Thursday, May 12, 2011

Holiday Pt1 - Kolkata and Darjeeling


I'd been looking forward to 16th April for quite a while. Not only was I going to get a chance to avenge my disastrous Nepal trip from January, I'd also get to see Kolkata and Darjeeling, two new areas of India. I was also planning a trek in the Himalayas. It was going to be awesome.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot.....Suzie was due to land in Kolkata that morning ;-) Actually, unsurprisingly this was really at the top of my list of things to be happy about. Which is why I almost had a heart-attack on the morning of the 16th....

You see, I'd travelled to Kolkata the day before and was staying at the house of one of the other VSOs (thanks Stanley!). I got up at 6am and started to get ready. My plan was to head off before 7am as it was quite a bus journey to get to the airport. I thought “I'll just check on her plane, make sure it's not delayed”. I log on, pull up the details for her flight.

Shit (sorry mum!). Shit shit shit.

Landed? LANDED? How the …..? What the hell? What time is it? Have time differences messed me up? How can it have landed already? My brain is racing. I'm wondering how I've managed to screw this up. I can just imagine poor Suzie sitting, waiting at Kolkata airport, wondering what the hell is happening.

Luckily then I start to calm down and think rationally. I work out that unless her flight was on Concorde it couldn't have landed when the website was saying. Something is wrong here. I decide to start again on the website. That's when I realise that the default date for the search for flights is the day before. Let me repeat that. The default option for checking flight arrivals is for flights on the previous day. Fricking useful that is.

So I'm back on time! Anyway, after possibly the most cost effective bus-ride in history (Rs10 – about 15p for roughly 1hr 15mins) I managed to arrive at Kolkata Airport. Just in time too. Suzie's flight actually did land early. But luckily only by 30mins!

The cab journey to our hotel was amusing. No one knew where it was. It's rated (correctly in my opinion) as number one for guesthouses in Kolkata on TripAdvisor, but even people working in businesses less than 50m away had no idea about it! When we finally got there it was worth it though. The Bodhi Tree, for anyone interested, is an amazing place. So chilled and lovely. We also got an amazing room. More like a suite than anything. Brilliant value.

...except, it wasn't our room! Even though we filled in registration forms on arrival, they'd put us in someone else's room! Our room, when they realised the mistake and moved us, was much more modest. Still, it was nice for a while!

Suze was obviously knackered from her travelling, so we spent the rest of the day having a bit of a walk in the nearby area. We kept on being directed to a particular restaurant, which kept on being “just up here”, but we never found it. Instead, we found a lovely little fish restaurant (fish! - you'll realise quite quickly that this was a good food holiday!) and then headed into central Kolkata for dinner in the evening to a restaurant with a roof terrace. Perfect!

On Sunday we had the day in Kolkata. We went to the Kalighat Temple, which was pretty cool, although fairly similar to other temples in India to be honest. Then we did the obligatory Indian bus journey and got off at the Victoria Memorial.

This is a pretty awesome building. And it was cool inside. In fact, I think the coolness and the shade in the gardens are two of it's best attributes :-) In fairness, some of the paintings inside are pretty good too and there's a nice bit of history on Kolkata too.

From there we had a bit of a stroll onto Park St, which is a bit of a tourist mecca and then grabbed a quick dinner. Then it was off to the train station. Next stop Darjeeling!

Trains in India can be great fun. They can also be a pain. This one was a bit of a mix. We'd decided to splurge and go first class. For that you get a bigger bed and a lockable door. That's about it. Unfortunately we had to share our cabin with two Indians, but they got off in the small hours of the morning, which thankfully meant that the staring at the two white people was interrupted and we could watch India roll by in peace.

The train arrived in Siliguri around 9am. Unfortunately, as the name suggests, Siliguri is not Darjeeling. In fact it's a 3hr jeep ride away. Yes. Jeep. Darjeeling is up in the hills, way up high. We'd also managed to arrive on the day of the Indian general elections, as well as the main route to Darjeeling being destroyed by a landslide. Awesome.

We'd managed to get a jeep eventually and off we set. Suzie and I crammed into the front passenger seat, another 8 or so in the back. Loads of room then! In true Tim style we turned up with a room booked but no idea how to get to the hotel, but got lucky as someone in the garage knew it and walked us up there. Never would have found it otherwise!

The hotel – Revolver, is a Beatles themed hotel with 5 rooms. One for each Beatle. And some guy called Brian. I'm a Stones man myself so didn't really get that bit – their manager or someone, but it was pretty well done. The host is awesome and they do great coffee :-) The only downside is waking up to find Ringo Starr staring at you....

I'd been told by a lot of people that Darjeeling is very touristy. I never really found that to be honest. No more so than a lot of other places in India anyway. It's very relaxed though and there are some lovely sights and places to get food. We had a walk around, Suzie tried some Gol Gappe and we had some Dosa for lunch – getting into the local foods!

The next day saw us set off to the Tea Plantation. Or, at least, we tried to. First, we tried to get some pakora and bhaji for a packed lunch. Unfortunately, bhajji is different to the bhaji as we know it. Bhajji (two “J”'s) means curry. Yep, we got a bag of pakora and a plate of veg curry! Oops! Luckily I like food, even curry at 9am :-)

Then, after walking for about 30 mins, we stopped to ask someone how much further to the plantation. The man pointed back up the hill, in the direction we'd come from, 10-15mins he said. Doh!

When we finally reached the plantation the tour was nice, but unfortunately due to the previously mentioned elections, no picking had happened the day before, so half of the plant wasn't in action (tea-picking is a two day process – the leaves are dried overnight)! Just outside the plantation though is a little cafe where a lovely and extremely enthusiastic woman gives a bit of a chat and a cup of tea – who could say no to that!?!

Normally I'm a little sceptical of this stuff, but I have to say, the 5 second tea demo was impressive. Take one pan of boiling water. Add a handful of tea leaves. Leave 5 seconds. Pour via sieve into bowl. Result? Perfectly brewed tea. Tasty too! I've bought some, but I'm not promising there'll be any left by the time I get back I'm afraid! Want to get hold of some? Super Fine Tippy Golden Flower Orange Pico 1 is the stuff you need!

From there, it's a short trip to Darjeeling zoo. I know what you're thinking – seen one zoo, seen them all. But this one has Red Pandas. And Snow Leopards. That's enough for me alone!

The Red Pandas were awesome. They've got a huge enclosure and were running around all over the place – too fast often to get a good pic in fact! The big cats weren't quite as good – too hot and in cages, but overall it's a pretty good zoo.

From the zoo, after a detour to the shrubbery (and about 15mins of Monty Python impressions), we decided to go for the sunset at the Windarmere hotel, famed for it's sunsets according to the Lonely Planet. Or not. Not sure how we invented that bit of information, but invent it we did! We sat in a bar that resembled everyone's nan's house with no views of the sunset at all! Had a great meal that night though (thanks Kez!) in Glenary's.

On the advice of our hotel owner, we checked out the next day and headed back to Siliguri so that we could get the overnight bus to Kathmandu. We'd been told to try and get a “Volvo” or tourist bus. Thus started one of the longest journeys of our lives....

We took another jeep from Darjeeling back to Siliguri – 3 hrs. We then took a rickshaw to the bus stand – 5 mins. Sat in the taxi waiting for it to fill up for 1hr in the afternoon heat. We took a shared taxi to the border – 1 hr. Nepal stamp in the passport! At the bus stand we were told there were no places on the Volvo buses left. Public buses only until tomorrow. Bugger.

Public buses are great. They're cheap. You feel like you're doing “proper” travelling. There's livestock, bags of grain around your ankles, etc. It's fun. For about 1hr. Unfortunately, Darjeeling is nowhere near Kathmandu. In fact, it's about 17hrs from being somewhere near. Getting on a bus, on rubbish roads, at 4pm and not getting off until 7am the next day is not a fun experience. Let's leave it at that. Never has a cold shower in a pretty rubbish hotel room seemed so appealing!

Ok, I'm going to leave it there. Stay tuned for the second installment - Nepal, Kathmandu and the Himalayas! If you can't bear to wait, you can sneak a peak at the Flickr pics - they're already online!

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