Sunday, October 30, 2011

How to Survive Bhutan's Public Transport System

Whenever you move to a new place one of the key things to learn is how to navigate the transportation system. Here in Bhutan, it is a constant adventure, especially because Royal Thimphu College is about 10km away from Thimphu town (takes 15-30 minutes by car). There are four main modes of travel:

The City Bus
Each of us were given bus passes at the beginning of the semester so we don't have to deal with the bus fair which is incredibly nice. However, navigating the schedule is the main challenge here. For example, the buses have holidays whenever school is out, which of course is when we're most likely to want to get into town. Not only that, but as we discovered last week, they also sometimes have holidays for no apparent reason and we have no way of finding out except for the obvious empirical discovery that the bus has not arrived.
Once on the bus you are at the mercy of the driver for two reasons. First of all, he controls the music that is generally played at very high volumes. And the music you hear will never cease to surprise you. I've heard hindi and dzongkha (Bhutan's national language) music, Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas and my personal favorite, a remake of Justin Bieber's “Baby” edited so that he actually sounds like a cross between a baby and a chipmunk!
To understand the second I need to give you a background on the geography of Bhutan. Nothing is straight here, except for cliffs that are straight up. The country is almost entirely mountains and valleys (especially here in Western Bhutan) which means that the national highway and most roads are full of hairpin turns and switchbacks. The bus drivers don't even seem to notice with the speed that they take the turns, always honking just in time to alert the driver coming around a corner to avoid an accident (because the roads are mostly one lane).

The Taxi
I won't linger long on taxis because they are pretty similar to the types of taxis you'll find anywhere else in the world. We tend to take taxis more than expected, mostly to our internships or back to RTC if we stay in town after 5:30pm. The trick with the taxis is know the standard fare for the trip you are taking. Like anywhere with tourists, taxi drivers tend to assume that because I'm white, I'm a rich tourist who has no idea what a taxi ride should actually cost. So, I haggle and sometimes I even have to let a couple taxis go before finding one that will give me the correct price. The whole thing is actually kind of fun if I'm honest.

I was taught, like most children in the United States, to NEVER ever get in a car with a stranger. In Bhutan though, this is a typical mode of travel for both short trips and even long ones across the country. Living at RTC which is at the top of a hill, it is generally pretty easy to hitch a ride to town. And, for all you worried parents out there, we usually know them or they're our friend's parents or boyfriends etc. In a small country like Bhutan, it's not so nerve racking and the people you meet are usually super friendly and want to know how I am liking Bhutan and RTC.
Speaking of friendly people, as you drive they will inevitably ask you “how are you liking Bhutan?” To which they always expect you to answer in the positive (which I do!) and then the funny part is when they as you leading questions like how you are handling the spicy food etc and still expect that you have totally gotten used to it! (which I haven't)

Yup, when all else fails we have learned the value of a good walk. The Bhutanese often walk huge distances to reach their villages outside of Thimphu and after going to several treks it is just not that big of a deal. The favorite (and by favorite I mean most common but certainly not fun) walk is the hill of RTC's campus. It is insanely steep at the top and toward the bottom is just switchbacks, oh and its 3km if you can't find a ride somewhere along the way. But, without walking you don't experience the place in the same way, or stop to smell the roses (by that I mean gaze at the epic snow-capped mountains surrounding Thimphu).

--- Heather Wilson ---

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