Although we saw some breathtaking nature on our first two days of cycling through Bhutan, the river bank close to Thimphu we had picked for staying the night turned out to be just like the river banks in India and Nepal: covered with litter, mainly broken beer bottles. Furthermore, locals warned us: this is a place where people come to meet each other deep into the night. A local guy came to the rescue: he offered us a place on a construction site of what seemed to be a huge mansion. We built our small bivouac half under the bamboo layering – half under the open sky, which resulted in a lot of stuff getting wet when the night brought heavy showers. And when the sun cautiously showed itself behind a thick blanket of clouds the following morning, more inconveniences presented themselves.
‘Ziggy, only a few hours sleep, damp and smelly clothes, five percent battery in the phone, an appearance like Tom Hanks in Castaway… And today, only goodness knows when or where, they expect us to meet the PM. Blimey. Look at us, we look horrible! This is going to be fun!’
Speak for yourself. But yes, we were everything but well-prepared for a formal appointment. Therefore our first goal that morning: find a nice yet not too expensive hotel and make ourselves as presentable as possible.
Upon reaching Thimphu and while the phone could die at any given moment, we were anxiously looking for a hotel when someone behind us asked: ‘Hi! What are you doing?’ A bold, middle aged guy in a semi electrical vehicle with his window down – one hand casually hanging out – passed us by. We halted. ‘We are looking for a hotel,’ Guido answered. He gave us a puzzled look.’No man, what are you doing with your bicycle here in Thimphu?’ In short, we explained him our story. ‘I have a bicycle shop, that’s why I asked. Follow me, have tea and breakfast at my home.’ Guido bent over and whispered: ‘Ziggy, I suppose this is going to be a dilemma throughout our journey in Bhutan. We have limited time and our jovial approach to stop, take time to talk with people, see how they live, be invited, let encounters like these run our course – it feels like it doesn’t match. What do we do? Kindly thank him and continue our search for a hotel or go with the flow like we have been doing for the last couple of months and just hope everything ends up well?’
After some deliberation, we went for the latter and followed him. The guy turned out to be Ugyen, a.k.a. Gangjung: caring husband, energetic father of three, bicycle shop owner, big boss at a driving school, a Jack of all trades in every sense of the word, in love with riding his off-road motorcycles into remote places, talking, talking, talking being his second nature, and on familiar terms with what seemed to be the whole upper class of Thimphu, including the royal family. At his home, Guido got salty Bhutanese tea (a significant difference with the sweet tea of India and Nepal), a hearty breakfast, a chance to dry a few pieces of clothing, charge his phone, an address of a nice hotel owned by a good friend, and the opportunity to book a seat on the bus to east Bhutan because his sister owned a bus company that daily traveled to Bumthang. The only thing Gangjung wanted in return: attention, stories, and an occasional smile.
Once again, trusting in our travel philosophy paid off big time. After exchanging numbers, Gangjung dropped us at the hotel owned by a motorcycle buddy, got us a twenty five percent discount on the room and left. In less than twenty minutes, Guido got back, more or less shaved and wearing fresh clothes. ‘I just received a message, Ziggy. Everything seems to work out once more. We have half an hour to get to the PM’s office and it’s twenty five minutes of cycling according to the navigation. Heavenly, isn’t it? Oh, and what do you think? This is the best I could do in the given time. Can I meet the PM like this?’ He definitely looked and smelled better, yet the holes in his pants… aiaiai! I had my doubts, but I kept them to myself.
From the hotel we raced towards the office. Unfortunately, our navigation send us on a route straight through the most important dzong of the country. Inevitably, we had to make a detour and finally found our way to the right gate. A friendly guard was expecting us: ‘Go straight and turn right at the end. Go straight again for about a hundred meters and then you will see someone.’ Indeed, Lotey Tenzin, member of the formidable administrative team of the PM, stood in his gho waving and smiling on the landing of a grand and elegant building with the same exquisite woodwork we told you about earlier.
‘You made it! Very good.’ Lotey Tenzin’s smile was of a rare purity. He and Guido embraced each other after Guido put me on the pavement near a lamp post. ‘With this bicycle you came all the way from the Netherlands? Incredible. But, please do come. Our Lyonchhen is waiting.’ Together they went inside.
What happened indoors, I can’t tell. But Guido obviously can. This is, according to him, what happened.
‘So we walked through this building, Ziggy… a long hallway, on the right spacious windows showing an inner court, creaking wooden floors, white plastered walls with wooden panels, heavy looking beams holding up the ceiling, pictures of the five kings, the current queen… Everything breathed an air of modesty, simplicity, and tradition and to me, it had, above all, grace. And although I couldn’t see any dust or discern any object that felt out of a place, surprisingly it didn’t feel sterile. Maybe formal, yet not unpleasantly cold or clinical.
‘I wish I could tell you in more detail about it, but I simply can’t. Not only was I paying attention to what Lotey told me and thinking about how I should greet a PM, which words to use, and whether the holes in my pants were not too visible, we also seemed to be in a gentle rush. Quickly we went up a few flights of stairs, turned right before meeting Kesang Dema, the other formidable half of the PM’s support team. She came out of what seemed like an office. A smile, a bow, kuzu zangpo la, and she took over. I was guided around a corner to the left and saw how the hallway stopped after about ten meters. A small table in the middle, wooden sofas on each side, big windows from which you had an amazing view of the Thimphu valley to the north, that’s all I remember.
‘In front of those windows – hands behind a back that was facing Kesang, Lotey and me, probably calmly looking outside – stood Prime Minister, or Lyonchhen as they call the PM in Bhutan, Lotay Tshering, the man I thought responsible for giving us access to the country he was serving. A brightly coloured orange scarf called a kabney – falling from the left shoulder to the right hip, a kind of beige and broken white striped gho with underneath a tegu (a white jacket with long, folded-back cuffs), knee-length black socks, brown shoes.
‘Man, we saw a lot of men wearing these beautiful yet what must be difficult-to-get-into gho’s… But this, Ziggy, was different. The deep orange kabney when he was turning around because he must have heard our shuffling feet (we were not talking) – with that light falling through the windows upon it, it seemed to be glowing.
‘A serene smile, a bow, a hand gesture… I don’t remember what he said, what I said, or what exactly was going on. What I do remember is that Kesang told us we had only half an hour and that our conversation initially was stiff. I eagerly wanted to give him our presents to show our gratitude, but Lyonchhen Tshering wanted above all to talk. And of course, he was right. There was not much time and he kindly told me to wait with the presents. He started to explain what had happened with my request regarding cycling througfh Bhutan on different tourist terms, that it was an unusual request, that a lot of discussions had taken place, that many people eventually were involved in the decision making, that he hadn’t decided anything by himself but the final verdict was given by a commission, and that the result – a personal invitation from the PM for a individual cyclist and with it, the waving of every standard term – was ‘the first of its kind’. You can understand, all this made me even more uncomfortable than I already was.
‘He then began asking questions. Questions we had answered many times before. This gave me the opportunity to find a rhythm, an easiness, some comfort. I told him about you, Ziggy, about the equipment you and I carry, the way we built our night hold, how we determine our route, what to do with extreme weather, about the people we meet along the open road, the hospitality, the warmth, the biggest challenges we faced so far…
‘Sitting right before me, straight back, fixed gaze, hands folded in his lap, I saw a slow but steady change in what was a stern countenance in the beginning if you would ask me. I began to notice a tilted head, frowned eyebrows, a puzzled look when I, in my enthusiasm, started to talk too fast, or too incomprehensibly. He kept on replying to my answers with new questions. He seemed interested in what I told him and by the way we talked, you could tell he liked cycling himself. Before I knew it, the thirty minutes that were granted had passed. There were maybe three minutes left in which I had a chance to ask him a thing or two about Bhutan and the way they handle things. Shortly after, I gave him the presents: a Noori candle and the disc brake with a personal message upon it – the last one wrapped in a cheap white kabney which was – ‘please forgive me my ignorance’, I told him – the wrong colour. He had not expected my gifts and especially the disc brake could carry away his approval. After taking a photo, I thanked him and Kesang, bowed, gave him a hand (again: excuse me for my ignorance – it’s not that common to shake hands while leaving one another in these parts of the world, it was an unconscious reflex, I suppose) and walked with Lotey back.
‘Still a little flabbergasted about what had happened – I found myself in a whirlpool of thoughts when, just as Lotey and I were about to turn the corner, Kesang came back. ‘Sir, please wait a moment! The PM asked if you would like to accompany him during lunch.’ A strange look on my face, that is what Lotey must have seen. He smiled. I turned to Kesang, trying to hide some of the excitement that instantly boiled up. ‘Another enormous honor. Wow! What a welcome it turns out to be! It goes without saying I would love to join the PM for lunch.’ So I went back, walked into some sort of private kitchen / canteen and saw the PM, this time without his formal attire but with a hot damping meal in front of him, staring outside.
‘The kitchen / canteen was equipped in a pragmatic and austere way. As I remember correctly, again a lot of wood – again high windows letting in the bleak sunlight of late winter. I sat down, not directly in front of him but opposite – one chair to his left, and thanked him for the opportunity to have lunch together. He smiled, told me I was free to make myself a plate and came up with a new question about, indeed, food. Within a minute our conversation was back on track: me telling how important food and water are for a cyclist, and, although eating a lot, not gaining any weight, what would indicate that cycling is a healthy medicine for people with obesity / overweight. The last remark was a deliberate one: Lotay being a former doctor, you never know where it leads to.
‘‘This is, for sure, not the quantity of food you eat while cycling, isn’t it,’ he asked while looking at my modest meal consisting of vegetable soup, ema datsi, rice, and a few other things I can’t recall. Not knowing how to respond, I told him most of the cycling had been done for today and my body didn’t need that much more calorie intake. I don’t know why I said that because my stomach was craving for heaps of food and I had the feeling I could eat a horse. I guess I was too shy to eat like I felt.
‘We kept on talking and talking while I made a fool out of myself by eating with only the help of a spoon and occasionally a finger, again too insecure to excuse myself and grab a fork or a knife. It didn’t seem to bother the PM that much. For another twenty minutes we conversed before we both had finished our meals. Then he told me he wanted to see you, Ziggy. The cyclist in him was eager to meet and investigate you. So together we walked through the long hallway back. From that point on, you know what happened. You were a first hand witness yourself.’
Indeed, I was. I saw the two coming down the steps and I understand what you meant regarding that orange thing he was wearing. Lit, pure fire it was. But what really struck me was with how much caution he approached me. He noticed with a keen eye the belt, the Rohloff hub, the pedals (‘I see you don’t have pedals in which you can fasten your shoes. How then, do you go up a mountain ?’) and probably much more, yet, contrary to so many people, he didn’t touch, merely looked, keeping his hands behind his back. Immediately, I liked him. The explanations given by Guido were okay: I didn’t hear too much exaggeration or boasting. No, just the plain facts and what had happened on our expedition.
By the way, what might be of interest to the company who put me together: the PM was captivated, yes, I can use that word, by the Rohloff hub and the belt transmission. I guess he, and many of his countrymen and -women, would love to ride and maybe one day own a bicycle like me. In other words, there seems to be a undiscovered market there. For now, however, it look likes the PM at least is well-equipped: he has a mountainbike, which he showed to Guido for a minute or two, of not only extraordinary beauty (it’s entirely matte black with a red touche here and there), it’s also a bicycle of great quality as far as I can say: reliable brand, a top notch braking and gear system, strong tyres, and it looked like it had just rolled out of the shop – not a speck of mud could be detected. For sure, when it comes to cleaning and maintaining a bicycle, Guido can learn a lot from the PM. That is, if the PM does the job himself, which, in Bhutan, the humble and down to earth people as they are, is likely to be the case I expect.
In the end, kind words were shared back and forth, a sincere thank you on behalf of us, we received an invitation to cycle with the PM if we would return on time from our Eastern Bhutan adventure and before the Lyonchhen had to leave for Doha for an international summit. A final wave when we turned on the driveway marked the end of our visit.
Based on Guido’s words and what I saw, our meeting with the PM and his staff was a pleasant one. It’s hard to judge how ‘the other side’ thought about our meeting. We also don’t know how many rules of etiquette we broke and displayed behaviour that was awkward or inappropriate. Yet, there seemed to be a common understanding through kindness and, of course, the love for cycling. Yes, in hindsight it was truly a unique experience, for both cycle and cyclist.
Shortly after the meeting, we jumped back in the mode of trying to make every moment count. Guido and I cycled towards the Buddha Dordenma statue just outside Thimphu before meeting Devika, a journalist who wanted to write a story about our journey. It was a short ride (less than ten km) but there were 400 meters of elevation waiting for us. Upon arriving, we noticed there was almost nobody visiting the 52 meter high statue of a golden Buddha in remembrance of the sixtieth birthday of the fourth king of Bhutan: the parking spot, beside two taxis, was completely empty. Guido had to leave me behind for a second time.
‘It really was another mind blowing experience, Ziggy. I went up the stairs and the immens square in front of the Buddha was abandoned. However, I could hear noise coming from what must have been a sound system: the beating of drums, humming sounds, mantras being sung. After walking around, I found an open door in the windowless golden cube-like structure that formed the foundation upon where the gigantic Buddha was sitting. I took off my shoes, a monk chased away the bad spirits by waving the smoke of incense over my body, another good-natured monk sprinkled holy water and rice over my head to purify me and to infuse my aura with good intent, after which I received permission to enter. Inside, there was apparently an important puja going on. I will not go into too much detail, I will tell you later more about it. But, imagine it like this: rows of monks, at least more than hundred in number, most of them in trance, all sitting cross-legged and bent over in their maroon coloured robes, shaven heads rocking gently up and down, mumbling mantra after mantra, all the while around fifty beautifully painted drums being hammered in monotonous rhythm with ornamented green sticks. Okay, a few more details I want to share. Because, shiver my timbers, the interior: the north, west and south walls had, from top to bottom and across the whole building, six shelves high and countless shelves wide (each shelf being filled with two rows of six golden Buddhas), making it for me, an outsider, a somewhat weird situation since it reminded me of a football stadium – stands filled with thousands and thousands of serene looking golden Buddha’s.
‘And then the huge painting on the eastern wall: in bright colours, important and lesser important many-armed figures, bodhisvattas (deities, the Rainbow Ones, who reached the highest form of enlightenment yet they decided to stay in any form they think necessary on our earthly realm to help other beings finding their way towards enlightenment), gurus, different avatars, demons, animals, enormous trees, thick clouds, and, of course, Buddha himself. Mama mia!
‘A pair of eyes wasn’t enough to see what was painted with minuscule precision. Two pairs, to say the least, under the cover of sunglasses since almost everything inside had a golden touch and, although there was not an excessive amount of light used in the vast hall, the countless reflections – shooting light towards you from all directions, forced me to squeeze my eyes. I sat down between the monks, trying to observe what was going on. Norbu, a kind monk, offered me tea and snacks. Feeling at ease and enjoying the hot beverage, I saw more details. The roof of the place was being held up by six rows (again the number six – it must have a Buddhist meaning) of pillars – four deep seen from the southside. I noticed dragons, zen symbols and the same five figures repeatedly holding either a scarf, food, incense, a guitar and a mirror, all skillfully incorporated on the gold coloured metal plates attached to the pillars. Somewhat later, another monk called Jigme, explained to me that everything in this place was focused on purity (therefore the dragons) and on detaching you from earthly matters (therefore the zen symbols and the scarf which symbolizes letting go of feeling, food for letting go of taste, incense for smell, the guitar for sound and the mirror for all that is visual). I stayed for half an hour because I couldn’t detach: the bombardment of stimuli was simply too much to handle for me. I donated money and returned, for a second time that day upside down.’
Dawn was presenting herself when Guido unlocked me and we raced down to meet Devika, a young journalist from BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Service or something alike) whom we would meet for an interview. Back in Thimphu we met on Clocktower Square, Guido and her grabbed a coffee in a cozy coffee shop, before strolling around town, all the while telling again (this time more elaborately), our story. The three of us visited some sightseeing venues in the capital before we said goodbye and found our way back to the hotel.
‘What a day. So much has happened. I need at least a full day to process this. What about you, Ziggy? There is, however, not much time. Tomorrow morning, at six we have to leave the hotel in order to catch a bus to Bumthang. Finally, the real cycling starts. I cannot wait. Gangjung will come to meet us at six thirty. You are ready for cycling Bhutan? Boy, I think I am. And I will sleep like a baby tonight, and dream big things. I am sure of it. Hope you do too. Let us live dubble these days, day and night. Sweet dreams, my friend!’
It was, indeed, a long and eventful day. And me too, although we didn’t cycle that much, needed rest. Within minutes after securing me in a nice corner in the hotel, I was gone.