Lets talk about roads. Specifically an east-west road that connects and draws together a large portion of Bhutan. When you look at the map of Bhutan some things are quite clear. The mountain range, mostly along the northern border also forms the border with Tibet (now controlled by China). To the west, south, and east is India. Similarly to Nepal and for many of the same reasons, the British never invaded, controlled or ruled this country. Longer than it is wide, there is one main road which connects west with east. If you are thinking in US/OZ/EU terms, please turn off that bit of your brain. Stop, think and reflect that this is a road that travels through a mountainous country. One which really did not initiate a planned road network traversable by motorized traffic before the 1960s.
You don’t just jump from walking trails to fine highways, trust me on this. The plan today was to travel along the road going from the capital in Thimpu to the previous capital in Punakha. Leaving aside the elevation difference of over 1300 meters, there is little flat land between there and here, most of which is occupied by glacial fed rivers which have been know to flood so building your road on the plane wouldn’t be particularly smart. Add in a pass of around 3000 meters with switchbacks on the way up and down. This particular 50 km journey takes – what would you guess? Right, somewhere between 2-4 hours on a good day and that is provided limited traffic and an absence of road construction or snow at the higher elevations.
Oh, I think I forgot to add, this road was carved from the mountain side in the 1960s by hand. Which means, in case the penny hasn’t dropped, that it is a single lane road, pavement obviously optional. A number of years later, stretches of the single lane were paved. Forget about warning signs, guard rails, call boxes or any of the so called modern highway improvements. If you don’t understand that this is a dangerous stretch of road you shouldn’t be driving it.
A road expansion project has been started with outside funding and a fair helping of Indian workers. Much of the work is still being done by hand but now aided by the use of explosives which maybe quicker but not always a good thing if someone has miscalculated the geological stability of the area. Since the outside edge is straight down, more mountain has to go. This leaves the opportunity to pass uphill going around a curve, to drive on the short remaining paved sections even when they are not on your side of the road (English driving rules here). The other bit of advice? Trust the driver, wear your seatbelt and don’t look down.
We stopped at the top where, when it is clear you can see the sacred mountains.
We saw Yaks on the way down.
And visited the original fortress (circa 1637) which has been restored following more than one destruction including flash flooding (which is what precipitated the relocation of the capital plus another rebuilding of the town). The fortress lies at the fork of two joining rivers (great position to get flooded from either side?). As a major Buddhist center, contained herein are historical treasures, religious treasures, lots of monks, religious services.
(photos to follow if there ever is enough bandwidth)