It’s not every day you get to meet a real Princess and then go riding motorcycles with her husband, but then the Kingdom of Bhutan is not your ‘every day’ kind of place. The land of the Thunder Dragon is magical, mystical and awe-inspiring in equal measures, and so are the people in it.
I still can’t believe that I’ve just spent a few memorable days in this tiny, remote Kingdom nestling in the Himalayas between China and India. No one I know has ever been there and I never thought they’d grant me a visa, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of Dasho Sangay Wangchuk — a fellow BMW rider and brother-in-law to the King— strings were pulled in the right places and I found myself whisked through the Indian border at lightning speed and crossing into another world that I will never forget.
It’s hard to imagine that a place like this exists, but try to picture towering peaks, thick forests and twisty, smooth roads that make you feel as if you’ve died and gone to motorcycling heaven. Even though it’s landlocked and surrounded by ‘giants’ on all sides, Bhutan has kept its own unique identity as a young democracy. Most of the men wear the national dress, which is a colourful knee-length robe tied at the waist (the women wear an ankle-length dress). Everyone is fiercely protective of nature and the environment (my bike had to have a pollution test before they would let it in!) and it’s the only carbon negative country I’ll probably ever get to see in my lifetime.
How did I get in? Well I heard through a good BMW contact in India that several members of the Bhutanese Royal Family are motorcycle fanatics — and ride the same model bike as me. It was always a long shot but Abhiandan in New Delhi put a request in for me and in time I was connected to Dasho Sangay Wangchuk, who agreed to host me.
In fact, he turned out to be the perfect host and along with his cousin Uben Tobgay, went over and above the call of duty to ensure I had an unforgettable visit that I’ll be talking about for a long time. Both of them are great riders and know how to hustle a bike around the Kingdom; in fact I had to ask them to slow down on more than one occasion because I wanted to ‘drink in’ the spectacular views of the Himalayas and remember those towering crags and deep valleys where one mistake could send your bike (and you) tumbling hundreds of metres off the cliff-edge, never to be seen again.
We spent those days right up in the clouds (usually between 2200-3000 metres altitude) where the temperature was favourable and the air pure, visiting ancient fortresses (Dzongs), monasteries and the sites of several luxury hotel projects Sangay is managing. 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 of and ride around the world, so that’s made me reflect even more on how fortunate I am to be doing The Marathon Ride.
Sadly for me though, I was forced to cut the trip short and leave a day early because of the distance I knew I still had to travel to get to the remote Myanmar border at Moreh, some 1,500 kms distant. But true gent that he is, Sangay continued to look after me from a distance, using his huge network of contacts to ensure my safe passage through the Tribal areas of India. Since leaving Bhutan, I’ve been wined, dined and escorted out of town (100km out of town!) by the team at Brahmaputra Harley-Davidson in Guwahati, and put up in hotels along the route where he knows the owners.
I’ll never forget visiting Bhutan, that’s for sure, but I definitely won’t forget Dasho Sangay Wangchuk either, whose support has helped me keep rolling all the way to within striking distance of Burma/Myanmar, from where I’m writing this post. There’s a lot more to this guy than you’d imagine, so watch this space for a link to a forthcoming profile story I’m writing for BMW Motorrad’s brand channel.
Onwards and eastwards chaps…