Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bhutan: Day One

A few bites of burnt bread toasted on a burner at half past eight in the morning...ick...and some vile hot water with a smidgen of Nescafe in it. Blech. I was more-than-ready to get out of the dusty border town of Jaigaon.

Tsering Penjor and Tobgay—my guide and driver from the Bhutan Your Way agency—were in the hotel lobby, adorned in traditional Bhutanese dress of black knee socks and long-sleeved, knee-length robes, held in at the waist by sashes. Both of their outfits were plaid, and both men had pulled their tops down in the heat of Jaigaon, revealing T-shirts underneath.

Tobgay went straight for my luggage. Nice. I could get used to this. Even better, he secured my bag in the back of our gold-colored Hyundai hatchback with a stretchy net.

Tsering led me to our car and closed the door behind me. I sat for a minute as Tobgay drove us slowly through Jaigaon and turned right. Last night, we'd seen the arch that separated the Indian side of town from the Bhutanese side. Today we drove through that gate, under the watchful eye of a Bhutanese guard.

We parked on the other side. Tsering had mentioned that the border town looked identical on both sides. That wasn't quite true—things were a bit cleaner here in Phuentsholing, and much quieter.

"I will go now and get your formalities done in Bhutan Immigration," said Tsering. "You can wait here."

I must have looked surprised. I wasn't used to not having to be present when my passport was stamped. He immediately hurried to add, "Or you can come with me. Come on, you can see how it is done."

We crossed the street, Tsering cautiously looking out to make sure no traffic was heading my way. Apparently, I was going to be treated like a queen for the week. We walked to a window in the small building with the Immigration sign. The man inside—also in his plaid robe and black knee socks—motioned us around and into the office.

The two men greeted each other cordially, and I stood watching as Tsering handed over the paperwork.

"What's that about?" I pointed to two trays, one labeled "India" and the other "Bangladesh." The India tray had a huge stack of papers in it.

"Citizens of these two countries don't need a visa the way you do. That's the documentation of the people who have come through."

We were through Immigration too quickly, just as I was beginning to enjoy the air-conditioning in the tiny office. Tobgay drove us out of Phuentsholing, up, up, up, along the narrow, winding road into the mountains.

The change in scenery was rapid and refreshing. One minute, we were in a hot, dusty border town. The next, we were slowly turning up beautiful green hillsides, the air so rich and clean I inhaled deeply over and over. Plus, the men here wore dresses. Bhutan was cool!

"INCONVENIENCE REGRETTED." Even the road signs were polite. On the reverse, the lettering read simply, "THANKS."

"But why are the signs in English?"

"English is one of our official languages."

We drove slowly along the narrow mountain road for three hours, edging by whenever we met another car and occasionally passing crews of Indian laborers repairing sections of the Lateral Road, which is the east-west corridor and was born only a few years before I was. This six-hour drive to Thimpu used to take six days. Landslides are frequent in this part of the world and road crews are constantly dispatched to clear out rocks and mud.

"We had many more landslides before a high lama provided a special charm to be placed in the road," explained Tsering. Actually, that's not how he said it. I've forgotten now what term he used to explain the process where a lama will bless and create a symbol that is supposed to ward off bad luck. I was quickly overwhelmed by all that was new and different, and had trouble retaining information.

I didn't want to be rude, but I had to ask.

"Does that—er—work?"

"We have not had any major landslides in this section since then."

I looked for a hint of a smile, but I couldn't see his face from where I sat. Maybe he believed this or maybe he didn't. Certainly Tobgay must have—my driver had been a monk before leaving the monastery to start a family. Tsering, however, was from a secular background, having been an accountant before learning that he loved tourism. He'd done training in Bangkok and also ridden a bicycle over the mountains to India as part of an initiative to educate people about environmentalism and family planning.

I stared out the window or ahead rather than reading—I wanted to see this new country, this funny little hard-to-reach Himalayan kingdom in the clouds, plus I hadn't seen so much unadulterated greenery and trees for months.

I felt a little awkward being outnumbered by the staff but I'd looked into traveling with a group, and oddly, that would have cost me a great deal more money.

Here's why. Bhutan is remote with a capital R. So there, Bhutan is Remote. Its geography has kept it safe, the mountains making it a tough place to get to. Bhutan's culture is similar to that of Tibet's but Bhutan had been blessed with the isolated safety that Tibet had missed. Surely the arrival of the Red Army in Lhasa must have caused alarm to Bhutan in the fifties, but somehow, this little country had nimbly managed to stay a step ahead of the world's powers, either by luck, savvy planning, or geography. Or perhaps by its alliance with the Indian Army, which probably took one look at the map and said "Please let us protect your northern border."

Bhutan had stayed remote and isolated for decades, and then finally opened to tourism in 1974. But tourism is regulated here, and while the story that the number of tourists allowed in per year is a myth, it is true that the daily minimum of $200 ($240 for me, a solo traveler) scares away most would-be visitors. So the numbers stay manageable.

The numbers are deceptive, though. Bhutan's daily minimum tariff is all-inclusive. That $200 a day includes your hotel, guide, driver, food, transportation, and admissions to all sites. Once you think about it from the perspective of what you'd spend on an average holiday, suddenly, Bhutan doesn't seem so expensive anymore.

But when I'd gone looking to find an agency that would give me the daily minimum, I'd run into a problem. Third-party agencies in other countries wanted a cut of the fee, so they had to add their fee on TOP of the daily minimum.

The only way to get the daily minimum, I realized, was to book with a local agency.

And so here I was, being chauffeured around and treated like a queen by a local agency. It's awkward, sure, being the only guest, but ultimately, my payment was only supporting locals. This was working out.

At 11:30, Tobgay pulled the car into a parking area outside a flat building on the side of a scenic gorge, overlooking a hydroelectric project. The Kingdom of Bhutan has one of the world's smallest economies, but it exports huge amounts of sustainable power to India.

Tobgay disappeared into wherever the drivers eat, while Tsering led me to an empty cafe that overlooked the gorge. Photos of Bhutanese royals adorned the walls, including one of the King and his fiancee. I looked closely. That would be the daughter of my Darjeeling hotel owner's friend then.

Tsering spoke to a waitress, who then brought me little plates of simple but delicious food—steamed rice, green beans, potatoes, noodles, and momos (dumplings).

"You can go eat with Tobgay," I said to Tsering. "It's okay, I know you probably want something spicy."

He laughed and headed off to eat chilis with his pal.

After lunch, we drove on, up, up into the hills, on the road to Thimpu.

We stopped for tea by the side of the road in a nice valley in late afternoon. The guys provided me with a folding chair while they stood after pouring me tea using hot water from a Thermos. The water wasn't hot and the tea bag didn't turn the water into tea, but they were trying hard and there was nothing to be done about it, so I said nothing, just drank the non-tea.

They both drank their non-tea too and then while Tobgay started to clean up, Tsering politely approached me and asked a question.

"Would you like some more, uh...lukewarm water?"

This could really work out, I thought, grinning, as we packed up the car to finish the drive to Thimpu.

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