What fifteen years back started as a kind of ludicrous idea from an adolescent with no real knowledge of the world, suddenly became reality on the 21st of February: Guido and I made it to and into Bhutan. We say ‘suddenly’ because not only did we truly start believing ourselves biking in Bhutan was possible just before Nepal, it remained, despite several positive signs, quite a mystery for the both of us until the evening of the 20th of February whether we actually could cycle and if so, under which conditions.
At seven in the evening on that fateful day however, we received clarity and a formal green light. Saying cyclist and bicycle were astonished is an understatement: the conditions for traveling in Bhutan turned out to be nothing short of amazing. As a personal guest to the prime minister, we were given permission to roam the country as we saw fit for two whole weeks. No mandatory guide, no by the government appointed hotels, no sustainable development fee, not even the normal visa fee. Wait… what? This means Bhutan lies wide open for our way of traveling in a way we had been doing for the past eleven months! The granted entrance was, as we were told later by the PM himself during an informal meeting, the first of its kind.
Completely free in such a pristine country… What an extraordinary and welcoming gesture. Mama mia! I, at least, never considered this journey a ‘dream journey’ but these terms were definitely dreamlike. A humbling feeling mixed with gratitude filled Guido and me from head to toe while we wondered what we had done in this life (or the previous…) to deserve such a profound privilege.
Surely, the persevering cocktail concocted mainly by Guido of writing dozens of letters, following up (read: ferociously stalking) all leads that could be obtained, manifesting our Bhutanese cycling tour in our minds, asking help from Kali Ma during a puja, and keeping fingers crossed at all times – in a mysterious way it all must have contributed.
Therefore, before I continue, credits due where credits due: without the key help of Richard Allen in providing us with a direct link to the PM, without Pavitra Allen’s magical connection with the higher powers that be, without Vianney’s and Ayshanie’s constructive feedback and lodging, without Jan Knaapen’s help writing down a more explicit letter, without the spiritual instructions on how to let things happen before they actually happen from Kristina and VonDove, without Chris Cross’s suggestion which set in motion a whole chain of events, and without the help of the PM of Bhutan, Lotay Tshering and his formidable administrative support team consisting of Kesang Dema and Lotey Tenzin, the gates to Bhutan would have remained hermetically sealed. Namey samey – kadrin che la to you all. We bow to you and we salute you wholeheartedly!
Even I, above all else a bicycle – not a thinker, had a lot of questions as to what resulted in the final breakthrough, but there was simply no time to question, nor ponder: two weeks might seem like a decent period of time, it can be over, as we now know, in the blink of an eye, especially when you are traveling by bicycle.
Since we had, figuratively speaking, flown from Kathmandu and through the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal – to be on time at the Bhutanese border – we had only a vague travel plan based on reading three books, watching several documentaries and some recommendations from a handful of people we met along the way. What further surprised us on arrival and therefore influenced our itinerary: it was the fifth King’s birthday on the 21st of February (our first day in Bhutan) immediately followed by Loosar, New Year according to the Tibetan lunar (moon) calendar. This all meant: three days of closed offices and therefore no possibility to apply for a new Indian visa to start the journey back home after our Bhutanese adventure.
All these things coinciding when we were about to cycle in the land of the Thunder Dragon plus friendly guidance from people that knew people at both sides of the border, it got us thinking: which mastermind is orchestrating this welcoming party? Again, you numbnuts: stop pondering! There is not much time! What are you going to do with the time and space that so generously has been handed out, that was the question that needed to be answered. And quickly.
Right… Upon hearing we were welcome, we unfolded our map of Bhutan, highlighted the must-sees, grabbed Komoot (our navigation app), scanned the route, scouted the terrain and decided to kick off phase one by simply cycling from the border town of Phuentsholing to Thimphu in two days. After gathering some more information, we would make additional plans for phase two and see how far east we could go in six days to be on time back for picking up our visa and head west towards Paro and the Tiger’s nest which would take another two days. If all went well, we would just have enough time to reach Phuentsholing from Paro in the evening on the 7th of March, the day we had to leave in order not to disturb the hospitable authorities.
Of course, our plan was short-lived. We couldn’t pressure our lovely hosts in Jaigaon nor the Indian immigration officer to make haste. Earlier we learned you will only complicate things further if you push the wrong buttons. Besides that, a gift for the PM needed to be fixed as well and a few other administrative things had to be done. Eventually, well in the afternoon of the 21st and half a day lost, my tires rolled underneath the dragon’s gate and into Bhutanese territory.