Broken down in Bhutan

This story is made up from memory, a journal entry and a few notes from a recent little adventure. 

The plan was this. Take a bus on Friday morning from where we live in Rangjung, stay over in Bhumtang on the first night, and arrive in Punakha early Saturday afternoon.  Pretty straight forward.

Gear check photo before I left

Preparation for my trip to photograph the Bhutan International Marathon started a few days before. 

The town was preparing for the up and coming Losar (Tibetan/Chinese New Year) and there was a sense of anticipation in the air. I was on my way home from walking Megan to school and planning to purchase my bus ticket when I was met by a man in town who started chatting to me asking if I was new to the area.  Tashi Namgyal and I stood in the street and chatted about photography and when he used to work as a photo journalist for almost an hour. Tashi is currently a writer and researcher for the Dungse Garab Rinpoche’s autobiography. Read more about the Rinpoche here. About two hours later we were joined by two of his friends and were still chatting over Maggi Noodles, Bhutan’s ‘Fast Food’, and tea in a local restaurant. I mentioned that I needed to get my bus ticket sorted out and they seemed a little concerned as with the new year celebrations approaching. I might have left the booking too late. Sure enough, when they took me to the little shop that sells the bus tickets Pejor Kuenley (one of Tashi’s friends I had just met) came out and informed me that the tickets have already been sold out. The bus was full. I still don’t know what Pejor said to the shop keeper but a few minutes later he came outside letting me know that a ticket has become available! Fantastic! Pejor, you legend!

Tashi, me, Penjor and Tsheltrim visiting Penjor's family for New Years eve the day before I left

Friday 5:30am

I was sitting at the bus stop waiting for the bus to arrive ready for my two day journey to Punakha. According to my ticket the bus would depart at 6am. There is a concept here called “Bhutanese Time” and sure enough the bus arrived on time at 7:00am. After packing everyones luggage on top of the bus we were on our way. 

Friday 20-02-2015: Almost a year since my previous journal entry. 

It’s 11:05 and I’m on a bus driving through the windy roads in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan on my way to photograph a marathon. I can’t believe this is my life now. There is a monk sitting next to me and he is dozing off on my shoulder every now and then. Handwriting is crap due to the roads out here. My bus driver is a short man and often needs to stand up on the break pedal in order to push it down far enough . He is on his cellphone using his free hand and his elbow to navigate the bus around the sharp corners along the side of the mountain pass. They should really put barriers on these roads. He hoots (‘honks’ for all you non South African’s) when approaching a corner to warn possible on coming traffic. The road is too narrow for two cars to pass each other so when that needs to happen one car will pull over to the side allowing the other to drive past. The hooter sounds like it is inside the bus. Each hoot makes my eyes blink and my neck twitch. His teeth and lips are read with the Doma he chews. I think it keeps him focused, almost like drinking a couple of Red Bulls. The bus feels a lot more ‘used’ than the one we arrived on when all the teachers got dropped off at their placements. Oh well, onward on upward!

The bus pulled over in a village and the driver yelled the words “Breakfast!” with a little laugh behind it.  Three monks, two small children and the rest of the local passengers left the bus to walk down to the restaurant. Feeling confused is something I’m getting used to here. This is the first time I’m traveling without someone constantly explaining what is going on, what to do and how things work.  After a quick stretch I walked down to the restaurant and everyone seemed to be just standing around and not really doing anything. I sort of walked in and looked inside. Everyone looked at me looking confused. Hmm… what am I meant to be doing? No idea. I’ll just stand here looking awkward for a while. 

A hand holding a plate of food suddenly appeared through a small square hole in the wall and people started collecting food. Oh okay, that’s how this works. I wasn't really hungry but I could do with a cup of tea.  I walked to the hole in the wall, looked inside and asked the lady for Ja (tea in Dzongkha). They laughed and I got some tea. I returned to the hole for a second cup, handed my mug back and asked for more tea. The lady looked very confused and pointed back inside the restaurant. I repeated what I had said and again she pointed back inside. I had no idea what was going on. I looked over at some of the passengers with another look of confusion and asked what she meant. Then I remembered that no one spoke any English. I tried asking for tea once again.  The woman and the passengers exchanged a few words, everyone laughed again and I got my mug refilled. 

We headed through the next main town, Mongar, and started the fantastic ascent of Thrumshingla Pass. When driving from Eastern Bhutan you drop down to an altitude of 650m before starting the climb to reach 3800m. The ever changing vegetation is incredible to see. Farmlands, semi-tropical orange producing valleys, alpine forests. This is Bhutan’s second highest pass.

 “Lunch” the bus driver yelled again as we pulled over. It was 17:15. We had been driving a lot slower than I expected and we were far from where we should have been. We were meant to be in Bhumtang at 20:00 and that was still 5 hours away. Oh well. Running a bit late I guess. I looked down at my watch - 3000m altitude. It was a lot cooler than the last time I got outside the bus. 

The restaurant we ate lunch at

This time I felt a bit more confident about what do to at the restaurant.  I walked inside waited for the food to be passed out the hole, got my food and ate. Rice, Kewa Datsi (potatoes with chillies and cheese), Dhal and tea. 

Back on the road things started getting significantly colder. Snow started to appear on the side of the road and the clouds got thicker. The bus also seemed to be driving a lot slower.

Friday 18:00

Fumes start filling the bus. We are close to the top of the pass at about 3600m now. The driver has pulled over and everyone gets off the bus for a toilet break. No one seems worried and a few people started helping the driver sort out the problem. One hour later and we’re still here. It’s getting dark now and I’m walking around taking photographs of the events unfolding. I met Dorji Gyeltshen while standing outside and he is able to speak English which is great. 

Friday 20:30

We are called back to the bus. It is pitch dark now and really cold. We start off and things don’t look good. There are more fumes in the bus than ever before and it’s going along at a snails pace.  Surely we can’t carry on like this? About an hour later we reached the top of the pass. It was a bit of a catch 22 - stick your head outside the window and freeze your face off or sit inside a bus full of exhaust fumes. I chose the cold. I had a beanie and hoody on my head with my buff covering my face. With my head out of the window I was freezing. We were still about three hours away from Bhumtang. I was wondering if I could handle this the rest of the trip. To my relief we pulled over again about 1km after the top of the pass. Everyone go out and started gathering firewood to make a fire. I asked Dorji what was going on and he said that the bus driver was going to try and fix the problem properly and that it may take a while. They made the fire so we could keep warm until then. The driver was working with a torch is his mouth so I offered him my headlamp to make things easier for him. “Thank you, sir!” he said smiling. 

If you travel to Bhutan as a tourist you have to join a guided tour. It’s not possible to travel around as you please. Dorji asked where my guide was. I explained that because we work in Bhutan we do not need a guide and was met with an humbling response, “That’s great! Now you can have a real adventure and experience the real Bhutan”.  We are extremely privileged to be experiencing this country the way that we are!

Dorji and I

Everyone sat around the fire for the next few hours with the bus driver and a few guys helping him in the bus. I noticed after a while that the lights in the bus were off.  Eventually I asked Dorji if he knew what was going on. He said that the bus driver probably got tired and went to sleep. As a westerner I seem to struggle with this concept. We always seem to want to know what is going on. The bus pulls over…Why? What’s happened? How long are we here for? When are we leaving? Etc.  Everyone here just seemed content with whatever was happening and didn't seem to question it. They just started sorting things out and made the fire, went with the flow. 

There was a lot of laughing around the fire. Two of the monks seemed to be causing most of it. They’d say something and everyone would crack up laughing. I found myself laughing too just because everyone else was. Even though I had no clue what anyone was saying. One time Dorji told me they were talking about my “tea incident” at breakfast. That also caused a lot of laughing although I still have no idea why. 

Saturday 00:00

Two women appeared out of the darkness carrying two large pots of tea. It was the best tea I have ever had. I’m sure it was due to the fact of the freezing situation I was in. There is something about drinking a hot beverage that just makes you feel like everything is going to be okay . The women lived just up the hill, heard about us being stranded and decided to bring us some tea. They had also come to tell me that they had a place for me to sleep inside their house. Dorji told me that I should go with them and I would be much more comfortable. Unfortunately this was something I would never agree to. As a foreigner, people here go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. I really don’t like the special treatment and would much rather be treated the same as everyone else - we are all in the same situation so why should I get special treatment just because I’m a foreigner? It was a very kind gesture but I respectfully said that I would much rather be with everyone else. They seemed a bit confused that I didn’t want to go but finally seemed to laugh a bit and repeated what I said in English “It’s okay, I want to stay” . 

It was too cold to be away from the fire. I remember the outside of my hands feeling cold while my palms were facing the fire. The spirits where high amongst everyone and they laughed and chatted until it became light.  

 

I heard from Dorji that the bus driver had said that another bus would be coming in the morning to help him fix the bus and that we should be off again soon. The women from the house nearby came by again, this time with tea and breakfast. Breakfast was Maggi and they did not have utensils to eat with so everyone broke two small twigs off a tree and used them as chopsticks. I remember a tourist bus driving past us around then and I can only imagine what they must have been thinking - there’s a group of people on the side of the road by a fire with snow everywhere, mostly locals with three monks and one random white guy using twigs as chopsticks to eat their noodles! 

The kindness of strangers is incredible. The woman who made the food for us took it upon herself to make all 20 or so people breakfast and bring it down. And didn’t expect anything in return. In fact before we left I asked Dorji where she was as I wanted to say thank you and contribute towards her expenses but he said that she had already left. “She knew we where in trouble so she helped us. She did not want anything in return”. I hope one day to go past there again and somehow repay her.  

The house that the lady who brought us tea lives in

Saturday 10:00

We were back on the bus and still 3 hours away from the Bhumtang, where we should have slept the previous night. I remember chuckling to myself thinking that at least I had saved on accommodation costs. Things with the bus seemed better but it was still pretty slow. There were no fumes and I was very grateful. The bus driver’s hands were pitch black from working on the engine. 

I tried to get some sleep with my head against the window but the road was so uneven it was difficult to keep myself from falling over. This is a skill I’ve yet to acquire as some of the local people seemed to sleep while preventing themselves from falling off their seats exceptionally well!

I realised things weren’t going to be on time again when we reached Bhumtang about 5 hours later - a trip that was meant to be just 3. The bus was driving slowly. And I mean really slowly. The fumes started again when we began to climb up the next pass. It seemed to be coming up from below my feet and outside the window next to me. My head had to go outside the window again. As we drove up this pass I had two ‘firsts’. I saw my first Yak and I was snowed upon for the first time in my life. 

Everyone in the bus seemed relaxed. They all held some sort of cloth over their mouth. One of the small children were fast asleep which worried me due to the amount of fumes that was filling the bus. I pointed this out to his dad and said “Is he ok?”. He seemed to know what I meant and shook his son awake. The boy just seemed annoyed to be woken up for no reason. Thank goodness.

Dorji and another guy didn’t have seats and they had to stand for the duration of the trip. Dorji and I had a few conversations outside the bus as we drove. My head was out of the window and he stood with the bus door open we chatted driving up the pass. “This trip must be very difficult for you and you must be very tired” he said. This was coming from someone who had to stand the entire journey so far! I just laughed.

Head out the window to keep away from the fumes.

Saturday 18:00

We reached a town called Trongsa. At this stage if all was normal, we would have reached Punakha. The driver said we where about 5 hours away from my drop off point and would leave again after having something to eat. Trongsa is a bit more modern and has restaurants that have menus which makes things a lot less confusing for me. This was Dorji’s stop as well so I greeted him and he said “This trip will be a a great memory in your life”  I laughed and agreed fully.

We left Trongsa in the dark and started the climb up Pelela Pass. From the bottom of the pass we were already crawling. Fumes filled the bus but this time it was worse than before. My eyes burned even though I had my head out of the window again. The drive to the top of the pass took 6 hours. 

Sunday 1:30am

We reached the top of the pass and I could not have been more grateful. Driving downhill meant that there was no fumes so that was a relief. Just after we started descending the bus pulled over to give the driver and passengers a break. An old man got out of the bus and I saw him cutting some branches off a tree… Are we camping here again?! Not this time. He took the branches and gently tapped the bus with them while saying some prayers. He was praying for a safe trip down the icy pass which lay ahead. I was thinking about what he had just done when I felt the branches hit me over the head. The man was now going through each of the passengers and was giving everyone a blessing!

About two hours later we were still driving down the pass. We pulled over once again at a restaurant which was closed. The driver hooted a couple of times until the people inside woke up and opened up for us. We were staying here for the night I soon found out. Everyone went inside and sat around the Bukari - a local wood stove. One of the women came to me laughing and pointing at my face. The fumes from the bus had made everything black. My face, hands, everything! It was obviously a lot more noticeable on me and they found that pretty funny. Oh well,what can you do hey!

The people in the restaurant started making everyone dinner and we all sat around the fire to keep warm. 

Sunday 4:00am 

Thanks Nidup Gyeltshen for posting this photo of me in Facebook 

I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore and went to sleep on the floor next to the bukari. Once again they had arranged a mattress and bedding just for me, and once again I would not accept it. I suggested that they let one of the older women use it instead. Two hours later and we were up to get ready to leave again. I was feeling pretty crappy at this point with the lack of sleep, being hungry and looking like a coal miner. I went outside to get some fresh air. We arrived during the dark so I didn’t know what the area looked like and when I went outside I saw the most spectacular view. It’s amazing how fresh air and a beautiful view can just sort everything out for you!

Feeling refreshed I got back onto the bus again and headed down the mountain for the last four hours of my trip.

I learned so much on this trip. Mostly about myself. Just let go and enjoy the ride - no matter what happens. There is no point wishing you are somewhere else. Just live for now. It is the only thing that is real. 

“I’m just going to let go and trust the process, practicing non-attachment every day”    Thanks Judy!

My Coal-Miner self portrait the morning I arrived in Punakha. About 3 hours sleep in the past 3 days