Driving, and Other Bhutanese Adventures
I knew going into the Bhutan trip that there would be a few drives of three hours or more—from Thimphu to Punakha, from Punakha to Gangtey, and so on. I pictured at least a two-lane highway, if not four, and I certainly assumed it would be paved. I figured I’d use those bus rides to knit, maybe edit photos on my laptop, or sleep.
Surprise! The “highway” is bumpy, winding, and narrow—practically a one-lane road by U.S. standards. Some sections are paved; others, not so much. The road is also not for the faint of heart: a few feet from our van window lies a precipitous drop-off to the valley below. The guardrails, when they were there, didn’t offer much reassurance—especially not the brief stretch of guardrails we saw that were made of bamboo. We passed signs announcing an “accident prone zone” and warning of “shooting rocks.”
If you could ignore the sheer cliffs below you, the views out the window were spectacular. Here’s just one example of the scenery through which we were driving:
According to the Altimeter app on my iPhone, we were at about 10,916 feet before we started our descent into the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kuh”) Valley. We saw lush green mountains and terraced hillsides, sometimes a white-water river way down below, and occasionally some snow-capped peaks in the distance. At one point on the way back from Phobjikha, we asked the driver to stop so we could get out and shoot photos of a herd of yaks.
I cranked up the ISO on my camera to about 1600 or 2000, so that I could get really fast shutter speeds—like 1/4000th of a second—which, I hoped, would negate the effect of the bouncing bus. I had just a small amount of open window to shoot out of, but eventually I figured out that I could just poke the camera out the window, point in the general direction of the vista, and fire off a few shots. I got a lot of junk, but also a few half-decent ones.
I checked the speedometer several times and it was rarely higher than 20, which I assume is kilometers per hour, which translates to 12 miles an hour. And every time a vehicle approached from the other direction, we’d slow down or even stop, so the two vehicles could safely squeeze by each other. At that rate I can understand why it supposedly takes two days to get from one end of the country to the other—a distance of only a few hundred miles as the crow flies.
Incidentally, we’ve all been impressed with the politeness of the drivers. The etiquette seems to be that when you come up on a slower vehicle from behind, you honk your horn gently, then the other driver turns on his left turn signal, as if to say, “Go for it” (keep in mind that they drive on the left-hand side of the road over here and pass on the right). Once you pass them, you honk again to say, “Thank you.” (Or, as they say in Bhutan, kardenchae la.) Almost never do you hear drivers honk their horns out of frustration or anger—honking here is a nice thing to do.
Our driver, whose name I can pronounce (SEN-tcho) but not necessarily spell, was unbelievably adept at navigating the hairpin turns—and dodging the loose rocks, the potholes, and the seemingly oblivious cows that frequently stood directly in our path.
Apparently this road, bad as it is, is an improvement over what was there before 2008. (Carolyn Welden, one of the Penn State passengers, speculates that until then it was a yak path.) The road was widened for the coronation of the Fifth King at the Punakha Dzong in 2008. Nowadays the locals refer to it as a highway, without a trace of irony in their voices.
Tina Hay, editor