“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.

“Tashi Delek, Bhutan.” – Part One

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A woman reading prayer beads, Phuent Sholing.

My purpose for going to the Bhutan trip was very clear: I needed to heal. This year’s been one of the worst yet on many levels, and the opportunity to travel to Bhutan came along at the perfect time. In many ways, the country purged me of some monsters, helped me regain my equilibrium and brought me back to life. It welcomed me with open arms and an atmosphere that’s completely devoid of negative energy; after all, when everyone around you is content with their lives, the feeling tends to rub off on you.

The road from Siliguri to Phuent Sholing is mostly bad, but the lush green of the tea plantations alongside the roads eased the trauma out a little.
The road from Siliguri to Phuent Sholing is mostly bad, but the lush green of the tea plantations alongside the roads eased the trauma out a little.

I read somewhere that travelling is like flirting with life, that we would love to stay and spend some more time, but really, we have to get going. With Bhutan, we flirted that way with the places, spending every night in a different part of the country, waking up early each morning, packing our bags and heading out to the next destination. It was exhilarating to be out so early in the day, riding through cloud-cloaked Himalayan peaks and nippy mountain winds.

Happy mornings.
Happy mornings.

It’s difficult to capture the essence of Bhutan – and honestly, I want to keep the country as much of a closely guarded secret as I can because I don’t want it to change, ever – but I’m giving it a shot anyway.

The border gate to Bhutan, from the India side.
The border gate to Bhutan, from the India side.

Day 1: Phuent Sholing, 180 km

Phuent Sholing is the border town and therefore, one’s first impression of Bhutan. Mine was that it reminded me of London in some ways – there are no people yelling and screaming; everyone goes about their work quietly; every building is beautiful to look at, even the petrol bunk is fancily painted with symbols and creatures; and the air is clean. The roads are tarred and smooth. There are hardly any two-wheelers around – almost everyone has a car and it’s either a sedan or an SUV. The Bhutanese are very strong on culture, so you’ll find almost everyone dressed in the traditional attires of Gho (for men) and Kira/Tego/Onjo (for women). What was remarkable was that the difference between the countries was very apparent with the single step I took from the Indian border into Bhutan.

The streets of Phuent Sholing.
The streets of Phuent Sholing.
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Every building is embellished with ornate designs in Bhutan. People spend enormous amounts of money on hiring artists who specialise in  these traditional designs to decorate homes/shops/hotels.
On the way to Paro from Phuent Sholing.
On the way to Paro from Phuent Sholing.

Day 2: Paro, 130 km

Riding through and over mountains, one reaches Paro, a quiet town scattered across a lush green valley. The royal palace is located here, but nobody’s ever seen it because it’s tucked awayon a hill all its own, with nothing around it.

The streets of Paro. This is probably the centre of the town, with hotels and restaurants located here. Most of the houses are further away, scattered across the plain.
The streets of Paro. This is probably the centre of the town, with hotels and restaurants located here. Most of the houses are further away, scattered across the plain.
Kids in Ghos, worn as a school uniform in different colours and patterns.
Kids in Ghos, worn as a school uniform in different colours and patterns.

Paro is also home to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Legend has it that a monk saw a tiger flying across the mountains and he wanted to see where it would go. One day, as the tiger was passing by, he jumped onto it and was carried to a cliff. So impressed was the monk by the entire phenomenon (I would be too, especially with a flying tiger), that he decided to build a monastery on the edge of the cliff.

The astonishing art work on the houses across Bhutan, first seen in Paro. The phallic symbol is painted on the outside of houses (and sometimes on doors) too ward off the evil eye and as a symbol of fertility.
The astonishing art work on the houses across Bhutan, first seen in Paro on the way to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The phallic symbol is painted on the outside of houses (and sometimes on doors) to ward off the evil eye and as a symbol of fertility.

The trek to Tiger’s Nest is not for the faint-hearted. Trekking and I are like embittered enemies, so even though I thought I was mentally prepared for a fair amount of walking, seeing the monastery from the point where I was going to start the climb turned my legs to jelly. My heart nearly stopped. Here’s why:

See the specks of white on the mountain? That's where I had to go.
See the specks of white on the mountain? That’s where I had to go.

So, you have to trek across two mountains – and it’s a bloody steep climb, mind you, with no proper path – and reach the third for the monastery. It’s at least six kilometres one way. I have never, I swear to you, trekked so much or come so close to giving up on living in all my years. With a little help from kind biker souls, though, I pushed myself to reach the monastery. I needed to own and relish that sense of achievement.

On the edge...
On the edge, about a kilometre and a half away from the monastery.

Day 3: Thimpu, 90 km

If Paro’s the older brother who’s more responsible, calmer and sorted, then Thimpu is the younger brother – wild, vibrant and Quixotic. 90 kilometres is like a whole world between them, that’s how different life is in both places. The capital of Bhutan, Thimpu is a cultural melting pot, with textile museums alongside government offices, coffee shops alongside gaming zones in basements, and a whole stretch of the main road cordoned off for an arts and crafts exhibition. In the distance, a giant Buddha looks on, gleaming gold in the sunlight.

Thimpu, as seen from the steps of the textile museum.
Thimpu, as seen from the steps of the textile museum.
While waiting to get our entry permits for the onward journey, I looked at this part of the crossroads and was instantly reminded of the pictures I have seen of European countries.
While waiting to get our entry permits for the onward journey, I looked at this part of the crossroads and was instantly reminded of the pictures I have seen of European countries.

Thimpu is a great place to walk around, because the roads are big and almost traffic-free.

A picture of the royal family at the Arts & Crafts stalls. No wonder they give so much importance to Gross National Happiness!
A picture of the royal family at the Arts & Crafts stalls. No wonder they give so much importance to Gross National Happiness!

Day 4: Punakha, 190 km

The ride from Thimpu to Punakha is beautiful. We rode up some steep mountains, slicing through the clouds covering the slopes. At one point, as we ascended to the Dochu La pass, we were greeted by a most magnificent sight – a series of chortens places in a circle, white and deep red and gold, peeping through the clouds zooming in. The scene took my breath away.

The chortens at Dochu La.
The chortens at Dochu La.

Being a riverside town is half the charm of Punakha. The other half is the Punakha Monastery – the biggest in all of Bhutan, I am told.

Punakha Monastery rests on a sliver of land, with the river flowing by it. Major restoration work has gone into making the monastery the way it is right now, possibly for the royal wedding in 2011. Whatever the case, the monastery is gorgeous. There weren’t too many people around when we visited it, so I explored the place unrestrained. Walking around, I also noticed that some of the rooms inside the monastery functioned as various government offices. As we moved deeper into Bhutan, I realised that this was true of every monastery we visited.

Punakha Monastery.
Punakha Monastery.
The lawn surrounding the river side of the monastery offers a great view of the monastery bridge.
The lawn surrounding the river side of the monastery offers a great view of the monastery bridge.

Our stay in Punakha was the most entertaining of the lot – we celebrated a birthday, miraculously managed to find a cake to cut and indulged in the madness that comes standard with a mini-party. A group of 11 big-ass bikes is an unusual sight in Bhutan, so we also had cops dropping in on us to see the bikes and take a ride. I was highly amused.

"His helmet is so much better than mine...", said the cop, depressed.
“His helmet is so much better than mine!”, thought the cop, depressed.

Little did I know that there were more amusing things in store as we rode on to Trongsa. I was chased around the monastery by a rooster, fell off the bike a couple of times, and had interesting conversations with a group of locals.

For all that, though, you’ll have to wait for Part Deux.

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“Tashi Delek, Bhutan.”:A Preview.

My ride across Bhutan was fantastic, but the posts are taking longer than expected because of one simple and selfish (but big) reason: I’m reluctant to share anything about that country with anybody. It’s so beautiful, pristine and perfect, and I want Bhutan to stay that way. I’m also a traveller, though, so I know I must write about it. So, while I deal with the sadness that I am compelled in my role as a wanderer to share my Bhutan experiences with you, I’m leaving you with a preview of what you can expect (and why my selfishness is justified – to some extent, at least).

The video is a mish-mash of a few videos I shot while riding through clouds and over mountains and alongside stupas, so it’s a bit shaky. But it will give you an idea of what The Land of the Thunder Dragon is like.

Hoping that this will keep you satisfied for a few days (till I get my posts up),
The Nebulous One

Put together using Windows Movie Maker.

Shot on: Sony Xperia Tipo phone camera.

Track used in the video: ‘Lost’ by Greg Gibbs (more of his music here), via Free Music Archive.