Train to The Kingdom of Bhutan: A Memoir

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I always had a dream to visit the kingdom of Bhutan, for I had seen it through some friends’ eyes due to which the curiosity rose to literally experiencing everything that had been narrated by them. I had promised a friend – someone beyond just that word – to visit her in her country one day, it was probably when I get rich but never knew it was going to be that soon and that with hardly anything in budget.

I should probably give the credit to the head of a youth-based organization that I am voluntarily contributing in its growth, for he brought up the idea of 1st Bhutan-India Bilateral Youth Dialogue on 27th of December, 2016 at Thimphu, Bhutan.

“ I want to go to Bhutan, I will even if I have to walk all the way with no money at all”, That’s what I thought after finding ‘ Hayat Amiree’ on the list of delegates representing the organization. Well, don’t worry, Fellas. Those were just mere thoughts!

22nd Dec, 2016.

Due to scarcity of resources, we planned to take train from Delhi to Hasima, close to Bhutan’s border.  Mahananda Express 15484 left around 8:00 am. After boarding the train, I realized  that cheap is always uncomfortable. Things shouldn’t have been a problem for me but who could go for nature’s call without water? What happens if there is no charging point in your compartment or any compartment in the train? Have you ever imagined life without smart phones, internet? Scary, right!?

But thanks to Mr. Subhash Chauhan, my travel companion who besides being a journalist cum social activist from Haryana is a humble human being. He suggested me to tweet the matter online and tag The Ministry of Railways for remedial actions. With zero faith on government but to respect Mr. Subhash’s request did I tweet, “ Worst Situation in Mahananda Express,  Train No. 15484, S9. No water facility. Plugs don’t work to charge our phones @RailMinIndia.” Within 10 minutes, I received ministry’s positive response regarding the complaint that I had submitted and around 2:00 am, a guy from the railways came to my seat and asked for my signature after providing water in the train.

Subhash Ji expressed himself, “Ache din aengai nahi, agaye hai – Good days have actually come.”

I must say, the competition between ministries are nowadays for the good of common public. Though the situation in my compartment couldn’t get better, i had to run to others to charge my phone but ministry’s response made my day, for that is something unusual in India. In fact, anywhere in this world.

 

Yes, they fell in love in the train

In Couch No. S9 worked only one point where everyone tried to charge their phones. In this compartment were mostly young army men. Few sang the whole trip, few made others laugh and few were enjoying their company with fellow female passengers. If you’re wondering about me, I must say that my life sucks if my phone is not charged so yeah, I was busy CHARGING!

A tall young army man from Punjab who looked mostly like Kashmiris! He was a fresh recruit for the camp and as he explained, that’s why he wasn’t as muscular as other Jawans. He was quite, soft-spoken and pretty innocent and shy, who would completely go red if he was caught on something unusual. He stayed quite the whole time until I realized that he was actually looking at this girl sitting to his front. She was an average height brown girl, a typical native of West Bengal, India who hadn’t worked much on herself to look prepared unlike girls in metropolitan cities.

Around 12:30 am on 24th of December, 2016, we now noticed them sitting together, probably exchanging contact numbers. The young man’s journey is about to end at New Jalpaiguri Station and he so desperately want a picture with the girl but she is too shy for it or perhaps, we intruded into their opportunity but as gentlemen should do, we encouraged the girl to take a selfie with this desperate lover. Let’s say, they’ll count that as the foundational step in to their relationship – I am hoping for them to go far.

Then the uncommon thing happened when the guy asked the girl to visit in this empty compartment. We smelled it all. Actually, it wasn’t rare that they wanted to meet alone but when we stood and walked away, giving them the space. No. actually, letting them kiss. That doesn’t happen in India and that too in a local train. No!

4:00 Am, We reached Hasimara Station. It is a small town in Alipurduar District of West Bengal State. It was too early for us to take an auto to Jaigaon, a small town close to the border. We waited for an hour and half until the day started and at around 5:30 am in the morning, we took an auto rickshaw to Jaigaon that adjoins Phuentsholing, a border town in southern Bhutan. The distance from Hasimara to Jaigaon is 15.6 kilometers and it takes around 45 minutes to reach there by auto with a minimum fare of 30 rupees each passenger.

The ornate border gate’s view from inside Bhutan

“The moment we enter Phuentsholing, Bhutan, the whole weather changes, for now you’re at peace unlike the chaotic environment at the other side of the border”

It was Saturday and the immigration office for Indians seemed to be closed. For a moment, I felt sad for my colleagues, for they couldn’t proceed to get the visa for Thimphu and they had to wait until Monday to legally enter Bhutan but were I hopeful for my visa because it was already processed by a friend as personal guest and the foreign immigration desk for Afghanistan was open. I went to the window-counter and said, Hello.

“Hello, how can I help you?””, Replied a young guy. He seemed to be not sure about me being a foreigner.

“I am from Afghanistan”, I handed over my passport to him, “and I am invited as a personal guest by a friend of mine called Ms. Manisha Subha. My visa has already been processed by Mr. Tashi who works at the Ministry of Home Affairs. I am told to collect my visa from this counter before entering Bhutan”, I explained.

He took a serious look on my passport and asked me two times to ensure if I were really from Afghanistan. For a moment, he must had been thinking, “Why the hell is this Bhutanese trying to sound like a foreigner?” but gladly, they laid some trust on me because of my passport that said ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’. By now, you must have already guessed about our lookalike physical structure!

Meanwhile, until they call Mr. Tashi and inquire about my visa, I learned the Bhutanese tourist visa for foreigners except Indians costs $250 per day that includes accommodation, food, guide and transportation but if you’re invited by a Bhutanese national as a personal guest, you would only be charged the visa fee, which is $40. Yeah, you now have the information for your future plans to this wonderful land.

“Hayat, you have to stay in Jaigaon until Monday. There is no officer to complete the process from Thimphu but your visa is approved and will be notified to the office in Phuentsholing on early Monday”, a text from Mr.Tashi. I then left the office with disappointment and went to my travel companions to arrange lodgings for two days in Jaigaon. We booked three rooms for Rs.300 per room. We were all exhausted after 48 hours of journey so we relaxed for the rest of the day. We had two days at the border until the office opens on Monday, 26/12/2016.

For the next two days, we got in and out of Phuentsholing several times. We visited several monasteries and Bhutanese shops to buy authentic Bhutanese products. Phuentsholing is the border town of Southern Bhutan which adjoins with Indian town of Jaigaon in West Bengal State. The cross-border trade passes through this fascinatingly architected Bhutanese gate that welcomes everyone to The Kingdom of Bhutan. Having said that, you have the proper documents. Apart from Immigration check point, you’ll find a bazar where you can buy anything South Asian you wish for, from branded liquors to antique products to Bhutanese cultural handlooms to variety of foods at reasonable prices.

I am too used to of the Indian traffic rules and I thought it was of the same in Bhutan. The moment you enter Bhutan, you don’t see any traffic lights but zebra crossing lines after every hundred meters or so. Likewise in India, I thought you can cross the road from anywhere you wish for but didn’t I realize that I was in Bhutan! I got my lesson while, once, crossing the road a traffic cop stopped me. He surprisingly looked at me for a while and with a gentle attitude, pointed towards the zebra lines and said, “You cross from there before you get charged a 500 Bhutanese Ngultrum.” On that moment, I felt like he asked me to go home and get education! Yes, Sir, I said.

26th Dec, 2016:

 I hit back to the immigration office along with my colleagues. I was required to get an approval letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs and so did I call Manisha after which she asked another friend, Ms. Lhaki to do the needful since she was far away from the capital city, at work. Lhaki was also part of our tiny family back in Bangalore, during our bachelor days. We danced and laughed together for quite a long time. I didn’t knew that our paths were going to cross once again. I rather assumed her being in Bangalore, for she had a job when I left the city in June, 2016. Manisha still doesn’t believe that I, once, liked her. Well, I still do. Wonder what kind of a lady is she!

I read it once, “Politeness has become so rare that people, sometimes, mistake it for flirtation”

Well, I believe I made my point here.

After an hour, Lhaki sent me the approval letter and within few minutes, I received my visa to Thimphu. I returned to checkout from the hotel. At around 2:00 pm, I booked two tickets and left the city. Some of our friends agreed to come along with another friend who had brought his car with him. Bhutan is a landlocked country and the second largest Himalayan state in Asia. You cannot expect a straight road in this country and so I slept on our way to Thimphu to avoid dizziness – headache. It took us six hours to reach the capital city.

We reached our destination around 9:00 pm. The city was clean and beautiful that it reminded me of my visit to Gangtok, Sikkim – an Indian state on Himalayan Mountains. The weather was so cold that I could feel my legs getting numb. I remembered asking Manisha if I could bring some shorts with me. It was definitely a bad idea. I stepped down the mini bus and there I saw Lhaki right in front of me, a moment of pleasant surprise. I felt like as if I was seeing things, for I really didn’t expect her and that waiting for two hours under the chilly weather. And then we dropped my colleague to Hotel Thimphu and waited for my accommodation to be arranged by the organisation. Meanwhile, the organisation’s chairman, Dr. KK Singh treated us a dinner. That was considerate of him!

She asked me, “Kesa Hai, Gabbar”

Hot as usual, I said. Feel my hands. They aren’t even as cold as yours, Basanti.

My accommodation was arranged at Mr. Jigme Yosel’s place who is a well-known young social activist. He also enjoys making films on social issues concerning drug addiction. Mr. Yosel is a likeminded young man. He lives independently with some of his friends at this apartment close to his mother’s place. After a short conversation, he did the arrangements for a good sleep, for we had our event tomorrow.

27th Dec, 2016:

At 1st Bhutan-India Bilateral Youth Dialogue 2016 held in Ministry of Education, Department of Youth and Sports which resulted in drafting Thimphu Plan of Action, 16 did we have a good amount of productive dialogues on several areas where International Youth Committee, India could play a crucial role such as opening International Youth Disaster Response Team (IYDRT) clubs in every educational institutions in and around the country and have cultural exchange programs and so on.

The meeting had the presence of around thirty energetic young delegates alongside the Indian delegations. While discussing the role of youth in promoting education, I came across a delegate known as ‘Kinley Wangmo Dodi’. Her story touched me for the fact that she drives every morning to a rural area in Bhutan to teach those who are deprived of platforms. By profession, she is a teacher. “At times, parents do not understand the importance of education and therefore, we visit them to raise awareness”, she added to her point. I believe, such young minds are the real catalyst for change. They are the real characters of our society.

We closed the meeting with a promise to return and add on to the plans we drafted. After a group photo, I left with Basanti who was waiting outside for me, that’s again very sweet of her, and Ms. Khina Ghimirey, who is a mutual friend of Manisha. We had some virtual conversations in the past but did I only learn about her bold appearance when we finally met in this winter. She exhibits this independent and bold Spanish appearance of the character, Senorita (the term used for Miss or Lady) who runs this travel agency with her brother in the capital city. We walked down the city until we found a restaurant cum bar where youngsters mainly visit to smoke or cherish the moment with some bottles of beer.

“What about your traditional dress? I want to wear that tomorrow since we are going to visit the city”, I said.

Basanti retorted rather happily, “I will bring my brother’s ‘Gho’ and you can wear that tomorrow. You will look like a typical Bhutanese”

That’s for sure, I said.

28th Dec, 2016:

‘Gho’ is the traditional and national dress for men in Bhutan and the term ‘Kira’ is used for female dress. We went to The Coronation Park which is located on the banks of River Wanchu. A tall statue of Buddha stands right in the middle of the park which is in front of the main gate. Since, I had no idea of wearing the complex Gho so Basanti volunteered to dress me up. I removed off everything except the short-pant that was mandatory. She asked me to wear a white shirt which had unconventionally long sleeves and then she put the Gho on it which reached the ground and then folded the shirt’s sleeves to form cuffs. She tucked the right side to the left and brought the left side over the right. I was assigned to grasp the Gho from both the sides while she was folding them backward and gathering the cloth until the hemline was above my knee.

The dress is then tied with a belt that forms a pouch right on your belly, where you can keep your wallet, mobile etc. That pocket is probably the biggest and you could keep almost anything in it. You then need shoes and knee-high socks to complete the outfit. The only western-cloth that you need to wear under ‘Gho’ is, perhaps, a short-pant or an underwear, depending on your preferences!

He took her phone to take a picture in front of the Buddha statue and complemented with words like cute and handsome Bhutanese.

Wondering if I retorted? Well, I was speechless and rather enjoying the comfortable ‘Gho’. Wearing that had I a wonderful feeling, as if I am one of their own. It is by law for officials within the borders of Bhutan, be it drivers or literate executives, to wear the national dress. That’s one step forward to preserve the culture.

We then headed to Changlimithang Stadium, which is a multi-purpose stadium in the city which is known as the National Stadium. It is home for Bhutan’s National soccer team and Thimphu’s passionate soccer players.

While buying tickets for Bhutan Textile Museum, it was compulsory for foreigners to pay 500 bucks, 50 for nationals of SAARC countries and 25 for Bhutanese. Well, I paid 25. The National Textile Museum has the country’s textile arts achievements in display which is basically to promote the interest of weavers to continue the traditional textile patterns.

“I believe the entire system in Bhutan is being inspired by the type of culture they have well preserved so far”

It is by law in Bhutan to have Bhutanese touch in every architectural effort, be it buildings or shops, tables or anything. No matter what, preserving their culture is the top most priority. They see modernity in their own intelligent use of past rather than seeing it through the terminology of west.

Lhaki thinks very high of an artist, Mr. Kunga Tenzin Dorji and has an opinion of our similar nature and therefore, had she arranged a meeting with him at 2:00 pm but before that, we had to visit Ministry of Home Affairs to get the special permit to visit Bumthang which is a restricted area and where Manisha works. We submitted our application along with the documents and called Ms. Khina to collect it if we got late after the meeting with Mr. Dorji.

We met Mr. Dorji at a café close to the famous Clock Tower in Thimphu. I can bet that he didn’t take me as a foreigner at the first glance. He was in western outfit, a jeans and an orange shirt, while I was dressed traditionally. He looked and sounded more foreigner than I was.

He asked me, “So what do you want to know about Bhutan? Would like to know the rosy picture or the ugly side of the story?”

“I know enough of the rosy image so you can start with what is untold so far”, I said while Lhaki, generous as usual, ordered coffee.

Our conversation started with the ugly realities of our men in power to the role of youth in the process of development and how they are affected with drugs. After a while, we drifted towards understanding each other, our plight in working for what we are passionate about. Mr. Dorji is a professional journalist and a passionate actor. His love for music is beyond passion – which is described as the science of loving what you do. That is a unique way of generating a remarkable life which I found very impressive.

While narrating my story to him, he stood up and shook my hands. Let’s say that we both were impressed and flattered in certain ways. We were given fifteen minutes with him but our talk extended to an hour or so.  We built a special camaraderie that we almost forgot Lhaki sitting right beside us.

After the meeting, we rushed to visit Buddha Dordenma Statue along with another friend of hers, Pema Zangmo, who seems full of life. Does what she likes. Those type of extroverts are pretty rare these days. She runs this small business down town with her mother. We hired a taxi and headed towards Budda Dordenma statue, also known as The Buddha Point.

The 51.5 meters tall Shakyamuni Buddha Statue is located atop a hill and probably the tallest statue in Bhutan. The altitude at the point offers a panoramic view of the entire capital city and the throne that the latter sits upon is a large meditation hall. The statue fulfills an ancient prophecy that emanates an aura of peace and happiness to the entire world. This was probably my favorite spot in Thimphu, for I could witness the whole city running right in front of me and trust me, it was mesmerizing.

At around 6:00 pm, we headed to Manisha’s mom, for my ticket to Bumthang on 29/12/2016 was already booked and we had to receive it from her. Manisha had already arranged a lot of things for me. I wasn’t the only one excited here. We had equal share of the emotion. Her mother runs a small general store. She treated us with a traditional tea in her shop and in between the conversation, I praised her daughter and said, “Ma’am, You have a wonderful daughter.”

She grinned for a second and responded, “I don’t think so”

You have no idea how much I wanted her to be there in that moment. I died laughing in my heart. You see, I love pulling her legs as much as she enjoys beating me.

I changed my traditional outfit at Basanti’s place and returned to the city. We had planned a night out with her friends. Met some young folks and lived up the night as if tomorrow didn’t exist. For the rest of the night, we Laughed, Danced, laughed again and kept dancing…

29th Dec, 2016:

7:30 am, the bus left for Bumthang Valley which is around thirteen hours far from Thimphu. It rode through Himalayan Mountains and the snake/y road was quite damaged and narrow. The road widening project was active which made it scarier and besides that, the tire punctured on the way.  I even read few religious verses for my safety, for I had no faith in our driver. Anyhow, I reached Bumthang at 9:30 pm where I met my boss, Manisha, after two years, for whom did I entirely make my mind to visit the country.

For the next three days, I stayed in Bumthang and explored ancient places that have historical significances. Let’s start with;

  1. Kurjey Lhakhang,

The oldest Buddhist temple in Bhutan. It is named after the body (kur) print (Jey) of Guru Rinpoche, which is preserved in a cave inside the oldest of the three buildings that make up the temple complex.

Kurjey Lhakhan was built during 16th century by Minyu Tenpa when Guru Lhakhan was then the penlop (A Dzongkha term for governor) of Trongsa. Tucked just below the eaves is a figure of a snow with a Jachung (Also called Garuda) above it, which represents the famous struggle between Guru Rinpoche (Appearing as the Garuda) and the local demon, Shelging Kharpo (as the snow lion).

 

  1. Mebar Tsho,

It means the burning lake. It is a sacred place for pilgrimages. Terton Pema Linpa, a Buddhist saint known for discovering sacred treasures, is believed to have jumped inside the lake with a burning lamp. He came out of the lake with the lamp still burning and with a statue, a script and a ritual skull and this lake was thereafter given the name of Mebar Tsho.

  1. Zangdopelri

After visiting the burning lake, we drove upward through a sheep breeding farm in Dungmethang, where atop a hill we witnessed the beauty of Zangdopelri. It was a beautiful Bhutanese structure that a friend describes it as The Replica of Heavenly Structure. It was very peaceful and I could see the entire valley from atop the hill.

I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Bumthang. I must say the clubs are pretty loud and lively, which I didn’t expect at all. We were dancing in this club when I glanced to this only European or let’s say American lady who were having her time with a Bhutanese lad. For a second, I wished to be treated a foreigner as well. In fact, I even thought of going to the DJ counter, switch off the music and shout, “Hello, I am a foreigner too!” But then, I knew it that I would get a reply as, “Yeah, You wish or better luck next time, Daju” so I hit back to my steps…

On 2nd of January, 2016 I left Bumthang and on 3rd to Phuentsholing and on 4th, I got my train to Delhi. Within these few days, I learned a lot from people like Mr. Dorji, Ms. Kinley and Mr. Jigme. The culture, The people and the country that I believe is the hub of civility fascinated me to a great extent. I felt comfortable in Gho than the western outfits that I have been wearing since the day we migrated to Pakistan, during the civil war in Afghanistan. I felt overwhelmed for being treated as one of them.

Hence,

“The beauty of Bhutan lies within its civility and that is what makes them far better than the rest of the world”

 

To everyone that I met,

Namey Samey Kadrin Chhe La – Means, literally thank you beyond heaven and earth.

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