Hitching a ride in a jeep, an army truck, and a family car to get to the Cheli La pass
My friend and I were contemplating going to Haa, a valley south of Paro and even got the Special Areas Permit to visit the place. However it would have been a touch-and-go trip so instead we decided to go upto a point midway between Paro and Haa and return to Paro the same day. This mid point is the Cheli La pass, the highest motorable road in Bhutan. The only problem was that hiring a taxi would cost is Rs. 1,200 ($26) and being the last few days of the holiday we didn’t have that much money (there are no ATMs that could use our bank cards). So ultimately we decided to go to the place where the road to Cheli La branches off and see what happens.
↑ Landing strip of Bhutan’s Paro international airport seen from the turnoff.
Let me preface this that the Bhutanese are not used to tourists flagging down a vehicle.
Ride 1: “I am installing a prayer wheel in the mountain”
We started walking from the intersection for over 30 minutes and then 2 vans full of Buddhist nuns stopped because we flagged at them. There is a nunnery somewhere in the mountains. Unfortunately their vans were full of stuff so we couldn’t squeeze in. Their vehicle was so crowded that I think 2 Bhutanese can fit into space required for 1 European. Since there were very few vehicles on the road and there was nothing else to do, we started hiking towards Chele La.
The first person to help us was a guy who operated a convenience store in the Bondey village nearby. He was going to the shrine shown in picture above to fix his prayer wheel. Apparently, during his earlier visit to India, his teacher instructed him to pray at a place high in the mountain. He therefore installed a water-operated prayer wheel at this site.
A water prayer wheel works on a simple principle of a water mill. Water from a stream hit the wooden paddles and the wheel spins. Prayer wheels have scrolls of prayers written inside them. Buddhists believe that spinning the prayer wheel will have the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.
Since winter was coming (you can already see the ice), he had to ensure that his prayer wheel remained safe from frozen chunks of ice. That’s why he was going there to make some repairs.
And that’s how we covered first 22 of 36 kilometers to Cheli La.
Ride 2: Army truck
After saying bye bye to the guy who helped us and assuring him that we’d pray on his behalf at Cheli La, we started walking on the road again. there were few abandoned houses, or maybe just makeshift storage houses on the way so I had to walk over their roofs, you know. Eventually we ended up walking less than 2 km until the next ride came.
In Bhutan, like in India, you flag down a vehicle by waving the hand with the palm facing downwards. I don’t know if the US way of ‘thumbs up’ works, because if I did that, people will probably think that I am wishing them good luck or pointing them to the sky.
The final 13 km were covered thanks to a huge Indian Army truck. The guy who was driving it was an ethnic Nepali and he was overjoyed to see us. The truck was carrying some supplies to the Indian Army post in Haa. This is the first time I crossed a mountain in a truck (no wait, second, but I dont remember the first time) and it was scary. The road was narrow, the bends were sharp and the valley was steep. If you have been to the Himalayas, you know how it feels like. These roads were also built by India’s Border Roads Organizations, so they have a peculiar style. Trucks require higher turning radius so the guy went almost to the edge of the road before making a turn. And while doing that he was chatting non-stop with me, while I simply sat there terrified. Each time the truck went near the edge of the road and I looked down, I remembered all the gods I could… thinking to myself ‘why the heck is he not turning… turn! turn! stop talking! turn!’
Pheww, finally the “Cheli La 0” milestone came into view. The two of us were visibly shaken from the ride but the driver was cheerful. We offered to share our food with him but he refused to take. He said that it was his gesture towards his countrymen and that he was sorry to hear about terrorist attack in Mumbai. He also asked us not to worry if we didn’t find a ride back home from Cheli La – he was going to come back at 8 pm.
Prayer flags everywhere
You can ‘feel’ that you are at the highest point in the neighborhood, there are taller snow-capped mountains only far away (Eastern Himalayas). Cheli La is a very simple place – there is a prayer wheel, a small altar, a round wooden table with an umbrella and an electric substation. But there are prayer flags and poles – lots and lots of them all over the adjacent hills higher than the road.
I spinned (spun?) the prayer wheel and prayed, also on behalf of the first guy (who gave us a lift) as he’d requested. It was a place that will humble you with its sheer power and simplicity. There is nothing but snow capped Himalayan ranges at your eye level. At 3,900 something meters above MSL, its not the highest places I’ve been to, but was certainly one of the best.
We spent 2 hours walking around. There was nothing to ‘see’ there because we were the tourist attraction. 😀 LOL. There are a couple of hills around the pass and can be hiked easily. These hills are the true peaks of the mountain. Predictably, they are all covered by prayer flags fluttering eternally in the strong wind, carrying the prayers to all corners of the world. There is nothing to worry about here – homework, deadlines, junk food, pollution, neighbors, nothing.
Ride 3: Lets go back
The sun set and the place got chilly in an instant. We were waiting for a ride for almost an hour but there was absolutely nobody going to Paro, most vehicles were going to Haa – maybe from their work places in Paro? I thought that we missed a good time to catch a ride – we started in the afternoon, by then the peak traffic had subsided. By ‘peak traffic’ I mean 1 vehicle in 5 minutes in one direction! It was almost dark and we didn’t have sufficient warm clothes, but soon a Maruti 800 stopped, and there was a couple who dropped us back to Paro.
Cheli La was a simple yet beautiful place. One can view the Paro valley from south and the Haa valley on the other side of the mountain range. The prayer flags communicate a sense of purpose and well-being to this life. But the most exciting part of the day was hitch hiking there. 🙂