Bike Lessons and Beauty on the Way to Tashigang
(Note: We took many photos today, but they were all lost when Ben’s camera was stolen a few days from now. Luckily, we also shot a small amount of video with a different camera--the fuzzy pictures below are still-captures that we extracted from the video.)
This morning we were introduced to the bikes that we would be riding: 500cc Royal Enfield Bullets. These bikes are old classics, still manufactured in India with 1950's frame, engine & gearbox specifications, with updated electrical systems and front disc brakes. Most important, they have the low end torque that would get us up and over the steep, high-altitude Himalayas that we would be traversing in Bhutan.
Dale sat on his bike and made some adjustments, while several groups of curious local men watched all around us.
Here is Larry in front of the bikes:
I was ready for the lesson on how to start the bike:
The bikes were kick-start and took a bit of finessing, involving the choke, a compression release lever (which I had never used before), an ammeter gauge (also new to me), and a certain type of kicking stroke that I couldn’t quite get the hang of today. Starting the bike for the first time was no easy feat for me, especially with an audience. After our engines were all running, we took a “test run” down the street in front of the hotel:
Bhutan, like India, has the driving lanes opposite from those in the United States—I would be riding on the left side of the street, not the right. Also, the rear brake and the shifter on the bike were on the opposite sides from the bikes that I ride at home—here, the brake was on the left side, and the shifter was on the right. And, to further confuse my brain, the shifting pattern was the opposite of the pattern I used at home—here, first gear was up one from neutral, and then second through fourth gears were down.
I have been riding bikes for many years, and intuitively my body knows to brake with the right foot and shift with the left. Many times today, I would go to brake and find myself pressing the left lever down, which would actually make the bike go faster by shifting up a gear (yikes!). I also stalled the bike quite a bit at first, until I finally had the clutch figured out. I was laughing so much at myself for the first few hours. Whenever I stalled the bike, I would have work at getting it kick-started—trying so hard to follow the proper procedures. I’m very self-sufficient and do not like to ask for help. However, I was very grateful for the kind assistance of Gyan, our sweep rider and top mechanic, as well as Sono, also a superb mechanic--both of whom were right there whenever I thought that continued efforts on my part would be futile.
After a few miles of riding, we came to a small hut where an elderly Hindu man came out and blessed each of us as we began the journey along the narrow twisty roads. He placed a dollop of red oily substance in the center of each of our foreheads, and he offered a mystery liquid to drink (we declined).
The roads were very fun, with one curve after another for miles and miles and miles.
It seemed like wherever we looked, we saw prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. The fabric of the flags has printed prayers; people believe that the wind blowing across the flags carries the prayers away and blesses everything and everyone that it touches.
We were followed by 2 chase trucks that held an abundance of items, including spare bike parts and our gear; most important, they carried Sono and our fantasic Bhutanese guide named Dorji.
Dorji continually engaged us with his stories about Bhutanese history and culture, and he was always available if we had a question.
The mountains were truly spectacular, so towering and lush, with small houses scattered sparsely among the steep slopes. (The majesty of a place usually cannot be captured fully in a photo, and these low-quality pictures only provide a tiny glimmer of the wonder and beauty that made me catch my breath and stand transfixed at all of the surrounding magnificence.)
Around mid-morning, we rolled into a small village, which had the typical white and brown architecture that we would see throughout Bhutan.
We seemed to be the only foreigners. Here is the town, with Larry (in the blue shirt) and Dale (in the brown shirt):
The eastern part of Bhutan does not generally receive a large number of visitors, unlike the western portion of the country that has the airport and the capital, Thimphu. The people quietly watched us from a distance, but were very friendly when we approached them to talk. English is taught in school, along with the national language Dzongkha, and we were able to communicate with many people, especially the children.
There were quite a few children here, and I handed out many pencils, paper and sharpeners.
These two children shyly peeked down on us for a long time:
And this curious girl kept a close watch from the top of some stairs:
"Public bathrooms" in Bhutan were rare. Although I definitely used a lot of private areas among the shrubs and trees in the remote areas of our journey, Ann (who rode with her husband) and I often sought out a "real" bathroom when we visited a town. Not only was it fascinating (for me) to see what types of spaces and objects the local people used for a bathroom, but we often got to see the intimate details of how the people lived, as we walked through home environments, or on narrow paths between houses, to get to the various toilets that we used. (We saw all types of facilities, ranging from two footprints with a hole in the ground to a porcelain toilet and sink; toilet seats were not common, however, and a bucket of water with a scoop was used instead of toilet paper.)
We continued on—here I am, with a big smile inside my helmet:
The roads snaked along the mountains, and the prayer flags waved to us around almost every corner:
This small building had a prayer wheel inside that was continually rotated by a stream of water, which you can see flowing out of the front:
As always, I was intrigued by the houses; here is a typical one:
The mountains stretched out all around us:
We could see the higher Himalayas, covered in snow:
We also saw a lot of chortens, also called “stupas”, which are spiritual monuments that contain offerings or relics.
We stopped for some tea in the town of Kanglung, which has Bhutan’s only university.
Our bikes were parked in front of a monastery that had a temple. Outside, we saw these two monks:
Ben and I walked to the monastery gate and looked in. We saw an open area with a colorful statue and a temple. We were wondering whether we were allowed to go in and take a look around when we saw two monks walking together; as we watched, the following scenario unfolded:
Here was their “soccer field”:
As we stood there, a woman walked up to me and asked if I wanted to go inside. She was a student attending the nearby university, and she said that she would be happy to walk with us. We talked for a long time. She was so kind to us, and she had an open and generous spirit. Meeting her was one of the extra-special experiences that I had during this journey—unfortunately, her face is not clear in any of our video captures.
Our new friend guided us through the grounds and the temple, explaining the stories behind many of the drawings and statues. Here are some of the prayer wheels and buildings inside the monastery:
As we were leaving the temple, some monks ran by playing. One of the monks had a yellow under-tunic, instead of the solid red. We recognized him as one of the “soccer players” who we had seen earlier. Our new friend explained that the boy was the reincarnation of a Bhutanese lama (spiritual leader). She asked if we wanted a blessing from the monk. Ben and I looked at each other, and then said, “Yes, that would be nice.” She called the monk over—he was giggling and seemed slightly embarrassed. She spoke to him in the Bhutanese language, and he turned to us. She told us to bow our heads, and then the monk placed his hand on top of each of our heads and blessed us. Then he ran off, laughing and playing again with the other monks. We felt very fortunate, and honored, to have experienced this special moment.
Tonight we would be staying in the small village of Tashigang. The road there was full of squiggles and wiggles and was fabulously fun on the bike.
(I downloaded the above photo from the internet while making my personal scrapbook of this journey, but now I cannot find the image again online to give a photo credit. Contact me if you know the source.)
Here is our Tashigang hotel:
Views across from the hotel:
Tonight at dinner, I had an epiphany about starting the bike. I sat next to Fred, who has a sense of humor that kept me in stitches throughout the trip. Fred was discussing my attempts at kick-starting the bike. He said, “You look like you are stabbing a cat!” The lightbulb went on, and I knew exactly what I had been doing wrong—I was giving the bike short, strong kicks, when what I needed was a long, smooth stroke that followed through to the end. I couldn’t wait to get on the bike the next morning and try out my new technique!
<< Day 3: Traveling to the India-Bhutan Border | Day 5: Switchbacks Galore to Mongar >>
Back to Bhutan Index Page
Back to Home Page