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Old 4th October 2015, 19:36   #1
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Default Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!

International border. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the 9027 Elantra. Its continuing mission to explore territory hitherto untraversed, to seek out new experiences and unbridled joy for its owner, to boldly go where no Elantra has gone before.

The Elantra has been there, done that. She may have clocked 1,15,288km but an old girl she is not. Forged in the factories of Hyundai in 2004, out of sheet metal and pure grit, her maker never envisaged her to do this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-goa_ferry.jpg
Getting on the ferry to Goa

Or this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-pachmarhi_trip_fields.jpg
Driving through the fields in MP

And definitely not this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-coorg_jungles.jpg
Nagarhole

But she did this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-varanasi_entry_road.jpg
Getting in and out of Varanasi is through this one road only

And this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-mirzapur_hanumana.jpg
Between Mirzapur (UP) and Hanumana (MP)

And amazingly even this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_bumthang.jpg
From Punakha to Bumthang

She had the spunk. She had the chutzpah. She had the nerve. She climbed every mountain, waded through every stream, and laughed in the face of potholes. And when faced with roads like this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-katni_rewa.jpg
Katni to Rewa

She chewed up the kilometres with disdain.

5511.3km. That’s how long this epic journey was. 17 days. That’s how long it took to complete it. 9027. That’s probably the most well-known registration number for an Elantra now. Anywhere in the world.

This was a journey undertaken by a man, his wife and his car. Some may argue that the car comes before the wife, but then their wives probably don’t read their travelogues.

The epic adventure began at Hyderabad on 17 September 2015, meandered all through the states of TS, MH, MP, UP, BR, WB and the country of Bhutan, and ended (at least for the moment) on 3 October 2015 in Hyderabad.

Last edited by lucifer1881 : 7th October 2015 at 20:40.
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Old 4th October 2015, 19:50   #2
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Frequently Asked Questions (I am being presumptuous here)

Question 01: Is this journey for me?
Answer 01: If you have to ask, then no.

Question 02: The pictures you posted look like 4x4 territory. I can’t put my family car through that.
Answer 02: This is 4x4 territory:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-ravveendra_offroading.jpg
Courtesy: Ravveendrra's Facebook page

What I drove through are roads. Every car is tested to survive much worse.

Question 03: I hear it is a good practice to have multiple cars to suit each purpose. A beater car for city use, a fun to drive car for when the mood hits you and a 4x4 for those extreme adrenaline fueled moments. Which of the three cars should I take on this journey?
Answer 03: If you have 3 cars then you will need to take all three on this journey. And a truck to carry the 2 not being driven.

Question 04: Are you mad?
Answer 04: A question that sometimes makes me hazy - am I or is the whole world crazy? But you are probably right. Fortunately, I am not alone. I found the perfect life partner who shares in my madness.

Question 05: Where did you go?
Answer 05: Multiple places, but you probably want to know what the targeted destination was. Well, the journey is the destination and all that but the purpose of this trip was to visit Bhutan.

Question 06: But I hear that you cannot take an Indian registered car into Bhutan. A lot of people and websites seem to say that.
Answer 06: Yes, I also hear that the Abominable Snowman wanders the slopes of the Himalayas.

Hearsay aside, you can take your car into almost any country as long as you have Carnet de Passage, which is a document that allows you to cross international borders with a vehicle and avoid paying customs charges. For Bhutan and Nepal, as far as Indians are considered, only a simple permit is needed which one can obtain across the border. Soon Bangladesh will also be added to the list (hopefully) with the signing of the BBIN agreement.

Question 07: Serious, Bhutan roads are that bad? Everyone seems to say otherwise.
Answer 07: Yes and no. Bhutan roads are fabulous if you limit yourself to Phuentsholing, Paro and Thimpu. Beyond Thimpu, roads are a mess because of on-going road-works. The roads are being widened and it may take 5-6 years for this work to complete.

Question 08: I hear Border Roads makes and maintains all the roads in Bhutan.
Answer 08: Again, yes and no. Bhutan is slowly taking over road building and maintenance from BRO. The on-going road-works beyond Thimpu are being done by Bhutanese themselves now.

Question 09: Which was the most awesome part of your journey?
Answer 09:

The sunrise at Varanasi
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-sunrise_varanasi.jpg

The ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr.jpg

The lunch at Phuentsholing
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-phuentsholing_lunch.jpg

The first morning at Thimpu
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-thimpu_first_morning.jpg

The walk along the villages in Punakha
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_walk.jpg

The drive to Bumthang
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-drive_to_bumthang.jpg

The view of Paro airport
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-paro_airport.jpg

The climb to Taktsang
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-_taktsang_monastery.jpg

The stay at Bargi
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bargi_stay.jpg

Really. It is impossible to select just one.

Question 10: Would you do this again?
Answer 10: Would the sun rise tomorrow?

Question 11: More than a travelogue, this looks like an ode to a car.
Answer 11: The car made this incredible journey possible. It is a travelogue on TBHP, which is an automotive community. Did you really expect the car to not be at the centre of it all?

Question 12: Where are you going next?
Answer 12: Up the Everest, may be. What else can better this?

Last edited by lucifer1881 : 10th October 2015 at 11:05.
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Old 12th October 2015, 13:28   #3
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Default re: Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!

Day 01: Hyderabad - Bhedaghat

To paraphrase a line from my very first log, the journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step but a journey of five and half thousand km begins with a lot of savings. Yes, cold hard cash in the bank. Especially if you are doing this in a petrol car. How much cash was spent? I still have no idea. Neither will I ever sit down and calculate. There truly are some things money can’t buy. To even try to put a price tag on an experience like this is an exercise in futility.

That said, do ensure you have adequate greens in the bank before you set off. The difference between a good holiday and a great one is usually a few thousand Rupees.

At 05:25 in the morning, on the 17th of September, two souls set off in their trusted steed.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-odo_start.jpg
The journey begins

The halt for the night was Bhedaghat. The route chosen was NH7 / NH44 / Kanyakumari-Varanasi Highway. Enough has been said and written about the state of this highway. It is an absolute peach between Hyderabad and TS border. Thereon it is bad upto Hinganghat. As bad as it was during our drive to Pachmarhi in January? No. Improvement, definitely. But rains did not help.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-hinganghat_level_crossing.jpg
At the Hinganghat level crossing - the Nagpur one has been finally fly-overed but this one is still a work in progress

The rains were blinding at places. Yet, the highway upto TS-MH border is so good that there was no water logging. An average of 90kmph could still be maintained.

Just before Nagpur, we got on the bypass and got off at NH7 again. Usually Rookhad is a 2 hr drive from here. It took us 3. The roads were rutted due to rains. This part of the highway, single carriageway though it is, has always been extremely fun to drive on. This time, the experience was not great.

We stopped at Rookhad for some refreshments around 2:45pm.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-rookhad_01.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-rookhad_02.jpg
Love this place. Made by God purely for his own amusement.

From here, it was a non-stop run to MPTDC Motel Marble Rocks at Bhedaghat. We checked in around 7:30pm.
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Old 12th October 2015, 13:37   #4
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Day 02: Bhedaghat - Varanasi

Snooze. Snooze. Snooze. Snooze. Snooze. At least those many times the snooze button is hit when I need to wake up for work. On a holiday, I am up way before sunrise. So is the wife. We figured out a long time ago that waking up before sunrise lets you make the most of your holiday. For one, you get the best light for photographs. It is cooler. And you cover that much more distance during a 12 hour drive.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-marble_rocks_01.jpg
If there is a better place for a swimming pool, then it has not been discovered yet

MPTDC Motel Marble Rocks is placed at just the perfect location, the way most MPTDC hotels are. The pool is on the cliff. In the valley below, the Narmada flows.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-marble_rocks_03.jpg
View from the room

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-marble_rocks_02.jpg
The hotel corridor

We walked the 1.5km or so from our hotel to Dhuandhar Falls. Bhedaghat is quite a dirty town. It was extremely hot and humid too. And we are talking of 6 in the morning. One can only imagine how hot and humid it would get as the sun rose up in the sky.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-walk_to_dhuandhar.jpg
The walk to the falls

The shops were just about being set up. I have been to Bhedaghat before. It was a bustling place with all shops selling multiple items made of marble. This was a welcome change. I liked the peace and quiet. And then we heard the falls. We heard them from a long way off. We heard them much before we saw them.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhuandhar_falls.jpg
First view of the falls

That is when all the peace and quiet ended. The closer we got to the falls, the more the sound of falling water was drowned out by the din of the people. At the falls, it was absolutely chaotic. I like chaos. I am an Indian, after all. I am as much at home in the madness of South Bombay as I am in the solitude of Moore Plains. But this was filthy chaos, the kind of filth that fills the slums of every big city - human waste, detergent and a heady cocktail of all that is disgusting.

We retraced our steps when we could not take it anymore. When you visit places like this, you come to the realisation that your generation will not live long enough to see a clean India. Perhaps your grandchildren will. But unless something drastic is done somewhere, India is not getting cleaned up and outbreaks of epidemics are not going to stop.

We got back to the hotel, had a quick breakfast, and made the dash for Varanasi.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-katni_rewa.jpg
The absolutely gorgeous road between Katni and Rewa

Special mention must be made of Madhya Pradesh. The entire stretch from Rewa to Hanumana (UP-MP border) is now a dual carriageway that bypasses every town and village. 90km of amazing roads until you cross over into the great state of Uttar Pradesh.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-rewa_hanumana.jpg
Between Rewa and Hanumana

Then you come across this.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-mirzapur_hanumana.jpg
Is this even a road?

The front chassis cross member hit twice while trying to negotiate this “road”. UP Tourism commercials play on FM Radio in Hyderabad. And that’s how welcoming the state is.
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Old 12th October 2015, 13:44   #5
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Day 03: Varanasi - Patna

Banaras. It is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is the holiest of the holy cities. Legend has it that the city rests atop Lord Shiva’s trident. If ever there is an other-worldly place then this is it.

We stayed at Stops Hostel (http://www.stopshostels.com/). It is a place I would recommend to anyone looking for a fun place to stay. The place is lively, filled with people from all parts of this world. It is like no other place I have stayed in. Don’t expect trivialities like room service or in-room television. If that is the purpose of your vacation (to eat food in front of the TV), then you are better off staying at home.

Why do I like Banaras? It is difficult to explain. I have this friend who stayed in the city for a few months but could never like it. So I suppose you either love Varanasi or you don’t. It is not a taste that you can acquire. Yes, it is a dirty city. Yes, the roads in and out of the city are a nightmare. Yes, temples fleece you at every opportunity.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-varanasi_01.jpg
The road in and out of Varanasi - a complete mess

But when you can wake up to this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-harishchandra_ghat.jpg
Harischandra Ghat. 6am.

You forget everything. I mean everything. Your mind goes blank. You truly achieve mind-gasm - a state of orgasmic nirvana for your mind.

You stand there for as long as the rising heat and humidity lets you. You realize that serenity and tranquility don’t stand a chance against the mid-September heat in this part of India. You make your way back to the hotel, which is a 15 minute walk away. At 6:30 in the morning, you are drenched in your own sweat when you switch on the air-conditioner in your room. You relax for 30 minutes, and then begin your drive to Patna.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-varanasi_02.jpg
Through Banaras Hindu University - lovely campus but too many garbage piles

It took us about 45 minutes to get on the Grand Trunk Road. GT Road. It is over 2000 years old. It is the premier road in this country. It should be our showcase, it should be our pride, it should be our benchmark for every road that will ever be built. Sadly, it is this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-gt_road.jpg
GT Road, possibly the most dangerous road in the country. Nightmare during the day, much worse after dark.

At Sasaram, we got off the GT Road and got on the inner roads of Bihar. Last I drove in Bihar was in 2010. The roads were butter smooth, as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks (a certain ex-CM’s words, not mine). The roads are still good. They could do with some maintenance but by and large the tarmac is good.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-koilvar_bridge.jpg
The Koilwar bridge on the River Sone - a two deck bridge, with the upper deck meant for trains and the lower deck for road vehicles

This bridge was completed in 1862. That makes it over 150 years old. I can’t even imagine today’s structures standing for half the time. The bridge is weak today. One side is used for road traffic and the other side for train traffic. A new bridge is planned to replace it. But then, who knows when that plan will translate to reality?

We were home in about 6 hours. Patna. What can I say about another of the world’s oldest cities? Born in Patna and raised all over, yours truly has a strange sense of belonging to the city. Every street calls out my name.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-patna_01.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-patna_02.jpg
Home is definitely where the heart is or is heart where the home is?

Tomorrow is an early start, as we make the run to Darjeeling.
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Old 12th October 2015, 13:46   #6
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Day 04: Patna - Darjeeling

1600km, give or take a few. That’s how much we had covered in 3 days. Slow by my earlier trips. But I was also a lot younger earlier. On this trip, my drives were planned to be sedate - maximum planned driving hours were 12 per day. Varanasi to Patna was only 6. Today we had to cover decent distance, and some of it through the infamous roads in Bengal.

Google told me we had 530 odd km to cover. Estimated driving time was 11 hrs.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-patna_540am.jpg
Loaded and ready to continue her journey. 5:40am at Patna

My parents had been in Patna for a week. They joined us for this leg of the trip. Now it was a full fledged family holiday.

The route chosen: Patna - Begusarai - Purnea - Kishanganj - Siliguri - Darjeeling

Roads were very good upto Kishanganj. From Kishanganj, it is a dual carriageway to Islampur. Dual carriageway, yes. Tarmac, no. Completely rutted with potholes, those potholes of the most irritating variety that have sharp drops of 2-3 inches and cover the entire surface in a mesh. They give your suspension a thorough workout. Thankfully, the roads improved from Islampur.

Why Darjeeling? Since we were going to Bhutan, the logical stop was Siliguri. But then I figured since I have come this far, I am going to get on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. I am quite Sheldonesque when it comes to trains. Love them. Love them to bits, really.

We checked into our hotel around 7:30pm.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-darjeeling_hotel_pose.jpg
Truly felt like a King partly due to these massive chairs in the hotel lobby but mostly due to having successfully tackled those horrendous roads in North Bengal.
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Old 12th October 2015, 14:07   #7
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Day 05: Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR)

We woke up to this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-early_morning.png
Weather report on my cellphone

Yes, lots of rain. That would worry the casual tourist, you know the kind who goes to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise along with a hoard of other casual tourists only to create a cacophony when the sun finally does come up. Tiger Hill did not even feature in our agenda. Snooty though it sounds, I don't do stuff that casual tourists do.

This was a day dedicated solely to Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. I had booked the joyride tickets from Darjeeling to Ghum and back. The 8 mile round-trip takes 2 hours, and is worth every penny, and then some.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_01.jpg
At Darjeeling Station

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_02.jpg
Wife and mom

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_03.jpg
Dad strikes a pose - now you know where I get my good looks from

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_04.jpg
Mere sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu - Obviously, what else could this picture be captioned with?

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_05.jpg
A selfie

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_06.jpg
Groupie? That's the word, right?

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_07.jpg
In vacant or in pensive mood - yes, I love Wordsworth

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_08.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_09.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_10.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_11.jpg
The steamer shunts - this is possibly the most romantic sight in the world. I am surprised no wedding proposals have ever been made in the backdrop of a steam engine.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_12.jpg
Operating a steam engine. That's art.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_13.jpg
Keeping an old steam engine going. That's high art.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_14.jpg
She makes a short stop at Batasia Loop

At Ghum, the train stops for 30 minutes. There is a nice little museum dedicated to DHR here. Interesting trivia I learnt with regards to why the place is called “Ghum”. Ghum means turn. To get to Nepal, one needs to take a sharp turn here. Hence the name.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_15.jpg
The DHR Museum

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_16.jpg
Ghum Station

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dhr_17.jpg
She takes a large swig of water here

Post the joyride, we went to Glenary’s for lunch. The place is living on its past glory. Food was bad. I am not a guy who is very finicky about food. I can even let bad food slide, since I understand that taste is subjective. I may not like something that everyone else may love. I can live with that. What I cannot ignore is poor service. And what really gets my goat is when the waiters make it seem that we should be grateful to them for letting us eat in this restaurant.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-glenarys_01.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-glenarys_02.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-glenarys_03.jpg
The only redeeming feature of Glenary's - these old artefacts

Anyway. Bad lunch experience aside, we loved Darjeeling. She really is the Queen of the Hills. It rained the entire time we were there but that hardly dampened our spirits. We bought a few hundred kilogram of the finest Darjeeling tea to cap off our short stay. Darjeeling, we will be back. And this time we will do you properly.

Some views from our hotel room.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-view_window_01.jpg
That Landy is on a school run. Lucky Kids!

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-view_window_02.jpg
This is around 5pm
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Old 12th October 2015, 14:19   #8
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Day 06: Darjeeling - Thimphu

This was an exciting day. A day when we would get to cross into another country in our own car. How often does one get to do that? May be it is de-rigueur in Europe but to us Indians it is a life event.

Parents were supposed to be with us too. But something came up, and they had to return to Hyderabad. It was the wife and I along with the car, again.

The route: Darjeeling - Ghum - 3 Mile - Mungpoo - Sevoke - Mal Bazar - Nagrakata - Jaigaon - Phuentsholing - Thimphu

Initially the road was quite bad. I was having second thoughts. May be I should have gone back to Siliguri and then made my way from there. But we (Elantra and I) soldiered on. 30 minutes later, we were rewarded with roads like this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-kalimpong.jpg
Possibly the best driving road. In the world.

Rain was in the air. A little bit of rain when driving through the mountains adds to the joy. More so when the mountains are as heavily forested as this. It was almost as if we had the entire road to ourselves. Yes, there was the occasional car or bus or truck. But I suppose rain played its part in keeping people indoors. Or may be this is how much traffic this part generally sees.

Driving in the rain with the woman you love is romantic in itself. Stopping at a small tapri for chai is the cherry on top.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-chai_stop.jpg
Stopped here for chai. The road just seems to get better and better.

It took us about 4 hours to negotiate the mountains and get on the plains - the last few km to the border. We weren’t complaining. This was, by far, the best drive of the trip so far.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-enroute_jaigaon.jpg
Getting close to the border now.

Jaigaon is the Indian side of the border. Phuentsholing is the Bhutan side of the border. Upto Phuentsholing, any Indian vehicle can go. The same holds for Bhutanese vehicles upto Jaigaon. Permits are needed for going beyond.

As we drove across the border, the world suddenly changed. It was as if we had been teleported into another planet. The roads got better. The place got cleaner. The environment got quieter. And the chaos disappeared. All lies. None of this happened. At least not until we left Phuentsholing.

I had done my research on the permit process. All of them told me it was easy. I don’t doubt that it is. But I think I did the smart thing here. I pre-engaged a travel agency. Their guide, Lekdhen, met us at Phuentsholing. He had already initiated the permit process. At immigration, all that the nice man at the office did was check the original documents, scanned our fingerprints and gave us the permits. The permit for the car was already done.

Indians, Bangladeshis and people from Maldives do not need to engage a guide to visit Bhutan. All other Nationalities do. Would I recommend a trip without one? If it is a return trip, then sure. Why not. But if doing it first time, take a guide along. Guides not only help you with the route, they also make all arrangements for your food and stay. All said and done, you are in an unknown country. There are customs and protocols to follow which you may or may not be aware of. It is good sense to take someone along who knows.

I engaged an agency listed on the Bhutan Tourism website. Tourism is government regulated, and all agencies are government accredited. The agency gave me a packaged deal - hotel stay, breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, tea, guide and all relevant permits for my 7 days in Bhutan. All inclusive meant all inclusive. Except for shopping and petrol, not a Rupee was spent from our side.

We had a quick lunch at Phuentsholing, and then made our 190km journey to Thimphu.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-butter_tea.jpg
Butter tea. Absolutely refreshing.

Once you cross the first immigration check-point at Richending Lam, that is when the world changes. Now you know you are in a different country. It is clean, as in squeaky clean. People are polite. Drivers are courteous. And BRO builds amazing mountain roads.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-enroute_thimpu.jpg
Between Phuentsholing and Thimphu

The speed limit being 60, it took us about 5 hours to get to Thimphu.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-thimpu_rest.jpg
After 2400km, she rests for the night.
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Old 12th October 2015, 14:35   #9
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Day 07: Thimphu Sightseeing

Slept like a log the night before. By log, I mean slept at 9pm and was up fresh as a daisy at 6am. Our hotel room had huge French Windows overlooking the city.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-view_from_hotel_room.jpg
Just a normal day in the life of Thimpu. A heavenly sight for us big city folks.

A small, modern, well-planned city with a population of approximately 80,000, Thimphu became the capital of Bhutan in 1961.

Today was the beginning of the 3-day Thimpu festival. Lekhden met us around 9am, post breakfast. And then took us for a nice walk along the capital’s streets.

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Europe? Nah, I think this is prettier.

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The SAARC Development Fund Secretariat

We made our way to Times’ Square (yes, there is one in Thimphu too). It was being set up for a performance.

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Times’ Square

The streets are pedestrian only for the 3 day festival. Shops are set-up on both sides. From momos to clothing to accessories to home decor, everything is sold here. It is a nice festive atmosphere, and we enjoyed every moment of it.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-looking_on.jpg
Looking on - wondering just how much she is going to shop for

After a couple of hours, we went back to the hotel to pick up the car. It was time to visit a viewpoint or two, and the big Buddha statue. Our first stop was a fuel pump. While we tanked up the Elantra, we spotted this.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-chief_abbot_car.jpg
That’s the car of the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. He is in meditation for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days.

Two important questions before I move on:

Question 01: Is Indian currency accepted in Bhutan?
Answer 01: Yes. Some say only notes of denomination below 500 are accepted. But I had no trouble with Rs. 1000 notes. Since all of Bhutan’s supplies come from India, they are more than happy to accept Indian currency. I went up to Bumthang, which is probably as far as most tourists go. INR was accepted.

Question 02: Do Indian ATM cards work?
Answer 02: Yes. They work in ATMs with the MasterCard / Visa signs. You will find them easily in Thimphu and Paro. You will receive BTN (Bhutanese Ngultrum). Ensure you spend them all before crossing back into India. BTN is pegged with INR. Rs. 20 was additionally debited from my account on withdrawal of INR/BTN 10,000. So I suppose that is a charge applied to every transaction irrespective of the value.

Moving on.

We drove to our first viewpoint. Not much views from here due to the heavy green cover. We did see some good views as we drove from here to another.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-thimphu_festival.jpg
Thimphu festival - live performance. This is near the King’s Palace.

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In one of these, the King lives.

Post lunch, we drove to the magnificent 50m tall statue of the Buddha. The Buddha keeps a watch over the city, and is a sight to behold.

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The Buddha

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View of Thimphu opposite the Buddha

On the way back, we stopped at The Memorial Chorten. This is a lovely monastery built in 1974 in honour of the third King.

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The Memorial Chorten

This is a very different kind of a monastery. Inside you will find tantric elements. No photography is allowed of its interiors, but those images shall remain in my mind forever. It is a place of surreal calm and inner peace.
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Old 12th October 2015, 17:02   #10
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Day 08: Thimphu - Punakha

Now we get into the interiors of Bhutan. Bhutan. The country is known as Druk in the local language. What is the etymology of Bhutan? There are two theories, as narrated to us by our guide, Lekhden.

Bhutan comes from the amalgamation of two words “Bhoot” and “Sthaan”, literally meaning the land of the ghosts. In olden times, people feared that ghosts and evil spirits lived in those dense forests. The other theory is that it comes from two other words “Bhu” and “Uthaan”, meaning higher land.

Punakha is 74km from Thimphu, a 2-3 hour drive considering these are mountain roads. It takes close to 4 due to the on-going road works.

Enroute Punakha are the Druk Wangyal Stupas. Consecrated in June 2008, the 108 Stupas are a tribute to the fourth King of Bhutan, and a commemoration to the sacrifices of the soldiers and people of Bhutan for the security and sovereignty of the Kingdom.

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A cold, misty morning

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The 108 Stupas

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Clovers, covered in dew

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The monastery opposite the Stupas

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A typical ceiling of a monastery. No photography permitted beyond this point.

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The Monastery Flag

From here, we made our way to Punakha. Punakha is a warm place. Warm, of course, is relative. It is warm for a Bhutanese. It is pleasant for an Indian. And especially when the restaurant you have lunch in has views such as this, then there is no reason to complain.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-lunch_stop_view.jpg
View from our lunch stop

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Not one to take pictures of this normally, but this is the inside of a washroom. My bedroom is not as well adorned.

We drove for a short distance and parked. Then began the sexiest walk ever. It was a walk through the villages of Punakha. Paddy grew in the valley between majestic mountains.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_01.jpg
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Paddy. Till the eye can see.

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At the monastery gate, the wife takes a short breather

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This is what we may have come to see but the walk to it was better

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_05.jpg
Prayer wheel

At Punakha there is a confluence of two rivers. One river is calm and serene. They call that one the female river. The other river is violent and aggressive. They call that the male river. On the confluence lies the Punakha Dzong.

Dzongs are analogous to fortresses. They were the seat of power in the olden times. During war, they would house the entire population of the kingdom. Today, they are administrative and religious / spiritual centres.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_07.jpg
The Dzong parking lot. The slanted H badge rules in Bhutan.

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The Dzong. No words needed to describe its magnificence.

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Old wooden bridge to cross the river and enter the Dzong

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Massive courtyard

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On the way back, we stop to breathe in the sights of Punakha

Then we check into our hotel to retire for the night. That’s what we thought. But how can you go to sleep if this is the view from your room balcony?

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-meri_puensum_resort_01.jpg
Meri Puensum Resort, Punakha - the view from the room balcony
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Day 09: Punakha - Bumthang

A word about the hotels and restaurants in Bhutan. They are all fantastic. Unless you choose a hotel not meant for tourists at all, they are all minimum 3 star.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-meri_puensum_resorts_punakha.jpg
Meri Puensum Resort, Punakha

We had 190km to cover in today’s drive. Estimated drive time was 6-7 hours. It took us 12. This was the most challenging drive, not only of this trip but also of my life. I have done Ladakh. That is a walk in the park compared to this.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_bumthang_01.jpg
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The drive to Bumthang

The above pictures were taken where the road was less treacherous enough to remember taking a picture. On the really bad patches, it was more like "Bharat Mata ki Jai!" and let's go for it.

Up until this time, I always thought the Elantra’s Traction Control system was more placebo than anything else. It hardly ever kicked in. Until now. On these roads, traction control and ABS were lifesavers. They kept the car in line, and enabled me to steer it in a direction I wanted.

On those roads, even truckers overtook me. When I got good tarmac, nothing could keep up with the Elantra. It was almost as if the car had dual personalities, a Jekyl and Hyde. She negotiated the obstacles, something she was never built to do, and when faced with lovely mountain roads she turned into a thoroughbred racer, something she was never built to do.

I know what you are thinking, "How could you put a sedan through that? It is inhuman!" In the words of Shania Twain, if:

You're one of those guys who likes to shine his machine
You make me take off my shoes before you let me get in
I can't believe you kiss your car goodnight
C'mon baby tell me - you must be jokin', right!


So, if you are a guy like that then ask yourself two questions:

1. Am I any different than the guy who keeps his Ferrari parked in a garage all year because a scratch here or a nick there will seriously reduce its resale value?
2. Will I ever get to drive Shania Twain?

Remember, a car loves to be driven. Don't thrash her about when the road isn't great. Nurse her through there, and when the road opens up she will reward you with sheer brilliance. If you are afraid to take her out during a light spell of rain then you might as well travel in a cab.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_bumthang_03.jpg
We stop at this pass on our way. From here for about 30km the tarmac was fantastic.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-punakha_bumthang_05.jpg
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Our lunch stop. How is it possible? Every place we stop at gets better than the place we stopped at earlier.

It was dark by the time we reached Trongsa. 63km from here to Bumthang. Fortunately, the road here was good. But extremely foggy. Could see absolutely nothing. Got out of the car, cleaned up the fog lamps that were completely caked in mud, and the world was so much clearer.

It was 9pm by the time we checked into the hotel. Today, I was tired. Dog tired. 190km in 12 hours is tiring.

We had planned to spend a night in Bumthang and then make the run for Paro. I spoke to Lekhden and did a quick change in the itinerary. Bumthang - Paro would be a good 16-17 hour drive, which I was not going to risk on those roads. He made a few calls, and found a room available in Wangdue Phodrang at Kichu Resorts. Wangdue Phodrang is a place just before Punakha when you make your way from Bumthang to Paro.

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Day 10: Bumthang - Wangdue Phodrang

Bumthang is Swiss country. A man from Switzerland came down here and set up their dairy on modern lines. He still lives here. Their cows are Swiss breeds. I love cows.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_resort.jpg
Our hotel in Bumthang

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Sunflower in the morning calmness

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_01.jpg
Our first stop on Bumthang - the courtyard of the 600 year old monastery

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The Swiss cows

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The sleepy village road in Bumthang

Our next stop was Kurje Lhakhang, another 600 year old monastery. It is the final resting place of the first three kings of Bhutan.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_05.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_06.jpg
Kurje Lhakhang

We drove into Bumthang town. Whattay beauty the town is! Stuck in a time warp, probably things are exactly how they were a 100 years ago. I love that.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_09.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_08.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_07.jpg
Bumthang - truly where no Elantra has gone before

Archery is Bhutan’s National Sport. We spotted this local archery tournament on our way back.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_10.jpg
The National Sport of Bhutan

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_wangdue_phodrang_01.jpg
The fog on our drive back. Imagine this after dark. That’s how it was when we drove in to Bumthang.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_temperature.jpg
The temperature as we drove back. This is at 11am.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_wangdue_phodrang_02.jpg
One of the countless mountain rivers in this lovely country

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-trongsa_dzong.jpg
The Trongsa Dzong

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-bumthang_wangdue_phodrang_03.jpg
Drove back the same way we came. Same roads. Same stress. Same brilliance of the Elantra.

Around 6:30pm, when we were less than 30 minutes from our stop for the night, we got stuck in an overtake jam. Yes, they happen in Bhutan too.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-overtake_jam.jpg
Overtake jam. The Bolero pick-ups rule here. Land Cruisers and Hiluxes may be found in the urban areas of Paro and Thimphu but where it matters, it is the humble Mahindra that people turn to.
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Old 12th October 2015, 19:11   #13
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Day 11: Wangdue Phodrang - Paro

Kichu Resorts was our stay for the night. And what a lovely place it is!

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-kichu_resorts_wangdue_01.jpg
Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-kichu_resorts_wangdue_04.jpg
The river flows just off our balcony

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Some pictures taken in the hotel grounds

Remember the Druk Wangyel Stupas? We stopped here again on our way to Paro. This time it was a clear day. The Stupas really are as pretty as a picture.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-druk_wangyel_01.jpg
Druk Wangyel Stupas

This army truck kept us good company for a while.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-wangdue_phodrang_paro_01.jpg
The Indian Army. Securing our borders and beyond. Salute!

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The road into Paro

Then we reach Paro.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-paro_06.jpg
The Paro river

Kya adaa kya jalwe tere Paro! After 3000km, yeh cheesy gaana to banta hai.

Paro is a V-shaped town. It gets its name from Paari, a V-shaped ornament worn by Tibetan women.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-paro_01.jpg
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View of the Paro Airport

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Even the wild flowers in this country are pretty

If Kichu Resorts at Wangdue Phodrang was fabulous, then the one at Paro was even better. There was a river flowing right next to it too.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-kichu_resorts_paro_04.jpg
And quiet flows the Paro, with due respect to Mikhail Sholokhov

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-kichu_resorts_paro_01.jpg
Light show of the Gods

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The cottages of Kichu Resorts

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-kichu_resorts_paro_03.jpg
The resort lake
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Day 12: Paro Sightseeing

Taktsang Monastery - probably the most well-known monastery in Bhutan. Perched on a cliff at an elevation of exactly 3000m above sea level, this marvel was first built in 1692. 1692. Aurangzeb ruled India then. Electricity had not been discovered.

And they built this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-taktsang_02.jpg
Trace your eyes to the small white patch on the extreme top left of this picture. That's where the monastery is.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-taktsang_05.jpg
Can you see the monastery? Look closer. Top left centre. No road leads up to the place. Walking is the only way to get there.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-taktsang_04.jpg
A closer look at the monastery. Now do you appreciate its grandeur?

The walk to the monastery begins at an elevation of 2100m. That is the base of the mountain where the road ends, and the climb begins.

It is a 2-3 hour walk each way, depending on your fitness levels. It is a tough walk. Very tough. There is a nice cafe halfway to the top where we stopped for some tea.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-taktsang_01.jpg
Our tea stop

Halfway is usually the point of no return. It was also the point at which the climb got steeper. We carried on. And then saw this:

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-taktsang_15.jpg
First view of the monastery

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-taktsang_06.jpg
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Strike a pose

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Picture perfect

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A groupie with Lekhden

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-taktsang_08.jpg
The one million steps - the final ascent

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This waterfall is at the base of the monastery. Such refreshing sweet cool water!

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The valley below

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We pose with this super cool Lama

By the time we got back to the base of the mountain, the souvenir shops had fully been set up. Wallet considerably lightened, we drove into Paro.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-paro_01.jpg
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Paro Town

Fueled the car, and called it a night. Tomorrow we make the run back to Siliguri.
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Day 13: Paro - Siliguri

A cold morning as we make our way back to India.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-weather.png
Weather report

7:30 we were off. We stopped at a BRO canteen for some tea just before Phuentsholing.

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-dantak_01.jpg
Dantak - they build roads in Bhutan

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The magnificent road between Phuentsholing and Thimphu / Paro

Where no Elantra has gone before - 5500 kms, 6 States & Bhutan!-phuentsholing_chaos.jpg
The chaos of Phuentsholing

It was a pretty uneventful drive from here to Siliguri.
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