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Bhutan: Close call on a treacherous mountain highway

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Only about 10 per cent of the fewer than 20,000 tourists who visit Bhutan annually make it to the far east of the country. Jill Worrall, on her eighth trip to the Himalayan kingdom, reached the east for the first time recently - it was nearly also her last...

A huge boulder crashes across the mountain road before tumbling to the valley floor beyond. Photo / Brian Walker
A huge boulder crashes across the mountain road before tumbling to the valley floor beyond. Photo / Brian Walker

Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom that lies hidden in the Himalayas sandwiched between India and Tibet, is a place of myth and magic.

This is a land where yetis have their own national park, demonesses lie subdued under gorgeously painted and carved temples and houses are protected with wooden phalluses dangling from the eaves.

It is also agreed amongst most Bhutanese that there are only two significant straight stretches of road in the entire nation - one is the access road to the airport, the other a length of road in central Bumthang where vehicles can sometimes reach heady speeds of 40km an hour, as long as there are no dogs sunbathing on the road.

Elsewhere, travel through Bhutan involves a long and truly winding road through the densely wooded foothills of the Himalayas where the average speed is a gentle 20kph.

Guides often ask visitors how many curves there are in the one main highway that links the capital Thimpu in the west with Phuntsoling, the easternmost main town, 550km away.

Three thousand, hazard some travellers; 50,000 say others, especially those inclined to travel sickness.

"No", say the guides with straight faces, "there are just two - left and right".

That main highway crosses at least four 3000-metre-plus passes, including the highest road pass at 4100 metres - considerably higher than Aoraki-Mt Cook.

Breathtaking sheer drops, boulder-strewn cliff faces and unstable gravel slides make road travel in Bhutan not for the faint-hearted, especially as much of the highway is hair-raisingly just less than wide enough for two vehicles to pass comfortably.

But after 10 years of travelling along this road I'd never encountered more than the odd close shave with a truck or the sight of a few small rocks lying on the road ahead... that is until a few weeks ago.

We were on our way from Trashigang to the far-flung village of Trashi Yangste that lies only a few dozen kilometres from the border with Arunachal Pradesh in India. Cross-border trade is still part of life up here.

As we laboured up the road in our Toyota Coaster bus, Nado our driver had to reduce our speed to a crawl to negotiate a rock-studded section of unsealed road that traversed a gargantuan slip.

The slope above us looked raw and unstable and the roadside was piled up with boulders shifted to one side from earlier falls.

We crossed it with no problems. I'd forgotten all about the slip until we were on the return journey and could see the massive scar on the mountain side. About 20 metres from the slip itself two locals, who'd been carrying huge beehive loads of hay on their backs, were sitting on the roadside gazing up at it.

We passed them, turned a sharp right hand bend and could see ahead that fresh boulders had fallen across the road, blocking our route home. Nado and our guide Sonam got out to see if they could be moved. As they stood surveying the scene, a tiny trickle of sand gently cascaded down the slope above them, then a rattle of small stones. Both men suddenly began to run.

Nado threw open his driver's door and almost before he'd sat down had thrown the bus into reverse. We hurtled back around the bend, perilously close to the edge which elicited a number of startled shrieks from our passengers. But by now the stream of falling stones had turned to a deluge of rocks and dust - even sliding over the edge in the bus seemed preferable to what was happening ahead of us.

The hillside was moving, rattling, crashing, hissing. Then there was a booming from above and a boulder the size of a small car came careering down, it bounced on to the road exactly where our bus had been seconds before, then shot over into the ravine. A second monster followed, coming to rest teetering on the edge.

There was silence on the bus while in front the dust cleared and the cacophony of noise died away. A few small stones, which had missed the final charge, skittered down, the sounds of their passing disproportionately loud.

We got out of the bus. The air seemed to be vibrating, jangling... so were our nerves.

We walked back along the road to get the best perspective of the slip. There was a road sign there: Beware of Shooting Stones.

"If they were shooting stones, I'd like to see what the Bhutanese call a rock bigger than my garden shed" someone commented.

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