When you’re following in the Dragon’s footsteps, you’d better have a steed to match. Which is why it took us all of two seconds to get ready to roll with Mahindra Adventure’s Authentic Bhutan convoy.
Six days of blazing a trail from India, across Bhutan and back. Six days of driving torquey SUVs nearly 900km across winding Himalayan highways, high-altitude dirt tracks and quiet city streets. Six days packed with radio chatter, local delicacies, towering monasteries, quaint cafes and majestic palaces. Six days in heaven, that’s what.
Life in Bhutan
Step foot into this Himalayan paradise (yeah, it might be a cliché but it doesn’t make it any less true) and you’ll start wondering if you should move here permanently. That’s ‘cos:
Free flowin’ borders
That’s right - just walk over. All you need is a passport or voter's card and you'll be issued a permit. The open border at Phuentsholing means it’s easy to walk back and forth. You’ll also be pleased to know that not only is the Bhutanese ngultrum (the ‘nu’) pegged to the Indian rupee but that our currency is legal tender.
No traffic lights here
Prepare to be stunned by an incredible display of motoring manners and civic sense. No honking, cars waiting patiently as you cross the road, no crazy overtaking and rows of neatly parked vehicles. Not a surprise then, that this tiny kingdom gets by without any traffic lights whatsoever.
More cheese, please
It wouldn’t have been a very ‘Authentic Bhutan’ experience without platters overflowing with local delicacies. What all did we gorge on? There was phaksha paa (smoked pork with vegetables), khoo (jellied cow skin), and of course, what’s pretty much considered to be Bhutan's national dish - emma datshi (a stew of cheese and chilli peppers). Perfect comfort food for the cold Thimpu nights with the mercury dipping down to below freezing!
Don’t worry, be happy
Back in the 1970s, when the world was ‘grooving’ to disco (presumably while wearing shiny trousers), Bhutan realised something us city slickers still can’t wrap our heads around - money might get you a smartphone, but it won’t buy you happiness. Which is why the government doesn’t measure progress solely based on GDP, but also by tracking its citizens’ well being, ergo, the revolutionary concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’.
You’ll definitely be stopping at a market to pick up ‘supplies’ for the campfire, won’t you? Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of K5. Named in honour of the fifth king of Bhutan, K5 is a blend of Scottish malt whiskies and Bhutanese grain spirit. Best gift to take back home? Of course. Buy it for ₹850 from k5whisky.
Getting around in Bhutan
“It’s not a rally...so enjoy the valley”. Bhutan’s road network is built by India’s Border Roads Organisation as part of ‘Project Dantak’. Which guarantees numerous sightings of road signs that are excellent examples of the BRO’s ability to turn any message into a neat little rhyme. The BRO chaps also run a little canteen near the village of Gedu, on the Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway. We recommend you stop a while to sip piping hot masala chai while taking in the fantastic views.
THIMPHU & DOCHU LA
First stop, Thimphu. Enough time to check out the impressive statue of Lord Buddha towering over the Bhutanese capital. The next day, we find ourselves enjoying the panoramic views at Dochu La, a mountain pass that’s famous for the 108 chortens that pay homage to soldiers fallen in battle.
PARO & TIGER’S NEST
Our final stop, Paro, is Bhutan’s second-largest city (and home to its only airport). But we’re not here just to gorge on coffee and cakes at the numerous small cafes, or to pick up souvenirs. We’re here to hike up to Paro Taktsang, the 17th century monastery and sacred site, better known as Tiger’s Nest.
Physical exertion being the No.1 item on our list of things to avoid, we were delighted to discover that the hike up to the Tiger’s Nest was quite a gentle (albeit tiring) one. You ascend 3000ft over the 5km trail, so expect to take anything from 1.5 to 3 hours, depending on how often you stop for a breather. Wear grippy shoes, carry water along and take it easy.
HIKE SMART, HIKE LIGHT
It gets cold and all that walking can be tiring. Here’s some gear to help make sure you enjoy your day hikes (and don’t come back to your hotel all grumpy and achy).
1) Rab Microlight Alpine (₹14,399): This weather-resistant ultra-light jacket is just ideal for a light day hike.
2) Lifestraw Go (₹1790): Filling up from streams? An in-built filter will keep stomach bugs at bay.
3) Wildcraft Spot (₹5999): Heading off the trail on your own? Stay safe with this GPS beacon.
Car 54, where are you?
Convoy driving is as much fun as a barrel of extroverted monkeys out on a pub crawl, but it calls for loads of discipline. Keep up the pace, resist the urge to overtake, slot into your assigned position when asked, and give way to local traffic. Apart from this, do everyone a favour and don’t sing over the two-way radio!
Even though it’s the Thar that gets star billing in every 4x4 enthusiast’s dreams (not much of a surprise, considering it’s a veritable mountain goat on wheels), we’d rather hop into the XUV500 W10 AWD A/T for an expedition across the Himalayas. Electric sunroof, touchscreen infotainment system, sat-nav, cornering lights, voice commands, auto wipers and headlamps, leather seats... If that doesn’t quite satisfy you, the XUV’s fantastic mile-munching abilities will: There’s 142 hp on tap (with barely any turbo lag), AWD with Hill Hold and Hill Descent Control, a 6-speed automatic, and a ride quality that dismisses broken stretches with a disdainful sneer. ₹18,53,058 (ex-showroom, Mumbai) / mahindraxuv500.com
Clever photography kit
With photo opportunities lurking around every hill and chorten, you’re gonna be taking out that camera a lot. Here’s some kit that’ll have you prepped for a week of outdoor shooting:
1) Hoya Filter Kit (₹4500): A polariser, UV filter and ND filter get you all set for landscape shots.
2) Vanguard Up-Rise 43 (₹6300): Lightweight sling bag with space for a DLSR, lenses, Kindle and more.
3) LensPen DSLR Pro (₹1999): Keep your camera gear free of dust and dirt with this 3-in-1 cleaning kit.
Attaining a zen-like state
No horns. No loud voices. No loudspeakers telling you the party’s just started or that the neighbourhood aunty’s about to call the cops. Bhutan really is the perfect place to pull out a yoga mat and meditate. These things should help you navigate the road to Nirvana:
Buddhify (₹196): This app features meditations organised by theme. Peace, dude.
Journey (₹free): On a journey of self discovery? Keep a journal, make it better.
Muse ($219) (approx ₹14,968): This headset translates brain activity into sound effects. Futuristic!