Driving to Phuntsoling

Posted on November 22, 2015

If you did not know, you’d think the creature to be ill, and in need of veterinary attention. Now where does one find a vet that specializes in what looks like a dragon, here in the land of the thunder dragon, a country that’s short of both vets and actual dragons. But the creature in front of me clearly looks in need of attention, though I’m assured it’s fine and in fact know from what I’ve read that I’m looking at a male gharial, sometimes called ghavial, but is the most dragon like living thing I’ve laid my eyes on in all of Bhutan. It’s obvious that I’m looking at something crocodilian, it’s the snout that identifies an alligator, (wide snout) and crocodile (narrow snout), but this thin narrow snout, looking more like alligator clips than anything else, makes me think these clips misnamed, gharial clips they ought to be called, though practicality has to win out here, how many people have ever heard of a gharial?Not many, I’d wager.A weird and ugly carbuncle like protuberance, perched atop the end of the snout, big as a cantaloupe, ugly as the day is long and looking like a tumor ripe for removal is what lends the appearance of ill health. But no, it’s to make noise and attract the lady gharials. Much as humans love to anthropormorphisize pandas and find them loveable and huggable, this is just the opposite of the cutest thing you ever laid eyes upon, it looks both diseased and dangerous. But it’s neither; with such a thin snout gharial cannot harm humans, though while they can grow to 18 feet, this is a harmless crocodilian. And it’s not diseased either, but healthy and if the size of the bump (so named after the Indian word for pot, ghara, though I do not any semblance to a cooking vessel) is any indication and the keeper says it is, this is one studly gharial.

Mountainous Bhutan is the Land of the Thunder Dragon, no one argues this is anything other than a mythical beast. But the southern lowlands of Bhutan, a miniscule portion of the country are slightly a world apart, in that this is tropical terrain, the altitude no longer the determinant factor to the climate, and here one swelters in tropical heat, and the rivers run horizontal, and not near vertical as they do in the mountains, and these sluggish tropical rivers make perfect habitat for crocodilians. Bhutan does an admirable job of protecting its wildlife, but the close proximity to India and the demand for crocodile shoes have lead to depletion of gharials across much of their former range of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma. They hang on, by a thread in India and Nepal. The Bhutanese government requested that Nepal loan them some, so the mythical flying thunder dragon of Bhutan became a reality when several were airlifted from Nepal to Bhutan. And then dispatched to Phuntsoling and into a breeding program, their progeny to be reintroduced into Bhutan’s lowland rivers. It seems that after some shaky beginnings, the ghrarials found the breeding centre conducive to just that, and began depositing clutches of eggs in the sand of their enclosure, these eggs later retrieved and put into incubators for all to see and more interesting than the eggs are the numerous enclosures with baby gharials, all separated by size and age, as big gharials not beyond cannibalism, and while this might be the way of nature, interfering with nature seems the proper think to do when rearing endangered species.

Like most cold-blooded species, the gharial tend to lay immobile in the sun, there’s not a lot of activity in the enclosures. The littler ones move about more, though even they tend more towards inaction than action. Those in the water exhibit the most movement, moving silently and stealthy across their concrete pools, then surfacing silently, the green algae laden water keeping them invisible until just before they break the surface. It does seem sinister, such a huge beast moving so quietly through the water. While they may pose no hazard to humans, this is not an animal I’d be comfortable with at close quarters if there was no fence to divide us.

A fence not much more formidable than the one at the Gharial Centre does divide the steamy border town of Phuntsholing, Bhutan from Jaigon, India. It’s usually written as P/Ling by Bhutanese who seem adverse to spelling out the names of their few multisyllabic towns, and often pronounced as Pling, which seems to follow the same logic, and has a pleasant sound to my ear. Pling is a 6 hours drive from Paro, and the main reason for Dorji and I to make the ride is my desire to experience the scenery along the road. Most all my arrivals and departures toBhutan have been by air, and as I want to cover every bit of the country, this route is a new one for me. The main reason Bhutanese make the ride is that all manner of goods may be obtained in Pling, with its proximity to India, being just across the street. Unlike border towns in some parts of the world, with a no man’s land to separate the 2 countries, here they are cheek by jowl together, though the appearance is so different it’s like one sewed together 2 wildly different fabrics, say denim next to plaid. No other two mashups of countries could be more different. Bhutan neat and orderly, calm, Bhutanese architecture in all directions, a fence and a gate, not 2 seconds into India and the scenery so entirely different one might as well be Alice fallen down the hole in wonderland. Though I’d argue the Bhutanese side is the wonderland side of this border. It’s Bhutan all right, but Bhutan with palm trees and without mountains, and with a raffish tropical feel to it. Anyone who has spent any time in Bhutan soon learns the cultural markers are here so strong that one would never mistake the landscape as anywhere else. Prayer flags, prayer drums, temples, men in ghos, women in kiras, monks in red robes, windows in clusters of 3 or 5, with bubble like tops, the buildings painted with the garudas, snow lions, dragons, the countries iconic images. Yes, this is Bhutan to an inch of the border it’s not surrendering its identity even a fraction. And then, just seconds into India the entire landscape is changed. The buildings have that haphazard look that one sees throughout India of decrepitude and imminent disintegration. And the same ugly construction of cube attached to cube, rebar protruding from the roofs of what one might think is an unfinished building, though the climate makes a fast job of aging buildings, so that they look old and incomplete, though maybe somewhat new and awaiting completion. The streets of Bhutan, with an orderliness that soothes my aesthetic are just across the border a jumble, or is it riot of color, chaos, swirling, teaming mass of people, animals, vehicles and it all seems to my USA mindset the most disorganized place in the world. I brace myself each time I come to India (though I continue to return, so will admit there I am fascinated and compelled by the country). But it’s all the more remarkable to be surrounded by the sheer Indianness of India when I have only just stepped 5 feet into it. One does not ease ones way into India, one plunges in and you begin your chaotic (and remarkable) journey. The gharials seem almost tame in comparison.

My advice: visit Bhutan, visit India.