Into the heart of Bhutan

Bhutan travelogue: Chapter 5 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery

It took us only three hours to complete the entrance procedures at the Phuentsholing border with India; and that was solely because we were the first ones to enter the government office. A beetle-nut chewing officer checked our documents and asked us to return at noon; ‘Bhutanese time is 30 minutes ahead, don’t forget!’ he added seriously.

The guard at the immigration office excitedly told us ‘yes! go now, right now!’ when we asked if there were any buses to Thimphu after noon. I didn’t know why someone would hurry us up in this peaceful and happy Bhutan, and so I had no intention to run to the bus station, a task I always do in Mumbai. However, once at the bus station, we realised that we were lucky to get the last tickets for the last bus that left 4 hours later. On weekends, tickets get booked in advanced in this nation with limited cheap transportation. The other, five times expensive, option was to hire a taxi, and if you’ve been reading my travelogues you know – I dislike taxis.

↑ I was only checking the mirror of my bus to Thimphu

India’s Border Roads Organization (BRO) built majority of the roads in Bhutan and someone (maybe it was me) joked that perhaps that was the reason for the shoddy state of roads in Bhutan. ‘Project Dantak’, as the Bhutanese road building mission is called, has a daunting task of carving roads through inaccessible and landslide-prone Himalayas. Probably that could explain why the construction work is forever ongoing. Every now and then there is a landslide and I could only feel the magnitude of their task when I saw a friendly looking but massive boulder being moved out of the way by two bulldozers. pheww!

Traffic is frequently held – either at check posts where Bhutanese police dutifully scrutinize everyone’s ID’s or at a landslide where bulldozers dutifully move rocks to make way for traffic and new rocks. Construction workers (mostly Nepali Hindus) can be seen pouring concrete into casts to reinforce the road edges or chiseling away huge rocks to make gravel that will then be laid on muddy patches as a temporary measure. Occasionally some worker’s baby will wander on the street, immediately being rescued by its mother after there is lot of honking. Hindu and Buddhist shrines happily co-exist, people often praying at both – for example a Buddhist deity of well-being and a Hindu deity of prosperity.

↑ Bad roads. Construction and road cleaning work goes on all the time in this hilly terrain

As if the delays were not enough, the inevitable happened. Our bus broke down in the middle of a curve (what turned out to be a beautiful location to explore.) A noisy stream decorated with colorful prayer flags ran under the bridge flanked by a picture of a Buddhist deity on one of the rock faces and a ‘Enjoy the valley and nature’ graffiti by BRO on the other side. Seems like a regular repair-the-broken-bus spot. The locals were entertained by two foreigners clicking pictures and I bet they were puzzled, ‘What the heck are these guys taking pictures of?’, exactly my thoughts when I see people posing on the streets of Toronto.

↑ Bus breakdown and repair stop

The air was getting cooler as we ascended the curves and someone in the bus vomited from the window, which thankfully was on the other side. It was also getting kinda dark and I was hungry. ‘If you get too hungry, you vomit, if you are too full, you vomit too, ha ha, big question what to do…’ quipped my neighbor through his gritty teeth as he chewed on tobacco. We finally stopped at a place – I was excited and looking forward to my first Bhutanese meal.

↑ Cheese and chilies, fish curry, soup and lots of rice.

As you can see, it was fairly simple food. Ema datshi is the cheese and green chilies, there was some cereal soup and some fish curry with liberal amounts of, guess what, chili. 🙂 If you want to enjoy Bhutanese food, start getting used to chillies and rice. Needless to say, a non-rice eater like me could only finish a portion of that food and recalling what my neighbor said on the bus, I did not force myself to eat more.

We reached Thimphu almost after 8 gruelling hours on the bus. Don’t get deceived by the distance between the border town Phuentsholing (with India on other side) and the capital city Thimphu (176 km) or claims by entrepreneurial taxi drivers at Phuentsholing. It WILL take that long, maybe an hour shorter by a taxi, but then you’d miss out on the interesting people and breaking down of the bus!

↑ Waiting with my backpack