Motorcycle Classics

Bullets Over Bhutan

In 1997, Robert Smith joined one of the first motorcycle tours through the quiet Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

Dusk was slipping into night as our motorcycle caravan turned off the single-lane Bumthang Valley road. The Enfield’s pale headlight just picked out the way ahead — a narrow, climbing stream bed. Standing on the pegs, I held second gear and pointed the front wheel uphill. The Bullet slogged patiently up the slope as the back wheel scrabbled for traction.

The Bumthang festival started that evening. In a plowed field, under a full mountain moon, maybe 300 excited Bhutanese were milling around. We were told we’d see firewalking, and I envisioned red-robed, chanting monks walking barefoot over beds of glowing coals. Instead, a steel frame like a soccer goal was draped with branches and leaves. When this was set alight, everyone ran underneath the flames, laughing. For this I travelled 13,000 miles?

From the crowd staggered a dancer in a grotesque animal mask, wearing a long white robe and a crimson wig. Another, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jimi Hendrix, lurched forward waving a pole decorated with streamers above his head. The two began a charging, cavorting dance as the spellbound audience swayed back and forth.

“They’re hypnotized,” said Dorji, our Bhutanese guide. They looked stoned to me …

The Ride

Our expedition began in fall 1997 on the northern plains of India in Siliguri, West Bengal; and though late in the year, the air was warm and dry. Led by Himalayan Roadrunners’ Rob Callander, we rolled our Enfields out of the dirt parking lot of Sinclair’s Hotel on to NH10 heading to Jaigaon at the Bhutanese border — and into the chaotic frenzy of an Indian highway. We were five bikes on the road, plus Himalayan Roadrunners’ support truck with a spare bike, and Gyan, our mechanic.

The tarmac was broken and cratered. Untidy storefronts displaying spare, grimy goods lined the road. Women (usually women, sometimes children–never men) carried untidy bundles of firewood on their heads. Ferocious trucks blasted through the tiny villages scattering goats, chickens and children. The only rule of the road here: Might is right.

In Jaigaon, our passports were stamped and processed, and we rode under a brightly painted arch into Bhutan, and a new town, Puntsholing. There was more paperwork to do before we were free to go, the process slowed by the fact that it was a national holiday, the king’s 43rd birthday.

The difference from India was dramatic. Gone was the untidy scrimmage of Jaigaon, replaced by order and tranquility. Faces that had been darkly Caucasian became almond-eyed Mongoloid — most Bhutanese are ethnically Tibetan. By royal mandate, citizens wore their national dress as they went about their business: the gho, a tailored, toga-like cloak belted at the waist for men; and the kira, a full-length robe pinned at the shoulder for women. We’re appointed a guide, Dorji, who will travel with us as interpreter and “fixer.”

Topographically, Bhutan is a staircase rising from the Indo-Gangetic plain into the Himalayas, climbing 20,000 feet in less than 150 miles. From the strip of tropical terai in the south to the northern peaks, there was only one valley flat enough for an airstrip. So leaving Puntsholing we soon began to climb. As we switched along the mountainsides on a narrow tarmac track, grassland gave way to scrub, while pines and dwarf conifers clung to the cliffs. We climbed into a cloud that condensed inside my visor. Through the misty haze, the meandering rivers on the plain below appeared like luminous golden ribbons in a steam bath. The Enfield’s breathing became asthmatic: Throttle wide in the thin air, a rasping gulp accompanied each intake stroke.

At Gedu, less than 50 miles from the border, we’d already climbed almost 7,000 feet and it was cold. A plywood shack was marked, surprisingly, “café.” We encircled a wood fire in the corner of a bare, dirt-floor room, warming our hands on tiny cups of hot, sweet Nescafé. We drew a crowd, of course. A circle of grubby, quietly curious children surrounded us and the bikes. And — unlike India where the cry “one rupee, one rupee,” followed us everywhere — not one asked for money.

We were riding the East-West Highway (also known as the Lateral Road) a roughly paved single-lane strip of broken tarmac that rambled along the mountainsides — and not a motorhome anywhere. Snaggly, snow-covered peaks jumped out around each bend like crooked fangs; vast, rambling, brightly painted, low-rise buildings called “dzongs” (a sort of combination temple, monastery and municipal hall) were tacked on the hillsides.

The Indian army helped build this road to aid troop movement. Their presence in Bhutan bolsters the country against an over-the-mountains invasion from Chinese-occupied Tibet. And the U.N. quietly maintains a presence of its own to stifle any Indian colonial ambitions.

As we broke through above the cloud, the terrain became flatter, opening into broad alpine valleys. The road forked and we swooped along the side of a narrow chasm, white water crashing below. The canyon walls widened and became shallower, opening into a broad valley of neatly laid rice fields. This was the Paro Valley, home to Bhutan’s second-largest community and its only airport. Still it was little more than a clutch of two-story houses lining a short, broad dirt street with an open storm drain.

Rob hustled us toward one of the houses. Painted beams pierced the stucco walls. Above the second floor, a plywood-sheet roof was weighted down with rocks. The narrow windows had no glass­­: Wood shutters hung from the frames. Near the door of the dark, bare room was a counter with a sparse arrangement of candy, pastries and spirits. A wooden bench lined one wall, a rough table in front of it. It was impossible to age the faces around us, teeth gaping behind their sun-leathered smiles. We warmed ourselves with Special Courier Indian whisky and freshly steamed momos — meat-filled pastry shells not unlike empanadas.

Each night, we stayed at basic, but quite adequate, government guest houses; and while we ate dinner, Gyan, our mechanic, tended to the Enfields. The food — the kind of mystery meat and vegetables they serve to first-world visitors in developing countries — was plain but filling, and richer, I’m sure, than the rice and chilies most Bhutanese subsist on.

Each day, we would ride winding, crudely paved trails climbing to a high pass and back down to a new valley. Thimpu, the capital, offered the nearest thing to a city. But apart from the grandeur of the royal palace and the dzong, the remainder of the city would hardly rate as a suburb in the U.S. We reach the center of the country at the Bumthang Valley and its festival before turning west again. The eastern border would have taken us into Assam, India, where at that time attacks by insurgents had made it dangerous to travel.

Every small settlement had its rustic café. In Thinleygang, it was run by a slender, pale Nepalese girl wearing glasses — the only person I saw wearing specs in Bhutan. In Hongtso, the young Tibetan refugee who brought our tea had long black hair tied back, and shiny black streaks painted across her eyelids. The baby balanced on her hip was not hers, she explained, but her sister’s. Sure. She told us she was leaving soon for Kathmandu to find a husband.

The King

On his birthday each year, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck toured the country with his four wives (all were sisters) in a fleet of Land Cruisers. The King was deeply revered by his people, and any who lived along the route gathered by the roadside for the procession.

Our tour tracked the royal entourage across the country, and every tiny village on our route had been spruced up: Gaily decorated arches spanned the road; chortens (burial sites) and dzongs were freshly painted; and prayer flags snapped in the stiff mountain breeze. We seemed to be only just ahead of the king: And the roadside throng, unsure whether we were part of the festivities or not, cheered and waved anyway. Not wanting to disappoint them, we waved back. Dorje advised us of the proper etiquette if we did see the king, but when it finally happened, I was unprepared.

We were near Yutong La, one of the highest motorable passes in Bhutan at 11,635 feet. A shiny Royal Blue Mahindra Jeep of the Bhutanese police bounced toward us. The wailing siren and flashing red light told us to clear the road.

Spooked, I stepped on the Enfield’s brake pedal and skidded into a patch of mud, stalling the engine. Bhutan’s hereditary monarch appeared over the rise in his white Toyota Land Cruiser. Leaning the bike against my leg, I tore at my helmet, forgetting I was still wearing my Ray-Bans. My ears nearly came off too. I threw the helmet, gloves and glasses to the ground, just managing to press my palms together and lower my head in the approved fashion before His Majesty’s arrival. You’re not supposed to look at the royal presence, but I sneaked a peek. A puzzled smile crossed the regal visage and a hand was raised in greeting as he flashed past. He was probably wondering how five scruffy bikers managed to get into his country.

We were also obliged to genuflect toward each of the next four Land Cruisers as they sped by — red, blue, white and green — each bearing one of King Jigme Singye’s four sibling-wives.

Bhutan is a remarkable country. Its geography, terrain, religion and stable leadership, together with strict immigration rules, have allowed it to remain a quiet backwater. Somehow, riding the anachronistic Enfield over its rambling mountain roads seemed perfectly appropriate. And you just never know when you’ll bump into the king!

The Country

They say it’s the last Shangri-La: I preferred to think of it as a magic kingdom. Only slightly larger than Maryland (U.S.), Bhutan in 1997 was not much more than a scattering of villages and small towns on the southern slopes of the Himalayas with a total population of just 750,000. It was perhaps more easily defined by what was not there than by what was: There were no trains, cities, shopping malls or freeways, and very few vehicles. The country’s only traffic signal, in the capital Thimpu, had been considered unnecessary and removed. A bored, uniformed cop directed what little traffic there was. In the week we were in Bhutan I saw just three bicycles, and more cows than cars.

Though poor, the Bhutanese seemed easy-going, friendly people, usually smiling and polite. (In 1972 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced a Gross National Happiness Index to supplement conventional measures of economic growth, like GDP.) As subsistence farmers, most families own a smallholding on which they grow rice, vegetables and chilies — their basic diet. Unlike India’s vegetarian Hindus, though, the Buddhist Bhutanese add beef or chicken. Although their religion forbids killing, they eat meat if someone else slaughtered it!

To maintain Bhutan’s ethnic integrity, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck also introduced several controversial programs: repatriating Nepalese refugees; requiring Bhutanese to wear their national dress. And, mindful of nearby Nepal’s experience, a tourist visa still costs $250 per day, the intention being to avoid the country being overrun, like Khatmandu, with vagabond travelers. The visa, though, does include accommodation in government guest houses, meals and a guide.

Jigme Singye has now abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Bhutan has become a constitutional (rather than absolute) monarchy with an elected government. Even TV and the internet have been introduced — though whether that’s a positive change or not remains to be seen!

The Company

The first motorcycle tour company allowed into Bhutan, Himalayan Roadrunners organized our odyssey on Chennai (Madras)-built Enfields (the “Royal” came later). The 500cc Bullets were made “Like a Gun” just as they were in 1956 — though our 1997 bikes included turn signals and a twin-leading-shoe front brake. But the feel was still strictly vintage.

Our train of five bikes included Himalayan Roadrunners’ Rob Callander and Charles Gay, plus Gyan, our mechanic with two drivers in the support truck, and Dorje, our mandatory Bhutanese guide with his own minivan and driver.

As of 2019, Himalayan Roadrunners still offers tours of Nepal and Bhutan, and it’s now possible to ride right across the country from west to east and into Assam, India.

For more information, visit  them on their website.MC

  • Published on Aug 9, 2019
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