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Trashigang

It is five in the morning and dawn is breaking in the eastern horizon. Trashigang town, the largest urban centre in eastern Bhutan, is quiet and still as the craggy hillsides that tower above it.

Some elderly men and women with a bundle of belongings stand in the parking as few young men load the bus with heavy sacks and bags. Other passengers sip on hot suja and eat alu puri at the only restaurant open at the terminal.

The bus conductor, a teenage lad, is sound asleep on the rear seat of the bus. Some elderly men and women with a bundle of belongings stand in the parking as few young men load the bus with heavy sacks and bags.

A few minutes later, he emerges with disheveled hair, a toothbrush in one hand. The bus door is opened and people get in. Conductor Lepo grudgingly helps Angay Dema find her seat; she cannot read.

Lepo fastens the luggage on the bus with some strenuous pulling and knotting, as driver Goembo climbs in. He lights a few incense sticks, pins them in a hole in the dashboard and prays. The engine is started and it whirs for a while. At exactly six am the 23 seater bus, Goembo Travels moves out of Trashigang town, and makes the descend down to Chazam. The longest road journey in Bhutan has begun.

Over the next two days, the journey will cover 546 kilometres, through sweltering hot mixed vegetation to the coldest alpine forests crossing about five mountain passes or Laas in five dzongkhags before it reaches Thimphu.

Trashigang Town
Beyond Sherichu, on the border between Mongar (Zhongar dzong) and Trashigang the bus groans uphill towards Mongar. A few passengers in the back seat stick their heads out and start throwing up. The first stop is Yadi, a fertile paddy expanse in Mongar, about 45 kilometres from Trashigang, the "breakfast" point.

The driver and conductor are guided to an inner room for a free meal while passengers choose between warm ba-thoue and momo. Few remain in the bus, cracking open boiled eggs brought from home.

"Everyone in," the conducter shouts and the journey resumes with the mood a little more livelier as the driver plays the latest Rigsar Bhutanese songs on his old worn out music system.

The passengers are mostly elderly people going to Thimphu for treatment or to meet relatives. Some are civil servants on the way to attend workshops, some are returning to Thimphu after a brief visit home.

"My son asked me to come to treat my deteriorating eyesight," says Angay Dema. "I also want to see my grandson," she adds. Next to her sits a teenage boy, Tshering from Galing, Trashigang, who is going to work with his uncle at Gayzamchu in Bumthang. It is his first time on the bus and to Gayzamchu. "Don't forget to tell me where to stop," the driver shouts to the boy over the drone of the engine.

Tenzin Dorji a private employee from Thimphu is returning from a visit to his village in Bartsham. "These visits are expensive," he says."They expect a lot as a working person." Every now and then the bus stops to pick prospective passengers and the half empty bus when it started from Trashigang is now full.

The landslide hit stretches of the road still look risky with overhanging boulders on the verge of sliding down. "On few occasions buses have been hit with boulders and stranded for days at critical places like this," says Pema in his late 50s, who claims to be a regular traveller to Thimphu. "I was once stranded with no place to spend the night or eat."

Mongar

At around 11:00 am the bus reaches Mongar (Zhongar dzong), 90 kilometres from Trashigang. Lepo hurriedly wraps a half-gho and runs off to register with the traffic police. "Take these two people till Bumthang," it is a traffic police officer at the window of the bus driver. "I cannot, I am full," the driver says pointing at the occupied seats. The Road Safety inspector will be waiting on the highway," he adds and moves off leaving behind the traffic police officer, his relatives and the others waiting for a lift.

Himalayas

It gets warmer, almost hot, as the bus descends to Lingmithang. A faint fragrance of the lemon grass wafts through the bus. Women are harvesting lemon grass that grows wild on the hillsides. The lunch stop at Lingmithang is a welcome break. Passengers head for the bushes to relieve themselves.

Mongar Town
A road safety inspector gets in as the bus begins to ascend Thrumshingla. He looks around with an air of authority and mentally makes a count of the passengers. Not overloaded. The handy-boy and driver are unusually polite to the inspector.
The inspector stands near the door with the handy-boy as the bus climbs up the treacherous 17 kilometre stretch to the highest pass in the country Thrumshingla at over 13,000 ft.
The road is steep and narrow, rough, and full of potholes. In summer it is covered in slush and in winter, passengers often have to push the bus through knee-deep snow.

Once again the driver and conducter go into another room for a free lunch, as the passengers queue up for white rice, pork, beef, and emadatsi that cost from Nu.40 to Nu. 70 a meal. At the door is the owner, waiting to collect the cost of meal. "Lopon you had pork ? It's Nu 70."

According to the driver they always get free meals for bringing customers. "The owners treat us with respect and it is a perk we drivers get," says Goembo. The drivers also help to bring other necessities the eatery needs.

The 70-kilometre uphill climb from Lingmithang to Sengor is a weary stretch. In the sweltering heat , the bus manages a speed of 10 kilometres an hour. A signboard cautions 'drive slow accident prone area'. "These buses are too old, and can break down anytime," says Tashi a civil servant. "It's frustrating because you can't make it on time to attend meetings," he adds.

After two hours of climbing, the bus reaches a foggy stretch known as Namling brak (cliff). On this stretch, the road cuts through a rock face on one side and a never ending perpendicular drop on the other side.

Namling Brak is known as an accident prone site and a silence overtakes the passengers as it crosses the grey narrow stretch. The last major accident in June 1998 claimed 58 lives. During the construction of the east west highway Namling was the most difficult area. Old timers say that at one time 240 workers were buried alive in a mud slide during construction. The lateral route finally opened in early 80s, 20 years after its construction started. "In 1985 when I first ventured to Trashigang, passengers would all get out of the bus and walk across the Namling stretch," said driver Goembo.

Himalayas Himalayas

Sengor

At around 1:30 pm the bus stops at Sengor (Sangor). The almost plain valley with few scattered houses looks barren except for potato and radish cultivation.

Himalayas Himalayas
Thrumshingla Pass
A road safety inspector gets in as the bus begins to ascend Thrumshingla. He looks around with an air of authority and mentally makes a count of the passengers. Not overloaded. The handy-boy and driver are unusually polite to the inspector.
The inspector stands near the door with the handy-boy as the bus climbs up the treacherous 17 kilometre stretch to the highest pass in the country Thrumshingla at over 13,000 ft.
The road is steep and narrow, rough, and full of potholes. In summer it is covered in slush and in winter, passengers often have to push the bus through knee-deep snow.

At the highest point, except for prayer flags and a coffee house that is always closed, there is no other sign of human activity. As the bus goes over the pass the passengers shout in unison "lha gyelo"

By about 5 pm, the snaking descent from Gayzamchu gives way to the gentle slopes of Ura. On the left of the highway are groups of clustered traditional houses demarcated by stone walls at the foot of the valley. People are still working on the wheat and potato fields

Contributed by Samten Wangchuk, Kuensel, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2006

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