kickass solo ride to Bhutan

Three stages in most human’s life –
1.  Youth – We have the energy, we have the time, but we have no money to follow our dreams.
2. Adulthood – We have the energy, we have the money, but we have no time to follow our dreams.
3. Old age – We have the money, we have the time, but we have no energy to follow our dreams.

This holds true for the majority of people. Of course there are exception but I, for now am not an exception. However, there is the small little span of time during the transition of these stages of the human life where one gets the best of all worlds. The human has the time, the energy and the money to give his dreams a shot.

Sadly for me though, I have passed one of those transition period. But when I was going through it, I sure as hell made every bit of it. Sounds quite preachy isnt it? Don’t worry, this is not a philosophical lesson about life. Its just a Travelogue, of My Grand Eastern Himalayan Odyssey Part 2.

After a super fun filled ride with over a dozen of my xKmphian friends on the surreal mountain tops of East Sikkim. We reached Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. All my friends, elder to me and fruitfully employed somewhere or the other, had decided to head back home and to their daily mundane lives. That was not the case for me. I was going through one of the transition phase which I have mentioned in the first couple of paragraphs in this travelogue. I was awaiting my graduation results. I had no job so I did not have to worry about leaves. My parents still took care of my family. I had managed to save up a bit by doing odd jobs in my free time and I had all the time in world. Time, money and energy were all on my side and so I thought to live my dream life, for as long as could. I decided to stay on the road till I have money in my account and visit as many places possible. My destinations – The Grand Himalayas.

Day one – Set Foot On Foreign Soil!

And so it was, I bid adieu to all my xKmphians friends and started my first ever solo ride to the mystical land of the thunder dragon! Riding through the crowded Gangtok-Siliguri NH 31A highway, I reached the foothills of the Himalayas at Sevoke. From there on, it was a speedy ride on the plains. The NH31C was very well maintained. Even though it was a simple double laned road, it had zero pot holes and almost negligible traffic for many kilometres at a stretch which made me ride real fast. En route, I stopped briefly at a roadside dhaba for lunch and then reached the Jaldapara wildlife sanctuary by evening and that is where the things started to change. The 10 odd kms stretch in front of the jaldapara wildlife sanctuary was one of the worst I had ever ridden on and it took me more than an hour to cover that stretch and with that, all my hopes of getting the permits that evening drained in the Teesta river.

Rode for more than 10 kms on this kind of road just before Jaigaon-Phuntsholing

At about 5:30 pm I reached Jaigaon-Phuntsholing the Indo-Bhutan border and went straight to the permits office with the hopes to get the permit done that evening but unfortunately it was not to be. I rode back inside India as the hotels were comparatively economical there and checked in. After a bath I took a stroll in the twin towns of Jaigaon-Phuntsholing on either side of the borders. Both Indians and Bhutanese people are allowed to move freely on either side of the small brick wall which acts as a border. After the long walk filled with absorbing Bhutanese architecture and culture, I purchased my poison for the night, ordered some dinner and drifted off to sleep after a small solo celebration of putting my feet on foreign soil for the first time in my life.

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Day 2 – Fight for Permits!

Next morning i got up early as I wanted to be one of the first person to apply for the permit and get done with it as soon as possible. I knew solo travellers were not allowed in Bhutan and a few of my friends who were traveling solo to Bhutan like me had a difficult time in getting the permits from the embassy. So I mentally prepared myself for a tough time ahead to convince the authorities to grant me the permit and rode towards the embassy. As expected, I was denied permits within 15 minutes of applying it. But I stood my ground and refused to leave the counter till the official was forced to send me to his senior. I had to wait for a good hour as his supposed senior turned up late for work that day. Much to my disappointment he shooed me away within 5 minutes saying that it was not in his hands to give me permits! But he did not know that I was not of the giving up types and explained it to him that I had not come 1000 kms from my home to get denied, this time a little aggressively. He then forwarded my application to his senior and I started to feel a little restless of being sent from one person to the other. His senior was a lady, probably everyone’s boss in the embassy. She called me in her office, looked at my application, then looked at me and asked me in fluent English

“how many days permit do you need?”
“A week.” I replied.
“I can only give you five days” she said

and I was more than happy to get them. I ran out of the embassy with my permit, happy and relieved and went straight to the RTO to get permit for Bikey. I submitted my documents and received the permit in no time and both me and Bikey were now good to go to the land of the thunder dragon.
What followed next can very well be termed as the most beautiful ride of my life. The road from Phuntsholing to Thimpu was the best road I have ever ridden on till date. Perfectly smooth tarmac, double laned, very less traffic, sensible drivers and most importantly, the beauty of the Himalayas, the road had it all. The road was so good that I was doing 65-70 kmph on the twisted roads of the mountains! In no time I covered half of the 150 kms from Phuntsholing to Thimpu and decided to have my brunch. My first meal in Bhutan comprised of Puris and a sabzi of potatoes and cheese. I stopped for many photo breaks en route as every view seemed to be better than the previous one.

The first village/town which I came across after entering Bhutan, Gave me a fair idea about the cleanliness and beauty of the place.

One of the many doors en-route, this one with the pictures of the King and the Queen of Bhutan.

I reached the huge door welcoming me into Thimpu at late evening with the sunlight fading away.
I entered the clean capital of Bhutan and was surprised to see everything so organised! I spotted a designated place for parking two-wheelers and parked my Bikey there and asked the traffic guard about economical hotels. He walked me to the first couple of hotels and also asked me leave my saddle bags on the bike, assuring me that things don’t get stolen in Bhutan! I took my chance and checked into a hotel which fit into my shoe string of a budget and went back to fetch my saddle bag and found it just the way I had left it!

Thimpu turned out to be a very tourist friendly and joyful city with lots of staying options. Restaurants and Bars seemed to be the main occupation of the people living there. I took a long walk in the hilly capital and found out the procedure to get my permits extended to visit Punakha. Late at night i saw a few children burning fire crackers and realised that it was diwali in our country. I was a little surprised to see people celebrating diwali so far away from home and joined them in celebration. I must admit I missed my folks back at home a lot at that time. Dinner comprised of the local Druk beer and momos and i drifted away to one of the most satisfying sleeps of my life that night.

 

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Day 3 – Pedestrian Day Blues

At Phuntsholing, one gets a permit to only visit Thimpu and Paro. I had plans of exploring Bhutan beyond the common places. Therefore, at the dinner table on the previous night I shared a beer with a Bhutanese gentleman named Sangay and asked him about the procedure to extend my permit to Punakha and Haa. Luckily for me, he didn’t get too drunk and remembered to inform me about a custom observed on every Tuesday in Bhutan called the “Pedestrian Day”. Apparently, The Royal Bhutan Government passed an order banning movement of any vehicle in their cities from 7 am to 7 pm every Tuesday in order to reduce pollution and encourage physical fitness among its citizens. In spite of the noble aim of the initiative, it gave me what I called Tuesday-Morning-Pedestrian-Day-Blues!!! Sangay told me that I won’t be allowed to ride my bike in Thimpu the next day. He also gave me the suggestion to park the bike at a government allotted parking space outside the city limit before 7 am and then start for Punakha directly from there. Under the influence of Druk beer, it didn’t sound that difficult but it turned out to be otherwise the next day.

As told by Sangay, I got up at 6 am in the morning and rode bikey around 5 kms to the Pedestrian day parking space outside the city. I parked my bike along with hundreds of other vehicles and started walking back to my hotel feeling the chill of the early morning. Now, 5 kms in itself is not a less distance to walk, add to that the ups and downs of the hills, and further add my unfit and obese self to it and the result will be a very tired Ramneek!  The worst was yet to come.

See the board??

I freshened up, had my breakfast and reached the immigration office precisely at 9 am to get my permits extended. I had thought that it would be a quick affair but to my surprise, the lady at the counter politely asked me to come after 3 hours! I decided to explore Thimpu in these 3 hours but since it was the Pedestrian Day I had to do so on foot.

Headphones tucked inside the ears, camera in my hand, I started walking downhill. First I visited the palace of the King of Bhutan. I had just clicked a couple of photographs when a royal guard walked towards me and threatened to take away my camera!!! Apparently it was a no photography zone. I quickly apologized and rushed away. Next I visited the small textile market. All the items were highly overpriced and so I had to be content with only taking back photographs as mementos. Still having time in my hand, I decided to walk to the other side of the town to the Thimpu Memorial Chorten (stupa/temple) built in the memory of the 3rd King of Bhutan. It was a beautiful place with the white Chorten right at the centre of the compound with lots of flowers, pigeons and old Buddhist monks who were happily busy in their daily prayers.

The Palace of The King of Bhutan

Even bicyclists wear helmets!!!

Police = Speed

The Memorial Chorten at Thimpu

Praying happily

My 3 hour timeline had ended by then and so I walked back to the immigration office to collect my permit (lots of walking!!). I then checked out of my hotel in Thimpu and that’s when the toughest walk began. I had to now walk to the RTO office to extend bikey’s permit and then to the parking space to start my journey to Punakha. All the while carrying a heavy backpack on my back and an overflowing saddle bag in my hands!! The only relief for me was that the RTO office was en-route the parking space. Huffing, Puffing and Sweating I reached the RTO office only to find it closed!! Upon enquiry I found out that it was lunch break. After an hour’s wait I got Bikey’s permits extended and within no time I was out of Thimpu city and on my way to Punakha. The road from Thimpu to Punakha was very similar to the roads of East Sikkim. Even though it was well maintained, it was narrow with very less civilization and lots of flora and fauna.

Somewhere in the middle of Thimpu and Punakha lies the Dochu La. At 10000 feet ASL it was to be the highest point of my trip in Bhutan what I didn’t know was that it was also going to be a revelation. The temperatures started to go down as I approached Dochu La. One last pull of the throttle and suddenly the ascent gave way to a flat table top area and I had reached Dochu La. It was a mesmerizing place to say the least. The place offered a near 360 degrees view of the surroundings and luckily for me it was a clear day which enabled me to see far and wide to the snow covered pristine mountain tops in the distance. The Dochu La also housed the Druk Wangyal Chorten also known as the 108 Chorten. The beautiful compound had 108 small Stupas rolled in a circle. It was here that I made the ironical observation that we have many temples back in India which have 108 small temples in it (the 108 Shiva temples in Burdwan is an example). The number 108 kind of stuck to me.

One of the features of my trip in Bhutan was that I found very few co-tourists wherever I went and since I was myself travelling solo, whenever I wanted a photograph to feature me in it, I had to either request a fellow tourist or take a self-timer shot. At the 108 Chorten I was the sole tourist and hence I had to depend on my camera’s self timer to get my shots. Being all alone at the Chorten gave me the liberty to try some crazy shots. After about 15-20 minutes of breathlessly jumping like a monkey at 10000 feet ASL I got the shot I wanted and the satisfaction made the entire effort worth it.

With evening approaching, I started to ride downhill towards Punakha and after an uneventful ride of another hour or so I reached the town of Kuruthang which was just a few kms before Punakha. I was told that Punakha did not have any hotels and hence it was better to spend the night at Kuruthang. I had reached Kuruthang after night fall so I did not get a chance to explore the town much. I checked into a nominal hotel ordered my regular dinner of momos and the local beer. It had been the most eventful day of the trip for me till now and even though I had agonizing pain in my legs, I had satisfaction in my heart. Little did I know that I was about to visit one of the most scenic places of my life the next day.

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Day 4 – A day full of unexpected pleasant surprises.

For the past one week or so, I had been getting up early in the morning, riding all day and sleeping late. On this day however, I had an easy schedule and therefore I took the liberty to laze around in my bed for the additional couple of hours. Ultimately, I did manage to pull myself out of my bed I went about to explore the very small town of Kuruthang. The town was almost the size of a large village with the two most significant structures being an engineering college and a large monastry where I found a few monks sunbathing on its roof!!

Enjoying the morning at Kuruthang

The monks taking a sunbath on top of the monastry!

I left for Punakha which was just 7-8 kms away. On my way to Punakha I found things a little weird. The roads leading to the town very colorfully decorated with the custom prayer flags but what was most surprising was the fact that almost the entire town was on the road, probably to welcome some famous personality. I for sure knew that my monkey act atop the 108 Chortens at the Dochu La had not me this famous, yet. I reached the Punakha Dzong and parked my bike at the almost full parking lot of the Dzong. Upon enquiring I found out the main reason for all the commotion. Apparently, Punakha with its amiable climate serves as the winter capital of Bhutan. Also, the head clergy of Bhutan along with his entire entourage of monks travels from Thimpu to Punakha in winters and spend the winters in the Punakha Dzong. When I came to know about this, I had a bell ring in my head. All throughout my journey from Thimpu to Punakha the previous day, I was accompanied by an entourage of vehicles carrying a few monks. Little did I know that one of the cars was carrying the head clergy of the country!!!

That explained all the festivities and I thanked my stars for bringing me to this holy place on such an auspicious day. This also meant that all the inner chambers of the Dzong were open to be visited on that day. The Punakha Dzong, which has a rich cultural, religious and political history, is one of the most important religious seats in Bhutan and I was lucky to have access to many of the inner rooms of the Dzong having marvelously beautiful idols and structures of the country and the religion. However, photography was not permitted inside the inner chambers so whatever beauty I saw in the inner chambers of the Dzong will only be available in my memory.

There was no restriction in photographing the Dzong from the outside and from its corridors and I made full use of the opportunity. The Dzong is located right in the centre of a picturesque valley at the confluence of two rivers which makes it a spectacularly scenic sight. A wooden bridge allows movement across the river from the main road to the second largest Dzong of Bhutan. The Dzong was full of gardens having colorful flowers and I just couldn’t help but marvel the heavenly place.

After taking lots and lots of photographs I rode a little away from the Dzong and found an opening to take bikey right till the edge of the river. What unfolded in front of me was one of the most scenic places I had visited in my life so far. A beautiful valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides, a clear river trickling right at the centre of the valley with the mighty Punakha Dzong in the distance. Clear blue sky, no sign of pollution and perfect weather. It was just the way I had imagined heaven to be. It just couldn’t get better! I clicked to my heart’s content.

 

Without even realizing, I had spent a good 5 hours at the Punakha Dzong, admiring its beauty and surroundings and taking dozens of pics. Finally it was time for me to head back to Kuruthang and then start my journey forward. I checked out of Kuruthang, saddled up and left towards Thimpu, not sure whether to spend the night at Thimpu or ride ahead to Paro. I retraced my route to Thimpu via Dochu La stopping only to have hot tea at 10000 feet ASL. On the way, I heard the thump of 15-20 Royal Enfields approaching me. i was surprised to see that all of them were being ridden by firangis. They stopped seeing me and we had a long chat and a photo break. They were surprised to know that I was doing the Himalayas on a 135cc bike. I just smiled in reply.

Borthers in arms!!

I reached Thimpu at late evening and realized that I still had around 30-45 mins of sunlight and decided to continue till Paro. By the time I reached Paro it was completely dark and it had got very cold. I was told that accommodation in Paro was a little on the expensive side and so while entering the city I was praying that I do not have to hop from hotel to hotel in the cold in order to find a room which will fit my shoestring of a budget. My guardian angel was not done with throwing surprises at me for the day. The first two hotels which I approached were charging more than Rs 1000 for a night. Then I reached to the end of the road and entered Hotel Dragon. The following conversation took place between me and the hotel’s manager –

Me – Kuzu Zangpo (greetings in Bhutanese language)
Hotel owner (with a broad smile) – Kuzu Zangpo
Me – You have a single bed room?
Hotel owner – Sorry sir, only double bed rooms
I looked sad.
Hotel owner – Please see the room, If you like them, I can give you an off season discount.

He took me to show the room. It was a clean and decent room with two single beds, colorful curtains, soothing lights, carpeted floor, cable TV, etc. He then showed me the bathroom and my eyes popped out for a second. It had a huge bathtub at one of the corner with 24 hours hot water facility. I knew this would be way out of my budget, Rs 2000 I thought to myself.

Hotel owner – You liked the room sir?
Me – Yes, it is nice. How much for a night?
Hotel owner – The rate is Rs 1500 sir, you can have it at Rs 1200.
Me – Way out of my budget sir, thanks anyways for showing me. (I said with a sad smile.)
Hotel owner – Rs 1000.
Me – I am a student on a motorcycle roadtrip.
Hotel owner – How much is your budget?
Me – 500
He thought for a minute and said – Final price Rs 800
I shook my head and started to pick up my saddle bag.
Hotel owner – Ok ok come come, but next time when you come I will take Rs 1500.

I was ecstatic!! Nowhere on earth does one get a room for just Rs 500 with a bathtub in it!! I turned on the hot water tap, opened my beer, and lay inside the bath tub. La Dolce Vita!!

Somewhere in the middle of the night I felt very cold. I opened my eyes and realized that I had gone to sleep inside the bathtub and the hot water had now turned cold. I rushed to the bed and felt comfortable under the warmth of the quilt. I thanked my starts for blessing me with lots of luck for the day and drifted off to sleep. Next day I was supposed to visit my most anticipated place in Bhutan, the Taktsang Monastery or the Tiger’s Nest. A monastery literally hanging on a cliff.

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Day 5 – Meeting the Tiger, at the nest

If The Taj Mahal is the most famous monument of India, then the most famous monument of Bhutan has to be the Taktsang Monastry also known as The Tiger’s Nest. Ever since I had made the plan of going to Bhutan, The Tiger’s Nest had been the most anticipated destination for me. A 3 hour hike to reach a monastery which literally hangs on a cliff, giving the impression that it might slip any moment! It doesn’t gets better than that, And why is it called The Tiger’s Nest? I was just about to go and find that out.

After a sumptuous breakfast I left the hotel and asked for directions to The Tiger’s Nest (at that time I did not have a phone with a GPS). I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at the Drukoyel Dzong. It was a place which I had planned to visit after Taktsang but now that I had reached there I decided to see it first. From what I had read, it was a very old Dzong which was destroyed by a vicious forest fire somewhere in the 18th century. The place was in ruins. The steps leading to it were in a dire state and I had to do a lot of jumping and stretching myself to reach the inside of the Dzong. I was the only person in the Dzong and I got a lot of haunted vibes from the place! Much to my disappointment I didn’t see any ghost even after spending half an hour at the place!

I rode back towards Paro and this time double checked the turn for the Tiger’s Nest. Within no time I reached a place where the road ended into the woods and I could see all the vehicles parked there. From there the Taktsang monastery looked just a few inches big but I was determined to visit it at all cost. Being an amateur I started the hike at a brisk pace, I was under the impression that if I go this way then I will finish the 3 hour hike in may be just 2 hours. I was soon proven wrong as I started to get completely out of breath just after 15-20 minutes. I took a 5 minutes rest break and saw that many foreigners, most of whom were 50+ were going past me. This gave me the motivation and I started once again, this time at a normal pace, taking one step at a time and realized that this approach was better. At the halfway mark I saw a café but decided that I will stop there on my way back and continued. Just like any other trek, the small track passed through many ups and downs, with different kinds of tree and flowers at every bend.

Finally, I reached the fabled Tiger’s Nest and was awestruck to see the beauty of the place. How that monastery was constructed on that cliff more than 2300 feet ASL and how it is still standing even after centuries is still a mystery to me. Photography inside the monastery is strictly prohibited therefore I had to be content with clicking only its marvelous exteriors. I struck up a conversation with one of the monks of the monastery and asked him about the mystery of the name. He told me that Guru Rinpoche flew to the cave where the monastery now stands on the back of a Tiger and meditated here for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours. This gave the place the name of The Tiger’s Nest. He also told me the Taktsang literally means “Tiger’s Lair” in the Bhutanese language.

After spending close to 2 hours in the Monastery I started my trek downhill. Naturally, it was easier as compared to the trek uphill and reached the parking place in little over 1 and half hours. By that time it was late evening. It was again dark when I reached Paro and the trek had left me completely exhausted. I tried the local Bhutanese cuisine for dinner and then retraced myself back to the warm waters of the bathtub and the cold waters of the Druk beer.
The Tiger’s Nest was struck off from my list of “The places to see before I die”

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Day 6 – Kaadinche Bhutan!

I had got permit to stay in Bhutan for just 5 days and even though I had planned to visit the Haa valley as well but this time it was not to be. Sadly, it was my last day in Bhutan. I got up lazily as I didn’t have any plans for the day. I checked out of the hotel in Paro and thanked the wonderful owner for all his generosity.

I then visited the Rinpung Dzong also known as the Paro Dzong. It was huge structure located on the side of the mountain overlooking the city. Such was the location of the Dzong that one could see it from almost every corner of Paro. The Dzong was not at grand as the Punakha Dzong, neither it was strategically located at a cliff like the Tiger’s Nest. Still, it had a charm of its own. The compound of the Dzong had a large and beautiful garden with horses enjoying their breakfast of green grass. There were various interesting structures made out of pieces of rocks in one of the gardens. The Dzong in itself was very similar to any other Dzong with lots of painting on its walls and huge idols of the gods in the rooms.

Just above the Dzong was the National Museum of Bhutan located on top of a watch tower. I had never been a museum person and hence decided to give it a pass and started my ride back to the plains of India. I rode at a leisurely pace, stopping every now and then for a photo break.

I stopped for lunch at the same restaurant where I had had my first meal in Bhutan on my way to Thimpu. By the time I was just 20 odd kms away from Phuntsholing I could see the plains below, stretching as far as the eyes could see. To top it all up the sun was just planning to set and so I slowed my speed a bit to catch the sunset from the mountains. I wasn’t disappointed as I saw a lovely view of the sun calling it a day behind the mountains. There couldn’t have been a better way for Bhutan to tell me Goodbye, all I whispered was Kaadinche Bhutan. (Thank you Bhutan.)

I reached Jaigaon in no time and checked into the same hotel where I had previously spent a night. With that, this leg of my Grand Eastern Himalayan Odyssey came to an end.

This was my first solo ride and even though I had a lot of apprehensions, I knew that I will be just fine. The reason for it was that I had spent quite some time now in this wonderful family called xKmph and even though the learning never stops, by reading and discussing about biking from all the members of our extended family, I had learnt a trick or two to pull off a solo ride and as far as inspiration goes, there is no dearth of it at xKmph. Therefore, I fell its only befitting that I dedicate this travelogues, which is very close to my heart to all of you. I dedicate this, to ………………….

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