Saturday, April 10, 2010

Drive to Bhutan and Darjeeling hills

Day 1 (10.04.10)

Jaya and I drove in our Swift VDi to Durgapur (233 km) via Chandil, Purulia and Bankura. Spent the night with my cousin Babluda and his wife Kamala Boudi.

The road from Jamshedpur to Chandil is not too good at present. Chandil to Purulia stretch is quite good. Purulia to Bankura is also quite good but has many curves. Bankura to Durgapur is excellent (though it is not a dual carriageway), with bright white lines in the middle as well as on both sides of the road.

Day 2

Jaya, Babluda, Boudi and I started from Durgapur at 5 AM and reached Siliguri (517 km) at 5 PM.

From Durgapur, we drove via Panagarh, Ilam Bazar, Siuri, Rampurhat and Nalhati to Moregram where the road joins NH34 (Kolkata-Siliguri highway). From Moregram we drove to Siliguri via Farakka, Malda, Dalkhola and Islampur.

Except for a few short stretches, the road was quite good throughout. From Dalkhola to Bagdogra there is an excellent 4-lane dual carriageway (except for a 6 km 2-lane stretch after Islampur and another 12 km stretch just before Bagdogra).

Day 3

From Siliguri, we drove to Phuntsholing (155 km) in Bhutan via the Sevoke Coronation bridge, Binnaguri, Jaldapara and Jaigaon. Our original plan was to spend our entire holiday inside Bhutan in cool high-altitude places like Thimphu, Paro, etc., but at Phuntsholing we got a rude shock when we were told by the Bhutan immigration office that in view of a SAARC meeting at Thimphu, no tourists were allowed beyond the border town of Phuntsholing. I had done extensive homework on the net before coming to Bhutan but even the official website of Bhutan Tourism didn’t mention anything about this tourist ban (throughout the month of April).

We spent some time sightseeing on the streets of Phuntsholing and had an excellent Chinese lunch there. The shops and restaurants of Phuntsholing were of a significantly higher standard than those in the Darjeeling hills. The small town looked clean and well-maintained and local Bhutanese men and women were all attired in their national dress.

We had to replan our entire holiday and we had to do it very quickly. All four of us had looked forward to spending the night of Day-3 in some cool place up in the hills amidst the pines and Phuntsholing definitely did not fit the bill. It was 2 PM by the time we started driving back from Phuntsholing and we wanted to choose a hill destination which we could reach before it got dark. I decided to head for the hill station of Lava in the Darjeeling hills.

First, I drove 99 km back on the same road to Sevoke which I had taken earlier in the morning. Then at Malbazar, I left this road and took a narrow road through tea gardens to Gorubathan (13 km from Malbazar). From Gorubathan, it was a steep 41 km climb to Lava. When we were about 25 km from Lava, we encountered fog which kept getting thicker as we climbed. The sun had set and it got dark very quickly. To make matters worse, a light but persistent drizzle set in. Visibility in the fog was down to a few feet, that too with the help of the Swift’s fog lights. Headlights were useless as they only showed a wall of thick fog. It was very difficult to drive as the road did not have any white line or other markings. But I managed to inch ahead, slowly but steadily, duly aided by my navigator wife who has a better eyesight than me.

Finally, around 6 PM, we reached Lava at 7700 ft. The small town was enveloped in thick fog and we could hardly see anything. Fortunately, I had been to Lava before and vaguely remembered the way to the WBFDC resort there. The first problem we encountered after reaching the resort was to locate an official. The office was closed and we were desperately looking for someone who could confirm whether accommodation was available. Finally, we found a shopkeeper who was some sort of a booking agent – he rang up the WBFDC officials and gave us the good news that two rooms in the most exclusive cottage in the resort were available. This cottage with 3 spacious rooms (all with attached bath) had a large dining hall, a lovely drawing room with cable TV and a kitchen with a khansama exclusively at our service.

So we did get to spend the night of Day-3 up in the hills amidst the pines. Soon after we settled down at the resort, there was a massive hailstorm and the power went off. The clatter of the hailstones on the tin roof of our cottage was deafening. Dinner of our choice by candlelight, prepared and served by our khansama, made us feel very special!

Day 4

At Lava. Visited the Buddhist monastery, did some shopping and soaked in the ambience.

Car Wed 14-04-2010 08-46-34

At the WBFDC resort at Lava

Day 5

Went for a morning walk into the pine forests of Lava. After breakfast, checked out of the resort and drove to nearby Rishyap (about 8000 ft) to get a magnificent panoramic view of Himalayan peaks.

Car Wed 14-04-2010 09-39-39 On the road to Rishyap

After visiting Rishyap we descended to Teesta Bazar via Kalimpong. Then started a steep ascent to Ghoom (near Darjeeling). This stretch from Teesta Bazar to Ghoom is one of the steepest ghat stretches that I have encountered in India. This was my second drive up this stretch and I once again enjoyed the thrill of sharp 360 degree turns that this stretch is famous for.

By late afternoon, we were well ensconced in the DGHC resort at Jorepokhri (about 7000 ft).

Car Thu 15-04-2010 06-43-14 At the resort at Jorepokhri

Day 6

Went for a morning walk into the pine forests of Jorepokhri. Checked out and departed for Mirik at 10 AM. Upon reaching Pashupati Phata (Nepal border) we learnt that there was a bandh in Mirik till 6 PM and no vehicles were allowed into Mirik till then. I rang up the police station at Mirik (after getting their phone number from internet thro’ my mobile phone) and they too confirmed that the bandh was very much on till 6 PM.

What to do now? We decided to kill time and entered Nepal (Pashupati Nagar) for some shopping and lunch. This, incidentally, was the second ‘foreign country’ visited during this holiday!

Car Thu 15-04-2010 14-24-52 Cars at Pashupati Nagar, Nepal

After the Pashupatinagar visit, I decided to take a chance and headed for Mirik around 3 PM. We reached Mirik around 4 PM and though the streets of this small town were pretty much deserted due to the bandh, we did not come across any other problem and checked into a DGHC hotel overlooking the best landmark of Mirik – the Samendu Lake.

There was torrential rain at Mirik accompanied by strong winds, thunder and lightning for about 2 hours soon after we settled down at the hotel. Another lucky break!

Day 7

At Mirik. Spent the day sightseeing, shopping, driving up to the ‘Swiss Cottages’ (DGHC resort) and relaxing.

Car Thu 15-04-2010 15-07-13 Amidst tea gardens near Mirik

Day 8

Started from Mirik at 5 AM and reached Durgapur at 6 PM, covering a distance of 560 km.

Day 9

Returned to Jamshedpur from Durgapur.

More pictures of this trip may be seen at

Performance of the Swift VDi

This 2003 km long trip involved very steep ghat roads and even with the car fully loaded (4 adults+luggage) and the AC running, the engine performed admirably and so did the steering, suspension and brakes. The fog lamps came in very handy while driving through thick fog at night while climbing to Lava. Only at Lava, while climbing to our cottage (situated at the highest point inside the WBFDC resort), did I wish that I had more power. That too because visibility was very poor due to thick fog plus total darkness and I could not maintain the minimum speed in 1st gear and the car came to a standstill on a couple of occasions on the very steep approach road to the cottage. I then had to jettison the 3 passengers to resume the climb.

During this long drive I hit a couple of speed breakers and deep potholes at around 60 – 70 kmph and the suspension took it really well, considering that the car was fully loaded.

And the icing on the cake was the amazing mileage of 20.64 km per litre of ordinary diesel, despite the numerous ghat stretches (including some of the steepest climbs in India), almost continuous AC use in the plains and the car fully loaded with 4 adults and luggage.

Some distances for the benefit of other motorists planning this route

Jamshedpur (Sonari)-Chandil : 32 km

Jamshedpur (Sonari)-Purulia : 93 km

Purulia-Bankura : 88 km

Bankura-Durgapur (DVC more) : 48 km

Jamshedpur (Sonari)-Durgapur (DVC more) : 228 km

Durgapur (Indo American more)-Panagarh (Darjeeling more) : 11 km

Panagarh (Darjeeling more)-Ilam Bazar : 24 km

Ilam Bazar-Rampurhat : 93 km

Rampurhat-Nalhati : 16 km

Nalhati-Moregram (NH 34) : 20 km

Moregram-Dhuliyan : 47 km

Dhuliyan-Farakka bridge : 17 km

Farakka-Malda : 33 km

Malda-Raiganj : 76 km

Raiganj-Dalkhola : 48 km

Dalkhola-Islampur : 57 km (mostly 4-laned)

Islampur-Bagdogra more : 62 km (mostly 4-laned)

Bagdogra-Siliguri (Hotel Appollo) : 11 km

Durgapur (Indo American more)-Siliguri (hotels at Mallguri) : 515 km

Siliguri-Coronation bridge : 22 km

Siliguri-Binnaguri : 97 km

Siliguri-Jaldapara WLS : 125 km

Siliguri-Phuntsholing : 155 km

Phuntsholing-Malbazar : 99 km

Malbazar-Gorubathan : 13 km

Gorubathan-Lava (steep climb): 41 km

Phuntsholing-Lava : 153 km

Lava-Rishyap: 9 km

Lava-Kalimpong : 37 km

Kalimpong-Teesta : 16 km

Teesta-Jorebunglo (very steep climb): 30 km

Jorebunglo-Ghoom : 1 km

Ghoom-Sukhiapokhri : 12 km

Sukhiapokhri-Jorepokhri : 2 km

Lava-Jorepokhri : 97 km

Jorepokhri-Pashupatinagar (Nepal) : 9.4 km

Jorepokhri-Mirik : 24 km

Mirik-Dudhiya : 24 km

Mirik-Matigara : 44 km

Mirik-Bagdogra more : 51 km

Mirik-Durgapur (Indo American more) : 557 km