Monday, April 4, 2011

A ride to the The Last Shangri - La

A distant and secluded hideaway, usually of great beauty and peacefulness - a Shangri - La, we set out on the search for this romantically beautiful notion without much of an idea of what to expect. When we were loading our bike on the Azad Hind Express, which was to leave about nine hours late from the scheduled time for the fear of the naxalites it was hard not to laugh at the irony of the name of the train - Azad Hind!!

We reached Calcutta in the afternoon and checked into a hotel near the railway station to start our ride early next day morning. Traversing the entire length of the state of approximately 600 Kms we had planned to reach Siliguri by the day end. Within the first hour of our ride we had to switch to our plan B thanks to the erratic traffic and narrow roads. The trucks on the roads reminded of old Rambo movies with its menacing looks and no one seemed to follow any traffic rules. We called it a day at Dalkhola about a hundred kilometers from Siliguri.

The road from Dalkhola to Siliguri was an absolute pleasure to ride with six lane roads and a vast expanse of tea gardens on either sides extending as far as one could see. The air started changing as we entered Siliguri and the Gorkha Land. By late afternoon we were at Jaigaon the last Indian town at the frontiers of Bhutan.

We checked into a hotel, Hotel Bhutan, and started to chalk out our plan for the week. We decided that we would visit Thimpu, Dochula Pass, Paro, Tiger's nest Monastery and Chelela Pass and if time permits to visit the Punakha valley. Getting the permits to visit these places was the next task which happened very smoothly. Couldn't help but wonder how long it would have took us to get it done if we were in India and the amount that we would have had to shell out as chai-paani. We got the permit free of charge and the permit for the bike cost us less than Rs 150!

We started our ride in Bhutan by early afternoon - Our first destination was Thimpu. The roads where amazing almost like a dream. Narrow but smooth roads with every turn gaining us elevation, we were climbing up the valleys. Like all dreams this one also had to break with the roads changing from absolutely amazing to no road at all. The bad roads continued for about 20 Kms and just like that it went back to the smooth well maintained roads. Later we found out that the road maintenance work happen through out the year as land slides also happen through out the year!!

Thimpu - All buildings in Bhutan are the traditional Bhutanese style, giving it a quaintly beautiful feel. The religious and administrative functions of Bhutan are separated, and the government buildings are housed in Tashi Choe Dzong (monastery) The Royal palace is also close by. The monastery is huge and is unparalleled in its beauty. We visited the Dochula pass which is about 30 Kms ride from Thimphu. Punakha Valley is another 30 Kms from the pass. There is a Gompa and the view absolutely breath taking.

The next day we left for Paro looking forward to the highlight of the trip - The trek to the tiger's Nest monastery. Legend has it that Guru Rimpoche came here riding on the back of a tiger from Tibet. We left Thimphu in the morning and less than two hours ride later we were in Paro. We checked into Hotel Paro and our friendly hostess guided us to different places that we could visit in Paro. We visited the ruins of Druk Gyel dzong in the evening, though in ruins it is still preserved admirably. The next day morning we visited Chelela Pass, Being late winter there still was snow on the sides of the roads. The view of the Himalayas from Chelela Pass the highest point on the Dantak roads was breath taking. We returned to Paro to attempt the trek to the Tiger's nest.

The Tiger's nest Monastery is built on a cliff with a drop of few hundred feets. The view of the monastery from a distance was awe inspiring. The trek up was arduous however truly fulfilling.

We returned the next day to Phuentsholing for the long ride back to Calcutta the next day with the knowledge that the last Shangri - la is still a ride away!