...some people make lemonade. Me, I prefer to whine about it to anyone who'll listen.
The sad truth about travel is that you can't win 'em all. No matter how charmed a life you've led, no matter how prepared you are, every once in a while a journey will turn out to be a dud. So it was with my recent foray into Bhutan, accompanying a friend who is researching a book on this most beautiful of countries. He invited a couple of us along on his mammoth drive from the west to the wild east, scheduled over three weeks. What was to think about? I bought a train ticket to New Jalpaiguri, he picked us up at the station in the canvas-topped Mahindra Classic jeep that he had driven from UP, and off we went, with the top down, our USB drives playing good music, and lots of sunscreen rubbed into our faces.
I'm not a believer in signs, but if I were I'd have been wary: I'd busted my ankle, was fighting a cold, we ran into a storm first thing, and just before I left my horoscope told me straight up that I would be plagued by a series of unfortunate events. You can't really ask for anything more direct.
Five hours' hard driving across the last gasp of West Bengal brought us to the border town of Jaigaon, which in the local language means 'Don't ever come here unless it's really necessary'. We crossed the border into the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing, which in the local language means 'Jaigaon is about the only place that can make us look good', and checked into the Druk Hotel where we scarfed excellent Bhutanese dishes like ema datsi (green chillies cooked in cheese) and pork cooked with radish, along with some of Victoria's finest grapes.
They don't like to let you rattle around Bhutan unsupervised, so they make sure you're up for it by putting you through an incredible set of bureaucratic calisthenics. It took us from 9am until 4pm to get our special permits and vehicle permit to travel beyond the capital at Thimphu. Because of the Thimphu Tsechu festival there wasn't a hotel to be had for the night, so we'd have to drive straight through to Wangdue, a total of nine hours from Phuentsholing. We made one stop at Chukhu for chow mien and beer, and one stop at Thimphu to pick up our vehicle permit at the reception of the Druk Hotel, where they'd kindly also left us some club sandwiches and french fries which we ate like savages standing at the counter. We got to Wangdue at 2.30am, having driven through rain and fog and some terribly beautiful country.
The next morning we took off at noon for what was supposed to be a six hour ride to the fabled Bumthang Valley. This turned out to be more like nine and a half hours what with stops and more night driving and some blood-curdling fog on the Yotong La pass during which I promised that I'd never do a wicked thing again if only I never had to drive though this kind of mountain fog again. We arrived in the strangely wild western town of Jakhar, in Bumthang, under a beautiful moon.
The thing about the Mahindra Classic is that you can be in Bhutan, last of the pristine lands, and never once breathe a lungful of clean air. Maybe it was the diesel fumes, maybe not, but I woke up with such a high fever and such a vicious cough that I had to be taken to the local hospital, where a lad without the faintest shadow of facial hair put me on about 10,000mg of antibiotics straight away. So while the fabled loveliness of Bumthang unfolded outside my window, I lay in bed for two days, sweating and hallucinating. On the third day I was well enough to spend half an hour at the tsechu at Tamshing monastery, and to sit by the Bumthang river for a while, but the drive back to Thimphu the next day brought the fever right back.
The Indian Army doctor we consulted advised me not to carry on my journey in the open jeep unless I wanted to risk secondary infections like pneumonia. Crashing disappointment had to be weighed against the possibility of ruining the trip for everyone later. So here I am, stranded in Thimphu waiting for a flight out, while my friend is halfway to the east already. Not that it's been at all uninteresting, what with princesses, policemen, local journalists, and green plastic praying mantises. But I'll tell you about that next week.