From the time I could remember, my love for the hills was unbound.
I first encountered them when I was a two-year-old, woolen socks on my feet and a monkey cap on my head, during a trip to Darjeeling. The February winds made sure I rarely poked my head out from my mother’s arms. My adventures outside her shawl were limited to excursions for food, and then some more food.
There it was, shining with a deep hue of orange from the morning sun. The Himalayan peaks were strangers I soon learned to welcome into my life over the next 14 years, developing an unsaid bond of friendship that I still crave with real people.
As we sat at the Royal Thimphu College cafeteria, I thought about all my spring mornings in Kurseong when I laid a casual glance at the snow-clad peaks. I thought about all the times I simply ran past our school’s balconies, unaware of those sights. Now, I had a phone and camera full of pictures of a snow-clad mountain once again. I wasn’t taking any chances. I wanted to relive that moment long after our trip was over.
After a brief breakfast of suja (a Bhutanese butter-tea) and aalu parathas, Medon – our host for the next two days – arrived at the campus to pick us up in her car. We drove downhill towards her house, speeding past thick forests of coniferous trees.
Like many others in the capital, Medon stayed in a government-allocated apartment uptown. She had been in Thimphu all her life, save for brief spells in India to complete her studies and in Australia, where she worked for a few years. She was a homemaker now, taking care of her husband and two kids. Her family home on the outskirts of town in Simtokha lay unoccupied for a couple of years before she decided to rent it to travelers and students from the college.
As the red Maruti Swift softly climbed the curves, a rather large presence of the Simtokha Dzong came into view. The fortress monastery, which we later learned was the oldest in the region, was a stone’s throw away from Medon’s home.
After leaving our bags at her place and cuddling her two dogs, we were on our way to one of Thimphu’s most popular spots – The Buddha Dordenma. The giant golden statue sat imposingly atop a mountain slope overlooking the city valley, almost as a guide for weary wanderers.
The Bhutanese are primarily Buddhists and it showed from their way of life and culture to their government buildings and all the buildings everywhere. Each shop, outlet, apartment or business center had to adhere to strict building guidelines, such that all of the rooftops resembled Dzongs – a policy introduced by the Fourth King. Thimphu resembled a beautiful Lego set someone had painstakingly tried to preserve in its original configuration. It gave its constricted lanes a look and feel, unlike any Himalayan town I had visited. A peaceful, soothing corner trimmed out from the chaos of South-East Asia.
As we walked the streets aimlessly, stopping at the random park to click pictures or a cafe to grab a bite, we grew more appreciative of everything in front of us. The cars did not honk, they respected pedestrians, everyone carried a smile, walked on the right side of the road, restaurants dished out excellent foods. We were caught unaware by our own wonderment.
We sat at the Clock Tower for over an hour, observing the tourists and locals. The setting sun glimmered from behind the grey rain clouds, making it darker than the time actually showed. Medon called to check if we wanted a ride back to her place. She was going to feed her dogs.
On the way, we grabbed some snacks and two bottles of locally fermented wine. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the brightly lit Simtokha Dzong, thousands of miles away from our troubles, we questioned our realities. We were in a foreign country, sitting on a terrace overlooking a structure four hundred years old and enjoying delicious sips, just the soft rustle of leaves and our own voices for company.
I would go back there in a jiffy if I could.