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From a stranger’s generosity to a lunch with the Prime Minister: unexpected encounters in Bhutan

In the enchanting land of Bhutan, the cycling adventure of Santos Rider Guido and his bike Ziggy take an unexpected turn. In this third story they venture into uncharted territory. After a challenging night by the riverbank, they find themselves unprepared for a formal meeting with the Prime Minister. But as fate would have it, a chance encounter with a caring local named Gangjung changes everything.

 Ziggy & Guido
Bicycle Santos Travelmaster 2+

Although we saw some breathtaking nature on our first two days of cycling through Bhutan, the riverbank close to Thimphu we had picked for staying the night turned out to be similar to the riverbanks in India and Nepal: covered with litter, mainly broken beer bottles. Furthermore, locals warned us: this is a place where people come to meet each other deep into the night. A local guy came to the rescue: he offered us a place on a construction site of what seemed to be a huge mansion. We built our small bivouac half under the bamboo layering - half under the open sky, which resulted in a lot of stuff getting wet when the night brought heavy showers. Even worse, when the sun cautiously showed itself behind a thick blanket of clouds the following morning, more inconveniences presented themselves.

“Ziggy, only a few hours of sleep, damp and smelly clothes, five percent battery on the phone, an appearance like Tom Hanks in Castaway… And today, only goodness knows when or where, they expect us to meet the PM. Blimey. Look at us, we look horrible! This is going to be fun!”

Speak for yourself. But yes, we were anything but well-prepared for a formal appointment. Therefore, our first goal that morning was to find a nice yet not too expensive hotel and make ourselves as presentable as possible.

"A local hero emerges and offers much-needed assistance

Upon reaching Thimphu and with the phone's battery on the verge of dying, we anxiously looked for a hotel when someone behind us asked, “Hi! What are you doing?” A bold, middle-aged guy in a semi-electrical vehicle with his window down - one hand casually hanging out - passed us by. We halted. “We are looking for a hotel,” Guido answered. He gave us a puzzled look. “No, man, what are you doing with your bicycle here in Thimphu?” In short, we explained our story. “I have a bicycle shop, that’s why I asked. Follow me, have tea and breakfast at my home.” Guido bent over and whispered, “Ziggy, I suppose this is going to be a dilemma throughout our journey in Bhutan. We have limited time and our jovial approach to stop, take time to talk with people, see how they live, be invited, let encounters like these run their course - it feels like it doesn’t match. What do we do? Kindly thank him and continue our search for a hotel or go with the flow like we have been doing for the last couple of months and just hope everything ends up well?”

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After some deliberation, we chose the latter and followed him. The guy turned out to be Ugyen, a.k.a. Gangjung: caring husband, energetic father of three, bicycle shop owner, big boss at a driving school, a Jack of all trades in every sense of the word, in love with riding his off-road motorcycles into remote places, talking - talking being his second nature, and on familiar terms with what seemed to be the whole upper class of Thimphu, including the royal family. At his home, Guido got salty Bhutanese tea (a significant difference from the sweet tea of India and Nepal), a hearty breakfast, a chance to dry a few pieces of clothing, charge his phone, an address of a nice hotel owned by a good friend, and the opportunity to book a seat on the bus to east Bhutan because his sister owned a bus company that daily traveled to Bumthang. The only thing Gangjung wanted in return was attention, stories, and an occasional smile.

Once again, trusting in our travel philosophy paid off big time. After exchanging numbers, Gangjung dropped us at the hotel owned by a motorcycle buddy, got us a twenty-five percent discount on the room, and left. In less than twenty minutes, Guido came back, more or less shaved and wearing fresh clothes. “I just received a message, Ziggy. Everything seems to work out once more. We have half an hour to get to the PM’s office, and it’s twenty-five minutes of cycling according to the navigation. Heavenly, isn’t it? Oh, and what do you think? This is the best I could do in the given time. Can I meet the PM like this?” He definitely looked and smelled better, yet the holes in his pants... aiaiai! I had my doubts, but I kept them to myself.

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"Right on time for an unforgettable journey through grace and tradition

From the hotel, we raced towards the office. Unfortunately, our navigation sent us on a route straight through the most important dzong of the country. Inevitably, we had to make a detour and finally found our way to the right gate. A friendly guard was expecting us: “Go straight and turn right at the end. Go straight again for about a hundred meters, and then you will see someone.” Indeed, Lotey Tenzin, a member of the formidable administrative team of the PM, stood in his gho waving and smiling on the landing of a grand and elegant building with the same exquisite woodwork we told you about earlier.

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“You made it! Very good.” Lotey Tenzin” smile was of rare purity. He and Guido embraced each other after Guido put me on the pavement near a lamppost. ‘With this bicycle, you came all the way from the Netherlands? Incredible. But, please do come. Our Lyonchhen is waiting.” Together they went inside.

What happened indoors, I can’t tell. But Guido obviously can. This is, according to him, what happened.

“So we walked through this building, Ziggy... a long hallway, on the right spacious windows showing an inner court, creaking wooden floors, white plastered walls with wooden panels, heavy-looking beams holding up the ceiling, pictures of the five kings, the current queen… Everything exuded an air of modesty, simplicity, and tradition, and above all, grace. And although I couldn’t see any dust or discern any object that felt out of place, surprisingly it didn’t feel sterile. Maybe formal, yet not unpleasantly cold or clinical.

“I wish I could tell you in more detail about it, but I simply can’t. Not only was I paying attention to what Lotey told me and thinking about how I should greet a PM, which words to use, and whether the holes in my pants were too visible, we also seemed to be in a gentle rush. Quickly, we went up a few flights of stairs, turned right before meeting Kesang Dema, the other formidable half of the PM’s support team. She came out of what seemed like an office. A smile, a bow, kuzu zangpo la, and she took over. I was guided around a corner to the left and saw how the hallway stopped after about ten meters. A small table in the middle, wooden sofas on each side, big windows from which you had an amazing view of the Thimphu valley to the north, that’s all I remember.

"From discomfort to connection as it turns out the Prime Minister is a cycling enthusiast

“In front of those windows - hands behind a back that was facing Kesang, Lotey, and me, probably calmly looking outside - stood the Prime Minister, or Lyonchhen as they call the PM in Bhutan, Lotay Tshering, the man I thought responsible for giving us access to the country he was serving. A brightly colored orange scarf called a kabney - falling from the left shoulder to the right hip, a kind of beige and broken white striped gho with underneath a tegu (a white jacket with long, folded-back cuffs), knee-length black socks, brown shoes.

“Man, we saw a lot of men wearing these beautiful yet what must be difficult-to-get-into ghos… But this, Ziggy, was different. The deep orange kabney, when he was turning around because he must have heard our shuffling feet (we were not talking) - with that light falling through the windows upon it, it seemed to be glowing.

“A serene smile, a bow, a hand gesture… I don’t remember what he said, what I said, or what exactly was going on. What I do remember is that Kesang told us we had only half an hour and that our conversation initially was stiff. I eagerly wanted to give him our presents to show our gratitude, but Lyonchhen Tshering wanted above all to talk. And of course, he was right. There was not much time, and he kindly told me to wait with the presents. He started to explain what had happened with my request regarding cycling through Bhutan on different tourist terms, that it was an unusual request, that a lot of discussions had taken place, that many people eventually were involved in the decision-making, that he hadn’t decided anything by himself, but the final verdict was given by a commission, and that the result - a personal invitation from the PM for an individual cyclist and with it, the waving of every standard term - was ‘the first of its kind’. You can understand, all this made me even more uncomfortable than I already was.

“He then began asking questions. Questions we had answered many times before. This gave me the opportunity to find a rhythm, an easiness, some comfort. I told him about you, Ziggy, about the equipment you and I carry, the way we built our overnight shelter, how we determine our route, what to do with extreme weather, about the people we meet along the open road, the hospitality, the warmth, the biggest challenges we have faced so far…

“Sitting right before me, straight back, fixed gaze, hands folded in his lap, I saw a slow but steady change in what was a stern countenance in the beginning if you ask me. I began to notice a tilted head, furrowed eyebrows, a puzzled look when I, in my enthusiasm, started to talk too fast or too incomprehensibly. He kept on replying to my answers with new questions. He seemed interested in what I told him, and by the way we talked, you could tell he liked cycling himself. Before I knew it, the thirty minutes that were granted had passed. There were maybe three minutes left in which I had a chance to ask him a thing or two about Bhutan and the way they handle things. Shortly after, I gave him the presents: a Noori candle and the disc brake with a personal message upon it - the last one wrapped in a cheap white kabney which was - ‘please forgive me my ignorance,’ I told him - the wrong color. He had not expected my gifts, and especially the disc brake could capture his approval. After taking a photo, I thanked him and Kesang, bowed, gave him a hand (again: excuse me for my ignorance - it’s not that common to shake hands while leaving one another in these parts of the world, it was an unconscious reflex, I suppose), and walked back with Lotey.

"The Prime Minister extends my half hour visit into a memorable lunch

“Still a little flabbergasted about what had happened - I found myself in a whirlpool of thoughts when, just as Lotey and I were about to turn the corner, Kesang came back. ‘Sir, please wait a moment! The PM asked if you would like to accompany him during lunch.’ A strange look on my face, that is what Lotey must have seen. He smiled. I turned to Kesang, trying to hide some of the excitement that instantly boiled up. ‘Another enormous honor. Wow! What a welcome it turns out to be! It goes without saying I would love to join the PM for lunch.’ So I went back, walked into some sort of private kitchen/canteen, and saw the PM, this time without his formal attire but with a hot steaming meal in front of him, staring outside.

“The kitchen/canteen was equipped in a pragmatic and austere way. As I remember correctly, again a lot of wood - again high windows letting in the bleak sunlight of late winter. I sat down, not directly in front of him but opposite - one chair to his left, and thanked him for the opportunity to have lunch together. He smiled, told me I was free to make myself a plate, and came up with a new question about, indeed, food. Within a minute our conversation was back on track: me telling how important food and water are for a cyclist, and, although eating a lot, not gaining any weight, which would indicate that cycling is a healthy medicine for people with obesity/overweight. The last remark was a deliberate one: Lotay being a former doctor, you never know where it leads to.

‘‘This is, for sure, not the quantity of food you eat while cycling, is it?” he asked while looking at my modest meal consisting of vegetable soup, ema datsi, rice, and a few other things I can’t recall. Not knowing how to respond, I told him most of the cycling had been done for today, and my body didn’t need that much more calorie intake. I don’t know why I said that because my stomach was craving heaps of food, and I had the feeling I could eat a horse. I guess I was too shy to eat as I wanted.

“We kept on talking and talking while I made a fool out of myself by eating with only the help of a spoon and occasionally a finger, again too insecure to excuse myself and grab a fork or a knife. It didn’t seem to bother the PM that much. For another twenty minutes, we conversed before we both finished our meals. Then he told me he wanted to see you, Ziggy. The cyclist in him was eager to meet and investigate you. So together we walked through the long hallway back. From that point on, you know what happened. You were a first-hand witness yourself.”

"The interest in Bike technology ignites a genuine connection

Indeed, I was. I saw the two coming down the steps, and I understand what you meant regarding that orange thing he was wearing. Lit, it was pure fire. But what really struck me was with how much caution he approached me. He noticed with a keen eye the belt, the Rohloff hub, the pedals (“I see you don’t have pedals in which you can fasten your shoes. How do you then go up a mountain?”) and probably much more, yet, contrary to so many people, he didn’t touch, merely looked, keeping his hands behind his back. Immediately, I liked him. The explanations given by Guido were okay: I didn’t hear too much exaggeration or boasting. No, just the plain facts and what had happened on our expedition.

By the way, what might be of interest to the company that put me together: the PM was captivated, yes, I can use that word, by the Rohloff hub and the belt transmission. I guess he, and many of his countrymen and women, would love to ride a bike with such a well-engineered hub and belt instead of a chain. Maybe, if you want to do business in Bhutan, there are possibilities. Then again, you should consult your team about that, not me.

Guido prime minister bhutan

While he took the picture with the PM, Guido was asked whether he had already met the king, the one that, since 2008, has a mostly symbolic function, after the country decided to change into a democratic monarchy. The PM, Lyonchhen Tshering, talked openly and freely about this ‘small but necessary adjustment’, as he called it. When I asked Guido what he meant by this remark, he couldn’t really explain it to me, except that the PM saw his king as an ordinary citizen, nothing more and nothing less.

On our way out, I saw a small boy playing around with a toy sword in a small office. ‘That’s my son,’ Kesang whispered to me. “How old is he?” I asked. “Almost four. And no, he doesn’t live in the palace or gets everything he wants. We raise our children like every other parent in Bhutan, with love, care, and respect. We believe in providing them with a good education and teaching them the values that are important to us as a society.”

After exchanging a few more words, we left the building and walked to our bicycles, which were parked next to each other in a small courtyard. The sun had come out, and its rays gently touched the handlebars, the bags, and the saddles. It felt like a reward. We had the feeling we had accomplished something significant. As we looked at each other, we both knew that this day in Thimphu would be one we would never forget.

So, dear friends, this is our story about how we met the PM of Bhutan, Lotay Tshering, and how we spent an hour and a half together. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed experiencing it. We still have some days left in Bhutan, and we will make sure to update you on our further adventures in this remarkable country.

Until next time, take care!

Guido and Ziggy

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