So we’re gonna be picking up from the part where the convoy has reached Siliguri in West Bengal, after driving through the flat lands of Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar. Should you wish to read about the same, follow the link for Day 1 and Day 2 & 3.
P.S: Due to the nature of the event, almost all the clicks you see here have been captured on a cellphone. Excuse us for the quality of images.
Siliguri to Gangtok
After driving on boring flat roads in a convoy for three days, everyone today was scampering for the driver’s seat as we were about to hit the hills.
Settled in a moving queue, we were soon trudging along the Teesta, on a narrow, sort of busy two lane road.
Driving gingerly in the twisties, we soon arrived at the state border of Sikkim.
While everything seemed to be following a plan, we hit a hurdle, when our friends from Bangladesh were denied entry into the state. It happened due to someone missing out on checking their email, as a result of which, the authorities at the border had no prior intimation of our arrival.
A few phone calls later and after 4 hours of waiting, things were settled and we decided to skip lunch at Namchi and head towards Gangtok, our destination for the day.
Hitting odd patches of slush, we entered a blanket of lights scattered over the hills and rolled into our hotel.
With the next day reserved for a seminar, some of us found their way to the hotel casino, while Aatish, my friend froom another publication and me decided to hit a local karaoke bar.
We met an interesting personality there who showed us a few magic tricks, made us match our voices to the fluorescent lyrics on tv and it was after we got out, Aatish confided that the magician got too close for comfort and would only talk with his lips inside my friend’s ears. Oh and the magician did dance, and how! His pelvic thrusts could put all of bollywood to shame. What a man!
Waking up late the next day, post the seminar, the troupe decided to visit the Rumtek monastery.
Overlooking the mighty Kanchejunga, the monastery was pretty scenic and had an air of calm around it. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of the third highest peak in the world, draped in a sheet of gold as the sun went down.
Post that, a few decided to win back some of their fortune from the casino, while some of us landed up at M.G road in Gangtok city, which in a way does resemble a high street in Europe.
It was my friend and me again who found our way to a pub there, tried some amazing local beer and took a cab back to our hotel.
A few more shots from the stretch
Siliguri to Phuentsholing via Kalimpong and Upper Fagu Tea Gardens
As a ritual, we started early and post the flagoff, drove through the city of Gangtok.
Heading back towards Siliguri, we took a diversion that climbs and hairpins into Kalimpong.
It was a well paved road that cuts through dense foliage and once at the top, the majestic Kanchenjunga showed up in all its glory on a clear day.
Passing through the town, we were greeted by school kids who lined up their innocent smiles for us.
Once past Kalimpong, we were in pine tree territory as we climbed higher and the tarmac was fast disappearing.
We reached at a point, from where it was all downhill, but some construction activity held us back for about 15 minutes.
Waiting for the path to clear, all around me were gardens that packed nicotine for my vision. Blending with colours of fall, the place looked surreal and I so wished i could light up a stove, brew a cuppa and simply soak in the sights.
However, with the path cleared, we soldiered on, to then encounter a seriously bone jarring patch that plummeted down into the Upper Fagu tea gardens.
Once at the bottom, we waited for everyone to regroup and carried on towards our late lunch stop at Chalsa.
From thereon, we traveled to Jaigaon and entered Phuentsholing in Bhutan. It was time to embrace the warm Bhutanese hospitality then, as we were greeted with graceful, welcoming and sparkling smiles along with some really nice butter tea and sweet rice, which perhaps is the most simple, mellow, yet memorable dessert i’ve ever had. Since smoking is banned in Bhutan, if you’re reading this and plan to travel there, you can carry your sticks, but smoking in public is an offence which slaps you with a free night behind bars.
I decided to take a little stroll around the hotel and was greeted with some warning from a group of women who thought i was misbehaving, when i was genuinely saying hello as they passed by and gave me a long stare.
Must’ve been some silly face i might’ve made or maybe i just look weird, but i was honestly saying hello, that being the only word I uttered and the tone was gentlemanly. Made me scamper to my room and call it a night.
Phuentsholing to Thimphu
Flagged off from the gate that borders India and Bhutan, we were being piloted by crsiply dressed smart looking cops in their Toyota Hilux pickup.
Straight out of Phuentsholing, we were snaking through roads built and maintained by BRO that cut through towering landscapes.
Unlike us, the Bhutanese had it all planned, which meant we had scheduled stops for relaxing our bladders, for lunch and for everything else.
Keeps the one at the wheel and the occupants jolly, which the host and Indian organizers couldn’t really figure.
Special mention has to be made about the traffic sense in Bhutan, where oncoming traffic would not just halt, but hearing the police siren, people would take their vehicles off the road for our convoy to pass by.
If it was us, we’d probably hurl abuses, but they waved at us with smiles instead.
The stretch from Phuentsholing to Thimphu is well paved and cuts through amazingly pristine landscapes, which looked even more dramatic, as colours of fall would pop and shine out of the lush green vistas. With only 168 kms to cover for the day, we were making fast progress and soon arrived at the intersection where one road branches off towards Paro, while the other continues into Thimphu city.
We got a taste of Bhutanese civic sense as we entered the city, where traffic was well managed, people were again ready with their pearlies and a river gurgled through the landscape.
We checked into a swanky Le Meridien and with the next day reserved for rest, I couldn’t wait to explore the city.
In and Around Thimphu
After a quick warm shower and shave on the same evening we arrived, I set out to explore Thimphu’s night life. Aatish, my room mate decided to attend a formal dinner organized for us like an obedient student, so i was on my own. I first decided to settle with some beer at a local karaoke pub, which seems to be a rage in Thimphu.
Observing three very pretty ladies sing, a few applauses later, I was invited to hold the mike and let my vocals free. A few giggles later, we were discussing life in general, when the ladies had to leave and three young men decided to give me company.
As locals kept popping in and matched their voices with the glowing lyrics on the screen, my new found friends took me to another karaoke pub. Hindi music is extremely popular in Bhutan is what i figured and even here, I was called upon stage to feel special.
A few more beers guzzled down and the boys then took me to a popular disc called Space 34, which apparently was a fancy place that could fit in uptown New York with ease.
Funny liquid flowing freely, my friends made sure I danced like no one was looking and at closing time, very kindly, offered me to show the city.
Blaring punjabi music in their Etios Cross, they took me to the highest point of Thimphu, where a large idol of Lord Buddha overlooked the city and a couple hours later, I was dropped back to my hotel. Thank you Tshering, Dorjee and Bumpa for your hospitality and warmth, I hope to see you guys again soon.
Partying until 3am and guzzling down a few liters of Alcohol isn’t the best way to get into bed, when you know you have to be up by 6am and climb to a monastery nestled high up upon a vertical rock.
Surprisingly, i was up again and ready to travel towards Paro in Mr Naresh Bhosle’s tricked out Thar, replete with a winch, side cutters and the works. Mr Bhosle is a gentleman of the highest order, who was representing Mahindra for this event and it was him who suggested we climb to the Tiger’s Nest.
While on our way there, we watched an aircraft take off like a spaceship, avoiding cliffs as it cheated gravity at the Paro airport. A few kilometers later, we parked the Thar at the base and looked up to see the monastery, perched high up on a steep rock that tore through the clouds.
It took me aback, as all this while I was thinking for the place to be a casual climb, but it was now i figured that i was going to be a dead man.
I had almost given up and asked Aatish to move further, as i was panting like a scared wall lizard, just minutes into the hike. I gathered some courage, cursed myself for smoking and partying all night, reasoned that maybe Lord Buddha is testing my resilience and climbed in phases, abusing myself the whole time.
A word of advice – Never drink the night before you have to climb a mountain, stop smoking and make sure you eat a hearty breakfast before you set out.
Since i didn’t tick any of these, I somehow climbed halfway and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of a cafe.
Four packets of biscuits and three cups of tea gives you a lot of courage is what i figured, and finally, made my way to the place where the Tiger rested.
My friend spent a lot of time inside as he was the early bird there, while i soaked in the views from the outside and it probably took an hour and a half for us to reach back to our car.
While on our way down, i could see a girl texting and climbing down that steep incline like she was taking a stroll in the park, which made me feel ashamed as I was spent and busted.
A little meal later, we were on our way back, driving through sweater weather, as the canopy on the Thar made merry noises.
Thimphu to Chamkhar, Bumthang
We were warned beforehand of the treacherous conditions that we were about to encounter that day and it sure wasn’t a false alarm. Four laning in the mountains is a big deal and throughout the entire stretch, almost all of us, except the lead car were driving blind in thick clouds of dust as the road was being widened.
With not even an inch of tarmac throughout, except for the last few kilometers in the journey, the car’s suspension bottomed out a million times, thanks to almost a quintal of weight in the boot and the air filter was probably blurting abuses all throughout.
We did stop at some heart meltingly scenic locations though, which almost wiped off the weariness and it was late in the evening when we rolled into Bumthang. The place is apparently one of the most scenic locations in Bhutan and I know i witnessed perhaps what was the clearest sky in the night.
Before dinner, I got to sample some Yak meat, which tastes good, but is quite chewy, along with a local drink called ‘Aara’, which is made of fried egg white, locally brewed alcohol and is served warm. It tasted and smelled slightly funky, but injects warmth right into your body, the moment you it trickles down your throat. Which was much required as the temperature dropped to -7 in the night.
Pity that we had to leave the place early in the morning, and with dense fog, there was nothing much to see, although we could catch a glimpse of the place since start was delayed to 10am.
A few clicks from the journey
Bumthang to Mongar
The drive to Mongar was again littered with patches, which were more or less similar to what we encountered the previous day, however, where four laning work was yet to start, stretches of tarmac provided relief.
We took a little detour to Mebar Tso, a little sacred lake where Teron Pema Lingpa, a buddhist saint known for discovering sacred treasures is believed to have jumped in the water with a burning lamp in 1475. He came out of the lake with the lamp still burning, a script and a ritual skull.
Marching forward, we crossed Thrumshing La, one of the highest motorable passes in Bhutan.
Stopping to refill ourselves with some packed lunch, we carried on towards Mongar.
As daylight started fading and we hit a dusty patch in the night. Reaching our destination, we headed out to fuel up the cars and retired to our rooms after a hearty meal.
Mongar to Guwahati via Samdrup Jongkar
It was all downhill from here, as the convoy drove through some lush green and most pristine forests one can find on earth.
The virgin vistas and untamed locales were etching a beautiful scar in our hearts, as the thought of exiting such a beautiful country hit our heads.
Bhutan is an experience that cannot be described in the most fanciest of words or even the most well composed pictures. The people, the culture and the landscape is unique in many ways and all of us felt grateful for having experienced the time of our lives.
And i haven’t even mentioned the kids of this country, who have a perpetual smile on their faces and greet you with a salute or a bow, no matter who you are. All you have to do is just wave at them.
Entering Assam, we were ripping it on flat roads that we encountered after a long time and soon crossed over the mighty Brahmaputra into the city of Guwahati.
From Guwahati, we passed through Shillong, where the Chief Minister greeted all of us before we headed towards Silchar, encountering what was to be the most ghastly stretch of the entire journey.
Although it is a national highway, there were potholes deep enough to swallow an entire truck and the stretch was good enough to put even a Lunar landscape to shame.
Frustrated to the core, after having to dodge boulders, potholes and dust, we reached Silchar with weary bones, where some of us had to settle for rooms that just had no washrooms.
After a sleepless night with blood sucking bed bugs for company, the fact that we had crossed into India hit me and all I wished for was to get out of that place.
But the misery seemed to have no end, as the stretch from Silchar to Agartala was even worse till the point where we crossed into Manipur. It is a national shame really, that road, and we got to know that it hasn’t been repaired in the last 20 years due to militant activity.
Entering Manipur was a big respite, as the road condition improved dramatically. We were greeted with a cultural programme and then continued to roll into Agartala, late in the evening.
Agartala to Chittagong
From Agartala, we crossed into Bangladesh through the Belonia border post, which was historic as we were the first passenger vehicles to cross through there.
Passing through the city of Feni, the landscape seemed familiar to what we’d see in Bihar or Bengal, as paddy fields and fish farming ponds filled the vision.
There were people, lined up in hordes to see the convoy pass through and I was told, just like India, Bangladesh too has a population problem.
With a pit stop at a circuit house for lunch, where our hosts ensured we were all well fed, perhaps dishing out all of the country’s fish on a platter, we headed towards the port city of Chittagong with our bellies balooning through our shirts.
Like most Indian cities, Chittagong is chaotic, full of traffic and people.
While not much could be experienced, since we were there only for the night, our friends from Bangladesh made sure we were pampered in luxury at a high rise hotel which overlooked the city.
Chittagong to Dhaka
It was the first time during the trip, where i opted to be in the passenger seat, after experiencing some really crazy traffic sense on the highways in Bangladesh.
So Monmat Naik, a man funny and adorable as hell, was at the wheel, while i plugged in some music and enjoyed a nap.
We were travelling on straight roads, fed with amazing food and were provided with not one or two, but six vehicles to lead our convoy.
Crossing rivers where large barges full of people were dredging sand, we entered Dhaka, which is metropolitan and pretty much like most South east Asian cities.
The next day, reserved for a seminar, I went shopping with my friend and fellow passenger, who happens to be from Dhaka. Surprised at the bargains we found for clothes, I ended up buying t-shirts for which i would’ve paid 20 times more in India.
Alcohol is banned in Bangladesh, although you may have what you like at a 5-star property. I had some beer, which looked exactly like Foster’s, until i tasted it, looked at the label closely to see that it was called ‘Hunter’. Calling it a night, I wasn’t really looking forward for the next day, as it was to be the last day of our journey.
Dhaka to Kolkata
Heading out from the Pan Pacific Sonargaon, our first stop was at the Sheikh Mujibur Rehman memorial, where the freedom fighter was assassinated in his own house along with members of his family. Taking a tour through Bangladesh’s history, we witnessed blood stains on the roof, which have been preserved as a reminder of the great struggle.
The next stop was a uniquely designed structure, which was the Parliament house, from where we were flagged off to head out of the city and stop by at the Martyr’s Memorial for Bangladesh’s freedom fighters.
The place was tranquil and filled with a nation’s memories, reminding the current generation of struggles in the past that lets them breathe free in the present.
It was then time to experience river crossing of a different kind, as we drove into a large ferry that was to take us across the mighty Padma river.
Post a 45 minutes ride, just when things seemed to be a little mundane, we decided to add some adventure to our lives. While we stopped at a bunk for refueling, due to a confusion, out of 20, ten cars were filled up with petrol instead of diesel, which thankfully we realized at the time of billing.
The Mahindra and Toyota backup team then quickly got to work, jacking up the cars and removing the tank to drain them completely. Since we required more hands, local mechanics joined us to help. But then that wasn’t it. While we waited for the tanks to be cleaned, some of us were resting in an electric auto rickshaw, which has a really narrow footprint. Excited to know what it feels like to be driven in one, we asked to driver to take us for a joy ride.
Everything seemed alright, when while taking a U-turn, the driver managed to go off the road and plummeted the damn thing in a 20 feet deep pit. Since i was sitting next to him in the front seat, it was one of the most silliest accidents that i witnessed at slow speed, as we entered the bushes, flattened plants and finally came to rest, with the three wheeler over my body, my thigh stuck beneath. Thankfully, that thing was light weight and quick action by my friends ensured i got out with a couple bruises and a sore thigh.
Crossing into home country via the Benapole border, i was back in the passenger seat, limping my way into Kolkata after an adventurous last episode of the journey.
The next day was reserved for a closing ceremony, which i missed, since i had to fly back that very morning.
About the Vehicles
Mahindra and Toyota had both come together to supply vehicles for the 2015 BBIN Friendship Motor Rally and all of them performed amazingly well, with zero downtime.
Except for the fuel incident which was human error and a lone puncture on one car, all twenty machines were proof of robust, fault free and modern engineering.
For the conditions and the terrain that we traversed, all twenty cars survived a lot of beating, which is solid proof of their rugged capabilities.