Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Drive to Thimphu and Paro in Bhutan

Almost exactly 2 years ago, in April 2010, I had driven from Jamshedpur to Bhutan but had to return from the border town of Phuentsholing as no tourists were allowed beyond this town in the plains in view of a SAARC meeting (which was scheduled more than a month later!) at Thimphu.

On the 2nd anniversary of the frustrating experience of 2010, the same four people (a cousin brother & his wife who live in Durgapur and my wife & I) decided to have another go at Bhutan in my Suzuki Swift Vdi. This time I had made sure that there were no restrictions on tourists entering Bhutan and we had an enjoyable trip to Thimphu and Paro. A brief account of our trip is given below.

Day 1 (14.04.12)

6 AM to 11 AM : Jaya and I drove from Jamshedpur to Durgapur (190 km) via Patamda, Katin, Banduan, Manbazar, Hathirampur and Bankura. I tried this route to Bankura for the first time – though it is about 40 km shorter as compared to the route via Chandil and Purulia, I found some stretches to be very bad. Bankura to Durgapur is excellent (though it is not a dual carriageway), with bright white lines in the middle as well as on both sides of the road.

11:30 AM to 7 PM : After picking up my cousin and his wife at Durgapur we drove to Malda (261 km) and put up at a hotel. The route was via Panagarh, Ilam Bazar, Siuri, Rampurhat and Nalhati to Moregram where the road joins NH34 (Kolkata-Siliguri highway). From Moregram we drove to Malda via Farakka.

The road from Durgapur to Malda has several bad stretches. Though 4-laning of NH-34 is going on, bad stretches far exceed good ones at present.

Day 2 (15.04.12)

06:30 AM to 5 PM : Drove from Malda to Jaigaon (411 km) via Dalkhola, Siliguri, Sevoke, Binnaguri and Hashimara. Road from Malda to Dalkhola is mostly unsatisfactory though 4-laning is going on in a big way. But after Dalkhola the road to Siliguri is excellent (4-lane dual carriageway). From Siliguri to Jaigaon too the road is quite good except for a 15 km stretch between Jaldapara and Hashimara which is terrible (badly broken).

We had an excellent lunch at the West Bengal Tourist Lodge at Mal Bazar (53 km from Siliguri).

Jaigaon is the border town on the Indian side. One can freely enter Phuentsholing through the ‘Bhutan Gate’. We spent the night at an Army Officers’ Mess at Jaigaon.

View of the Indian border town of Jaigaon

Day 2 (16.04.12)

9 AM to 11 AM (Bhutan time, which is 30 min ahead of IST) : The Immigration Office at Phuentsholing opens at 9 AM on working days. We were the first people in the queue, having reached at 8:30 AM. It took the four of us about 45 minutes to get our Permits to visit Thimphu and Paro. We submitted photocopies of our Voter ID cards and a colour photo each. There is no charge for the Permits for Indians.

After getting our individual Permits, we needed to get another Permit for the car. This is done at the RSTA (Road Safety and Transport Authority) office at P’sholing, about ½ km from the Immigration office. The car permit took more than an hour as it involves running around to several sub-depts of RSTA. There were queues everywhere. I had to submit photocopies of our individual tourist permits, car papers (registration, insurance, PUC, driving license) and make a written application on plain paper. A payment of Rs 190 (depends on size of vehicle) had to be made in the accounts dept – that alone took 30 mins.

11:15 AM to 5 PM : Drove from P’sholing to Thimphu (168 km). Almost the entire distance is hill roads with innumerable blind curves, hairpin bends and steep climbs / descents. This was my longest continuous driving on hill roads. The road surface is very good throughout – incidentally, all roads in Bhutan are built and maintained by our BRO (Border Roads Organisation). Around 60% of this road is quite wide and very comfortable to drive on. But 40% is narrow (like most hill roads in Darjeeling hills, Sikkim, etc.) and one has to drive very cautiously.

Hill roads in Bhutan

There were two Check Posts in this stretch where I had to park the car, show the individual permits and the car permit at two different counters and have them stamped. I noticed that these check-posts were computerized and networked, i.e., our whereabouts and that of the car were being constantly monitored.

At Thimphu we checked out several hotels and finally settled for Hotel Wangchuk. The official tariff was Rs 3,300 but after some hard bargaining we got it down to Rs 2,000 per night (inclusive of taxes). The hotel offered free parking and wi-fi and had a reasonably decent bar-cum-restaurant.

Day 3 (17.04.12)

Spent the entire day sightseeing at Thimphu. Having my own car was a boon. Visited the Memorial Chorten, Buddha Point, zoo (the only animal worth seeing in this mini-zoo is Bhutan’s national animal – Takin; apart from Takin there are only a few deer there) and Thimpu Dzong (Tashichhodzong). We landed up at the massive Thimphu Dzong around 1300 hrs and were told that tourists are allowed to see the Dzong only between 1700-1800 hrs because the Dzong houses many govt. offices and even the King attends office there everyday. So we went back to our hotel and returned in the evening.

Standing Buddha at Thimphu

IMHO, one full day is good enough to see Thimphu. It is a small city and it does not take much time to go around. Incidentally, Thimphu is the only capital city in the world which does not have a single traffic light!

Things I found most striking in Thimphu : (1) Most of the buildings and private residences are built in traditional Bhutanese architectural style. (2) Most people, including school children, wear Bhutanese National Dress when they are out of their homes. For govt. servants wearing national dress to work is mandatory.

Govt. officials coming out of Thimphu dzong

Bhutanese and Indian food are available everywhere and prices are reasonable.

It must be remembered that the Immigration Office at P’sholing issues permit for visiting Thimphu and Paro only. If one wants to visit other places in Bhutan, one has to get the permit suitably endorsed at the Immigration Office in Thimphu.

Day 4 (18.04.12)

Checked out of the hotel after breakfast and drove to Paro (50 km). To go to Paro from Thimphu, one has to return to Chuzom which is the junction point for roads to Haa, Paro, Thimphu and P’sholing. The road to Paro was quite nice with very sparse traffic.

When we were about 6 km from Paro town, we came across a BRO (Indian Border Roads Organisation) unit at Bondey. I contacted an Indian Army officer in that unit and he was kind enough to provide us with accommodation in their Officers’ Mess. The guest rooms there were quite nice and we had a comfortable stay there for two nights. We also got typical Indian food there.

After keeping our things in the Mess and freshening up, we drove to Paro town. It is a very small town, with a population of only 4,000 or so! The main industry of Paro seems to be tourism and the small city-centre comprises a large number of shops selling Bhutanese handicrafts and Chinese goods to tourists. We spent the day checking out the shops in Paro and visiting the Paro Dzong.

Jaya & DM near Paro Dzong

Both in Thimphu and Paro the days were warm / pleasant (20-23 deg C) and the nights were cool (9-11 deg C).

Day 5 (19.04.12)

While doing the homework (on the internet, primarily) before visiting Bhutan, I had learnt that many Western tourists visit Bhutan to enjoy trekking thro’ the pristine forests and hills of this Himalayan kingdom. And the one trek which is highly recommended as a ‘must-do’ is the trek to Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest). Taktsang Monastery is located 10 kilometres to the north of Paro and hangs on a precipitous cliff at 3,120 metres (10,240 ft), about 900 metres (3,000 ft) above the Paro valley. Check out

I had read several accounts of the trek to Tiger’s Nest blogged by tourists and knew that it was a steep, long and arduous trek. Being fond of trekking personally, I was very keen to give it a shot. I also motivated my wife Jaya and the two relatives accompanying us (who are slightly older than us) to give it a try and at least make it to the cafeteria point (almost mid-way) which has a good view of the Tiger’s Nest.

After breakfast in the morning we set out for Drukgyal and Taktsang. First we drove up a hill (16 km beyond Paro town) to visit the ruins of Drukgyal Dzong. I had been told that from Drukgyal one could get a nice view of the snowcapped Mount Jomolhari. But we could not see any peaks due to clouds.

Thereafter, we returned about 7 km towards Paro (one doesn’t have to go to Drukgyal for the Taktsang trek) and then took the narrow branch road (about 5 km) to the ‘base camp’ or starting point of the Taktsang trek. This starting point has ample parking space for cars and lots of locals selling handicrafts, etc. We parked our car there and armed with rucksacks containing water and snacks we started our climb to the Tiger’s Nest on foot.

Parking space at the base camp

The dusty trek route (avoidable during rains)
The climb is indeed steep and my cousin and his wife gave up after 30 minutes and returned to the base camp. Jaya too was on the verge of giving up several times but mustered all her resources to climb to the cafeteria point with me which took an hour. She called it quits there and I carried on and reached the point where the stone steps start in another 45 minutes.

A prayer wheel near cafeteria point

View of Tiger's Nest from cafeteria point
Let me explain the stone steps. The last part of the trek to Tiger’s Nest involves crossing over from one hill to another – so one needs to descend to a waterfall and then ascend to the Tiger’s Nest on another hill. This last stretch comprising a steep descent followed an equally steep ascent is made up of stone steps with a metal railing. This stretch took me another 30 minutes. So after 2 hours and 15 minutes of trekking I reached the Tiger’s Nest.

Stone steps leading to Tiger's Nest

It was tough but the feeling after finally making it was exhilarating. At the Tiger’s Nest entrance one has to deposit one’s bags, camera and mobile phone and enter one’s name in a register after showing a proof of identity. Then one is frisked by Police before entering the monastery. I had a wonderful tour of Taktsang and I even saw the deep cave inside which Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated. I had read about this cave and when I couldn’t find it I asked a Policeman and he was kind enough to escort me to the entrance to the cave, lift the hatch covering the entrance and show me the deep cave with his flashlight.

Frisking by Police at Tiger's Nest
After a very satisfying tour of Taktsang I started my trek back to base camp. Though one does not have to expend much energy during descent, the chances of slipping or stumbling are greater while trekking downhill and so one has to be very cautious. It took me about an hour to descend to the cafeteria point where Jaya was anxiously waiting for me (2 ½ hours had elapsed after we parted here). Thereafter we climbed down to the base camp together.

The entire trek took me 4 hours and 10 minutes (2 hrs 15 mins to climb up, 20 mins at Tiger’s Nest and 1 hr 35 mins to descend). This definitely was the high point of my visit to Bhutan, personally. I can compare this trek to the one I did to Hemkund Sahib from Ghangria a few years ago.

I was feeling quite elated that I could do this trek in good time (many people take 3 hours to climb up) at age 60+ till I met a 75 year old Australian gentleman who did this trek with equal ease. I introduced myself to him, congratulated him and told him that if I am lucky enough to live till 75 I would love to be like him – still climbing Tiger's Nests!

Close-up of Taktsang (Tiger's Nest)

I must state for information that ponies / mules are available for taking tourists to Taktsang from the base camp. But the ride is only up to the point where the stone steps start. Mules cannot move on the steep stone steps and so even if one hires a mule one needs to be fit enough to negotiate the stone steps on foot. Furthermore, mules are not allowed to carry tourists during descent as the chances of stumbling are high and there have been some accidents in the past. In short, one needs a certain degree of physical fitness to visit Tiger’s Nest even if one were to hire a mule.

Day 6 (20.04.12)

Left Paro at 8 AM and descended to P’sholing by 12:30 PM. Again, our permits were checked, stamped and data entered in the Police network at two checkpoints. At the last checkpoint (before P’sholing) we were required to surrender our permits.

I topped up my car’s fuel tank before leaving Bhutan as diesel costs about 10% less there. By 5 PM we were in Siliguri where we halted for the night. Drove 307 km today.

Day 7 (21.04.12)

Drove 526 km from Siliguri to Durgapur (6:30 AM to 9 PM) and spent the night at my cousin’s house. The average speed of 35 kmph, excellent 4-lane stretch from Siliguri to Dalkhola (125 km) notwithstanding, clearly indicates the general condition of the road between Dalkhola and Durgapur.

Day 8 (22.04.12)

Left Durgapur at 8 AM and reached Jamshedpur (229 km via Purulia and Chandil) at 1:30 PM.

My trusty Swift Vdi performed very well throughout. Bhutan involved lots and lots of hill driving and with a fully loaded car there were times when I wished there was more power on tap. Diesel engine clatter, normally not very audible in the Multijet engine, used to become quite loud and prominent during steep climbs. With 4 people on a holiday, the absence of adequate boot space was also felt.

Maybe it is high time I bought a SUV, with the kind of driving I do. 

Total distance covered during the trip was 2254 km.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Corruption and rot in the Indian Railways

In the recent past, due to various functions being held at Jamshedpur and Bombay in connection with my daughter’s wedding, we needed to undertake long distance travel by Indian Railways. It was far from a pleasant experience -- my family and I were actually appalled by the way I.R. is running. Let me share some specifics with you.

Shoddy online reservation system of the world’s biggest railway

Reservations for long-distance trains start 90 days in advance. To make our bookings from Tatanagar to Bombay, I switched on my computers at 7:45 AM (bookings open at 8 AM) exactly 90 days before our journey. Having experienced very slow response from the I.R. online booking server in the past, I switched on my desktop and laptop simultaneously and connected both to the internet using different modes of connectivity (desktop on wired broadband, laptop on wireless). Exactly after 8 AM, I commenced my efforts to log in and managed to do so after several minutes. Then started the frustratingly slow procedure of online booking – transition from one page to the next takes several minutes and often, instead of opening the next page, the I.R. system just logs you out and you have to start all over again. How does one feel when this happens again, and again, and again? Very frustrated and angry, trust me.

After 17 minutes of trying I got lucky on one of my computers and booked 4 berths in AC 2-tier by Gitanjali Express. Even though the booking was done only 17 minutes after bookings opened 90 days in advance, we got 3 confirmed berths and 1 was RAC-1. In other words, anyone who booked after 17 minutes could not have got a single confirmed berth in AC 2-tier, despite trying 3 months in advance! But I am only talking about legitimate ways of booking tickets here. There are any number of agents and touts who get you confirmed berths in trains for a fee, even days before you journey.

When we boarded the train three whole months later, the status of our 4th ticket was still RAC-1, i.e., it did not move up even one notch.

Is there even one honest TTE in the I.R. ?

Frankly, I doubt it. The TTE (Travelling Ticket Examiner) of Indian Railways epitomizes corruption in India. When we boarded Gitanjali Express at Tatanagar, we were reasonably sure that our RAC-1 would get confirmed as there are always some last minute cancellations and no-shows. For those who are not familiar with the RAC system, each compartment has 6 passengers listed as RAC-1 to RAC-6 and 3 berths are allotted to them, i.e., 2 RAC passengers share 1 berth. As soon as a berth falls vacant due to cancellation or no-show, confirmed berths are allotted to RAC-1 & RAC-2. And so forth. But this is just in theory, as I soon discovered.

As soon as the TTE came to check our tickets I enquired about our RAC -1 ticket and he told me that all berths were full and nothing could be done. Being suspicious, I started taking rounds of the compartment and found that there were a number of wait-listed passengers in the compartment who were continuously following the TTE and requesting him to ‘do something’. As per rules, a wait-listed passenger is not allowed to board the train in any reserved compartment. I too started tailing the TTE to figure out the goings-on. In front of the toilet, I saw a passenger (maybe wait-listed) putting a Rs 500 note in the TTE’s pocket. I then confronted the TTE and dared him to allot any berth to anyone without clearing the RAC first. I stuck to the TTE like a leech, maintaining an eagle’s eye on everything he was doing. When he asked me why I was sticking to him, I told him that I was studying the way TTEs work!

The TTE soon realized that he would not be able to sell any of the vacant berths without having me off his back. So he allotted a berth to me after an hour or so.

The duty of the TTE is to first clear the RAC (3 berths are required to clear 6 RACs) and then only can he allot any berth to wait-listed or other passengers (who approach him on the platform at every station where the train halts). Usually, the TTEs just ignore the RACs (this especially happens during night journey when everyone needs a full berth to sleep and so berths fetch high ‘premium’) and ‘sell’ vacant berths to the highest bidders. I subsequently exchanged notes with some frequent rail travelers and learnt that this practice of not allotting berths to RACs and instead selling the berths to bribe-givers is more the norm than the exception. Often, the RAC passengers are required to bribe the TTE to get a confirmed berth. If a berth is vacant, full fare paying RAC passengers have the first right to it. Why should they pay a bribe to get what is rightfully theirs?

The average Indian is so corrupt by nature, that he is ready to pay a bribe even before he is asked or forced to. Why blame only the bribe taker? If every RAC passenger is vigilant like me and refuses to bribe, the TTEs will fall in line.

But the most important issue is – what is the I.R. doing to curb such malpractices? Is there any system of surprise checks, esp at night, to see whether RACs have been cleared and whether any non-RAC passenger was allotted a berth? Are the TTEs required to submit a report on berth allotments at the end of their duty? Apparently, there are no systems in place, otherwise would such malpractices be so rampant?

Cleanliness on I.R. is going from bad to worse

We travelled to Bombay by Gitanjali Express which is considered to be one of the better trains between Howrah and Bombay. In our AC 2-tier coach we were appalled to see torn upholstery (due to fair wear and tear, not vandalism), dirty walls, broken seats, missing fans in toilets, filthy toilets and plenty of cockroaches. About a year back I had noticed that I.R. had outsourced cleaning work to private agencies and their boys would periodically sweep the compartment, clean the toilets, replenish liquid soap in toilets and even spray air freshener. This time, both while going to Bombay and returning, I found that this arrangement had been discontinued, at least on the Gitanjali Express.

It is a known fact that Indians are litterbugs by nature and a railway compartment gets littered by empty paper teacups, plastic water bottles, paper wrappers for bed linen, etc., every few hours. So the compartment needs to be cleaned every few hours. The TTE, incidentally, is also responsible for ensuring cleanliness. But as I have mentioned before, the TTEs consider extracting bribes as their only job. On our train to Bombay, I noticed that not a single sweeper attended to our compartment even 12 hours after the train started. The entire compartment was full of litter and the small dustbins under the wash-basins (adjacent to the doors) were overflowing. So I met the TTE and requested him to have the compartment cleaned. He told me that he would send a message to the next major station and our compartment would be cleaned when our train halted there. However, the station came and went and nothing happened. Then my wife and I collected all the litter from near our berths in two large bags and unceremoniously dumped it next to where the TTE was sitting! The TTE started protesting but many other passengers, who were also disgusted due to lack of cleaning, joined us in reprimanding the TTE. Cornered by many passengers, the TTE ensured that the compartment was cleaned at the next station.

Failure of air-conditioning due to poor maintenance

When we were returning from Bombay, our compartment started becoming too warm and I requested the coach attendant to do something about it. When nothing happened for the next couple of hours and the coach became unbearably hot, I complained to the TTE and he put the AC mechanics on the job after another hour or so. I came to know that two AC mechanics accompany trains with AC coaches. As the mechanics started working, it was found that the intake air filters were completely choked with dust and since hardly any air could pass through the choked filters, the evaporator coils got covered with ice, blocking the air flow even further. It took the mechanics another couple of hours to get the AC working (without the filters – as the filters were so clogged that they could not be cleaned on board).

My observations about this 6-hour ordeal were :

  1. Four hours were wasted before commencing the repair work, despite the fact that I had complained about the temperature soon after the AC stopped working.
  2. After my first complaint, the AC mechanic simply put the plant on ‘high cool’ mode without bothering to find what the real problem was. This aggravated the problem by choking the evaporator with ice.
  3. Over the four hours before repair was commenced, the TTE did nothing to initiate rectification of the problem on his own, though ensuring comfort of the passengers is another responsibility of the TTE, obviously only on paper.
  4. If scheduled maintenance was carried out regularly, the AC filters could never have got choked so badly. Obviously, maintenance is not being carried out as per schedule.

Completely unreliable train running information system

In India, where trains are often running late, one always tries to ascertain whether the train is on time before leaving home for the station. One can get this information either telephonically or through Indian Railway’s website. My experience over the last few years has been that the train running information system is completely unreliable. It has happened with me several times that I found telephonically as well as through the website that a train is running an hour late but upon reaching the station I was told that it was two hours late (and the train actually arrived 4 hours late!). I find it almost impossible to understand why correct train running information cannot be provided in real time considering that the I.R. has its own dedicated communication network. Obviously, some people are not doing what they are paid to do.

Whenever I need to receive anybody arriving by train, I make it a point to remain in direct touch with the passenger on mobile phone because it is only the passenger who can provide authentic information on where the train actually is.


The Indian Railways used to be an efficient and proud organization which was set up during British rule and expanded manifold since independence. Over the decades, lot of modernization took place and many new facilities were introduced. However, political apathy and the rot of corruption have robbed the I. R. of its sheen. The recent degeneration in the railways during the stewardship of Mamata Banerjee has been particularly glaring. Accidents have increased, corruption has become endemic, long-distance trains rarely run on time, maintenance is shoddy and passenger comfort and cleanliness have taken a back seat. Everybody knows that Mamata Banerjee concentrated only on winning the elections in West Bengal during her entire tenure in the railway ministry. She rarely used to be at the Rail Bhawan in Delhi. Year after year, she continued with populist measures like not increasing passenger fares and introducing new trains in non-remunerative (but politically rewarding) sectors.

Passengers had hoped that with increasing computerization of reservations / bookings, the scourge of corruption (at least in reservations / bookings) would be arrested but it has not happened. TTEs continue to take bribes openly and brazenly. The computerized reservation system appears rigged and touts and agents manage their own 'quota' of berths in collusion with railway officials.

It saddens me to see this once proud organization in such a mess 65 years after independence. Can a public sector behemoth like the Indian Railways move in a direction opposite where the rest of the nation is being led by our political leaders? How naïve of me to expect so.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My impressions of Arunachal Pradesh

I visited Arunachal Pradesh last month. Travelling by road (no other option available presently) from Tezpur in Assam, I entered Arunachal at Bhalukpong and travelled to Tawang via Bomdila, sightseeing all along. From Tawang I travelled further up to Shungatser Lake and then returned to Tezpur along the same route.

At Sela Pass

Some of my observations / impressions about Arunachal Pradesh are as follows :

1) Arunachal is a land of mountains, hills, forests, rivers, streams, waterfalls, lakes and colorful flora. It could have been a much more popular tourist destination but due to poor infrastructure (bad roads, mainly) only a handful of intrepid tourists visit it. Owing to the long distances one has to travel on bad roads, both the duration and cost of transportation is relatively high which further deters tourists.

2) Due to absence of airports, there are no commercial flights to Arunachal. There used to be helicopter services by Pawan Hans (about Rs 3000 for a Guwahati to Tawang flight, one way) but after some recent fatal accidents, including one that killed the Chief Minister of Arunachal, these flights have been suspended.

3) Due to its proximity to China and history of dispute since the 1962 Chinese incursion, there are some extraordinary security considerations for all visitors to Arunachal. One needs a special permit to visit Arunachal, even if one is an Indian citizen. This further deters tourists.

4) I requested a friend to get the permit made for me at Guwahati before I reached Guwahati so that I could commence my journey into Arunachal Pradesh immediately after reaching Assam. I ended up paying Rs 230 for a permit which officially costs Rs 25. Needless to say, this permit ‘business’ is a bonanza for the officials entrusted with the task of issuing them.

5) I wonder why an Indian citizen needs a special permit to enter Arunachal when all he needs to prove (to get the permit) is that he is a bona fide Indian citizen. The documents required to get the permit are either a voter ID card, or a driving license, or a ration card, or a passport – all these have a photo of the person. One needs to show the ‘permit’ at the state border and certain check-posts inside Arunachal. Why can’t an Indian citizen simply show the original document (voter ID, driving license, passport, etc.) at these check-posts, making the ‘permit’ redundant?

6) Roads in Arunachal (at least in the Bhalukpong-Bomdila-Tawang route) are generally quite bad. The Tezpur-Tawang highway is being widened but the pace of work is reportedly very slow and the quality suspect. God alone knows when this project will get completed. Meanwhile, the road construction work is further aggravating the bottlenecks on this highway.

See the condition of road

7) Beyond Tawang, there are some beautiful tourist spots like Shungatser Lake, Bum La, etc. But the roads leading to these places are unpaved and one can barely do an average of 20 km per hour on such roads.

8) Unpaved and broken roads also mean that if there is a vehicle ahead of you, you need to drive through a cloud of dust and if your vehicle is not air-conditioned, you had it.

9) Bad and broken hill roads also translate into higher transportation costs. I (along with some other tourists) hired an old Chevrolet Tavera (which had seen better days) for Rs 3500 per day.

10) Any tourist from a civilized nation would be shocked to see the condition of vehicles plying on the treacherous ghat-roads of India – my Rs 3500 per day Tavera had inoperative seat belts, worn out tyres, a 15-degree steering play and a young Bangladeshi driver who was convinced that without an overdose of oral and inhaled tobacco and periodic swigs of alcohol one could not drive for hour after hour on broken ghat roads.

11) The best periods to visit Arunachal are either during winter when everything is snow-covered or during rhododendron flowering season. During my visit in October, I neither found snow (not even distant snow-clad mountain peaks) nor rhododendron blooms, nor orchids. But what I did see were miles and miles of wilderness, some small waterfalls and lakes, hundreds of Army camps / cantonments, some interesting war (1962) memorials, clear skies, many Buddhist monasteries, colourful heather / moss-covered mountains and hundreds of miles of broken roads.

Colourful hillsides

12) As compared to popular tourist destinations in the hills of North Bengal, Sikkim, etc., the flow of tourists into Tawang is a mere trickle due to aforementioned factors.

13) Tawang is a small tourism-oriented town like Darjeeling and has many hotels. I stayed in an ordinary hotel with basic facilities for Rs 1000 per night.

Tawang town

War Memorial at Tawang

14) Like other small towns in the hilly regions of Eastern India, Tawang goes to sleep early – markets close and streets get deserted by 8 PM (just one time zone all across India).

15) Liquor is very cheap in Arunachal due to low taxes – in Tawang, beer (650 ml) is Rs 50, Bacardi Breezer Rs 50, Blenders’ Pride (750 ml) Rs 380, 100 Pipers (750 ml) Rs 750.

16) Only BSNL mobile network works in Arunachal. About a year back, due to perceived security reasons, only postpaid connections were allowed – but now prepaid BSNL connections work equally well.

17) Army is omnipresent – as a matter of fact, in some places I found more Army men than local civilians.

War Memorial at Jaswantgarh

18) The mountains and hills of Arunachal look different – covered with lots of cracks and loose boulders. This may have something to do with the rocks being more fragile and subjected to huge cyclical stresses due to accumulation and melting of thick ice every year. This also leads to frequent landslides.

Loose boulders litter mountainsides

19) To visit Bum La, an additional permit is required from Tawang. I wanted to visit Bum La, but the permit issuing office was closed at it was a ‘second Saturday’.

20) Many tribes of Arunachal have a strange way of disposing of their dead – the body is chopped (by professional ‘body choppers’) into small pieces which are thrown into rivers for fish to eat.

21) The staple food is rice. In ‘dhabas’ one can get a rice-dal-subjee plate for Rs 50.

22) One positive thing that amazed me was uninterrupted electricity supply everywhere, even in remote villages.

Jung Falls -- small hydro plant in foreground

23) In Tawang, I found Chinese goods in many shops with their original price tags in RMB (Chinese Yuan).

24) People of Arunachal Pradesh appear to be simple and honest and I was told that thefts, burglaries, etc., are quite rare.

Some more pictures I took may be seen at

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Monday, August 29, 2011

My impressions of Malaysia

My wife and I have visited two places in Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi. In the last 14 months or so, we have visited KL 4 times and transited through LCCT airport (KL) a few more times. This is because of our new found love for Air Asia which has its main hub at KL. We have been using Air Asia extensively for our visits to several Asian countries.

Personally, I would like every Islamic country in the world to be like Malaysia – inclusive, tolerant, progressive, modern and forward-thinking.

The population of Malaysia is made up of ethnic Malays, Chinese and South Indian immigrants. They live together in good harmony. The Malays are predominantly Muslim and the country is full of mosques – some very grand and worth seeing. In addition there are numerous churches, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples and places of worship for other religious minorities. Right in the heart of KL I came across many huge Hindu temples. The entire Batu caves region near KL is Hindu dominated with many temples and gigantic statues of Lord Murugan, Hanuman, etc. There is a Hindu temple right inside one of the big Batu caves. I found the Hindus (mostly of Indian origin) freely practicing their religion, culture and dress code. I also saw some Muslims watching a Hindu wedding ceremony in a temple and taking pictures.

A Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur

Muslims in Malaysia are modern and tolerant. Almost none of the Muslim women wear the burqa or any face-covering but most of them use a headscarf. Even young girls use a headscarf though most of them wear jeans or trousers.

Malaysian Muslim women

India needs to learn many things from Malaysia in respect of governance, infrastructure, modernity, policing, security, tourism and thinking big.

Malaysia is an ideal tourist destination for a budget traveler. All essential things (for a tourist) like food, groceries, hotels, entry tickets, etc., are very reasonably priced. Additionally, one gets to use world-class transport infrastructure very cheaply. There are many things to see and do in KL and nearby places like Genting highlands.

Amusement Park at Genting

Malaysia is a very tourist-friendly place and English is spoken and understood widely.

One should avoid changing currency at the airports in Malaysia where the rates offered are the worst. I found the rates offered by money changers at KL Sentral station complex to be the best.

In Malysia, apart from KL we visited the resort island of Langkawi and simply loved it. We hired a car (self-driven) at Langkawi airport itself and finding our way around the small island was no problem at all. The island has been developed superbly for tourism. In spite of being a tourist island, things weren’t very much costlier than KL there.

Malaysia offers great diversity of food, thanks to it being a melting pot of three main cultures. For those who can’t do without Indian food (I’m not in this category though), it’s an ideal place with Indian restaurants everywhere. Excellent Malay, Chinese and other cuisine are available at reasonable prices.

Great variety of hygienic and economical food

Many more pictures I took at Kuala Lumpur, Genting Highlands and Langkawi may be seen at

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

My impressions of Korea

Jaya and I spent a week in South Korea during August 2011. We visited Seoul, Gyeongju and Geoje island. Here are some observations of mine about South Korea :

1) Almost everywhere we went, we were amazed by the loud chirping of cicadas in the trees. Even in the heart of Seoul (which has many big trees) we could hear the chirping all the time. The chirping of cicadas on different trees at any location seems to be in sync and waxes and wanes in a peculiar manner. Sometimes it rises to such a crescendo that it interferes with conversation outdoors. We came across the same phenomenon in Gyeongju and Geoje island. Nowhere else in the world had I come across such continuous and loud chirping, especially in urban regions.

2) Korea is quite warm and humid in August. Though rainy season usually ends in July, this year the monsoons are somewhat prolonged.

3) The country is highly developed, with top class infrastructure everywhere. People are very disciplined and helpful.

4) Free, clean and modern toilets are everywhere. It is mandatory for every organization or establishment to provide good toilet facilities to the public.

5) The use of electronic toilet seat / bidet is common in Korea.

Controls on an electronic toilet seat

6) The independence day of South Korea is 15 August (1945).

7) Most cars are medium to large size sedans or SUVs / trucks. Small cars or hatchbacks are few. Most automobiles are made by Korean manufacturers like Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo, Ssangyong. Automobiles are left hand drive.

8) The country is full of hills and one passes through scores of tunnels (many very long ones) while travelling. One unique thing I found is that each and every hill is covered by dense vegetation. Apparently, many ‘mountain vegetables’ essential to Korean cuisine as well as ginseng are grown on the hills.

Large number of tunnels

9) The expressways are top class and there are many excellent service stations (comprising restaurants / eateries, toilets, grocery stores, petrol pumps, etc.) along the expressways.

A typical Service Station along expressways

10) On most expressways and even in some areas in the cities, the fastest lane is reserved for buses. So buses take you fastest (apart from trains and bullet trains) from one city to another. Strict lane discipline is maintained. One service lane on expressways is always left free for ambulances, police and other emergency vehicles.

11) I saw very few goods carriers (trucks) on the expressway. I was told that most goods are carried by rail or sea.

12) Power generation is mostly by nuclear energy.

13) I liked Korean food which is quite different from Chinese food. Koreans are very fond of eating out and eateries serving traditional Korean food are omnipresent. Making traditional food is quite an elaborate process and making it at home for working couples must be difficult.

Traditional Korean food

14) Very few poor people were visible in all the places we visited. In the Seoul subway train I saw a blind beggar seeking alms. He had a portable music player slung from his neck which was playing local music at a low volume. In the subway I also saw some hawkers selling small knick knacks.

15) Punctuality is given high importance. During our sightseeing tours, inter-city travel, etc., we found stringent adherence to time schedules.

16) Though language is a big problem (few understand English), it’s a very tourist-friendly country. There are many tourist information centres which are manned by English speaking girls who are very polite and helpful. Apart from free maps, brochures, etc., computers with free internet are available for tourists at these information centres. At all sites of tourist interest there are signages in English, as well as free English speaking guides.

Tourist information readily available

17) Motels are economical (INR 2500 to 3500 per night) and don’t charge any taxes. Tariffs can be negotiated to some extent. A desktop computer with free internet in every room is standard. One neither needs to identify oneself nor sign any register while checking in / out. In spite of this, nobody checks your room when you check out, though there are many costly items in the rooms that can be easily pilfered. This country obviously runs on trust, faith and honesty.

18) Many people often leave their homes for work without bothering to lock them.

19) If one loses ones wallet, bag, camera, etc., one just has to lodge a police complaint. In most cases, people lose things due to their own negligence and not due to theft and so the lost items are usually found and the police courier the recovered items to the owner’s home at govt. expense.

20) Motels are also used as love nests by Koreans and can be rented by the hour as well.

21) Wi-fi is almost everywhere. Even in the subway, bus terminals, tourist buses and some public buses one can use free wi-fi.

22) All old historical sites, palaces and monuments are perfectly maintained. Many historical monuments which were destroyed by the Japanese occupants or due to accidental fire have been perfectly restored to their former glory.

23) The Korean War Memorial in Seoul is probably the largest war memorial in the world. It is definitely worth seeing.

Korean War Memorial, Seoul

24) Geoje island has two shipyards – Daewoo and Samsung. Between these 2 shipyards, about 150 ships of VLCC size are produced per year (3 ships being delivered every week!). I visited Daewoo shipyard and was amazed at the infrastructure, efficiency, techniques and cleanliness. Above all, work was going on smoothly without any fuss. Obviously, the work culture in Korea is on a different orbit altogether as compared to India.

Daewoo Shipyard at Geoje

25) The biggest shipyard in Korea is Hyundai (in Ulsan). I did not visit Ulsan.

26) Christianity is rapidly spreading in Korea. About 20 years ago, ratio of Buddhists to Christians was about 70:30. But now it is approximately 50:50. America helped Korea in many major ways and American culture has been embraced by many Koreans as ‘modern’. American Christian missionaries have been propagating Christianity as a ‘modern’ religion. Senior officials in many Korean Chaebols and companies are Christians and they openly favour their Christian employees in promotions, etc. over Buddhists. Koreans are apparently religion-neutral mostly, i.e., they don’t attach too much importance to religion in their day-to-day lives. Therefore, they readily convert to Christianity either for the sake of their careers or due to the ‘modern’ image of Christianity.

27) Most employers credit their male employees’ pay check to their wives’ bank account.

28) Divorce rates in Korea are one of the highest in the world.

Some more pics I took in Korea may be seen at

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Friday, August 26, 2011

My impressions of China

Jaya and I visited China for 4 days during August 2011. We flew into Tianjin from Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia) and then took the Bullet Train from Tianjin to Beijing (took just 30 minutes; max speed was 334 kmph!).

Speed is displayed in every coach of Bullet Train

We stayed in a Hutong in the middle of the city which cost us USD 52 per night (including basic breakfast). The Hutong (Beijing Fish Inn, near XiSi subway station) was reasonably comfortable, with good air-conditioning, comfortable beds, en suite toilets, free wi-fi in room and other basic facilities. Room was small, though. The biggest advantage in the Hutong was that the Chinese girls managing the Hutong were quite fluent in English and were always ready to help with directions and other hints and tips about getting around in Beijing.

I booked our room in a Hutong because someone familiar with Beijing had specifically advised us to experience a Hutong there. Unlike the impersonal atmosphere in a hotel, in a Hutong there are greater opportunities to interact with other tourists in the central courtyard. Furthermore, the people running the Hutong are always accessible and they are conversant in English since the Hutongs are targeted towards foreign tourists.

We did most of the sightseeing inside Beijing on our own, using the subway and public buses. We took a conducted 1-day tour of the Ming Tombs and Great Wall (Badaling section) for USD 17 per head (booked online in advance). The tour cost included all entry fees and a sumptuous buffet lunch. Cable car tickets (USD 13 per head) for going up the Great Wall were extra, however. The tour also included visits to jade and silk emporiums.

Four days is a very short time to know a place, we could barely scratch the surface. Some impressions I gathered about China (Beijing) during this short stay were :

1) Beijing and nearby areas are quite warm and humid in August. Cotton half-sleeve shirts are ideal.

2) Security is very high everywhere. We have flown to numerous destinations from KL, but the way we were patted down before boarding our flight to Tianjin was unprecedented. While purchasing tickets for the bullet train at Tianjin, we were required to show our passports. Our passport details were also entered into the computer system while checking into our Hutong and whenever I changed money at a bank.

3) Infrastructure is excellent. Public transport in Beijing is world-class.

4) One can see poor people and destitutes in Beijing, but much less than in any Indian metro city. Beijing has many old, less affluent neighbourhoods right in the heart of the city.

5) People are disciplined, polite and helpful. Though Beijing streets have many bicycles, two-wheelers, three-wheelers and the occasional handcart in addition to a huge number of cars and buses, I did not come across any chaotic situations, indisciplined driving or honking which are the norm in India.

6) The residents of Beijing love group activities like dancing, singing, martial arts, playing various games, etc., in public parks, squares or any big open place outdoors. The most popular place in Beijing for such group activities is the Temple of Heaven Park. I found many elderly / retired people passing time in interesting ways by engaging in such group activities free of cost.

Group dancing in Temple Of Heaven park

7) Almost all 2-wheelers in Beijing run on batteries. Some are like electric bicycles and others are electric scooters / bikes. They move noiselessly without any emission and use lead acid batteries.

All 2-wheelers are battery operated

8) Most of the tourists we saw in Beijing and nearby places like Great Wall were Chinese, in very large numbers. Many probably come from different parts of China to see their capital which has many beautiful tourist spots. Most of the Chinese tourists appeared reasonably well-to-do and they were enjoying themselves thoroughly.

9) The compulsory one child per couple norm is visibly skewing the sex ratio in China. Most of the children I saw were boys.

Too many boys in China

10) Since children are ‘rationed’, they are greatly pampered by their parents and grandparents.

11) Chinese seem to be very fond of pet dogs.

12) Chinese men smoke a lot.

13) Most banks (including at the airports) offer similar exchange rates and don’t charge any commission. This is quite different from places like Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok where the bank counters at the airports offer the worst exchange rates (10-15% lower) and it is best to change money downtown.

14) Language is a big problem. Very few people understand English. However, apparently thanks to the recent Olympics, many signages are in English now. We had little or no difficulty in using public transport like subway and public buses because all subway and bus stations are marked in English too.

15) Taxis are good, not too costly, and run on meter. We used a taxi to travel from our Hutong (in downtown Beijing) to the international airport. It was booked by our Hutong staff and arrived 10 minutes before the designated time (5 AM). The taxi driver helped with our luggage. The meter was started only when we actually boarded the taxi. Upon reaching our destination, a printout of the tariff was provided. Additionally, toll (not much) was payable by me.

16) I was informed by an Indian friend working in a shipyard in China that the pace of development of the rural interiors of China was something to be seen to be believed. Almost every village is being transformed into a small town with concrete roads and other facilities. After good roads connect to a village, quick development of the village follows. The quality of life of the common people is rapidly improving.

17) The same Indian friend informed me that he saw some massive new shipyards coming up in China during the last couple of years and the pace of project execution there is mind-boggling, quite inconceivable in India.

Some more pictures I took in China may be seen at

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

The badly managed border (West Bengal / Jharkhand) checkpost at Chichira

I have lost count of the number of times I have crossed the Chichira border checkpost on NH 6. This busy checkpost has to be crossed while travelling from Bahragora in Jharkhand to Lodhasuli (near Jhargram) in W.B. or vice versa.

During my road trips all over India, I have had to cross many state borders. While drivers of commercial vehicles need to show their papers and pay octroi and other taxes at state borders, private vehicles are allowed to simply drive through. However, the actual process of the ‘officials’ dealing with the commercial vehicles is usually cumbersome and corruption being rampant, every truck has to spend several minutes to complete the official paperwork (plus under-the-table activity) and one often sees huge queues (several miles long, on both sides of the border) while approaching a state border.

Despite the massive queue of trucks, usually half a lane is kept clear for small private vehicles to move. But not infrequently, trucks occupy all the lanes and so cars also get stuck. As is quite common in India, traffic police (or any kind of police) are conspicuous by their absence in places where they are most required. One would expect at least half a dozen police constables managing traffic at a border checkpost on a busy National Highway where hundreds (sometimes thousands) of trucks queue up routinely but usually not a single constable is visible. For all I know, there are constables posted there officially, but instead of doing what they are supposed to do they are probably busy in collecting their pound of flesh from the hapless truck drivers. And the police officers who are paid to supervise the constables are themselves corrupt and ineffective.

The Chichira border is below average by Indian standards. There are no lane dividers. The road surface is usually bad with huge craters (road has been repaired recently so right now this is not a problem). I have never seen any constable controlling traffic there and major jams are frequent. But on both sides of the choked highway there are some dusty / muddy tracks which are used by smaller vehicles to bypass the jams. The trick lies in making a timely visual assessment of the jam while approaching the border and descending (the dirt tracks are several feet below the highway level) to the dirt track either to the left or right of the road. There are some convenient spots for descending and ascending back to the road. If one misses such spots, one has no choice but to crawl along with the trucks because the descent from the road to the dirt tracks is very steep and treacherous in most places.

Over the last 10 years or so, I have become reasonably adept at negotiating the Chichira border. I usually try to cross it early in the morning when the traffic is relatively less dense. When I see a jam, I try to use the dirt tracks. The dirt tracks have huge craters which are filled with water / mud during the rainy season and it is great fun to cross them in a small car.

When I recently drove to Kharagpur, I crossed Chichira around 9 AM and it took me just 15 mins to cross the border without getting off the road. However, during my return trip on 25.03.10 I saw a god-awful jam – trucks were lined up at least 5-6 km on each side of the border! I crossed a km or two of the truck line without having to get off the road and then I had to get off the road and travel about 4-5 km on dirt tracks through a couple of villages before getting back on the highway. These dirt tracks have a thick carpet of loose dust and if there is a vehicle just ahead of you, you had it because you won’t be able to see through the thick cloud of dust. So timing is very important and one needs to maintain good speed so that the car behind you cannot overtake you.

To conclude, my advice is :

1) Don’t let these problems in Chichira deter your long drive plans on this route. You will find similar problems in many state borders in India. Also, whenever there is an accident on an Indian highway, similar jams occur. Have a little patience and make allowance for a little extra time to cross the border.

2) Try to cross the border early in the morning if possible.

3) Never queue up behind the last truck in your lane as if you are in a civilized land. If the right hand side lane is available, get into it and move ahead. Though the RHS lane is for traffic moving towards you, small vehicles are ‘allowed’ in India to move in the wrong direction in a jam situation. If you see a truck coming towards you on the RHS lane, look for a suitable spot to get off the road and let the truck pass.

4) If everything fails, try to get off the road and follow the dirt tracks which run parallel to the road or through adjacent fields and villages.

5) If you are faint-hearted, driving in India is strongly contra-indicated.