It is five in the morning and dawn is breaking in the eastern horizon. Trashigang town, the largest urban centre in eastern Bhutan, is quiet and still as the craggy hillsides that tower above it.
A few minutes later, he emerges with disheveled hair, a toothbrush in one hand. The bus door is opened and people get in. Conductor Lepo grudgingly helps Angay Dema find her seat; she cannot read.
Lepo fastens the luggage on the bus with some strenuous pulling and knotting, as driver Goembo climbs in. He lights a few incense sticks, pins them in a hole in the dashboard and prays. The engine is started and it whirs for a while. At exactly six am the 23 seater bus, Goembo Travels moves out of Trashigang town, and makes the descend down to Chazam. The longest road journey in Bhutan has begun.
Over the next two days, the journey will cover 546 kilometres, through sweltering hot mixed vegetation to the coldest alpine forests crossing about five mountain passes or Laas in five dzongkhags before it reaches Thimphu.
"Everyone in," the conducter shouts and the journey resumes with the mood a little more livelier as the driver plays the latest Rigsar Bhutanese songs on his old worn out music system.
The passengers are mostly elderly people going to Thimphu for treatment or to meet relatives. Some are civil servants on the way to attend workshops, some are returning to Thimphu after a brief visit home.
The landslide hit stretches of the road still look risky with overhanging boulders on the verge of sliding down. "On few occasions buses have been hit with boulders and stranded for days at critical places like this," says Pema in his late 50s, who claims to be a regular traveller to Thimphu. "I was once stranded with no place to spend the night or eat."
At around 11:00 am the bus reaches Mongar (Zhongar dzong), 90 kilometres from Trashigang. Lepo hurriedly wraps a half-gho and runs off to register with the traffic police. "Take these two people till Bumthang," it is a traffic police officer at the window of the bus driver. "I cannot, I am full," the driver says pointing at the occupied seats. The Road Safety inspector will be waiting on the highway," he adds and moves off leaving behind the traffic police officer, his relatives and the others waiting for a lift.
It gets warmer, almost hot, as the bus descends to Lingmithang. A faint fragrance of the lemon grass wafts through the bus. Women are harvesting lemon grass that grows wild on the hillsides. The lunch stop at Lingmithang is a welcome break. Passengers head for the bushes to relieve themselves.
Once again the driver and conducter go into another room for a free lunch, as the passengers queue up for white rice, pork, beef, and emadatsi that cost from Nu.40 to Nu. 70 a meal. At the door is the owner, waiting to collect the cost of meal. "Lopon you had pork ? It's Nu 70."
According to the driver they always get free meals for bringing customers. "The owners treat us with respect and it is a perk we drivers get," says Goembo. The drivers also help to bring other necessities the eatery needs.
The 70-kilometre uphill climb from Lingmithang to Sengor is a weary stretch. In the sweltering heat , the bus manages a speed of 10 kilometres an hour. A signboard cautions 'drive slow accident prone area'. "These buses are too old, and can break down anytime," says Tashi a civil servant. "It's frustrating because you can't make it on time to attend meetings," he adds.
After two hours of climbing, the bus reaches a foggy stretch known as Namling brak (cliff). On this stretch, the road cuts through a rock face on one side and a never ending perpendicular drop on the other side.
Namling Brak is known as an accident prone site and a silence overtakes the passengers as it crosses the grey narrow stretch. The last major accident in June 1998 claimed 58 lives. During the construction of the east west highway Namling was the most difficult area. Old timers say that at one time 240 workers were buried alive in a mud slide during construction. The lateral route finally opened in early 80s, 20 years after its construction started. "In 1985 when I first ventured to Trashigang, passengers would all get out of the bus and walk across the Namling stretch," said driver Goembo.
At around 1:30 pm the bus stops at Sengor (Sangor). The almost plain valley with few scattered houses looks barren except for potato and radish cultivation.
At the highest point, except for prayer flags and a coffee house that is always closed, there is no other sign of human activity. As the bus goes over the pass the passengers shout in unison "lha gyelo"
By about 5 pm, the snaking descent from Gayzamchu gives way to the gentle slopes of Ura. On the left of the highway are groups of clustered traditional houses demarcated by stone walls at the foot of the valley. People are still working on the wheat and potato fields