At 3.30 in the morning I came to an abrupt halt just outside the hotel door. Standing there bag in hand just about to go down to the street and flag down a cab I noticed that it was raining. Well, correction is in order, it was pouring down in a noisy cascade of grey and black. Luckily there was a taxi parked a bit down the road and even though I ran to it like crazy I still managed to get completely soaked from head to toe. The rain continued to hammer the roof relentlessly as we got underway, southbound for the airport. As the taxi came to a halt under an elevated road the car suddenly felt very silent and disconnected from the world, the windows still running with water and turning the outside world into an ever pulsating and morphing cacophony of dreary colours. As the green light was given we drove out to become united with the rain again and the constant thumps of heavy raindrops on the roof kept us company all the way to Suvarnabhumi.
Approaching the airport along this communist style boulevard the gigantic colossus of a terminal shines with an erie blue light, casting a ghostly spell over the entire interior. After having found the proper entrance and left the rain behind me I walked up to the Druk Air counter only to find that although I was almost two and a half hours early there was already a long line in front of the counter, and virtually everyone was pushing a trolley stuffed with heavy bags, backpacks and trekking gear. There were mainly Americans in line, but also Europeans and a group of Thai people, all clad in their trademark royal yellow t-shirts. As I finally approached the counter I explained that I carried no travel documents whatsoever, and the clerk left her chair to go sit on the floor next to a colleague who had a pile of documents scattered about on the floor. After going through a binder she returned with my air ticket but she pointed out that she couldn’t find my visa, and asked me to wait next to the counter while her colleague continued to ruffle through the large pile of documents. Next to me stood an expatriate of Japanese origin who was on his way home to Bhutan, he had his visa alright, but the airline couldn’t find his ticket. Standing there watching travellers and tourists being checked in one after the other we traded some offers of sympathy for one another.
After standing around for a while another airline employee approached the Japanese guy and told him the best thing for him would be to purchase a new ticket, and then ask for a refund for the old one once he was back in Thimphu. “But I have no cash…” he begun, but finally left with the other guy to go purchase a second ticket over at a ticket counter. Meanwhile another group of German tourists completed their check in. The woman ruffling through papers on the floor didn’t have any success, and after a while the man from the airline came back and gave me the lowdown. The visa support letter could not be found, and Druk Air cannot allow me into the country without this document, as I am likely to be deported and sent back to Bangkok on the next plane. Time was now around four in the morning in Thimphu (one hour behind Bangkok) and any attempts to dial the travel agent of course were doomed to fail, the phones were switched off or not connecting. The airline clerk suggested I allow the airline to reschedule my flight to tomorrow and meanwhile get in touch with my agent to obtain a new copy of the visa support document. I did not think this was a good idea, in part because I was all set to go and was in no mood to double back to the hotel for another night, in part because I would miss out on a precious day in my fully laden itinerary, and also in part because I know how rigid the visa application process was last year, demanding exact entry and departure dates, and I don’t fancy the idea of arriving in Paro on the wrong date in regard to what is stamped in the visa.
Ok, the clerk said, there is of course another option. We can allow you onboard the plane, but without proper documents you will not be allowed inside the country. I suggested that I can try to get in touch with my agent once I land in Paro. Ok, he agreed, but demanded I sign an indemnity form, the airline washing its hands, requiring me, the traveller, to take full responsibility for arriving in country without proper supporting documents, and thereby agreeing to risking deportation on arrival. What the hell, I signed the document, let’s go on with this already. So, I was checked in, I got my seat in business class and sent inside the terminal to await departure. Since the time was still just a little past midnight back home I gave my mother a call telling her “if you don’t hear from me in two weeks everything will be ok”. Then I walked through the glitzy and dull taxfree shop-zone and sat at the grey and dark gate trying to relax. It was a relief when the flight was called out and we boarded in short order.
The flight to Paro from Bangkok takes around four hours. The first leg of the journey is roughly 2 hours 40 minutes and sees the plane stopping at Gaya Airport in eastern India. Here the plane refuels for the onward approach to the Himalayas. Landing at Paro Airport requires good visibility, instrument only flights are not undertaken, and in the event of having to divert to Gaya the plane needs this extra fuel to be able to go back to India. Once the plane departs Gaya after taking on fuel and passengers it is a short flight to Paro, going back on a northeastern vector. This segment of the flight takes around 45 minutes and will on a good day offer spectacular views of the Himalayas, provided you are seated on the proper side of the plane of course. When flying to Paro from Bangkok, be sure to get a window seat on the left hand side of the cabin, and the reverse on the way back. If you are seated on the wrong side you will see Indian plains and rivers shrouded in rising cumulus clouds, if you are seated on the proper side you will see snowy peaks breaking through the clouds against a blue sky. The roof of the world, in all its breathtaking beauty!
When I left Paro last year I was unexpectedly bumped into biz class where I was served the most delicious Indian breakfast, hot and spicy pancakes, lentils and other nice stuff I cannot remember, so I was mightily disappointed to see a continental style meal put in front of me. Other than that, and the fact that I was sitting on the wrong side since I had failed to take into calculation that the plane would go back towards the east from Gaya the ride was very comfortable. Upon landing the plane breaks through the cloud cover and dips into the Paro valley, coming in with sharp mountains rising on both sides of the cabin. Soon you can make out the trademark traditional style wood and mud houses clinging to the slopes and the valley comes into view with its green and yellow crops shining at you in the sunshine. The landing can be somewhat hard and immediately after the plane has touched down the cacophony of relaxed tourists chatting and laughing can be heard as the plane taxis the last leg to the terminal.
Just like the year before, Paro was having great weather, and I immediately let my eyes feast on the gorgeous dzong perched on a hill near the airport. But sightseeing would have to wait for a while, I was now a semi-illegal alien and needed to get in touch with my guide Tshering fast. I found a desk in the arrival hall where I could reach him by telephone and he was standing on the outside of the airport with the necessary document in hand. A sigh of relief. However, nobody except passengers are allowed inside the terminal, so we had the helpful woman assist us in passing over the documents and allowing me a proper entrance into the country. Last year every passenger had to approach a desk with their visa approval document and pay a visa fee of 30 USD before being allowed to pass immigration, but fortunately this procedure had been removed by now, in fact I didn’t have to pay any departure tax either, so I guess it is now included in the ticket prices.
After exchanging some money in the arrival hall I stepped outside only to be grabbed by Tshering and after a welcoming hug and introduction to our driver we were underway downtown in our car. Tradition calls for welcoming tea and this we had at a restaurant downtown Paro, catching up on old times and trading news. It turns out Tshering is now involved in acting and street theatre, and was originally scheduled to go to Delhi on a three month acting program. But now he was stuck with me in Bhutan instead. Our driver standing in for the regular driver who would accompany us tomorrow was a friendly old Austrian optician, the father of the woman running the travel agent and having lived in Bhutan for 18 years already. We had a Hyundai Tucson semi-jeep at our disposal for the trip and immediately set out to begin our excursions, me being eager to make use of the fantastic light.
Our first stop would be a simple rehash of last year, a quick stop at the Drukyel dzong, the very first of the dzongs on my long list. The dzong lies further up the Paro valley on a small hillock overlooking the Drukyel village. It was built in 1649 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first king of Bhutan. The name Drukyel translates to victory and refers to the defeat of Tibetan invaders who came through the pass in 1644 but where beaten here. Today however, the dzong is in ruins, it burned down in 1951 due to an accident with a butterlamp. In fact, most of the dzongs in Bhutan have at some point or another been damaged or destroyed by fire. The copious amounts of wood used in these structures paired with heavy use of butterlamps and candles makes for a dangerous combination. In addition, the woodwork in many of the dzongs is very old, and as a result the wood has become very dry, and especially susceptible to fire. Except from being in a picturesque location the dzong also sometimes offers views of the Jhomolhari, at 7.314 meters it is one of the most famous of the mountains in the kingdom. Alas, the views of the great Himalayan peaks are difficult to come by in this country. For the best chances you need to go high, and early in the morning, as clouds will form very quickly as soon as the sun pops over the horizon. On this particular day, just like last time, the clouds covered anything above 4.000 meters, so the mission was once again a limited success.
From Drukyel we headed on to a place better suited for mountain spotting, but requiring a bit more of an effort to reach. Driving back through Paro we headed on to the road leading to the Ha valley west of Paro. To get to the Ha valley from the Paro valley you need to pass through a mountain pass. As there are no tunnels in Bhutan this means driving on a narrow road snaking its way up the hill sides until you come up at the very top of the mountain, and then repeat the process to get down to the valley floor on the opposite side. Interestingly, the mountain pass leading to the Ha valley, known as Cheli La, would also be the highest place we would visit on the entire trip, at an altitude of around 3.800 meters. Small wonder then, when I after about 40 minutes on the hillside road started to notice I was experiencing a number of the common symptomps for altitude sickness (AMS); dry lips, nausea and headache. However, it mainly boiled down to carsickness, and my guide Tshering was feeling the same thing.
The ride all the way up to the pass took about one hour, and the first thing you notice when you get out of the car is that the air is very cold. The wind is much stronger and very suitable for the large amount of prayer flags that have been raised here. The views into the Ha valley were nice, but clouds kept concealing the mighty peaks of the Himalayas, so the expedition once again proved to be a partial success only. We had brought a pack lunch from the restaurant and descended a bit to where the climate was warmer before eating; we had noodles, sandwiches, trout, banana and black tea. The original itinerary had included visits to two smaller nearby dzongs, but the time spent to climb the Cheli La meant there would not be enough daylight to complete these missions, so they would have to be postponed for the time being. being a mountainious country, Bhutan never sees any spectacular red sunsets or so. The sun will disappear beyond the hills sometime around five pm, and the daylight will fade quite fast after that. The sky sometimes gets nice colours, but the stronger colours usually come closer to the horizon, I wonder what it must be like to live in a country that has no classic sunsets.
Making use of the last light of the day we headed on to Thimphu, the capital. The highway is still very modest looking from an international perspective, but one of the larger roads in the country. Unlike last year it was now covered in a slew of construction projects, mainly aimed at widening the road. Several sections were under maintenance and as such were reduced to dirt roads with large clouds of sand trailing the vehicles passing through. The highway hugs the mountainside and a wild stream follows underneath. On the way to the capital you will pass through Chuzom, where a bridge spans the gap where the three roads from Paro, Thimphu and Phuentsholing in the south connect, each snaking its way through a valley of its own. There is a checkpoint here, and any foreigner wanting to pass through needs a permit to do so. It is not difficult to seek a permit, but it must be done well in advance of the trip, in fact it must be done when laying down the itinerary of the trip. Trying to obtain these kinds of permits while your trip is underway will be extremely difficult.
The ride to Thimphu took around one and a half hour, a little bit faster than expected, and we arrived at the designated hotel, the Dragon Roots shortly after five pm. My crew saw me to the room and then left me to my own devices for the evening. I tried giving my old friend Jasu a call, but both her cell phones were switched off. I also noticed I had already spent three rolls of film during the day, meaning the thirtysomething rolls I carried in my bag would definitely not be enough for a two week mission, so I went out on town to stock up on some more. Thimphu by night is a dark experience. There are very few streetlights, most of the light pours out from the streetside shops and the constant pulse of traffic. People stand around in dark clusters or walk around doing their errands. Kids seeing my camera rushed up and yelled foto! foto!, and some stray dogs ran around barking and chasing each other. As the city goes to sleep, the dogs will roam the night. An angry pack of dogs were barking virtually the whole night as I went to bed, but falling asleep was not an issue…