Have you ever felt a sense of wonder when you look at a breathtaking view? Seeing clouds and green hills and witnessing the harmony of nature. Having spent a mere five days in Bhutan, every morning was still as beautiful as anything you could imagine. On this day, the 3rd of July, we woke up to cold mountain weather. The morning fog slowly crept away leaving in its wake dew soaked grass and a pale blue sky almost entirely obscured by clouds.
The temperature ensured that getting out of bed was a task in itself let alone washing and freshening up. Sound was scant in our immediate surroundings and it felt as though an unearthly entity was pressing down on our ears. Meanwhile, a great number of earthly entities in the form of insects had saturated the place. We found palm-sized moths in our gloves and lizards hunting for butterflies in our boots and a cat too eventually made an appearance. Amid this stable ecosystem we proceeded to gulp down warm tea and devoured a breakfast of mushroom-cheese-chilly curry along with boiled bacon. Food really is the answer.
Abs’s 45-minute packing technique meant that Sharad and me had time enough for a lot of leisurely lying around. Admiring each of our three mud-caked bikes, we did a mental recap of the previous day’s death-defying ride. We had ridden through multiple landslides and every metre was cautiously covered while avoiding rocks on the road and shooting stones from above. The morning’s peacefulness was in stark contrast to all those hazards and we embarked on our 80km ride to Trongsa, the placid road evoking a lull in our minds.
Daylight helped us fully appreciate the enormity of the effect landslides had on this terrain. In some places the road had narrowed down to one lane because of the debris which had to be cleared to the side to make room for traffic. Entire portions of mountain sides had fallen exposing gaping, brown scars. The valley was strewn with logs and rivers choked by mud. The weather cleared up as the day progressed but there seemed to be a stalemate between the mountains and erosion. Occasionally we glimpsed black tarmac beneath the mud but fallen trees and creaking branches were the mainstay.
We made slow progress on the slick surface and had a lot of time to appreciate the topography of Bhutan. After 2 days of riding on mud we had a grip on how the traction worked but that didn’t stop the occasional slip and slide of the tires or in one case, an abrupt 90 degree left turn. Abs was heading along on a straight patch when he ran over a bump camouflaged seamlessly into the slush around it. Consequence: the bike suddenly changed direction and somehow didn’t fall but when it stopped it was facing perpendicular to the road and the rear wheel was literally inches away from the edge of the road and the edge of the road was followed by a vertical drop down into the valley. I witnessed this happening in front of me and when I caught up with him everything, including Abs’s expression reeked of comedy. I burst out laughing while he recovered his senses and tried to understand what happened. Call me stone-hearted but laughter is the best medicine there is in such near-miss situations.
We rode through foggy weather and passed precarious slopes that looked like they might fall at the slightest hint of agitation. We unnervingly stopped right beneath one such outcropping to photograph it. Highway to hell anyone? The mud-riddled road never gave way to tarmac but as we approached Trongsa we were greeted by a beautiful, lush-green valley on the right hand side and snaking along the opposite slope was a road that stood out in stark contrast due to its brownish colour. It was a mesmerising sight. In the distance we could see houses and a hydro-electric project over the river. Very soon a restaurant made an appearance and we settled down for lunch overlooking a gorgeous set of hills on which Trongsa’s buildings were built. The lunch was surprisingly Indian in its taste, perhaps the host used special masalas.
We filled ourselves to the brim with food and then sat around for the better part of an hour while the digestive juices got working. Trongsa was virtually a stone’s throw away right across the valley but the geography of the region meant that we had to go winding along the mountains and cover over 13 kilometres to reach Trongsa. The long, winding section of road was fun to ride on as the mud had dried and formed a layer of ‘rideable’ road giving it a rally-ish feel but as we got closer to Trongsa we almost got stuck in knee deep slush once again.
Trongsa seemed to be another quaint Bhutanese town but then again we didn’t really explore it at all. The name Trongsa means “new village” in the local language. We phoned a hotel we had shortlisted earlier and the owner somehow already knew we had arrived in the town. I suppose news about foreign tourists in a small town spreads like fire. Either that or he saw us riding through town. Anyway, we climbed the stairs leading up to our room and opened the balcony and witnessed a magnificent panoramic view of Trongsa Dzong. We were above and to the left of it and from our vantage point we could see a major portion of the town as well. Across the valley we spotted the restaurant where we had eaten earlier and were shocked to notice that it was situated at the edge of a landslide. Literally right at the edge of a slide which had brought down almost 500 feet of the mountain side. Our perspective from the restaurant itself hadn’t alarmed us at all in fact, we didn’t even know we were that close to anything so dangerous. Good that we didn’t realise or lunch would probably not have happened.
Cameras were setup for time-lapse as the evening fog gradually swept over the town and smothered us in a layer of cold condensation. We relaxed in the balcony and our bodies soaked beer as we soaked the calmness of Trongsa. Twilight slowly gave way to night and we could see an ambulance snaking its way along the road across the valley. It felt outlandish hearing the hurried, alarming pace of the ambulance in the hushed mountain air.
So far we had witnessed the brutal landslides and their ensuing effects on the Bhutanese country-side. Our plan was to go back to Thimphu and then exit the country via the route we used to enter but having fore-knowledge of the road conditions we decided to change that plan and find another exit. The only problem with this was that our travel permits did not allow us to go anywhere except back to Thimphu. We decided to think it over the next morning with fresh minds as the ensuing decisions would have a considerable impact on our schedule and could even be illegal.