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Ride to the Land of Thunder Dragons: Bhutan

From dzongs to dumplings, from serene monasteries to jubilant tots, experience breathtaking Bhutan through the lens of photojournalist Zabeeh Afaque.

travel Updated: Jun 12, 2016 18:40 IST
Zabeeh Afaque
Bhutan

River confluence in front of Dzong Punakha.(Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Ever imagined entering a foreign land riding a motorcycle? It transports the traveller to the tunes of De Ushuaia a la Quiaca. Riding to Asia’s happiest country — Bhutan, a trip that was sponsored by Royal Enfield, through untouched wilderness, deep valleys and criss-crossing rivers, I created a memory of a lifetime.

Siliguri to Darjeeling

My journey began with a flight from New Delhi to Bagdogra, a town near Darjeeling. The next morning we commenced our ride towards Darjeeling, amidst dense forest nearly concealed in wisps of fog interspersed with picturesque tea gardens sparkling green after a reviving spell of rain. The air was laden with an aroma of fresh tea. Approximately 1 kilometre from Darjeeling city, we crossed Ghum railway station, which is the highest railway station in India, located at 7407 feet ASL.

Read: A two-week 2,380-km bike expedition to Tibet is a trip of a lifetime

Tea gardens of Darjeeling. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)
Enroute Phuntsoling. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Darjeeling to Phuntsholing

After spending a night in Darjeeling, we rode to Phuentsolling. It kept raining throughout the ride, washing the roads clean. We crossed the Coronation Bridge, also known as the Sevoke Bridge, built to commemorate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. We transited into Bhutan through the southern border town of Phuntsholing, adjoining the Indian town called Jaigaon. Collecting our riding permits and gorging on local food — dumplings and the famous Druk beer, we retired for the day.

Ghum railway station — the highest railway station in India. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)
Delicious dumplings at display. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

P huntsholing to Paro

The moment I began the ride from Phuntsholing to Paro, I realised that this will be a relationship of hairpin bends. The roads were carved along the flanks of mountainsides, with prayer flags standing like sentinels overlooking us at every bend along the road. For lunch, we stopped by the Dantak canteen, operated by the Indian army. As we continued our ride to Paro, the scenery was arresting but one had to be cautious, since the treacherous roads and a tiny careless manoeuvre may hurl you into the oblivion. The unceremonious rain accompanied us throughout the journey and when we reached Paro, drenched to the bone, the unparalleled scenery made up for the inconveniences. The next day we went trekking to the Tiger’s nest monastery. Located in the upper region of Paro valley, this monastery, built in the 16th century is believed to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. To reach the monastery one has to hike up a valley, cross a flat trail and then climb a path lead by a steep stone stairway of 250 steps leading up the cliff, right to the entrance of the monastery. The view of Paro valley on this entire trail is beyond spectacular, strewn with stunning waterfalls and fresh water springs. It took me 5 painstaking hours to reach the monastery, whereas the monks, who travel on the same route daily, laden with food and other goods, take mere 45 minutes to reach this place. The inner sanctum houses temples and several beautiful religious paintings. The trek to the mystical Tiger’s Nest monastery was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Bhutan.

Taktsang - Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro Bhutan. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Enroute to Paro. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Kids amazed to see a biker in full gear. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Paro to Thimphu

Riding to the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu, 35 kilometres from Paro we visited the memorial Choerten which is a stupa with major historical and religious significance. Next we rode to Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic golden statue of Buddha (169 feet) sitting atop a hill, overlooking the entire capital city. Along the way we met groups of friendly monks, who gave us blessings. The interior of the statue accommodates over 1 Lakh miniature replicas of the massive statue.

At the Bhutanese handicraft market, we were shocked to see millions of wooden human penises of all sizes being sold in shops. The symbol of human phallus is traditionally used, is believed to drive away evil eye. This market is a perfect place to buy souvenirs at affordable prices.

Buddha Dordenma in Thimphu. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Chorten Memorial in Thimphu. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Thimphu To Phobjikha

Enroute Phobjikha we crossed a hamlet called Punakha famous for an ancient fortress called Punakha Dzong, which is now used as the administrative centre of Punakha. Built along a river confluence, with towering white walls, decorated elaborately in colours of red and gold, the majestic structure remains packed with visitors.

A scenic view of the landscape. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Phobjikha to Bhumtang to Trongsa

Waking up to fresh layers of pristine snow, we kick started our bikes to Bhumtang. On our way, a distant music caught my attention. I dismounted from my bike to follow the sound of music that led me to a local school. Children, adorned in traditional costumes, were practicing for a local festival. We halted there for lunch and had kewa Datshi curry. The following morning, we began our ride to Trongsa. Trongsa is a lively town, renowned for Trongsadzong which is the largest dzong (fortress) in Bhutan. It is a palatial fortress, a part of which is a major monastic complex accommodating nearly 200 monks and the rest is used as an administrative building by the government of Trongsa district. Outside the fort, people of all ages practice archery.

Mud-patched roads to Trongsa. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Trading candies for smiles. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Trongsa to Gelephu

On our last leg of the journey we had to ride through 244 kilometres to reach Gelephu. The route seemed be unending; we crossed muddy patches, occasionally greeted by marvellous step farms. Gelephu is a border town and is an ideal place to shop for Bhutanese incense sticks, noodles, pickles, wine and whisky. Since it was our last night in Bhutan, we wanted to try everything that this land had to offer.

Enroute Gelephu. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Monks agree to pose for a quick photo. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT)

Gelephu to Siliguri

On the final morning of the trip, I woke up with mixed feelings — exultant after the awe-inspiring ride, but felt the pangs of sadness as it had come to an end

I boarded the flight to Delhi, and on my way back I kept reminiscing about my extraordinary expedition — the tranquil land of Bhutan.

Adieu to the land of tranquillity — Bhutan. (Photo: Zabeeh Afaque/HT )