A country where developmental goals and achievements are measured in terms of Gross National Happiness, where utmost concern is directed towards environmental sustainability, where the philosophy of dharma is invoked in governance, where loyalty and love and faith in the monarch is invested to a degree that is only next to Buddha and the Rimpoches , where the air is fresh and largely unpolluted, where mountains and valleys and rivers make up most of the undulating terrain, where people live unhurried , honest lives……Bhutan had to be an inviting destination.
The trip had been planned months ago as a fairly decent package deal. We were to be picked up at Bagdogra airport and the whole itinerary thereafter would be taken care of, only minus lunch and dinner.
The drive from Bagdogra to the Bhutan border at Phuentsholing, was tedious, with interminable traffic moving without any lane sense causing jams at several places. Long lines of trucks went past , carrying cement and boulders . Phuentsholing was the industrial area of Bhutan and construction material constituted a major chunk of exports to India and Bangladesh. At stretches where the roads were clear, our vehicle was zipping past . Seated in front, I noticed the needle touching 120 several times.
We checked in to the hotel assigned in the free zone area of Phuentsholing, tired after after the long day and full of anticipation for what was ahead.
Wangchuk greeted us at the reception the next morning ,wearing the traditional knee-length robe, “gho” and a very pleasant countenance. He would be our driver and escort for the rest of the trip. He facilitated the necessary clearances from the Immigration office and then we were off to Thimphu.
The new road, which wound lower down the mountain slopes , had been inaugurated less than a year ago. It would have taken us longer to reach our destination had we gone along the older route which was in the higher reaches. The day was clear and the sun bright and very warm. All along the way, flags of many hues fluttered in the wind. They were considered auspicious and an ubiquitous feature throughout the land. Structures that looked like bus shelters, dotted the roadside at regular intervals and women sat selling vegetables and long clusters of something white that looked like erasers. It was dried yak cheese , rubbery and tasteless, we found, when we tried it out on the return trip. Chewing on it was “time-pass”, Wangchuk told us .
Here and there , the colours of Autumn were still hanging on the trees, giving visual relief to the bare mountains and rocky ledges that hung over the road. We were slightly disappointed that the route was not as verdant as we expected. But then, many of the distant mountains seemed to have ample tree cover.
Wangchuk drove the vehicle at a slow pace, the needle on the speedometer rarely going beyoind 40. We stopped for lunch on the way. Food was very basic , rice, chappattis , dal and vegetables and this was to be so throughout our stay . We were told to avoid the non-vegetarian dishes on the menu , as animal slaughter was more or less banned in Bhutan and what was available was the stuff that came from India , with the likelihood of having been stored in the freezers for a considerable amount of time.
Smoking in Bhutan is banned too and smuggling cigarettes treated as a serious offence. There was no ban on alchohol though, the logic being that the former was not just injurious to the person who consumed it, but also to the others around . I guess the same logic applies to a similar custom among the followers of the Sikh religion.
All farming in Bhutan stays free of chemicals . Wangchuk deplored the fact that everything that was grown and sent to the markets in India was completely organic , but when during the lean season they had to buy stuff from the markets in India for use in Bhutan, they got vegetables and fruits that was steeped in pesticides.
After checking in at the hotel in Thimphu by evening, we took a slow stroll in the neighbourhood. The architectural style of all the buildings, we noticed, was predominantly similar. It had to be so, as per the guidelines of the government . Residential houses in the rural areas rarely went beyond two storeys and in the cities the prescribed limit was six storeys. There were no high rises at all.
Even being the capital city, the place was not crowded. The total population of Bhutan is just about 8 lakhs and so the lack of hustle and bustle was not surprising. Moreover , the government was doing everything they could to discourage migration from the rural areas to the cities. There were schools and hospitals everywhere in the rural areas. Education and medical facilities were completely free. There was a land ceiling act in place which allowed individual ownership up to 25 acres only. Of course families owning more land generally assigned ownership to individual members to retain the whole of the property between themselves. Those without any land to their name were allotted up to four acres by the Government. Those orphaned and elderly and without any means of sustenance were given free rations and also housing .
The livelihood of more than 60% of the Bhutanese population depends on agriculture. Irrigation where necessary, is provided at very subsidised rates . Holdings are marginal, by and large and so mechanised farming is slow to take hold, although the Government does provide use of tractors free of cost, Wangchuk told us. Rice and maize and potatoes are the major crops grown for domestic consumption , apples, oranges and cardamom being the cash crops.
By five thirty , it had started to become dark and we walked back to the hotel as the temperatures suddenly started dropping . Dinner washed down with lemon tea later, we snuggled inside the warmth of our quilts , winding up our first day in Thimphu.