Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

On a ropeway to heaven

Navtej Sarna

DOCHUNGLA is the first pass at ten thousand feet off Thimphu as one moves east. It’s a pretty but frustrating picnic spot. Pretty because of its stark beauty broken by the prayer flags and in summer its rhododendrons, its blue irises and little strawberry patches. And frustrating because the much talked about view of the high peaks which one should get from there is an extremely elusive one. More often than not, clouds steal that promise and the dust cover on the telescope in the round wooden café has to remain unlifted.

Once again, on an August morning it is no different. We drive though a wet Dochungla with the damp prayer flags clinging to the huge wooden poles and begin the descent in interminable twists down the other side. Finally it opens out at a quaint little junction where one branches off for Punakha, the old capital of Bhutan.

A few houses mark this junction. Houses with flowers in their little gardens, a tea shop, a man on a scooter. There are more houses later on as the road twists away in leisurely loops now, a welcome change from the earlier stomach-churning sharp tense curves. We have left behind the wet green mountain sides full of dripping bush and tall pine. Now there is only cactus on the slopes. But beautiful flowering cactus with red buds and yellow flowers. Its sharp spikes which cover the steep slope upto the white walls of Wangdi dzong made sure that no enemy approached the dzong from the riverside.

The river is wide here. A little upstream, the Po chu and the Mo chu have combined at the feet of the Punakha dzong. Later on the river will become the Sankosh as it moves into India. It’s muddy brown now but I remember the cold sunny December day when it shone with a strange crystal blueness. The road crosses over and climbs steeply upto Wangdi town. Across the river now we can see a brown and black village which for some reason brings to mind a burnt out Mexican village. Or perhaps it is the resemblance to the ruins of Machu Pichu. It has the same brown desolation and the houses seem to cling together as if they have something to fear from the vastness around them.

In Wangdi it is drizzling but one has to get fuel from the pump which is there in the middle of the central square. It is slushy and muddy underfoot as I watch the quaint pump at work. Five litres at a time is sent up into a glass bulb and then let into the pipe. Another man carrying a plastic container tells the salesman that the petrol has water in it. The salesman shrugs and without a word empties the plastic container into a puddle of water. It’s certainly mixed then!

Once when I had passed through that square it was sunny and there was an archery competition going on and surely the entire town must have been there watching the two competing teams come face to face after days of ritualistic preparation. But today they huddle away from the rain, in the shops that border the square and hang out over the steep hillside.

ANOTHER 10 kilometers down the road and the valley begins to close in. The vegetation is dense and almost tropical and in the right season there are many flowers here. This is another confluence here, less famous than the one that every traveler to the airport comes to between Thimphu and Paro. Here there are a few shops, piles of cables which have to be laid and the swirling waters under the bridge. A man waiting for a bus, the white handle of his traditional knife sticking out of his gho, points out the ropeway and I look to find a load of timber come swinging over the river from out of the cloud. Enough to give anyone a second thought.

They are taking off this timber as I talk to the operator. The ropeway has been recently privatized and there is a commercial urgency about the whole place. Yes, says the operator we can go up whenever we like. They’ll fix the other box, he says and smiles gently from under his broad brimmed hat as a I look at the box somewhat sceptically. It’s an almost open wooden box with low walls and a wide opening to enter. He smiles again as I look to the first faint framework of wooden pillars on the mountain across the river. That’s the first stage of the ropeway. Beyond that the rope vanishes into the clouds.

“It’s 5.2 kilometers. Half an hour there and another half-an-hour back.” “Are there people on the way and at the other end?” I ask, my mind quickly running through all the possibilities of having to trudge back those kilometers through rainy forest and animals and churning rivers if something were to happen to the mechanism over which the operator was presiding with such casual command.

“Yes. It’s raining up there. Would you like to take the roof of the box.”

“How do you know it’s raining?” I wonder aloud although looking at the clouds, it was a fair enough guess.

“We have a phone.”

That certainly is the first reassuring thing I hear since the beginning of the conversation.

Saying a quiet goodbye to terra firma with a dramatic finality, I climb into the box and sit on one of the benches that has been fixed into one corner. A linoleum flooring had also been laid out, I noticed. A frightening moment later I am swaying above the river. And then across and the first stage is over. There’s a momentary levelling off which gives one time to brace oneself against the edges of the box before the next incline begins. But the initial shock is already over and it’s all very beautiful. The cloud parts somewhere and the light brings to life the green terraces on the mountain.

A shout comes from the window of a house over which we are passing. A typical high Bhutanese mud house with black shale roofing. From the road it would have looked an impossibly placed house. Inevitably I would have wondered what does anyone do there? But here I can see a family and a home and fields and it all looks very sensible.

HIGHER up we are moving over a thick jungle. A deer lies in an alcove in a cliff. Another one is eating something on the green carpet under the huge trees. Red flowers suddenly brighten the foliage and there is a strange mystery in the deep damp silence which is only heightened by the slow whirring on the wires of the ropeway. Yellow and white flowers mark the end of the forest. We must be around 10 thousand feet.

The final stage emerges out of the clouds. There is shouting and heaving as the boys put together the next load of timber. A smiling face greets us and in a few minutes waves goodbye as we begin our journey downwards. But we have scarcely moved a few minutes that the ropeway comes to a grinding halt. It’s a frightening moment. It can’t be an electricity breakdown; the thing is supposed to work on diesel. But it comes to life again in a moment only we are going back up the hill. There’s another passenger who has to be taken down.

A smiling Bhutanese woman joins us. She laughs at everything I ask her in my halting elementary dzongkha- Are there animals in the jungle? Has she ever seen a tiger there? Are there many bears? By this time the sun has lit up the lower valleys and the houses on the mountains across the silvery river towards which we drift inexorably. Once again, the earth beckons.