Bhutan: Paradise Found

Bhutan: Paradise Found
Tiger's Nest Monastery, Photo Credit: Getty Images

Biking through heaven

Shahwar Hussain
December 15 , 2016
13 Min Read

Up in the mountains of Bhutan, there comes a time, every so often, when heavy mist rolls in and blocks everything from view. That time is now. We pull over under an overhanging rock, and take off our helmets, gloves and boots. We are in no hurry to get anywhere.

We wait for a good 25 minutes for the mist to lift and, when it does, the view is breathtaking. Our chattering ceases. We stand rooted as we are treated to a grand view of mountains with lush green dense forest, a roaring river below cutting through their base and clouds hovering above.

Bhutan never fails to mesmerise its visitors. It had done that to me several times before–and I was game for more. This tiny Himalayan kingdom is great motorcycling country and I had decided to try the brand-new model from Mahindra’s two-wheeler stable–Mojo–on these mountains. Although I liked the 295cc single cylinder powerplant, I had been a little apprehensive about the sitting posture. Not because it was awkward but because my riding style is heavily inclined towards the off-road variety. But once I got going, things turned out fine.

After we picked up the bikes from Kolkata, we rode 600km to Jaigaon. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable journey. I usually keep the bike’s headlights on while on the highway even in the daytime, so that the zombie-like truckers and other motorists see the bike from a distance. This also attracts unwanted attention as people go out of their way, often dangerously, to tell us that our headlights are on! But the Mojo has a smart solution: a set of daytime running LEDs that can be seen from a distance, two thin strips of light that do their job exceedingly well.

Jaigaon, in North Bengal, borders the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing and is a typical border town. Loud, crowded, chaotic. The last 5km to Phuentsholing took us an eternity. We shared the road with overloaded trucks, buses, crowded mini-buses, carts pulled by huge bulls, autos, brightly coloured rickshaws, bicycles and people.

At the end of the town is the gate to Bhutan. And it is a wonder how crossing a simple gate leads to a different world altogether.

Beyond the Dragon Gate, the cacophony ceases. The traffic moves in an orderly manner, there are no three-wheelers, no overloaded trucks and buses, and certainly no animals on the road. No one is in a hurry. Cars stop for people to cross the street.

Archery is a popular sport in Bhutan

At immigration, a guy with gelled hair introduces himself as an ‘agent’ and offers to help us get our permits. You can’t escape this particular breed but, after a tiring first day, I decide to give him the job. By the time we finish the paperwork (non-Bhutanese need permits to enter), it is past lunch time and I don’t want to start a journey so late. Nevertheless, a full stomach brightens my mood and we hit the road to Paro.

The roads are wide and very well-laid and our Mojos come into their element. The Mojo has a long wheelbase and we ride the initial few kilometres in the hills a little tentatively. As we get the hang of the bikes, we start hugging corners. Overtaking on the highway is a breeze. Just open the throttle a bit and the bikes take off. The torque is always there when you need it.

Paro is about 160km from Phuentsholing but the ride takes longer than it should have. We stop every few kilometres to take the cameras out–the landscapes are irresistible. The mist stops us a few times and then the clouds open up and delay us further.

I usually don’t like to ride after dark. A weak headlight can throw up dangerous surprises. Fortunately for us, the dual headlight of the Mojo with its long throw and spread, lights up the road bright and clear as we cut a lonely swathe on the dark highway. By the time we reach Paro, it is past sundown and we are greeted by the sight of the lit-up Paro Dzong. Paro has the only international airport in Bhutan and some good hotels too–some very high-end ones and some for budget-conscious motorcyclists.

Bhutan has, to a very large extent, managed to hold on to its traditions and customs. One is not allowed into government offices without the traditional attire. People greet you in the traditional manner–a handshake and a little bow or with a folded hand greeting. They hand over and receive money with the left hand supporting the right hand.

Traditional meets modern in these Bhutanese tourist guides' attire and demeanour

For more than a millennium, this tiny Himalayan kingdom has lived in isolation. Set between India and China, the country was given the miss by most travellers, both due to its geographical position and by government policies. Although this impeded development, it also saved the country from the near-inevitable ravages of ‘progress’.

Bhutan is often referred to as the ‘last Shangri La’. Almost three-quarters of the country is still forested and the government has designated about 25 percent of this as national parks and other protected areas. The natural beauty is all-encompassing–mist-covered hills, ancient pagodas and monasteries perched on high hills with sheer drops, sacred forests, crystal-clear rivers and snow-covered mountain passes.

An excellent example of cultural preservation is the Drugyal Dzong at Paro. One of Bhutan’s oldest dzongs (monasteries), it was destroyed in a fire many years ago and lay in ruins. It is now a protected monument and the magnificent ruins stand silently atop a hill. The famed Tiger’s Nest, also known as Taktsang Palphug Monastery, perched high on the mountain above the Paro valley, was also destroyed in a fire in 1998 and rebuilt in 2008. The monastery was first built in 1692 in the same place where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated in the eighth century.

Tiger’s Nest is an astonishing sight, and it’s incredible to imagine the construction of this huge structure, seemingly straight out of the cliff.My travelling companion Akielie and I start the climb together but I soon find to my dismay that I am not in the best physical shape. There are horses that take visitors half-way to Tiger’s Nest but I thought it a rather shameful way to get up the mountain. So I trudge along doggedly while Akielie disappears round the bend and goes up nonstop.

We had been advised to take a longish but more scenic route to Thimphu and so ride through Chele La Pass and Haa Valley. We are not disappointed. Chele La is about 35km from Paro and, as we climb the 13,000ft pass, we encounter only a handful of vehicles. Past the beautiful Haa Valley, we reach Chuzom, which is at a confluence of the Paro Chu and the Wong Chu. Crossing the bridge sets us towards Thimphu.

Chuzom to Thimphu is another stretch of great road. As we enter Thimphu, we become extremely well-behaved. I can’t recall when I last rode at such controlled speeds for such long distances! The Mojo is a bike that is comfortable moving at a fast clip but with cameras along the highway and police on bikes, I don’t want to take any chances in the ‘land of happiness’. I certainly didn’t want to be the sad one behind bars!

A masked dancer at a Buddhist festival

Thimphu too is clean, beautiful and disciplined. I first felt that life here moved as if on a conveyer belt–in a frustratingly straitjacketed manner. But I am to be proven wrong. The people are extremely fond of their king– enamoured, even. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated the throne in 2006 and brought in democracy, there was widespread mourning!

bhutanese-woman

For a glimpse of the traditional Bhutanese way of life, we go to the National Folk Heritage Museum. The houses are made of wood and mud and there is space for livestock ‘inside’ the house. Fascinating.

Just out of Thimphu is the Dochula Pass, which offers a 360-degree view of the Himalayan mountain ranges. On a clear winter day, the view is breathtaking. Unfortunately, heavy rain clouds and mist block the view completely. At the top of the pass, there are 108 chortens (shrines) built by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.

punakha-dzong-exterior

Right after the Pass, the roads disappear altogether and the way ahead turns into a slush-fest. New roads are being constructed all across Bhutan and the incessant rain has converted some sections into virtual swamps. A major portion of the way from Thimphu to Punakha is freshly dug up, which means that we ride most of the time in second gear. With our panniers, other bags at the back and us, the bike must have been topping the scale at 200kg, but I am happy that it doesn’t get bogged down or overheated. The upside-down forks upfront have enough damping to tackle the frequent potholes and dips in the road. Fortunately, some of the other safety features in the bike are not brought into play: a rollover sensor that cuts fuel supply to the engine if the bike tilts too dangerously and a ‘limp home’ mode that restricts the engine speed to a maximum of 5,000rpm if an engine malfunction is detected.

punakha-dzong

The Punakha Dzong stands between two rivers and, from vantage points, looks absolutely riveting. When the water rises, the reflection of the white, yellow and burgundy dzong on the water is something that one can gaze at for a very long time. The dzong is huge and houses some government departments as well as religious sections. Exploring the dzong with heavy boots, jackets and bags works up an appetite and, at a lovely eatery en route, we tuck into some red rice, dal, boiled vegetables, beef with cheese and some really hot chilli curry.

I had forgotten that tobacco products like cigarettes are banned in Bhutan and go to a shop to buy cigarettes. A monk with burgundy-stained teeth that match his burgundy robes smiles and says that a smoke might be relaxing at the moment but will cause me a lot of tension if caught! One can legally import a limited number of smokes but only for personal consumption and after paying 100 percent tax. I decide it isn’t worth the trouble.

We decide to ride down to Wangdue for the night. It is a nicely planned breezy little town. For ₹1,000, we get a room in a really good hotel. The mud has taken its toll on our clothing and we spend the evening washing.

The sky promises rain as we ride out for Bumthang and the clouds finally break a couple of hours later. The rain comes thick and fast and forces us into a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The rain ensures that we ride only till Trongsa and hole up in a lovely hotel run by a Nepali family. Our room has a great view of the Trongsa Dzong, said to be the longest dzong in Bhutan.

We are the only guests that night and, as the owners join us in watching a Ronaldo-less Portugal beat France in the final of the UEFA Euro 2016, the rain gods decide to open the floodgates again. From my window, the dzong looks haunting at midnight as it plays hide and seek with the mist.

Bumthang is stunning. Lovely houses with farms all around, horses in the meadows, gushing rivers dissecting thickly forested hills, narrow roads winding through alpine forest, waterfalls... We want to stay at Bumthang but had left our luggage back at Trongsa and so back we go in the rain and slush. The heavy rain had caused a massive landslide between Trongsa and Gelephu and Bumthang and Samdrup Jongkhar. And that means we have to go to Wangdue again and then make our way to Gelephu to exit Bhutan.

Wangdue to Gelephu is one huge stretch of good roads. We ride along the river and race downhill. On sharp uphill turns, we just have to downshift and open the throttle for an effortless climb. Coupled with engine braking, the 320mm petal front disc gives a lot of confidence.

For all the traditional lifestyle that is evident everywhere, I also see considerable Western culture among the younger generation. The kingdom allowed TV only in 1999 and with half of the seven lakh population below the age of 25, MTV culture reigns. I visit several pagodas, full of elderly people going in circles with their prayer wheels, sitting and chanting prayers. But there aren’t many young people to be seen.

It has been eight-odd years of democracy now and although the nation has by and large managed to hold on to King Wangchuck’s idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’, some evils of modernity were bound to creep in. For me, it has been a happy tour of Bhutan, one that converted me into a much disciplined road-user and a responsible citizen too.

THE INFORMATION

Getting There
By Road: There are three main land entry points: through Phuentsholing, on the West Bengal border; through Gelephu; and Samdrup Jong­khar, linked with Assam.

By Air: Paro is connected to several Indian cities, including Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai.

Visas
Indian nationals are privileged visitors to Bhutan–entry per­mits are issued free on arrival; passport or voter ID cards are accepted documents. All other visitors require visas. Also, all travel arrangements need to be made through a Bhutanese tour agent for $200 per day. Indians, again, do not have this constraint.

The Road Trip
Kolkata-Jaigaon-Phuent­sholing-Paro-Thimphu- Punakha-Wangdue-Trongsa- Bumthang-Gelephu

Where To Stay
PARO:
High-end options include the Uma COMO Paro (comohotels.com) and Le Méridien (starwoodhotels. com), where rooms go from upwards of ₹25,000. Rema Resort is a good mid-range option (from ₹2,900; paroremaresort.com). Hotel Jigmeling is a popular budget pick (from ₹1,500; hoteljigmeling@gmail.com).

WANGDUE:
The Kichu Resort has long been a favourite (from ₹4,000; kichuresorts.com). Hotel Kinten offers a reasonable stay (from ₹2,000; +975-481121).

TRONGSA:
Norling Hotel
costs from ₹1,500 (+975-3- 521178). The more upscale Yangkhil Resort costs from ₹2,800 (+975-3-521417).

Tips
Bhutan’s official tourism web­site, tourism.gov.bt, is helpful both for general information and trip planning. Indian na­tionals, who can make inde­pendent travel plans, should head straight to hotel.bt for hotel information and book­ings. The Bhutanese ngultrum is pegged to the Indian rupee; Indian currency works just fine here (though not, sadly, the recently demonetised ₹500 or ₹1,000 notes).


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