May 1, 2008

Bhutan - Day 0 - Getting There

Despite having spent a good part of my life in Northern part of India, I hadn’t seen the Himalayas. My notion of mountains was largely shaped by hills/hill-stations of South India like Coorg and Ooty. Visiting Bhutan therefore was not just a vacation - it was to be a crash-course in telling mountains from hills.

The first day of our trip to Bhutan was entirely spent traveling and even then we didn’t quite enter Bhutan. Our journey started with a Spice Jet flight to Kolkata, which, like most flights from Bangalore these days, was delayed. To their credit, the check-in experience was by far the smoothest I’ve had on budget airlines. Yet, the last-moment gate changes and sorting of people into two queues left me a bit tetchy. Finally when I saw the plane docked to the aerobridge I mused that there was after all, a flight at the end of the tunnel.

We flew along the eastern coast over the Bay of Bengal. As the plane neared Kolkata, it moved inland and I could clearly see the numerous distributaries of Ganges. The land below was a living, breathing giant and the mesh of tiny rivulets, its circulatory system. Before landing the plane circled several lush, sun-bathed fields and marshes, which to passengers in the window seats must’ve seemed like a beautiful mosaic of green stained glass.

After a brief wait at Kolkata airport, we boarded another Spice Jet flight to Bagdogra. At Bagdogra airport we hired a pre-paid taxi (for Rs. 1,720) to Jaigaon - a small town in West Bengal which was to act as our gateway to Bhutan. The drive lasted close to 4 hours. The roads were more or less good - not quite highways - but your basic, tarred, functional roads which small, inner parts of our country seem to have so few of. The driver handled the Maruti Van (Omni) with the ferocity of a man who is on the verge of re-enacting the bravest moments from his previous incarnation as a kamikaze pilot. We must’ve done something right to have reached Jaigaon alive and that too without altering the bone-count of our body.

We spent the night at a small hotel in Jaigaon called Anand”. The word means joy” or bliss” in Hindi (and in a handful of other Indian languages), but I am sure that there exists a language where this word has connotations of torture. And it is that very language that the founders of this hotel must’ve had in their minds while naming it. We were in an air conditioned room and having had a long, tiring day, were hoping to sleep in peace. A powercut rendered the air conditioning useless. The hotel’s policy of not running a generator from midnight to 6 in the morning, rendered the fan useless as well. We groped in the dark to open the windows and keep the room from becoming stuffy (fortunately for us, it was raining heavily outside and was quite windy). In an hour the hotel’s policy around the genset had changed. The roar of the generator, the fan which now spun at a breakneck speed (there was no regulator in the room to slow it down) and random noises from outside kept me from sleeping.

Occasional gusts of cool breeze from outside kept assuring me that were tantalisingly close to the himalayas. The night would be over in no time.

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A Short Trip To Coorg We started early (if 6:30 AM can be called that) for the Coorg trip. By noon, we were already driving (being driven) on the lush, serpentine, hilly
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Bhutan - Day 1 - Phuentsholing to Thimpu By the time we finished our breakfast, our tour-guide had already arrived at the hotel. We had a minor confusion about our starting time as Bhutan