Day 10: Bumpy roads in Bhutan

Today was a big journey day.  We had to get from our lodge in Gangtey to the lodge in Paro, where I will be for the duration of the trip this week.  The construct of the day was to spend the first three to four hours hiking over a big hill, which would allow us to shave an hour off a six hour drive.  Seemed like a good plan:  get some exercise, see something pretty and lose an hour in a car.  I’m in!  

The sun rising over the Gangtey Valley

The sun rising over the Gangtey Valley

My guide and I headed out at 8 AM, and immediately launched into a one hour climb.  We had yet more yak encounters, including one with a biggish, somewhat grumpy looking fellow that started to follow us.  We were getting a little nervous as there were no trees to hide behind, so my guide resorted to name calling and rock throwing.  Works on the playground.  Works in the field.  The yak turned left and went a different way.  

As we marched up to the summit, we encountered a mother and son with four horses loaded with potato seeds.  As in many of the farming communities in Bhutan, the locals work multiple crops over the course of the year.  The rice crop has run its course, and it’s time to move to potatoes as the weather gets colder.  Most of the potatoes will be exported to India, and some will come back as potato chips (my guide seems endless amused by this).  Again, it was fascinating to see a way of farming that would have been the norm in my country about 100 to 150 years ago.  

Mother and son hauling potato seeds over the hill down into the next valley

Mother and son hauling potato seeds over the hill down into the next valley

Once we reached top, my guide told me that the hard part was ready to begin.  I found this confusing as I am conditioned to think of the huffing climb as the tough part.  He grinned and told me that we now need to go down 1,000 very steep meters and that my knees would be very sad.  Two hours later and my knees were very sad.  I truly live my life pretending that I’m 30 years old, which works great until some irritatingly steep descent reminds me that I am every bit of 47.  I was a little bit on fire in my feet and knees when we reached bottom.  

From there our driver was waiting for us, and I gingerly folded my sad broken body into the passenger seat.  From there we began a five plus hour drive that frankly I pretty much hated for much of it.  As noted on previous posts, there is only one main highway that connects East with West.  It’s mostly 1.5 lanes wide, and it’s beaten up in its best parts.  Appropriately, the government is beginning the hard work of widening it to a full two lanes, but the ensuing construction makes the ride that much harder as big chunks of the drive were effectively spent off-roading on the ripped up road.  

As I was silently whining to myself, I used it as an opportunity to remember exactly where Bhutan is in its evolution.  To illuminate the point, here are some fun facts about the country (referring to the AWESOME World Factbook site operated by the CIA — seriously, it’s great!):  

  • 39K square miles — about half the size of Indiana
  • Population 725K, 50% Bhote, 35% Nepalese, and 15% various tribal
  • Avg. life expectancy 68 yrs (similar to Mongolia, Ukraine, Belize and Bolivia)
  • Literacy rate of 53%
  • GDP per capita of $6,800
  • 44% of labor force is agricultural (subsistence farming and animal husbandry) 
  • Constitutional monarchy as of 2008 with five year parliamentary terms (they just had their second national election)
  • Bhutan only became independent in 1907
  • National government budget of $616 million (tiny!!!!), 25% of which is funded by India
Six hours to drive from Wangdu Phodrang to Paro! (see left side of country map)

Six hours to drive from Wangdu Phodrang to Paro! (see left side of country map)

I’ve just painted a picture of a small, relatively undeveloped country that is dependent on its giant neighbor to the south.  That’s obviously much of the charm of Bhutan and why it draws fancy-pants eco travelers from the West.  We are drawn to its simplicity and the happiness that seems to flow from that.  

Yet life in this country is changing fast.  Bhutan is fairly filthy rich with hydroelectric power.  It is already the #27 exporter of electricity in the world with virtually all of this export going to India.  Today is harnesses about 1,400 MW.  The plan, based on firm construction projects, is to raise this to 10,000 MW by 2020 (i.e., seven years from now).  That’s a huge increase in capacity and exports, and it will certainly be transformational to the wealth of this country.  

In the mean time, the recently elected parliament and prime minister ran on a platform of paving roads through the unforgiving Himalayas, building many schools, creating a strong healthcare system, and building government infrastructure services.  Given still low literacy rates and too high infant mortality rates, this seems like an extremely reasoned plan.  

This country will be very different in five years, and I personally think it quite wrong to bemoan the bringing of modern infrastructure to these people out of fear that their “quaintness and simplicity” will be lost.  To be sure, Bhutan is working extremely hard to hold onto its rich culture and traditions while becoming a modern, healthy country.  Most countries that have faced this tradeoff before have struggled, but perhaps the Bhutanese can get it right and become a model for the rest of us.  

And it would certainly make the road from Gangtey to Paro less bumpy.