Monday, April 11, 2016

6 September 2015 – Mongar to Samdrup Jhongkhar - Day 17

Hotel Druk Zongkhar, the guest house that I was lodged in, was undergoing major overhaul. Needless to say, there were many shortcomings in service too. I had nearly 270 km to travel to the Bhutanese border town of Samdrup Jhongkhar. I was keen on an early start and came down to the reception before 5 am. Even after loading the luggage and waiting patiently for some time there was no sign of the receptionist. I had to make the payment and hence, I started calling out for someone to attend to me. I seemed to be the only occupant in the guest house. After nearly 30 minutes a young girl in her night clothes appeared and apologized profusely. She was the owner’s daughter and told me that she had been educated in Delhi.

Soon after the formalities were completed I took the highway to the Indo-Bhutan border. The road after Mongar was better than it had been from Thimphu to Mongar. I cruised past Trashigang, where I had originally planned to halt, prior to the delay at the landslide location. Just after the town I encountered two heavy duty vehicles in front of me and tried to overtake them. They stubbornly refused to pass me through. Shortly thereafter the first lorry broke down while encountering deep slush and boulders at a work spot on a steep up gradient. The axle was severed and the driver and cleaner of the two lorries gave up hope of repair in quick time. As it was a work spot there was a JCB, but it was unmanned since it was a Sunday. I despaired. Every day, since entering Bhutan, I had encountered some problem or the other delaying my journey. I could do little. I wandered around the place and tried to keep calm.
After nearly two hours the driver and supervisor of the JCB appeared and pulled the broken down lorry past the obstruction. The Champion showed her mettle the second day running when she effortlessly took the slushy gradient surprising many onlookers. Then I was detained at Khaling village for the local college children to complete street shows on the evils of alcohol and its impact on domestic and societal harmony. I parked the car and watched amusing presentations put up by senior school children. Domestic violence and the evils of drinking were the themes.
With less than 80 km to Samdrup Jhongkhar I was surprised by the blankety mist that descended all of a sudden and that too between 1 pm and 2.45 pm. The road was narrow and steeply winding. It was scary and dangerous because of the rain, poor headlights and reckless lorry drivers. I took the road with great caution and low speed. At one point as I turned a side of the hill I found a lorry stationary with blinking tail lamps. I had come within inches of headbutting the lorry! In the thick mist I did not know why the lorry was immobile. I got out of the car to investigate and immediately felt the cold biting into my bones. What I saw was most interesting as I went closer to the lorry. A Prado driven by a middle aged lady was parked almost diagonally on the road and the lady and lorry driver were in animated conversation. The lorry driver, upon seeing me, told me that the lady was in panic as she could not maneuver the car away from that position because of the mist! The lorry driver sought my help. The road was narrow and I could not see a foot beyond the rear of my car. With some difficulty I reversed the car and parked at a safe distance away from the lorry. The lady handed over the keys of her car and I tried my level best to get into it. The car overflowed with her shopping. It was all over the place, under the seat, over the seat and wherever there was space. I could not push back the seat and so I had to manage sitting in a most awkward position. I did what was required and got out of the car before I cramped up. The lady had her eyes full and profusely thanked me as if I had saved her life!
By about 3 pm I reached the check post of Samdrup Jhongkhar where the car permit and the immigration papers are examined and submitted. At the outpost I asked if I could find a decent place to stay in the town and a gentleman suggested the Tashi Gasel Lodge, which was a short distance away from the check post. The lodge was set in a sprawling premise. I parked the car and went to the reception of the lodge. There was none there. I walked around the place and still did not find anyone. So I decided to go into town and look for accommodation. The town was about five km away. The suggested accommodation did not match up to my needs and after a reconnaissance of the Indo-Bhutan border I went back to the Tashi Lodge. This time I found a functioning restaurant and the manager of that facility allotted me a room, which was neat and clean. The room boy was also extremely friendly and fetched me a late lunch and a light dinner later on. He also promised to get the car washed by one of his colleagues.
The drive through Bhutan over the past four days of nearly 925 km has been adventurous, to say the least. Anything can happen at any time in the mountainous country roads that can set one's program back by days. Widening of roads has added its bit to the unpredictable conditions. As a local wondered aloud, is it rebuilding of Bhutan or its unbuilding? Nevertheless, an amazing country with its people establishing that Gross National Happiness is its collective wealth. The term was coined by Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened up Bhutan to the age of modernization. The four pillars of Gross National Happiness are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

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