I, Guido, am by nature a happy-go-lucky character, meaning: I do not plan much and most often accept what happens without becoming too worried. Ziggy is not always that cheerful about this attitude, but by now has learned to deal with it. Maybe he somewhere knew I had been putting Sisyphus-effort in making sure Bhutan was and stayed an option. Because that’s what I did, and Jan is a living testimony to our efforts.
As someone who has organized treks and travels in northern India, Nepal and Bhutan, as a traveler who wrote several trekking guides about most of those areas and as former citizen of Bhutan, Jan was our go-to-guy when my letters to the Bhutanese government remained unanswered. Already in January, two months before setting off to Bhutan, I had contacted him through an email and we had called about the chances of entering the country. Eight months later, in mid September I had sent Jan another mail in which I explained I was physically getting closer towards Bhutan, had tried again to contact the government but still had no permission, nor even heard from the Bhutanese authorities.
Upon hearing this, Jan invited me to his house and family in Ranikhet, northern India. So we could talk and maybe find a way into Bhutan through his contacts. Ziggy and I liked that hospitable proposal and started moving east. It took a short tour with a local bus, a delightful, swirling ride over a mountain ridge through a foggy pine forest in the cold evening (for the second or third time this journey bicycle and cyclist felt like they were one – turning, weaving, flying over the road with strong legs, balanced confidence and a feeling of pure joy) and another cheating five kilometer stretch by a taxi to reach Jan’s family home in the pitchblack.
We were warmly welcomed by Jan, Suchie and their daughter Teesta, who together formed half the family living in a cozy decorated house surrounded by trees. The other furry half was behind closed doors, but they felt and therefore knew Ziggy and I were entering their territory. The next day, I would meet the pack consisting of five dogs, all with their own unique history. There were Lulu, Chiku, Karma, Coco and Max(imilian). It took me only a short moment to win the confidence of Karma, who, of course, became my favourite one. In the following three days I managed to get along with all five of them.
Completely at ease in their home, I soon was able to talk about the journey. Both Jan and Suchie had not only intelligence on their side, they also had real life experience with Bhutan and the Bhutanese people. Besides the economics teacher that sixteen years ago introduced me to Bhutan and a woman whom I coincidentally met during work, I had not talked to any other people who had been to Bhutan. It goes without saying, I learned a lot through them and their knowledge about the country of our final destination.
Here is what I learned from them:
- Although the slopes of the hills and mountains, from a distance, may look green, it does not automatically mean the forests are in a healthy state. What’s happening a lot in India, is illegally chopping down trees for firewood and cutting down other greenery for cattle food. Since the pine trees are not that popular for firing up the stove, they remain unharmed and untouched by the axes of the wood gatherers and therefore have the soil, slopes and sky for the taking. Lacking any diversity, the slopes lose their ability to store water which makes them more prone to collapse. Furthermore they can’t keep the soil rich with different minerals, which is a bad thing for the animals and plants living there.
- Suchie cooked the traditional Bhutanese dish ema datsi, which consists mainly of cheese and chili. Not only was it delicious, it also prepared me for the spicy food the Bhutanese like so much. The people over there eat the green chilis like it’s some sort of candy, having mouths that seem fireproof is what I heard.
- Jan gave us some insights about what to do and what to see in Bhutan. It would come in handy when we had to plan pretty much on the spot an itinerary for traveling through Bhutan. For those who wish to go there (one day), these are the takeaways we got from Jan: Bumthang region is rich of cultural heritage and played an important role in the history of the forming of Bhutan, Punakha has the most beautiful dzong and is a hotspot for festivals, Bhutan hosts the Snowman Trek – considered one if not the hardest trekkings on earth, the people of Bhutan are in general honest, loyal and obedient by nature, if you want to arrange something with the authorities (like we wanted) – be aware that requests take time since the Bhutanese people are prone to use the fornal canals and take their time when making decisions.
- Ziggy and I got a chance to give something back by telling about our journey during a presentation at the girl’s boarding school of Teesta. We believe we inspired a few young and old bright minds and also learned a thing or two ourselves through some exquisite questions from the audience.