Ride The Thunderdragon
By Phil Bowen
Appeared in TASHI DELEK
The Druk Air Inflight magazine
Few outsiders are perhaps familiar with the Divine Madman the patron saint of Bhutan who is celebrated with images of huge, excited phalluses complete with hairy bollocks, tattooed on buildings, let alone the fact that marijuana grows wild to 8 feet tall and is fed to pigs and that there is not a single traffic light in the whole Kingdom. Hopefully by now you are getting the idea that this quirky Kingdom is a bit different, with one foot planted firmly in medieval times whilst the other dangles a toe in the rushing torrent of 21st century.
If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in Bhutan, remember one thing –keep to the left– walk, cycle and drive to the left of or clockwise round anything and everything that looks sacred (chortens, stupas, temples, statues, monasteries, fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels) and you can’t go wrong. Not only will you receive great merit in your next life (reincarnated as the next Lance Armstrong perhaps) but it may well extend your time in this one, as sensibly the Bhutanese drive on the left and negotiate roundabouts in a clockwise direction.
Maker of fine cheeses, honey and Red Panda beer, Dasho Fritz Maurer clearly remembers the first bicycle in Bhutan. At about the same time as Eddy Merx was in his pomp in Europe, the third King’s brother bought a bike overseas to ride in the capital Thimphu. Fritz liked bikes, and the men made a bet — Fritz would attempt to ride from Phuntsoling down on the border with Indian to Thimphu in less than 9 hours – 107 rough miles, climbing nearly 11,000 feet.
If he made it, Fritz would get to keep the bike, if not, he had to pay up. Fritz started his ascent before dawn but didn’t notice that the back brake was rubbing until he’d already ridden 50 miles and as a result took over ten hours. The prince generously gave him the bike anyway and Fritz rode it proudly for years. This was way back in the 1960’s long before tourists were even allowed to visit and nothing much happened with bikes in Bhutan for a while after that.
“As His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuck is revered as a diety by his subjects and is a keen mountain biker himself it seems that the future looks bright for the humble bike in Bhutan.”
1975 witnessed the first trickle of foreign visitors to the Kingdom and soon after a few members of the local high society imported bikes to ride around town on. For most Bhutanese these hi-tech rides were prohibitively expensive so they stuck to walking everywhere and their own national sport of archery.
The Dashos (lords) soon moved on to Harley Davidsons and even a classic Enzo Ferrari was imported – after a couple of laps of Paro airport’s runway it was trucked to the capital where it languishes to this day in the lord’s garage, but oh the sound when he fires her up – like a slumbering Thunderdragon!
Having lived “through the looking glass” in Bhutan it is debatable who actually learns the most, the Bhutanese or me, but my ace card has always been biking. I had countless woodland trails calling to me from my door my but few friends capable of tagging along either because they had never ridden a bike or could not afford one – weird for a westerner who grew up blasting round the neighbourhood on his Grifter. We started a local bike club and with the help of a static gym bike to minimize injuries soon had a keen bunch and a few old bikes for them to borrow.
There is something so life affirming about sharing in their childlike joy as they grasp the “way of the bike” taking their first teetering spin down an archery field without coming a cropper – oh and the kudos of cruising through town waving at mates?! These days I have trouble keeping up with the bunch, grinding away in angay (granny) gear sucking on the semi-skimmed mountain air in their wake up to yet another pass but the sacred washing lines of prayer flags strung out on top always provide a welcome blessing.
I still have the edge on the epic single track downhills which can drop 1500m but whenever the conditions at the local hospital spring to mind my fingers automatically reach for the brake levers – indeed the Bhutanese have renamed a remote Buddhist shrine “Phil’s Memorial Stupa” – the scene of my most spectacular crash to date.
A Bhutanese group recently traversed the whole country on their bikes and when asked why replied that they just wanted to do it before some chilip did. There is now a popular race series and this autumn sees the third running of the Tour of the Dragon Race – 268km in one day with a total height gain of 3790m and loss of 3950m – us chilips are welcome to enter.
As His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuck is revered as a diety by his subjects and is a keen mountain biker himself it seems that the future looks bright for the humble bike in Bhutan.