Riding a Royal Enfield Motorbike through Bhutan

I think the majority of people who travel extensively do so for adventure, to satisfy their curiosity, and to challenge the status quo. I headed to Bhutan, the mythical country of the Thunder Dragon in an attempt to discover more about this mysterious country I had heard so much about. I’m drinking a masala tea watching the Bhutanese men walking around wearing dresses, and women working construction on the side of the road.

Travel truly challenges the cultural norms. But to experience the joy of discovering Bhutan,  you have to ditch your government appointed guides. These guides, polite to a fault, hover constantly wanting to take you between one tourist destination and other. They mean well, but I crave freedom. My ticket to truly experience this magical country lay in the keys of a Royal Enfield motorcycle and two days of glorious mountainous roads stretching between between Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, and Gangtey, a tiny village in the middle of the beautiful Phobjikha valley.

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Bhutan is a biker’s paradise.  Empty roads with sweeping curves and epic views stretched out before me as I headed out of Thimphu in the early morning. Unlike many other countries in Asia where roads are a chaotic mix of motor scooters, taxis, and belching trucks, Bhutan’s roads are empty and generally well maintained. It’s the only country in the world without a traffic light! The roads are so windy that you’ll never get above 30 mph, but with views like this who cares.

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The roads around Thimphu are well maintained with the stretch between Thimphu and Paro, a beautiful hours ride of endless sweeping curves. I was head to Gangtey this morning though. This road winds its way through precarious mountain passes and dizzying drop offs It is still heavily under construction, due to be completed in the next few years. Once they finish the roads it will be the best place in the world to ride a bike.

Right now, the road is rough in (most) parts. You need your wits about you, and I was still getting used to the Enfield. I wanted adventure, and I got it! The handlebars rattled over rough dirt roads, and I had to concentrate on tight corners to avoid frequent rocks. Eventually after climbing for an hour I topped out at a pass approximately 10,300′. I took a break to explore the Druk Wangyal Chortens- a 108 stupas built by the eldest Queen, in honor of her husband. The pass, already paved for tourists was a welcome break to the rough roads. My face was already covered in dirt and dust. Still, I would take the open saddle of a bike over a car on these roads any day.

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The way down was a heavenly strip of perfect black bitchumen licking out in front of me with thousand foot drops on one side and heavenly views of the Himalayas. I unwound the throttle and cruised. As I went deeper into the mountains, further from civilization and back in time, the tarmac turned into a thin strip  intermittently interrupted by recent landslides and patches of dirt. Finally, even that strip of tarmac vanished. It was just me, the rhythmic thud-thud of the Enfield, and the mountains.

The road is an impressive feat of engineering. The thin line of black bitchumen resumed, licking its way down the mountain. It’s easy to get lost in the bliss of the smooth road and twisting corners, leaning in with the warm air, but you must stay alert and present, for at any moment, around the next blind corner, the road may vanish into a dirt pause caused by a landslide, or construction, before beginning the strip of black magic again.

I shift down gears, leaning deep into the corner, the engine popping behind me. My peripheral vision glimpses the white peaks on the Himalayas in the distance as I twist the throttle accelerating out the corner only to throw the bike down hard in the opposite direction as I hit a 270 degree bend going a little too fast. The rear tyre skips momentarily on loose marbles.

I lean deeper, heart in my mouth, braking suddenly as a landslide of rock and dirt covered much of the road. The back wheel kicked out towards the edge. I add a little more of throttle to ride through the skid, the wheel righting itself spitting rocks into the jungle far below. I leaned back, standing the bike up straighter and  slowed my speed to navigate through a precarious 30′ stretch of ride no wider than 7′ across. To my right,  a dead drop-off. To my left,  a crumbling mountain face on the other. I swallowed hard, looking straight ahead.

Ahead, the road plunges down and I’m immersed into a jungle. The bitchumen vanishes again replaced by a dirt road. I feel like I’m back in the highlands of northern Vietnam. 10 minutes later, the bitchimum appears again, tantalizingly smooth. I gun the Enfield and it takes off with a satisfying thunk from the engine. I can see why these bikes are a classic. They have so much soul.

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I emerged from the jungle, victorious in my mountain crossing. I stopped briefly in Punakha on my way to Gangtey, a tiny village in the middle of the beautiful Phobjikha valley. I refueled, grabbed a quick meal of noodles and chili, and chatted with the locals. I was told the road deteriorates rapidly from here on.  I smiled; this is the adventure I was seeking.

I had planned to meet my guide later that evening, but for now, it was just me and my trusty Enfield. I brushed the road road off the console, inserted the key, and headed off. I still had a few hours ride ahead of me, and would then turn around and do it all again tomorrow. The Enfield thumped beneath me. I twisted the throttle, adrenaline mixing with fuel as I sped out of town. Bhutan is at its best from the back of a classic motorcycle.

 

 

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