Sayantan, is a researcher by profession and a biker cum photographer, by passion. He currently resides in Spain; but soon to join ‘Kolkata Riders’ as a full-fledged rider, after returning to India in mid 2013. You may contact him via KR facebook page or by writing to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Riders– Anirban, Jyoti, Pratik, Soumyajit and Sayantan
Date– 13-21 October 2012
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Please note that I have some nice photographs of the Bhutan trip on my facebook album. Please write to me, which of them you need for this article. So, write to me selecting those which seems apt for this article so that I can send you the high resolution images which certainly would make the piece look better. I’ll then send the hi-resolution images to you. The article with images would certainly look better. Also, please feel free to tell me, if you need me to make some changes in the article or in the pictures (size, color, dimensions, etc.).
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“S**t, I think, I can’t join in this trip”
– The last few words I heard from my childhood friend Anirban, when I was in Delhi for some professional work. However, I was so much looking forward coming back to Kolkata to join our much-awaited Bhutan trip. But I didn’t want to go without him either, as both of us planned to go for a ride since our last trip to Sikkim, nearly two years ago. However, as people grow up, responsibilities keep multiplying and we have no way other than to accept them. Somehow, I still had some hope left that perhaps I could convince him. If not, would I go without him? Would my biking instinct get preference over childhood friendship? All these questions were honking me down until it was October the 14th, 2012; the first day of the ride to Bhutan.
Today, after a couple of months, when I am about to write a travelogue, I am a bit confused on how should I express. Should it be a description of places, or feelings, or the description of the journey, which possibly would help the riders in future? Then I thought, well, why not just say everything the way I actually wrote during the trip. If still, I miss some information, google is always there. So, here are some of the pages from my diary, I wrote at the end of every day during our Bhutan trip. It’s a bit refreshed from the original text, with a few info added here and there, but mostly intact, without of course, some of the ‘words’ which are better not to publish! There are notes for future travelers to Bhutan at the end of this article, which might be useful.
14th October, 2012: the journey begins – or began already?
The first day of ride just ended about two hours ago. Now it’s about midnight and we are in Dalkola BP petrol pump, dormitory. Anirban finally managed to come or should I say, we managed to come together! Until last night, I wasn’t sure, whether we are going or not, but at the last moment, we met and he was convinced that it’s worth joining the trip as responsibilities will be there throughout to deal with. So, despite some of the valid worries, we set off, started form Kolkata around 7 in the morning, rode the whole day and reached Dalkola around 10 in the evening, exhausted and hungry. We are a bit late, as we took a longer route to here. I usually take the NH 34 to Siliguri, but this time, we came via Dumka and Purnia as some of our rider friends told us that NH 34 is anything but a road after the monsoon. So, ultimately the journey was longer, but it neither break us nor our rides. Now, though we are tired; yes, but still have a lot of excitement left to look forward to the journey ahead.
But, first things first! We freshened up, and had some smoking hot rice with egg curry about half-n- hour ago. We need to get up early, as tomorrow we have a long ride ahead, to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, which is about 300 kms from here. On the border, we’ll meet our fellow riders, Saumyajit, Jyoti and Pratik who started yesterday. Therefore, one can say, the ride to Bhutan has already begun and we (me and Anirban) are kind of, catching up. But for now, I am done with writing and the bed is calling me. I should just close my eyes, listen to the lullaby of passing trucks or sounds from the nearby highway (try to omit ‘or’/ can be ‘passing trucks from the nearby highway), and most importantly, try to get some sleep.
15th October 2012: entering the land of thunder dragon… But!
End of 2nd day ride. Today, our aim was to reach Thimphu by evening. But, we are certainly not at Thimphu! We are at Gedu and I have no idea how far it is from Thimphu. Now I am sitting on the dining area of a roadside bar cum restaurant cum hotel. Well, some may not feel like calling it a hotel, as the rooms are filthy and the toilet compels you to better watch out the spider nets on the cycling.
But How come are we here, and not at Thimphu? To cut the long story short, I and Anirban simply couldn’t wake up on time. We started late, so reached late at the border, where we are about to make out route permits. Thankfully, Soumyajit, Jyoti and Pratik were there since the morning and much of the job was done. Nevertheless, we were late, and as Jyoti is not accustomed to night rides on mountains; we decided to call it a day at Gedu, after riding about an hour after the sunset.
So far, I think both Pratik and Soumyajit are experienced riders and Jyoti is trying to catch up. Hopefully it is going be an interesting experience. However, nothing much to write about today, except some small interesting things I noticed. First, as soon as anyone cross the border of Bhutan (the Bhutan gate), the differences between India and Bhutan are drastically evident everywhere. Cars are not trying to overtake, no honking, no madness, just smooth traffic. The roads are cleaner, organized and people suddenly started to look different, not because they are ethnically different, but they are all wearing some traditional costumes. I don’t know if there’s some festival or not. Have to find out though. One more interesting fact, petrol is Rs.10 cheaper here. Happy news for bikers then! We soon fed our bikes with a healthy diet of gas and recharged us with some hot Bhutanese soup. Good food always makes you happy especially when you are riding the whole day and your stomach is crying for it! So, it seems that I could just forget the filthy beds, the toilet and go inside my sleeping bag. Oh yes, forget to mention until, the weather is awfully cold here!
16th October, 2012 : Welcome to Thimphu – “but you can’t ride” !
Today, all were sleeping, when I woke up. I quietly went outside the hotel and greeted with an amazing view of the great mt. Himalaya. With pouring sunlight, the fog was slowly melting away, revealing the curves of the mighty mountain ranges. The sound of chanting was echoing from a small monastery near the hotel. Undoubtedly, it was a wonderful welcome note to start the day with. I saw little kids were going to school holding their lunch packs and again, all are wearing that same traditional costume! I asked one of them and it seemed that it is the official uniform for Bhutanese. The boys’ costume called ‘Gho’ and for girls, it’s ‘Kira’. It turned out that everyone should wear these for all official purposes. I am still thinking, probably we, Indians have more freedom of choice. We could wear anything and they seem cannot! We are the biggest democracy in the world and they still call them a ‘kingdom’. Besides, we have one of the fastest growing economies in the world and they are one of the poorest. Yet, with all my surprise, Bhutan is one of the happiest countries in the world! How come? I think I should try to find it.
With those thoughts in mind, I came back to grab a cup of hot coffee. All woke up by then, but reluctant to leave their sleeping bags indeed. Nevertheless, we eventually got ready, had our breakfast, and ignited our engines. It was a mere 120 km ride to Thimphu, so we were relaxed. Moreover, the roads were awesome, the curves were perfect and the scenery was refreshing! We covered miles after miles with ease and finally reached at the gate, which proudly says – ‘Welcome to Thimphu- the capital of Bhutan’. All were exited to enter the capital, until a police stopped us and told us that we are not allowed to ride inside the town! With our utter surprise, it was the ‘pedestrian day’ and except some taxies, no vehicle is allowed to enter the city every Tuesday. Well, good for the pedestrians and health conscious, but this was certainly a problem for us, as we could not leave our bikes there and simply walk to the hotel. However, there is a well-known word in bikers’ world- the famous ‘bikers brotherhood’ which we are yet to experience in this unfamiliar land of Bhutan. Literally, from nowhere, a guy with a dragon painted Harley Davidson stormed in and after some ‘ministerial’ phone calls we were finally allowed to tow our bikes to the hotel, without riding it, of course. With our brotherhood strengthened, we finally entered our hotel. However, there was no time to rest. Me and Soumyajit went to collect the local route permits to the tourist office. Meanwhile others sketched out the final tour plan and arranged a well-needed lunch.
Here, it seems important to write something about Thimphu. Although it is the capital of Bhutan, it is actually a pleasant little town, by an equally enjoyable mountainous river. The roads are clean and with smiling inquisitive school going kids looking at us, the bikers (it feels great though!). All the buildings follow the Bhutanese architectures and I must say, they blend in with this little Buddhist country rather well. Apart from these, there is one big monastery at the centre of the town and a main market place and a famous clock tower.
However, today, as we had some idle time after lunch, I had a chance to know Pratik, Soumyajit, Jyoti and their rides better. Pratik, a senior corporate executive, rides an old (is gold) ‘Royal Enfield Bullet 350’. Jyoti, the professional photographer, has recently bought one Honda Unicorn, same like mine, but a newer model. Soumyajit, who maintains a family business, also popularly known as ‘Mozat’ rides a Hero Honda CBZ. After selling the TVS apache, I think Anirban has finally made a right choice by buying a brand new Bullet 350. Except Anirban’s and Pratik’s all other bikes are just commuting bikes of 150cc. Moreover, my bike is almost seven years old. Frankly, I am a bit worried whether or not it could pull all the way through. But let’s hope for the best, as tomorrow we have to ride higher and cross one of the mountain passes to reach the beautiful Punakha monastery.
17th October, 2012- Punakha and the biggest fan of Mithun Chakraborty !
End of today’s ride and we came back to Thimphu few minutes ago, after a truly amazing day, full of ride, fun and tranquility. At around 11 am,we reached Punakha, which is about 77 km from Thimphu. The winding roads greeted us with rising altitude, until we reached the famous ‘Dochula pass’. We come across a ‘stupa’, which is quite famous here. From there it was downhill all the way and we knew that we were going exactly as per the decided schedule. However, we were hungry and somewhere in the middle, we stopped for a quick snack. We had some food, but there were something more interesting waiting for us. We met a man, a bit drunk, who seemed incredibly dedicated to Bollywood movies, and a die-hard fan of the famous Mithun Chakraborty! To him, Mithun is the best dancer, fighter, singer and a great lover ever in the entire film fraternity, and since we are from the land of ‘Bollywood’, we should perhaps know him personally. Ya, sure, why not! After all, especially we are from Bengal! – However we decided to move on.
The best pick of the day was of course the monastery. It is huge and amazing! We had to cross a wooden bridge to get the other side of the river and the steep stairs welcomed us to the main gate. It is situated at the verge of two rivers with a backdrop of high mountains. I felt peace in the silence of the monastery, whereas others enjoyed the lawn outside for a quick nap.
After some amazing time there, we were returning to Thimphu. Near that Dochula pass, we met a guy, who loves riding as well. So, to retain another toast of biker’s brotherhood in Bhutan, we went to a nearby café. The coffee was by far the most expensive I’ve ever had, but I can’t deny, it was perfect, uniquely considering the view from the cafe. It was almost going to sunset, and the whole valley was glittered with golden hue of the setting sun. The monastery bells were adding flavor to the overall charm and a little slice of the moon appeared just to put the cherry on top of everything. The moon guided us all the way to Thimphu and we knew very well that we had to stop again to experience the beauty of the mystical valley secured in the lap of mighty Himalaya.
The evening was equally interesting! Sonam, a Bhutanese friend of mine came to meet us and took us to a restaurant. He offered us nice local food with live music and after a day of riding, the few well-needed drops of intoxication made some of us a bit happier. For me, it was a nice chance to refresh my friendship and feeling nostalgic. He also provided us some guidance about Paro, where we are about to ride tomorrow.
18th October, 2012 – Paro and the heroes from the plains!
Here we are, at Paro, the only international airport of Bhutan, and I think, with one of the scariest landings. It’s a small town in a large valley, and about 2 hours ride form Thimphu. The first time we saw it from a distance, the only thing we could say – “man, we love it!”.
We went to the hotel, dumped our luggage and head straight for the Taktsang monastery, popularly known as the ‘Tiger’s nest’. I guess those who know at least a little bit about Bhutan, have seen the picture of this famous monastery. It’s a magnificent peace of engineering, hanging from the rocky mountain walls, throwing a challenge to all its visitors to conquer. Challenge accepted! We started to hike, leaving our bikes at the foothill. It was an extremely steep way up, and after two hours of continuous hiking, we finally reached there. Everything was simply breathtaking! The hanging monastery greeted us with chilling wind and for a moment, we felt like the heroes from the plains, conquering the rough roads to the summit of glory. Then we thought, well, there were people who built this, carrying every single thing from the valley without any modern technologies, way back in 1692. Then we saw an old woman, going downhill with crutches! Truly speaking, all of a sudden, I felt nothing in front the mighty monastery, those who thought to build it and those who made it happen and finally to the will of that old woman. Taktsang reminded me that I have to walk a long way further and even what seems impossible, is actually just the beginning.
Now, when I am writing the diary at the end of the day, Tiger’s nest is still in front of my eyes. I learnt something important for life today. Don’t know about others, but Pratik seems mesmerized too. It seems that all of us have fallen in love with the valleys of Paro. But tomorrow, we have to start descending, the journey back towards home. However, there is a secret wish in my mind. I want to stay a bit longer here, at least a day more. Can I? Don’t know yet.
19th October 2012- The bonus day, a surprise ride and the massage parlor!
Today, we rode a long way, but not towards home! I still cannot believe that we are still in Paro! All I can say that my wish has fulfilled! It all started this morning, when I was telling Anirban about my heartfelt aspiration last night and suddenly Pratik, Soumyajit and Jyoti entered the room longing the same! Voila! We are staying!
So, now that we have another day, we could just relax, enjoy the view and of course have good food. One of us (I am not mentioning the name here, It’s in my diary though) suggested that we could probably go for ‘nice’ massage as there is a massage parlor just next to the hotel! I was somewhat sure; that it was not at all a massage with some ‘happy finish’, but that didn’t stop us from insisting each other for a verification. Finally, out of sheer ‘determination to unveil the truth’ (read excitement), we went to see what it actually is. Well, diminishing all the anticipations it seems better to write that we decided to go back to our hotel instead. So, again the thought arises, what to do for the rest of the day?
The idea came from the hotel owner. We agreed and saddled up. Our destination was around 45 km away to one of the highest mountain passes, the Chelela. It is on the way to ‘Ha’ form Paro, and after ascending steadily for one hour, we reached at an altitude of nearly 5000 mts. On our way, the vegetation pattern changed eventually, from long Pine trees to little bushes. The exposed rock and the absence of trees provided us a clear view of the snow-capped mountain range and with mountains all around, we rode on until we reached the Chelela pass. Form a typical touristy point of view, it is just a sharp bend on the road, after which it goes downhill. Not a single café or shop were there and except some Indian army trucks (they guard Bhutan boarders), there were no other people around. Nevertheless, we stopped and started to climb the little hill nearby, from which we were hoping to see the entire mountain range and have some rest.
It was a truly out of the world view from the top! On one side, there are the highest mountain peaks of Himalaya, and on the other, the valleys of Paro and beyond. A tiny plane was emerging out of the cloud, leaving the Paro airport. We were literally above the clouds and all I remember that Anirban said ‘awesome, just awesome’! I was spellbound and mum. It was something I cannot describe anyhow. I realized that this land should remain as it is, pure and peaceful as the mighty Himalaya cradles this little land of peace and hides it from the outside world for centuries. But, with modernization, it is perhaps not too far away, when Bhutan will be like just any other touristy country. We yearn for Bhutan to be as pure as it is today, and rode back to Paro.
We reached Paro, just after the sunset. Tomorrow, we’ll finally start the journey back home. Today, I am bit emotional, a lot philosophical but one-question still remains- am I still happy? Does this happiest-poorest country in the world smear some real happy effect on me as well? On a critical note, this seems not something extraordinary. I would probably feel equally happy if I visit to any other mountains in India, or anywhere. So what is so special in Bhutan? Don’t know yet and this is already our last night here in Bhutan.
20th October, 2013 – On our way back, happiness found me!
Today is a very special day in my life. I am finally ‘happy’! It seems okay to say that ‘happiness’ found me rather than I found happiness. It all happened in a small village, on our way back and I don’t even know the name of the village. No, I didn’t meet any young, beautiful Bhutanese girl asking for a lift. Nor I found something expensive on the way. It is somewhat difficult to explain, but I’ll give it a try.
Today, we waved good-bye to Paro early in the morning and started our journey back home. We burned the rubber for some miles and stopped at one small village for a cup of tea. Now, probably I didn’t mention earlier that we were also carrying some packets of elementary study books, sketchbooks and colors to distribute to local kids[i]. So, we decided to distribute at least some of them there. It was, however difficult to make the parents understood that we were actually trying to give something as a gift and not just selling. But, regardless of the places, kids are always inquisitive. So, after a while, few kids came to us and we started to distribute the packets. Soon, more and more kids started running towards us in folks. There were kids as little as one and a half years to six-seven years. We tried to give them all the gifts we brought. We took pictures of the little smiling faces and hugged them tight. I realized we all have started to feel happy. I remember when I hold the tiny nimble fingers of that little girl and she trusted by holding me. I remember when another boy unpacked his gift and started painting a balloon enthusiastically even while we were there. I remember when the little sister of the boy asked for a separate gift for her and I finally did found one in my bag. Finally, how could I forget all the little kids waved goodbye kisses to us when we finally had to leave that little village!
That moment, I realized, why Bhutan is poor, yet somehow happy! Form a consumerist’s point of view; it was difficult in the beginning to understand why it is so. I thought economic progress, personal fulfillment perhaps decide a major part of our happiness. However, probably there is a fine line between ‘wellness’ and ‘happiness’. When I have seen people trust others even though they are unknown and kids hug you with such warmth as if you know them for years, I realized something new. I talked to elders and realized that that they wear the traditional costumes also because they love their heritage and culture. But it does not mean the country is stuck in time. In many social sectors, they are much better than that of many other countries in the world. Bhutan is one of the youngest democracies in the world, but they still love to call it a ‘kingdom’ as they love the king and queen, and they love them too. The king meets all the graduates every year and share lunch with them. People respect each other irrespective of their gender or religion. Moreover, in Bhutan, religion really means ‘peace’, which is a rare thing to experience comparing it with the religious anarchy all around.
Without any doubt, we fell in love with Bhutan, but still we needed to go back to our respective lives. So, we continued descending. On the way, some small incidents happened when Anirban’s bike had a flat tire and we had to wait nearly 3 hours to get it transported to the nearby town to fix. On this note, I strongly think that we should carry a tire repair kit from our next trip.
Nevertheless, about an hour ago, we finally reached the same Dalkola BP Petrol station after a backbreaking ride of more than 14 hours. Now it’s around midnight and we are all equally tired and hungry like the fist night we were here a week ago. The only difference is, now we are less exited, but more contented.
21th October, 2012- Bhutan, we’ll see you soon-
End of the final day of ride. I finally reached home a few hours ago. We rode the same way back, but took a little bit of shortcut to avoid the bad roads from Dumka onwards. It was pretty much a hustle free ride all the way through. We reached Dankuni toll plaza at around 9 pm and form there; Pratik, Jyoti and Soumyajit went towards Howrah. Me and Anirban took the Belgharia express way towards home until I took the right turn form Birati and Anirban went left towards Barasat. Just few minutes ago, Anirban called me. All have reached home safely.
Overall, this trip is a success story for all. Jyoti, who was not so confident riding on mountains, now longing desperately to ride to Ladakh as one of our next trips. Soumyajit, who is going to get married soon, wanted a ride to explore him better. Pratik, who was desperate to take a break from his daily routine, is refreshed and reenergized. For me and Anirban, we rode together after a long time and I realized that without him, the trip would not have been such a nice experience at all. However, more than anything, we strengthened our brotherhood and above all, we formed a team, which will go a long way together.
This trip to the land of thunder dragon has then, given us more than just bike rides, challenging physical limitations, and exploring new frontiers. It has given us an opportunity to explore a different culture, which is unique in its own way. We shared bonds with local people and love with the kids. We began to realize why a country can be poor, yet call them happy. I still don’t know though, how to relate all these different experiences, interactions and emotions with just one ride. Nevertheless, all I can say that, more than anything, Bhutan has made all of us – ‘happy’.
P.S. We are surely going to Bhutan again, as this time, we could not visit ‘Bumthang’, the most beautiful valley in Bhutan. Hope you can join us this time. Can’t wait to ride again.
Few Notes for Bikers-
Permits- You need entry permits (for you and your ride) as well as inland permits. Entry permits can be obtained from borders. The inland permits can be obtained from the tourist office in Thimphu. It is mandatory to have a travel plan as the permit should have all the names mentioned.
Roads– Simply amazing; so no strict requirements to use off-road tires as such. However, carry a tire repair kit as no matter how good the road is, you can get flat tires.
Recommendation– Visit Chelela pass, Bumthang
Stay– Bhutan has good hotels at all major places. The price is a bit on the higher side, but still affordable.
Eat– Soup is famous. Try Thukpa (soup). Bhutanese food is usually spicy (chilly) and with cheese. Expect to get lesser variety of foods. The food price is standard.
Drinking and smoking– Alcohol is available everywhere. However, it is strictly not recommended while riding. Selling Cigarette and smoking, in public places is banned in Bhutan. You’ll be fined. However, you may carry your own stock, from India.
Obey– traffic rules, such as speed limits, no horn, no overtaking etc. The administration is strict about it and you will be fined.
Interesting fact 1– Except Indians, other foreigners have to spend $250 a day (per person/per day) in order to visit Bhutan and they can only tour with a travel agency. Exception- foreign students studying in Bhutan, diplomats etc. So, Indians are lucky.
Interesting fact 2– You may find mementos look like ‘penis’ in all major gift shops. Don’t be confused it with a sex toy or something similar. It is a symbol of good luck in Bhutan. Don’t be shy, ask them to explain the story behind it.
Interesting fact 3– Indian money is acceptable in Bhutan. In fact, they are eager to exchange in INR. The exchange rate is the same, however, they probably get a little bit more in return. For you’ it does not matter, you will get 1:1, always. However, try to get the return in INR as well (or give exact change) as it would be difficult to exchange it with INR later on.
Interesting fact 4– Always bargain! They have different prices for Indians (cheaper) and other foreigners. So don’t be mad looking at the price tags if they look super expensive.
Interesting fact 5– Fill up your tank before leaving Bhutan. You will end up saving some money as the petrol is Rs. 10 cheaper there. However, you may notice that the petrol price is even cheaper in other towns than that in the border area.
Respect– culture, religion and people and police.
Enjoy– Riding, Culture, Tranquility, Peace
[i] Sponsored by a company