21 days in the kingdom of happiness
What better place for a car rally than a country that measures its success by the 'gross national happiness' of its people.
You have to search pretty hard to find the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan on a map. Nestled between India and China at the eastern end of the Himalayas and the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau, it's not an easy place to get to. Tourist numbers are strictly limited and those who do visit must meet a minimum daily spend. The vast Himalayan mountain range makes for some incredible roads however the remote nature of the country means that no car rally had ever visited the kingdom. That all changed in 2015 when I was asked to film the Rally Round Thunder Dragon Rally.
Rally crews from around the world assembled in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. Customs formalities for the cars would take a few days, so while the rally mechanics took care of the formalities the rest of us enjoyed a tour of the Sundarban region of West Bengal, famous for the man eating tigers found in the mangrove forests of the river delta. From there we flew on to meet the cars in Siliguri and the start of the rally.
Our drive to the India/Bhutan border took us through the lush tea plantations of Darjeeling, where we enjoyed dinner served on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and on to Chalsa for a Safari drive where we spotted a big, bull elephant!
From the border we drove through lush forest, across bridges lined with prayer flags and on into the mountains toward Paro. One of the most remarkable sites in the world can be found near Paro but you can't reach it by car. The Tigers Nest Monastery clings precariously to the side of a sheer rock face. The only way up is to hike the winding trails that snake ever upwards, you need to be fit for this climb! Recovering from a broken ankle a few months before made it hard work for me but the views were totally worth it!
The incredible drive over the Chelela Pass
We took the scenic loop over the Chelela Pass, taking in incredible views across the snow capped Himalayas. Prayer flags are everywhere in Bhutan but the favourite places for them are the high mountain passes, where the wind carries the prayers to heaven. One of the best things about mountain passes is getting to and from them, just look at the google map of the road above! I mounted a Go Pro on the fastest car in the group, the Porsche 912 belonging to ex Mclaren F1 boss Alistair Caldwell. Alistair loves a driving challenge, he set off last and passed every other car on his descent to the Haa Valley. To See the full descent click here.
A giant golden Buddha overlooks the capital of Thimphu where we spent a couple of days exploring the city and repairing cars. The road climbed from the capital to the 3,140m high Dolchula Pass, adorned with 108 stupas. Our destination was Punakha, home to one of the largest most majestic Dzong's in Bhutan. We crossed a bridge across a wild river to enter the dzong itself, visiting the Buddhist temple and grounds. Returning to the car park we found the young monks photographing the cars with their smart phones, just as interested in our lives as we were in theirs!
The thing about Bhutan is just when you think you have driven the most spectacular road in the world, it throw another mind blowing days driving at you. The road to Gelephu defied belief! Dirt and mud roads clung to the sheer mountainsides with drops over 1000 metres and no crash barriers to save you if you get it wrong. These remarkable roads were the reason the Thunder Dragon Rally was not a competitive event, this is not the place to be racing!
Leaving Gelephu the roads were no less scary, particularly as most crews were nursing hangovers following a late night belting out the classics in the town's Karaoke bar! A sore head didn't stop Paddy popping out of the old Buick's sunroof every five minutes to snap another photo of the torturous road opening up in front of us. Arriving in Trongsa that night some of the teams reactions were priceless - see them in the highlights video at the bottom of the page, Julie who was co-driver in the 1923 Vauxhall was the best!
After the exhausting drive from Gelephu our next day was a relatively short, more relaxed drive, though the scenery continued to take the breath away at every turn! We arrived in the delightfully named Bumthang with plenty of time to spend the afternoon exploring the ancient monastery.
I've spoken a lot about the amazing roads, and shown you the fabulous cars I was travelling with, Bentley's, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar etc, but I have yet to mention the wonderful, warmhearted, friendly people of Bhutan. Our next stop was Mongar, where we joined an annual festival. People travel from all over Bhutan dressed in their finest to enjoy the celebration. Foreign visitors are rare in these parts so, to enter into the spirit, the entire rally donned the traditional Bhutanese costumes; Goh's for the men, Kira's for the women.
One quickly runs out of superlatives while trying to describe the roads in Bhutan, the sheer drops, the breath taking scenery; every time you think you've seen the best the country has to offer you round the bend to another jaw dropping view. Our route to Trashigang did not disappoint, some crews spent the afternoon here visiting another festival, while a few of us chose to drive along the gorge to a beautiful temple.
Special permits were required for us to cross into the remote eastern region of Bhutan. The area is so seldom visited by outsiders that no tourist infrastructure exists. The rally company liaised with a Bhutanese tour company to make special arrangements for accommodation. Our last night in the country was spent glamping in Safari tents in the grounds of a small monastery near Samdrup Dronga. The monks cooked our meals and we chatted around the camp fire as the sun set.
The change was immediate as we crossed the border back in to India; the peace and tranquillity were at once gone, replaced by crazy, busy traffic as we steered our way towards our final destination of Guwahati. Having driven in a lot of countries around the world I find the best way to survive is to drive like the locals, I do draw the line at driving into oncoming traffic though as some Indian's tend to do. The owner of the little white Porsche had no such qualms and expertly dodged the traffic on the opposite carriageway, arriving at the final nights hotel way before the rest of us, particularly the Jaguar XK120 which overheated and was towed the final few miles.
I hope you enjoyed the highlights of what in my opinion was the best car rally in the world! If you would like to see more from this and other motoring events I've filmed around the world then please visit my Youtube channel (don't forget to subscribe).