We left Thimphu at 12:30 p.m. Our taxi drivers Karma and Namson Dorji assured us there were no road blocks (they teamed up to take turns driving for the 12 hour round-trip to Phobjikha). They had the tunes pumping; a mash up of the latest radio hits, club bangers and a few legit hip-hop classics. Pharrell’s Happy rings over the music and Namson answers his phone. Appropriate ringtone for this infamously smiley country.
Just outside the city they kick up the speed and Karma explains that we’re trying to make it over the pass before the closures. We don’t even bother reminding them that they told us there wouldn’t be any closures today. Dochu La pass is the clearest it’s ever been but we speed around the chortens, the flawless views fly past like a movie reel in fast forward. Despite our hurry we brake behind a line of cars that have also just missed the opening. The still views of the white capped mountains and warm sunshine make for a pleasant 1.5 hour wait. (Michael takes some of his best photos at the road blocks. )But when a guy with skinny legs races past the parked cars on his mountain bike I feel a pang of jealousy.
Soon we’re off again, trying to make up time. I’ve been on some scary ass roads before, with drivers falling asleep and passing semi-trucks on blind curves, but this was terrifying. Namson drives with a poorly calculated death wish, not sure which bend would make the best Thelma and Louise Launchpad. I repeatedly force the paranoid thoughts from my mind but tell Michael I love him and send silent goodbyes just in case.
We’re now catching up to the mountain biker who poises himself just above the seat, absorbing the rocks and potholes that we jerkily swerve to avoid. We pass him around a curve throwing dust in his face as Michael and I bounce off the back seat. But Namson has to slam on the brakes and swing around a big rut and the biker passes us again on the inside, jumping a little mound of dirt. It’s now a cat and mouse game and we stay alarmingly close on his tail, our front bumper threatening to eat his back tire if he even thinks about slowing down. Nearing the first village we catch up to a long line of cars and are forced to concede our loss to the bike.
The construction on the road is scary enough without the kamikaze driving (I’ve described this road before; it’s the only one that runs East from Thimphu). On the inside of the curves, piles of loose dirt and rocks pretend to be keeping the mountain above it in place. I can’t help but think that one good rainfall and the dusty ‘retainer wall’ will gladly slip away to an easier resting place. The road cuts deep into the mountain slope, forcing a level place where gravity never intended one to be. The trees on the outside curves are pressured into awkward perpendicular angles, their roots now forced to use an entirely different set of muscles to keep itself and the mountain (and us) in place. I force myself to stop looking for the bottom of the ravine.
The moon is out, shining bright white in the cloudless blue sky. I love the daytime moon and her presence comforts me much more than trying to channel a Buddhist attitude about the situation; ‘what will be will be. Om.’ Houses and farms look painted onto the steep mountainside. The scenery is a welcome distraction—the way the sun hits the brown terraced fields, the contrast of evergreen tree line against blue sky. Then we are in sight of the white domed chorten of the Punakha nunnery, its gold tip glittering in the late afternoon light. We pass through Lobesa and into Wangdi where our drivers try to pawn us off on another taxi saying that with the blocks it has gotten late and they need to return to Thimphu. But none of the local taxis are interested and our guys reluctantly agree to take us the rest of the way, somehow managing to negotiate another 300 Nu on top of the original price. I, in turn, ask them to please drive slower as I do not wish to die quite yet. We speed out of town but Namson eventually honors my request, asking as we take a gentle turn, “Is this okay, Madame?”
Night falls early as we drive deeper into the valley, the sun blocked by the mountains. After asking for directions from several people, we finally find Phuentosholing Farm House. I thank the boys for getting us here alive and beg them to please drive more carefully on their way home in the dark. There are no lights on in the house and we learn that the Inn is closed. So it goes when you arrive at night, unannounced in the middle of nowhere Bhutan. Up the hill on the same property is Dewachen Hotel. The windows glow with a warm light and the elegant construction appears far more luxurious than our budget would allow—we didn’t bring much cash as we had expected to stay in the modest little farmhouse. We enter the dining room/ reception area and it is clear by the looks on the staff’s faces that they do not often get walk-in clients. There are no ATM’s within two hours so we are lucky to be given the farmhouse rate for the hotel.
A buffet style dinner is served and we eat alongside a large group of Japanese tourists and a mixed group of English speakers. Siting quietly at our little two top, we eavesdrop on tales of legendary adventures. After dinner we retreat to our beautifully oversize room with unfinished wood floors, twin beds and a small heater struggling against the poor construction inviting the cold in at every seam. Imaging the thin mattress and cold, dark rooms at the rustic farmhouse I am suddenly thankful for a bit of luxury. We cuddle two to a bed until it’s time to sleep and I wonder about the cranes just beyond our black window, snuggled together behind the veil of darkness.