Sunday, September 15, 2013

The road from west to east- the long road home to T/gang

Stage 1- Thimphu to Trongsa: 80kms as the crow flies, 200kms on the road and 7½ hours.

Driver #1 was a young speed demon, who didn’t really start off on the right foot with us. After confirming that we were leaving at 7am twice with him before the day of departure he still managed to arrive almost an hour late in the true tradition of BST. (Bhutanese Stretchable Time) Then having loaded the luggage into his small Suzuki Alto, he proceeded to request more money for the journey and we were about to start searching for another driver when he begrudgingly took to the wheel.

At the immigration checkpoint just outside the capital my spirits were lifted by recognizing the officer checking our paperwork. He was a key goal-scoring player in the Sherubste College soccer team that won the Royal Wedding Cup in 2011at Rangjung and I recognized him immediately. He also recognized us and was charming. Not only did he efficiently stamp our road permit but he also walked us back to the car wishing us a safe journey.

Not long after that we made a brief stop at Dochu La. No matter how many times we see those chortens we cannot fail to be impressed. However this time the clouds completely obstructed the view across the valley to the mountains beyond. Though we knew they were there, the sheer drop at the cliff face was a sea of clouds and the mountains were completely obscured.

Our next stop was unexpected and the reason behind it was something of a surprise. It is unusual to see huge trees felled and lying by the side of the road here in nature loving Bhutan but when we joined the line up of waiting vehicles that was exactly our visual. The sounds of even more gigantic trees crashing to the ground confirmed for us that this was definitely a scheduled event. We assumed that widening the road was the reason behind the felling. By the time the line of vehicles got mobile again our driver was obsessed with making up for lost time and went into racing car mode and from that point on we didn’t dare request any other stops for fear of the consequences.

He suggested a stop for lunch at Nobding and we were more than happy to take a break from the treacherous roads and his reckless driving. I also took the opportunity to photograph the local artwork on the walls of general stores and houses in the town while we waited for lunch to be prepared. In record time we were back in the vehicle and off once again. Just outside the town we stopped to present a local farmer with a paper cone of doma (betel nut) and were told that he was the father of a friend of the driver. Another 10 minutes down the road that very friend joined us in the vehicle so that the driver would not return to Thimphu alone in the dark.

Although we had planned to stop en route to deliver some groceries to one of the teachers in Tshangkha, we were unable to spot her on the roadside and for fear of inducing our driver greater feats of daring, we simply handed them over to a uniform wearing student in the proximity of her school. He claimed to know Miss Sarah and that was good enough for us. She later confirmed that she did indeed receive them so all’s well that ends well.

It was late afternoon when we were deposited at the front door of the Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse and we were delighted to be in Trongsa alive and well and gladly paid Driver #1 his pre-negotiated fee!

Trongsa is a really lovely town with spectacular scenery and in a great location as it is so accessible to many other regions and towns as well as being a significant capital of a district with a spectacular Dzong. From the roadside above town and facing that magnificent Dzong, we flew some prayer flags calling for peace as they flap in the wind and release their blessings, with our thoughts focused on one of my former colleagues in Australia, Marie Shane. 

Monkeys prowl the town and are clever thieves in Trongsa. We spent an evening with the BCF teacher placed there and delivered a few treats from the capital to him but by far the highlight of that stop along the way was going out to see some of my former students from Rangjung.

Stage #1b Trongsa to Taktse to Trongsa: 20kms and one hour each way each way.

It involved another driver and journey to reach Taktse Higher Secondary School. This time we selected our driver carefully and he drove sedately over the worst roads we have seen thus far in Bhutan without incident. We even saw a front end loader lifting the back of an articulated truck around the bends to align the cabin and trailer as the wheel base was longer than the stretches of road it was negotiating! We patiently waited for this maneuvering before we too negotiated those narrow, slippery, muddy bends. 

It was a delight to see and chat with several former RHSS students at THSS. I got a big kick out of hearing about their future plans and what has transpired since I left. They are all students who didn't qualify for class XI but as I understand it and I may be wrong- since their grades were good in the arts subjects and it was science subjects that were the stumbling block and their scores only slightly below the standard needed they have been given the chance to study class XI in a special program which is only Dzongkha (the national language) and English and will lead them to careers in translation, language teaching or cultural positions in Bhutan. It is the only such program in the country and a rare opportunity. Many are first time boarders and were delighted to see the sweets and chocolates I had for them. It was a lovely afternoon and we were so glad we braved the roads to get out to them.

Stage 2 Trongsa to Chumey: 20kms as the crow flies, about 60kms on the road and 2 hours.

Driver # 2 was an informative chatterbox, who had no intention of arriving in less then the 2 hours he had predicted that the journey would take and despite the car’s almost complete lack of suspension; we enjoyed the ride and the non stop conversation. Those 2 most dangerous of topics: politics and religion, were his mainstays. He was thrilled to tell us that the newly elected Prime Minister was exactly what Bhutan needed and outlined in detail all his wonderful plans and the excellent qualities, which made him ideal for the job. Our confession that we had no particular religious convictions puzzled him and despite many attempts to distract him, he returned to that topic again and again throughout the journey.  We admired the views and arrived with perfect timing at the Chisholm family’s residence in Chumey central Bhutan.

The next 3 days evaporated in no time chatting in rapid fire Aussie English and comparing experiences and impressions of Bhutan. It was gratifying to realize that many of our opinions and concerns were identical despite the very big differences in locations, schools and grades. 

We divided our time almost exactly equally between attending class 2 lessons with Andrea and assisting wherever possible and hanging out with Bob and the boys playing, reading and exploring.

Without the assistance of Pema Dawa from the River Lodge in Bumthang, we would certainly still be in Chumey. After several failed attempts at finding a taxi driver willing to drive the long haul to Trashigang in one day, Pema came to the rescue and arranged the deal for us.

Stage 3 Chumey to Tashigang: Chumey to Trashigang 85kms as the crow flies, about 300kms on the road and 10 hours.

Driver # 3 was a careful driver and a true gentleman, who arrived promptly, and focused all his attention on the road and kept up a steady safe pace for the entire journey. He had good reason be so attentive because as the day progressed he drove through glaring sun just after dawn, thick blinding fog and the clouds as we climbed higher and higher, torrential rain, washed out roads, mud, landslides blocking the road and then clear blue skies and burning heat in Mongar and T/gang.

I had forgotten how dramatically the landscape changes as you venture farther east but this trip was perfect, slowly revealing the changes.

There is something about the east of Bhutan. As you drive out of Bumthang and cross the river you begin a real adventure. The regiments of old, tall, ramrod straight trees draped with Old Man's Beard stand guard over the east's treasures. To pass there is to enter another world where views give way to vistas. The landscape speaks of time immemorial, of nature undisturbed where people are tolerated only as long as we take enough care as any false step could end in disaster. Gravity is unconcerned with what or whom it attracts. The sentinel like spruce trees finally give way to broad leaf forests and lush undergrowth. It seems that if you stood still too long the forest tendrils would seek you out, wind around you and draw you in to their verdant mass. In the east the mountains seem higher, the valleys deeper, the sides steeper, the peaks sharper. The view seems endless with interlocking spurs, shaped by the power of the rivers over millennia, disappearing into the misty distance.

The roads in the east cling more precariously to the mountainsides than those in the west. After passing through Ura and Sengor you descend towards Mongar. As you travel you see enormous Rhododendron bushes as big as trees and eventually neem and guava alongside citrus and other fruit trees.

We stopped briefly for tea just before Thrumsing La and once we reached the pass we strung up some prayer flags before continuing on our way. I was thinking of a former student of mine now studying in university and hoping that these flags flying high in the Himalayas would help her achieve high scores and excel in her chosen field. These  were for you Shirley Curtis.

A brief lunch stop in Mongar started with a flurry of messages from BCFers congregating in Trashigang for a reunion and that heightened our excitement and anticipation. 

Along the way we collected the new Yadi teacher who wanted to join us all in T/gang. But I cannot pass through or even think about Yadi without remembering Scott our dear friend and a member of the 2011 intake just like us. Just as passing through Mongar will always bring 2 other fellow BCfers and nomadic wanderers, Julia and Charly to mind, even though they are now beginning their new adventure in Japan.

The sight of the golden roof of the Trashigang Dzong marked our arrival back to where our Bhutan adventure really began over two years ago.
I must say it does feel nice to be home.

No comments:

Post a Comment