Maybe you’ve been up in the remote Rockies where the air straight overhead is a deep ocean blue, and the thin extremity veins of the roads peter out at rock formations that point roundly at the mountains as if to say, “Dude, I came from up there. You’re better off down here. Trust me.”
Our white Apple-esque futuristic toyota bus has been trundling down what in California we would call a one-way, small country lane. Zagging round and round the shoulders of valleys, Grendeling along impossible drops where we creep along a series of just-cleared landslides that have thrown rocks a thousand feet down at the blue glacier river. Death-defying meeting of bus and Texas-sized dump truck filled with tons of white rock, driver no more than 19 and cockily chatting on his cel phone as one side of the bus pitches out far enough over the sharp valley that the cedars shiver. This is the main artery, the great highway of Bhutan.
We stop for “teacoffee” at 9,000-foot guest houses, white walls and byzantine orange and red and blue decoratings skizzying across the roof and down every support beam. The inside is often colder than the outside. There is no coffee in Bhutan. There is Nescafe, and lots of it.
The people are Tibetan-looking (or, as in the longest-temple town of Trongsa, actually are Tibetans who have fled the depredations of the Chinese), polite, gracious. The children smile and wave readily. The adults are… I expected them to be like the ebullient Thai people: friendly and unreserved as fourth-graders, constantly amused by something about farong (white people, a corruption of the word “foreigner”). They aren’t. The adults are curious, polite. For the most part, if you grin at them (okay, if I grin at them, which I am constantly doing), they often burst into beautiful smiles, like the sun coming out from behind the mountain, full, uncomplicated, pure.
Several days across Bhutan, we are in the middle of the country, one of only 3 airports is here in Bhumtang. This is the first place that seems like an actual habitation: flat, arable land near the river, a real ‘town’ kept in the Bhutanese building style.
Before this, by and large, a town is temples on the high peaks, white walls and yellow roofs gleaming, a gold spire flame murmuring to itself about enlightenment and the terrible tantric gods within. A series of houses perch precariously over tiny, stepped rice paddies trampling down toward the river. Many of them seem unreachable. Do they have wells? How does the water get into the paddies? How long does it take them to reach a neighbor? Now I see why festivals are prevalent and vital, why they wear their only set of fine clothes, and are likely to meet a spouse only then.
May your teacoffee be productive.