Downhill ride

Our time in Bhutan was coming to an end. We checked out of our hotel in Bumthang and spent the day driving to Lobeysa, a long drive. We passed again through the mixed forest on the way down, catching glimpses of the wonderfully greenish-blue Verditer Flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus), black drongos with their forked tails (Dicurcus macrocercus) and the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets (Pericrocotus speciosus),

Unidentified ground orchid, Bhutan

On our way up, we’d seen that there was no food on the road, so this time we packed lunch. When we stopped to eat we saw this interesting orchid poking out of the ground next to the road. I have no identification. Can anyone help?

A strange caterpillar, Bhutan

At another stop we saw what looked like a piece of fungus growing on a stone (highlighted in the photo above). Then suddenly it began to move like a caterpillar, its body hunching in the little waves that propel a caterpillar forward. Before I could change the setting on my camera to take a video, the animal had disappeared into a crack in the stone. What a marvellous piece of camouflage. I wish I knew which moth this would develop into.

Dendrobium fimbriatum orchid, Bhutan

Then as we came lower we entered a zone of the forest full of Dendrobium fimbriatum orchids growing on trees. We probably caught them at the end of their flowering season, but they were spectacularly in bloom along kilometres of the road. We wondered how we’d missed seeing them on the way up. They are fairly common and can be found in many parts of India, the Himalayas, and south-east Asia. Still, it takes unspoiled forests of the kind that exist in Bhutan for it to bloom so spectacularly. Bhutan is estimated to have around 500 species of orchids, so we scarcely observed the surface of this immense diversity.

Many years later I came across the wonderful travel book called The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges by Frank Kingdom Ward which describes the flora of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. As I begin to end the description of our trip through Bhutan nine years ago, the wonderful first line of the book comes to mind: "I have often observed that no matter how much I read about a foreign land before visiting it, I find by experience that it differs widely from what I expected."

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The story of Dinesh

Coincidentally, today is the 9th anniversary of the day we started our trip through Bhutan. So it is also nine years since the six of us met up with Dinesh, the man who would drive the car for us. He met us at the airport in Paro with a Toyota Innova which he’d driven up from Hashimara,Russet sparrow, Passer rutilans, Paro airport, Bhutan the Indian railhead for road trips to Bhutan.

Dinesh was quiet and reserved when we met. The youngest in our party was The Joy, a bubbly birder, stopping at every sparrow (Passer rutilans). We halted thrice before we left the airport, and The Parent of Joy wondered how Dinesh would cope with this.

I sat in the seat next to the driver’s and tried to chat with him. He was from Bihar, and had left home to look for work immediately after he passed school. He learnt to drive, although he left the details vague, and soon found employment with a travel agent, driving in Bihar and Bengal. A few jobs later he was in Hashimara working for the travel agent I’d dealt with.

He opened up when I told him that I’d grown up in Bihar. It turned out that his parents were in their village, and his wife and children lived with him in Hashimara. "And school?" The Family asked. He would usually direct the answers to me, even when questions came from others. His older child, a girl, was going to school in Hashimara. "So she knows Bengali", I guessed. He said that he did too.

A decade ago few people would have thought of Dinesh as a migrant. After all, The Parent of Joy was a Tamil speaker who grew up in Kolkata and now worked in Mumbai. The Sullen Celt had family in Goa and grew up in Mumbai. Over the last decade, a new political story has grown to separate the seven of us who drove through Bhutan then. The six urban middle class professionals are seen as pan-Indian by some political parties, and are therefore invisible to their bigotry. Dinesh, unfortunately, is seen as an immigrant by the same parties, and reviled for taking away jobs from locals.

As we travelled through Bhutan, Dinesh began to take an interest in birds, and started spotting them very efficiently. The featured photo was taken soon after he spotted his first scarlet minivet (Pericrocotus speciosus) on the road from Mebar Tsho to Ura.Scrlet minivet, Pericrocotus speciosus, Bhutan I remember The Family trying to get him to smile as I took this photo.

The six of us were on a holiday, enjoying the ten days-long break, but Dinesh was at work. He had not elected to stay away from his family. Sometimes, when we met in the mornings, he would remark on the bad mobile reception. This meant that he had not managed to talk to his wife and children at night. At the end of the trip The Family asked him how long he would stay at home. Dinesh said he would be off on another trip after one night at home.

He was a very good driver, and I could see why his services would be in demand. One afternoon we decided to go off-road for a picnic lunch by a stream. It started raining hard soon after we’d opened up our backpacks. We ran back to the car. It continued to rain hard. Dinesh decided to drive back to the road, before we were stranded. The mud was so slippery that the tyres would not get a good grip. We helped him to ballast the car with rocks, and he drove slowly upwards over the undulating terrain until we got to the road. Later when The Father of Joy and I discussed this, we were both sure that this kind of driving was beyond us. When we got back to the road and congratulated him on his driving, he smiled.

As we left the usual tourist route of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, he began to suggest little detours, interesting things to see on the way, and hotels which we could try out. He had us figured out, because his suggestions always appealed to us. He remained in this relaxed mood when we drove to Phuentsholing, crossed back to India, and he dropped us at the railway station in Hashimara. We shook hands, and never saw him again. Sometimes, The Family and I say to each other, "I hope Dinesh is doing well"

The Road to Ura

Ura was not a long drive, so we decided to start late. We were not in any hurry to reach our destination, since the purpose of the day’s journey was to spot as many birds on the way as possible. My memory of this trip is jogged by the many photos I took on the way. The road rose quickly from Bumthang. In the mellow sunlight of mid-morning, we saw a patchwork of farms behind us. The featured photo shows a little farm surrounded by tilled land. The white flags of mourning signify the death of someone in the family in the recent past. The flag poles are surmounted by a small disk with a pointy thing above it. The disk is a representation of the sacred lotus flower, and the part above it signifies a dagger of wisdom which cuts through ignorance. The prayer flags are never taken down.Scarlet Minivet on the road to Ura, Bhutan The wind eventually erodes it to nothing. This signifies the impermanence of everything, even memory. That’s a lot of meaning to pack into a little cultural artifact.

We passed by, and soon reached higher ground with lots of conifers lining the road. Dinesh, who was driving, had initially been very sceptical about bird watching, but now he began to point out birds. My camera had a 10X optical zoom, which today sounds like a toy, but was a wonder then. A farmer's hut in Ura, Bhutan In the photo above you see a Scarlet Minivet, which, along with Verditer Flycatchers, were The Family’s favourite birds at that time.

I have a distinct memory of the farmer’s hut in the photo here, and of being able to spot and identify a Grey-backed Shrike for the first time. Memory being terribly fallible,View of a pine forest near Ura, Bhutan it reassures me that I have a photo of the bird with a time stamp seconds after the photo of the hut.

I remember this morning’s drive as a calm and unhurried time. We stopped once when Dinesh spotted a bird which turned out to be the bright yellow female of the Scarlet Minivet. The sun was warm and the air was cool. We seemed to be the only travellers on this route at around noon. The mixed pine forest around us was full of birds.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

Soon after this the view opened up to a lovely sun-dappled valley. We had arrived within sight of Ura. This was to be furthest east we travelled in Bhutan.