If you are traveling for such a long time, organizing visa is part of the daily routine. Going to the embassies is time consuming, often expensive and sometimes frustrating because you are always at the short end. But then every now and then there are also moments of joy when it all workes out. A few weeks ago I had such a moment. Thanks to a friend with good connections I got the probably most difficult visa there is at all: Bhutan. The ministry of internal affairs invites me and so I can cycle on my own for 22 days across the country without having to book a tour for 290$/day. I can hardly believe my luck and can’t wait to get there.
Bhutan, a country as big as Switzerland, where 80% of the land lies above 2000m. The first completely tobacco free country. Business interests are secondary to the protection of the environment (which is written in the constitution). The king has declared the so called ’gross national happiness’ a more important goal then the GDP. The country has a naturalness that is today worldwide unique. More than two thirds of the country are forested und the 7570m high Gangkhar Pensum is the highest mountain never been climbed by a human.
All that sounds almost too good to be true. This and the fact that only few tourists visit Bhutan because it is so expensive, have given the country an almost mythical state, a true Shangri La far from the problems of the world.
The border crossing does’ t help much to prove wrong such prejudices, on the contrary. On one side there is Jaigaon, a typical indian small town with all its dirt, noise and rubbish and only a few meters further I step into another world. Out of a sudden it is quiet. Everything is clean and well organized. No hectic anywhere to be seen.
But there is not much time for dreaming. The road looses not a single meter und right after the border I have to climb 2000m almost vertically. When I see the first houses I think they are temples. The white walls with many little windows and the elaborately painted and carved wood construction reminds me of Tibet. But they are different, have their very own character. Theses seems to be the case with many things: monasteries, temples, cloth remind me a lot of Tibet but is still different, very typical Bhutanese. This gives the country a very unique, own identity.
Most men wear a Gho, a kind of a robe held together with a belt, very similar to the Chuba in Tibet. Only the Gho is only knee long and is worn together with knee socks. At first I often have to smile but I soon get used to it, because everybody wears it. Women wear a colorful Kira that looks very elegant.
On saturday morning I go to the archery ground. Archery is Bhutans national sport and especially on weekends there are little tournaments everywhere. I am warmly welcomed and they happily explain everything. Some use a traditional bamboo bow, while other use the latest technology. But most of all it is a social event where men meet and later sit together.
Monasteries are called Dzongs in Bhutan and there is one in almost every village. I visit many of them. I most like the little ones where I am always warmly welcomed and often sit together with the monks for a chat and learn many interesting things. On the other hands there are the huge Dzongs of Paro and Punakha whose architecture and artful decorations are simply breathtaking.
To place a monastery more spectacular then the Taktshang Goemba is simply not possible anymore. It lies atop a big rock in the middle of a sheer cliff, 900m above the valley floor. The view is absolutely unbelievable. It is also known because scenes of Bertoluccis ‚Little Buddha‘ have been filmed here.
From Paro I cycle over the 3810m high Chele La to the neighboring Ha Valley. The ride back to the main route is simply idyllic. Practically no traffic, dense forest in every which way I look and between small villages made of those beautiful houses.
Thimpu is also know as the only capital in world with no traffic light. Here I meet Pema. He and his friends show me the town and invite me to dinner with his family. He also helps me organizing the needed permit to continue traveling to the east.
Now the roller coaster ride really starts. On the way to the East I have to climb a high pass almost every day after which the road drops into another deep valley. Every valley is different. Some are covered in dense pine forest, while others are so deep, that I soon find myself in a subtropical forest where monkeys play next to the road und exotic voices can be heard from the bush. The villages are all very little and idyllic and the further east I get the less there are. The whole ride is nothing less but a dream, but it is a tough dream.
In the 10 days ofter Thimpu I have to climb 13,000 vertical meters. Until in one last long descent I drop down to the Assam plain and the border.
Bhutan is no Shangri La and by no means is it a unworldly country that lives in the past. Modern technologies are available and used. Many are well educated and speak fluently english. But above all, the country wants to preserve its unique cultural heritage. To be not completely overrun by tourists, they simply raised the prices very high. All the more I feel privileged to have been here.
What I have seen in the three weeks has deeply impressed me. Rarely have I every been to a country where people seem so obviously happy and nature is so untouched. For that I envy the Bhutanese for their country.