Up the Chelele pass road

I had a quest in mind for my last day in Bhutan. I wanted to go back to the nunnery I visited with Chador a week ago, the place I found the most intense calm in a trip full of calm.

I’ve been inside at least a dozen temples, and most of the others were more elaborate or ornate. I was very moved by stumbling across a group of monks in Haa performing different rituals, with trumpets and tonal prayers, the youngest boys alternately bored and fervent.

But this place — the oldest nunnery in Bhutan, home to 50 or so women who study together — this was the place that made me actually sink to the ground and find my own breath in a way no other place ever has. The temple was tiny but the energy was profound.

I sat for an hour the other day, part of the time meditating and part of the time simply watching the spinning of a paper prayer wheel moved by the heat of the butter lamp below it. Complete peace.

So I wanted to go back, but it is most of the way up a mountain, and I didn’t want to drive. I wanted to ride. Chador very kindly agreed to let me keep my bike an extra day, even though it meant he would have to ride it the 60 km back to Thimphu.

No one could agree how far it was — the pass is 36 km from the junction, and I thought it was about 2/3 of the way up. Chador agreed. 24 or 25 km, he said. We rode 18 km up a pass the other day, and I thought I could do another 7 or 8 km. Just.

I woke up feeling a bit ill, after feeling quite nasty while hiking to the tigers nest the day before. So I spent the morning strolling around Paro buying souvenirs, trying to catch enough wifi to post a couple of blogs, and trying to get my bank card to work. Then suddenly I felt restored, ate a quick lunch of vegetable thukpa (Bhutan’s answer to pho) and set off.

It was late in the day to embark on this kind of ride, but I thought I would just see how it unfolded.

The road was unrelentingly up, and so many curves. For the first 10 km, I was jumpy on every curve, a bit quivery at the narrowness of the roads, the sheer unprotected drops. At first I would stop when I heard a car or bus approach, and then I found a flow. It was hot, and there was just me and the bike and the road and the valley further and further below me.

My only companions on the road were a group of a dozen or so Indian men on motorbikes. At about the 10km point I had to slow down because two of them were taking photos of each other in the road. I stopped and one asked for a photo. I thought he wanted me to take a pic of the two of them, or of me on my bike. But no — he wanted me to get off my bike so he could sit on it for a photo. Then his friend did it. So I am in the photos of two random Indian men who commandeered my bike. (This is, weirdly, the third time this has happened this trip — only one time an old Indian man rode my bike around the parking lot at the phallus temple while I removed my long pants that I had to put on to go inside).

I rode up and up, steady in a middle gear, the road a little steeper as I got higher. Two shantytown camps of the Indian road workers and their families, washing their clothing and blankets in the spring. Sunday, so no school or work. Hopeful little plants on the tin roofs.

More potholes and almost no stretches of flat. Trees on both sides, messages of wisdom from the road building project, the one whose motto is “we cut mountains and connect hearts.” (Not the worst mission statement I’ve ever heard),

After what felt like forever — about two and a half hours — I started to expect to see the nunnery. I remembered seeing it high above the road long before we made the turnoff to drive up to it. I began to make gentle plans through my flow up and up and up, around the potholes. If I couldn’t see it by 22 km of climbing, I would rethink it.

At 26 km of up, I was feeling like I was close to done with the up, and beginning to remember that it’s on the way down mountains that things go awry. I knew I wouldn’t have time to climb up and spend any time in the temple — I had started too late in the day — but I was trying to at least see it from the road.

I haven’t been using any distance trackers this whole trip, but I was using the GPS on my running watch to gauge how far I’d gone, remembering that i still had to go down. At the 31 km mark from the hotel, I realized I was at my limit, and I stopped. Three hours.

I stopped and looked. The valley was far gone below me. I’d ascended at least 2300 metres. Absolute peace. Layers of mountains you can’t see in a photo, the furthest ones snow capped in the fog. Silence except for this sound that could be chanting, could be wind, could be wheels, could be ghosts — it most likely was. The most likely was chanting, probably from the nunnery — but the voices seemed deeper than women, so maybe a hidden monastery, maybe just the echoes of centuries of prayers living in the mountains.

I tried to take a selfie where I stopped, ate something, shrugged on my jacket — but it was into the sun and my arms seemed to have gotten shorter.

I was completely happy. My gloves were filthy and I was cold and light headed, 11 km from the highest road point in Bhutan, 3810 m.

I rode down, braking almost the entire way, thumbs ups thrown at me from my Indian motorbiker friends on their way down. My hands tingled and my right foot hurt because I took it out of the clips in case I needed to stop abruptly.

At 4 km above the junction, I stopped and savoured the valley. Rice fields and pure Bhutan.

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