There was absolutely nothing but mountains and rivers between Bumthang and Mongar. Every other leg of the journey had provided us with mountain villages or even small cities along the way, which we often used to grab tea or lunch, but the road to Mongar was entirely different.
Nancy had not lied when she said that it was a long way between the two cities. It took us about eight or nine hours of near non-stop driving to reach Mongar, but it was the most jaw-dropping drive I have ever seen.
We stopped for lunch after only a few hours because it was really the only place we could stop. Our bus hugged the left hand side of a large chorten in the middle of the road and pulled over just a few meters beyond it. Lunch was to be a picnic, we were told, as there was literally nowhere else to stop along the way. We all sat around the massive stupa and ate cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, and baked potatoes, and drank hot tea. After less than twenty minutes we were back on the bus, making our way through the high reaches of the mountains.
Most of the drive was spent just like the others. Most people slept the majority of the way. I continued to live in my own little world of half-reality, gazing keenly out the windows while sharing music with Keira. After a few more hours of winding through what was becoming – and I feel ashamed to say this – repetitive scenery, I found myself nudging Keira and whispering for her to wake up. I couldn’t stand for her to miss what was happening outside the bus, and I needed someone else to reassure me that I wasn’t just overreacting; that what I was seeing was actually fantastic, and that it was in fact happening and I wasn’t just dreaming.
The irony was that there wasn’t anything to see. Our bus had ascended into the thick clouds of the atmosphere, and out of the passenger windows and the windshield alike, all we could see was a thick layer of gray-white. Once I let Keira in on what she had been sleeping through she let out burst of hysterical laughter, which sent me into a fit of laughter and awoke everyone else on the bus. When the others realized the source of our laughter, they too joined in the amazement. Sitting inside that bus, it felt as if our excitement would burst the doors wide open. Every time we rounded a new bend, tiny arms of cloud would creep onto the road as if they were clinging to the mountain for dear life. Occasionally we would turn a corner and the edge of the road would become sharply defined by a completely vertical drop down to a valley which must have been a thousand metres below. It became difficult to decide which was more exciting: the consuming cover of the clouds or the dazzlingly dangerous drop down from the road. More than once I pictured how our bus must have looked from the outside and the only image that came to mind was that of an animation cell in which a bus was drawn, but the background remained blank so that it could be placed on whatever frame was called for in a particular scene. We could feel the bus’s wheels spinning, but our belief that we were moving was based strictly on inductive reasoning. How our driver could see the road, I am still unsure, but the bus barreled blindly through the thick clouds towards Mongar.
We stopped just once after our hasty picnic lunch, and that was at the highest pass between Thimphu and Trashigang Dzongkhag. The pass was a whopping 12 400 feet, which was by far the highest altitude I have ever experienced. The air was cold and wet up there. Sadly, we really couldn’t see very much, again because of the heavy cloud coverage, but the sensation of being so high up in the world was definitely an exhilarating one.
When we finally got to Mongar it was dark and we were all exhausted. Most of us, including myself, slept for the last hour of our bus ride. We were put up in a very nice looking hotel in the middle of the city. I say nice looking because the hotel was really ridden with problems, but aesthetically speaking it was lovely. The hot water didn’t work, room heaters were broken, and various other little surprises emerged during our stay there, but other than that it was actually quite comfortable.
We had our usual dinner and drinks, and then pretty much hit the hay. The next day we were supposed to say goodbye to both Ann and Keira. Ann was going to be living in proper Mongar, and Keira was living in a Dzongkhag two hours north of Mongar called Lheuntse. I was not really thrilled about this situation in all honesty, and I voiced my displeasure at dinner that night.
First of all, I felt as if we had taken our time in certain places that we really needn’t have taken our time, and I was feeling fortunate enough to be in the position to see everyone else’s locations, and didn’t want for Keira’s town to be the one place we – I – didn’t get to see. I made the point that because it is so out of the way, the likelihood of us ever seeing it in the future was quite slim, so why not take this opportunity to see it.
Secondly, Keira and I had become very close and I didn’t love the idea of saying goodbye to her all of a sudden in the middle of Mongar, leaving her to travel for two hours with no one else from the group, only to arrive in a strange and foreign place which she would call home for the next two years. More than anything, I thought that her departure would feel somewhat abrupt and that it would be much easier to say goodbye to her in the driveway of her school. Nancy basically responded by saying that we would talk about it at breakfast the following morning, but that there was probably some flexibility in the schedule, and that we might be able to make it work.
I talked with Keira about it after dinner and she told me that she would be fine if she had to go alone, but she agreed that it would be much nicer if we all got to come to Lheuntse to send her off. It would have been nice to know whether or not I was going to have to say goodbye to Keira immediately after breakfast the following morning or whether we were all going to travel to Lheuntse to say goodbye, but as I have been reminded of several times and subsequently learned, plans and arrangements often come together in the very last minutes in Bhutan.
At breakfast the following morning Nancy informed us that Ann would be staying in Mongar for the day, arranging her new house and seeing her school, while the rest of us would be traveling to Lheuntse to see Keria’s school and apartment, and to say goodbye. I think everyone was happy with the decision, so we scarfed down our breakfast and hit the road to Lheuntse.