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Friday, November 22, 2013

Breathless in Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan is not called the land of the Thunder Dragon for nothing. My last journey there left an indelible impression on me in more ways than one. While the album images speak for themselves more or less, my  trial and tribulation for no fault of my host country, became akin in terms of sheer physicality and labor, to the cleaning of the Augean Stables by Hercules. I made my first error when I decided to test the status of the rail and road combination exiting out of India. Having booked the return journey by Druk Air, Bhutan's national airline from Paro to New Delhi, I felt that by seeing the current condition of the road during the monsoon, where it traversed through that remote corner of India (West Bengal state) near Bhutan, would be a useful input for the next season.

The North East Express is a train of national importance serving the north east of India and linking it to the Capital, Delhi. When the train crossed into the state of Bihar all around us was a sea of water. Looking to  the horizon and seeing the immense "water world", reminded one of the famous film by that name, and whose hero was the American actor Kevin Costner. At approximately 3 pm the train came to a grinding halt. And it remained that way for 12 hours. Sourrounded by water the electronic signals were under water outside the Mughalsarai station, a major train junction since the days of the English. The second class air conditioned compartment in which I was (and the best on this train) soon became a living hell. The toilets were grossly filthy, their latches sharp and poky enough to cause injury, and rusted enough to kill a passenger from tetanus and the rain water flooded the inside of the compartment. When I asked for the complaint book, the 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 numbers of the railways at Mughalsarai. All attempts failed. I decided to wake the ticket collector who was sleeping rather comfortably. He said he did’nt have a number for Mughalsarai, but only for Agra. I said "call them". He said "my phone doesn’t have a signal". I said " here's mine, and it does!" In the meantime we saw four other trains whizzing past, as they were on an obvious priority, the Rajdhani being one. 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 we all 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 clambered into the jeep, someone said "where did you say you wanted to go? " Bhutan Gate, I answered again. " "Bhutan Gate! that is a 180 km and a 3 hour journey! that is 3000 not 300! Having settled for Rs 2500 we proceeded. 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 construction, and overladen trucks. Communist West Bengal at its best. The pitch dark, dense jungle for much of the way were inhabited by wild elephant (as I knew from past knowledge) made it that much more tension filled. At 4 am My Bhutanese guide finally met at the border, having waited since midday the previous day. I 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 the first hour my head and ears continued swaying and humming with the momentum of the awful road journey.

After breakfast at 9, we set out on 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, surfacing and edging. But the mountains spare no man, and there were some gruelling sections of land slides to negotiate. I finally reached Thimpu  and after a night halt, we embarked on trek. Wonderful vistas accompanied us and our pleasant guides. But there was a bit of inexperience, and I was too fatigued to notice after the long, cold and damp train journey and the wheeze I had contracted, the rough road trip, followed by the four hour walk, that the outer fly was touching the inner. The result was an iced over inside ceiling the next morning doing further damage to my lungs.The next day 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 during the Indian summer.

And then the nightmare began. I could barely breathe and was wracked by coughing so violently, my stomach was sore, as if repeatedly punched. I needed to be supported. To do all this and yet take decisions for the team (including my English clients including Sir David John KCMG)  became extremely demanding. The shorter route was to go back over the pass but the vertical was impossible for the pack pony. I could not move on my own and the team had no way to ferry me on a stretcher. So I had to  do a two day walk in one. It was an eleven hour marathon to get down to the road head by nightfall, six being on a small mountain pony, a great little mare but with poor tack and untrained leading hands. Had I not been a horseman in my own capacity and a polo player, I would never ever have survived that day.

The small wooden saddle as is used in Asia’s mountains had a pommel hoop, and no stirrups, so I used a primitive rope loop. The breastplate served as a stopping rein because there was only one open rein, used by the ponyman to lead. A horse  generally picks the right route ninety eight percent of the time. But on occasion it picks entirely the wrong one. At some of the  forked paths, the lead man would not look back to guide the pony onto he right path and so the pony ended up taking me to the edge of a sheer cliff face with a thousand foot or more drop! 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, I had to raise my legs to avoid injury to my ankles increasing the strain. 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 broke journey and after a short break I had to face the very sharp decline. I was partly carried by one guide 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 bear, as his shoulder and the bounce, knocked the already depleted wind, from my lungs. I then half walked and half 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 extricate me and take me to the hospital. The Doctor at the Emergency said, "heart fine, blood pressure, fine, chest, a slight infection." While I had escaped pulmonary oedema a dangerous and unpleasant condition, 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 Bhutan, Land of The Thunder Dragon.

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