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On the road in the cold

COVER STORY  It’s 6am.  Thimphu lies shrouded in a blanket of mist, most of its residents snug in their beds, or just about rousing.  Gyem Tshering, 39, a public transport driver, is already at the bus terminal, with a rug in his hand, cleaning the bus.

The previous night, Gyem had checked fuel, parts and washed the bus, before leaving for his home in Semtokha.    The journey from Thimphu to Trongsa is long and arduous, and he can’t go without inspecting the details, especially for safety reasons.

At 6:15am, Gyem Tshering finishes cleaning.  He quickly proceeds to light two incense sticks, chants some prayers and mounts the incense on a holder on the dashboard.  Just as quickly, he rushes to the small shops close by, and grabs a cup of steaming thukpa (rice porridge) with other drivers.

By the time passengers begin pouring in at around 6:30am, he has had the bus cleaned, prayers offered and tummy full.   He helps his conductor carry and arrange luggage on the carrier.

After the last passenger is seated, he counts the number of male, female and children, reports it to the traffic in-charge, along with his name, license number and signature.  At seven, the bus leaves the terminal.

Accident prone areas

Thimphu to Dochu La (3140m) – 23km

Chuzom to Haa via Chele La (3810m) – 79km

Thimphu to Wangduephodrang – 70 km

Wangdue to Chendebji via Pele La pass (3430m) – 87 km

Pelela to Nobding (2460m) – 14km

Thimphu to Nobding (before reaching Trongsa) – 111 km

Thimphu to Trongsa – 199 km

Trongsa to Yotong La (3400m) – 29km

Thimphu to Bumthang (2700m) – 267 km

Bumthang to Thrumshing La (3,780m) to Sengor (3000m) – 104km

Thimphu to Trashigang – 551 km

Trashigang to Khaling – 54km

Khaling to Samdrupjongkhar – 126 km

The windows are shut, to prevent cold draft from entering the bus, and passengers are wrapped in shawls or jackets.  Soft murmurs of prayers fill the bus, some bid goodbye to friends and relatives, while others hold on to edibles on their lap.

Gyem Tshering, who has been driving the bus for the last 12 years, said it takes about eight and a half hours to reach Trongsa. “There are quarry works happening along the highway near Khelekha and Nobding, which blocks the road and creates inconvenience to us,” he said. “We always get delayed by about two hours because of the blocks.”

Blocks not only made travellers impatient, but increased risks of travelling unsafe roads in winter. “When we’re delayed, it becomes colder and the water on roads start freezing,” he said. “Potholes make it worse because they hold water, which turn into ice, and at night it looks like tar.”

Like Gyem, others who drive long distances to Zhemgang, Mongar, or Trashigang, said driving in winter was unsafe because of ice and snow, rather than narrow roads.

“Because of road blocks I reach Zhemgang at midnight,” Jigme, another driver, said. “After dark I have to drive slowly, as the ice isn’t visible at night and the passengers are my responsibility.”

To make use of daylight, sometimes Jigme doesn’t make a lunch stop.

As the roads wind up to higher altitudes and passes, with ice and snow, the task of driving through these areas becomes even more daunting.

A group of Sherubtse College students, returning home for break, found themselves caught in heavy snow between Gayzamchu and Thrumshingla.

The road ahead seemed uncertain and risky.  The driver, who had never driven the road before, was uncertain too and not so confident, driving over the snow.

The bus conductor, who had faced a similar situation before, volunteered to drive a stretch. “The students, out of fear, walked the stretch,” Samten, a corporate employee, who witnessed the incident, said.

“The bus slowly descended from Thrumshingla on the narrow and coarse icy road and finally reached Gayzamchu, where the students boarded the bus again and continued with their journey.”

In places, where roads are wide, drivers usually take advantage of the breadth and zoom, which Tandin Dorji, 25, feels can be a senseless move.

“I almost collided with another vehicle, near Dochula, which simply honked indignantly at me and drove past,” Tandin Dorji said. “The road was icy and my brake wasn’t working. My car stopped few metres away from the edge of the road.”

“We need to drive slow in icy areas,” Tandin Dorji added.

Despite the risks involved, travelling is unavoidable in winters.  Ugyen Dorji, 28, is on an official tour to Trashigang for 21 days.  Since it’s a good number of days, Ugyen is planning to take his daughter and wife, who is from Trashigang, to visit her village.

“I’m worried about the road conditions, but there’s no choice,” he said.

Maintenance works carried out by road safety and transport authority (RSTA) and DANTAK workers, like salt application to clear ice, is what makes drivers more confident during winters.

But RSTA officials said driving along the highways in winter was no different from any other season, because driving slowly is the only way to avoid mishaps.  Officials said the highways are wider than before, but the snow, ice and fog make it risky.

“It’s always better to check the road condition with the nearest RSTA office before starting a journey,” an official said.

The highways are not the only risky areas, even within town, stagnant water or overflowing septic tanks and broken pipes cause ice to form, especially in the wee hours and at night.

While winters bring icy roads in mind, it isn’t just ice that makes driving in winters challenging.  By 5pm it’s dark now and Sarpang police restrict vehicles from plying Sarpang-Gelephu roads after 5:30pm.

Thimphu to Gelephu driver, Chador, said, while that’s the case, and especially with security problems in the border areas, they wanted to reach their destination early. “But road widening works leave us stranded for hours and delay us,” Chador said.

A passenger in the bus added it was unsettling, and everyone wished to reach their destination safe and sound.

Back at the bus terminal, it’s 3:45pm and Gyem Tshering, who had left for Trongsa, has driven back with another set of passengers to Thimphu.

After he parks the bus, a middle-aged man approaches him, asking for a parcel.  He delivers the parcel and receives Nu 50 as fee.

The passengers start pouring out, faces lit up with smiles, as they see their relatives waiting outside.  There were no roadblocks and the bus reached earlier than usual.  Gyem Tshering heaves a sigh of relief, swings the door open and climbs the bus to unload the luggage.

“The night before a journey is never peaceful, for there’s always this issue of safety nagging persistently,” he said. “For now, it’s time to relax.”

At 4:30pm, after all passengers have left, Gyem Tshering heads home to Semtokha, where his family awaits.

By Sonam Choden

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