By Manogya Loiwal @manogyaloiwal
Yes, I did it.
Every person has a dream and I am no different.
To do what no one has done yet is every journalist’s dream. Again, I am no different.
TV journalists normally travel with a camera crew and this is where I am different from the rest.
In my 15-year career, this was perhaps the biggest risk I was taking by travelling alone to a location where the entry of journalists is strictly prohibited. The country was Bhutan and the target to be achieved was [to reach] Doklam.
Indians have been hearing about Doklam so much of late but only those deployed along the borders had seen it. So, how does the terrain look like or how arduous is the travel for both civilians and the Army?
For an Army personnel deployed there, it is his duty but access is now being given to civilians as well.
The last stretch you can reach out to is Haa district – the last on the border of Bhutan that shares the boundary with Tibet.
It is impossible for foreign nationals to reach even up to Haa Valley because movement beyond Thimphu or Paro is not permitted.
And that’s where the challenge lied. Travelling in an unknown area, taking such risks to reach out to places that have not been visited by any other Indian journalist.
We journalists perhaps don’t realise but we often tend to give away our identity with our body language. And that happened with me too.
An immigration officer instantly ruled out that I’m a normal tourist and started interrogating me.
“What are you doing in Bhutan?”
“Does anyone in the country know that you are visiting Bhutan?”
“Do you know anyone in Bhutan?”
He and his colleagues kept questioning me to the extent that he even threatened to send his department officials to check my luggage, and if he could prove that my intentions were different (they were, indeed) he could get me arrested with immediate effect.
“Okay officer, thank you,” I calmly said and gave a humble smile.
To my surprise, the officer screamed at me and asked why I was smiling.
“Do not smile. This is not your country. You are entering a different country now and the law of our land prevails.”
For the first time in many years I realised that even a humble smile with a “thank you” could lead to your arrest.
I finally managed a vehicle (by paying double the normal fare) to take me to Haa. But I was issued a permit only to Paro and Thimpu.
There are two immigration check gates between Phuentsholing and Paro and with every check gate and the barrage of questions by the officials my heart started skipping beats. I was terrified what if they find out my real identity.
As luck would have it, there were sudden speed-check patrolling and random scanning of luggage on the way to Paro.
I finally reached Paro late night and crashed on the hotel bed after the hectic journey. I calmed myself down since a single alarm raised by my driver or the hotel authorities would have landed me in the police custody of the Royal Government of Bhutan.
The next morning at 6am, I was ready to leave for Chelela, the highest motorable road in the region and then from there to Haa.
(It is like travelling from Kolkata to Delhi in Rajdhani Express with ticket only up to Kanpur.)
Here I was travelling from Paro to Haa – a stretch of almost 150 km to and from – without any permit and the authorities conducting checks at regular distances.
It was a bright morning and I could not thank God enough for it was not raining. The usual dense fog too was missing.
The moment I started to record the journey on camera with Paro Airport in the background, my driver freaked out. He wanted to know what exactly I was up to?
I tried my best not to lose my composure.
I had heard stories about single travellers facing harrowing times in Bhutan. More so if it’s a woman. You might have to keep on explaining at each stop not just about your single status but also why did you have to come alone.
Driving through the meandering roads I finally reached Chelela. At an altitude of 3,988 km, it is simply pristine.
Chelala is the last tourist spot but it has been closed since the Doklam standoff began in June this year.
And from Chelela, just a few kilometers away is Haa. But it was almost impossible to enter Haa.
With Army vehicles passing by every five minutes and some even stopping with suspicion, it became an even bigger challenge for me to attempt that.
Haa is the last district and the region around is controlled by the Indian Army along with the Royal Bhutan Army at various places. Haa also has a strategic training centre where Indian Army trains the personnel of Royal Bhutan Army.
Most importantly, Haa is the last point of habitation along the international border.
The smallest district of Bhutan, access to the region is given only to the residents or their relatives with prior permission.
But I did make till there.
Standing in Haa with India on one side and Tibet on the other, and right next to Doklam. The high and lofty mountains gave the region a unique beauty as well as an eerie silence, perhaps an indication that you are being closely watched.
A handful of houses, a few hundred residents, a few thousand armymen, a few lakh people monitoring the condition and crores reading/watching the developments.
So, that was Doklam.
From clicking photos to recording videos, all I had was a few minutes before my driver again started questioning and staring at me.
The risk that I had taken could also have put the chauffeur in trouble. (If caught, he would lose his driving licence for driving into prohibited zones, that too with a foreign national.)
Within minutes I had to move out of the restricted zone and back uphill to Chelela.
At Chelala, it was drizzling.
A vehicle selling food was parked and just as he opened the door, the aroma of freshly steamed momos, ginger tea and Maggi greeted me.
I don’t remember feeling so relieved after having food (I had Maggi) ever in my life.
The hot cup of tea and a bowl of Maggi (bought at 20 times more than the market price) tasted divine.
As I sipped on my tea, I wondered how would it feel to be back home.
The drive downhill felt never-ending. More so because I was scared of being caught with my camera.
Finally, as I entered the Indian territory, I don’t how what came over me. I look up at the starlit sky and screamed: “I did it. Thank You, God.”
Manogya Loiwal is the Deputy Editor of Aaj Tak / India Today Television (TV Today Network). She has extensive experience in reporting from East and Northeast India and has travelled widely throughout the region.
This piece was initially published in DailyO.