Into the Land of Thunder Dragon : Bhutan Travelogue - On the Way to Thimphu

There is a popular saying in Bengal that if you visit a village and ask a villager about the distance to a certain destination the patent answer they will give you is, “Eito praye pouchhei gachen dada.” (You are almost there mister). When in reality you probably need to keep walking for another couple of hours.  Upon arriving at Phuentsholing everyone had told us that the immigration office would open by 9 o’ clock in the morning on Monday and there might be a ‘slight rush’ since it was closed for past two days. That time we did not know it would turn out to be the biggest understatement of the year for us.

On Monday morning we reached the office by 8.30 am and joined the queue behind 5-6 people. I was already kicking my heels and calculating quickly (this is an ISI trait) in my head that if we reached Thimphu by afternoon we would be able to visit at least one monastery. Every second is precious when you have a hectic job and you had practically lied to your boss to have your leave granted. Guru Rinpoche was probably laughing his ass off at my naivety that time. Finally when the office opened at 9 I did not know exactly what happened after that. For a few minutes I felt I might have come to some North Indian temple by mistake. There was a sudden rush, a lot of jostling and by the time we made it to the counter we discovered ourselves standing in a very small, suffocating office room with at least fifty other people around us, everyone trying to elbow their way in. After having come to a somewhat equilibrium state, the true gravity of the situation dawned upon us. We looked around. The place was swarming with agents. And there is no prize for guessing their origin. Each and every one was from India. Mostly Bengali drivers. The same people who would try to convince you to hire them for the entire trip the moment you touch the soil of Bhutan. And if you hired them, they would get your permits by any means possible. Even if that meant they had to push their way in to the counter unfairly and shove the papers up the official’s nose. No wonder, they are never out of job, thanks to our dumbass Indian tourists, especially the Bengali ones.

We had a great experience at the immigration office of Bhutan. Even some of the officials behind the counter were so ‘efficient’ that at one time I was expecting a stampede to happen any moment. We got our permits at 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, thanks to the ‘slight rush’ and the amazingly efficient immigration officials.

When we checked out of the hotel and boarded the car it felt like we had just won a battle. I had almost given up my hope that I would ever be able to make it to Thimphu. But Amitabha was finally merciful to us and we were heading for the capital city of Bhutan.

From the very beginning of our trip I was hell bent on one point. We would hire Bhutanese cars only as long as we were in their territory. Our driver Kenchen was a cheerful, young Bhutanese gentleman who chewed paan all the time and played Bhutanese songs on loop during the entire journey. I took him to be a mobile encyclopaedia of Bhutan and asked him so many questions regarding their history, religion, culture, food habit and all that I’m simply grateful he didn’t threw me off the car or fired us.
Our first check post appeared very soon. Just outside the Phuentsholing town. 5 or 6 police wearing Gho sitting on the other side of the counter. By the time my knees were trembling from standing in queue for so long in the morning and I had grown a certain phobia of Bhutanese officials and their super speed. Kenchen assured us that the next checkpost was not coming anytime sooner than three hours. A large green board announcing rather sadistically the distance we had to cover in the next few hours to reach our destination. The names of the other destinations didn’t ring a bell to me. For the rest of the journey I kept reading those signs. As the numbers kept decreasing my normal vigour and enthusiasm were coming back to me.

We were passing by Gaeddu College of Business Studies when it started raining. The class had just ended most probably as a small crowd of boys and girls in colourful traditional Bhutanese uniform was pouring out of the campus. Their happy, smiling faces triggered my imagination and I started picturing myself among them, wearing the same uniform. I can bet I was never 10% as happy as those during my entire academic career. Gaeddu is a small village in the Chukha district of Bhutan. We saw a few houses, grocery shops and inevitably some bars on the way. All the buildings were made in traditional Bhutanese architecture of intricate woodwork and colourful wall paintings.
I must have dozed off for a while and woke up with a start. Our car just took a sharp bend. I looked at my side. My companion was fast asleep. I saw Kenchen stifle a yawn. My reverie was gone. What if my driver fell asleep too? I must stay awake and keep an eye on him. Fortunately he stopped the car very soon afterwards to have a coffee break. The weather had started to change already and I put my jacket on. S is a human manifestation of a polar bear and he was apparently feeling ‘fresh and revitalised’ with the cold wind blowing hard.

I wish I could keep him.. I wish I could keep all the dogs in my house, duh.
This dude was too lazy to move. He could only manage to half open his eyes.

The road condition started to deteriorate as we progressed. Now it was narrower and full of hairpin bends. On one side it was deep abyss and on the other side scary looking uneven stone walls were hanging overhead. I read somewhere that landslides were usual phenomena on this route. One thing we observed here with much to our dismay and horror. Nobody was very keen to blow horn to the approaching vehicles from the other end. I kept asking S why these people were not blowing horn. It was a rhetorical question of course, only to subside the feeling of terror by talking rubbish.

My sleep was completely gone. Thanks to the joint effect of caffeine and a sense of pure trepidation. I was sitting upright in my seat praying incessantly every time we were coming to a turn. The second checkpost came very soon. Fortunately it was almost deserted and our checking took less than a minute.

After driving past the treacherously narrow path for another half an hour or so, the road condition began to change. Now it was smooth and wide and felt like a mountain highway. And a river came to join our course. The Wang Chhu. Wang Chhu is the Bhutanese counterpart of our Raidak River. One of the tributaries of Brahma Putra River. The Wang Chhu is famous for Chukha Hydel Plant, a 336MW hydroelectric project made in collaboration with India. In fact most of the capital support was provided by India in exchange of electricity excess of Bhutan’s internal demand at a cheaper rate.

We kept flying past the river. Thimphu was just a few kilometres away. Dusk had begun to set in so we missed the flamboyance of the surrounding. It looked more like a mystic woman behind veil in the iridescent light of the clear, night sky.

Of all the travelogues, forum posts, anecdotes I had read about Bhutan, nobody happened to mention one very simple but very essential point. That Thimphu is a valley. Not a hill station. But a valley. And thank Guru Rinpoche I had not checked Wikipedia before coming. This superb imprecision in others’ works and lack of information on my part somehow worked in my favour. I was awestruck. By the charismatic splendour of Thimphu at night. The glittering display of various shops, the dark clock tower area, and the little pedestrian friendly zebra crossings where the cars would slow down on their own if someone was crossing, the colourful evening crowd, and the uniformed traffic police. It truly felt like we had come to a fairy land. The land of thunder dragon.

Next day I woke up to this view

To be continued