We were heroes till a moment ago: brave-hearts from India who had dared to travel
We were heroes till a moment ago: brave-hearts from India who had dared to travelon a 99cc bike all the way to Bhutan. The duo that nursed sore limbs and bottoms made sensitive from friction with the seat during the 800km journey from Calcutta, but were confident of making it across the 850km through the looping roads of this mountainous country.
The news spread rapidly through Phuentsholing that Sunday morning and we drew appreciative nods and gasps of awe from the little crowd that had gathered. We had been through a lot in the past two days, we told our admirers — almost crushed under the wheels of a bus, almost locked up for photographing a bridge, almost taking the wrong route at the fork of a road on a moonless night and almost giving up out of sheer exhaustion. Nothing could stop us now.
The now, had, however, turned then a moment ago. Now, as the waiter places the ema datse on the table, we realise that we have ordered our deepest, darkest fear. A terror that could make us turns back because, if the waiter was to be believed, it would make its way to our table each day at lunch and dinner. For ema datse, as we found, was the king of the Bhutanese kitchen; a dish that’s as hot as its name is cool. A main course in which chillies — red, yellow and green — are the main, nay, only ingredient, if you discount the coating of cheese that hides the fiery vegetable. It makes the eyes water, burns its way to the stomach and stages an equally excruciating exit the next day. It’s an experience that makes you want to run away faster than your poor nose.
We would have done that; run the gauntlet of maniacal bus drivers, drunk truck drivers and cratered roads all the way back through the districts of Jalpaiguri, Malda, North Dinajpur, Darjeeling and back home where chillies are still considered a spice. But the enigma of this royal kingdom made us decide otherwise. So, after requesting the waiter to give us some sugar and lots of tissue, we kick-started our bike and headed to Thimphu, the capital, 130km away.
At 20kmph, it was 20 minutes before Phuentsholing dropped away behind the fold of a hill. We would not be heading this way again unless officials at Thimphu refused to give us the restricted area permit required to proceed beyond the capital and exit through Samdrup Jhonkar, where the kingdom shares its border with Assam. Being denied a permit is a very real possibility, because His Highness King Jigme Singye Wangchuk expressly detests hippies and backpackers. One reason might be because Bhutan has one of the world’s largest wild marijuana crops. To keep visitors in check, they are told to make all bookings — hotels, vehicles, guides — before they enter His kingdom. We had none of that, having dropped in without notice, on a whim and a seven-year-old bike.
It happened like this. I quit my job and my brother won a month-long leave. So we planned a bike trip to the Northeast. The bike served us well on the 605km journey to Siliguri and, with time on our hands, we decided to cross countries instead of states. The road did the rest, and we found ourselves at Phuentsholing.
It was easy to get ourselves a permit to Thimphu even though it was a Sunday, given the interest and curiosity our appearance at Phuentsholing had generated. But at the capital, the officer told us, it could be a “different story”.
On roads that could make a dervish’s head spin, we made only 65km till Chimakothi, the only human settlement on the way to Thimphu, before deciding not to tempt rotten luck in the dying light.
Without budget tourists, hotels are rare and cheap hotels unheard of. Thankfully, people were warm and hospitable and opened their doors to us, in part because we requested them to, but mostly because they considered us a novelty. And to show how much they appreciated the adventurous streak in us, they treated us to ema datse and rice. Pork and beef, too, are consumed with great relish, to our great relief.
We are told that pigs are fed copious quantities of marijuana, which keeps them happy. They grow big and fat and their meat fetches a better price. Their owners are happy. And since the meat tastes better, the people who eat it, which I take to be the whole of Bhutan, are happy. We tried pork over ema datse that night, and were happy. It made sense, I thought as we headed to bed, for this kingdom to measure its wealth in ‘gross national happiness’.
We woke up stiff and brittle the next morning, had to reach Thimphu early, so after paying the house owner Rs 100, set out on our way.
After Chimakothi, Thimphu seemed state-of-the-art with neatly stacked multi-storeyed houses — each painted with murals and adorned with decorative woodwork, by order of the king — broad streets, prim policemen guiding traffic on the solitary road that loops twice around the capital, and a mini-market with two cyber cafés. The capital also boasts the only cinema hall in the kingdom and, keeping with the theme of gross national happiness, was screening Norbu, My Favourite Yak.
Adding to this magical experience is another diktat, passed in 1989, that makes it compulsory for all citizens to wear the national dress in public. So men wear a gho, and women wear a kira. We took in the sights and sounds while locating the immigration office, and once there, placed our application. “No guide?” the officer asked. “No bookings? Then, no permit.”
But then, after hearing about our travels and realising that we did not look like people who were here to make trouble, she signed the necessary papers.
There are many things wild and wonderful about riding through Bhutan: streams thunder down steep hills, cicadas screech all day, autumn explodes in a riot of colour, painted phalluses on walls of houses keep demons at bay, gods are appeased with beer and Maggi. We saw them all on our way to Samdrup Jhonkar, packed into the 850km that took us through eight of the 20 districts in Bhutan. It’s an experience we won’t forget in a hurry. We rolled and rested, negotiating switchbacks throughout the day, passing below the imposing Wangdi Dzong and over the Punakha Chu and Tang Chu (chu is river) to Wangdi Phodrang, the last ‘town’ in Central Bhutan. Then sipped on Suja at a hotel reeking of rum and got lucky and found ourselves a host for the night.
The deeper we went, the more overwhelmed we were. That floating phallus, ornate, colourful and ‘ready’, was one such sight that greeted us at a hotel in Trongsa. The phallus belonged to a monk, Drupka Kinley, who sometime in the 15th century subdued errant demons by striking them on their heads with his penis. So scared were the demons, that even a mural of the phallus scares them nowadays. As we moved further east, the symbol gained prominence. Walls, flags and, even looming large on the wall of a hotel room in Trashigang, though given the message scrawled by the artist, it seemed to have nothing to do with saints or demons.
The vistas, the winding roads and an average elevation of 11,000ft were a potent trance-inducing cocktail. But human habitation, or the lack of it, remained Bhutan’s most striking aspect. The kingdom is a massive swathe of forest. Towns are just a handful of houses hugging the solitary road. Looming dzongs, perched precariously on pinnacles, watch over them.
But where there were people, there was a surprising acceptance of us. On each of the five nights we spent in a local resident’s house, the treatment was the same: warm water to wash our faces, warm quilts to sleep in, warm food to eat and the warmth of camaraderie. And its pristine, magical manner — and with really low petrol prices — Bhutan almost seemed an anomaly to our world. Even at 30kmph, we seemed to be rushing through, for time in these highlands is in step with life — slow, sluggish and, above all, happy.
At Bumthang, we learn the secret to happiness at a curio shop. Garuda, the legendary eagle who stares down from above the main entrance of houses and dzongs, shreds all forms of evil that tries to enter our lives. The cost of eternal happiness was 1,800 ngultrum. “It would have been 3,000 if you were non-Indians,” the shopkeeper tells us. You could put it down to good salesmanship, but it broke our hearts to think that way. After all, this was the holiest site in Bhutan, where the sage Guru Padmasambhava meditated before taking on the daunting task of converting the pagan lot that were the Bhutanese to the Buddhists they are today.
We bought the souvenir. Call it superstition, but our journey from then on was a dream. The days were sunny, shepherds invited us to share lunch, and we even managed the dekko of a monastery and chatted with monks. How else could our bike have sprinted up the toughest of inclines without complaint, up to Dochu-la, Pele-la and others, on the way to Mongar?
But Garuda’s powers seemed on the wane at Mongar, far from the Buddhist heartland where the king’s word was law. The populace here seemed more comfortable in jeans and jackets. Hindi was the chosen tongue and friendliness, free-flowing for so long, in slightly short supply. But we were still welcomed well and for the first time put up at a hotel. Warm water would cost us, the owner said, and so would extra quilts. Switch on the TV and it would set us back by an extra Rs 100.
Even the landscape seemed different. On the 180km journey to Samdrup Jhonkar, forests were replaced by ill-kept patches of road and, eight kilometres from India, at the last army outpost on the Bhutan side, came the ultimate downer.
As the armymen checked our bags, Garuda became the topic of conversation and we heard the word “”smuggler””. The commander entered, asked for the receipt. We didn’t have any, but remembered the name of the shop. A phone call later, we’re free to go. But not before apologies are tendered and we are asked to have some tea.
“Come again,” the commander told us. “And before 2008. Once Bhutan becomes a democracy, we too, will have only a gross national product to show.” The point is driven home. “We will,” we promised. And it’s a promise we intend to keep.
Day 1 Howrah-Malda-Siliguri (605km) Day 2 Siliguri-Jaldapara-Phuentsholing (161km) Day 3 Phuentsholing-Chimakothi (65km) Day 4 Chimakothi-Thimphu (65km) Day 5 Thimphu-Wangdi Phodrang (70km) Day 6 Wangdi Phodrang-Trongsa-Bumthang (197km) Day 7 Bumthang-Mongar (193km) Day 8 Mongar-Trashigang (90km) Day 9 Trashigang-Wamrong-Samdrup Jhonkar (180km) Day 10 Samdrup Jhonkar-Rangia-Guwahati (110km)
The road from Howrah to Siliguri goes through Krishnagar, Malda, Raiganj and Kishanganj (Bihar). The entire stretch of road varies from mostly decent to atrocious. Especially ghastly is the stretch from Saidabad TE to Siliguri. Do not risk driving this bit after dark. After Phuentsholing, however, the road conditions improve dramatically, and the stretches of road in Bhutan that need maintenance are tended to promptly. Every bit of bad road had a tent marked DOR (Department of Roads) in the vicinity.
Where to stay
Phuentsholing Druk Hotel (+975-5-252426).
Chimakothi — You might need to spend a night here if you leave Phuentsholing late in the day.
Try Passang Hotel or Karma Hotel — both family-run hotels that charge 250 Nu (at par with the Indian rupee) per night. Neither has a phone.
Thimphu Budget hotels include AV Hotel (2-321564) and premium hotels Hotel Druk (2-322966).
Wangdi Phodrang — We stayed in a hotel that was ‘under construction’, a promising structure. It’s on the left when one walks to the dzong from the community prayer wheel. The owner, though, was nice enough to allow us to stay the night.
Bumthang No — phones here, but there are hotels — Hotel Home, Hotel Blue Pine — and there is also a souvenir shop, the impressive Sonam Handicrafts. (Keep receipts for purchases, especially for anything that looks like it might be an antique.)
Mongar Hotel Shamling (4-641111). Trashigang Deothjung Hotel (4-521214).
What to see
What not to see? The mountains, the forests, the people, the architectural variations as one travels east from west, and south from north. The food, fall colours on mountain slopes, graffiti on walls, and, if you’re very lucky, a red panda, a black-necked crane or the Bhutanese national animal, the Takin.