Sunday, September 12, 2010

bhutan overland

A Nepal-based company makes truck travel comfy.

By Jason Overdorf
Sept. 11, 2010

THIMPHU, Bhutan — About a mile from the India-Bhutan border, in the trash-strewn West Bengal town of Jaigaon, driver Nick Fulford wrestled with the gears of an enormous green-and-white Mercedes-Benz truck.

He heaved and slammed the stick shift as he wrenched the wheel around to swerve past bicycle rickshaws, scooters and unwary pedestrians. A big, ruddy bloke who looks like James Dean's less-fit cousin, he was probably the only United Kingdom national driving a big rig in India.

He was looking for the border, and, naturally, considering that I was navigator, he was lost.

"There was a sign back there that said something about immigration," I said.

"Do you think that's it? That can't be it. There'll be a checkpoint or something," Nick said.

He was right. But so was I. You can't actually enter Bhutan by accident. There is an ornate gate of sorts, with a couple guards in front of it. But they sent us back around the block — no small feat with an eight-ton tractor trailer in a small Indian town — to get our visas checked. The immigration officials were the friendliest I have ever met. About 20 minutes later, we rolled into Bhutan, the first group of "overlanders" to do it in a big rig.

This Bhutan journey is one of around a dozen trips that Australian truck driver-turned-entrepreneur Ben Grayling designed for his new company, Kathmandu-based Best of Asia Overland. Beginning in Kathmandu, the trip runs through Nepal's Chitwan National Park and India's Darjeeling and Gangtok before winding up the Bhutanese
mountains to Thimphu. But Grayling has developed a new model for overlanding.

Derived from an Australian stockmans' term for cattle drives, overlanding throughout the world relies on heavy trucks and off-road vehicles. But while its toughness has given it a cult following among young, once-in-a-lifetime adventurers, the hardships of its journeys have prevented traveling by truck from evolving into a very lucrative

A web community devoted to overlanding lists about 30 companies, the vast majority focused on Africa. The largest company, Dragoman, with its 25 trucks, only attracts around 4,000 clients a year. Grayling believes that's because the group size for the journeys is large, most trips are spent camping out, and travelers are assigned chores to keep the truck rolling. So to tap into the new market represented by
today's more adventurous older travelers, his company offers smaller, more comfortable boutique journeys — some of which will see the passengers "roughing it" in five-star hotels.

“We're basically trying to create a new market,” said 43-year-old Grayling, who worked for seven years as a driver and expedition leader for Dragoman before starting BOA.

Snowy, the refitted truck used on our pioneering journey into Bhutan, is equipped with room for only 14 passengers — giving the interior the spacious, sociable feel of an American retiree's “recreational vehicle” rather than an off-roading tour bus. There's a powerful air conditioning system, wet bar and refrigerator, and when fully
operational BOA-contractor Andrej Kmet — a Slovenian telecom whiz who was one of the eggheads behind the webcast of the first madman to ski down Everest — promises that Snowy will offer WiFi access and VoIP by tapping into local GPRS and 3G networks along the routes.

To complete the package, for itineraries that include a 25-night road trip from Kathmandu to Llasa, a 21-night haul through the deserts of Rajasthan, and a two-week tour of the "creme de la creme" of Nepal, among others, BOA has identified four- and five-star hotels like Nepal's Dwarikas and The Last Resort, India's Fateh Garh and Ajit Bhavan and Tibet's Hotel Manasarovar and Yak Hotel. “We offer the best
accommodation that's available,” Grayling said.

It's a bit like "flashpacking" — where laptop-toting backpackers rough it out on public transport so they can afford to crash in flash hotels. But the idea is also to take seasoned travelers off the beaten track. So Bhutan, which only opened its borders to tourism in 1974, was a natural choice.

Even if it has some ominous Big Brother-type aspects, the erstwhile king's commitment to expanding “gross national happiness” rather than gross national product has so far protected the country's natural beauty and cultural heritage. With a $200 per day minimum for foreigners, only around 25,000 tourists visit the country each year.
And Bhutan still has only one airport and no railway, so the only way to see the country is by road.

But in Asia's hinterlands, and especially India, there's no way to avoid discomfort. On this exploratory trip, passengers endured 16-hour drives and had to criss-cross India and Nepal by plane just to get started, thanks to political unrest in Kathmandu. Some of the Indian hotels were grotty, or just a step above. And we may have eaten one too many meals at the region's ubiquitous roadside "dhabas" for the
Saks Fifth Avenue crowd's tastes. In other words, it's still overlanding.

"We're going to call them boutique trips," Grayling said. "[As for] luxury, I'm not sure that quite works out. On all our trips there is some form of camping. But it's not your sleeping bag on the ground. In India, we have a camel safari where we use permanent tented accommodation, and on our high road to Lhasa trip, where we do actual camping, because we go to Mount Kailash, we've got a support vehicle
and crew, so when we arrive at the camp, everything is already set up, and the meal is being cooked."

Fortunately, there are no plans afoot to prevent passengers from playing navigator.,1

No comments: