Saturday, October 19, 2013

B & B, Bicycles and Bhutan

For me, Asia always brings to mind streets filled with throngs of bicycles. I have certainly experienced that in Hanoi and Bejing. In India it means throngs of vehicles of every sort. Bicycles, scooters, pedicabs pedaled and motorized, horse drawn carts, cars, trucks, buses and trucks and a
few dozen other types I have forgotten. In Bhutan however, over the road travel by vehicle is still a recent development and there are only perhaps half a dozen types of vehicles on the roads. Very small cars, both private and taxis, small minivans, both private and taxi, midsize SUV, Toyota Hilux or Kia Tucson in size, all private or government, trucks of the Indian good luck variety and a few small to midsize buses and the very occasional scooter or motorcycle. Bicycles are very few and far between. The few Bhutanese who do own bikes seem to use them for exercise/recreation and not for transportation. The people’s favorite, the Fourth King, is an ardent mountain biker and I’ve heard that his son, the Fifth King, is also an enthusiast. So there is some acceptance of mountain biking as an activity. Every year the country hosts a grueling bike race from Bumthang to Thimphu, it is a national event and attracts riders from around the world. So cycling does have a presence in the consciousness of the Bhutanese but in practice it is essentially nonexistent.

There are a few mountain bikes for sale and for rent. The rental business is definitely aimed at tourists and a few young people like students. There are two shops in Bajo which rent bikes, I chose the one which had older bikes but someone in the shop who was working on bikes and seemed to know what they were doing. Three bikes to choose from, the first had an inoperable front derailleur, the second seemed OK, so after turning in a copy of my work permit, my phone number, and about $28, a large sum in Bhutan, I had a bike for 48hrs, Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. I did
get a helmet but no pump or patch kit. My friend Sarah’s bike had a broken seat bracket bolt which I was trying to replace so I asked at the bike shop, no, sorry, no parts. I went to three hardware stores, no, nothing that big, they told me I would have to go to the auto workshop. The closest one was not far away but as I headed out my back tire went flat. I walked the bike back to the shop and the mechanic took wheels off the other two bikes and put them on mine, topped off the air, checked the brakes and I was ready to go but now a bit nervous about flats.

This time I did get to the auto workshop, low and behold a used bolt was produced from somewhere in the back. So I set off for Punakha. When riding at home I sometimes winder about all the gear, gloves, shoes, hydration pack, etc. This was back to the basics but trying to keep my feet on worn and slippery platform pedals reminded me why I put up with all the gear when it is available. The ride is a few miles along the river, the sun had hidden itself behind the ridge, the scenery wonderful, the breeze at my back, I was so happy to be back on a bike I could hardly take it.

The next morning I took the repaired seat to rendezvous with Sarah before 7:00am and headed up the small valley from Punakha toward Shengana. The road climbs very steadily with the occasional less steep stretch. In these parts the side valleys like this one are short and climb quickly. The villages, rice paddies, archery and kuru matches, the scenery, was all near perfect. One spot we like is a typical water powered prayer wheel. There are hundreds of these all over Bhutan in every state of repair. The last time we had been to this one they were doing rehab work on it. Now it is freshly
painted, well greased, the watercourse unclogged and the wheel was spinning beautifully, its skirts aflutter. The road deteriorated past Shengana so we stashed the bikes to walk for another mile or so before stopping for lunch on a green knoll in a tiny village just below a new Lakhan (temple) which is under construction. The amount of timber that was going into this building was astounding. The walls are stone but the woodwork, which is a significant part of the structure, is comprised of huge timbers, many intricately carved, hewn from single massive logs. The views were stunning out over the valley but we were
definitely the main attraction as people peeked out at us and even came to see us, since we shared no language we could only nod and smile. The weather was deteriorating and the ridge top we had eyed earlier in the day was still far off and the big mountains behind would be shrouded in cloud. The cruise back to Punakha was everything I had hoped it would be, mainly a celebration of gravity. We had discussed hanging a string of prayer flags in support of Mark, a friend to all in BCF who had just lost his partner in a tragic turn of events. We did not find the right spot but we did find it would be helpful to have extra length in the form of more flags and light cord.

The following day, Monday, was a holiday so I had an extra day to enjoy the bike. Sarah opted for schoolwork so I set out late morning under a brooding sky. Little did I know a cyclone in India was going to push 18 hours of rain our way beginning that afternoon. I stopped in Kuru and bought prayer flags and line and aimed myself toward a tiny temple which has been taking shape for a couple of year’s and had just been painted white in the last few weeks. It sits on a steep hillside and shelters a natural cave in the back wall, Buddhists love their meditation caves. The cave and then
the temple had been a favorite spot for Andrea, one of the original BCF teachers who has recently returned to Canada. She has been a friend to Mark so it all seemed to fit. I began the climb on a steep, winding, rough road snaking its way skyward with an occasional set of switchbacks. I had only walked down the route I was trying to ride up. I left the road at the same place we always
joined the road, but with a bike it was not a good plan, too steep through the forest, pushing a bike is never much fun. I did get to the temple as it started to rain, not hard but the very steep hillsides were slippery and stringing the payer flags proved to be a bit of an adventure.

As I left the rain became steady. Fortunately, for all the clay in Bhutanese soil there is often an equal amount of coarse sand and gravel which prevented the road from turning into a slide of greased lightning. The descent was less than harrowing although one moment of inattention to my front wheel and my left hand (front brake) did result in an OTB (over the bars) experience. I rent my pants and smeared knee and shoulder in the wet dirt but no great harm, I was grateful I had asked for a helmet at the shop. I was very attentive the rest of the way down. As I continued back to Bajo the rain eased up and then returned in earnest. Weather has a way of focusing my being on the goal at hand, I paid no mind to the looks I received all along the way as I pedaled past. A bicycle is uncommon, someone riding in the rain is odder still, on top of that the rider is some gray bearded chilp, now that’s something to stare at.

Bajo was a welcome sight, my usual spot was just what I needed. A cup of tea, a bottle of mineral water, a change into a dry shirt topped off with a fleece and I felt like finishing the day. I returned my bike, it looked like a respectable mountain bike, wet, muddy, and happy. I did my weekly shopping and began to realize the odds of finding a taxi were very low, a number of things made travel a bit unusual on this holiday and they all seemed to be conspiring against me. But my faith in Bhutan was restored as I saw Damcho, a very reliable driver, pulling into town with a monk who had apparently needed to come to Bajo late in the day. I was first in line for a ride back and before dark I was home having my own cup of tea with a pot of water on the gas burner heating for a “bath”, even warm water out of a bucket feels glorious on an evening like this as the rain continues to pour, the memories and aches of the day make me feel alive and lucky. I will definitely opt for one or two more bicycle excursions.

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