Crossing the Border into Jaigaon, India
We left the Paro Valley this morning and headed south to the Bhutan/India border.
Here I am preparing my bike for departure:
We followed the Paro river out of the valley, and then connected with the main road that extends from Thimphu to the Bhutanese border. We would be descending in elevation from approximately 7500 feet to 950 feet, along a narrow twisting road that often clung to the sides of steep mountains or cliffs. Bhutan is in the process of widening this road, and we passed countless bands of laborers. From what I could see, the work crews consisted of Indian men and women (no Bhutanese) chipping away at cliff faces and breaking rocks with sledge hammers.
We stopped for some hot tea mid-morning:
Ann was full of joy (as usual):
Next door to the tea house was a man spreading red chilies to dry on his tin roof:
We continued riding, past many more groups of Indian road builders. The manual labor looked intense—the women worked hard, lifting their sledge hammers over and over to chop a rock into smaller pieces. We also passed many of the small tarp-towns in which the workers lived with their families by the side of the road. I gave thanks many times over today for the comforts that I have in my life—while things throughout my life have by no means been “easy”, seeing the dire conditions in which other people live definitely puts the term “hardship” into perspective.
We stopped for a picnic lunch that Dorji and Rob had brought with us. This area had a small restaurant, some rustic bathrooms, and other buildings that were being used by the nearby road crew.
I admired the strength and beauty of the hard-working women:
Ann took many portrait shots throughout this trip, always asking politely if she could take a photograph, and then showing the digital image to the people afterwards, which usually elicited smiles or laughter. Here, Ann has just finished showing these two young women their picture:
Here is a woman who was pleased to have me take a picture of her with her son:
These children were sitting patiently by the side of the road, presumably waiting for their parents to finish working. They sat quietly, holding each other, with no toys for entertainment.
They were sitting like this when we arrived, and they were still in the same spot when we departed after lunch. When I think about my own children and their abundance of opportunities, I think back to these children; they pull at my heart—their endurance, their silence and stillness, their lack of complaint, and the directness of their gaze.
This lunch stop was where Larry, one of our riding companions, lost his passport. He took his pullover off, and the pouch around his neck must have slipped off too. He didn’t discover that it was gone until many miles later. Along with his passport was about $500 in cash; he wasn’t too concerned about the monetary loss, however, and said that whoever found his pouch here probably needed the money a whole lot more than he did.
After lunch, we rode through many miles of dirt and rocky terrain. We rounded a corner and found some cars stopped in the road. We threaded our way to the front, where we discovered that a small landslide had just occurred, strewing large rocks across the road and injuring a passenger in a van. Ben looked up and saw some small rocks still tumbling down, with a large section of earth still looking unsteady. We waited a short while to make sure that nothing else was going to fall. Okay, everything appeared to have stabilized. Some workers cleared rocks to make a path for our bikes. I glanced up at the cliff--nothing was moving. Taking a deep breath, I picked my way forward cautiously, going as fast as I could.
Ben and I rode with a brisk pace today. We both are very experienced at riding dirt bikes, so we motored without hesitation over the uneven rocky surfaces—standing up on the pegs to ride over particularly bumpy sections. The Royal Enfield bikes proved to be reliable and solid—and fun!
We stopped for a rest in the small town of Gedu. The new road would bring many more people through town, and there was a lot of new construction on the main street.
Directly across from the new construction were some small traditional houses and a grazing cow:
These children came and stood nearby, watching us until we left:
In the middle of town was the usual AIDS prevention sign:
(Upon returning home, I did some research on the prevalence of AIDS in Bhutan. According to a 2008 United Nations report, the total number of people in Bhutan who have been diagnosed as having HIV since 1993 is 144, which is below 0.01% of the population. It is estimated that about 500 people could be living with undetected HIV/AIDS. The report stated that there has been an “alarming rise” in detected cases over the past few years, with 37 new cases in 2007. All of the prominent AIDS education signs throughout the country are just a small reflection of the government’s long-standing commitment to prevent and control the spread of HIV.)
Up ahead, the road was temporarily blocked while a crew blasted through the roadside cliff:
While waiting for the workers to clear away the rubble, we looked across the hazy valley and could see the faint, tan line that was the mountain road we had just traveled:
After we were finally waved through, we zipped along roads that were just plain fun—miles and miles of one curve after another, with tight switchbacks, along with some rocks and dirt stretches here and there. Woo hoo! Ben and I agreed that the roads throughout Bhutan (especially the eastern part) were the best motorcycle street roads that we had ever ridden.
Up until now, we hadn’t taken too many photos showing the magnificent road wiggles; we had been too immersed in their rhythm to put on the brakes and interrupt the magic. However, we wanted to take a few photos today in case the vividness of our memories started fading in the future:
Our photo stop was near a large chorten, which provided a nice resting spot for Glynn and Marian:
We were getting closer to the Duars plain that crossed into India, and we could see the lines of the Torsa river (Amo Chu) below. This river originates in Tibet, flows swiftly through Bhutan in a valley bordered by steep mountains, and then flattens into a wide braided channel at the Indian border.
The hairpins and curves that we had just photographed were even more fun to ride than I had anticipated. Ben and I were in sync with our pace, tracking smoothly behind our leader Rob. Our smiles were outrageously big. The roads here are very narrow, however, with barely enough room for two tiny cars to squeeze past each other in opposite directions. Rob rounded a corner and found himself face to face with a big truck, which took up the entire lane; he stopped the bike in time due to his excellent motorcycle skills (and miraculously kept the bike upright). However, his powerful braking manuever caused the rear brake to seize, requiring the expert mechanical repair services of Sono and Gyan.
Sono working on the rear brake:
While we were waiting for Rob’s bike to be fixed, we heard a lot of movement in the shrubbery below us. Then this sheep came running up the embankment:
We looked around and found the soft-spoken shepherd girl:
Her father asked that we take his photo too; he was very proud, as well as kind:
Rob’s bike was soon back on the road, and we quickly arrived at the Indian border town of Jaigaon. Inside the border gates, we stopped at a gas station to wait for the chase trucks to arrive.
Down the street:
Among the fascinating sights were people carrying humongous loads:
The trucks in Bhutan and India were usually decorated with colorful and artistic designs and lettering:
Our passports had not been stamped at the border crossing. After the chase trucks arrived, we rode through the streets to a small building a few blocks away, went inside, filled out entry documents, showed our visas and passports, and then received an official stamp of approval to enter India. The process was done fairly quickly. However, I was a bit emotionally exhausted.
During our ride today, I had been surprised to see the multitudes of Indian road workers in Bhutan, and the appalling conditions under which they worked and lived. Plus, the energy of all of the people and vehicles in Jaigaon was a bit jarring after the quiet towns of Bhutan. I needed some time to adjust. Jaigaon also had some small groups of men that gathered and watched us from a short distance away. During our wait at the gas station, and also outside of the passport processing building, I had noticed (and felt) many eyes on me. When I ride motorcycles, I am used to some people pointing and staring, as the number of women riding their own bikes is still quite small compared to the number of men (even in the United States); and my fringed leathers also get noticed. However, I did not sense that the looks from some of the men here were necessarily “friendly” or “curious”; it is hard to articulate, but the best way that I can explain it is that the men seemed to have “hungry eyes.”
In any event, I was glad to check into the hotel. It was very basic, and Ben and I used our sleep sacks tonight, but it did provide a relatively quiet space to clear my mind.
Here are two pictures from the front balcony of our hotel:
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