Ride of a Lifetime

Posted on December 11, 2009

In my previous visits to Bhutan I've come to know the west and central part of the country. We depart Bhumthang, into unknown (well, for me) territory. We have our longest drive, to the town of Mongar. 125 miles away by road, but only 40 miles as the crow flies. The trip will take 7 hours. The road for the most part follows the centuries old foot path, which was still the only way to traverse this region until 30 years ago.

That overused new age cliche, 'it's the journey, not the destination,' never rang so true for me as it did today.

Out of the Bumthang Valley up to the Shertang Pass at 10,500', just a moderate pass in Bhutan. It's an hour of climbing though cedar and spruce forest, speckled with hamlets, all big sturdy houses, fallow fields of buckwheat and potatoes, all harvested now. Cows amble on the roads, and prayer flags and chortens are everywhere. Chortens are religious structures, made of stone, square in shape, with sloped slate roofs, always painted white with a red band under the roof. They can be the size of a mini bar refrigerator, or as big as a 2 car garage. Buried in the base is either a religious relic or gems. Most are centuries old, though new ones still under construction. Often times in the middle of the road, or originally the footpath, the roads accommodate these, and the drivers revere them. Other chortens straddle a stream, are hollow in the center but for a prayer drum, the size of a wine barrel, filled with prayers written on canvas, and bound tightly together. A propeller extends into the stream to continuously turn the drum, releasing prayers. With prayer flags and prayer drums never out of sight, the Bhutanese know the air is full of prayers. We Westerners might balk, our conditioning I guess.

Across the first pass we're in a high valley where there is but one small tightly packed village all built of stone and wood. A gold roofed monastery in the center, extends a story above the 2 floor houses. Fallow fields and now leafless apples trees in the orchards hug the town. It's oddly reminiscent of Switzerland. We stop for a picnic lunch here, cold by the roadside, and hundreds of crows alight to look for a handout. The bolder ones take food out of my hand, they all caw so noisily it makes conversation difficult. I recall Alfred Hitchcock's movie, The Birds, though we've no fear. Warm in the car again, we have Thrumshing pass ahead of us, at 11,500 feet. Here we see the usual vast assortment of prayer flags and an enormous chorten, size of a small house. The we begin to descend, and soon are in a no mans land. I mean, no sign that humans have ever touched this piece of Bhutan, but for the road. It's all wild conifer forest, never logged and little visited. Icicles have formed at the continuous springs that seep out of the hillside. Patches of ice and snow along the road. Amongst the conifers, giant leaved rhododendrons. No people, no villages, no cows, so no prayer flags or chortens. Bears, leopards and tigers in the forest. Dorji has seen leopards along the road at dusk. Tigers and bears too reticent to show themselves.

A gold roofed monastery in the center, extends a story above the 2 floor houses. Fallow fields and now leafless apples trees in the orchards hug the town. It's oddly reminiscent of Switzerland.

The valley floor is 10,000 below us, and we drive, no we plunge down in less than 2 hours. Cresting the pass, we can just make out the bottom, and it's dizzying to grasp that's our destination. While not of course a vertical drop, I'll bet money there's not another place in the world a road makes such a descent. We begin our ride, on a seeming infinite series of spaghetti like zig zags. As the speed limit in Bhutan is 30 mph, the drivers all seem extremely cautious, and the road is smoothly paved and with concrete guardrails, I am relaxed the entire descent. Also, there's no traffic. We change climate type every 15 minutes. It's initially like some primeval coniferous forest, the trees immense with broken tops that have then re sprouted and grown anew. Asymmetry at its most lovely. Garlanded with yard long thick strands of old man's beard lichen (looks like Spanish moss). Then the dominant species changes, and other types of needle leaved trees take over, abruptly stands of bamboo appear, intermixed with conifers, minutes later it's bamboo and nothing else. Soon forests of many species of rhododendrons take center stage, no degree in botany needed to notice the different varieties, some have foot long leaves, dark grey-green, other leaves narrow and pointed, some almost round. In the spring this must be a spectacle. Then we leave the rhododendron for more bamboo, but this time it's giant timber bamboo, 40 feet high. Next oak, birch, alder. For about 3 minutes it looks like New England, even down to the orange and yellow fall foliage. Then we get a quick look at arid oak forest, not unlike the hills of California, tawny grass below the trees. Farewell to faux California and it seems like time travel to a prehistoric fern world, with giant tree ferns attached to the vertical mountainside, and growing parallel to it, and hanging ferns, their fronds 10 feel long, sprouting out of the cliff side and hanging over the road. A few more moments a return to the world of flowering plants; big rain forest type trees appear. They have colossal trunks, and buttress roots, and appear inches from the side of the road, as though they threaded the road amongst the trees. Initially the trunks are clean, but not long before lower altitude permits Tarzan like vines to climb them and hang, and countless epiphytic ferns and orchids flourish on trunks and branches.Waterfall sprout from the heights above, ribbons of white water hitting and spattering the road At about this point, small but brightly colored birds appear, flitting and darting over the road, or drinking from the puddles. Just about now the valley floor comes into better focus, and we see houses and terraced rice fields. It's the first sign of humans since the pass. Terraced rice fields are common in Bhutan. How else to grow rice on these slopes? They look for all the world like 3 dimensional contour maps. Sure it's utilitarian, but they're unintentionall (?) things of beauty. Made hundreds of years ago, and still in use. The forest only thins out as it's has been partially cleared for agriculture. The road is lined with billowy hedges of 15 foot tall poinsettias. Orchards of mango and tangerines appear, the tangerines just being harvested, the trees still heavy with fruit, but piles of orange orbs at roadside are so tall that many roll onto the asphalt and under our tires. It looks Christmasy, and with a start I remember it is almost Christmas. Some of these days I'm not even sure which century I'm in, let alone the actual date. The little villages, again the amazing 3 story house, timber and stone, most with the original shingle and boulder roofs are set in gardens. Bougainvillea, palm trees and hibiscus, plus edible crops. We get out of the car, it's warm and muggy, with lemon grass underfoot, so that it smells lemony. I'm exhilarated and overwhelmed. Like visiting a great museum, the mind eventually balks at absorbing all the visual stimulus. It seems we just driven from northern Canada to the equator in 2 hours. It's the ride of a lifetime, never in all my years have I had this amazing an experience in a vehicle.

That overused new age cliche, 'it's the journey, not the destination,' never rang so true for me as it did today.