“Nothing is more expensive than a start”
The Beginning of Journey
It was a spur of the moment decision to take this trip to Bhutan without much plans, aim, mission and vision. Such unplanned trips, more often than not, turn out to be the best and most memorable ones. When a dear friend decided to come all the way from Afghanistan to pay me a visit I decided on this trip. However, at the back of mind there was Taksang Gompa, one of the ten most precariously placed shrines in the world that I had to see for myself. When we took off from Siliguri on 13th Sep 2012 in my Scorpio, the idea was to drive straight to the capital Thimpu and that is what we did albeit after a night halt in Phuntsoling, the Bhutanese border town adjacent to India’s last frontier town, Jaigaon. Distance between Siliguri and Phuntsoling is 94 kms.
The drive along the National Highway 31 from Siliguri to Sevoke (21 Kms.), specially after Salugara, a small Bhutia and Gorkha dominated bazar on the outskirts of Siliguri, was smooth over well carpeted road. Incidentally, this small bazar Salugara is quite on the international map because of presence of “Kalachakra”, a holy Buddhist monastery where His Holiness the Dalai Lama comes periodically to perform the “Wong (World Peace) Prayers” that is attended by thousands of devotees from the Darjeeling hills, Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. I have noticed that one prominent personality who also visits the place is no other than Hollywood Actor, Richard Gere. Almost adjoining Salugara is the Sevoke Military Cantonment with neat and well laid out barracks, gardens and freshly mowed lush green lawns. Most of the Military cantonments all over the world are alike with neat clean areas, well laid out blooming gardens, rows of neat barracks and lawns to match. It is heartening that Indian Army is now on a warpath towards environmental up gradation promoting greenery and eco preservation in all cantonments. Nature caring Army is good for the health of the country. After crossing the cantonment on either side of the National Highway the smooth, well carpeted road knifes through a packed jungle on either side right up to Sevoke. Thereafter it is another 3 kms of zigzag road up to the historic Coronation or Tiger Bridge that spans across Teesta River rumbling down to the plains from North Sikkim.
Coronation Bridge was named to commemorate the coronation of King George VI. The design and planning of the bridge was carried out by John Chambers, the last British Executive Engineer of Darjeeling PWD. The construction by Gammon India, Bombay commenced in 1937 and completed in 1941. Unimaginable today but the cost of construction then was INR 4 lakhs. RCC Bridge is supported by a fixed arch, which has its two ends fixed on rock layers on either side of the river. Way back in early 50s, travelling with my father from Kalimpong to Siliguri I used to look at this bridge in complete awe. 72 years old and going strong but there is definitely a need to preserve this historic bridge by proper maintenance and traffic regulation, specially keeping in view that the engineering design of the bridge built then may not have catered for the continuous rumbling heavy traffic of today carrying thousands of tons of loads every day to and from Bhutan and the seven North Eastern States. Hope the Government is listening.
After the Bridge, condition of the road is not so good and pot holes start appearing and disappearing. We cross Mongpu, a small bazar with a forest check post about 5 kms from Coronation Bridge, and pass through “Dooars” area. As the name suggests, it means a gateway to Bhutan from North Bengal plains. The Dooars valley is paradise of biodiversity with combination of thick forest that stretches up to Nepal and Bhutan, famous wild life sanctuaries and numerous Tea Gardens in its lap. In other words it is greenery all along except for the villages and bazars dotting the National Highway. It has Jaldapara Wild Life Sanctuary, Buxa National Park, Chapramari Wild Life Reserve and Mahanada Wild Life Sanctuary. Gaps between forest areas and wild life sanctuaries are covered by acres and acres of green carpeted tea gardens on either side of the road, another British legacy. Teesta River and its numerous tributaries spiral down from Sikkim to Sevoke through Dooars.
For lunch we had tea, hot “Samosas” and “Jalebi” in a roadside sweet shop in Maal Bazar, half way to Jaigaon. In my opinion, while travelling, even in a not so hygienic road side dhaba or sweetshop, any food that is sizzling hot from the pot is safer to eat and that’s the norm I follow while travelling. As we drove along, the last about 10 kms to Jaigaon was a driver’s nightmare. The National Highway degenerated in to a dusty crater filled apology for a road. The whole highway was replaced by ugly craters and unending cloud of dust. Heavily loaded rumbling trucks from the North East States and Bhutan were precariously balancing between deep craters. Some trucks had fallen by the way side unable to manage their center of gravity in deep craters. Unfortunately, India’s National Highway to Bhutan and the only land link to the Seven Sisters of the North East States had degenerated into a national shame. I understand it is improved now. But how a Government can allow a National Highway of such strategic importance to come to such a mess is beyond one’s imagination. I can only say, “It happens only in India”.
Another Country-Land of the Thunder Dragon
Finally after what seemed an endless crater driving, we reached Jaigaon, another small township slightly bigger than a bazar. As we crossed the gate and entered Phuntsoling, it was a different world. It was a refreshing change from the chaos of normal Indian Bazar of horn blaring traffic, senseless parking, crisscrossing cyclists and cycle rickshaws to quiet and orderly kingdom. Bhutanese style rows of buildings lining the main road that was well regulated with disciplined traffic and parking. We checked into Hotel Dragon Inn, a medium range Hotel with complete Bhutanese décor, neat and tidy. By the time it had started drizzling and we decided to stay indoors and check the bar and restaurant. The hotel including the restaurant was staffed by young Bhutanese girls in “Kira”, their traditional wrap around skirt like dress with loose brocade coat with big and folded sleeves. Little girls looked very smart and sober. We had vegetarian dinner in the restaurant and retired to our rooms so as to get early morning start the next day for long drive to Phuntsoling.
Next morning, obtaining the permit to enter Bhutan, even with the help of our Travel Agent representative, took us about 3 hours, shuttling as we did, between the two sides of beaurocracy, Indian Consulate and Bhutanese counterpart as also the Bhutanese RTO Office for the Vehicle Permit. We could finally start only around 11 am. Distance from Phuntsoling to Thimpu is 180 kms and the road climbs up through steep gradient to Richending, 1312 feet, and a distance of 5 kms from Phuntsoling. It has a Check Post where permit to enter Bhutan papers are checked and stamped by the Police. There is also a famous Kharbandi Gompa on the ridge line offering a good view of Dooars plain. After clearing the papers we drove on along the highway which takes a long twisting and turning climb through tropical jungle with few hamlets along the way. From Gedu the road somewhat levels as it runs along the ridge line offering spectacular view of landscape, meandering river and waterfalls. Thereafter it is a combination of up and downhill drive up to Chapchala ridge from where the road descends down to gorge and follows the river upstream to the river confluence and road junction at Chunzom where we find another check point. From here a road branches off to left leading to Paro and Haa and the main road continues alongside the river to Thimpu.
The traffic was thin and not at all crowded with only few SUVs, cars and Indian trucks plying up down the road. There was no restaurant or “dhaba” enroute, we missed the ever present road side “dhabas” that dot the Indian Highways. A small wayside village called Kamji with few houses, half way across; served us much needed hot cup of tea. We opted against ever present Maggie noodles and settled for some biscuits and fried “pakoras” that we struggled to chew. We also bought cottage cheese and cucumber to munch on the way. As we slowly cruised along the highway and entered the capital I could feel the distinct difference the disciplined Bhutanese traffic as against the chaotic Siliguri traffic where cycle rickshaws and Auto rickshaws, load carrier cycle rickshaws called “Thela” are the kings of the roads. Thimpu was a disciplined traffic, no traffic police and no horns that I felt rather odd and unnatural having experienced the Indian roads all my life.
We hit Thimpu proper at about 5.30 pm and found our hotel, Dragon Route, bang on the main street near the public square. It was drizzling but the weather was cool and pleasant. Wearing hat and a light jacket helped. We checked in and found the rooms with country type pine wood paneled walls and wooden floors.
It was getting dark so without wasting time, just after a cup of tea, we set off to experiment the capital street with a look-see walk. The street was clean and lined by weeping willow trees that looked very nice. The buildings were Bhutanese style architecture that had four to five storey. We walked through light drizzle along the stone paved sidewalk. Surprisingly a melodious and rhythmic Western music filled the air; the source of the melody was a small open air stand that was extension of the main street. It looked quite unusual to see Bhutanese boys in traditional dress playing and crooning Western Tuned Bhutanese songs. A group of about 100 young men and women, gathered around the band stand were gyrating with the melody and rhythm of the music. All were wearing Bhutanese traditional dress, no jeans, pants and skirts. The dress code is strict; men wear “Gho” a kimono like knee length gown type of dress, tied by a long kamarbandh with long shocks and shoes. Women’s dress is called, “Kira”, an elegant wrapped around skirt like with a check or brocade jacket for the top. Both Tibetan and Bhutanese dress is alike except for few variations. There is also the marked difference in the material used in Bhutan. Whereas Tibetan men and women fancy any type of clothing materials for their “Bakkhu”, Bhutanese use only the traditional and colorful Bhutan made check cloth material for their “Gho” and “Kira”.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Modern Bhutan, with two party democracy, has come long way from the old feudal Bhutan. As per a UN census Bhutan has the highest level of “Gross Happiness” compared to all the countries of the world. It is truly said that quantum of happiness is the result of number o0f desires fulfilled. More the desire lesser the fulfillment, resultantly lesser happiness. TV was allowed only few years back and the Western Culture in terms of dress is not allowed. I guess this is the only way to preserve the heritage and culture of this Small mountain nation. If the flood gate of Western Culture is opened it will take no time to engulf this Kingdom and its simple people. The name of the band was aptly “Ozone Layer”. Modernized but well-grounded at the base of their culture, tradition and discipline.
Feeling hungry but not wanting to eat dinner yet, we walked into to, what looked like a beautiful & homely cottage restaurant at the corner of the main street. It looked cozy and homely but alas the look did not match the bakery product. We had tea and some pastry look alike on self-service and left in a hurry. The tempo of drizzle seemed to accelerate towards full blast rain, and it was time for dinner, so we walked into a cane and bamboo interiors restaurant on the main street. I was looking forward to sample few drinks of the new country but there was nothing much displayed in the bar. Except for the national product whisky there was no rum or brandy or other “foreign liquor” that we are so used to. I asked the barman if they had tinned Tibetan “Chhang”, rice beer, made in Tibet that I had sampled in Sikkim having changed hands in Nathula Border Trade. I was told it was illegal to have that kind of import. We decided to give the usual drinks a miss and ordered dinner of Momo, Thukpa (Noodle soup) and salad, nothing much to talk home. We walked back to the hotel and slept early.