On the morning of Wednesday 05 February, the entire BCF group piled themselves and recently purchased goods into two small buses, two SUVs and a TATA DCM. The plan was to gradually travel eastward over the next five days dropping each person(s) at their posting location one-by-one, starting with Jessica in Thinleygang, just over Dochu la and only few hours from Thimphu, and ending with Mac in Tsebar, Pemagatsel on the afternoon of day five.
Some might consider this a roadtrip, albeit an unconventional one to be sure. I would argue that you must travel by roadway in order to be on a roadtrip, and that we did for about half the time. Let’s call the other half of this transit a dusty-and-rocky-vertical-cliffside-that-drops-2000m-to-the-valley-floor-that-I-cannot-even-see-because-it-is-too-fucking-steep-trip. But in reality, we only travelled on cliff edges for maybe 30% of the trip, so we’ll use the term roadtrip.
For those being dropped on the first or second day this might not have seemed like much of a roadtrip, but for those of us dropped on day five it certainly was. This voyage came complete with stays in nice hotels each night as opposed to tent or campervan stays as per the normal roadtrip. This was a welcome alteration given that most of us expected our accommodation arrangements at our postings to be a bit less accommodating.
Anyway, onto our brief account of the trip – one in which it took five days to travel across a country that is half the size of Indiana. Yes, it’s that mountainous.
05 February 2014 – Day One
Day one started in Thimphu with a morning of surprisingly orderly and unchaotic packing. We departed the Hotel Sambhav around 10am and were soon crossing over Dochu La pass – a place that often offers spectacular views out over the Bhutanese Himalaya, but which today revealed only a skyline of clouds. Clouds and passes would soon become a theme of the ride eastward, it seemed that half of the travel time was spent in the clouds.
The drive between Dochu La and Punakha is one we’ve been on before and which holds some of the steepest terraced ricefields you’re likely to find anywhere in the world. The terrain is not quite as dramatic as that near Trongsa or Thrumsing La – places that are largely too steep and unadaptable for even these skilled terrace-builders – but it does combine the rural lived-in beauty that you can find in Paro with a more severe landscape and forces one to consider the resilience of the people that chose to make this place home.
We soon dropped Jessica at her roadside room in Thingleygang and soon after Bret was off in one of the SUVs to another town just a bit off the main road. Vicky and Ian were soon packed in the other SUV on their way to Samtengang, but all four joined the rest of us as we stopped for the night at a beautiful riverside hotel, where we proceeded to have a good B&B (Bonfire and Beer) celebration on the river’s shore.
06 February 2014 – Day Two
On the morning of Day Two the remainder of us piled into the two buses, waved to the four departing members, and continued on towards Trongsa.
This is a stretch of road that Angie and I had not travelled during our last brief stay in Bhutan, and the magnitude of the mountains and valleys as well as the steepness of the hillsides dwarfed everything we’d seen west of this point. The drive into Trongsa is stunningly beautiful, the hillsides are much too steep for habitation in many places resulting in mostly undisturbed old growth forest. The road hugs the side of these hillsides and must follow their every curvature, and the eye’s perception of distance is consistently made a fool. A small but steep valley might be all that separates you from a clearly visible and very near stretch of road, but who knows how many curves and directions the road might take to reach that road? At one point we stop at a lookout towards the Trongsa Dzong, and there just before us lies Trongsa seemingly only an arm’s length away. Back on the bus, however, the road twists and turns in and out of the notches and steep valleys in the hillside and it is still an hour’s drive or more before we arrive in Trongsa itself.
We take lunch in Trongsa and this marks the point where Kezia departs southward to her posting in Zhemgang. Julie will be posted here in Trongsa – a beautiful spot – but will continue onto Bumthang with the rest of us for the night. The Diver family is our next drop off in Chumey, a town located over a pass from Trongsa and from which Bumthang lies another pass and valley beyond. They too continue onto Bumthang for the night.
The drive to Bumthang is less spectacular than that around Trongsa, but it is still very beautiful (as everything here is). Bumthang is considered the cultural heart of the country by some and a relative tourist hub by others, but here in offseason we have the hotel virtually to ourselves. We waste no time and most take the short walk into town.
Bumthang is also notable for two of its products: apples – notably apple cider and apple brandy – and a Swiss cheese factory left here by a former Swiss resident. We easily find the apple brandy, but the cheese is only available at the factory located a short walk out of town and across the river. Despite the new night sky in which the moon has not yet shown itself above the high mountain ridges that circle Bumthang, a small group of us push on through the pitch black night towards the cheese armed with a headlamp and the weak torchlights on our Nokia Brick Phones. We return with half a kilo of cheese each – cheese which I can now say nearly a month later ages beautifully.
07 February 2014 – Day Three
The morning of Day Three begins much like that of Day Two – those destined to locations further east pile into the bus, waving farewell to those left behind. This is to be our longest day of driving, one which sees us cross Thrumshing La, the highest pass on our trip at an elevation of 3,800m.
I will tell you that the climb to Thrumshing La is the most unfathomable stretch of road I’ve witnessed to date, and also the most beautiful. The hillsides are unimaginably steep, the road almost constantly bordered by a cliff which falls to an invisible valley floor 1000, 2000 or maybe 3000 m below – it is impossible to discern with the eye anything other than the sheer fall beside you and the immense mountain of rock that rises across the narrow valley. Were you to drive of the edge of this road, you would certainly die, but I cannot say whether it would be from the impact of the valley floor below or the mountain across that valley. Even now thinking about the dimensions of this area, my mind struggles to comprehend how this terrain can exist.
The pass itself is shrouded in clouds and frost and prayer flags, without much visibility but with the overwhelming sensation that anything is possible here. Were I to see a snow leopard here I would doubt the truthfulness of my eyes, but were a wizard or dragon to appear I’d tell my grandchildren of it and probably go to the grave claiming wizards or dragons exist.
The descent from the pass to Lingmethang is a quick one – we go from an elevation of 3800m at the pass to only about 620 m at Lingmethang in about 30 minutes of driving. The Lingmethang valley is almost tropical, a quick change that now makes one doubt the existence of the icy pass where we stood a short time before.
From Lingmethang, we pass over a large river and then gradually climb to Mongar. We lose Keith to his new home up the road north from Lingmethang in Autsho and later we drop Paul just past Mongar, although he returns to the hotel for the night. Mongar is one of the largest, newest and most characterless towns in Bhutan – which is to say that it still retains more character than most large countries. We unload from the buses and take a slow walk through town.
08 February 2014 – Day Four
Day Four sees us set off from Mongar an ever-dwindling group. Paul is left in Mongar and Scott soon departs in Yadhi, where the entire town awaits the arrival of the King who is due on a visit later today. The rest of us continue onward towards Trashigang, with Warren and Ash heading north to their locations towards Lhuentse and Travis and Kevin continuing due east from Trashigang towards their postings in Bidung and Rangjung. The remaining six of us lunch in Trashigang, a beautifully situated little town nestled on a hillside behind the Dzong, and then continue on towards Carmelita’s new home in Kanglung.
Upon arrival in Kanglung we are received by Carmelita’s jovial principal in a way we had not been received elsewhere – he speaks to all of us and then ushers us to a nearby restaurant for tea. Carmelita returns with us to the Linkhor Lodge, undoubtedly the nicest place we’ve stayed in Bhutan.
The Linkhor Lodge is owned by a former minister and is a collection of high-end bungalow-style residences which rise above the large organic garden below. It’s a splendid place and one we’ll certainly return to for a bit of rest and relaxation – we get discounted rates compared to tourists and it’s an enticing place a rate of 1,500 ngultrum (under $30 USD).
09 February 2014 – Day Five
Day Five is a short day for us as we soon find ourselves in Khaling after a quick drive of under two hours from the Linkhor Lodge. We are soon greeted by Angie’s welcoming principal, Sir Leki, who insists on serving tea to all the remaining teachers. We are soon shown to our new home and our belongings moved in with the help of Sir Leki, the school caretaker and the remaining teachers. It is a really beautiful valley and our first feelings are ones of joy – both at our little cottage situated on a hill with views out over the main town and with the beauty of the valley itself, circled with mountains.
We bid goodbye to the few onward traveling teachers unsure of when we would next see them. We have been in Bhutan for nearly three weeks, but now begins our living here…