Monday, April 11, 2016

5 September 2015 – Bumthang to Mongar - Day 16

As per the original schedule for the expedition I should have reached the end point, Tezu, this day. But due to a combination of the troubles in Nepal and the accident near Srinagar the schedule was off balance by three days, as the latest calculation showed. What lay ahead was another challenging day. The lady who owned the lodge had given me direction to leave the town and get on to the road to Mongar. As day broke I loaded the luggage and set off for Trashigang, the destination that lay east of Bumthang by just 250 km.

I reached Sengor in slightly over three hours, nearly 100 km done. I started entertaining thoughts of reaching Samdrup Jhongar, the Bhutan border by late evening. The road condition was better too. It was time for music too and I was feeling generally happy. Just as I was taking a sharp turn I was frantically waved down by construction workers. A few vehicles were parked on the side too. One of them asked me to park the car. I came out of the car to enquire what was happening when I heard a deafening roar and sounds of multiple blasts. I ran into the car and felt debris raining down on the car. In a few minutes the blasts were over and all seemed settled before I ventured out of the car. I was told by a couple of people that there was a massive landslide ahead that had brought down massive rocks and huge trees. The blasts were to bring down loosed rocks and debris. I walked to the affected site and my heart sank. A massive mountain side had fallen on the road and through traffic was completely blocked by tonnes of mountain debris. And there was just a JCB, its young driver and an experienced supervisor to attend to this major calamity. The supervisor calmly told me that it would take at least a day to clear up the mess, even though they were trying to get a temporary connection done over the landslide. A day on which I expected to make up a day of the backlog I lost yet another day!

Slowly vehicles started piling up on either side of the blockage. Busloads of tourists and fun loving locals kept the spirits up with music, pranks and improvised games. I distributed some eats I had with me to the labour that were waiting to be summoned to help in the restoration work. As for now it was all in the hands of the young man in the JCB. Having nothing better to do I retired to the car for some sleep. After a while I heard some activity and saw vehicles moving towards what looked like a temporary access. A couple of vehicles got over that too. Then all hell broke loose. Vehicles waiting on the other side stopped movement of vehicles from the side I was waiting on. They said that the slope of the temporary access was so steep from their side that they would never be able to get across that day. Therefore, unless the slope was corrected no vehicles would be permitted across. That was frustrating. With every passing minute the chances of getting to the Bhutan border started fading.
I met a young officer who was working for the government in the livestock department. The conversation with him and a few others saved me from desperation. They also told me that it would be dangerous to negotiate the winding roads that led to Mongar due to mist and virtually zero visibility. They also detailed accidents that cost many lives in the recent past. I was not too worried about that. It was just that the day’s target would be unfulfilled. I would have to stay somewhere short of the border and I didn’t know where and when. Mercifully, after nearly 8 hours of wait and prayer the temporary access was declared safe to navigate. It was beyond 4 pm and was getting dark. Three vehicles were chosen to ‘try’ out the temporary detour. The government officer with his Toyota pickup, the Champion and a Maruti Zen. The three vehicles gingerly went up the slope. Those directing traffic at the crest of the new road waved us to stop and asked the pickup to drive through first. The road was filled with boulders, loose earth and small trees. One particular area was narrow and had to be negotiated with great skill. The Toyota pickup got stuck at the ‘neck’; even the driver could not get down. For the next half hour people tried to physically lift the car across the obstruction. As all this was going on I heard people shouting and running helter skelter. I was told to reverse my car and go back down the slope. I saw the Maruti car behind me reversing in double quick time. It took me a while to react and that probably saved my life. A huge boulder along with some other debris fell from the mountain side and rolled down the gorge just a few feet from where I was. Had I reversed I may have come in the path of the boulder!

After a while all was well again and the pickup managed to get across the temporary passage. It was my turn next. I goaded the Champion with encouraging words and recorded the smooth manner in which she negotiated the tough move. The government officer had suggested that I travel behind him so that I would not find it difficult in the misty conditions. I became so dark and misty that I wondered what I would have done without the official’s help. Guardian Angels are everywhere. With winding roads and increasing mist I didn't consider it safe to continue beyond Mongar. I chocked when the government official told me that the town was busy and had a population of 3500 people! He and his friends found me a guest house in Mongar town. The accommodation was sparse. But it was alright for the night. 

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