It was 5.45 pm, and the immigration office at Jaigaon, West Bengal, was to close at six. I had just been told by officials in India that I could not get an entry stamp on my passport, as I hadn’t “left” Bhutan — this despite my physical presence in their office, in India. They would officially acknowledge my presence by stamping my passport only if I got an exit stamp, and that meant going back to Bhutan and returning in 15 minutes. Let’s just say some anxiety was involved.
In a world filled with borders, it is nice to have a few neighbours that allow us across easily. Nepal and Bhutan are both welcoming, and you just need a voter ID to cross their border (this is an easier option than using your passport, as I found out). Mahindra Adventures, an arm of the automotive company, which organises the Great Escape off-road drives and various motoring expeditions traversing areas such as Ladakh, Rajasthan and even the Everest base camp, had invited us along on its annual Tri-Nation Escape. This is an arrive and drive concept, and includes all accommodation, most meals and the use of a vehicle, one of Mahindra’s products — the Scorpio SUV, in most cases. The journey is fully planned, including border crossings, and a number of official vehicles accompany you, including a doctor and a mechanical team with spares to ensure that all participants have to do is focus on the drive.
Due to scheduling issues, I could only join the expedition in Kathmandu, missing a whole leg of the journey. It had started off in New Delhi, before entering Nepal from Gorakhpur, heading to Pokhra, and then on to the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. A Scorpio awaited me on my first driving day, as I joined the 30-car convoy, which had already become a well-oiled machine. The participants were from all over India, and included a surprisingly high number of Mahindra Adventure expedition veterans. Clearly, they have got the formula right.
The drive out of Kathmandu started with a 4 am departure. The day’s route took us through some scenic mountain roads, giving us vistas of the entire Annapurna range before descending to the plains and heading east, running parallel to the India border, till we reached Naxalbari, in West Bengal. After the border crossing, we drove on to Chalsa, a small town with a tea estate resort, some 70 kilometres from Siliguri. On the itinerary, the day was listed as a marathon drive, and a marathon it would be — by day’s end, we had spent 19 hours behind the wheel.
A day’s rest later and our drive from Chalsa to Paro, in Bhutan, was a much shorter affair, despite a lengthy border crossing procedure. Now in an XUV500, we ascended the mountains once again. The climb starts immediately as you enter Bhutan from Phuentsholing (Jaigaon on our side), with the mountains on one side, and Indian plains on the other. The drive to Paro also showed the stark difference in the amount of traffic and good manners in comparison to India.
Paro is a small, quaint town, with its market area/town centre spanning only a few blocks. Shops were mainly selling souvenirs, and there were quite a few restaurants serving everything from cupcakes to Bhutanese cuisine. During the two days spent there, I drove up to a monastery just above Paro, and got a panoramic view of the valley. The spot was ideal, as we had a top-down view of airliners making the difficult approach into Paro airport.
The final day was an easy drive back to Chalsa, with some nervous minutes spent at the Jaigaon immigration office. The cooperative Bhutanese officials ensured we had our passports stamped and were back in Jaigaon in a jiffy. A day later, and we were back to reality, catching flights from Bagdogra airport.
The expedition allowed us to see more of the countryside than on a regular holiday. We got to see the differences and similarities of our closest neighbours. While I am not a big fan of convoy driving, I can see the advantages of a professionally planned and executed driving holiday such as this. Despite modern conveniences such as the internet and GPS, it is still far easier to enjoy a drive when you don’t have to think about where it is safe to stop, to eat and to refuel, and what to do if there is an emergency. The team has already checked out the entire route, and taken care of all the details. It’s difficult to take almost two weeks off for a driving holiday in our busy lives, but if you can, you should do it at least once.