11 June 2013

We Made the Long Journey from Darjeeling to Phuentsholing

Day Four

There was some confusion and, as it turns out, overcautiousness about our drive from Darjeeling to Phuentsholing, Bhutan, and how long it would take. I'd read somewhere that the drive should take about four hours. Our hostess at the hotel in Darjeeling insisted it would take seven to eight hours. I'd arranged to meet our guide at the border between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon, but there's a half-hour time difference between India and Bhutan and we'd never clarified if that meant destination time or origin time.

We made plans to leave at 5:30 in the morning. At 5:00, just before our alarm went off, the hotel host knocked on our door and brought in a tray of tea. He also excitedly beckoned us out to the common room to look out the window. There had been magnificent thunderstorms all night long (which thankfully Muffin slept through, although Mike and I did not) which had cleared the clouds. We could finally see the snow-capped Himalayas!

We got on the road and had the scariest drive in India we'd ever had.

It started off okay. It was early enough to leave town before there was any traffic. We stopped at a couple scenic overlooks to get a few more photos of the mountains. Muffin had a little snack and was happy to sing to herself and eventually doze off. We had to drive up the mountains for a while before coming down. At some point the driver started chanting. We've learned not to interrupt someone when he's chanting and I thought that if the chanting helped him concentrate or gave us good luck for a safe trip then I wasn't going to get in the way of that.

We've been in India long enough, and Burundi before that, to not be phased by Third-World mountain driving. There's going to be honking, big trucks, and blind corners without guardrails. By the time we got to the flat lands of West Bengal, though, we were terrified. And the driving got worse on the flats as the driver became braver about passing trucks. The chanting seemed to be distracting the driver, not helping him concentrate. But I guess it gave us good luck because it only took about five hours to reach the border and we arrived without incident.

We arrived in a busy town and the driver pulled over and said, "Get out now. We're here." Huh? We're in Bhutan now? There was no border patrol, no passport check. Mike got out of the car, Muffin and I did not. Within a few seconds a young man appeared and asked Mike for our passports and visas. He noted that we didn't have exit stamps from India. And then there was a strange argument between him, Mike, and the driver. Indians are allowed to drive across the border without a check and it never occurred to our driver that as Americans we'd need to stop at passport control. It hadn't occurred to us that there wouldn't be someone at the border at least looking at cars as they drove in. We also had no idea how to find our guide now because I'd assumed there would be a border check office he'd be waiting for us at. We were at least an hour early, too. Eventually the Bhutanese man was able to explain to the driver that we needed to go back into India and stop at the immigration office. So we turned around and drove back into India for a few minutes.

While we waited for the Indian to stop being so confused as to why Americans with valid Indian visas and valid Bhutan visas were crossing the land border for tourism reasons, Mike called our tour guide to let him know we were there. To our surprise he was waiting for us when we came out of the passport office. Our stuff was already loaded into the van. He and the driver seemed nice and friendly. We hopped in and drove back into Bhutan.

When we'd gone through this gate the first time:
I'd wondered if it was the border because of the dragons on it. Now I knew that it was. We were checking another country off our list and our drive was finished for the day in time for lunch.

Phuentsholing isn't much different from India except for the drivers being more polite and not using the horn as much. It's busy but not quite as dirty. Our guide explained that it's not like the rest of Bhutan at all but it's the major entry point for all imports. Bhutan imports just about everything from India and it all goes through Phuentsholing. There was one monastery to visit there but otherwise our guide, Yeshi, planned to have us out of Phuentsholing as soon as possible. It was hot and muggy and we all wanted to be in the mountains for cooler weather.

We had lunch at the hotel and then drove a few minutes into the mountains to see Karbandi Monastery, a spot popular among Indians who go there to pray for children because of an Indian pilgrim who traveled there and had a child. The view of the West Bengali plain is pretty spectacular from the monastery.
Karbandi Monastery
Muffin and our guide became friends right away:

After the tour of the monastery we went back into town and Yeshi gave us some direction for walking around town ourselves for the rest of the afternoon. We needed to find an ATM and we wanted to stretch our legs because we had another long drive the next day. Yeshi's only advice: "Don't go back into India." There's really only one main road so it was easy to navigate. We walked along a river for awhile. ("It's not full of garbage!" Muffin said.) We stopped in at the Bob Marley Bar for a drink. Then we went back to the hotel for dinner and bed time.

Day Five Coming Soon

Day One: 8 Days on the Road from Darjeeling to Bhutan
Day Two: Some Enforced Site-Seeing in Darjeeling
Day Three: Aloobari Monastery: Escaping Darjeeling to See Some Nature

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