Rights of passage
Past the paperwork,Bhutan is a damn fine place
Let me give you a piece of advice,” said Mohan Chhatrey, “Don’t reveal your Press credentials at the immigration office. Bhutan is an absolute monarchy, and they don’t like journalists. They may refuse you a permit.” I was grabbing a noon bite at a highway hotel in Oodlabara, West Bengal, when the Gorkha tea-estate supervisor whose son ran it had gotten chatty. “They are like Saddam’s police!” he added dramatically, never mind that the Ba’athists had been Bushwhacked by then, and on that cheerful note, left to attend some work.
Having attempted a Bhutan trip for more than six months now, and having had to change itineraries every time for one reason or the other, I wasn’t to be deterred easily though. The reclusive mountain kingdom, so fiercely protective of its culture, has a strictly-controlled tourist quota (5,000 foreigners per year, who have to pay US$200 a day for the privilege), but as citizens of big brother India, we get to avoid all that. Still, there was seemingly still a tangle of red tape defensively circling the publicity-shy country, and I sharpened my mental scissors.
Phuentsholing, the border town, was another couple of hours down the smooth NH31C that ran up to Guwahati, with a final twenty km of B-road off it. I stopped for tea at Jaigaon, the messy Indian side, and watched the Brownian motion of its cyclists and pedestrians. From the other side of the ornate Bhutan gate, guarded by three young policemen in dark-blue
uniforms, Toyota Hiluxes and Indian-made LCVs bearing red Bhutanese numberplates forayed into Jaigaon. Bhutanese men in ghos, their knee-length robe-like national dress, were walking about, stopping at shops to buy cheaper Indian goods – Bhutan’s higher taxes make Jaigaon a kind of supply town.I rode over flattened garbage, plastic bags and papers, across into the much cleaner phoren side, shaking my head at the difference a political boundary makes to hygiene levels. As if in sympathy, a large banner asked visitors from blacklisted countries whether they had any of the following SARS symptoms, and to register with health officials in any case. After a few turns down some one-way streets brought me back to the same spot, I checked into a little dive run by a couple of Malayalis, vainly named Paradise Palace. Like almost all Bhutanese buildings, it adhered to the mandatory architectural guidelines, though obviously the bigger and state-owned buildings were far more ornate and embellished. I strolled up and down the market road for a while, past little bars,customs clearing houses and various shops.At a newsstand I bought a copy of Kuensel, the only national publication, a weekly 20-page newspaper that looked like a screen-printed college project. Page five lamented that Phuentsholing, called Hatidara in 1950 because of its wild elephant population, had ‘degenerated into a cramped, overcrowded and dirty town’ with a population of (gasp) over 30,000. The space crunch had apparently already forced over 700 Bhutanese families to settle in Jaigaon. The irony of it all.
The next morning, I trooped merrily to India House, the embassy office, hoping to get the entry permit paperwork done in less than an hour and be on my way. “Hmm, a single tourist... the Bhutanese usually don’t give permits to single tourists, especially on motorcycles... why don’t you get another person – or join a group?”“What! Nononono pleasepleaseplease...”
“Okay, well, get a vehicle permit from the Road Safety and Transport first, then we’ll see...”At the RST office, a solemn man in a big room stared at me intently. “Hmm... single tourist...”“Pleasepleaseplease...”Shunted to a solemn woman in the cabin at the other end, another problem: “Photocopied papers!? Sorry, I cannot issue you a permit.”I kicked myself in the head, remembering a similar scene at the Nepal border (where, however, I’d been able to buy my way past. Here, there were no touts to be seen, and I was sure bribery carried a sentence of death by emadatshi, the hell-fiery Bhutanese signature dish of chillies in cheese sauce.)“But ma’am, I have ridden all over India with photocopies... it’s a company vehicle you see... it’s too risky to carry originals, I might get robbed!” Necessity is the mother of invention of the please-don’t-be-mean-to-the-tired-biker-weeks-into-a-gruelling-crosscountry-tour role.“Sorry, we have our rules.”Back to solemn man. Eventually: “Okay fine, get an attested copy of the original faxed across. But you will have to clear it with the RTO... he’s on leave today, come tomorrow.”With grudging admiration for their no-nonsense adherence to the rulebook, and simultaneous high irritation both at their refusal to be largehearted and more at myself for not carrying the original papers in the first place, or bringing a friend along for this trip, I beat a temporary retreat and spent the rest of the day in a call/fax-booth at Jaigaon. Vinod Agarwal, who ran the booth, said that this wasn’t the first time he’d heard of entry hassles. “Rules, pah. Anyone can see you are not here to cause trouble. They are just indirectly saying, we don’t want tourists,” he opined. “We give them so much assistance and aid, and they are free to roam any part of India without any permits at all. Why can’t they reciprocate? After all, tourists will only give, not take, right?” It was evening before I finally managed to get some faded faxes between frequent power failures (and bouts of giddiness from recalling the grossest fish curry I’ve ever had... that particular critter must’ve had some sort of epithelial elephantiasis. But why go into that.)Day 2 of Operation Enter Bhutan, back at the RST and bowing past the low-doored office of the (respectful pause) Regional Transport Officer. “Sir, here is the attested fax, please give me a permit....”The RTO in his uppity-looking gho looked at me like I was a smear on a slide.“This is unacceptable. How can you come to a foreign country without the originals? How do I know it’s not stolen, that you won’t go to Thimphu and dispose of the bike?”“I assure you I’m not a criminal, I just want to visit your country...” Steely stare. Just as I was about to say Oh forget it, who wants to see Bhutan anyway, and I hope the Chinese invade you! the steely stare relaxed one little micrometre. “But since you’ve come a long way...”“Oh thankyou thankyou...”“Report here with the bike on the way back!”
I walked out with my precious permit ten minutes later. One battle was won, and the troops’ morale soared.The Bhutan Immigration guys of course began: “Single tourist on a motorcycle... risky.” I supplicated, I enacted biker-all-the-way-from-Maharashtra, they conversed in inscrutable Dzhongka. In a while: “Ma’am has to approve it. She is not here, wait...” I waited. I smiled sweetly. I waited some more. Until...“Mr Maharashtra?”“Yes?” “Here is your permit. You can go.”I allowed myself to celebrate by getting drunk on Hit beer in my hotel’s poky bar that evening. The next day, as I left Phuentsholing at
a breakfast-show 7 am, I didn’t even have a hangover.From the word go, the road to Thimphu started twisting. The Indian Border Roads Organisation’s 60 RCC-constructed Project Dantak is a marvellously scenic 180 kilometre stretch, peppered with the BRO’s characteristic corny safety messages (“Brake in time saves nine”... argh). Both the tarmac and the views got progressively better, leading to Biker Conundrum #4.3 – on a mountain road, do you choose mountain or road?
The densely forested Himalayan foothills brought to mind Alpine postcards, and I recalled that Bhutan, with a full 72 per cent forest cover, is apparently one of the world’s ten bio-diversity hotspots, with 50 species of rhododendron alone. Light traffic, the odd small village and fresh chilly air – at its highest point the road tops 8,500 feet, at which point you can see snowy peaks in the middle-distance – it was a ride I’d recommend to anyone. You’d think four checkposts along the
way would be enough to deter one from subterfuge, insurgency or willful damage to the environment, but stop long enough by the roadside and see what happens. At one point I was sitting on a milestone, my camera absorbing a really tranquil valley view, when a passing Police/Forest Guard patrol slowed down to ask what I was doing standing around, why I was alone, and of course, to inspect my permits.
The Yamaha Enticer made a great conversation piece; most Bhutanese uniformed men are quite young, and not very tall, which meant great fascination for the low-slung motorcycle and many questions. At Talun checkpost one chap had begged a test-ride,and come back aglow: “I will sell my scooter and buy this with a government loan.” Now the patrol cop went through this too, but after the biker-bonding, followed it up with a firm “Okay let’s move,” starting his Gypsy only after I got going,
Thimphu, poured between hills and glittering like a palmful of costume jewellery in the afternoon sun, looked quaintly rural even from a distance – a three-storey limit and strict architectural guidelines give the city a refreshingly non-urbanised air. Japanese and Korean SUVs, pick-ups and sedans – mostly Toyotas – slowly cruised the narrow but ordered streets, past traditionally-dressed Bhutanese and their traditionally-styled buildings,enhancing the sense of selective timewarp. Crinkly old women crooned to chubby babies in tiny restaurants festooned with trays of rose-shaped biscuits, tough-skinned Bhutanese sausages and piles of orange noodles. Some elderly Europeans (Bhutan is beyond backpacker budgets) rifled through handicraft shops, while teens in branded tee-shirts and sneakers, ghos tied around their waists, did the universal thing of hangin’ out.
I checked into a tidy and VFM hotel near the clock tower in the central area. “Owned by the queen,” said Roshan, the place’s 22-year-old manager – I don’t recall which queen; King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has four – “If you are lucky maybe she will visit!” It was dark by the time I freshened up and headed out. A light evening rain made me tuck my cold hands into my pockets as I ducked into a cheap bar, where a peg of rum was a medieval five bucks. As an array of people popped by for a warm-up, from red-nosed men of the soil to a couple who stood and drank beer while their little girls munched placatory chips, I made small talk with a man sitting opposite drinking dry gin. He introduced himself as Jigme Sonam (the Bhutanese have a skimpy treasury of about fifty names to choose from), a travel guide who claimed to have been a gold smuggler in the Eighties. Yes, Bhutan is beautiful, he said, but it’s torn between monarchy and modernity.
Indeed, a signboard over the adjacent shop congratulated the King on 25 golden years of rule, and I didn’t know whether, like Saddam’s subjects, this came from fear or love. Westerners seem to go with the latter, perhaps it makes for a romantic view of this exotic, eccentric kingdom. But critics of the King’s edicts view his attempts at preserving Bhutan’s culture – for instance, television was not allowed until just about five years ago – as a ball-and-chain on the country’s strides towards joining the modern global village. It’s a topic of argument in many developing countries, but here the dilemma is heightened by the starkness of contrast.
“Well, we are Bhutanese and so we have no choice,” he continued. “But we are developing. Which direction, I don’t know.”
“Here’s to the better one, whichever that may be,” I told him, and bought him another gin.
The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, cradled between Sikkim, Bengal and Assam, ranks high as a biking destination for its scenic mountain roads, fascinating customs, and by merit of its being closer to metro-dwellers than our own Northeast.
Indians don’t need a visa to enter Bhutan. However, an entry permit and a vehicle permit are required to go anywhere beyond the border town of Phuentsholing, which, with its Indian counterpart Jaigaon, is 18 km off the NH-31C at Hasimara in West Bengal, which is about 140 km/3.5 hours from Siliguri and 340 km/8 hours from Guwahati. The vehicle entry permit is issued by the Road Safety and Transport authority, just inside Bhutan Gate on your right. Submit a request for a permit in writing attaching photocopies of your driving license and all vehicle documents; carry the originals for verification.
The entry permit for you and your pillion/partners will be sanctioned by the Indian Embassy liaison office, two kilometres down the Thimphu road. They require two forms to be filled in, with a copy of your ID (passport, voter card, licence, PAN card etc) and two passport-size photos. This sanction is converted to a permit by Bhutan Immigration across the road, who also require two photos. They are open 9 to 4 on weekdays.Neither permit carries a fee. Carry them with you at all times and get them stamped at each checkpost.
It’s 179 hilly km from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, and there’s not a half-km of straight road in that. Hundreds of delicious corners on a rather narrow two-lane road means you have to concentrate on your riding, but the great views and fresh air will have you stopping pretty often. The PT road is not very smooth from the Rinchending checkpost (5 km after Phuentsholing) up to Chapchha, but in good shape from then on to Thimphu.
Note that there are no roadside mechanics or puncturewallahs like in India. Truckers are always ready to give you way at the first widening of the road, but remember, they tell you when to pass by flashing their left indicators, the correct thing to do, but the opposite of what we’re used to here.
Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and home to 50,000 people, is loaded with character. Stay in the heart of the city, off Norzin Lam, which along with Chang Lam and Chorten Lam has the best range of places to stay – moderately-priced acco (for example, Hotel Yoezder, tel +975-2-324007, Ngultrum or Indian Rupees 500 per day),mid-range (try Hotel Wangchuk, tel 323532, Nu/Rs 1050/1250) or top-end (Hotel Druk, tel 322966, Nu/Rs 1800/2400). The bookshop next to the clock tower has a great fold-out Thimphu City Map for Nu/Rs 120.
Other places to visit in Bhutan include Paro, Punakha, Bumthang and Trashigang. If you ride in that order, you can exit the country at Samdrup Jongkhar in the east, three hours’ ride from Guwahati.