BHUTAN, A small landlocked country nestled in the Himalayas, is pretty much overshadowed by it’s formidable neighbours. Like a quiet kid in a boisterous group of teenagers, it is easy to miss. Bhutan first caught my attention when I was 14. I read all about the country for a competition and have been fascinated by it ever since.
10 years down the line, having had our first taste of the corporate rat-race, me and some of my friends were looking for a temporary out. Bhutan was by far the most obvious destination. Never the ones to go for organized tours, what followed was a lengthy process of reading, planning, cancelling, re-planning and, the worst of all, waiting. Finally on the 22nd of March as I waited outside the railway station, I could hardly hold back my enthusiasm. Bhutan beckoned. Our land of beyond!
Our love for train journeys somehow coaxed us into signing up for a 50 hours long train ride from Mumbai(LTT) to Hashimara . Yes you read that right, 50 hours! What followed was endless hours of playing UNO, reading, and talking to strangers about our plans; as our train slowly snaked it’s way across the country. ‘Talking to strangers’, that’s the one thing train travel offers, which makes me love it so much. The time passed quickly as we had some beautiful rustic views for company.
On day 3(Friday), we reached Hashimara at 1.30 pm and hurried toward Phuentsholing in a taxi, for the most crucial part of our journey – Getting the travel permits. Our entire trip hinged on reaching the immigration office in time. We had to get our permits approved before the office closed for the weekend. Failing to do so would have left us with just 4 days inside Bhutan. A 90 minutes delay caused by our train and BST being 30 minutes ahead of IST surely didn’t help. Luckily we were able to put in our papers 15 minutes before the window closed. A nervous 2 hours long wait later, we received our travel permits. We stepped out of the immigration office thoroughly relieved.
Now we had the peace of mind to appreciate the fact that we were on foreign soil for the first time in our lives. The unbelievably clean and relatively empty streets of Phuentsholing provided a stark contrast to the utterly dirty and chaotic Jaigaon just across the Bhutan gate. Just as we were breathing in the ‘fresh’ air we ran into a group of locals wearing masks to protect themselves from the pollution. Oh the irony! I can only imagine their reactions if they ever visited Delhi. We booked our bus tickets to reach Paro the next day and found a place to stay the night.
The bus ride next day was a memorable one. As the bus followed the long and windy road through the mountains, we were enthralled by the scenery around us. The never-ending greenery was punctuated with many a peach trees in full bloom.There was a noticeable chill in the air now. The burbling river-water ,which followed us throughout the journey, provided an apt background music to the beauty around us.
Also, this journey was our first opportunity to really observe the locals. Everybody knew each other. Anecdotes and food were being passed around casually. It felt like an invisible boundary was separating me from their exotic little world, as I observed them from the backseat of the bus. Suddenly a lady passed a packet of dried peaches to me. Just like that I was now a part of their world. We spent the rest of the time talking to them about their daily lives. I couldn’t believe that they religiously followed the Indian cricket team and they couldn’t understand how or why all 4 of us were wearing glasses! Our permits were checked at a couple of check points and at one point every bag in the bus was checked for undeclared tobacco.
We eventually reached Paro late in the afternoon and were recommended a hotel by the Bus Driver’s wife. This place, as it turned out, was a steal! A room right at the riverbank for an impossibly low price is any backpacker’s dream come true. We were lost in the scenery for a long time until our growling stomachs bought us back to reality. And thus began our struggle with food in Bhutan. It is either really bland or really spicy! We went with bland. So after a very unsatisfying meal we went around exploring the town. It was a very tiny place. All the houses had the typical Bhutanese architecture and were painted in all kinds of bright, funky colours. There were prayer wheels everywhere. The almost empty streets were impeccably clean. We saw the people(All wearing their traditional attire) quietly going about their business without any fuss. It was all silent and serene. And as the sun called it a day, we sat at the river bank looking at the wonderfully light Rinpung Dzong in the distance. In the silence and serenity of this place, the hustle and bustle of Mumbai seemed like a distant dream. We made arrangements for the next day and went to sleep early.
Next day we left for the Taktsang Lhakhang(Tiger’s nest) very early in the morning to complete the trek in peace and avoid the crowd that comes in later. Our decision to start early was vindicated as we reached the start of the trek. We had the entire mountain to ourselves. Not even the ticket counter had opened. Assuming that we would get the tickets outside the monastery, we started moving up the trail. We were making our way through a thick cover of trees and the monastery, which was visible in the distance, looked so stunning that we couldn’t wait to get there. We had a huge pack of dogs for company. I was nursing my injured knee up the mountain, which pulled me down to an embarrassingly slow pace. Frustrated but determined I kept on moving slowly. My friends slowed down to help me out at times and we eventually reached a viewpoint from where we could see the monastery without any obstructions.
It was a sight to behold. Behind clouds of fog, the monastery stood precariously on a mountain cliff. Just a foot outside the walls a bottomless fall waited patiently. We could not comprehend how someone had build a monastery in such a dangerous place. We were mesmerized. We spent about an hour just sitting there and marveling at this man-made wonder. We then spotted some tourists making their way up the hill and hurried on to the monastery. On reaching there the security in-charge was unhappy because we did not wait at the base to buy our tickets. After some stern words he issued us the tickets and we were allowed to enter the monastery.
We spent an hour in the monastery, fascinated by the stories of that place. The complete silence and the beautiful surroundings held us in a trance. Soon we were on our way back. The descent was even more punishing for my knee. But the sights all around me filled me up with enough motivation to get me through. We reached our hotel late in the afternoon for a well earned rest. We went out for food in the evening at about 8 pm, and discovered, to our horror, that the whole town closes down very early. We found ourselves running around the town looking for something to eat and were lucky to find some tasteless sandwiches to fill our stomachs and went to sleep listening to the river.
PS- You can read the Part 2 of this story here- Bhutan-The Land of Beyond(Part 2)