When one is traveling over roads for such a long time, spending many hours every day looking out over what is sometimes a long straight stretch of well used tarmac, at other times a deserted track winding its way up into what looks like impassable mountain terrain in front of you, the mind starts to ponder what lies beneath these surfaces.
Beyond the inevitable thoughts about the quality and condition of the road (enough about which has been said in earlier posts) more and more often I find myself wondering about their history – who made them and used them – and reflecting on what connections and changes they brought about and continue to facilitate. In particular in Bhutan, where we are traversing the country on what is the only transnational road – the National Highway or Lateral Road – and where apart from a few rare domestic flights no other means of travel exists, it is hard not to contemplate the significant role of this road in Bhutanese history and society.
Thus a bit of research began, and I discovered that modern road construction in Bhutan only began in 1961. Right up till then travel was by foot or on muleback or horseback only! In those days the journey from the Indian border at Phuentsholing to the Bhutanese capital Thimphu took six days. To compare, we took 6 hours, and today one can travel the whole road from Phuentsholing to Trashigang where it terminates in about three full days.As it is only a little over a hundred years ago that Bhutan’s long-time warring fiefdoms were united under the monarchy that still exists today, the Lateral Road has played a huge role in creating a sense of national unity, connecting various pockets of Bhutan’s multiple ethnic groups. By giving citizens access to the same services and opportunities, such as the Basic Health Units, schools and markets, it has facilitated the spread of national wealth and contributed to rural development, and for this reason road development continues to feature highly in Bhutan’s national development plans. Major investments are regularly channeled into servicing the Lateral Road to prevent it from falling down the cliffs and to expand it.
Such work often stopped or slowed down our journey. Three days ago, coming up to Bhumtang Valley in Central Bhutan, we had to wait for three hours as a group of construction workers were widening the road using dynamite just a couple hundred meters ahead. And yesterday Andy and the Bullet were nearly buried under rocks as a bulldozer ignored the signals with which we had been ushered through. We noticed that most of this road work is carried out by Nepali and Indian immigrant workers, whole communities of whom we have seen in makeshift work camps alongside the road. With the large-scale expulsion of Nepalese in the nineties, and Bhutan’s very strict immigration policy today, we imagine these workers are probably little at ease in this country. The flimsiness of their shelters surely added to that impression. Such issues aside, the result of all their hard work is quite a road, the way it cuts often little more than a single lane wide road across the steep and rocky Himalayan mountainsides. Whilst it has offered some of the most beautiful riding during this trip, it’s (lack of) surface, sheer drops and many hairpin turns have also been quite demanding (we had our first puncture), and at times outright scary. Therefore, to not get too road-wired again and enjoy the rest of this country as well, we are taking 9 days to leisurely travel its length plus a 2-day detour to Paro valley and a day riding to Samdrup Jonghkar in the Southeast where we will exit back into India.Interestingly, whereas there are several side-roads of the Lateral Road going south into India, there is no road crossing into China. In fact, so we learned, this is illustrative of the almost complete absence of relations between Bhutan and China. Whilst they share a contiguous border of 470 km, Bhutan and China do not maintain official diplomatic relations and Bhutan prohibits all trade with China. Territorial conflicts play a role in the tension, but also Bhutan’s strong historical and cultural connections to Tibet.
Throughout this trip, the relationship of the Himalayan territories we crossed with their giant neighbors has been a recurring theme. Whereas Bhutan has clearly opted for India as its one and only partner, Nepal has long preferred to balance the competing influences of China and India. Nepal officially recognized Tibet as a part of China in 1956, and has signed various treaties of peace and friendship with China since. One result of these has been the all weather Friendship Highway and Friendship Bridge connecting Kathmandu with Tibet not far from Dulikhel where we spent several nights due to Andy’s illness.
In Sikkim, we passed near to another border crossing with China that has been opened more recently (2006): Nathu La. This ancient Silk Road pass was for a long time the main artery of trade between India and China. When it was closed in 1962, it became a symbol of Chinese and Indian hostility. Today, with the never-boring India-China relations having led to the latest deal being signed just a few days ago – a deal that seeks to sooth growing tensions on their contested border – Nathu La is expected to soon be worth more than $1 billion in annual trade. This is not without political implications, as Sikkim fears being crushed between the ambitions of Delhi and Beijing and, like Tibet, is concerned with the influx of ‘mainlanders’ into its lands. Already, Sikkim’s indigenous Buddhist Bhutia and Lepcha communities form a minority in the State.
This balancing game is only now starting in Myanmar, where China has for a long time been the dominant partner but where the new Government is keen to diversify. Roads again play a major role in this. Various roads have long connected Myanmar and China, with huge volumes of cross-border trade existing in particular at Muse (nearly $3 billion last year). However, border crossing has been restricted to local travel only for Myanmar and foreign citizens (this might change for foreigners in the next couple of months). To reduce dependence on China, much more recently Myanmar and India have started negotiating the opening of the border at Moreh and Kale. This is where we will also attempt to cross. An integrated border check-point is currently under development, and a bus service is also scheduled to be launched between Moreh and Mandalay. Apart from these roads, there are talks of re-opening the old Stillwell and Ledo Roads, about which I’d like to write a little more later when we are nearer to the India-Myanmar border.
Back to Bhutan. Even though we might be ‘limited’ to its Lateral Road, its promising hinterlands forever on the horizon, due to the central function of the road we therefore do not feel too far disconnected. Albeit in a different way, this was also confirmed yesterday, when we overnighted in the small village of Ura in the house of the valley’s gup or mayor. Coming in after sunset through a cold mist, dark and windswept Ura felt like the end of the world to us. But after settling in the kitchen near the warm stove with a cup of hot tea and starting conversation with the gup’s family members around us, we soon learned we were in fact in the company of his Calcutta based sister in law and her photographer boyfriend, as well his daughter who goes to medical school in Sri Lanka. The Calcutta based sister in law and her boyfriend had also arrived by road only days before us. So our end of the world on a cold and dark October night in a small Bhutanese village in fact saw us surrounded by a variety of regional road trotters.