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Old 24th May 2009, 09:43   #1
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Default Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars

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I am just back from a longish (by my standard) trip to Bhutan and Dooars jungles. The Dooars jungle was kind of unplanned and hence added to the fun. We had originally planned for an entire Bhutan traverse going from west to east. However, due to seriously bad weather and road conditions we didn't take a chance with going to eastern Bhutan and instead concentrated on western Bhutan and Dooars jungles on the Indian side.
If you do get marooned in eastern Bhutan you can still physically come out somehow, but you might well have to leave the car behind till October/November.
On balance I would say it was an enjoyable holiday albeit marred by 1. an indefinite strike in Dooars while we were going and we had to be rescued by the army 2. very bad weather and road conditions in Bhutan 3. broken silencer in Dooars jungles
I intend to write down all the formalities related to entry in Bhutan with your own vehicle and going to the restricted areas.
I must thank Mr H.V. Kumar for informing me about all the rules and contact details of some of the hotels he stayed in during his trip a month before mine.
Here are a few teaser photographs representative of the entire trip. More will come in due course.


A very wet image of a tea break on way to Thimphu
Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-wetbhutan.jpg


Fresh landslide rubble being cleared near Takti
Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-landslide.jpg


On the way to Hollong for elephant ride
Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-hollong.jpg

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Old 24th May 2009, 11:01   #2
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Good start, nice teaser pics. I am teased!

The wet windscreen photograph nicely established the mood. And the third pic is just so picturesque!

Looking forward to the rest!
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Old 24th May 2009, 11:51   #3
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Thanks pjay. The first pic indeed is a very representative photograph. The last one is actually in the Dooars jungle - inside Jaldapara Reserve Forest, which is just outside the Bhutan border. That's rhino land. We saw a total of four rhinos. Three from far, but one big bull very very close by.

Now on with the Bhutan story. Day one was just a boring and flat drive from Calcutta to Siliguri. I went via Panagarh which is a detour of about 50 km or so but assures better and less congested roads. In Siliguri we stayed in Central Plaza which is very strategically located.

Here I met up with Mitch in the evening and got to see my Bullet after 5 months. He stayed right next door in the WB Tourism Lodge. I wasn't aware of its presence before we moved into Central Plaza.

The next morning was spent in trying to locate Duracell pencil batteries for one of our cameras. Finally got it in a paan dukan, after scanning each and every shop on a 5 km stretch of main road. Strangely enough no one stocks Duracell in Siliguri !!!

We started in a gingerly pace from Siliguri at around 10 am. It was a Sunday. Our destination is the border town of Phuntsholing, four hours away. We planned to take lunch at Jaldapara WB Tourism lodge around 1 pm.

On the way we crossed the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary. Next is the Coronation bridge from where you can go straight to Gangtok or left to Kalimpong or right to Bhutan, Assam etc. We turned right. Here you enter the tea garden land. Within a few km I saw some vehicles parked on the side of the road. Elephant crossing? Highly improbable but not entirely impossible.

My wife and myself in the Mahananda Sanctuary before Sebak
Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-memonisha.jpg

My wife and daughter in the Mahananda Sanctuary before Sebak

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-monishamampu.jpg

But no. It's not elephants. It's the adivasis of the area who have put up a road block. "Don't try to defy it, they will break your car," warned one of the drivers sitting on the road side. There was no question of defying the bandh enforcers. I parked on the side.

Ellenbery Tea Estate where we were stopped first
Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-teagarden.jpg


Soon it transpired that this is not a simple rasta roko for any specific time period. It was an indefinite strike. I couldn't understand the reasons too clearly. The bandh enforcers seemed simple tribal guys. Not very aggressive. They said even if they let us go forward we would soon meet several such road blocks as we move ahead.

These adivasis are not original sons of the soil. Historically they were uprooted from their original homeland in the tribal heartland of India a few hundred years ago and brought as tea garden labourers to settle in this region. Now they form a major ethnic group in this region. Their influence holds sway in the tea gardens of Dooars.

So I turned the car and decided to take another alternate route to Phuntsholling. We went back to Siliguri and then on to Jalpaiguri > Mainaguri > Dhupguri and then Gayerkata. From here Phuntsholing is a matter of 50/60 km and one has to go through just three small towns of Birpara, Madarihat and Hasimara.

But at Gayerkata again we saw a huge and long line of trucks and a few small cars too. The stuck drivers said don't go forward. They are squatting there. Suddenly we saw an Army Gypsy going forward. Someone said, "follow that vehicle". I instinctively reacted to the suggestion and started following the Gypsy.

The Gypsy went through the bandh enforcers and no one stopped us, thinking we were part of the army convoy. The Gypsy soon entered the rough pocket road of a tea garden and I was desperately tailgating him. He started signalling for me to over take him.

I pulled up next to him and my wife asked if we could follow them. They said they were going only as far as Binaguri Cantonment 5 km away. In my desperation I said that would do.

But once in Binaguri I realised I had made a mistake. Not even a fly was flying in this small town. Everything was closed. The soldiers at the cantonment gate said going forward or backward would be equally dangerous. In fact we had passed through several bandh enforcing parties at different points between Gayerkata and Binaguri. So going back was out of question.

I parked the car infront of the cantonment gate and started feeling quite scared. After some time it struck my wife that one of her childhood school friends is a colonel in the army in Gwalior. He was immediately contacted. Luckily he had an ex-boss posted in Binaguri who came as our saviour. Col Uppal. He hosted us in the army guest house inside for the night and gave us an escort vehicle the next day. Next morning we raced through some 10/12 bandh enforcing points with the army escort. No one questioned us. And we breathed a very big sigh of relief after entering the Phuntsholing gate.
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Old 24th May 2009, 12:10   #4
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Posting three highly representative pictures of the Binaguri Army Cantonment gate area.

It was really scary feeling. I didn't really know how to spend the night at the gate with my wife and child. And I indeed regretted following the Army Gypsy through the bandh affected area. That was a very stupid act of desperation. But then it also proved that old saying that luck favours the brave. Otherwise the bandh ultimately lasted for four days.

Outside the Binaguri Army Cantonment Gate where not even a fly was flying
Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-binaguri2.jpg

A very tense wifey trying to locate her childhood friend in the Army in Gwalior
Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-binaguri1.jpg

The smiling girls after we got assurance of Col Uppal that we could spend the night inside the cantonment's safety and comfort of a plush guest house

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-binaguri3.jpg
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Old 24th May 2009, 14:51   #5
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Whew, close shave Sudipto!
Keep posting---I can't bear the suspense.
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Old 24th May 2009, 15:49   #6
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Wow, good stuff. keep it flowing. Getting stuck in the middle of nowhere on a highway with family due to these flash strikes is indeed scary. Good you had a contact to rescue you.
Nice pics.. the greenery is just inviting.
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Old 24th May 2009, 17:12   #7
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Bringing back some old memories. Eagerly waiting for the rest of the travelogue and pictures.
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Old 24th May 2009, 18:09   #8
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WOW what a start Sudipto da, cant wait to read more.

Its raining Bhupal travelogues. Just yesterday read hvkumar's bhutan travelogue again and today your's. Keep them coming !!

Abhi
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Old 24th May 2009, 22:14   #9
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Thanks AK, Arindam, Jayasmokesleaves and Vnabhi. Actually I am a bit too overwhelmed with some 650 photographs taken in two cameras. Here goes my account of the day in Phuntsholling.

Depending on how far you have seen Bhutan, you will either be bored or excited by the border town of Phuntsholling. Having used P'ling as my transit town during my stay in Bhutan in the late 80s and early 90s, I have been to P'ling some 20 times or more. To me it's just a gateway to the amazing kingdom of Bhutan and it does not represent even 1 per cent of the original Bhutan.

But if you are a first timer, you can't miss the strange dress of the people, the unique building architecture, the clean streets and the civilised way of driving, not to speak of scores of Toyota Hi-lux, Prado, Tuscon etc on the roads.

Men wear Gho and women wear Kira and Honju. This is their national dress. During my stay 20 years ago, this dress code was very strictly enforced due to various ethno-political reasons (I am not getting into all that) but now those reasons are no longer very valid and hence the government is more relaxed about what you wear in the city. But a Bhutanese national has to wear that dress if he/she has to go to any government office.

We reached P'ling at around 11 am and immediately rushed to the immigration office. We had already filled in the immigration form in Calcutta (having downloaded it from their website). The immigration official smiled and asked from where I got the form and mumbled that the form had actually changed but didn't ask us to fill in any different form.

They digitally photographed all three of us and asked us to come back after an hour to collect the permit. We spent the hour buying a prepaid Tashi Cell connection and some basic shopping in Tashi Commercial's super market. It's an amazingly fast process to get a prepaid connection in Bhutan. You get connected in 15 minutes flat and the recharge vouchers offer you 100 per cent talk time.

Each call to India from the TashiCell number is approximately Rs 5 in the first minute then Re 1.20 for every 15 seconds. After every call you get a message stating how much the call cost you and what your current balance is.

In contrast - roaming on my Airtel number would have cost me, Rs 133 per minute for making an outgoing call to India and Rs 85 per minute to receive an incoming call from India. That's correct. You read correctly Rs 133 and Rs 85 per minute. Each SMS would have cost me Rs 15. This is ridiculous I agree but true.

Anyway, by the time we were done with getting the phone connection and buying some jam and jelly etc, our immigration papers were ready. With this I rushed to get the permit for my car from the RSTA office near the bus station. I reached there at just before 1 pm and all the staff had gone for lunch.

"Come back after 2 la," was what I was told by the RTO. Bhutanese use the word "la" as an honourific. It is the equivalent of "Sir" or "Huzoor" or "Janab". "Kadinche la" is a very useful phrase to know when you are in Bhutan. It means thank you and Bhutanese are very pleasantly surprised when you say that and it opens many doors.

By the time I got the permit to drive in Bhutan it was around 3. I thought it would be prudent to stay back in Phuntsholling for the night and start tomorrow early morning for Thimphu. I don't like driving in the night. The last bus to Thimphu from Phuntsholling starts at 4. Bhutan, incidentally, just doesn't have any night bus service anywhere in the country.

We checked into Hotel Sinchula which is a decent mid-market type hotel. It's actually one of the very few in the city offering AC rooms. Lot of Indians stay in Jaigaon, which is on the Indian side of the border, and is much cheaper. But we deliberately didn't stay there because just a week ago Jaigaon had seen violent communal clashes of a rather serious nature. Also due to the ongoing adivasi bandh most hotels were full, as guests who were staying there couldn't move out.

I am keeping the details of getting these immigration and driving permits for later. Now some pictures of Phuntsholling.

Even the petrol pumps in Bhutan have unique architecture. Petrol per litre costs Rs 36

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-pump.jpg

Inside the Tashi Commercial super market. They make the famous Druk brand of fruit products

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-tashi.jpg

A woman earning her browny points with God by turning prayer wheels

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-prayerwheels.jpg

Yet another religious woman at the temple in Phuntsholling

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-prayerwheel2.jpg

A child playing in the park of Phuntsholling

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-child.jpg

We stayed in this hotel. Rs 1300 per night after hard bargaining

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-sinchula.jpg

Last edited by Sudipto-S-Team : 24th May 2009 at 22:21.
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Old 24th May 2009, 23:33   #10
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We started early morning from Phuntsholling. It's a 180 km drive today but the first 60 km or so upto the town of Gedu would be a bad road, HVK had warned me. At the first check post after P'ling they told me after checking all the papers: "do you know the way? It's via Pashakha." I nodded and turned off towards Pashakha.
The original old road is being widened and reinforced here as it passes through a perpetual landslide zone. The temporary road, that we had to take, was in terrible shape. But nothing can be done about it so we slowly started the drive through some of the most terrible roads I have driven in recent memory. To add to the gloomy feeling it started raining after Pashakha. By the time we reached Gedu (and good roads) it was raining hard.
Adding to the misery, we were told that the road ahead was closed due to landslides. But it seemed a temporary closure. No one quite knew what was happening ahead or how long it would take to clear up.
Having faced such road blocks in the past I knew what is to be done. You just wait like a mule. You don't ask too many questions.
Someone said they were blasting the road, someone said it was a landslide. Some said it would open at 11. Some said at 1. It was 9 am then. I just got into a shop and ordered Momos. They even made me a cup of sugar less tea.
By ten the road was opened and all the waiting vehicles rushed out, lest something happens again and they are blocked again. We took our own sweet time and proceeded at a gingerly pace. After about 25 km the landslide zone actually came. This place is called Takti and comes just after the famous "Dantak Canteen".

It's approximately 5 km of slush, mud and missing roads. Monisha, my wife, saw some fresh rubble sliding down the mountainside. Small boulders were coming down. That was pretty scary for her. All this was made worse by the constant rain.

I am sorry there is no picture of our crossing this stretch in rains, because taking the camera out for posterity was the last thing on our minds. We were keen to just get out of the hell hole. There are some pictures of this stretch taken during our return journey when the stretch was equally bad fairly dry. I will try to post them.

Meanwhile here are some pictures of the stretch after Takti but before the entry into Thimphu. I was pleasantly surprised by the sight of a very widened expressway from Chuzom which became a four-lane road. There was even a flyover now before the entry into the town of Thimphu. Our good old Lungten Zampa - the original and historical bridge over Wangchu in Thimphu is not used anymore for getting into the city. I was a bit sad to find this change.

Of course Lungten Zampa still exists as I later found out but not in the original form in which I had seen it 20 years ago. It has been modernised. It is used for going to Simtokha or Punakha from Thimphu. I later had a chat with a Bhutanese about such changes and he told me the story of his father from the village who saw Lungten Zampa after a long time and refused to believe it was the same old bridge. I can quite understand the old man's sentiment.

Those who have never been to Thimphu might well wonder why I am making such a big hue and cry about a very simple small bridge in the city that has been modernised. It's somewhat equivalent of reaching Mumbai after 20 years by train to find that VT has been replaced by a swank new multi-storeyed building of a station !!

Anyway, on with the pictures of the Phuntsholling-Thimphu stretch.

The town of Tshimasham is now a popular lunch break on this road


Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-tshimasham.jpg

A very wet Esteem and an even wetter dog at one of the innumerable check posts on the P'ling-Thimphu road


Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-checkpost1.jpg

Yet another check post - very artfully done up


Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-checkpost2.jpg

A royal welcome to the city of Thimphu


Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-w2thimphu.jpg
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Old 25th May 2009, 00:35   #11
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Here are a few more images of the Takti landslide zone that stretched for close to 5 km. This stretch started immediately after the Dantak Canteen, which is 25 km from Gedu. This can be a convenient lunch break, if you plan a Bhutan trip.

These pictures were taken during the return journey when the climate was a lot drier. You can imagine how it felt driving through this stretch in heavy rain. I must say, the Michelin XM1+ held out pretty brilliantly all through this journey, particularly the rocky forest roads in Dooars jungles that broke my silencer.

By the way, heavy rain in the mountain does not really mean what it means in the plains. There heavy rain means a steady and constant but much lower intensity rain than in the plains. I find it more nagging and gloomy than the dazzling fast rains of the plains, which I find enjoyable.

The images are self explanatory but I am adding very basic captions. Dantak is an Indian Army project to build and maintain roads in Bhutan. They are doing a splendid job for the last few decades.

The Dantak Canteen indeed is fairly welcoming

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-dantak.jpg

The killer stretch seen from the opposite hill

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-stretch1.jpg

Another shot of the landslide zone

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-stretch.jpg

Clean up time with very heavy duty excavators

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-cleanup1.jpg

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-cleanup2.jpg

Wet Bhutan and Green Dooars-cleanup3.jpg

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Old 25th May 2009, 09:32   #12
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Sudipto da, great trip - you appear to have had quite an adventure getting into Bhutan. In comparison, I had a very smooth entry.

Surprised that it took you so long to get your permits at Phuntsoling - we got our Entry Permit (for ourselves) in 1 hour and the Route Permit (for the Scorpio) took us another hour. Maybe it is because we were able to present ourselves at teh Immigration Office when it opened its doors at 9 am Bhutan time.


Quote:
prepaid Tashi Cell connection and some basic shopping in Tashi Commercial's super market. It's an amazingly fast process to get a prepaid connection in Bhutan. You get connected in 15 minutes flat and the recharge vouchers offer you 100 per cent talk time.

Each call to India from the TashiCell number is approximately Rs 5 in the first minute then Re 1.20 for every 15 seconds. After every call you get a message stating how much the call cost you and what your current balance is.

In contrast - roaming on my Airtel number would have cost me, Rs 133 per minute for making an outgoing call to India and Rs 85 per minute to receive an incoming call from India. That's correct. You read correctly Rs 133 and Rs 85 per minute. Each SMS would have cost me Rs 15. This is ridiculous I agree but true.
Most sensible thing - I use the international roaming in my India mobile, and despite teh restrained use, my bill for 6 days in Bhutan cam to almost Rs 1,800!

Quote:
Takti landslide zone that stretched for close to 5 km. This stretch started immediately after the Dantak Canteen, which is 25 km from Gedu.
I was also stopped for 30 minutes - some landslide clearance - and I am told that during the raining season - has already started - the road gets shut down for 2-3 days at this point.
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Old 25th May 2009, 09:41   #13
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Sudiptada, Awesome start. Atleast I am happy that I could manage to coax you into writing this travelogue, otherwise you would have let be vanish in oblivion. Keep it pouring and btw thanks for braving the heat in your computer room
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Old 25th May 2009, 10:44   #14
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Great writup. I am already hooked up. Waiting to see more pictures of Bhutan.
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Old 25th May 2009, 14:08   #15
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HVK - that Tashi Cell idea belongs to a fellow-bhpian called Xeta. I think he helped me save a few thousand rupees through this brilliant idea. If I remember correctly, you had also planned to get a Bhutan number but probably ignored it later.
Regarding the delay in Phuntsholling - first we had to contend with many others before us in the immigration queue. Next we got into the lunch trap that shuts down all government offices in Bhutan from 1-2.
And Sidb thanks for goading me to write it. I would have written it in any case but probably after a few weeks, if not months.
Null - more pictures will follow once I get back home tonight. I hope the net connection at home stays, given that Kolkata has been hit by a serious cyclone called Aila and a few million trees have already fallen snapping a lot of lines everywhere.

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