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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Breathless in Bhutan

Readers may like to see the three albums on Bhutan land of the Thunder Dragon on FB..TigerPaw Adventures

This incredible country left an indelible impression on me in more ways than one. While the album images speak for themselves more or less, physical experience for no fault of my host country became akin in terms of physicality and labor , to the cleaning of the Augean Stables by Hercules.

I made my first error when I decided to try he rail and road combination out of India. Having booked the return journey by Druk Air, Bhutan's national airline from Paro to New Delhi, I felt seeing the road through that remote corner of India nearinto Bhutan would be an education (!) which it certainy turned out to be in the most unpalatable fashion. I had been all around this specific area but never actually on this road.

The North East Express is a train of national importance serving the north east of India and linking it to the Capital. I had to board the infamous train from the newest and most far flung station(Anand Vihar)  serving the Capital. We crossed into the state of Bihar and all around was a sea of water. Looking upto the ends of the horizon and seeing the immense "water world", one would never think of India having a shortage of water...if only one had the technology to transport these immense volumes across India's land mass towards the western desert. At approximately 3 pm the train came to a grinding halt. And stayed put for 12 hours. Sourrounded in water the train electronic signals were under water outside "Mughalsarai" a major train junction. The second class air conditioned train in which I was ( and amongst the best, after the first class air conditioned) soon became a living hell. The toilets were grossly filthy, their latches sharp and rusted enough to kill a passenger from tetanus. The rain water flooded the inside of the compartment. When I asked for the complaint book, the assistant collector grovellingly asked "why sir, what has happened?". I said there is rain water inside the compartment. He quickly said" but sir, it is raining outside!" I insisted and the grand ceremony of writing a written complaint and receiving a duplicate was embarked upon and completed.

At midnight all passengers were asleep barring me and a vibrant and energetic young man in the field of education. We tried using our phone contacts to get the nubers of the the railways at Mughalserai.All attempts failed. I decided to wake the ticket collector who was sleeping rather comfortably. He said he didnt have a numer for Mughal Serai but only for Agra. I said "call them". He said" my phone doesnt have a signal". I said " here's mine, and it does!" In the meatime we saw four other trains whizzing past as they were on an obvious priority. The ticket collector spoke to control in Agra and got a non comittal reply as the entire area was flooded.

 I took the phone back, passed the number onto my contacts in Delhi and then e both began calling the number. Finally the train budged...I reached at 9 pm instead of 7 am. I got a taxi and the taxi man and his cohorts clambered all over me. Where do you wish to go sir? " Bhutan Gate", I said. 300 rupees sir. In the fatigued state, I thought this was a good deal. Lets go! ..As I calmbered into the jeep, someone said "where did you say you wanted to go? " Bhutan Gate, I answered again. " "Bhutan Gate! that is a180 km and a 3 hour journey! that is 3000 not 300! Having settled for Rs 2500 we proceeded. The driver and I soon regretted having set out. The journey was 4 hours, and of this, 3 hours were through craters a foot to 2 feet deep. The road had become rippled and wavy due to the poor materiels and overladen trucks..communist West Bengal at its best. The driver kept muttering " I came here two years ago...had I known I would never have come!" The pitch dark, dense jungle for much of the way knowing the forests were inhabited by wild elephant made it that much more tense. Of course there was another scenic and pleasant forest road but that was even more dense and doubly dangerous on account of pachyderms and other unknowns.

 I kept in contact with my Bhutanese guide who came to meet me at the border. He and his driver had been waiting since midday...I finally met him at 4 am and crashed into a  heavenly Bhutanese hotel. State of the art fittings had been used..but placed poorly in some cases..Anyway the excellent springs of the bed invited me..for an hour my head and ears continued swaying with the continued momentum of the awful road journey.

After breakfast at 9, I prepared for the next leg..a six hour mountain road journey ever rising upto the capital Thimpu. The road was excellent and the best of India;s workmanship was seen. The Indian Army had built a tremendous road, with fantastic bridges..But the mountains spare no man..and there were some gruelling sections of land slides to negotiate.

I finally reached Thimpu. The next day we embarked on trek. Wonderful vistas, wonderful field staff accompanied us. But there was a bit of inexperience and I was a bit toooo fatigued to notice after the four hour walk, the outer fly touching the inner. The result was an iced over inside ceiling the next morning. The combined effect of all of these did their damage especially after the next day which entailed an uphill climb of 7 hours from 10,000 ft (app 3200 m) to 14,500 (app 7,200 m) .Carrying a not so light day pack and I was done for after five months of faffing around without much physical activity.

And then the nighmare began. I could barely breathe and was wracked by coughing so violent that my stomach was if it had been repeatedly punched.I needed to be helped around constantly .To do al this and yet take decisions for the team became more demanding than ever. The young guide's decision making needed much help and pushing. The shorter route was the to go back on the pass we came from. But the vertical to get to its top was impossible for the horse. And I could not move on my own and the team had no way to feery me on a stretcher etc..

I had to then do a two day walk in one going out the scheduled way. It became an eleven hour marathon to get down to the road head by nightfall.Of these eleven hours six were on a small mountain pony..a great little mare ..provided with poor tack and untrained leading hands. Had I not been a horseman in my own capacity, I would never ever have survived that day.

The saddle on the horse as a small wooden saddle such as s used in mountains in Asia. There were no stirrups so I had to devise a primitive rope loop stirrup.The breastplate served as a stopping rein because there was ony one open rein which was used by the man leading the pony.A horse or pony generally picks the right or best route 98% of the time. But on occasion it picks entirely the wrong one. There were moments when there was a forked path..the lead man would not look back to guide the pony onto he rigt one with the result that the pony ended up taking me on a sheer cliff face with a thousand foot or more drop to the edge. In my delirium I had to admonish the pony man and ask him to keep his wits about him. Again when going past narrow, rocky defiles the same thing happened and I almost twsited my ankles on numerous occasions.When one went up an incline I had to rise up in the stirrups (as a considerate rider does to aid the horse) at which time the iron hoop of the saddle would catch my stomach, already bruised from hours of coughing.

We reached camp and after a short break I left my party and carried on to complete the next leg in order to reach the road head. I was party carried by one parter who commented " you must have carried me in a past life, sir, which is why I must carry you now". This was too hard to his shoulder and the bounce, knocked the already depleted wind, from my lungs. I then let myself be lugged down the slippery and rocky mountain into thick jungle,by two men..the sheer pace of their momentum, and gravity rushing me off my feet, sweat pouring down my body, inspite of most of the effort being on the part of my helpers... The endless trek down the mountain ended in the pitch dark..and my relief car came to extricte me to the hospital.The Doctor at the Emergency said, " heart fine, blood pressure, fine, chest ..a slight infection....

After thinking the worst ..pulmonary oedema is a dangerous and unpleasant condition, I had escaped this, but the slight "chest infection", had played utter havoc with my physiogonomy.
Bhutan is an unusual country and does not permit mountaineering on account of the mountains being sacred. I guess I had not appeased the Gods this time on the Dag Lang Lake Trek-The Trek of a Thousand Lakes.! Even so, I enjoyed Thimpu thoroughly, inspite of being exhausted from the experience. The Tsecho Festival and dances, which occured just before the Royal Wedding..was captivating  as was all else about Butan, Land of The Thunder Dragon.

For your trip to Bhutan..write to TigerPaw Adventures

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