Druk driving

Summary in 5 seconds: attended a wedding in Kolkata, drove into Bhutan in December, battled rain / snow / mud but had a good time because Zumzin is literally nectar and Bhutan is the most relaxed place I've ever seen.

"You know, if it snows on top of the mountain, it rains here. I hope you're feeling better, but I don't know why you're surprised." The non-chalant monk made complete sense, and it's advice that I've since never forgotten in trying to pre-empt weather events.

In hindsight, this was probably a pedestrian realization. I couldn't believe I didn't think of this while posting Paro's very snowy weather forecast on my Instagram the night before. Anyhow, now that I was sitting next to a fire, more observing the thunderstorm and less experiencing it, I waited for the sensation in my hands to return and felt I should be kinder on myself (and in the process, burned my riding gloves at the stove).

A plan more than 2 years in the making, my trip to Bhutan finally materialized in the December of 2018. A friend decided to get married in Kolkata and I felt it would be almost stupid to not do Bhutan on Kolkata's piggyback, geographically speaking - even though this is bang in the middle of winter on very deserted roads through the heart of the Himalayas. Right? Right? It's really about convincing youself one way or another.

Arriving in Kolkata on a Friday night, it was go time (for a lot of people, apparently - Kolkata is by far the noisiest airport I've been on). I decided to immerse myself in the ex-capital over the weekend, and took a look about.

Amidst the beauty of the Victoria Memorial and the grandeur of the Salt Lake Stadium (which we somehow just casually walked into) - a couple of things stood out. Or should I say hundred thousand small things - the electrical wires which are a few dozen cables away from blocking the sky. That, and the open advertisments of liquor - I kind of see where the ban comes from, but also - Glenlivet Books - you're not fooling anyone.

After making sure that Sameer and Pragya did indeed get married, I braced for the adventure leg of the trip. A bike was waiting for me in a garage in Siliguri, and I was supposed to ride it across a real international border. A friend I made on the Bagdogra flight dropped me to Siliguri in my quota of random strangers' kindness for the day (thanks Betty, I'll try to pay it forward).

As for my ride, I picked a beautiful white Himalayan. Amit at Darjeeling Riders was very, very helpful throughout the process, and the bike was as good as was promised. I filled out the paperwork, and away we went...

... at 3 pm on December 16. Four hours from the border, in the middle of winter. When the sun sets before the clock strikes 6. And I was hoping to celebrate Bhutan's National Day (December 17) in Bhutan, with the Bhutanese people. C- for planning and estimation, but also, foreshadowing. However, what sets your true blind spots apart is the fact that you don't know that you can't see them until they smack you in the face.

To every person I consulted, I asked "is the Bhutanese border open on National day?" - and they all told me it was. Now you see, what I should have been asking was "do they issue new permits on National day?" - to which anyone in the know would have said "no, they don't because it's a national holiday". For those who can't see where this is going - I reached Jaigaon at 8 pm and scrambled to see if I can just cross over immediately and was met with equal parts laughter and surprise from the Indian and Bhutanese border patrol agents. Well, at least they seemed to be good friends, which was nice. So while the happiest country in the world cheered on for its 111th national day, I worked on mundanities like getting a SIM card in order (TashiCell, absolutely brilliant service and coverage). I retired for the night with some good food and beer, checking to make sure that there was indeed snow expected in Paro the next day. Oof, so exciting - I couldn't wait to ride through pristine falling blocks of heaven itself. Sigh.

Raring to go, I planned to be the first in line at the immigration desk the next morning. And first I was - at 8 am - but it was raining so I let braver souls take my spot while I sought shade and tried to bring myself to terms with my new position in the queue - about 10th. Unbeknownst to me, this would become a real problem when I misunderstand the permit process and headed straight to the final verification clerk on the desk. Miffed, he asked me to go the gentleman seated 3 feet to his right, to whom I now seemed to be coming from 'the wrong side' and therefore cutting in line. For reasons I can't understand, he threw me to the back of the line and threatened to have anyone 'taking my side' follow me - this wasn't the happy gentry I was promised. I kind of got the feeling that he didn't like the Superman t-shirt I had on, and I didn't have the presence of mind to explain that my sympathies lay on the Batman side of the debate.

I finally got my permit at noon. The permit for the bike took another 2 hours, and I finally departed Phuentsholing for Paro at 2:30 pm. The Bhutanese police stop every vehicle just before the highway and say - "don't honk, this is not India". It's amazing what the lush Himalayan countryside does to your temper, though. I went from pissed to ecstatic in about 5 minutes. In another 25, I went from ecstatic to concerned.

The sun had given way to a light rain, which was a trick I was quite familiar with and I was fairly prepared for solar shenanighans. The light rain started turning into a thunderstorm, and with that I started realizing that the climate gods are in a choice mood today. With the dropping temperatures and my progressively numbing extremities (my riding gloves weren't waterproof), I decided at 4:30 pm to stop and seek help at the next sign of humanity. If there was one thing Ladakh taught me, and it taught me an absolute cocktail of things, it was to not challenge the outdoors when things start getting out of hand. So naturally I still do it, but in moderation.

It seemed like an eternity before I found signs of settlement, but it had only been like another 30 minutes. I saw some people sitting by a fire in a cabin over a valley. I park-crashed the bike, stumbled into the cabin, and basically crumbled by the fire. It is hard to put in words the happiness that I felt from feeling warm again - it was a wonder how I ever took normal body temperatures for granted. And I guess the people were nice too (I kid, they were fantastic).

We were a few kilometres from Gedu, and as it turns out, it was the last town before the new 'mega-highway' takes you directly to Paro in another 3 hours with no notable towns or villages along the way. I met a group of bikers returning to India from Paro - under significant duress due to ...*points at everything*... - they congratulated me for making it this far and begged me to not go any further that day. The local people, on the other hand, egged me on. "We go there all the time." "In this weather?" "Yes." "After sunset?" "Yes." "On a 2-wheeler?" "No, but you will be fine." The weather gods also tempted me with some literal rays of sunshine which lasted for about 10 minutes, but by the time I finished eating, the storm had surrounded us again. In one of my rarer decisions to focus on survival rather than adventure (thanks Ladakh), I said no to this particular adventure and sought shelter - in what was apparently the last available room in the town's local guest house. With nothing to do, I threw my stuff in the room and headed back to the cabin to spend time with my new friends. And immediately, in rolled another Indian couple (from Bangalore, no less) who were heading to Paro. Just a little more prepared than me for the weather, but still squarely in will-die-if-they-try territory given how bad the clouds were raging. Inspired by the zen that had started flowing through me by just being in the land of the Buddha, I talked into them the sense that my experiences had hammered into me. Since there was no space left in the town to sleep anymore, I invited Lalith and his wife to sleep in my room.

The next morning was as different from the last night was as the weather industry allows - at 7 am, there wasn't a cloud in sight (but a temperature low enough to freeze hot water thrown in the air - we tried). We began riding in pursuit of a breakfast joint through what seemed like the aftermath of a mild acopalypse. A poco-palypse, if you will. We found a place run by the Indian army, and the sombre jawans told us that at least 3 people died trying to drive through the storm last night - I had no trouble believing them given the number of skid marks and damaged trucks and cars I saw on the road that morning. I was just glad that the three of us were still on this side. I bid my new friends goodbye and headed, finally, to Paro. It's amazing how many friends one makes on the road, and I hope this part of me doesn't die until the rest of me does.

Ama's Village Lodge had already waited an extra day to see me. A thankfully event-free drive led me to the place, and I thankfully found two of the most warm-hearted people I've met - Ama and her brother Karma (and Snowy, the very vocal but deceptively friendly dog). With way less than expected time at hand for Paro, I raked their brains for the best things to do - which are apparently the Rinpung Dzong and the Pena Lakhang. Everyone knows the Rinpung Dzong by its more popular name - Tiger's Nest, but Pena Lakhang was quite interesting. Nestled away into a settlement, a narrow detour from the National Highway. It's one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, and owing to the lack of popularity (or Instagram-worthiness, depending on your level of cynicism), very peaceful. Both are exquisitely beautiful, in their very different ways.

Ridiculously photogenic bike and bag

At Pena Lakhang is where I made two more unexpected, but nonetheless delightful, friends. During my visit, two kids gingerly approached me, and asked me where I'm from. A couple of exchanges later, they declared that they had accepted me in their best friend group. And this was before I even told them that I was there on a bike - which made them absolutely lose it, run out to the parking area, and climb on the Himalayan. "Sell this to me. How much?" "2 lakh rupees." (looking at his friend) "I don't think mother will give me so much money." It was getting dark, and the adult in me did want to hand my new friends over to other adults, so we set about finding their family. This was an unexpectedly emotional goodbye.

The next day, I had to climb that-monastery-by-the-side-of-a-mountain / the unofficial symbol of Bhutan / the Tiger's Nest. I was basically staying in the mountain's shadow already, and so was about 3 kms from the parking point. In my infinite wisdom, I took off without my protective riding gear. Oh Abhishek, thou who shalt always be 10% lower than prepared for the worst that can happen. A rash (Indian) car overtook me, and I shrugged it off - I decided to let the second car tailing me to pass me by as well. You never want to be between two cars as a biker in the mountains. That's when a sudden slope appeared, the asshole in the car in front of me lost balance, and so did I. Given the laws of physics in the universe we live in, cars are difficult to tumble after low-speed mistakes but bikes find it especially easy to reach a lower center of gravity. Boo. #abolishcars. No really.

So the bike and I did find our collective way to a lower center of gravity of a two-body system, and then we kept finding lower and lower points - gotta find that local minima of this slanting road, you see. I'm nothing if not thorough - and I was about to be nothing. I rued all my decisions that morning as I waited on my back in the middle of the road for the second car to run me over at 8 km/h, skidding like an ice surfacer. Thankfully, this guy was a better driver than the rest of us, and he stopped his vehicle and stepped out to help me. Bless that guy in particular.

While I eventually reached the hiking point without further incidents, I was in no position to further hurt the knee I had just done a hard landing on. A hiking stick fashioned out of a tree branch helped me navigate the mountain as if nothing happened, and I ended up climbing the Tiger's Nest. The climb up was actually easier for my hurt knee than the descent, but meeting people like Ibrahim (and his son), who entertained me with stories of their other adventures helped me recharge every few hundred metres. A Bangladeshi Harvard graduate who's trying to make sure his son has a more worldly upbringing that he himself had, he immideately had my respect. Satisfied with my day and only mildly in pain, I got back to Ama's, packed my stuff, and prepared for my departure to Thimphu. 

A chase by a few rather muscular mountain dogs aside, the late-evening ride into Little Village was quiet. Exhausted after a long day, I had some food and proceeded to collapse directly at the sight of a bed. I decided to stay collapsed for the next day, effectively abandoning the idea of exploring Thimphu. A 'vacation from a vacation', so to speak. The cottage had a far-away view of the famous Buddha statue, and I guess that was good enough for me. I chatted with the family all day, who told me that they had bears and boars roaming in the exact spot where I stood before they put the fencing up a few months ago, because 'technically' this was all still a jungle. Ah, the comfort of knowing that I will probably not be mauled to death inside the farm (but could have been while driving up to it yesterday, or could be while leaving it tomorrow). Bears and I have such a chequered history without ever meeting, I am almost certain that we are in a cosmic dance towards an eventual meeting.

Fascinating talks went on for the entire day, interspersed with reading sessions in truly pin-drop silence, before I turned in again and prepared to leave this wonderful land. Another stay at Jaigaon followed, and I promptly left the morning after for my return flight from Bagdogra to Bangalore.

In the end, what I will remember is the most is the pain in my knee for years to come. But also, the warm-hearted and some of the most immensely driven people I've met. The level of education in Bhutan is commendable, and the way most people went out of their way to make my stay pleasant will stay with me forever. It's such a unique kind of delight for someone like me, coming from the "hustling" culture of India, to be in a place where the feeling that everyone is just looking at your wallet (either literally or figuratively) is almost liberating. I understand how India and Indians got there and I empathise with the individuals who've been dealt a bad hand by their fate, but it is exhausting to be on the other side of our hustle. As for Bhutan, I will come back. 100%.

Signing off!

Side note: I can't believe I've written almost three thousand words and have not mentioned a huge part of my stay yet - Zumzin, the Bhutanese peach wine. The Bhutanese are very, let's say, liberal with their alcohol. It's sold in grocery stores in the most remote places. And some absolutely fantastic alcohol too - not your run of the mill drink-to-get-drunk stuff. Zumzin! An absolute peach of a wine. Wink wink.

Bonus picture: Zumzin!


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