Out of India and across Bhutan

Thurs 9th Oct – Bikes all intact and as we left them in the hotel room. 60,000 rupees (US$1,000) for the 4 months storage. Bikes all started and oil changes were completed without incident, tyres needed inflating. Nothing else really – just Daves battery flat but Jo’s spare did the trick.

Fri 10th Oct – First ride of 65 kms and an ascent of 2,000m to Darjeeling took 5.5 hrs or 4.5 excluding the lunch break. Average speed of 14 km/hr – welcome back to India!  Temperature went from 33deg to 20deg, and some heavy rain making the criss crossing of the toy train track along the hills side quite treacherous. Amar’s guide, Nareen is pretty good and sensible.

Dave just asked for a South American cocktail (pina colaada) to top off our pre dinner drinks of 2 pints of Kingfisher beer each, here at the Cedar Hotel (much like the old colonial hotel we stayed at in Shimla10 years ago albeit sans monkeys on roof).  Elgin Hotel (where we stayed & spent Xmas in 2003) was full but hope to lunch there tomorrow. Dinner at 7.30 and all in bed asleep by 8.30pm – old folks finding the acclimatisation and the riding – or should I say staying alive amongst the cows, dogs, goats, pigs and suicidal bus drivers – quite a challenge.

Sat 11th Oct – Good day around Darjeeling today, awakening at 4am and down in the hoel lobby doing internet by 6am. Very cold here until the sun shines on you, but at least in the morning the cloud is kind enough to let you get a glimpse of the Himalaya range with Kanamanjunga (world’s 3rd highest peak) showing itself across the valley at last. By 9.30am we’re away in the SUV to revisit the Himalayan Mountaineering Centre where Tensing’s buried. The Museum is a great tribute of all the climbing efforts and the zoo through which you have to walk to get to it is a bit different – red panda, lost of colourful local birds, a Bengal tiger (huge), black and normal leopards, heaps of other stuff. Then to the Tibetan refugee centre to see the folks there doing their wool crafts & carpeting before we lunched at the wonderfully British Elgin Hotel – every bit as grand as we remembered it and a real touch of the Budapest Hotel.

Sun 12th Oct – 100km ride to Gangtok, capital of Sikkim – once was an absolute monarchy, nowadays a constitutional one, population = XXX. Temperature rose from 18 deg to 34 as we dropped from 2,500m into the border valley at 400m. But then back up to the hillside capital at 1500m.

No incidents – Gareth had an untidy one-two on the wet rails of the Darjeeling rail on exit but nothing else to record. Arrived in Gangtok at 2pm having left at 8.45am so av speed today was 23 kph, well up on yesterday’s 14 kph. Road a lot less busy than the roads around Darjeeling. Gangtok is a more pleasant town too, not so dirty.

Hotel was a disaster in Gangtok, dinner at 7.30pm but that’s when they started thinking about it. We gave up and went to bed.

Mon 13th Oct – change of plan today, instead of the 75km to Kalimpong we decided to lunch there and push on a further 60km to Malbazar so we only have a 100km run to the Bhutan border the next day. Malbazar is back down on the plain and certainly not a tourist destination – so we get a taste of genuine Indian conditions in one of the local lodges. Still miles above the status of accoms the locals live in. Lunch up on the mountain ridge town of Kalimpong (back in India again) was dumplings (Momo) and we enjoyed that.

Tues 14th Oct – into Phuntsholing by 11am and had lunch upstairs at the Red Pepper café  and into hotel before dealing with exits from India and entry into Bhutan. Ride through the tea plantations was stunning and got good pics and movies of the ladies harvesting.

No issues whatever with getting carnets stamped out which had been a concern considering the bikes had been in India for 4 months. Said goodbye to guide Narren and driver  XX – both had been pleasant to deal with, efficient and flexible. New guide and driver are Phurba and Ugyen who live in Thimpa and are boiling hot down here on the plains in Phuntsholing. By contrast we’re quite adapted now. They tell us we have a 2,600m pass to cross en route to Paro tomorrow.

Wed 15th Oct – long ride over the hills to Paro. Staight up the escarpment first to 2,000m and then up hill and down dale all the way to the valley of Paro. Beautiful country, few people and cars so a major change from India’s congestion. Everybody is a Buddhist although State and religion are separated. Only had a constitutional monarchy (ie a parliament) since 2008 so very new, 2nd term of parliament only. Seems to be going ok. Seems the economy is subsistence agriculture and tourism (well that’s Paro anyway), although apparently they export hydro power to India. Guide doesn’t like Indians. Tourism is weird – US$250 per day which covers guide, hotel, all food and taxes – so all inclusive really. It’s compulsory – keeps out the backpacker riff raff for sure. But tourist numbers aren’t huge – about 80,000 pa. At a popn of 750,000 or 1/6th of NZ that’s equivalent tourism numbers of just 480,000 cf to our 2.6m. Earnings from this “high value” approach to tourism is then just US$70m pa. But the whole tourism industry is new so maybe it will do better.

Paro is a trinket town and therefore not appealing. Also we’ve never seen so many loose dogs on the streets as in this town – it’s an infestation and the locals just accept them – really weird.

Thurs 16th Oct – Up early and off to Eagles Nest or Takhtshang Goemba – the one hanging off the cliff just outside Paro. We left the carpark at 8am and were back by 11am, after climbing 400m to the viewpoint opposite the Goemba across the ravine. Couldn’t be bothered doing the 900 steps down and back up to the Goemba on the other side of the ravine.

Once into Thimpu we did the van tour of the sights – giant Buddha, parliamentary buildings and modest palace of the King. Best bit was the golf course – looked really nice. Then it was down town for a wander and per-dinner drinkies. Because all meals have been prepaid we’re tending to eat at the hotels – also the food is better there.

Friday 17th Oct – over a mountain pass (3100m) and down to the old capital at Punakha for the night (1200m only so hot in this valley). 2 hour road hold up for road works but still a great up and down, windy ride. Glad the weather is superb because given the amount of road reconstruction going on sliding down the mountain pass into this valley would have been horrific. The ride was 70kms and took 7 hours including the 2 hour stop. As the crow flies Punakha is a mere 27kms from Thimpu. And tomorrow’s destination, Trongsa is 60kms in a straight line but 132km

Interesting that our guides, once dropping us off at the eastern border at Samdrup Jongkhar, will drive back to Phuntsholing directly in Northern India. But they will need an escort because of all the highway robbery and murders (no driving at night). The robbers are Indians, camped in the southern jungles of Bhutan and ply their trade along that road.

Saturday 18th Oct – Trongsa, 120kms along the road is another hillside hamlet with a Dzong and a vegetable market and nothing else. Oh, aprt for 20 dogs following us along the street as we walked in from the Resort Hotel, some 2 kms out of town. This is the centre of Bhutan pretty much and it is picturesque jungle clad mountain sides and deep ravines. The locals try to etch out a farming existence on the hillsides.

Sunday 19th Oct – to Jakar and an overnight at the River Lodge. Only 66 kms today so off the bikes by noon, a lazy Sunday afternoon is quite welcome. I didn’t bother with the ritual town walk today, instead sat in the hotel garden in the sun and dozed. Today’s mountain pass was 3400m up from the Trongsa stop at 2100m. Have decided this economy is going nowhere- the govt clearly gets enough revenue from hydro and tourism exports to build most people a decent house, & to fund health & education but those people are still either manning little shops or farming. Just doesn’t seem any opportunity for people to be entrepreneurial.

Monday 20th Oct – to Mongar, a mountainside town reached after 185kms of up and down from 1000m to 3600m down to 1500m up to 3800m (highest road point in Bhutan) and then down to 500m and back up to 1500m at Mongar. So 65 kms in a straight line turns into 185 kms and 8 hours! The bush-laden hills are wonderful, with monkeys and birds

Tuesday 21st Oct – to Trashigang, a nothing town even further east. A short day as the population centres out here are getting further and further apart and tomorrow we have a big leg to do to our last post in Bhutan, Samdrup Jongkhar – and there is nothing between Trashigang and it so we lay up here for the night and have an early start tomorrow. Today’s ride over another mountain pass really highlighted the biodiversity of Bhutan – the mountain forests are so lush and varied it is great just to stop in them, turn off the bikes and watch and listen to the birds and other wildlife go about their daily routine.

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