It was the beginning of madness. The overpowering urge to venture out into the wild, into the wilderness of one’s discovery; of the existence or inexistence of the soul, of the mad mind, the mad body that is under control of the mad mind, only madness could understand what drove it to that point of insanity where to be alone was the quest, the spur of the moment the answer. So I stayed up the whole night so as to not miss the bus to Gelephug in the morning, the tickets for which I did not have, just hope in my heart, buzzing sleepless dreams in my eyes, madness in my head, the discovery of what- I did not know? The release from society and familiar faces, similar problems, similar species, the drama of the self that drives you away from others but plunges you deep into your- self. A mad discovery awaited in the wildlife kingdom of Manas, where nature ruled and humans submitted to nature, just the way it has always been. The puzzle- I did not know where Manas was, in fact even Google did not have much to tell except that it was next to Manas Chhu. All I knew was that it belonged to this Kingdom of heaven and that there had to be a way to get there!
Trust facebook to be so handy at such times. A wildlife researcher added me as a friend early morning and to my luck, he was from Panbang, the closest settlement to Royal Manas range, 14 kilometers away from the national park under Zhemgang Dzongkhag. So at 5.30 AM, quietly sneaking as a cat with some quick details in hand, I got out of the house with a huge orange backpack, my modern notebook- the laptop, no camera this time, a journey to be savoured strictly by my eyes and senses. The air was chilly, the last star of yesterday smiled to the pale blue sky of today as I walked down Changidaphu down memorial chorten and seeing me weighed like a donkey- luggage and baggage a bit too many, a kind Tibetan looking lady chanting her mantras offered to carry my laptop. When she approached me, I got startled since I still felt like I was sleep walking, half awake half buzzed and half puzzled as to if my journey without tickets at this eleventh hour would really happen. Strangers are often the kindest people you meet.
I got to the bus stand, the person behind the counter half mumbling, half grumbling with half open mouth foretold my destiny. “There are no tickets for today.” I tried pleading a driver then, in the most charming way I could muster. He told me to wait. I squatted around the bus like signaling in every possible way that I really had to go. I guess he read my mind and referred me to another bus where I was promised a little folding chair but later the reality was fare for a full bus ticket in return for a quarter of a seat. Anyway, point was to just enjoy the journey to Gelephug.
When I travel in Bhutan, I love the shades of green during summer. Especially when you descend down south and plants become lighter in colour, the lesser need for chlorophyll shows in the shades. How many shades of green are there? Too many, I think. Oh, and the blues, the blue skies, the gray clouds, shining clouds in the rain, the smell of summer and rain, the scent of rain and mud sinking through your nostrils, the chirping birds and buzzing bees, the endless mountains stretching over the horizon, the high end passes with surreal views of the greater snow peaked majestic Himalayas shining beneath floating clouds. Everything looks so happy and the moment seems perfect, perfect to be living this waking dream, at one of the highest levels on earth. I then fell asleep caressed lovingly by streams and streaks of sunlight, the music plays in the background. Somewhere in Tsirang the bus stops and it’s lunch time. A nice plate of beef curry rice, a mug of beer to rinse your throat and the second half of the journey unfolds.
After ten hours of physical discomfort and mental pleasures of beauty, I reached Gelephug. The next day, I hitched a ride in an eicher truck to Panbang, which is ‘the bus’ to Panbang. It takes about six hours, mostly travelling through the districts of Assam escorted by the Indian military escorts for safety and in a place called Champaguri there is a Bhutanese bus stop where all travelers pause for lunch. The Assamese waiters there amazed me by asking if I wanted more food in Scharchop. The scenery of the highway; lush green plains following by repeated wetlands and birds that fly and feed on the marshy lands changes dramatically to lush green elephant grass as you enter the Indian Manas National Park which is a UNESCO designated natural world heritage site. This designation not only entitles natural and cultural heritages to be on the UNESCO list for conservation purposes but also has a huge funding endowment of $100 million annually to maintain these systems. We have no UNESCO designated places in Bhutan, both cultural and natural heritage, a designation which begets more thought especially because of our poor documentation of our natural world. Perhaps as part of the funding one horned Rhinoceros have been re-introduced in the Indian Manas from Kaziranga where as they are still extant in Royal Manas National Park. I never knew we do not have one horned rhinos in Bhutan anymore; they have been gone for quite some time I believe- a lonely watering hole is all there is, filled with memories and their lost function of the ecosystem, which I fear is very crucial since Rhinoceros are one of the oldest genes on the planet and with it gone, many functions disappear changing existing systems, of which one could be the non availability of elephant grass for our elephants who need to make daily trips to India to get their fodder. We need to re-introduce rhinos.
As one rides on the bumpy muddy watery track, the elephant grass which are long green streaks of leaves grow taller than the trucks and on both sides of your vision green fields of grass stretches endlessly, exotic birds twitter around and one feels overwhelmed by nature’s bounty of beauty. At Mathanguri the truck bids me bye and Manas Chhu greets me hi. This is Manas range, the park head office is in Gelephug but this is the only national park where there is a Royal guest house. I stretch my neck to see, where are the houses? I see the largest river of Bhutan in front of me, two wooden boats, and a clump of forest that quite looks like a hidden island, two tusker elephants, Brokpa and Dawa Norbu, bathing in the river and trotting away to the land with their chained feet, and even with that the elephants walk so fast. As I get escorted by the boatmen I am told Brokpa’s story. He is the cutest tusker, I believe he gets food from the army and is on Royal kidu. He is the same tusker who killed his mahout, who got trampled in the river but there are super natural explanations to the story too and if not elephants do go musth sometimes. After the murder, his candidacy for the coronation of His Majesty the King to be the grand elephant parading during the historic event got rejected. But when His Majesty and Her Majesty the Queen to be were in Manas this winter for their annual Manas visit, they rode on Brokpa and really he is such a beautiful tusker. If you thought Bangkok goods were only in urban Bhutan, in Manas there is a saddle with a metallic base, which to me seemed painful and they rarely use it but it is made in Thailand. Modern day elephants.
After crossing the river Manas Range opens into a couple of houses, few VIP guest houses and the grand Royal Guest house. There is a little chorten, a basketball court, a football field, a badminton court and psychedelic music of the natural kind, with sounds unimaginable to even musicians. It is not only the most biodiverse place in Bhutan, but a place where life in so many forms overwhelms you; to search for my soul I really was glad to have made the journey. I would sit on the basketball court and act like a Langur, trying to get the Golden Langurs to communicate with me, some prancing away on the branches of lychee trees, others hugging mama Langur, and one good looking Langur did check me out for a while. I guess there are always the curious ones in every species!
You can see all four endangered species of Hornbill flying overhead, an indicator of the health of the forest, numerous kinds of ants another health indicator and sitting on a swing, overlooking Manas Chhu, I would gaze into what is the Amazon of Bhutan. The remains of BBC Lost Land of Tiger is seen through the two motor boats they had left and I was fortunate to make a river trip to Panbang, 20 kms up and down, to buy a bottle of singchang passing by the confluence of Drangme Chhu and Mangde Chhu. In Panbang I met Kota, Kota the Sambar. Kota’s eyes were popping out, it was blinded with a hanging blood shot eye because of some animal attack, but that did not deter him from being the village cabbage eater. Kota was a little Sambar when someone saved him from the clutches of a Wild Dog, ever since Kota is quite like the Sambar dog, absolutely comfortable in the little village. Other animals found in Manas are Black Panther, Leopard Cat, Common Leopard, around ten Tigers a very good number for 1057 sq. km, Purple Heron which could be a new sighting for Bhutan, Crab eating Mongoose, Black Cobra and many others.
Parks are for people, not just for wild animals. The way we experience and interact with nature will in the long run determine the health of our cultural values, the way we value life for ourselves and for all living beings. I would like to thank the people from UWICE and RMNP for their hospitality. Manas ranger was feeling quite lonely, as do other park rangers in other parks since no one visits them. So when you want to vacation, call up the park office, book the guest house which is usually free and take good food along and there you have the most exotic vacation! Why Bangkok when you can travel whole of Bhutan with that money? I pledge, please visit our national parks, they are for the public. They are for you and your children. They are what will make the value system of your children, your grandfathers grew up in jungles, and your children only see cemented bricks. Surely values are bound to change if this continues.
On the way back, I hitched hiked with Sonam, another truck driver and had the most amazing road trip of my life. Listening to hip hop, rock numbers, Sonam who never went to school had a far better taste in music than most people I know, and I have to thank him for the wonderful ride back to Gelephug, through Assam and as we entered the Gelephug gate, we smoked what we called our last freedom smoke, without receipts hah!