Kolkata and beyond

From the south we headed to Kolkata. I first arrived in that city when I came to India in 1976. It was called Calcutta then and was entirely different place. As I’ve said before, India and the world were different places then. I remember suffering a bit from culture shock despite having been travelling in South East Asia in the previous months. I thought it was great at the time and was not disappointed after my lengthy absence. It had a bit of a different vibe to Mumbai and in many ways was rather more pleasant. The old yellow taxis gave it a Manhattan sort of feel. I was surprised to see them in such abundance. Based on the old Ambassador cars they really added to the atmosphere of the place. Interestingly they had “No Refusal” written on the side. I took this with a grain of salt and see I was probably right to do so. In theory they use the meters and although on our first ride the driver did so, all subsequent experiences were different. This included reneging on the original deal when we were already inside and setting off.  I did push back against this by shouting “Stop the car and I’ll give you 20 rupees!” It worked every time and the original deal was reinstated. After this we mainly used Uber and Ola – not always easy hooking up with the ride but considerably cheaper and no hassle about the fare.

Kolkata (8) (2)These hassles aside, the place was a treat. The sumptuous Victoria Memorial was on a Taj Mahal like scale. I barely remembered it from the first visit but it presented magnificently and was set in lovely parkland. We also loved the Indian Museum. It had some old and crumbling exhibits but the building was brilliant, this is so often the case with many of the museums in India. Often these are small with quite eclectic collections but housed in lovely buildings. The Indian Museum is on quite a different scale and a wonderful place to visit.

It must be added, that although Kolkata was fun to explore it was also hideously hot and humid. I was best able to stand up to it and spent a bit more time walking about. It was hard however keeping adequately hydrated as I became drenched in sweat. I photographed some of the lovely old buildings expecting to be shouted at by some guard. Many of the loveliest old buildings house government departments and that usually means photographing them is banned. I was chased off at one point but just carried on everywhere else as brazenly as possible, thinking that if they stopped me so what? There is an obsession about photography in India. Many things are exempt from any forms of photography. Often quite innocuous buildings or particular parts of museums. There is usually a charge added on at museums for cameras. Then sometimes you are only allowed to take photos with a mobile phone not a “proper” camera. It can be annoying and often seems arbitrary and stupid but that’s the way it is. Sometimes playing dumb or being sneaky gets you past this.

I also ventured over to the Central Market near where I had originally stayed all those years ago. I would be instantly pursued and harassed by some young lad as soon as I entered the place. They would list everything they could think of: “do you want pashminas, handicrafts, carvings…” the list would go on. Then in more hushed tones they would say: “Do you want hashish? Heroin? Morphine? Speed? Cocaine ..?” again the list would go on. Then: “You want girl?” And in even more hushed tones: “You want boy?” Anyway, the place burned down some years ago so it is unrecognisable today. So, life goes on….

I left Kolkata thinking that I had not really had as much time there as I would have wanted. It’s probably nicer at street level than the great city of Mumbai and has the reputation as a cultural and intellectual centre in India. A friend who spends quite a bit of time there on business had a few suggestions for places to eat and visit but we only got to a few of these. But there is always another time. From Kolkata we headed to Darjeeling. This involved a flight and a three-hour drive. We were finally caught having cabin baggage that was too heavy by AirAsia. It was an annoyance and cost us about $A30 (£13). They’ll probably do it again the next time we fly with them.

Darjeeling, a famous old British hill station, was far less touristy than I expected. Most of the tourists are Indians and we saw only a few Westerners. The town was hardly over developed for tourists either. What we did encounter was something we hadn’t seen for a while: rain. In fact, we got caught in a huge downpour and our flimsy umbrellas were of little protection. The lower temperature meant it was quite pleasant to walk. I had booked a ticket on the narrow gauge “toy” train that these days is pretty much a joyride. The day before they sent me a text saying it was cancelled. As the weather the next day was fine, we chanced going to the station and were rewarded with a ticket on the next train up the hill. I got covered in large coal dust but thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It brought back memories of my late father who was a huge steam train fan. He would have greatly enjoyed it.

Then it was off to Sikkim. I had always wanted to go there after I read about it as a kid. In those days it was an independent kingdom but that changed in 1975 when India decided to depose the king and take over. Sikkim’s strategic location abutting the Chinese border may have pushed India in that direction.  I should probably have researched the trip a bit better and left time to get a permit to visit Lake Chengdu. As it was, we needed a special permit to visit Sikkim which was a bit of a nuisance to acquire. It involved going to two different offices where stuffy old geezers wrote details in books and issued stamped forms. In the end no border soldiers looked at it but the hotel needed to see it before you could check in. But we were blessed with the weather in Gangtok and got great views of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak after Everest and K2. It was really nice in Gangtok and the drive up there from Darjeeling was beautiful. Getting out proved a bit trickier. I hadn’t really accounted for the largest democratic exercise on earth – the elections for Lok Sabha – the Indian central parliament. This has received quite a bit of publicity in other countries. Over 900 million people eligible to vote and 15 million new voters since the last election in 2014. It is staged over about five weeks but unfortunately kicked off on the day we were planning on heading south. It appears that the advent of the election brings in all sorts of restrictions. Alcohol was not sold in the days preceding it and on the first day itself nearly all transport services were suspended. After some searching, we found a taxi driver willing to take us. After nervously waiting for the next day, he’d obviously farmed it out to a friend. We ended up with the guy in the picture. He looked about twelve years old, but was twenty, and drove like a maniac. He was a nice guy however and thankfully arrived in one piece.

Driver from GangtokI write this while sitting in a hotel room in Siliguri, a not particularly notable town but one that is a point between Gangtok and the airport at Bagdroga. Tomorrow we have a two-stage flight to Varanasi. Our time here gets shorter but as we are doing so much it all seems so long. It’s going to be quite a change. Now we go back to the great heat of the plains and away from the relative cools of the hills.

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