We round a corner on the Bhutan National Highway which some say has an average of 17 turns per kilometer and we’re stuck in the first roadblock of the trip. It’s unusually hot. Birds are singing their beaks off, cykadas are playing their tunes, we’re two hours away from Thimphu on the way back from a four-day excursion to the central Bhutan region of Bumthang. We decide to walk down past the line of Suzuki Marutis and TATA dump trucks to check out what the hold up is. After a five-minute walk, we see an army “tow truck” perpedicular to the road blocking the traffic, unspooling stainless steel cables into a 300-foot cliff. Hmm, this doesn’t look good. Our friend Tshering Dawa, a mid-twenties good looking government worker who used to be a reporter for the national tv station, just reassured us about half hour earlier that accidents are rare on this “highway”. Five minutes later he tells us a story on how he launched his Maruti off a cliff in the middle of a night when he was younger. Now, we come closer and see a mangled dump truck at the bottom of the ravine 250 feet down.
In the mid 1980’s, I was an 8-9 year old boy in Wroclaw, Poland. I was somehow always getting into trouble. Skipping school at every opportunity to take the bus or a trolley to the city Zoo or to watch live motorcycle racing was a common occurrence. Slinging mud at passing cars was another favorite past time of mine until a driver of one of the targets dragged me by the ear back to my parents. Burning grass fields was also on the agenda until someone called the police and my friends and I hid in the bushes for hours. When I wasn’t busy causing trouble, my older brother would take me to our local soccer field where we would play with our friends ‘til we couldn’t see the ball no more. I looked up to my brother a lot. Wanted to be as good in soccer, tennis, table tennis or whatever sport we were playing as him and it frustrated me to no end that he was better than me. However; he is also four years older so he motivated me to always be better at everything. He was also into some nerdy hobbies such as stamp collecting and of course, I followed suit. Because he was older, his interest was focused on the illegal “Solidarity” movement propaganda stamps while I focused on the pretty, odd stamp shapes and remote countries from where they came from. My prized possessions were two stamps. A triangular stamp from Chad in Africa and the other, a small inconspicuous red stamp from Bhutan. Whenever I got an exotic specimen, I would run over to our family globe and find the country and would dream “wouldn’t it be cool to go there someday?” Back then; the only reason I wanted to go to Bhutan was because it was remote, and mysterious… and it had a cool stamp.
25 years later, at around 9:30am on April 24, 2011 we are descending into Paro International Airport. This is the only airport in Bhutan that services two of the countries Airbus 319 airliners. As we’re descending towards terra firma, we watch through the window and wonder how on earth we’re going to find any flat land long enough for a runway? The plane hugs a mountainside as we fly over the one strip of flat land housing the runway. At the end of the valley we bank hard hard left pulling a 180 while descending and leveling at the same time. With a few hundred feet to spare, we level off and touch down and reverse the thrust so fast, my now quite soft belly married the seatbelt like bees to honey. Now I understand why only six pilots in the world are qualified to land on this airstrip.
As we look out the window, all we see are rice and wheat fields. A farmer is walking behind two ox, taking glances at us spilling out from the plane onto the tarmack. Traditional Bhutanese style buildings house the airport facilities where we are funneled to for immigration paper work. Because we were very fortunate to get invited privately by Dasho Tashi Phoentsog, the Bhutanese Government Cabinet Secretary, we are ushered to the diplomat line. After 15mins we’re through and loading up into the Cabinet Secretary’s private Toyota Landcruiser-Prado to take us to the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu one hour away. I’m already excited and tell Katie that its probably the most excited I’ve been about visiting a country.
We are checked into the Dragon Roots hotel in the center of Thimphu, the largest town/city in the country at around 80,000 people.
One might say the downtown of it. We go for a stroll around town and realize it’s more of a very large village than a city. The car traffic is light, pedestrian traffic minimal. I feel quite eerie as the town has a feel of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, but without the thousands of extra people and tons of noxious pollution from the cars, rikshaws and random street fires. We notice there are no traffic lights in whole town of Thimphu and only one “STOP” sign that no one is obeying. Apparently, traffic lights were installed a number of years ago and then quickly dismantled that night as the Bhutanese found them very “impersonal.” The next day, the intersections in question were back to normal operation with policemen in white gloves directing traffic.
The next few days we spend exploring Thimphu while waiting for our trekking permits to get sorted and visas extended. A regular visa is only issued for 15 days and any longer stay requires an extension. Because we’re here for 19 days, necessary paperwork needs to get done before we depart on the trek. We visit the Textile Museum in the afternoon and have dinner with Nancy Strickland in the evening. Next day we have lunch and then dinner with Tshering Penjor (TP), a late thirties early forties Bhutanese Government Land Comission worker with a constant smile on his face and an aura around him beaming of a man that gets things done and his wife Karma Dema; a school principal with a Masters in Education from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The day after that, we decide to take a walking tour to the takin sanctuary to witness the Bhutan’s national animal. Unfortunately, as we walk for over an hour on the pavement road serpenting up a mountain, we miss the road leading to
the sanctuary and end up at the top of the Telecom hill. We are treated with a fantastic view of Thimphu and the whole valley so the afternoon was not completely wasted. On the way down, we decide to take a shortcut directly down the hill and not follow the pavement. While I nag at Katie to speed up, as she gingerly walks down unsure of the steep and loose ground, I lose focus and badly twist my ankle. Just great. We are about to go on a 200km trek, and karma gets me right then and there. I’m worried.
The ankle is starting to swell, I’m still warm and we’re still walking, but I’m worried once the ankle cools it’ll be quite difficult to walk on it. Good thing we have a four-day Bumthang driving tour arranged prior to the trek. Maybe it’ll get better after I ice it at the hotel and take a break in Bumthang. We never found the takin sanctuary.
Our friend TP has arranged for his friend Tshering Dawa, who works for the
Department of Labour, to take a few days off work and take us to Bumthang for a few days. Bumthang, a region in central Bhutan is the cultural hub of this small himalayan Kingdom where many Bhutanese make trips to every year to visit the abundance of sacred Buddhist locations and lakhangs (temples). He picks us up in the little 1.3L Hyundai and we depart, aiming to arrive at the town of Jakar 257km away in the Bumthang region in around 10 hours. If you haven’t had enough turns, curves and hair-raising passing wherever you live, you should take this road. I’m sitting in the front and I’m getting sick and tired of it. I don’t know how Katie, sitting in the backseat is managing to keep the rice with chilies and cheese down. By the time we get to Bumthang, after several stops along the way where I had to relieve myself of yesterdays dinner, I’m exhausted. I don’t even go for dinner. The next day I feel much better although still not 100%. It isn’t carsickness… I’ve got a bug of some sort. We go for another drive, this time much shorter. A two-hour excursion to visit the picturesque village of Ura after which we come back for lunch to Jakar. In the evening, in pitch darkness, aided by the bright glow of an iPhone
because we forgot our headlamps, we walk to the famous Swiss Hotel for dinner about 15 minutes away. The Bumthang region was visited by a Swiss cheese maker some thirty odd years ago, and left a few pleasant legacies in the area. The Swiss Hotel, fully decked out in wooden interior, carvings and a classic Swiss style bar is one of the landmarks.
Next day we visit the temples and the Burning Lake holy Buddhist site and in the afternoon the Bumthang cheese factory that the region is now famous for since the arrival of the Swiss.
Lucky for us, the one and only man responsible for the Swiss transformation in the region, an older gentleman that I’m guessing is in his late sixties walks right through the factory during our tour. It is very difficult for foreigners to become residents of Bhutan unless they marry a Bhutanese resident and own land. In Bhutanese culture, women inherit family land so if you marry a woman with land, you’re set. Apparently this is what this chap did. As we walk through this tiny, maybe 2000 square-foot almost private factory, we are informed that three cheeses: Gouda, Ementhal and a soft cheese that I don’t know the name of, are made here. After a taste test of the cheeses served by a very nice young Bhutanese/Nepalese girl, we were off to my favorite visit in the Bumthang region, the Red Panda Brewery. Red Panda Weiss Bier is brewed here and after a quick 15min tour, we sit down for a tasting with the brewmaster where we spend the next two hours getting plastered.
The next morning, with a heavy head, we drive back to Thimphu. We take it easy and make a lot of stops sightseeing the
abundance of phallus symbols that adore almost every home in the region. A phallus is drawn at door entrances to repel bad spirits and demons. Its quite shocking to a westerner to see, represented in high detail and various “models”, and most of the time we feel embarrassed and giggle to ourselves as we take a photo. The trip goes relatively quickly and we arrive in Thimphu barely missing the sunset.