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|24th November 2016, 11:59||#1|
Join Date: Aug 2008
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Mahindra Adventure's Bhutan Expedition
After taking many (taxi-driven) touristy holidays in the past year (Bhutan, Bali, Ranthambhore, Peru et all), I had decided to myself that I would only go on a self driven holiday now. On each of the aforementioned holidays, I regretted not having a car that I could drive. Having resolved that my next holiday would be a self driven one, I went straight to the almighty Google and put the following words in the search bar - “Driving holiday Bhutan”. Why Bhutan? Because I had visited the country recently and fallen in love with it. Plus, it seemed more accessible from India (and probably cheaper too).
The Google search took me straight to the website of Mahindra Adventure. Despite being an automobile enthusiast, I was not aware that Mahindra has been conducting driving expeditions to different parts of India and its (friendly) neighbours for the past few years. The dates of Authentic Bhutan Expedition coincided with the High Court Holidays - I was tempted. I browsed through the website, looked up some of their media on youtube and I WAS SOLD. It was exactly what I wanted! Driving a 4x4 through the hills of Bhutan; not worrying about the logistics, accommodation, permits etc. Just us, the car and the hill roads of the happiest country in the world.
Little did we know that there would be twenty nine other cars driving with us. On the 5th of November, Pallavi and I landed at Bagdogra Airport. Our expedition was to begin from Chalsa, a small town near Bagdogra. We were greeted by Venkatesh KS (“Venky”) and Bijoy Kumar (“Chief”). There were two other participants on the same flight as us - Santosh and Shekhar (or as they were later on christened, the Dubai Boys). Bijoy handed over the keys of a new-generation a Scorpio 4x4 (only 2500 kms on the odo) to us at the airport, gave us the directions to our hotel (The Sinclairs Retreat, Dooars) and off we went. It was supposed to be a two-hour drive from the Airport to our hotel. It ended up being much longer because of the traffic in Bagdogra town. We were crawling for almost an hour or so, but once we got out of traffic, it was a nice drive up to Chalsa through army camps and tea-estates. The highlight of the drive to Chalsa was the view of and from the Coronation Bridge (anyone whose been there knows what I am talking about). We finally made it to Sinclairs around 5 p.m.
As soon as we reached the hotel, we were greeted by the XSO team. There were certain formalities which were to be finished. A quick registration process, signing of waiver forms and a medical check-up. There was a meet and greet in the evening. It was a fairly large group. I reckon 65-70 people (including the participants, media personnel and the management team). I was not excited about being a part of a convoy which consisted of 33 cars.
Ideally we should have left for Thimphu on the next day i.e. 6th November. But since it was a sunday, the immigration office at the border town of Phuentsholing was not working. As a result, we got to spend a leisurely day at Chalsa. Some of the participants went off to the nearby Gorumara National Park to look for Elephants and Rhinos, while others stayed back at the hotel and played cricket. That afternoon we had the formal flag off. Everyone was handed over the keys to their cars (by draw of lots). Pallavi and I got the previous generation XUV 500 AWD or Adventure 3 as it was referred to. I must confess I was a little disappointed, I was hoping to get one of the newer Scorpios. In the evening, Raj Kapoor from XSO briefed us about the expedition, about radio etiquete (since all the cars had PTT sets for communication) and about driving in a convoy. For many, including myself, this was the first driving expedition and convoy experience. The convoy would be lead by the Lead, followed by Bijoy in Adventure 1 or the “Chief” car (talk about swag!), followed by Adventure 2, 3, 4 and so on and so forth. There were 23 participant cars (including the sponsors Ceat and Valvoline) and 3 media cars. The convoy would be followed by the “Sweep” car which would ensure that none of us fall back. There was an Advance car (which would head out earlier to take care of all the logistics before the convoy), and two Roving cars which had the photographer Jatin and the videographer Ankito. We had strict instructions that we were not to break out of the convoy.
Day 3 - Chalsa to Thimphu.
The convoy rolled out at 0630 hours. The first stop was to be the border town of Phuentsholing in Bhutan. It was a couple of hours away. The NH317 is a wide road and the only thing to be excited about it the patch which cuts through tea estates (its very pretty). The rest of it is like any other average highway that one drives on in India. But this was a good opportunity to get comfortable with our car. As I mentioned, we had the old XUV 500 AWD. The car had done about 56000 kilometres in the hands of different participants and it showed. XUV is not the best handling car and I did not expect it to corner like a champ.
Adventure 3 in particular also had a sticky clutch. But other than the handling and the clutch, it was fine. It had enough bells and whistles in it to keep us entertained in the long drive - bluetooth connectivity, great speakers et all. The seats were big and comfortable, almost like lounge chairs. The ride was wonderful. Airbags, ESP, ABS+EBD and all four discs made us feel safe. The interior layout felt a little cluttered. But nothing that was a deal breaker.
We reached Pheuntsholing around 0830 hours. We were expecting the immigration process to take a few hours. Ideally, we should have left Pheuntsholing post lunch. But for some reason the process took much longer than expected and were there till 1600 hours. Someone found a nice little cafe across the road. Everyone hung out there at some point in the day. The convoy left for Thimphu around 1600 hours. It was supposed to be five hour drive, but ended up being much longer. Many of us were driving on Himalayan roads for the first time and it was getting dark. Then there also was the issue of toilet breaks (or bio-breaks as they were referred to by the management). Some cars broke convoy and fell back for bio-breaks. As a result, the entire convoy had to slow down for them to catch up. By the time the convoy regrouped and picked up speed, night had already fallen. As a consequence, it took us 6 hours to reach Thimphu. We drove into Thimphu only at 2200 hours. Had our dinner and went straight to sleep.
Day 4 - Thimphu to Punakha
Originally the convoy was supposed to roll out of Thimphu at 1100 hours. However, since we reached fairly late the previous night, it was decided that we would leave Thimphu only at 1400 hours. This gave many of us a chance to visit some of the sights in Thimphu. The capital of Bhutan is a charming city with average traffic and winding roads. Pallavi and I have visited Thimphu in the past and seen all there is to see there. Many of the participants went up to the ‘Buddha point’. It’s a giant bronze Buddha statue atop a hill overlooking the valley where the city is situated.
We were informed in the morning that the reporting time would be 1330 hours. But as it happens with big groups, many participants turned up much later than that. The result was that we all got a dressing down from Raj Kapoor of XSO. The delay caused would result in affecting the logistics and the management was fairly right to be upset about this. The convoy left Thimphu around 1430 hours and we started our climb towards Dochu La. The road between Thimphu and Dochula is under construction. Although it is a wide road, there are a lot of rough patches in between. The result being that it throws up a lot of dust, so it is not possible to roll down the windows and enjoy the crisp mountain air. It’s a fairly short drive from Thimphu to Dochu La - about an hour and a half. We reached Dochu La for tea and were greeted with one of most breathtaking panaromic views of the Bhutan Himalayas. The last time we were here, it was cloudy and foggy. However this time Dochu La greeted us with clear skies and spectacular views of the snow clad peaks. The pass also has 108 stupas which have been constructed in the honour of a former king. A quick bite and a wonderful cup of tea later, we were on our way to Punakha.
The drive from Dochu La to Punakha was beautiful. The light was perfect - not too bright, not too dark. The road was smooth and winding (just the way I like it!). There were some rough parts, but that made the drive more fun. Bijoy decided to conduct a Mahindra quiz on the PTT. It led to a lot of radio banter. I think I ought to have won the quiz, but Niraj in Adventure 20 was on a roll! Two and a half hours flew past and before we knew it, we were approaching Punakha. The sun had set and the headlights of the convoy were looking phenomenal against the dusk sky.
By the fourth day the group had gelled. We had a ‘traditional’ party at Punakha which went on till the wee hours of the morning.
Day 5 - Punakha to Paro
While we were partying in Punakha, the Prime Minister was making the statement about Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes. So when I woke up the next day, all the money I had was useless! To make matters worse, I also had a hangover! Thankfully I had filled my XUV upto the brim on the previous day in Thimphu. But for many others it led to a chaotic and confusing situation. There was only one petrol pump in Punakha. The owner refused to take ANY Indian currency. Many of the participants (despite the instructions) had not filled fuel in their cars in Thimphu. However, thanks to Bijoy, Raj and the rest of the team, they managed to get some of the currency exchanged and fill some fuel in Punakha.
The morning was spent in the Punakha Dzong and at the fertility temple. The fertility temple, as the name suggests, is a place where people go to pray if they want children. There are plenty of ‘phallus’ symbols in and around the temple (much to the amusement of many a participants).
After a quick lunch at Punakha, we headed off to Paro. The drive was to take us back into Thimphu via Dochu La and thereafter head south towards Paro. It was a 4 hour drive - about 120 kilometres distance. The drive to Dochu La was quite and uneventful. Dochu La to Paro on the other hand is a completely different story. As I have mentioned, the road between Dochu La and Thimphu is under construction, that gave us a chance to sort off “off-road” in the SUVs. Once we exited Thimphu, we got on to a beautiful stretch of wide and winding tarmac. However, one has to be careful on it since there is a fairly large amount of traffic on the same.
We reached the Le-Meridien at Paro around 6 p.m. Checked in for the evening and spent most of it playing Jenga in the lobby.
Day 6 - Paro
After the long day of driving, day 6 was a leisurely day at Paro. Many of the participants chose to climb up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Takhtsang). Since Pallavi and I had already trekked up to it last year, we decided to explore Paro. We headed out with Ryan (from Evo India), Bijoy and some others in the morning. Our first stop was the Birds Eye view point - a place from where you can see planes land and take off from the Paro International Airport. The approach to Paro is very difficult. The plane weaves through the mountains on its approach to the airport. Unfortunately we couldn’t spot any landings, although we did see two planes take off. The take off is as entertaining as the landing for an aviation enthusiast. The climb after the take off is fairly steep and the plane starts banking in the course of its climb. It makes for an interesting spectacle.
We headed off the to the Paro High Street and had some delicious brunch at the Paro Market. We picked up some Druk Beer and Momos and headed off to the river. A stone throwing competition followed.
Day 7 - Paro to Chalsa
Day 7 was the longest drive. A 7 hour drive to get back into India. We left Paro at 1030 hours. The convoy was running in reverse - Car No. 23 was following lead and Car No. 2 was right at the back. Enroute, we stopped at Dantak for a quick lunch and a cuppa chai. The roads between Paro and Phuenthsoling are narrow and with very little traffic. The only traffic we encountered was a convoy of the Indian Army Shaktimaan trucks. The scenery around the road is phenomenal that it is difficult to keep my eyes on the road.
As we were closing on to Pheuntsholing, we encountered rain and fog. The management was kind enough to allow the convoy to wait on the side of the road and let everyone enjoy the weather. As soon as we left from the short break, we got some fairly bad news from the Advance car - there was a traffic jam in Phuentsholing town. Traffic jam! After a week in Bhutan, I had completely forgotten what that was. As we approached Phuentsholing we could see the long line of cars waiting one behind the other. The traffic discipline in Bhutan is commendable.
As we crossed the Bhutan-India border and entered into Jaigaon in West Bengal, we felt like we had left our heart back in Bhutan.
The last evening in Chalsa was an evening of song, dance and goodbyes. By the end of it, the entire group had grown fond of each other. There was a sincere sense of belonging amongst each of us.
I sincerely felt sad leaving the car and the people behind as I drove towards the airport. There is something about bonding with people over cars and drives that leads to a genuine friendship. And it's always terrible to leave your friends behind.
[Photo Credits: Jatin Lodaya and Pallavi Kulkarni]
Last edited by civic.sense : 24th November 2016 at 13:21.
|12th February 2017, 20:35||#3|
Join Date: Aug 2015
Thanked: 41 Times
Re: Mahindra Adventure's Bhutan Expedition
And thank you, civic.sense, for the balanced review/travelogue of your drive through Bhutan. What I appreciated is that it is neither laudatory nor critical; just a factual report.
Couple of points came to mind when I read your post. One, what does XSO stand for? Two, wasn't it rather late in the day to conduct a medical checkup? Whilst waivers are usually obtained at the last moment since these indemnify the organisers against even their own negligence, don't you think that it would have been better to insist that the participants produce a medical certificate much earlier? Or at least mention on the website the illnesses that could disqualify a participant.
Further, given the meticulous planning that is supposed to go into planning these expeditions and that last year was the sixth or seventh season that these are undertaken, how was it possible that the fact that 'the immigration office at the border town of Phuentsholing was not working' as it was a Sunday was not know to the organisers? Didn't this lead to a complete change in the itinerary vis a vis what was displayed on the website?
Civic sense [no pun intended] or concern for the other participants, like common sense is an uncommon commodity. I understand that sticking to the schedule is something that is hammered home at the initial briefing itself. Maybe, the organisers were on a sticky wicket having failed to anticipate that the immigration office was closed on Sundays.
In any case, the organisers appear to have partially redeemed themselves in assisting with the changing of currency after demonitisation.
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