Showing posts with label Siliguri. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Siliguri. Show all posts

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Druk Diaries: An experience of a lifetime

During January 2015 when I first mentioned that I think we should drive to Bhutan, the family's response was cautious. I think they initially though that I was joking and they let it pass. As day came nearer, I started preparing for it. Slowly everybody was on board.
The original plan was to start the trip in second week of April, but my family has to be in Delhi during first week of April. We decided that they will directly join me in Kolkata and I will drive from Bengaluru to Kolkata alone. My all the road trips have been with family and this was the first time when I was planning on driving more than 1500 kilometers alone.
You can find the total trip map above. We reached Bhutan by taking east coast of India and then came through central India. The total distance of the trip was upwards of 7700 kilometers and total fuel consumed was more than 850 liters. I did not keep track of total toll paid for this trip but it must be more than Rs. 4000/-.
Here is the detailed account of the trip.

  1. Prologue
  2. Bhutan Road Trip Process
  3. Day   1 : Bengaluru to Rajahmundry
  4. Day   2 : Rajahmundry to Kolkata
  5. Day   3 : Kolkata to Asansol
  6. Day   4 : Asansol to Siliguri with blessing from Baba Vaidyanath of Deoghar
  7. Day   5 : Arriving in Bhutan, Siliguri to Thimphu via Phuentsholling
  8. Day   6 : Permit Extension, Thimphu sightseeing
  9. Day   7 : Thimphu local attractions and Dochu La
  10. Day   8 : Thimphu to Trongsa via Punakha
  11. Day   9 : Trongsa local attractions
  12. Day 10 : Trongsa to Bumthang and Bumthang local attractions
  13. Day 11 : Bumthang to Phobjikha and chillout at Phobjikha
  14. Day 12 : Phobjikha to Thimphu, personalized stamps at Thimphu GPO
  15. Day 13 : Thimphu to Paro, Paro Dzong
  16. Day 14 : Taktsang Lhakhang or Tiger's Nest, a great trek
  17. Day 15 : Chele La, Haa and Paro Market
  18. Day 16 : Return journey, Paro to Purnea
  19. Day 17 : Return journey, Purnea to Kanpur
  20. Day 18 : Return journey, Kanpur to Bhopal
  21. Day 19-22 : Break at Bhopal, Fixes to the car
  22. Day 23 : Return Journey, Bhopal to Bengaluru
This trip was a test of endurance for us, all of us in the family, which we passed with flying colors. Many times it was tough, particularly during that dark, rainy night of drive to Trongsa, when we had no idea whether we were even on right path or the final day of drive when we decided to do Bhopal to Bengaluru without taking at break. At around 12:30 AM when I was really sleepy, my wife, who doesn't prefer to drive in night, offered to drive and that hour and half of drive by her made it easier for us to reach without taking too much risk.
Before this trip, the maximum that we had driven in a day was approximately 985 kilometers, i.e. Pune to Mount Abu. Now it stands at 1500+ kilometers.

If I were to do it again
If I were to do it again, I would probably modify the itinerary as follows.
  1. Do Dochu La as part of drive to Punakha and stay in Punakha
  2. Do Trongsa in day time and continue and stay in Bumthang
  3. Move Paro to start of the trip
  4. Couple of days extra for Mongar and Trashigang, 1 day to Mongar 1 day in Trashigang and then exit via Samdrup Jongkhar
Because of under construction roads, drive to east is specifically painful in Bhutan currently. It is very difficult to drive long distances across West-East highway. If locals were to be believed, it would probably 2-4 years before things would become better.

Lessons Learnt
  • How important are your own tools in the car. The puncture guys whom I found on highway neither had spanner nor jack that would fit my car.
  • It is very important to have a pump in your car. With a slow leaking tire, my trip would have been very difficult if I did not have pump with me to fill it up
Thanks are in order
This trip would have been much harder to plan and execute if not for the support of many friends on HVK Forum on facebook including but not limited to Rajneesh Khare for all the help around central india,  Sandipan Mallick for all the help around east specifically Kolkata and Asansol and showing a friendly face in hotel, Panduranga Kudige Shenoy for helping me finalize the Deoghar route, Kumar HV for all the guidance, direction and help and everbody who is working with HVK Central Hotel Desk
If I missed somebody, it is not intentional, I am thankful for any help extended by anybody that helped me make this trip successful.
Finally thanks are in order to my wife and daughter for agreeing and putting up with the madness of being on the road for more than 20 days.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Druk Diaries: Day 5 - Arriving in Bhutan, Siliguri to Thimphu

Some key words
As you enter Bhutan, you start hearing some words which are unknown to you. It is a good idea to understand what they mean.
Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan. The word ‘Dzongkha’ means the language (kha) spoken in Dzong.
  • Lam - Road
  • Dzong - Fortress
  • Chorten - Stupa
  • Lhakhang - Monastery 
Not availability of navigation requires one to be prepared with directions beforehand. Have printouts of all the directions handy otherwise lots of time gets wasted in trying to find your way.
I had heard that a portion of the road is bad, but we took a combination of NH31/NH31D and did not find any bad road anywhere.
We had planned on reaching in 4 hours,
Metal piece responsible for puncture
we were all set to reach well before the targeted time of 8:30AM IST. Around 50 kilometers before Phuentsholing, a sharp metal piece went through the rear tyre and we had to stop for a puncture. The metal piece was broad but fortunately the repair held up and we were able to proceed.
There are many segments on the road between Siliguri and Phuentsholling where the bridges and culverts have metal pieces coming out. I think I was not careful at one of these places and ended up puncturing the tyre.
We entered Phuentsholing at 8:00 AM IST. When we enter Bhutan, we need to keep in mind that Bhutan is 30 minutes ahead of India. So even though offices open at 9:00 AM, for people coming from India that is effectively 8:30AM.
We had forms ready and filled before the offices opened. If you are carrying passports then the process is fairly simple. Just go to first floor of Immigration office, which is a yellow building on the right side as you enter from India. In the first floor, deposit the application form with a photograph and copy of passport. Interestingly they never even looked at the original passport.

 It is a good idea to carry few copies of all the important documents. Xeroxing in Bhutan a hassle that one can live without and it is extremely expensive as well. It costs INR 5/- or Nu. 5/- for each copy. It is also a good idea to withdraw cash from the last ATM at Jaigaon. Money withdrawal in Bhutan usually has a surcharge and all bank's ATMs don't dispense cash with Indian cards.
Entry gate to Phuentsholling
Decorative gates are common in Bhutan. At the entrance of every town/city you will find a fabulously decorated gate.
Building in market

Roads, Parking
Most public roads have paid parking in Bhutan. The rates are between Nu. 10 to Nu 20 per hour. In most places parking is free in night from 9 PM to 9 AM.

Tashi building, Tashi Cell outlet is here
You will see the photograph of king and queen everywhere.

The immigration process took less than half an hour for us. There is a Tashi Cell (one of the two cellular provider in Bhutan) office in the market just opposite the immigration office. If you are interested, you can buy a local pre-paid cellular SIM from them. Please keep in mind that Bhutan uses 3G in 850 MHz band and your phone should support that band for 3G if you wish to use 3G there. Of course 2G/GPRS would work just fine. Apple phones and ipads support that band and I used a SIM for my iPad. Even though google navigation is not available in Bhutan and maps are pretty sparse and inaccurate, still it was extremely useful during our trip. Please see the map below for location.
 Once immigration permit was in our hand, we got few copies made and then we were off to get permit for car. The maps above shows the location of RSTA office. Following video also shows driving directions for the office.

I must say car permit process is slightly dis-organized. I will try to explain it here as many travellers have done it before me. There is a detailed post for all the processes here.
  1. It is a good idea to have an application on plain paper addressed to RSTA requesting a permit for your car with the car registration number and name of driver mentioned in the application.
  2. Keep few empty pages, you may need then and it is difficult to get then there
  3. Carry a copy each of following documents
    1. RC book of car
    2. Drivers license
    3. Copy of emission check certificate
    4. Copy of car insurance
    5. Copy of the immigration entry that you got from immigration office. It is a good idea to get the immigration certificate xeroxed as soon as you get it because immigration office is just opposite a market and there are many xerox shops there. In any case if one forgets, one can get a copy from booth number 1 on ground floor in RSTA office where one gets  bus tickets
  4. Once you have all the documents ready, go in following order
    1. Visit room number 4 on second floor, as of now it is titled ARTO. Show him all the documents and he will make a remark on the documents.
    2. Once it is signed by ARTO, need to visit Room 7 on second floor and the officer there would make another remark
    3. Once both the officers have signed on the document, visit the fee counter, opposite room 4.
    4. Once the fee is paid and you have the receipt, you need to visit ground floor where an officer will prepare the permit. He will keep all your documents and give you permit and fee receipt.
    5. Once you have permit and receipt, you need to go to Room 4 on floor 2 and get it signed from ARTO. This completes the process.
  5. As you are driving towards Thimphu/Paro, keep an eye out for checkpoints. Sometime nobody may stop you and not having entered at the checkpoint is not a good idea. We found two checkpoints between Phuentsholling and Thimphu. The map above also marks the check-post location. Following video show the position of check-post. You will need to show both the immigration permit and vehicle permit at the check-post.
Project DANTAK of the Border Roads Organisation, a sub-division of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers, has been operating in Bhutan since May 1961. Since then Project DANTAK has been responsible for the construction and maintenance of over 1,500 km of roads and bridges, Paro Airport and a disused airfield at Yangphula, heliports, and other infrastructure. While these serve India's strategic defence needs, they are also an obvious economic benefit for the people of Bhutan.
Once you are through the checkpost, you are free to continue driving. We all were hungry, but we decided to wait till the Dantak Canteen. In Bhutan you will see Dantak presence at many places.
As you enter Bhutan, don't rush. As a rule, don't rush anywhere in Bhutan. People are considerate. If you are faster and behind somebody, they will give you side and let you overtake. The road in Bhutan are all hilly roads and can be extremely dangerous if you are not used to. Also if you are carrying passengers, take care in driving, otherwise too many jerky movements and motion sickness would set in and spoil the trip.
The roads at places are too narrow and the right of way is of climbing vehicle. You will have to come to absolute standstill at many place to cross. It is not at all a bright idea to rush the driving particularly when you see big vehicles like buses and trucks approach. These people are used to these roads and at times drive almost rashly.

11:40 AM Was enroute to Thimphu
11:49 AM Crossed the first checkpost.

12:42 PM Crossed Gedu

1:23 PM Reached Dantak Canteen. There are clean toilets and decent food there.
Me at Dantak Canteen
Somehow it is always great to see fellow Indians in a foreign land, even if the foreign land is Bhutan. The job that is Dantak is doing is phenomenal.
2:10 PM Finished from the canteen and now we were all set for drive till the Thimphu.
2:25 PM We crossed Chhukha
3:26 PM Stopped at the second checkpost. Check the map for location
3:40 PM Crossed Chapcha

4:15 PM Reached the Chuzom from where you can either go to Thimphu or Paro. As you reach closer to Thimphu, the road quality gets better. Once you enter the Thimphu gate, it is a nice 2-laned marked road till Thimphu.

5:06 PM 7 kilometers before Thimphu city, you will see a signage welcoming you to capital city and the road turns a nice 4-laned road with divider from here.

5:22 PM We enter the Norzin Lam which seems like the main street of Thimphu city. Since google maps just becomes useless at this time, we decide to park the car in market and walk around to find our hotel. Luckily our hotel is on Chang Lam which is the road parallel to Norzin Lam. We stayed at Hotel Norbuling. Here is my review of the hotel.
As soon as I entered, I felt that Bhutan is a place to experience. You have to slow yourself down. Look around at things. There are subtle changes when you compare it to India. That's what makes it special.
We also felt that the weather was significantly chilly at this time of the year and we pretty much had to carry jacket if we are walking around town.
There was nothing special planned for the evening. We had a leisurely dinner and called it a night. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Druk Diaries: Day 4 of the drive, Asansol to Siliguri

The excitement was building as we were nearing the Bhutan border. We found out that one of the Jyotirling, Vaidyanath is in Deoghar. So we decided to take a small detour and visit the temple enroute to Siliguri.
4:50 AM Started from the hotel at Asansol. The road towards Dumka and Deoghar is narrow but the surface was good for most part.

6:33 AM Crossed Dumka town. The town entry and exit seems messy. We were there early in the morning so did not face any hassle but I can see how in day time it could be crowded.
7:30 AM Reached Deoghar. Found parking near temple, hassled with pandas. Unfortunately temple took too long. It was extremely crowded.
Deoghar, also known as Baidyanath Dham, is an important Hindu pilgrimage site. It is one of the twelve jyotirlingam and also one of the 51 shaktipeeths. It is, along with Shrisailam, one of the few places in India where the jyotirlinga and the shaktipeeth are together, lying sided beside each other. Baidyanatham chithabhoomau (वैद्यनाथम् चिताभूमि) [शिवमहापुराण कोटिरुद्रा संहिता 1/21-24] is the ancient verse that identifies location of vaidyanth jyotirlinga. According to which Baidyantham is in 'chidabhoomi', which is the ancient name of Deoghar. While, the same part of text has variation by which, verse is paralyam vaidyanatham (परल्यम् वैद्यनाथम्) , i.e., Vaidyanatham is in Parli, Maharashtra. Thus the three temples of, Baiydanath temple at Deoghar, Jharkhand, Vaijnath temple at Parli, Maharashtra and Baijnath temple at Baijnath, Himachal Pradesh are claiming their shrines as 'real' jyotirlinga of Vaidyanath.
In Dwadasa jyothirlinga sthothram(द्वादश ज्योतिर्लिंग स्त्रोत्रम), Adi Sankaracharya has praised Vaidyanath jyothirlinga in following verses,
पूर्वोत्तरे प्रज्वलिका निधाने
सदा वसंतम गिरिजा समेतम्
सुरासुराधिता पदपद्मम्
श्रीवैद्यनाथम् त्वमहम् नमामि
Poorvothare prajwalika nidhane
sada vasantham girija sametham
surasuraradhitha padapadmam
srivaidyanatham thamaham namami
This states that Vaidyanath jyotirlinga is located at Prajwalika nidhanam (meaning funeral place i.e., chithabhoomi) in the North-Eastern part of the country. This explaination suits more to Deoghar compared to Parali-Baijnath which is in Maharashtra.
11:00 AM Finally managed to come out of temple after darshan etc. Everybody was hungry because we did not even have breakfast till that time. So we decided to pay a visit to Hotel Amrapali Clarks Inn and have something to eat there.
By the time we reached there, the breakfast service was over and lunch service had not started. They told us that they can provide us with some sandwiches. After some negotiations, they agreed us to make some parathas for us and that was almost godsend. Here is my review of the place.
Now that we were done with immediate issues, we started back on our drive towards Siliguri. One of the locals suggested that we go through Banka. Although I don't know the alternate route, it seems the other route is better. We really did not face any problem through this route either.
12:15 PM Left the hotel towards Banka
1:30 PM Crossed Banka
2:25 PM Reached outskirts of Bhagalpur town. We continued on SH-25 to finally join the road that connects to the bridge. SH-25, just before it connects to SH-19 has been dug up and we were stuck there. Finally we retraced our steps back and got into the thick of the city that goes near the railway station. After this mess, we were stuck near a railway crossing. The gates took more than 15 minutes to open.
It was an hour long ordeal and we finally were out of the other side of the town.

3:40 PM Crossed Bhagalpur town and crossed the bridge over the Ganga.
Soon after the bridge, we saw a hotel and decided to halt for some tea and food. The name of the place is Hotel Vaibhav Highway Inn. Here is my review of the hotel.

4:50 PM Crossed Naugachia
6:00 PM Crossed Purnea
7:15 PM Crossed Kishanganj.
7:45 PM Crossed Islampur
9:00 PM Reached Siliguri. Checked into the hotel provided by CHD.