Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The route

Thunder Dragon Rally


Day 1 Arrive Kolkata

You will be met at the airport and a private taxi will take you to the Rally Hotel, the Lalit Great Eastern Kolkata, which is ideally situated for exploring this great and historic city. Before the evening’s Welcome Dinner you will have a chance to meet your fellow participants over drinks, along with the Rally Round support team whose sole purpose is to make your trip as enjoyable as possible. Signing on will also take place this evening and navigators’ bags and road books will be distributed.


Day 2 Kolkata

After a leisurely breakfast, all drivers will be taken by bus to the port, where they will submit their passports in order to start the customs clearance process. The cars will also be scrutineered by Rally Round mechanics. After lunch at the hotel your afternoon is free. We then regroup for a private tram ride around Kolkata, a great way to see the ‘City of Joy’ in all its glory.


Day 3 Kolkata / Sundarbans

Along with the once-ubiquitous Hindustan Ambassador, aka the Morris Oxford, the British legacy in India includes a talent for bureaucracy. As the process of customs clearance will take 72 hours, we have organised a two-day excursion to the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, for which you need only a small overnight bag and a sense of adventure. You will be taken by air-conditioned bus from Kolkata into the countryside, passing traditional fish farms and villages built of mud and reeds. A gentle boat trip will then carry you into the heart of the remarkable Sundarbans, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests, which lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. With a network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands, this UNESCO World Heritage site is an ecological wonder renowned for its awesome wildlife, including the Bengal tiger, the saltwater crocodile, the Indian python and no fewer than 260 bird species. Lunch is at the Tiger Reserve Lodge hotel, the best in the region in spite of its old-fashioned appearance. In the afternoon you may stroll into the local village, visiting its school and shops for a glimpse of ordinary life in rural Bengal. Dinner will be in the hotel’s forest garden, where we will be joined by VIP guests from the village along with traditional musicians and dancers. You are welcome to join the show, although you might need an Indian pale ale or two first! We spend the night in the Forest Lodge. Its gates are locked at night to safeguard residents from the hypercarnivorous local wildlife, but rest assured that the bar will have a good supply of gin and tonic.


Day 4 Sundarbans

Today will be taken at a gentle pace as we venture deep into the tangle of forest waterways, enjoying breakfast and lunch on the boat and keeping our eyes peeled for sleeping tigers, which at this time of year are often seen snoozing on the sunny riverbanks. The cruise delivers us to the Dobanke Watch Tower, where a spectacular forest canopy walk offers another chance to observe the area’s flora and fauna, then returns via Matla, with views across the confluence of five rivers to Pitchkali and the Bay of Bengal. Our second evening at The Forest Lodge will be enlivened by an open-air film show that you may enjoy with a drink by the fire pit. There is also a small shop, selling locally made goods.


Day 5 Sundarbans to Kolkata

After breakfast we travel back to Kolkata. With the customs clearance completed, your car will be waiting for you at the hotel. The rest of the day is free, allowing you to re-pack, fettle the car and familiarise yourself with the road book and GPS whilst calibrating the tripmeter. You may then take a last look around Kolkata before retiring for an early night. Despite all the wonders we have seen thus far, the adventure really begins tomorrow morning!


Day 6 Kolkata to Malda

Today is the day you have been waiting for, and there can be few more memorable moments than the sight and sound of 30 vintage and classic engines roaring into life as dawn breaks over Kolkata. India’s traffic can be daunting at first so we will depart before the city wakes, enjoying a smooth passage on wide, empty roads as we leave behind the crazy conurbation, passing Imperial Victorian piles and great green parks with their tethered horses and roaming goats. As the sun rises higher we motor on at an easy pace into rural West Bengal. Sharing the roads with a mind-boggling variety of vehicles and animals, driving here is slower than you might expect. No doubt, when we reach our hotel at Malda, there will be plenty of entertaining tales to be told.


Day 7 Malda to Siliguri

Leaving Malda we drive on through open country, seeing authentic India in all her glory before reaching the city of Siliguri. Here modern residential blocks dominate the suburbs, surrounding countless market stalls and a core of upscale shops and malls. As a transport, business and retail hub with a great many educational establishments, Siliguri boasts a level of sophistication rarely found outside India’s metropolitan cities. At the hotel you will be met by musicians and a welcome drink and some of you may wish to visit the beautiful boutique, which sells wonderful ladies’ wear and local crafts. After dinner at the poolside, you may try the gentlemanly sport of Tuk Tuk driving, which is sure to be popular. What vintage or classic car enthusiast wouldn’t want to test their skills on one of these world renowned racing machines?


Day 8 Siliguri to Darjeeling

Today’s drive is truly fabulous. Leaving Siliguri you quickly find yourself amongst tea plantations and teak forests. Passing the immaculate Sunna military area you will take a little-used route to Mirik, a gently winding climb with viewing platforms along the way. You then drive along a fantastic ridge road that literally marks the border between India and Nepal, passing through towns and villages that straddle both. There are stunning photographic opportunities here but you should be sensitive to the fact that you are in a border zone, as well as watching out for locals who use the whole road on corners. A good horn, used regularly, is a must! You may wish to stop and try the local momos, small dumplings, on sale at the roadside. The ladies are excellent salespeople and will also charm you into buying a range of odd-looking sweets, some better than others. Don’t eat too many, though, for a sumptuous lunch awaits you at the Windermere Hotel in Darjeeling, where we will spend the night. The rooms are delightfully quirky and the common areas are packed with items of interest, lending the hotel a truly Victorian feel.


Day 9 Darjeeling

There is no driving today so you can happily tinker with the car, checking fluid levels and tyre pressures or attend to the usual maintenance issues. Then leave it be. The local roads are narrow and busy, so we suggest taking a taxi to explore the delights of Darjeeling, which include the main town square, a delightful zoo containing leopards and tigers and a variety of unique shops selling everything from curios to silk scarfs and pashminas. Particularly interesting are the Tibetan refugee craft workshops, where elderly folk still spin wool and make clothes in the traditional way and there is a wonderful display of Tibetan history. After a restful yet fascinating day, we will gather for dinner in the hotel.


Day 10 Darjeeling to Chalsa

Before hitting the road again we suggest you take an early morning stroll, perhaps even join the locals in prayers and exercises, and enjoy the magical view of Kanchenjunga, which at 8,586 metres is the world’s third highest mountain. Refreshed and inspired, you can then return to your car and set off on the enjoyable descent from Darjeeling. Here the cultivation of tea gives way to that of quinine, and you will see beautiful forests of teak and giant ferns. The twisty road down to the


Day 11 Chalsa to Pheunsholing

This morning we will drive for a couple of hours directly to the not-so-pretty town of Jaigaon, arriving at designated times for a smooth border crossing in small groups. You will then be free to enter the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, where you will be amazed at the differences in everything from architecture to fashion. A taste of things to come! Tonight over dinner at the Rally Hotel you will be introduced to our Bhutanese guides, who will accompany us for the duration of our stay in order to ensure your maximum enjoyment.


Day 12 Pheunsholing to Paro

The tropical forest road that climbs out of Pheunsholing offers glimpses of Bhutan’s fabulous scenery but first we must pass though an official checkpoint where our guide will be on hand to ensure there are no problems. A traditional coffee stop is the ideal place to rendezvous with your fellow rallyists, and after a few more hours we will all meet for an authentic Bhutanese lunch at a restaurant en route. The afternoon schedule is relaxed so you may pause at the river confluence where the road divides (left for Paro, right for Thimphu). There are always some market stalls here to interest the curious.

Turning left, you follow the river Pa Chhu along a beautiful valley to the small town of Paro, where you will see your first and one of Bhutan’s most impressive dzongs, fortresses that serve as religious, military, administrative and social centres. A testament to Bhutanese architectural skills (dzongs are built without plans, relying on the spiritual inspiration of a high lama), the great Rinpung Dzong was

built in 1644. Further up the hillside you will see its unusual round watchtower, built in 1656 with walls 2.5m thick. It was renovated in the 1960s to house the National Museum. In Paro you will be astounded by the beautiful buildings lining the streets, all painted in traditional style. This is a lovely town and you may explore its numerous shops and restaurants at leisure.


Day 13 Paro

Not least because naturally aspirated petrol engines lose about three per cent of their power with every 1000 feet (304.8m) of altitude, today’s drive might not be fast, but it will certainly be exciting. Some 35km out of Paro we reach the Cheli La pass, one of the highest drivable roads in Bhutan. Here you can walk amongst hundreds of Teesta valley is steep enough to require the careful use of gears and

brakes, but not busy. Indeed unless your are driving in convoy with some of the friends you have already made on the rally, it might feel as if you are driving the only car on earth. Or is it heaven? You will meet heavier traffic as you join the highway that runs alongside the Teesta River. This is a sinking road, prone to landslides in the monsoon season, but as a vital lifeline to Sikim it is comprehensively

repaired every year. Crossing the colourful Coronation Bridge we enter the Dooars region of Assam, an important military and agricultural area. Here you will catch your first glimpse of the mountains of Bhutan. You will also see water buffalo, goats and perhaps even wild elephants, as this is a designated corridor for animals travelling between Assam and Nepal. They follow their own noses, or course, so there are lookout towers in the fields and the houses are built on stilts to avoid unwanted visitations. Today’s drive is quite short and many crews would be happy to continue to the border town of Jaigaon. However, we must enter Bhutan together and the crossing closes at 1900hrs, which might pose problems for anyone running late. We have therefore decided to break the journey at Sinclairs Hotel Chalsa. Arriving from lunchtime onwards, take your time and enjoy a safari in the wildlife park, where you may see rhinoceros, barking deer and bison. Alternatively, play a round of golf, enjoy the hotel

pool and spa or tinker with your car in the secure parking area. Dinner tonight will be under the stars, in the hotel garden. colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind and take in the astounding, ninterrupted views from the ridge of the Ha Valley on one side and Mount Jhomolhari (7,314m) on the other. After coffee and quiet reflection, we will climb back behind the wheel for another thrilling

drive on the steep and twisty descent to the valley floor. There we will have lunch, before returning to Paro.


Day 14 Paro

The adventure continues today with a visit to the world-renowned Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktshang Goemba) that clings to the side of a cliff 900m above the Paro valley. The only way to reach it is to fly on the back of a mythical magic tigress, or walk. Those who are fit enough may tackle the two-hour climb through blue pines and past water-powered prayer wheels to this spectacular holy place, where cultural history comes alive and the views are truly amazing. Those with less energy may settle for the coffee shop half way up, and enjoy perfect views of the monastery. Either way, you may celebrate your achievement with a glass of Champagne and lunch in the forest at the foot of the mountain. The afternoon is free so take your time and explore the streets of Paro, yet more ancient monasteries or the magnificent dzong and watch tower.


Day 15 Paro to Thimphu

Our destination today is the capital of Bhutan. After a few hours we revisit the road junction at the river confluence, then pass beneath the wonderful arch over the road to Thimphu, a truly fascinating city where modern West is beginning to challenge traditional East. There is a lot of new building development here, yet people still wear traditional dress whilst going about their daily business. For men that is the Gho, a knee-length robe resembling a kimono, tied at the waist by a belt known as a Kera. The pouch of fabric formed at the front was once used to carry a food bowl and a small dagger but these days it typically contains a wallet, mobile phone and Doma (beetle nut). Women typically wear a Kira, a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket called a Tego, with an inner layer known as a Wonju. The traffic here is light, directed by a single, smartly dressed officer on a road so quiet that sleeping dogs are the main obstacle. Nevertheless you will find a great choice of historical and cultural attractions, including the very modern Royal Textile Academy, Voluntary Artists Studio, National Stadium, Farmers’ Market, National Library, General Post Office and National Memorial Chorten. There is also a golf course. Dinner at the Rally Hotel will be followed by traditional music and dancing by the large fire pit, a small taste of what you will see on a much grander scale at the festivals in eastern Bhutan.


Day 16 Thimpu to Punakha

Today’s memorable drive takes you up the Dolchula Pass (3,140m) where you will find a wonderful collection of 108 chortens (stupas) and prayer flags on a hillside that is actually a botanical garden. On a clear day the view of the Bhutanese Himalayas is too spectacular for words. The mountains may also be viewed by telescope from the nearby Dochula Resort. The drive then continues down entertaining, winding roads where you will notice the air getting warmer and the vegetation changing from fir, rhododendron and hemlock to bamboo, cactus and orange. The route passes the new town of Khuruthang, to which in 1999 all Punakha’s shops were relocated. However, we will press on to the latter, a beautiful town at the fertile junction of the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River). The Bhutanese nobility own a number of houses in this lovely valley, which is associated with many mystical stories. The highlight is the dzong, the second to be built in Bhutan and generally agreed to be the most impressive and beautiful of all. This was the seat of government until the 1950s, when Thimphu became the capital, and in 2008 the fifth and present Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck underwent a secret ceremony here, receiving the Royal Raven Crown before his official coronation in Thimphu.


Day 17 Punakha to Gelephu

As we motor on through central Bhutan we navigate a landscape of high mountains and fertile valleys that represents the cultural heart of the country. Here you will find many of the oldest and most significant temples and monasteries, which are all worth visiting. Fortunately, as the rally is not subject to competitive pressures, you will have plenty of time to explore such wonders at your own pace. We may expect countless entertaining stories at dinner this evening!


Day 18 Gelephu to Trongsa

Just before entering Trongsa you will pass the town’s picturesque dzong. First built in 1543 it perches above the gorge of the roaring Mangde Chhu, which often generates a gentle and romantic mist. Trongsa itself is a quiet town of whitewashed buildings, separated from the east and west of Bhutan by high mountain ranges.


Day 19 Trongsa to Jakar

A wonderfully peaceful yet ever-interesting drive of a few hours takes you through the Chumme Valley, where you will encounter many small villages and even the King’s private holiday residence. You may break your journey with a visit to the Yid Ga handicraft centre or the weavers of Zungney, where you can purchase samples of the geometric-patterned textiles (Yathra) that are characteristic of the region. If you wish to stretch your legs more energetically, a 10 minute walk will take you to Prakhar Goemba, which is unusual in having three stories and is full of statues and other fascinating works of art.Situated at the foot of the Chokhor valley, Jakar is the region’s major trading centre and has much to see, from the ancient dzong to the relatively modern (1857) Wangdichholing Palace, used by the first King of Bhutan as his principal residence. You will also find several monasteries, shops, handicraft stores and goldsmiths. This afternoon we continue along the enchanting Chokhor Valley, perhaps pausing at the Bumthang Brewery to sample the local ale, known as Red Panda. Speaking of foaming liquids, you should fill your petrol tanks and your jerrycan too, for we will soon venture into

remote and rarely visited eastern Bhutan, where fuel stations are few and far between.


Day 20 Jakar to Mongar

As we enter eastern Bhutan, the landscape becomes more rugged. Indeed to get there we must negotiate Thrunshing La, Bhutan’s highest pass at 3,750m and the only link to the rest of the country. It is certainly a road you will never forget, as you descend 3,200m in only 84km. A bonus is that you will forever associate the smell of hot brakes with some of the most dramatic scenery on earth. However, your chief reward is yet to come, with the rare privilege of witnessing two extraordinary annual festivals in Mongar and Trashigang. We arrive in Mongar tonight.


Day 21 Mongar

One of the most exciting things about a festival (Tshecu) in this region is that although the majority of the population live in remote settlements and hidden valleys, they break their everyday routine, put on their finest clothes and walk to the festivities. This coming together for an ancient festival of music and dance will be like nothing you have ever seen. You will also be pleased to know that mere attendance is believed to gain merit with the gods. The spectacular theatrical dances are performed by monks and laymen alike, wearing a variety of ornate costumes and masks. Each dance and its specific aspects have symbolic meanings, such as purifying the soul and warding off evil spirits. We will have lunch high on a rooftop, affording the best possible view of the Mongar Dzong courtyard and the ongoing activities below, and for the rest of the day you are most welcome to join the general throng to watch as much of the festivities as you wish, and even to have a peek backstage.


Day 22 Mongar to Trashigang

The rally has been planned so that a short drive eastwards takes you to Trahsigang, where another annual festival is taking place and you may witness yet more extraordinary performances. From Monga the road climbs past cultivated fields and through forests of pine and and rhododendron. Soon the road drops down from a pass, switchbacking through very different broadleaf forests and passing

thousands of prayer flags used as fence lines and virtual safety barriers. You will pass checkpoints 10km and 3km before Trashigang and for anyone who needs them there is a collection of motor repair workshops. Situated at the foot of a steep wooded valley, Trashigang is considered to be one of Bhutan’s most beautiful towns, and you will have time to explore the narrow streets at your leisure and even try the local arra, distilled from rice. The focal point of the town is the plaza, with a large prayer wheel in the centre, and here you may watch yet more wonderful festival performances. Many of the dances are intended to appease Yama, protector of the faith, god of death and king of law, and the deity who finally weighs the good and evil in a person’s life. You will recognise Yama as he is represented in many dzongs, holding the wheel of life in his mouth.


Day 23 Trashigang to Samdrup Dronga

Today’s winding, six-hour journey will take you past your last Bhutanese Goembas and you will finally lose sight of the Himalayas as you climb from fertile valley farmlands into the mountains. There will be little time for wistful thoughts, however, as the drive is terrific fun. We tackle numerous passes including the Kanglung ridge (1,870m), Tongphu La (2,190m) and Kharung La (2,350m) and eventually reach the Menlong Brak (cliff) high above the Bada valley, where the fragile road is lined with prayer flags, prayer plaques and numerous chortens. You might murmur a few prayers yourself, as this is a truly amazing descent! Having arrived at the valley floor in one piece you enter Samdrup Dronga. There is no reason to visit this town other than the border crossing, but we must spend the night here before our passage to India tomorrow morning.


Day 24 Samdrup Dronga to Guwahati

At first light we must bid farewell to the magical Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon as the last day of the rally takes us back across the border and into Assam. Our final destination is Guwahati, known as ‘The City of Temples’, where you will receive a warm and well deserved welcome at the Rally Hotel. The evening’s Gala Dinner will be a splendid affair, a celebration of all we have experienced together and a fitting end to a truly unforgettable and life-changing adventure. Well done!


Day 25 Depart India


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