As I was getting ready for the second day’s drive in Bhutan I reflected on what I had picked up in conversation with the owner of the hotel. Agriculture and livestock development in Thimphu contribute to over 45% of the country’s GDP; the city is also the country’s political epicenter. The country’s political denizens have not permitted tourism, though a prominent contributor to the economy, to erode the balance between the traditional and modern. Tourism is strictly regulated. Thimphu contains most of the important political buildings in Bhutan, including the National Assembly and the official residence of the King, Dechencholing Palace. The development plan for the city factors in the objective of protecting the fragile ecology of the valley. The culture of the country is reflected in its respect of literature, religion, customs, national dress code, music, dance and the monastic practices of the monasteries.
The person at the reception explained the way out of the city, summoning a great deal of patience. After paying the bill I set off just as the sky was lighting up. Despite the elaborate directions I managed to lose my way and was at the crossroads when I got a call from the hotel. He asked me to wait where I was; I wondered how he knew where I was! In a short while I saw the receptionist come running to the car. He handed over the second phone, which I had misplaced in the hotel! He gave me directions yet again and yet again I lost my way. I drove along for about 20 minutes enjoying the beautiful river and the calm city that straddled both its banks. No one was in sight at that hour to even ask for directions. The road signs did not show any of the places I was looking for. At long last I saw a taxi parked beside the river. I parked behind it and looked for the driver. I found him meditating on the bank of the river. I was in quandary if I should disturb him. After some time I spoke to him softly and he calmly came out of his contemplation. He readily agreed to lead me out of the city on to the road leading to Bumthang. It was a 25 km ride. When we reached the point where I had to take the main road I parked and went over to the driver. I handed over INR 100 and he graciously accepted it. He sent me off with a smile. No haggling, no frown on the face. Just happiness and a smile. Last evening too the same happened. The taxi driver who had conducted me around for nearly an hour was happy with the INR 200 I had handed him; did not ask for a pie extra. Such instances focus on the culture of the country and its governance.
The distance from Thimphu to Bumthang was just 277 km. but it took nearly 10 hours to negotiate the route via Wangdie and Trongsa. The road conditions were poor because the mountains had been ‘shaved’ on the sides to widen the road. The debris thus obtained were spread on the road to level it. With light rains falling overnight the road condition became treacherous. The debris on the road had become slushy and the car started skidding. I reduced the speed of the car and engaged the 4 wheel function. Even with that I was not in full control. The tyres did not grip the road fully. Many times I skidded but slowly. There was hardly any traffic on that road and I felt quite lonely. One side of the road was the shaved mountain and the other was deep gorges. Many locations were affected by landslides and the poor road conditions worsened further. In some locations I had to wait for the road blockage to be cleared. Besides there were no road signs to guide where one is going. Somewhere on the route I almost skidded off the road. In deep slush the car turned 90 degrees and stopped at the edge of a precipice! I sincerely feel that the car stopped only because of the prayers on my lips and worship in my heart. I did not know what to do, I could not even get down to assess the situation because the slush was shin deep. I opened the car door and saw that I was just a few feet away from the edge. I could not fathom how the car would move if I engaged the reverse gear. After a while spent evaluating options, I decided to reverse the car. When I slowly released the brake the car moved back and turned the 90 degrees that it had to reach the edge of the road! I did not drive at more than 20 kph thereafter. There was another reason for that too.
In the panic that had gripped me during the skidding operation I had not seen the low fuel indication burning brightly. By the time I noticed it I knew I was in trouble. I was passing through small villages that did not even have motorized transport. In one village I saw a pick up being washed and asked the people where I could find a fuel station. They said there were none on the way till Bumthang, which was nearly 150 km away. I knew I would not last that distance. I tried to conserve fuel by switching off the AC, cruising where possible and braking as little as I could. Nearly 100 km short of Bumthang I was told that I may be able to source some fuel in a road side shop. I came to a ramshackle wooden facility that served as a provision store. I asked for diesel and a young man came out to ask how much I wanted! He showed me plastic cans of different capacity stacked inside the store. He assured me that the quality was as good as what I could get in a regular fuel store as it was supplied by the oil company for road side sale. I took in 25 litres and was sure that I was charged only the normal rate for it. The young man told me that the road condition to Samdrup Jongkhar would improve only after Mongar, where he studied.
I reached Bumthang by afternoon and stopped first at the fuel station to tank up. As the car was being fueled I realized the meaning of the town’s name – it directly translates to beautiful field. Bumthang is one of the 20 districts, called dzongkhag, of Bhutan and consists of four mountain valleys. What an amazing place the town was! The place also has many historic temples and sacred sites. I slowly drove into town and stopped by a taxi to ask where I could spend the night. He took me to Norkhel Lodge, which was a short distance away. He smiled and drove away as I showed him the thumbs up sign. The lodge was an excellent place to rest the night, cheap and clean. It was a wooden lodge with spacious rooms and a friendly lady to mind maters there. She also ran a busy provision store that served as the reception of the lodge. She showed me to the room and told me where I could get the car washed! The Champion was unrecognizable because of the mud and grime on it.
After settling in to the room I went to the car wash. It was a family enterprise of a young family. When the car was being washed another couple pulled into the lot to get their WagonR washed. They went around my car and asked if I was doing the trip alone, after studying the decals on the car. I told them how I had already completed the South East Asian leg and was now a few days away from completing the Trans Himalayan expedition. He got to his final question after his wife prodded him. He wanted to know how old I was. Unfazed, because this question crops up all the time, I asked him to guess. Disarmingly he said, “Sir, you cannot be older than 70”! I threw a mock punch at him and said that I was getting close to that.