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