Bumthang is a valley of valleys. Located in the north and centre of Bhutan, it gathers together the four valleys of Ura, Chumey, Tang and Choekhor. Here you can have football fields — a rarity in a country that is made up of mountains, and only mountains — and it is little wonder that Bumthang translates loosely to the “beautiful flat land” even if that flat land is, at its lowest, six thousand feet above sea level.
The buckwheat was in flower when I drove through the valley, and the rhubarb was turning from delicate pink to a hard red as it matured. But I looked neither at the peaceful fields, nor took time to enjoy the peace of it all, instead I roared along the roads like a bat out of hell, careening around the curves, and shifting gears up and down for the slightest bit of advantage that they could give me. This might have been because of the music system on my jeep was pumping out Iron Maiden’s Brave New World, but the truth of the matter was simpler, and more subtle.
It was all about ego.
Contrary to popular belief, and especially because of the exquisite courtesy that the Bhutanese extend to their guests, ego is no stranger to the country and has a long pedigree. A group of Jesuits visited the country in 1627, just when the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, was binding the country together for the first time in recorded history. They entered the country via Cooch Behar in current day West Bengal, and noted that “the Prince [seemed] … concerned about handing us over to the men of Bhotanta because the people of Koch are very much afraid of them from observing how proudly they go about Rangamati without fearing anyone.”
That pride is hardly surprising, nor out of place for a mountain people. The road that I am driving on is a new one — part of the rapid modernisation process that Bhutan has been going through since the 60s, begun by the dynamic third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, with Indian help. The Indian government has played a key role, and it is our Border Roads Organisation that built and maintains the roads in this mountain kingdom. It still takes some bravery to navigate these mountain roads, possibly requiring a few swigs of locally brewed rice wine (which might explain why Bhutan has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in South Asia).
When I had driven to Bumthang a few days before, evening caught me fifty kilometers from my destination, and then, going over Yotongla pass — one of the highest in the region at 11,000 feet, the fog came down like an impenetrable blanket. I could see fifteen feet ahead, then ten feet, then none. Crawling along at the pace of a lethargic snail, I looked at the few reflectors embedded in the road for some form of comfort. That is until one of my friends remarked that when they first put those reflectors into the road many Bhutanese had driven to their deaths. Seeing a reflector glinting ahead of them, they accelerated, not realising that the reflector was embedded in the road curving around a gaping chasm that they could not see in the midst.
For almost an hour I crawled along, humbled into submission by the blinding fog, terror crawling up and down my spine. But times had changed, a new day had dawned, and I was going to catch that pass while the sun still shone to do give my ego some much needed reinforcement.
The route I was taking, from Bumthang to Trongsa, might have had its impact as well. Bumthang is home to Wangduecholing Palace, sitting in regal disrepair, painted and pretty with touches of inimitable flaming blue vegetable dye. It was here that Ugyen Wangchuck was born in 1862, just a couple of years before the Anglo-Bhutan war of 1864-65. Ugyen’s father, the formidable Jigme Namgyal led the Bhutanese forces in that war. Known as the Black Regent, Jigme Namgyal was also the Penlop, or governor, of Trongsa. Ugyen would inherit that position, but he led his people differently, making peace both with the British as well as helping them negotiate with the Tibetan government of the time. For this he was rewarded by being acclaimed unanimously as the first king of the remarkable dynasty that rules Bhutan today, a dynasty that has unilaterally limited its own powers, and become the world's youngest democracy. And here I was roaring along that route, from Bumthang to Trongsa, and from there the capital, Thimphu itself, beckoned enticingly.