I think the majority of people who travel extensively do so for adventure, to satisfy their curiosity, and to challenge the status quo. I just landed Bhutan, the mythical country of the Thunder Dragon, after a short flight from Kathmandu. As soon as I arrived I am met with my government guide and a driver. They politely take my backpack and we head to a car before a windy drive to Thimphu, the country’s capital, and the only capital in the world which does not have a single stop light. In fact, there is not even a traffic light in the entire country! I agree to meet my guide in an hour for dinner. In the meantime, I find a small cafe, order a masala tea, and get ready to discover more about this mysterious country I had heard so much about.
Travel truly challenges the cultural norms. But I quickly found out, that to truly experience the joy of discovering Bhutan, you have to ditch your government appointed guides. These guides, polite to a fault, hover constantly wanting to take you between one tourist destination and other. They mean well, but I crave freedom. Over dinner, I managed to convince my guide to help me rent a motorbike and allow them to trail me as I ride. My ticket to truly experience this magical country lay in the keys of a Royal Enfield motorcycle and two days of glorious mountainous roads stretching between between Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, and Gangtey, a tiny village in the middle of the beautiful Phobjikha valley. I had no plans to let them follow me. Give me two wheels and a road (even, the road is optional, truth be told) and I’m out of here.
Bhutan is a biker’s paradise. Empty roads with sweeping curves and epic views stretched out before me as I headed out of Thimphu in the early morning. Unlike many other countries in Asia where roads are a chaotic mix of motor scooters, taxis, and belching trucks, Bhutan’s roads are empty and generally well maintained. The roads, especially on the high, exposed mountain roads, are so windy that you’ll never get above 30 mph, but with views like Bhutan is blessed with, who really cares?
The roads around Thimphu are well maintained with the stretch between Thimphu and Paro, a beautiful ride of endless sweeping curves. I leaned in and out of corners with a wild grin on my face, tears streaming down from the open helmet that wouldn’t pass a safety inspection for a child’s tricycle back home. My destination this morning was a small village called Gangtey. To reach it, you must ride over the Dochula pass. This road winds its way higher and higher with dizzying drop offs. It is still heavily under construction, due to be completed in the next few years. Once they finish the roads over the pass, it will be one of best places in the world to ride a bike.
Right now, the road is rough in (most) parts. It’s a mix of beautiful smooth bitchumen, graded dirt, and rut-ridden flood washes. You need your wits about you, and I was still getting used to the Enfield. I wanted adventure - I got it! The handlebars rattled over rough dirt roads, jarring my back and throwing dust across my face. I had to concentrate on tight corners to avoid frequent rocks, some as large as a basketball. Eventually, after climbing for an hour I topped out at Dochula Pass, approximately 10,300’. I took a break to explore the Druk Wangyal Chortens, a series of 108 stupas built by the countries Queen, in honor of her husband. The pass, already paved for tourists was a welcome break to the rough roads. Grime covered everything. It would take weeks to wash all of this away. Still, right here, right now, I would take the open saddle of a bike over a car any day.
The way down was a heavenly strip of perfect black bitchumen licking out in front of me with thousand foot drops and heavenly views of the Himalayas. I unwound the throttle and cruised, lost in the moment. As I went deeper into the mountains, further from civilization and back in time, the tarmac turned into a thin strip barely wider than the span of my arms, intermittently interrupted by recent landslides and patches of dirt. Finally, even that strip of tarmac vanished. I kept riding further and further into the beautiful countryside. It was just me, the rhythmic thud-thud of the Enfield, and the mountains. It was one of those moments where, despite the bumpy road, I felt like I was flying. I was free and completely at peace.
The road is an impressive feat of engineering. I savored every corner, and every moment. Soon, the thin line of black bitchumen resumed, licking its way down the mountain. I have to constantly remind myself to be present. It’s too easy to get lost in the bliss of the smooth road and twisting corners, leaning in with the warm air. You must stay alert and present, for at any moment, around the next blind corner, the road may vanish into a dirt wash caused by a landslide, or construction, before the strip of black magic appears again.
I shift down gears, leaning deep into the corner, the engine popping behind me. My peripheral vision glimpses the white peaks on the Himalayas in the distance as I twist the throttle accelerating out the corner only to throw the bike down hard in the opposite direction as I hit a 270 degree bend going a little too fast. The rear tyre skips momentarily on loose marbles. My heart leads into my chest, pounding like the drums in the Buddhist temples, so common in these parts.
I lean deeper, legs squeezing the tank. I brake suddenly as a landslide of rock and dirt cover the road. The back wheel kicked out towards the edge spraying gravel downwards, disappearing far below. I add a little more throttle to ride through the skid. The wheel flicks back, before another smaller correction, finally gaining purchase. I stand on the pegs, straighten the bike, slowing my speed to navigate through a precarious 30’ stretch of ride no wider than 5’ across. To my right, where my wheel almost came off, is a dead drop-off so far down, all I can see is the canopy of trees. To my left, a crumbling mountain face continues to spew fist-sized boulders down at me. I swallow hard, looking straight ahead.
Ahead, the road plunges down again, and I’m immersed into a thick jungle. The bitchumen vanishes replaced by a dirt road once more, remnants of road construction on the side of the road. I feel like I’m back in the highlands of northern Vietnam, riding the Laos border with its twisting dirt roads. Twenty minutes later, the bitchumem appears again, tantalizingly smooth. I gun the Enfield and it takes off with a satisfying thunk from the engine. I can see why these bikes are a classic. They have so much soul.
I emerge from the jungle, victorious in my mountain crossing. I stop briefly in Punakha on my way to Gangtey, a tiny village in the middle of the beautiful Phobjikha valley. I refuel, grab a quick meal of noodles and chili, and chatting with the locals. They inform me that the road deteriorates rapidly from here on. I smile. This is the adventure I was seeking.
I had planned to meet my guide here for lunch. I look out the window, up the road I just came. I don’t see anyone. It is just me and my trusty Enfield. I half-heartedly brush the dust off the console, insert the key, and head off. I tried waiting, really…..well, kind of. After all, I still have a few hours ride ahead of me. I couldn’t wait too long, now could I? I pull out of the village, spinning my tires in the gravel. Plumes of dust rise like rooster tails behind. The Enfield thumps delightedly beneath me. I twist the throttle, adrenaline mixing with fuel as I sped on. This is how you should experience this magical country. Bhutan is at its best from the back of a classic motorcycle.