalai Lama’s birthday and everyone was celebrating. Once the prayers were over, the monks handed out huge plastic covers of Prasadam to everybody. I was quite surprised – I didn’t know Buddhism had the system of handing out prasad to people. I was even more surprised at the contents of the cover – two packets of chips, an apple, an orange and a tetra pack of mango juice. I’m telling you, monks are cool people.

Removing the decorations from the ceiling as the Dalai Lama looks over.

So that’s that, those are my stories from Coorg. It was a holiday spent exploring, learning, tasting and experiencing the flavours of the land of the Kodavas.

Driving through plantations, away from the home stay.

Getting there: Coorg is a six/seven-hour drive from Bangalore. I’m not sure about the train route, but there are buses that go to Madikeri and Virajpet, so choose according to the place you’re going to stay at. I only recommend getting there by car because the route is green, beautiful and goes through the forest, sometimes with a chance-spotting of wild elephants, bisons and even tigers.

Go if: You want to be in the midst of nature, eat lip-smacking Coorgi food, like seeing how coffee and spices grow, are a bird watcher, want to experience first-hand how awesomely cool Buddhist monks are. Yes, I’m stuck on them.