Having finished a 10 day trip through Bhutan looking at warehouses and school stores prior to the January food distribution it was time to turn around and return to Phuentsholing. The journey from Samdrup Jonkhar in the east to Phuentsholing in the west was only about 200km in a straight line but traveling via Bhutan takes three full days driving via the mountains.
The possibility of going through the flatlands of India existed but created all sorts of security problems. As I think I already related, a couple of years ago the Bhutanese, under pressure from India, cleaned out the Assam Free State rebels hiding in the jungle on their side of the border. The rebels did not take too kindly to this so took out a Bhutanese bus traveling in India and killed 26 people.
Since that time all Bhutanese vehicles must travel in convoy with military escorts until they are out of Assam. There are only three convoys a week and if you miss these the only option is the mountain road and three days driving. Another problem for me was, while the Bhutanese need no permits, all other foreigners in the rebel territory need special approval from the Indian Government. This was easily fixed by a visit to the Indian customs post and an appropriate donation to get a permit stamp in my passport.
Starting early from Samdrup Jonkhar we lined up with about 200 Bhutanese registered vehicles in a tea plantation just over the Indian side. The usual parade of Indian soldiers moved up and down the convoy with clipboards taking down every conceivable detail of the cars and occupants. I am sure I answered the same questions on the same form for three different people. Alongside the soldiers was a cast of thousands of Indian village entrepreneurs selling boiled eggs, masala tea, curry and rice and of course the Bhutanese favourite, betel nut. While the huge convoy was lined up on the narrow single lane road, Indian cars and busses (not subject to restrictions) roared down the wrong side of the road, horns blaring, missing cars, people, cows and goats by inches.
At last we started to move. The convoy on the move covered about 5 kilometres of road. There was a truck full of soldiers at the front and another at the back. About every 5km there were two or three soldiers at the edge of the road. The rebels could have stopped a bus, shot everyone on board and been off into the bush before the rear troops arrived. The front troops would have read about it in the paper the next morning.
Anyhow after about an hour of what appeared to be a full-on rally with everyone tooting and passing we just sort of drifted into a drive through the countryside at our own pace. I never did see the front troops and there was no hand-off or identifiable release point. We stopped for a cup of tea still well inside Assam and in the half hour that we were there the racing Bhutanese cars finally petered out and the road went back to its sleepy Indian village existence. Never saw the rear troops either. It took 5 hours to reach Phuentsholing driving down the Brahmaputra River valley compared with 3 days via the hills!
My main motivation for pushing the Nervous Nellys at the UN country office for permission for the Indian route (I suspect they only approved because they thought I could not get an Indian permit) was to get back before Bev arrived from Australia. She was only going to be in Bhutan for 10 days and I did not want her hanging around the hotel in Phuentsholing while I was stuffing around in the mountains driving back.
The week before this big trip I endeared myself to the management with my unbounded thirst for work and set up another field trip leaving Phuentsholing on Xmas day to stock take all the small school stores in the beautiful tourist valleys of Wangdi, Punarkha and Pobjika. There was the usual hand wringing by the UN over my desire to drive my own car and I had to sign all sorts of statements saying I would not sue them if I got airborne off an icy cliff along the way.
The permanently employed UN, is composed mainly of people of academic background – predominantly women – with no practical skills that I have been able to identify in two jobs working for them. They have an illusion that it is much safer having local drivers “who know the conditions”. Having driven with these locally recruited, first generation, drivers in numerous countries, giving them a shiny new Landcruiser says much more about the UN’s knowledge of driving than the people behind the wheel.
Anyhow I hired a motorized roller skate in Phuentsholing which the UN agreed to fund at the standard mileage rate. It was a Maruti Suzuki, made in India under licence. I went to check the oil and after a short search in the engine bay saw what appeared to be a watch mechanism that proved to be the three cylinder motor. The 800cc’s put out slightly less horsepower than my lawnmower. It was a good thing first gear was very low or we would not have made it over the 12,500 foot high pass during the trip.
On Xmas morning Bev and I set off on the 170km, 6 hour drive, to the capital Thimpu. Next day we collected Tshering Sumdrup, a young fellow who was on holiday from University doing a 3 month “Internship” (work experience) with WFP. I don’t know if they suddenly gained confidence in my driving or thought an intern was expendable but we set off with a big list of schools to check upon. Of course all hotels were prebooked by WFP and, as the mighty midget struggled up the hill with three of us on board every night, it was with great delight we discovered the best tourist hotels in Bhutan awaiting us.
Not to bore people with repetition I will forego the descriptions of the spectacular mountains, cliff-hanging roads, waterfalls and rushing rivers. Bev had a great time clicking away and the various types of monkeys stood in gangs at the edge of the road to be duly photographed. One mob even had to be shifted as they insisted on blocking the path as they licked the salt from the bitumen. It was spread to melt ice on a particularly nasty bit of road.
We had one great night at Pobjikha where a wide marshy valley is winter home to the black-necked cranes from Tibet. The rough track was almost the death of our little car but the new hotel (needing four wheel drive to get up to the front door) was spectacular. Our rooms were huge with a burning fireplace in each. There were only two other guests. Bev was overjoyed when they issued each person a rubber boiling hot water bottle to take to bed with us as we left the dinner table. I haven’t seen one of these since I was 5 years old.
Bev and I walked to the Education Centre to look through telescopes at the flocks of cranes. The university student counting the birds, said about 350 were in the valley. We felt a bit guilty as the hotel dog, a fine friendly fellow, had decided to come on our 2km walk to look at the cranes but, unknowingly, we took him into the territory of the local canine Hell’s Angels. I am sad to say he was thoroughly done over and was last seen disappearing at high speed with the gang after him. He did survive, as I met him again next morning curled up on the mat in front of the hotel door seemingly none the worse for his drubbing or spending the night in -10 degrees temperature.
After a very interesting week during which we went from snowy passes down to full tropical jungle and saw numerous Buddhist temples, interesting villages (and counted hundreds of sacks of food in various school stores) and winding mountain tracks, Bev and I dropped Tshering off in Thimpu and returned to Phuentsholing.
New Years day once more saw us on the road as we headed into India to take Bev the 150km to Siliguri for her flight from Bagdogra airport to Calcutta and home. She was very taken with the 30 seat busses and their 70 passengers hanging off the rear bumper and on the roof racks. After a ride in the Indian version of a Bangkok TUK TUK and another in the pedal rickshaws we had a delightful final evening at the hotel with workmen pounding on our wall until 10.30 at night.
I dropped Bev at the airport then drove back to Bhutan in the mighty midget ready for the last 6 weeks before completion of my sentence.