The pillion rider comes back with sore thighs and sore buttocks (I felt like I was butt-less for good 48 hours, the most painful three hours of which I endured on an economy seat of a flight).
The pillion rider comes back with absolutely no glory at all. That’s because the magnificent metal grey Royal Enfield 350CC 2018-make ain’t built for pillion riders.
But there I was – sitting at the back of this really faithful bike balancing video-shooting on my iphone 6 and a Canon 6-D Mark2 as I struggled to document every moment of our little adventure. Kilometers-wise we were on the highway for 867.8 km total (my butt is shouting – that’s all? Shut up, mate).
On the hindsight, it seriously feels like a dream – the way we planned it on an absolute whim, did it and came back unharmed mostly. Minus my own complaints about sore this and that and umm this – So during the last 150km, I had happily ditched my scarf and mask, so I came back looking like that UN volunteer who was stuck in a coal mine for 10 days.
Mom was like – now who will marry you?
Me: A bulletwala, Maa 😀 😀
Oh a funny thing. So I am five feet (and hopefully one inch) tall. There were luggage carriers on three sides of the bike – sideways and back. Every single time I had serious difficulty climbing up to sit on the bike. Sometimes, I would ask Broda to let me sit first, so I would sit from the rider’s side and then slide back. Other times, I would have to stretch one of my legs real hard to be able to make it around the side carrier to sit. I cracked up EVERY SINGLE TIME while sitting on this bike.
Bhutan. Bike . Broda.
Three months earlier, our very deep conversation went like this –
Me: Let’s do Bhutan on bike.
Broda: Hell yeah!
Ever since our chat about navigating paper boats beneath the little bridge we built in our garden back in sixth grade, this was the deepest convo we had. It paid off man.
For starters, we never discussed how Broda is going to manage biking after a gap of good eight years that too on a bullet on India-Bhutan highway where honking wasn’t allowed. Had we talked about it, I would be writing other blogs.
Originally we were to ride on a Bajaj Avenger to be lent by a friend but that didn’t really work out. So 24 hours before our flight to Siliguri, we fixed up the rented bike. Little did we know that this rented bike (that cost us Rs 10 k for 9 days) would turn out to be one of the best decisions of the trip. I was genuinely sad to part with this Enfield on the last day.
Our little itinerary looked like this –
Silliguri to Phuentsholing – Thimphu – Paro – Thimphu – Punakha – Thimphu- to Phuentsholing – Silliguri
A lot of Thimphu there!
Bhutanese permits drove us nuts
The entire universe of bloggers conspired to tell me this –
No visa in Bhutan, No visa in Bhutan. Only Permits. Yay!!!! More Yay!
I still laugh at how beautiful all these travel writers are man. They sold me Bhutan on a No-Visa sales-pitch. And how readily I bought it.
Starting our first ride from Silliguri at around 7.30 am, we had arrived in Phuentsholing (or the bordering Jaigaon) at 12 noon. This was Thursday. I had read the Immigration Office was open until 5 pm Bhutan Time (which is half an hour behind Indian Standard Time). I was also told to go through the agent for all the permits because that’s what the authorities prefer. I called the agent that my best friend Mallika had used a year before for the same purpose. He told me flat –
You are late. Now check in to your hotel and relax because the permits won’t happen until tomorrow.
My heart sank. That’s because I knew that I could get permits in Phuentsholing for only Thimphu and Paro for seven days. We badly needed a two-day extension as per our itinerary and a special permit to Punakha – both of which could happen only in Thimphu. The offices are open only until Friday so we could get further permits only on Monday – which was kinda risky and was totally disrupting our plan.
Now the agent gave me the number of another local agent who told us immediately that permits can be done today. Thank God. He charged us Rs 2,500/- for the so-called Free of cost permits. Why? Because he was helping us fill up the form, and ‘get’ the permits post lunch. I didn’t expect the agent would do it for free but I was hoping this was a strictly legal and permissible process. The agent was efficient, he explained our situation to the officers in Bhutanese language. We were interviewed a little, they clicked our pictures, took our thumb prints, gave us local Bhutan simcards, exchanged our currency and all that jazz. The officers were especially kind to the agent and extremely rough with us. Indians are free tourists, we aren’t much respected in that Pentagon. It was only later I realized the agent may have bribed the officers who wouldn’t entertain us at all without agents like him. My first impression of Bhutan wasn’t exactly good.
I will need a whole video blog to explain the kind of mistakes they committed on those person permits and bike permits. So I shall leave that for now.
The biggest roadblock is your attitude
Since our first ride from Silliguri to Phuentsholing went so smoothly, we were genuinely happy and confident. So the next day when we set off for Thimphu, we may have become a little over-the-top-adventurous. Minutes after we showed our permits outside Phuentsholing to the checkpost, the highway was starting to elevate. Winding roads, no-honking policy in Bhutan and little experience of riding on uphill highways sorta added to the challenges. The first few winding paths were like – whoa-what-was-that! Then it became a kick! It was in one of those winding paths that we came across a specific turn – totally blinding, we could see nothing ahead of us except for this solid asphalt rock. Broda turned in speed only to find that the road tilted deeper down at exactly that half-circle turn. We nearly lost our balance inches before the deep valley down there. I said a quick “Thank you God” prayer. We learnt a vital lesson – over-confidence is a kill-joy. In life too, it’s so important to take things on a clean slate, it’s often hard to set aside assumptions but it’s necessary. We can’t change the way life would turn out but we can definitely check our attitude from time to time.
Broda, being the rider, had deeper and clearer insights than I did. While we were sipping Chai overlooking the mountains in this real nice cafe on the way, he said:
In the middle of a journey, you cannot say – I can’t do this. Christian life is much like this. When you decide to follow Christ, you make a commitment to Him and to yourself. You signed up for it. So when things don’t go the way you had dreamed, you cannot stop and sign out of it. I guess that’s what makes the whole journey worth it as long as we don’t miss the lessons.
He had no idea how badly I needed to hear it at the moment .(Read up Hebrews 11 in the New Testament when you get the time for some encouragement).
I also decided on the way that I would not generalize all Bhutanese from the way bureaucrats treated us. People are always different from kings, queens, officers and governments. Everyone is unique and deserves a chance.
Please God, don’t let it rain!
A good attitude especially came handy on our way back. We wanted to start our 350-km (our longest one-time ride so far) return ride from Thimphu very early. Our plan was to hit the road at 6.am. But we had be-friended a certain family the night before and they wanted to see us one last time. So they came to see us at around 7.30 am. We left Thimphu at 8 which was a classical delay. About 100km later, the roads looked all wet from fresh rain. It had rained all night. A few minutes later, we saw a tow-truck and a crane parked right on the road. There was a landslide early in the morning, the police told us. The crane then started to lift seriously heavy rocks from the ground – some were deposited in the truck, the heavier ones thrown off the cliff.
Had we started the ride at 6 am, we would have been stuck at the landslide spot because the crane had begun working only around 10ish. I categorically looked up at the clear blue sky and thanked God for His plan and timing. We hadn’t lost much at all but that delay gave us some extra minutes with that family in the morning.
March rains in Bhutan. But throughout our way, we only saw signs of rain.
You feel like the Sun shines on you
Thanks to Mallika’s instructions, we were rolled up in warm clothing. We were prepared for rains – easily-dryable-pants, ponchos, plastic covers for the camera bag, gloves, mufflers, masks and helmets. But who wanted it to rain? Not us. The temperatures sometimes went down to minus six degrees, the cold winds cut our face and nose despite the shields. Broda was on the helm of affairs, quite literally. He had to keep his hands warm. On our way to Punakha, it had rained so it was foggy, cold and absolutely stunning. Broda told me later that he was distracted more by the beauty than his freezing hands while riding. I knew what he meant. That’s because the moment I would start to feel cold or my thighs would start to ache, I would just look around, take off my mask and breathe the mountain air. That did the trick. Every. Single. Time.
And that moment when you go around a mountain and there was sunshine waiting for you. We felt like the Sun shone for us – the warm air seeped down to our souls. There was God, us and the highway.
Bhutanese love pick-up trucks
Colourful and vibrant yet graceful and at peace. A strange combination of a country that’s full of people with strong characters and mutual respect. Bhutan mesmerizes you more by its beautiful people than its landscapes. I have seen prettier places back home. But the way they treat their fauna, the way they dress and talk and how much they value a personal opinion – just hit my Indian ego. Take for instance, a man may own a Rs 30 lakh Toyota Fortuner but he will stop at the zebra crossing and let the pedestrian walk. There are no traffic lights in Thimphu, there are some voluntary police men who sometimes help steer the two-wheelers but largely the country is devoid of the need for traffic lights. I saw this on highways, busiest streets and the most abandoned paths – urban or rural.
And the one vital factor that totally blew my mind was the presence of so many pick-up trucks. Considering that Bhutan is not among the wealthiest countries of the world and you have to pay a 100% tax on any vehicle in general, I was stumped.
There were Toyota’s most enviable Tacoma models – be it SR5, TRD Sport or TRD Pro or Chevrolet DMax or Ford Ranger or Foton Tunland and even a Honda Ridgeline and not to forget the Isuzu – you name it! Their preference is clearly Asian car companies. I got my biggest kick to see women driving these trucks to pick up their children from school.
Christians can practise faith, not preach
Bhutanese can go to any lengths when it comes to preserving their culture and tradition. A major part of the Bhutanese personality is the Buddhist faith and the local deities of the regions that they worship. It is a Buddhist country – by governance. Untill recently, churches were underground. Christians couldn’t profess that they were Christians. Even today, it is illegal to practise any other religion other than Buddhism. But His Highness the Fifth King, as we were told, is progressive and open-minded. He has allowed Christians to practise their faith. However, the churches are mostly homes of kind people who have offered them to worship Christ. There are no cross signs on these churches. Yet, I am thankful for the King just for this.
A chancy encounter with a Christian man Peter and his family helped us see Bhutan the way it is – preserved and protected from the world quite consciously. We learnt the only reason why the country has been able to preserve its culture so well is because it has rejected Western influence. Good thing, Christ is universal and not ‘Western’ because He did win some souls here. I pray every day now that Bhutan sees His light in more numbers.
I was ready to come back home to my parents, to my dog Jack and to my room and my bed. But every night, I dream of being on the pillion seat – soaking up the snow-caps on the mountains, the winding highways and the cold air. There was the bike, Broda, Bhutan and the million conversations I had with God and myself. I sing the songs in the bathroom that I sang while on that seat. I came back humbled and with a renewed realization – What is man that God cares for him?
That’s what cross-country biking does to you.
And did I tell you Broda is a kick-ass rider?