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Old 1st March 2012, 18:07   #1
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Default A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )

They say memories of your first kiss never loses its charm. I guess, there are a few others Ö smoke billowing from a wooden cottage perched atop a hillock, snow capped peaks right outside the window, the euphoric scent of a peeping hot cup of tea, the shrill honk of a solitary engine cutting through dense fog, Momos and Sizzlers!!! Ö or if you are a Bengali hailing from around Kolkata Ö you may replace all that by one word Ö. DARJEELING. No wonder the British chose this place as their summer capital and we as our retreat for the Republic Day weekend, some 65 years after they departed.

Now add to that a bit of Sikkim and some 4 college pals, in their early 30s. Put them in an Esteem VXI and stir well (West Bengalís ďNationalĒ Highways, NH34 in particular, will take care of the stirring bit). What you get is a heady cocktail of fun and fiesta. Care to read further, hereís a statutory warning for all vegetarians, we are serious meat eaters with pork featuring right up there on the menu Ö..

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-sign-four.jpg
The Sign of Four

Preparations started early, in fact sometime in the month of October as news trickled in that Sumitro (Team BHP Name: Blackpearl or BP) and his wife were not getting their US visas renewed the umpteenth time. Back home after 3 long years, a trip was always on the cards. To clear the air of suspicion that BP may well have forgotten all about Indian roads, and the fact that we keep to the left, he took a ďquickĒ drive from Kolkata to Agra to Nainital to Binsar and back in a 2nd hand esteem VXI that he had got hold of barely 4 days prior to the trip.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-sumitro-rajsri.jpg
The Couple

After fancy destinations like Bhutan, Kanha in MP were categorically analyzed and dismissed primarily due to my enthusiasm, Sikkim and Darjeeling seemed to be the only viable alternative. We chose Silver Blaze as our mode of transport. At over 80,000 km, Silver Blaze has seen it all - the treacherous Himalayan terrains, the appalling roads of Jharkhand, West Bengalís every nook and cranny, Orissaís forgotten outback. Now for the man in charge of Silver Blaze in all her expedition, a thin and unassuming gentleman in his early 30s who refuses to admit that he even has a driverís license (Team Bhp Name: Rajarshi)

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-silver-blaze.jpg
The Silver Blaze

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-rajarshi.jpg
Rajarshi


24th Jan was a busy day at office. Lotís needed to be done before a burst of sudden cough coupled with a soaring fever was to leave me bedridden, at least thatís the story I had planned for my boss (Request to moderators, please donít let him into this forum, I message you the name separately). If you thought esteem has a small boot space, you will be surprised with the amount it can take in. Thinkpads, Ipods, ipads, electronic gizmos, cameras of every conceivable size, almost pushed my modest belongings out of the car. Finally we tucked in and were on our way. 11:30 pm by my watch

We had decided to take NH34 all the way to Siliguri. It was pretty uneventful till Krishnanagar. Road conditions were deteriorating by the kilometer but pretty drivable. Buses of every shape and size, all claiming themselves to be a Volvo, jostled for space with trucks, Sumos, Rickshaw vans or a solitary villager out on an evening stroll on the highway. The first stop came early, one of the sweet shops by the highway at Krishnanagar. For the ones with a sweet tooth and oblivious of calorie intake, the Rasamalai need not be missed

Back on the highway the fog had started to set in. We turned on the 4 monstrous lights that Rajarshi had so fondly installed. It did well to light up the surroundings, some birds even mistaking it for an early dawn. But the glare did not go down well with the truckers, a few of them pretending not have seen us, taking that extra second longer to give way. That was enough for the 4 hearts to skip a beat each. We chose to switch off the lights and never use them till alignment was set right.

Soon the dense fog started to take a serious toll and the highway, full of potholes and craters, made movement extremely sluggish. A public message, the govt would do well to divert a bit of the fund reserved for turning Kolkata into London for repairing this all important highway that binds the state together. We were soon to find out that the highway had taken itís toll on a big guy as well. With the front wheels at least 4 ft above the ground, it had managed to bring traffic to a complete halt. On closer inspection you find the driver comfortably perched in his cabin, enjoying the birdís eye view of the chaos down below.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-lucky-truckker.jpg
Lucky Trucker

Reached the Farrakka barrage at 3:30 am. Once on the Farakka bridge you are required to turn off the headlight and drive at a modest pace of 30 kmph. There are no overtakings allowed. As you trudge along on this never ending bridge, you canít help but appreciate the might of this project and the influence it has had on the Geo-political stability of this region, touching on an issue as sensitive as the sharing of the Holy gangajal between India and Bangladesh

Malda was the next milestone. We got there at the stroke of dawn, 5:30am by my watch. All these while the roads have been equally bad, and at times you rue not having an SUV, especially when a Land rover glides past you. Malda to Dalkhola took a further 3 hrs. For those planning to make this trip, Dalkhola is notorious for traffic jams at the railway crossing. You would do well to add at least 45 mins to cross the 1 km stretch on either side of the track. It was now time for some morning tea and breakfast.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-tea.jpg
Good Morning

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-sumitro-dalkhola.jpg
@ Dalkhola

Dalkhola to Siliguri the road improves dramatically. For once itís a two lane highway, and runs parallel to railway tracks from Kishangunj station. At 11:30 am the welcome sight of the first tea garden on the outskirts of Siliguri rejuvenated us all. Hills arenít far away.

Driving down the beautiful roads past the Bagdogra airbase (which had a decisive role in the 1971 war, a MIG 21 model, still serves as a testimonial), the slightly dingy Siliguri town and the picturesque Sevok road, we finally reached the base of the hills, with the Coronation bridge on the right and the NH31A ahead of us, the curves that go all the way to Gangtok. As we stopped for a cup of tea and to take in the cool mountain breeze, we were greeted by a friendly face, ushering us in.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-hill-kid.jpg
Welcome

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-base-himalayas.jpg
Teesta

Itís been a couple more hours since we have been climbing up the curves. An occasional Bolero or Scorpio or one of the cars manufactured by Force, coming downhill treated us with respect and courtesy that is so common in this part of the country. The roads have recovered splendidly post the devastating earthquake and the subsequent landslides that rocked Sikkim last year. The beautiful sight of the Teesta and the peaks in the distance egged us on, A few more curves, and some ďone vehicle at a timeĒ bridges later, we had reached Rangpo, the gateway to what was since 1975, the Kingdom of Sikkim. Gangtok was now, just a matter of time

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-bridge.jpg
One-vehicle-at-a-time

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-rangpo.jpg
Gateway to Sikkim

Accommodation at Gangtok was a charm. It works when you have a wooden bungalow at your disposal and a caretaker who makes great tea and some of the best pork curry that you have ever had. It also helps when your companions know the city like the back of their palm, having visited the place half a dozen times. A visit to the mall is an absolute must. For food you must rely on the Taste of Tibet. If Tibetan food is not your cup of tea, I reckon itís going change for good once you visit this place. Do not miss out on the momos, the dumplings or the fantastic chilly pork .. mmmm Ö Right where was I?

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-bungalow.jpg
Our Abode @ Gangtok

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-inside-bungalow.jpg
Inside View

Sikkim has loads of tourist attractions. Changu Lake, Yumthang, Zero Point, Gurudongmar to name a few. But you cannot take you own car North of Gangtok. It has got to be a local commercial vehicle. For us though, this trip was about lazing around. So we chose a few local sightseeing. If you have heard enough about the Rumtek monastery, the Ranka monastery might be a nice alternative. On the way you might also click a few snaps at the Banjhakri Falls


A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-ranka-monastry.jpg
Ranka Monastry


On the morning of 27th Jan, we bade good bye to our gracious host and started our downhill journey. On the outskirts of Gangtok we refueled our car and was back on NH31A. No we werenít quite done yet, the Queen of the hills was awaiting our arrival with bated breath.

If you keep an eye NH31A you get to a point where the sign reads Darjeeling to the right and Gangtok to the left, a tough call indeed. This is what is popularly referred to as the Teesta Bazar route. Steep in elevation, and sparse in traffic, this 27 km stretch, cuts through some of the most beautiful terrace tea plantations at lower altitudes and dense evergreen forests at higher reaches, a bit of cloud cover giving the ambience a mystique appeal

At Jorebungalow, it meets the Hill Cart Road (NH55), some 2 kms from Ghoom, the highest point on our trip (an altitude of 7400 ft). If Darjeeling is your first destination, you can take the NH55 right from Siliguri and follow the Toy Train tracks, which snakes around the Hill Cart road. However you might do well to avoid the Pankhabari stretch on NH55, dubbed as a shortcut by the locals, unless off course if you are a pro driving one of those SUVs. Ok thatís a bit of an exaggeration, I have heard about someone doing this stretch at night in an Esteem VXI, yeah same guy and same car.

The toy train takes about 8 hrs to get to Darjeeling from NJP. If you do not have the luxury of time, it also runs in some small stretches, the Ghoom to Batasia loop being the shortest and perhaps the most viable.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-tea-plantations.jpg
Tea Plantation by the Teesta Bazar Road

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-jorebungalow.jpg
Near Jorebungalow

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-milestone.jpg
Another Milestone

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-mystique.jpg
Mystique

The shadows had drawn long and the sun had vanished behind the ranges, as we entered Darjeeling. It was a refreshing sight to see the mall once again bubbling with tourists from distant lands, rubbing shoulders with pleasant locals. This was a stark contrast to the deserted streets that greeted me when I last visited this place in 2009, at the height of the conflict.


Finding a decent space to park our car for the night, we headed straight in search of accommodation. Expectations had soared after the royal treatment at Gangtok. After a few disappointments we finally managed the Belle Vue Hotel. Plush wooden interior and great service, the high point of the rooms were the old fashioned fireplace. For an additional Rs 200 they give you enough logs to keep you warm and cozy throughout the night, that is off course if you arenít going for the other alternative. For dinner we chose The Buzz, the ground floor restaurant of the age old Glennaryís Ö SIZZLERS !!

The next morning was partly sunny, but the peaks at a distance (read Kanchenjunga) was not to be seen. However the town seemed in a chirpy mood. We dashed for the destination, I had been secretly drooling over ever since the trip was planned. Keventers with itís roof top cafť, serving some of the best coffee and heavenly pork platters has been the trademark of Darjeeling ever since the British times. On a bright day, you get a crystal clear view of the Tower clock only a few blocks away and the Kanchenjunga peak right next to it Ö all this if you can take your thoughts off the plate that is. It didnít help that this was a cloudy day, and the only sunny stuff lay right in front of me.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-keventars.jpg
Keventers

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-pork-platter.jpg
Pork Platter

With our stomach filled to our heartís content we set out for Mirik. Again the beauty of the hills, hidden behind a veil of white fog, left us admiring. Enroute Mirik we stopped at various locations for a photo shoot. But the lenses could not quite capture the feelings and the emotions, call it lack of vision or our lack of expertise with the camera. Mirik located at an altitude of 4900 feet, is a lake, surround by hills in the distance. There are sprawling fields on all sides, akin to the Kolkata Maidan. Beauty is never a question is these parts, but place was a bit too crowded for my liking. Not far from Mirik however is this small abandoned Helipad, giving you a birdís eye view of the area, nice place for a picnic or a date I suppose. Nevertheless itís a good laid back drive.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-enroute-mirik.jpg
Enroute Mirik

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-mirik.jpg
Mirik Lake


We had planned to retire early that night. The plan was to start at the crack of dawn and take the alternative but longer route via Jharkhand to avoid the NH34. Post another protein rich dinner of pork and other heady stuff in gigantic proportions, we got into the mood of recollecting the good old times, the wonderful college days which culminated into a debate on taking up passion (read motorsports) as a profession. At 7000 feet above sea level, far from the confusion of Kolkata, it all made perfect sense.

I was the first one to get up next morning, 8:30 am by my watch. Jharkhand was immediately ruled out and it was once more the same old NH34. For a change we had breakfast at Glenarryís and after a bit more shopping we finally were able to bid farewell to Darjeeling at 11:30 am

With a heavy heart we trudged along and reached Dalkhola by 5:30 pm. That is when BP took to the wheels. The next 12 hrs was all about negotiating craters and pothole while dealing with the glare of the oncoming headlights of various shapes. You would do better to not take this stretch at night, it is quite taxing. But we kept moving. At Moregram we turned right to take the alternative route via Durgapore hoping for some respite. A few craters later, some deep enough to annihilate our car in the whole, we decided to do an about turn and come back on our prescribed course. With a lot less fog to deal with, the rest of the journey was uneventful, BP getting us home at the stroke of dawn after a night long marathon.

Perspective: Back in the city, we all have unrealistic goals to achieve, stringent bottom lines to meet, momentary euphoria of achievement drowned in months of despair, but it is the memories of trips like these that last a lifetime, perhaps bringing a smile on our faces as we recollect in the months and years to come.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-bottomline.jpg

Acknowledgements:

Rajarshi Bhattacharya
Sumitro Chakravarty
Rajsri Dey

Last edited by Incognito : 2nd March 2012 at 12:34. Reason: Some snaps were not showing up
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Old 1st March 2012, 22:21   #2
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Default Re: A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )

As I have mentioned before and reiterating, you should leave your job and start writing as a career. Thanks a lot for the lovely travelogue. There is an issue with the attachments and I am reporting it to the moderators. Maybe they will be able to resolve the problem.
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Old 2nd March 2012, 00:46   #3
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Lovely travelogue! I agree with Sumitro, you have a future in writing
I've never been to Darjeeling by road from Kolkata, and given the perpetual state of apathy that is NH 34, I wonder if I will ever be inclined to! I have however experienced the roads in north Bengal and Bhutan, and I absolutely loved them! Mirik lake was lovely. Did you try the boating? Really helps get away from the madding crowd. My wife is from Siliguri and she was actually a bit disappointed at the state of Mirik these days... apparently it was much more beautiful a few years ago.
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Old 2nd March 2012, 01:38   #4
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Very well written incognito! I live in siliguri and quite regularly head up to the hills to visit my grandparents farm and friends. I just love reading and seeing the place i live through the eyes of a visiting fellow Bhpian .

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Lovely travelogue! I agree with Sumitro, you have a future in writing
I've never been to Darjeeling by road from Kolkata, and given the perpetual state of apathy that is NH 34, I wonder if I will ever be inclined to! I have however experienced the roads in north Bengal and Bhutan, and I absolutely loved them! Mirik lake was lovely. Did you try the boating? Really helps get away from the madding crowd. My wife is from Siliguri and she was actually a bit disappointed at the state of Mirik these days... apparently it was much more beautiful a few years ago.
To answer your question Razor, here is a picture of mirik lake some 25-30 odd years ago. hope you like it.

A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )-dsc01219.jpg
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Old 2nd March 2012, 05:25   #5
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Lovely travel log, loved the pictures of serene mountains and twisty roads of Sikkim. folks in WB have this benefit of driving to Sikkim/Bhutan/Nepal, too many places which are quiet a distance for us folks in the south.

Hopefully one day i will be able to plan a Sikkim trip. Please keep the pictures coming.

PS: Oh forgot to mention, that Esteem looks meaty from the front, with those lights.

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Old 2nd March 2012, 12:44   #6
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Mods note: Thread moved to Travelogues section from Assembly Line.
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Old 2nd March 2012, 12:46   #7
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Thanks a lot guys for your comments.... the post is back on with the pictures edited
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Old 2nd March 2012, 13:29   #8
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>>>

Very nice travelogue. Makes you want to leap for the car keys. I assume we will get to see more snaps of the places that you visited. Re. Sikkim, am I right in my assumption that you stayed in a non-commercial establishment (aka friend's place).

Is there no way that one can drive one's own vehicle in north Sikkim - if that be so it becomes sort of, self defeating for a t-bhpian.

You did not mention alternatives for pucca vegetarians (no onion, no garlic and nothing moving if you please) - very inconsiderate of you.

Re. road conditions for driving from Calcutta I guess the situation is more or less the same in most states, with the possible exception of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka (speaking from experience); roads here in Maharashtra are none too good either. Maybe roads are not a priority for the present political dispensation.

An excel detailing the distances, stops for fuel and food, tolls etc., will help us plan - please share one if you have one.

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Old 2nd March 2012, 14:59   #9
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Default Re: A Himalayan Retreat aboard the Silver Blaze (Kolkata-Gangtok-Darjeeling-Kolkata )

Hello Incognito,

Sincerely appreciate your writing skills. I am repeating what is said above but yes I too agree that you should start atleast a part time career in writing.

It is very surprising that you are member on T-BHP since Feb 2008 & you have written only a couple of posts till date. We are waiting to read (& see) more from you.

Waiting for you to update this wonderfully started travelogue as soon as possible.

Thanks,
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Old 2nd March 2012, 16:21   #10
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Originally Posted by issigonis View Post
>>>
An excel detailing the distances, stops for fuel and food, tolls etc., will help us plan - please share one if you have one.
Regards
Thanks a ton issigonis, you do have a lot of experience travelling around India. Yes will definitely try to put together a list of the stops, tolls, fuel, mileage etc. The route from Kolkata is pretty straight forward. NH34 --> NH31 --> NH31A

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>>>
Re. Sikkim, am I right in my assumption that you stayed in a non-commercial establishment (aka friend's place).
Yes you are right. In Sikkim we stayed at a company guest house. But yes there lots of lovely accommodations available in Gangtok, but book in advance as this place is perennially thronged with tourists.

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>>>
Is there no way that one can drive one's own vehicle in north Sikkim - if that be so it becomes sort of, self defeating for a t-bhpian.
Unfortunately so far we have not been able to find out any means of taking our car to North Sikkim, any suggestion is welcome. However there are some excellent places in South and West Sikkim that you can drive to. Peling, Yuksam, Khecheopairi Lake, Ravangla, Namchi to name a few

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>>>
You did not mention alternatives for pucca vegetarians (no onion, no garlic and nothing moving if you please) - very inconsiderate of you.
No worries man, momos and dumplings all have their vegetable equivalent. At both Darjeeling and Gangtok, you have good vegetarian restaurants right on the mall, Frank Ross Cafe in Darjeeling is one that I can recollect right away. In smaller towns you also get vegetarian food, but the very basic stuff.
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Old 2nd March 2012, 17:35   #11
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>>>

Is there no way that one can drive one's own vehicle in north Sikkim - if that be so it becomes sort of, self defeating for a t-bhpian.
I think there is a way to take one's own vehicle to north sikkim by taking permit, but it needs patience, luck and convincing power. Adc has taken his safari to north sikkim if I remember correctly.
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Old 2nd March 2012, 19:11   #12
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Thanks a ton issigonis, you do have a lot of experience travelling around India. Yes will definitely try to put together a list of the stops, tolls, fuel, mileage etc. The route from Kolkata is pretty straight forward. NH34 --> NH31 --> NH31A



Yes you are right. In Sikkim we stayed at a company guest house. But yes there lots of lovely accommodations available in Gangtok, but book in advance as this place is perennially thronged with tourists.



Unfortunately so far we have not been able to find out any means of taking our car to North Sikkim, any suggestion is welcome. However there are some excellent places in South and West Sikkim that you can drive to. Peling, Yuksam, Khecheopairi Lake, Ravangla, Namchi to name a few



No worries man, momos and dumplings all have their vegetable equivalent. At both Darjeeling and Gangtok, you have good vegetarian restaurants right on the mall, Frank Ross Cafe in Darjeeling is one that I can recollect right away. In smaller towns you also get vegetarian food, but the very basic stuff.
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Originally Posted by BlackPearl View Post
I think there is a way to take one's own vehicle to north sikkim by taking permit, but it needs patience, luck and convincing power. Adc has taken his safari to north sikkim if I remember correctly.
Incognito, BlackPearl,

Many thanks for the information. I would love to drive from Bombay to the north-east. There have been a few travelogues written here about travels to that part of the country and they are very very tempting indeed. However it becomes difficult to plan such a drive- let us see if I can plan something with some of our t-bhpian friends from here. One challenge and HVK will vouch for it, is the bad stretches in the middle in MP, Chhattisgarh & Jharkhand and some areas in WB with law & order issues.

Please post more snaps - they are wonderful.

Regards
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Old 3rd March 2012, 20:31   #13
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It is very surprising that you are member on T-BHP since Feb 2008 & you have written only a couple of posts till date.
Obviously he was lying low, incognito.

Did BP consider turning this trip into a car and/ with bike tour? I wonder why no one does it.

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Old 4th March 2012, 01:14   #14
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Thanks Incognito for a lovely travelogue. Last time, I went to North Bengal was around Jan'11 and at that time NH-34 was horrible. Would like to know the road conditions at your time? A detailed analysis of the road condition from your perspective will be highly welcomed by us (fellow travelers).

Reading your travelogue, thank God, I never attempted any myself. TBHP has such good narrators and I am not one of them. Looking forward to more and more travelogues from your end, it's a lovely reading.
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Old 4th March 2012, 08:47   #15
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Great TL, nostalgic for these lovely places.
The Sikkhim guest house looks a great place to put up your legs & chuckle over a PG Wodehouse!

How bad was Dalkola?

Yes, getting permits for Nathu la & North Sikkhim - as BlackPearl says - needs lots of patience & determination, and some like adc have great persuasive powers to get them. The taxi cartel is very strong in Sikkhim, maybe one of the reasons the Police also try to make it as difficult as possible to go there in your own car.
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