Up in the
mountains of Bhutan, there comes a time, ever so frequently, when heavy mist
comes rolling in and blocks everything from view. So Akielie and I pull over under an
overhanging rock, take off our helmets, gloves and boots. After riding for
hours with all the protective gears on, it is a relief to take them off and let
our heads, hands and feet breathe! We were in no hurry.
We waited for
a good 25 minutes for the mist to lift and when it did, the view was just
mesmerising. We stood rooted in our place as we were treated with a grand view
of mountains with lush green dense forest, a roaring river way below, cutting through
their base and clouds hovering above us.
fails to mesmerise its visitors. It had done that to me a lot of times….and I
was game for some more. This tiny
Himalayan kingdom is a great motorcycling country and I decided to try the
model from the Mahindra Two Wheeler stable…Mojo, on the Bhutanese mountains. Although
I liked the 295cc single cylinder powerplant, I was a little apprehensive about
the sitting posture. Not because the posture was awkward but because my riding
style is heavily inclined towards the offroad variety. But once I got going,
things turned out right.
picked up the bikes from Kolkata, we rode 600 kms to Jaigaon…and I can’t really
say I enjoyed the journey. I usually keep the bike’s headlights on while on the
highway even in the daytime for safety reasons. The Mojo has a set of daytime
running LEDs that can be seen from a distance. They are two thin strips of
light but they do their job exceedingly well.
North Bengal, borders the Bhutanese town of Phuntsholing and is a typical
border town…Loud, crowded to the brim and chaotic. The last 5 kms to
Phuntsholing took us an eternity to cover. We shared the road with overloaded
trucks, buses, impossibly crowded mini buses honking like crazy, carts pulled
by huge bulls, autos, brightly coloured rickshaws, bicycles and people.
At the end of
the town is the gate to enter Bhutan and it is a wonder how crossing a simple
gate leads to a different world altogether…literally.
Dragon gate, the cacophony ceases. The
traffic moves in an orderly manner, there are no three wheelers, no overloaded
trucks and buses and certainly no animals on the road. Everyone seems to be
moving in a relaxed manner and in no tearing hurry. The cars stop whenever
people cross the street…and no one lifts a hand to signal the cars to stop like
we do in Delhi!
immigration center, a guy with sleek gelled hair introduced himself as an
‘agent’ and offered to help us get our permits. You can’t escape these
particular breed of people but after an exceptionally tiresome first day, I
decided to let him do the job. By the
time we finished our paper work (non-Bhutanese need permits to enter), it was way
past lunch time and I was not really in a mood to start a journey so late in
the day. Nevertheless, a full stomach
brightened my mood and we hit the road to Paro.
The roads are
wide and very well laid and the Mojos came into their elements. The Mojo has a
long wheelbase and we rode the initial few kilometers in the hills a little tentatively….taking
care not to lean too much too soon! As we got the hang of the bikes, we started
hugging the corners. Overtaking on the highway is a breeze. We were never in
any doubt as we overtook even if there was an oncoming vehicle. Just open the
throttle a bit and the bikes took off. The torque is always there when you need
Paro is about
160 kms from Phuntsholing but the ride took more time than it should have. We
stopped every few kilometers as the cameras came out and we went click, click,
click...The mesmerising landscapes got the better of us and we decided to let
it be that way. The mist stopped us a few times and then the clouds opened up
in good earnest and delayed us further.
don’t like to ride after dark unless absolutely necessary. A weak headlight
sometimes throws up very unexpected and dangerous surprises. Fortunately for
us, the dual headlight of the Mojo with its long throw and spread, lit up the
road bright and clear as we cut a lonely swath on the dark highway. By the time
we reached Paro, it was way past sundown and we were greeted by the sight of
the strategically lit Paro Dzong. Paro
has the only international airport in Bhutan and hence some good hotels
too…some very high end ones and some for the budget conscious motorcycle travellers.
A motorcyclist would rather save some money on accommodation and tank up to
ride a few more miles.
to a very large extent, managed to hold on to its tradition and custom. One is not allowed into government office
without the traditional attire. The people still greet you in the traditional
manner….a handshake and a little bow or with a folded hand greeting. People
will hand over and receive money with the left hand supporting the right hand.
It is a humbling experience.
Bhutan is referred to as the last Shangri-La and with very good reasons too.
Almost three quarters of Bhutan is still forested and the government has
designated about 25 percent of this as National Parks and other protected
area. The natural beauty is all encompassing…mist
covered hills, ancient pagodas and monasteries perched on high hills with sheer
drops, sacred forests, crystal clear rivers and snow covered high mountain
An example of
cultural preservation is the Drugyal Dzong at Paro. It is one the oldest Dzong
in Bhutan which was destroyed in a devastating fire many years ago and lay in
ruins. It is now a protected monument and the magnificent ruins stand silently
atop a hill. The famed Tiger’s Nest, also known as Taktsang Palphug Monastery,
perched high on the mountain above the Paro valley was also destroyed in a fire
in 1998 and was rebuilt in 2008. The monastery was first built in 1692 in the
same place where Guru Padmasambhava had meditated in the 8th
One look at
the Tiger’s Nest and one is sure to think aloud ‘how on earth did they make
this huge structure right out of the cliff?’ It’s a must visit. Akielie and I
started the climb together but I soon found out that I was not in the best of
physical shape. There are horses that take visitors half way to the Tiger’s
Nest but I found it a rather shameful way to climb. So I trudged along while
Akielie disappeared round the bend and went nonstop till the Nest. I was happy
to let Akielie explore the monastery this time as I sat at the café and watched
it through the rain.
We were advised
to take a longish but much more scenic route to Thimpu and so rode through
Chele La Pass and Haa Valley. We certainly were not disappointed. Chele La is
about 35 kms from Paro and as we climbed the 13,000ft pass, we passed only a
handful of vehicles. There was a lone van standing at the pass and we realized
that it is actually a restaurant on wheels….Just as well, because there are no
other place along the way where you can grab a bite. The Pass remains closed
from November till April due to heavy snow. Past the beautiful Haa Valley, we
reach Chuzom. It’s a confluence of two rivers the Paro Chu and the Wong Chu and
crossing the bridge set us towards Thimpu.
Thimpu is another stretch of great road. As we entered Thimpu, we became aware
of the speed limits and rode accordningly.
just as clean, beautiful and disciplined. Somehow I felt that life here moves
as on a conveyer belt…very orderly and in a frustratingly straight jacketed
manner. But I was wrong to a large extent. The people are extremely fond of
their King…enamored is a better choice of word.
In this 21st century, absolute monarchy does not exist anywhere else.
The monarchy is constitutional everywhere as people want more freedom and
democracy. But in Bhutan, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated his throne
in 2006 and bought in democracy, there were people who mourned. They mourned
because they could not imagine a life without their beloved King as the
absolute leader and also because they were skeptical of the new system of
For a glimpse
of the Bhutanese traditional way of life, we went to the National Folk Heritage
Museum. The houses were made of wood and
mud and there was space for livestock “inside” the house. In today’s world, it would cost one an arm and
a leg to construct a house with so much teak wood!
Just out of
Thimpu is the Dochula Pass which offers a 360 degree view of the Himalayan
mountain ranges. On a clear winter day, the view is just breathtaking…literally.
Unfortunately, heavy rain clouds and mist blocked out the view completely. On
the top of the pass, there are 108 chortans built by the eldest Queen Mother,
Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.
the Pass, the roads disappeared completely and turned into a slushfest. New
roads are being constructed all across Bhutan and the incessant rain had made
some section into virtual swamps. A major portion of the way from Thimpu to
Punakha were freshly dug up which meant that we rode most of time in 2nd
gear. With our panniers, other bags at the back and us, the bike must have
topped the scale at 200 kilos but I am happy that it didn’t get bogged down or
overheated. The upside down forks up front had enough damping to tackle the all
too frequent big holes and dips in the road. Fortunately, some of the other
safety features in the bike were not brought to play. There is a roll over
sensor that cuts fuel supply to the engine if the bike tilts too dangerously
and a Limp Home mode that restricts the engine sped to a maximum of 5000 rpm if
it detects an engine malfunction.
I had seen
picture of the Punakha Dzong and forever wanted to visit it. It stands in
between two rivers and from vantage points, it looks absolutely riveting. When
the water rises, the reflection of the white, yellow and burgundy Dzong on the
water is something that one can gape at for a very long time.
The Dzong is
huge and houses some government departments as well as the religious sections.
Exploring the Donzg with the heavy boots, jackets and bags sure works up an
appetite and at a lovely eatery along the way, we had some red rice, dal, boiled
vegetables, beef with cheese and some really hot chilli curry . I forgot that tobacco products like
cigarettes are banned in Bhutan and went to a shop to buy cigarettes. A monk
with burgundy stained teeth that matched his burgundy robes, smiled and said
that a smoke might be relaxing at that moment but it might get me into a lot of
tension if I get caught! One can legally import a limited number of smokes but
only for personal consumption and after paying a 100 percent tax. I decided it
is not worth the trouble and I can very well stay without a smoke for 10 days.
stay at Punakha but rode down to Wangdue for the night. It is a nicely planned
breezy little town that is just 7 years old. For Rs 1000, we got a really good
hotel with a good restaurant.
promised rain when we rode out for Bumthang and the clouds finally broke a
couple of hours later. It came thick and fast and forced us into a lovely
restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Their next door neighbor was about 10 kms
away on both sides. The rain ensured that we rode only till Trongsa and holed
up in a lovely hotel run by a Nepalese family. We had a room with a great view
of the Trongsa Dzong, said to be the longest Dzong in Bhutan.
window, the Dzong looked haunting at midnight as it played hide and seek with
absolutely stunning…Lovely houses with farms all around, horses in the meadow, gushing
rivers dissecting thickly forested hills, narrow roads winding through alpine
forest, waterfalls and what have you. We wanted to stay at Bumthang but had
left our luggage back at Trongsa and so back we went in the rain and slush.
rain had caused massive landslide between Trongsa and Gelephu and Bumthang and
Samdrup Jongkhar. And that meant we had to go to Wangdue again and then make
our way to Gelephu to exit Bhutan.
The sun goes
down rather early and after dark, there is not much that you can do although
there are some lovely restaurants and bars in the city. Karaoke bars abounds
and you can sing in some bars as they have a good collection of songs
We saved the
best stretch for the last. Wangdue to Gelephu is one huge stretch of good
roads. We rode along the river and raced downhill. On sharp uphill turns, we
just had to downshift and open the throttle for an effortless climb. Coupled with engine braking, the 320mm petal front
disc sure gives a lot of confidence.
Happy tour of Bhutan was over, we realised that riding a motorcycle in Bhutan is
happiness at its best! It is an amazingly beautiful country and has got its
MOJO spot on! The word mojo, if you are not aware, means “a magic charm,
talisman, or spell”.