First impression of the Kingdom of the red toothed smiles
Guido and his Santos, named Ziggy, were given an extraordinary opportunity to roam the pristine country of Bhutan for two weeks. They were granted permission, as personal guests to the prime minister, to travel the country without a mandatory guide, government-appointed hotels, sustainable development fees, or even a visa fee. The entrance provided to them was the first of its kind. Truly special and even more so because this story is told by Ziggy!
There we stood, on Bhutanese soil. Curious about what lay beyond the mountains that towered towards the sky behind Phuentsholing. But, at the same time, tingling nerves ran across the spine. Was it because we were about to face expectations that, despite our efforts to temper them, silently had grown in the shadows? Had a tiny spark of accomplishment, in a short moment of unawareness, ignited a fire of excitement that was about to be extinguished by a sobering reality?
Maybe, because there was a voice (not my own, I thought) saying: ‘Alright, traveler. Your days of selfmade deceit are over. Yes, it’s inevitable. From your birthplace to a country far away that spoke to your imagination and has been living rent free in your mind for years now… It can mean but one thing: finally reaching it and replacing imagination with reality will move you. Yes, whether you like it or not, Bhutan is going to rock your boat. Maybe a rewarding feeling will arise, or perhaps disenchantment awaits. Who knows, but memorable it’s going to be, one way or the other. Either embrace it, or be scared by it. You choose!’
Stupid boy. It was pretty naive to think we would arrive with humble and low expectations. ‘Be like a stone.’ I am trying, dear Alice, but it’s easier said than done. Especially when you watch documentaries, read books, and talk with people who have actually lived there. The mystifying and carefully preserved culture, mountain ridges and valleys covered with endless emerald green carpets, rivers of glass, floating birds belonging to the purest of skies, honest and hardworking people smiling all day - being happy and content, an almost untouched country doing many things in a unique way… What did truly exist?
Mmm… we were about to lift up the gho that lay over Bhutan and were everything but a stone. A tangible fear was present. Not only because of high expectations, but, kind of paradoxically, also because of the possibility that all the images and experiences of what we had seen and felt before would reduce Bhutan to just another country with some mountains, a few pine trees and a rocky river. And, on top of that, there was the concern of an insatiable appetite to keep exploring, never feeling satisfied, not able to appreciate, always wanting more, more, and more…
"After all that we had been through and then I find myself here, trapped inside a hotel because a key is lost…
I tried to man up. ‘Ziggy, whatever we experience the coming days, whether it’s going to be the pinnacle of the journey and therefore be rewarding and fulfilling, or it will be a complete disillusionment, anyhow, it will make us feel something, will make us feel we are living. And in the end, that’s what matters when you set out to explore the world with a certain goal… I guess. So let us at least pretend we are ready to accept any outcome. Chollo!’
Luckily, the start was promising. Earlier we explained we had stopped thinking in borders, nationalities and countries. This time, however, the contrast with neighbouring India, even with the small border town of Jaigaon, was undeniable. Although the sixteen feet high concrete wall - built somewhere during the pandemic, which, from that point on split Jaigaon and Phuentsholing in a way that reminded me of black and white pictures of the Berlin Wall - emphasized a ‘hard’ border, for us it were first and foremost the streets in Bhutan that made us feel we had arrived in a different country.
The streets, compared to the countries of the subcontinent, were immaculately clean, the traffic was less numerous, there was no rush felt, no unnecessary honking, and but a few potholes. What further stood out, even on the fifth king’s birthday: there was hardly any activity on or in the direct surroundings of the road. Compared to the last months, where we had to share the road with all kinds of beings doing all kinds of things, this observation was a significant one since it felt unnatural and also reminded us of home.
Utter calmness, probably together with a biased eagerness to treat Bhutan differently, activated our senses to focus more on what we thought was different and less on the cultural influences from Nepal or northern India. It goes without saying, we started noticing more ‘unique’ things. For instance, although no carpenter or craftsman by profession, we witnessed distinct woodwork and paintwork in the temples and buildings. ‘It’s crazy, isn’t it Ziggy? The effort, the details, the delicacy. You see, not one flower, not one dot is exactly the same. It must have been done by hand. All the beams, walls, statues…’
Furthermore, we noticed that both inside and outside, all buildings and facilities were properly built, felt decent - functioning as they should. For the people back home, this might seem like the ‘normal’ and perhaps only way of building: constructing things from the beginning in such a way as to reduce the chances of failure to the bare minimum. However, those who traveled through Pakistan, Nepal, and India, whether by bicycle or otherwise, must be familiar with the concept of jugaar / jugaad. This concept, phrased in my own words, means something like: let’s build it not in such a way as to minimize the chances of failure, but to minimize complexity and costs.
Now what I guess happened during the course of time, is an example of a reinforcing cycle: the construction workers, engineers and installers on the subcontinent became so good in improvising and finding ad hoc solutions, things got less and less properly built in the first place. Yes, they must have thought: Aight! No problem when it breaks down, we are experts of life hacks - we create wonders with the meager resources at hand.
In Bhutan, they seemed not to be a big fan of the jugaar approach: the power sockets worked, the wires and plumbing were hidden inside the walls, the faucets didn’t leak, the door handles were tightly attached, and the materials being used felt solid. It was again, a vague reminder of a situation we left eleven months ago.
How about the cycling? After all, wasn’t it the main goal to cycle in and doing so learn from Bhutan? Of course, we almost forgot to tell you about our first kilometers pedaling in Bhutan. Already half a day lost, problems getting Bhutanese valuta and hoping there would be something special happening regarding the royal birthday, we decided to stay in Phuentsholing and not cycle besides a few rounds through town. Tomorrow morning, on our second day, we thought, as soon as the sun provides us with enough light, we start cycling and our long awaited discovery of Bhutan finally commences.
"All of a sudden, there it was: thunder rolling through the valley - lightning crashing down on our right hand side
Since we couldn’t find any celebration regarding the King’s 43th birthday, we called it a day early. The following morning at 6:30, filled with positive energy, I packed our stuff in the hotel room, and went down to prepare Ziggy only to find out the people of the hotel had somehow lost the key to the front door. There was no backdoor and our urge to explore Bhutan was not enough to use the emergency door. ‘Nooooo,’ was my initial response. ‘After all that we had been through and then I find myself here, trapped inside a hotel because a key is lost… You gotta be kidding me!’
But, no. It was real as can be. Two hours, a breakfast and a lovely talk with a guy from Paro went by before the front door was unlocked. It goes without saying we started cycling immediately, yet our instinct told us: we are not going to make it on time to Thimphu at this pace. ‘This is not how it should be,’ a voice in my head pleaded. ‘We can’t do what you are thinking about now… No, no, no, young man! It would be considered a big betrayal to Bhutan.’ A second voice answered: ‘Maybe, but there is also a deadline of two weeks. And the PM wants to see us. Besides that, we have seen these hills in Nepal and in India, we know them. What really matters is what lies beyond.’
After six kilometers of climbing, voice number two won the internal debate, so we set aside our pride, called a friend and took a taxi for the remaining thirty ascending kilometers. In Gedu, a foggy hill top town, he dropped us. Although there were still enough altitude meters waiting for us, about two thirds of the elevation was done and we were on schedule again. ‘Ziggy, I don’t know about you, but for some reason I feel this is it! I feel like a caged jaguar who is about to be released into the wild again. No more adversity, no longer depending on anything or anyone. Just us, the road and the opportunity to cycle through Bhutan, free like the wind. Let’s go, let’s f*cking do this!’
(Excuse us for the cursing, but these were the exact words being spoken and we have to respect the truth.)
By bicycle, out of Gedu, up along a smooth and slowly ascending road, we were greeted by thick fog. In this small world, our sight was limited to less than a hundred meters. Trees covered in moss resembling bony monsters loomed as we rode the black snake in front of us. Clouds heavy with moisture all around. Forests of waving prayer flags were making the only sound we could hear. Everything looked sinister and we were alone, but somehow it felt fitting and thus okay. We kept on riding, climbing above the fog into the light which was of a remarkable clarity. The remaining clouds of the type cumulus cauliflowerus we could see from the mountainside, rose like giant chimneys towards the heavens. The sun rays gave the clouds’ outline a beautiful golden edge. The light was as ‘sharp as a cold razor blade’ and seemed to signify the existence of both the light itself and the clouds.
We stood in complete awe. Our first encounter with the spacious skies of Bhutan turned out to be an unforgettable one.
Our route forced us to descend again, into the same humid conditions of a few kilometers back. All of a sudden, there it was: thunder rolling through the valley - lightning crashing down on our right hand side. We were overcome by a feeling of rejoice (we hadn’t heard or seen thunder and lightning for a long time). ‘What a welcome! Hearing the roar of the Thunder Dragon itself on our first day of cycling. Amazing!’
With a big grin on my face, I put on a raincoat, greeted Druk, and continued going uphill. When dusk had settled in and the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we went for a final descent to Chukka where we found food, shelter and a father and son who knew Bhutan from north to south - from west to east. With the belly full of ema datsi, a head spinning of travel plans and alcohol, day one came to an end.
The next morning, we rose early, noticed we weren’t locked up, had breakfast and started heading for Thimphu. Again a climb was waiting for us. This time, however, there was a significant difference with most of the elevation gain we had done so far. The roads in Bhutan didn’t go up and down in a rather steep, zigzagging way with serpentines as we had seen mainly in Nepal, Pakistan, India, Montenegro and Georgia. No, the roads - which were carved out in the brown and grey whitely veined mountainsides in such a way not the whole mountain was scarred for the next millennium - gradually crawled up and down in long stretches with an agreeable incline.
It was a pleasant surprise and although the road didn’t demand it, we stopped a lot. To observe the silver waterfalls deepening gorges, see lush scenery everywhere only to be interrupted by a powerline here and there. We also stopped to talk to many street vendors selling fruit, vegetables and other things. Their command of the English language was of an outstanding level. It enabled us to have meaningful conversations, often ending with smiles - red toothed smiles. The red teeth were caused by something else which was widely available on the roadside: doma.
"What will a prime minister think when someone who was given permission by him to cycle through his country shows up at his office with four holes in his pants?
Doma exists out of an areca nut, a dash of pinkish coloured lime which are folded into a beetle leaf. Ancient stories made us believe this snack was replaced by Guru Rinpoche instead of fighting and eating the enemy, the leaf resembling the skin, the nut the bones, and the lime the blood. Wether it is true or not, old people, young people, men, women, all chew eagerly on it and, as a consequence, constantly spit out a reddish saliva. Eating doma gives you a warm feeling from the inside, especially in the beginning. It also causes red teeth to those who like to consume twenty or more leaves a day.
We kept on cycling, turned right into a valley that led towards Paro and Thimphu, enjoyed all and everything around us and before we knew it, our second cycling day had ended. Just outside Thimphu, we found a place to camp. From our camping spot in a house that was under construction, we could see numerous what looked like little fires on the surrounding slopes: a result of big forest fires that had laid several hectares of forest in ashes. Rain that came pouring down that night, helped the firefighters with getting the fire under control.
‘Tomorrow we are expected to meet the PM, Ziggy. Again it’s a little bit unclear when or where we have to be. But we made it to the outskirts of the capital. We will rise early, cycle into the city, find a hotel, shave and clean ourselves and hopefully hear in the meantime what to do. It’s going to be a bit humiliating, though. I can tell you. I didn’t had a chance to buy traditional clothing and carry only one long pants with me. It has four holes…. Yeah, I know! What will a prime minister think when someone who was given permission by him to cycle through his country shows up at his office with four holes in his pants?’