By Royal Appointment.
Our intrepid round-the-world rider Andy Dukes has made it all the way from the UK to the Kingdom of Bhutan. And what better person to show him the hidden delights of the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ than Dasho Sangay Wangchuk, a hard-riding BMW GS owner and brother-in-law to His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk.
Nestling in the Himalayas between the huge populations of China and India, Bhutan is a tiny and remote kingdom that offers those who are able to enter, a unique insight into a mystical place that until recently was cut off from most of the world. There were no western visitors allowed until 1974; television didn’t arrive until 1999 and tourism was non-existent.
Only for the privileged few.
Nowadays, a policy of high value, low impact tourism means that a selected number of people are allowed to visit every year, subject to the necessary permits and permissions being granted. Those that do manage to go are rewarded with a glimpse into another world, far removed from the hustle and bustle of its overpopulated neighbours.
When I found out that a member of the Bhutanese Royal Family was a GS owner, I thought it would be amazing to ride my BMW F 800 GS Adventure all the way across Europe and Asia to this remote landlocked nation, meet up with him and possibly even go out riding together.
Requests were sent in the faint hope of a reply and I set off on my journey some 12,000 kilometres away in the UK, always planning on heading east towards Bhutan. If successful I was sure it would be the highlight of my entire trip; if not, I would pass close by to the border on my way towards Myanmar, look up at the majestic Himalayas out of reach in the distance and think about what could have been…
But I was in luck, and by the time I reached New Delhi some five weeks later my request had been accepted and I received a message from Dasho Sangay Wangchuk, saying that he’d be happy to meet me in the Royal Kingdom and, furthermore, would love to show me some of Bhutan’s highlights by motorcycle. This is what I call openness. It is the real spirit of GS.
After riding through the Siliguri Corridor — otherwise known as India’s ‘chicken neck’ (the narrow one-road passage between Nepal and Bangladesh connecting India’s northeastern states to the rest of the country) I reached the border and was met by Karma, a proud, confident and handsome Bhutanese tour guide. He was wearing the ‘Gho’ — the national dress of a knee-length robe tied at the waist — and whisked me through the immigration and customs formalities with the speed and efficiency that comes from being a mixed martial arts fighter. He was not to be messed with and before I knew it, we were on our way to the capital Thimphu.
I was glad to enter by motorcycle, too. Apparently, the descent into Paro (the country’s only airport) is one of the most difficult in the world due to the surrounding high mountains and strong winds, and only a handful of pilots are certified to make the landing.
The contrast to India couldn’t have been greater. Gone was the traffic chaos, the constant noise of horns, the swarms of people, the smoke-belching trucks and the intense heat. Here we were climbing swiftly into the mountains where the air was fresh, the drivers courteous and the views outstanding. Finally the GS and I could breathe again, and it felt great.
Bhutan is possibly the world’s only carbon negative country, meaning that it absorbs more Co2 than it emits. Its constitution states that at least 60 per cent of the nation must remain under forest cover; the reality is nearer 74 per cent, zoned out as national parks, sanctuaries and corridors for wildlife. There are many other policies in this young democracy that make a lot of sense. Plastic bags are banned, as is the sale of tobacco, and the sale and use of pesticides, meaning that Bhutan is wholly organic in its food production. In fact, its largest export is renewable energy, as the plentiful water supply from the mountains means that it can sell hydro-electrical power to India.
Interestingly, the Bhutanese don’t measure success in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) like most of the rest of the world. Instead, they have a policy of Gross National Happiness, which might sound a bit pretentious to some of us, until you see this happiness written all over the faces of the people you encounter in both town and countryside. It’s a balance between the material, the emotional and the spiritual well-being of people and I certainly notice an air of calmness about them, an altruistic, caring trait that encourages you to meet, greet and engage with total strangers with confidence. It’s something I remember from my own childhood that seems to be sadly lacking in our modern, hectic, adult lives.
The road to the capital is a motorcyclists’ paradise, with breathtaking views of the distant peaks, twisty, grippy tarmac to encourage you to hustle your bike through the bends and sheer drop-offs to keep you 100 per cent focussed. Arriving at the capital city of Thimphu, it’s strange to encounter policemen directing traffic the old-fashioned way. The government did try installing traffic lights but there was a public outcry to how ‘impersonal’ these were, so they were swiftly removed in favour of reinstating the human touch. How refreshing is that?
It’s in the capital city that I meet Ugen Tobgay, a cousin of Dasho Sangay Wangchuk, who collects me from my base in Thimphu. We ride out of Thimphu, which sits at an altitude of just over 2,300 metres, but we climb even higher up in the hills into the Royal estate, where Sangay keeps his bikes.
Dasho Sangay Wangchuk
It’s all about the bike — and the community.
I hear him before I see him, warming up his BMW R 1200 GS, which is immaculate, complete with Akrapovic exhaust and Atacama soft luggage system. I feel slightly embarrassed that my bike is wearing a thick coat of 12,000 kilometres of accumulated dust and dirt, but Sangay shows nothing but enthusiasm for the F 800 GS Adventure that has carried me safely all the way from my United Kingdom to the Kingdom of Bhutan. In the distance, a ‘fleet’ of Harleys and a hard enduro bike (this guy’s been trained by none other than superstar Brit extreme rider Paul Bolton) reveal someone who is passionate across all genres of motorcycling. Another GS in the ‘line-up’ belongs to his brother, Kesang Wangchuk.
The next days pass in a haze of hard-riding and sightseeing — and I’m torn between following in Sangay’s tyre marks, and drinking in the majestic and unique views that this Kingdom offers. Sangay is a confident, skilled rider and knows his roads well, so I follow at a safe distance, enjoying the sound of his GS quick-shifting up and down the ‘box, and the intoxicating bark from his exhaust. Behind us, Ugen stays in touch on the ‘Himalaya’ despite having less than 30 horsepower and no ABS brakes to save him. This guy can ride, too.
A peaceful buddhist nation
We visit some of the main attractions in the Thimpu and Punakha areas, including the Taktsang Gompa (Tiger’s Nest monastery) that clings to the cliffs above the Paro Valley, the ornate seat of government known as the Tashichho Dzong, and the giant Buddha Dordenma statue that overlooks the capital from high up in the hills. While only scratching the surface of the amazing sense of history of this peaceful Buddhist nation with its own unique language (Dzongkha) it is the riding that thrills the senses most, because there just isn’t a straight piece of road in the whole Kingdom. The views from all directions are so breathtaking and distracting that you have to have your wits about you when riding — one mistake or lingering glance at the wrong moment and it can be all over. There is construction underway to build a safer, quicker route from the capital to the border town of Phuntsholing (which can currently take up to 5 hours to cover just 160 kilometres) but my only hope is that when the new road opens, they leave the old one in operation just for motorcycles — it’s that good!
Dasho Sangay Wangchuk
Riding with Sangay, you get the feeling that he is happiest when charging about the Land of the Thunder Dragon (so called because of the storms that roll in from the Himalayas) on his BMW GS, anonymous among his people and free to move at the pace he desires, looking for the next challenge.
Dasho Sangay Wangchuk is more than just a rider though; he’s also a generous, well respected host and well known within the motorcycling communities who embodies the spirit of GS. Every November he hosts the BMW GS Bhutan Adventure Rally for GS riders from India and Thailand as well as other friends and overlanders who are ‘just passing through’ like myself. Married to Her Royal Highness Princess Chimi Yangzom Wangchuk, Sangay enjoys an active family life with his two sons and also manages several successful businesses, from banking to the construction of several luxury hotel projects in the Kingdom.
Despite being an extremely busy guy with many business commitments, he was a gracious host who loves to talk about biking almost as much as he loves to get out and ride hard, incognito. Despite all the trappings of his privileged lifestyle, it surprised me to learn that he was envious of my freedom in being able to take off and ride around the world, so that’s made me reflect even more on how fortunate I am to be doing www.themarathonride.com. Myanmar is next. I am really looking forward to meet people there and I am curious to find what the GS community in South-East-Asia is like.