Paul and Rita - India and About, 2005/6 - West Bengal


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Described in our Footprints guidebook as being made up of "new mud, old mud and marsh", West Bengal lies mostly on the western delta of the mighty Ganga river, known to most of us as the Ganges. The northern tip of West Bengal is in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas, the southernmost point, 400 miles away, is in the Sunderbans, the mangrove swamps in the mouths of the Ganga where you can sometimes see tigers swimming. 


Itinerary - click link to jump to day

1st Nov - Arrive Siliguri
2nd Nov - Siliguri
3rd Nov - Siliguri to Darjeeling
4th - 21st Nov - Darjeeling (Yes! almost three weeks)
22nd Nov - Darjeeling to Siliguri
23rd to 24th Nov - Siliguri
25th to26th Nov - Siliguri to Madarihat/Jaldapara
27th to 28th Nov - Madarihat / Jaldapara National Park
29th Nov - Madarihat to Siliguri
30th Nov to 5th Dec - Siliguri
6th to 8th Dec - Siliguri to Kolkata (Calcutta)
9th to 12th Dec - Kolkata, and on to Bhubeneshwar, Orissa


Tue 1st November, 2005

Arrived in Siliguri after 24 hour train ride from Lucknow.  Today is Diwali, the Festival of Light, a bit like our Christmas and Guy Fawkes night rolled into one.  Checked into the West Bengal Government run Mainak (no, not Maniac) Hotel, nice room for Re467 including government taxes.  I guess they would have to charge them, wouldn't they. 

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Wed 2nd November, 2005

Spent the day exploring the town of Siliguri, cycling around the back lanes of the town and meeting some of the locals.  This is the second day of Diwali celebrations, and everyone is in a festive mood.

Managed to get tickets on the Toy Train to Darjeeling for tomorrow, there were no second class tickets left so we had to buy first, but they were only 230 Rupees.  

Had an excellent meal at the Eminent Restaurant, in the Conclave Hotel.  Chicken Vindaloo! no less.  Not a real Indian dish of course, but one of my favourites, and the first time we've seen it on a menu in India this time. 

Thu 3rd to Mon 21st November, 2005

24 hour train ride to Silaguri at the foothills of the Himalayas where we caught the famous toy train, of only four carriages on narrow gauge line up to the town of Darjeeling. It was a fascinating journey, travelling from sea level up to 2000 meters over 80ish kms of forested mountains and tea plantations punctuated with tiny villages of tumble down shacks called houses!!

The journey is slow but comfortable in first class for 2.50 and a great opportunity to view the country side and peoples of the foothills. At stages you are one minute travelling forwards and the next in reverse as this is the only way the little diesel engine can climb the steep hillsides in a zigzag
fashion. kids hang on the sides and jump on and off as we pass thro the villages, it goes that slow!!! We arrived just b4 sunset to get a spectacular view of the Kanchendzong( no doubt spelt wrong) at over 8000 meters the 3rd highest peak in the Himalayas and in the world!

We find the place is very Britishy and cleaner and cooler than almost everywhere we have so far been in India and we are presently staying in a Chinese run hotel at 3.50 each per night which is about the going rate for a decent clean place, although cheaper and dearer are of course available. 
This one is clean (being Chinese run), water hot, view of mountains fantastic, overlooking main thoroughfare, so a little noisy, incl sat tv, comfy chairs and balcony.
It is a break to be here after all the extremely hot weather we have so far run up against. The evenings are much cooler, and we have reinvested in fleeces etc after sending some home while we were cycling in the Ganges  flood plain towards Lucknow, both very flat and very hot.

The plains were dotted with many places of worship eg at Haridwar - a town with ghats, bathing places, dense with statues of Hindu gods of Lakshmi,  Siva, Vishna, Ganesh to name just a few, jain temples of beautiful fine stonework and Sikh and Buddhist places of worship too.

We have been fortunate to have been in various towns when festivals have been going e.g. the festival of good over evil, Dussehra which was on in Dehra Dun when we arrived there, the Hindu festival of Diwali last week, celebrated with as much vigour as our Christmas and there is presently a carnival here in Darjeeling.

Ganesh is the elephant headed god of good luck and prosperity and we carry a miniature with us, (given as a gift to Paul and I on his birthday in Shimla by a lovely couple we met on one of our other great train journeys from Kalka near Chandigarh to Shimla, Vishal and Anju who live in Delhi) together with Siva and Kev the Koala
(not a real one! Paul) our constant travelling companion!

I guess Ganesh is working well as Paul has had several premium bond wins, a pools win and we are looking forward to winning on this weekends roll over Lotto (the British one, of course, bought tickets on internet) but have not yet had the email confirming!!!
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Tue 22nd November, 2005

Time to leave Darjeeling.  Having had a wonderfully refreshing break from travelling for nearly 3 weeks, its time to move on.  Today we cycle back down to Siliguri, 80 km away and 2000metres lower than Darjeeling.  Some of you may now be spotting a pattern (I have mentioned this before).  Getting trains to tops of big hills and cycling back down?  Well, which way would you rather do it?  We're not stupid!

Started off with a climb up to Ghoum, 7km away and 200 metres higher than Darjeeling, but that was the end of the hard work, it was 70 km of almost constant downhill from there.  Not a particularly good road surface, diabolical in places, and the hundred or so level crossings were an additional hazard, especially as they were not manned and barely even marked at some places.  Whiz around a corner and suddenly find you're on the railway track.  Nice.

The Toy Train, on its way to Siliguri as well, overtook us on the way up the hill to Ghoum.  We passed the "up" train just before the halfway point, at around 35km, then overtook the "down" train at about the 5okm mark.  I thought we were going slow!   We had also stopped at a tea plantation to sample some proper Darjeeling Tea. 

Arrived in Siliguri at 4pm, returned to the Mainak Hotel, started with the same argument/discussion  about not leaving our bikes outside, which we eventually won, again. 

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Wed 23rd  and Thu 24th November, 2005

Made plans for visiting Jaldapara National Park.  Some people in the WB Tourism Office were very helpful, but the woman who we had to make hotel reservations through was not.  The helpful people told us we would be able to easily find somewhere to stay on the outskirts of the park, so there is no need to book.  Good, we dont like to book in advance normally, but we had hoped to get a room in the Forest Lodge, within the Park itself, but that was fully booked.

Also had a fairly long shopping list of essentials to stock up on.  The first, and most important, a new rear tyre for my bike.  The wall of the tyre had worn through where it meets the rim, probably because I had not inflated it enough at some time.  I wasn't holding out too much hope of finding a 20 inch tyre here, although I had seen a few in India, almost every bicycle you see here has at least a 27 inch wheel.  So imagine my surprise when the first bike shop I stopped at, had exactly what I was looking for, and only Re70, less than a quid.

The rest of my shopping list ranged from an anti-mosquito tablet "cooker" to sachets of instant coffee powder.  I tried one little stall that I though might have a few of the item on my list, but was amazed when he managed to supply the whole lot, including a box of wooden toothpicks. An amazing little shop.  

Having cleaned and serviced our bikes, and fitted the new tyre to mine, we're ready to start cycling again tomorrow.  Just one more thing, a lovely chicken vindaloo at the  Eminent Restaurant. Fan-tastic!

Back to Itinerary

Fri 25th November, 2005

Said our goodbyes at the Mainak hotel, about half a dozen staff came out to wave us off as we cycled down the drive. Not quite sure why we're so popular here, it's not like we're big tippers or anything like that.  

We planned to cycle to a town called Maynaguri, about 20km beyond Jalpaiguri, making it about halfway to Jaldapara National Park.  I'd been told by the friendly people at the WB Tourism Office that we were sure to find a hotel in Maynaguri, but whilst stopping for brunch at an unusually clean and bright motel, we were told there was no such beast in Maynaguri, and not much between there and Madarihat.  So, not wanting to brave the traffic for the whole 120km in one day, we called it a day once we reached Jalpaiguri after just over 40km.  We looked for the Tourist Lodge, but on the way came across a nice looking new hotel in the centre of town called Hotel de l'Pretom. They were very keen for us stay, and at Re450 for a reasonable room, we were quite keen too.  The service was a little over the top maybe, we had eight members of staff accompany us to our room!  I think they were eager to impress.  During the first half hour in our room, we must have had 6 knocks at the door, asking if everything was alright, or if we wanted the bed turning down, or did we want a drink, etc, etc. 

The town is fairly quiet, mainly due to it having a bypass.  I took a walk around a few of the roads near the hotel, but apart from one interesting looking Hindu temple, there seemed to be little to see in the town.      

There were two restaurants, one described also as a bar but they didn't have any alcohol, no licence yet apparently.  The menu was one of the most extensive Indian menus we've seen this time in India.  We've seen bigger menus, but they were packed out with non-Indian dishes.  Rita had a mixed vegetable curry, I had a chicken kalia - described as "chicken, Indian gravy, spices" - and the usual accompaniments of roti, dhal fry and pickle.  It was probably the best meal we've had in India this time around, a real pleasure to eat. On our way back to our room, one of the managers gave us a large envelope, addressed to us with a computer printed label, which turned out to contain a load of literature about the hotel the hotel, its facilities and the tours available from its very own tourist office.  I get it now, they think we're hotel inspectors or guide book investigators!  

Saturday. About 80km to go today, so started early to try and get there early afternoon.  Again, the staff came out onto the hotel balcony to wave us off.  Perhaps its because they're happy to see us go? Can't be because we're incredibly nice, generous, handsome people, could it?  Thought not.

The road was busy with pedestrians and push bikes for the first few kilometres, with only one careful bus driver carefully negotiating his way daintily through the crowds.  Actually, he raced through at 40kmph blasting his horn and scattering people everywhere.  Nice chap.

Back on the main road, we were faced with more trucks, buses and mad, bad car drivers.  After several near death experiences, one particular driver, overtaking a bus which was overtaking something else, raced towards me on my side of the road leaving me no room and only seconds to get off the road onto the stony dirt track below the tarmac.  For legal reasons I wont go into detail about exactly what followed next, but the policeman driving the said car, immediately turned around and pulled us over to remonstrate with me.  I claimed self defence, after all, he was trying to kill me, there could be no other possible explanation for someone driving directly at you at speed.  He said that was nonsense, he was driving perfectly properly and had left me ample room as he performed his perfect overtaking maneuver.  Ample room?  My bike is almost three feet wide with the panniers on it, he left me no more than an inch.  Nothing I said would persuade him he was anything but the epitome of the perfect Indian driver.  I would agree that he was the epitome of an Indian driver, i.e.: selfish, arrogant, no road sense and no respect for other road users.  I apologise to the one per cent of Indian drivers who don't fall into this category.  He wasn't a happy bunny when he drove off, but neither was I.   .I am really beginning to regret the decision to come cycling in India, and I have only one piece of advice for anyone contemplating something similar:  DON'T

Rita says:  (coming soon) (...I'm still waiting as well!)

After passing through Maynaguri, where we didn't spot any hotels, the traffic thinned out a little, and became a little more bearable.  We started passing through more tea plantations, spreading out as far as the eye could see from the road side, interspersed with large arable areas with intensive farming, mostly carried out by hand carried implements.  It looks like back braking work and I bet it is.  We asked directions at every junction, and were surprised by how few people had heard of either Jaldapara or Madarihat, even allowing for our bad pronunciation. 

By the time we arrived at the entrance gate to Jaldapara NP a little after 2pm, we were both feeling a little saddle sore and tired.  We asked about any vacancies at the Forest Lodge, the government hotel within the park, but were told that it could only be booked from Siliguri.  So we cycled on the half a kilometre to the small town of Madarihat and soon located the Tourist Lodge, also government run, which thankfully wasn't very busy at all and had plenty of vacancies.  The choice of rooms was a between small tin hut affair behind the main buildings, with dim lighting and a pokey bathroom stuck to the back, at Re650 a night, and a nice big, airy room in a new block with two balconies and a satellite TV for Re1000 a night.  Not much competition really, we opted for the comfortable room.  Three meals a day were included in both the room rates, so it made the price more palatable.  Forgive the pun

As I booked in, Rita was approached by a jeep driver to see if we wanted to go on the afternoon jeep safari to Jaldapara, leaving in 10 minutes.  Not wanting to miss out, we said yes and rushed to our room, dropped of our bags and quickly changed out of our cycling gear.  But when we got back to the jeep, the driver had negotiated a more lucrative deal with a larger group, and there were no other vehicles available.  Ah well, it must be beer o'clock by now, time to repair to the bar I'd spotted whilst checking in.

Dinner was quite interesting, with a choice of veg or non-veg.  I opted for the non-veg and Rita the other.  I had a couple of pieces of chicken in a curry sauce, Rita had a mixed veg curry, and we shared an aloo dum (potato curry) some roti and a large bowl of rice.

There were two options for safaris in the morning, a one hour elephant ride. or a two hour jeep safari. We wanted to try the elephant safari, as you are supposed to be able to get closer to the animals on an elephant, but we had to wait to see how many people staying at the Forest Lodge wanted to go to see if there were any other places available.  Of course, everybody at the Forest Lodge opted for the elephant ride and there was no room for us. So guess what, we booked on the jeep safari.  Get ready for a 6am start.  We booked tea and coffee for 530am to make sure we were awake.. Back to Itinerary

Sun 27th to Mon 28th November, 2005

Up at the crack of a sparrows whats-it, our tea and coffee arrived promptly at 5:30. It was quite cool as we clambered into the back of our jeep, just before 6am, but luckily it was only a 5 minute drive to the park.  The gates were still locked when we pulled up outside, meaning we would be the first visitors of the day. Great, at least no one has been scaring the animals already.  We had paid last night for the whole lot, but our guide and driver still had to fill out paperwork in triplicate and sign their name in blood (not really) before we could proceed any further.  Our guide seemed unusually quiet, for a guide. In fact, it was the driver who was doing most of the talking, and it was the driver who spotted our first wild animal of the day, a bison deep in the jungle, 50 metres or more from the road.  It took us a minute or so to spot it, and the car was stationary, so I dont know how the driver managed to see it while we were traveling along at 25 miles an our.  

On that point, he did seem to be going rather fast for a safari.  We've always thought that it's better to drive slowly, and stop frequently to look for animals, especially near rivers and watering holes where animals tend to gather at dawn and dusk.  I guess he was on a mission, our "safari" was only for 2 hours, so he's got to get us to the various viewing points in that time.  We shot over river bridges with barely a glimpse of the river banks, but I suppose that if he does this trip every day, he probably knows where we're going to see something. A short time after the bison, the driver pointed out a spotted deer, staring back at us through a gap in the bushes, obviously thinking 'they haven't seen me, if I keep very still they'll just go away', which we did.

We had been told that, apart from the rhinos, there are supposed to be tigers, leopards and various other dangerous animals, but we passed numerous locals who apparently live within the park boundaries, riding along on bicycle or walking, and they didn't look at all nervous. Perhaps they were just really brave?

Anyway, after twenty minutes driving, we arrived at the first viewing tower, also used by armed guards to keep an eye out for poachers.  We had a good clear view of the long grassy terrain for several hundred metres all around the tower, up to the tree line surrounding the large open area.  But we couldn't spot anything, and neither could our quiet guide or driver.  After 10 minutes of watching grass moving in the breeze, we clambered back into the jeep and drove off at speed, too fast again, to the text watch tower, about 20 minutes at a decent slow pace.  We were there in 10 minutes. 

At this next tower, there was a large Indian family already there, and they didn't seem that interested in their surrounding, more interested in shouting at each other. So after five minutes we gave up hope of them shutting up and left that tower, heading back to the first tower again.   There apparently wasn't any other place that they would take us to, not within the limited time of this safari, anyway.  We saw a fantastic kingfisher on a electricity wire over a river on the way, and a bird of prey, an eagle we were told, not far away as well.  We also saw a wild pig and a spotted deer. .Back at the first tower, we were the only people again, but aside from a domesticated elephant with mahout, there was no sign of any wildlife.  We spent some time scanning the area around the tower, but there was nothing out there that any of us could see.   So, as the end of our time neared, we left the tower to go to the final stop of the safari, the Forest Lodge, in front of which there is a large clearing when various animals can often be seen.

On the way to the lodge, Rita got fed up with them driving too fast to spot anything, especially passed watering holes and rivers, so as we approached the last bridge before the lodge, she asked them to stop for a minute so we could see what we might see.  And sure enough, there was a rhino stood on the bank of the river, a hundred metres from the bridge.  OK, so it was only the rear half we could see, but it was definitely a rhino.  It seemed to be poised, waiting for something, or perhaps catching his breath as he tried to climb the steep bank of the  river.  Then the guide spotted another rhino, about twenty  yards from the first.  We could only just make out part of its back, but it was in front of the first rhino, so was obviously the reason the first rhino had hesitated on the bank, trying to avoid a confrontation.  We watched for a good ten minutes, taking lots of photos of the backside of the rhino on the river bank, but then he disappeared from view and all the excitement was over.

At the lodge there were a few deer and some peacocks, but nothing else.  I think the guide and driver felt a little embarrassed that we hadn't seen more, but hey, like they say, there's no guarantee, and we did see bits of two different rhino, dear, bison, pig (wild), and various birds, so we didn't do too badly at all.  Was it worth getting up at 5:30 for?  Definitely.

Back at the lodge, we had breakfast of aloo dum and roti, normally served with puris, but as they're deep fried, we find them too oily for breakfast.  We then booked the same guide and driver to take use to the leopard reserve down the road.  They said we were sure to see some leopards, they weren't in cages but were in a confined area.  A couple we had met in the restaurant last night, Jenny and Fabian, arrived for breakfast at the same time as us and said they were also interested in going, making it a lot cheaper as the jeep hire was the most expensive element, so it cost us 450 rupees between the four of us.

The leopard park is 15 minute drive down the main road, then another fifteen minutes on a dirt track.  We had been given the impression that we would be driven around the leopard park in the jeep, but that turned out to be a clever use of words.  The leopard enclosure turned out to be a large fenced off area, full of trees and bushes, that we could walk around the outside of and peer through the netting at the leopards wandering around inside.  I guess it was not a cage in the normal sense of the words, but we felt the description we had been given didn't quite meet the reality of what we saw.  And as for being able to drive around the enclosure, this was possible, but only in a special enclosed electric car, at a cost of an extra 500 rupees each.  No thanks.  There were apparerntly 12 leopards in the enclosure, which covered an area of maybe 2 3 or 4 acres, not much space for animals that are solitary in nature.  We could see the animosity between some of the leopards as they got close to each other, they seemed to stick to their own little patch within the enclosure.  Shame, really.

There was also a  new area being built for some tigers, I think they had been saved from a circus, but I'm not sure saved would be a good adjective.  The new compounds consisted of a large area of dirt and a couple of tree stumps.  The tigers weren't even allowed to use this meager area, they were confined to small rooms at the end of the compound with thick bars.  All a bit disappointing, really.

Got back to the our hotel in time for lunch.  We'd both opted for the veggie version this time, which turned out to be the same as what Rita had last night, including a dum aloo not dissimilar from what we had for breakfast..  Oh, the joys of a regular diet.

After so much excitement in the morning, we were wiped out after lunch, so we chilled out in the afternoon and didn't do much at all.  I went off for a short walk in the local woods, hoping to finds a snake or even two, but no such luck.  We've been in many countries where there are supposed to be an abundance of snakes, and India is one of them, but they are an elusive creature, you need to know where and when to look.  I guess I don't.  I couldn't face the same food for dinner as I'd already eaten for breakfast and lunch, so passed on it.  Rita went to the restaurant in the hope of a surprise, but ended up with the same.  I think they cook a big batch of it every few days, then keep slopping it out until they run out.  A bit unfair perhaps, it was quite edible, just a little boring to get it 3 times a day.   

After yesterdays early exertions, we had a bit of a lie in today, Monday.  For breakfast I thought I would break the monotony and opted for an omelet, which actually wasn't too bad,  Rita, being a glutton for punishment, went for the aloo puri, which tasted strangely like her last 4 meals.  We booked on the afternoon safari trip in to the Jaldapara park, it was the same format as the early morning one, but finishing around dusk.  Most animals in wildlife parks are most active at these times, either early morning or late afternoon/evening, so we hoped to see a bit more this time.

We had some company on this trip, two Americans, a father and son, who had just arrived at the hotel and booked straight on to the safari.  At least it meant we didn't have to pay so much.  We set off promptly at 3pm, following the same route to the first tower.  We saw a few birds on the way, kingfisher and eagle again, might even have been the same two, but not much sign of anything else.  Without going into the laborious details of our comings and going within the park, we saw the following at some stage:  a herd of spotted dear, one with large antlers; a pair of barking dear; several rhinos, one only 20 metres away; a wild pig; peacocks; and various other species of birds All in all, quite a successful trip. 

Back at the hotel, we couldn't be bothered to make it to the restaurant for dinner, but as we'd ordered it, we had it delivered to our room.  And guess what?  It was the same a last nights.  Yummy.   Back to Itinerary

Tue 29th November, 2005
Time to leave Jaldapara.  Can't face another day of near death experiences on our bikes, so we're going to use one of our arch enemies, the buses!  It had taken us 9 hours over two days to cycle to Jaldapara from Siliguri, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that the 125km journey back by bus would only take 5 hours and cost 175 rupees each, including bike.  It was a little disappointing to learn that by cycling we had only saved 350 rupees, but we aren't cycling to save money, more for the exercise and for the people and places you get a better chance to see on the way.

The time passed quickly on the bus, even though it was a bit cramped at times.  We were sat on a three seater bench, which would only be a two-seater in a western country, but some of the time we had it too ourselves, sometimes we had to squeeze a third person in.  The seats are quite hard and there is a lot of exposed metal, making any movement a potentially painful experience.  Other that that, it was great!

We arrived back in Siliguri bus station in mid-afternoon, then cycled up to our usual hotel, the Mainak Tourist Lodge.  They were pleased to see us again, although they still wanted to see our passports and fill out all the same paperwork again.  They should know our details off by heart by now.  We opted for a cheaper room this time, we didn't need air-con as it wasn't that hot and the air-con was too noisy! 700 rupees a night, plus taxes, but we managed to wangle a 10% discount.  Not easy in these government run places.

Back to Itinerary

Wed 30th November to Monday 5th December, 2005
We had run out of one of the two types of anti-malarial drugs we had been taking.  We had initially easily bought some in Delhi, but only bought a months supply as they seemed easy to get hold of, and we didn't need them in Ladakh or Darjeeling, both places being above 2000 metres.  But since Delhi, we had not been able to find anywhere that sold this particular drug, Paludrine.  So last week, we had contacted our friends Vishal and Anju in Delhi, and asked them to buy some there and send them to us at the Mainak by courier.  So our plan now was to wait for the tablets to turn up, then move on to the south of West Bengal. 

We had various things to keep us occupied while we waited for our parcel.  Rita was still doing her  tefl course, and spent a lot of time on that.  I had the website to update, an ongoing job, but I'm getting the hang of it now.  I also had a lot of photos to sort out, backup and select for the website.  We've taken an awful lot of photos since we arrived in India, about 7000 between us, and I've been looking for a suitable program to allow me to update the description embedded within the data of the jpeg format, known as the EXIF data.  But I have not been able to find a free (I dont want to have to pay for it!) program that quickly and easily lets you modify the EXIF description data.  So I've started to write a program in Visual Basic, a language I have played briefly with in the past but am far from proficient at.  Give me a real computer like the AS/400 with manly program languages like RPGLE any day.

There was also a big wedding in the offing at the hotel.  They had just started setting up the paraphernalia in the garden in front of the hotel when we arrived on the Tuesday, and during the rest of the week, they kept plugging away at it so that by Saturday afternoon, all was ready.  On Saturday morning, and actually, most days before then,  I didn't think they were going to make it, but they brought in a lot of extra people to set up all the wooden boarding for the floors, lighting, "castle walls" effect around the outside, carpets, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, flowers, drinks stall (non-alcoholic, of course) and all the other accoutrements for a successful Indian wedding.  There were two raised platforms at one end, one for the live band, the other was where the happy couple would spend most of their time during the wedding, having their photos taken with a constant procession of guests, presenting gifts.  They even cleaned and painted the outside of the hotel, only with a light coat of emulsion, but it did make things look a lot brighter.  They also installed a small fountain in the small pond in front of the hotel entrance, which looked quite good, except they made no attempt to hide the pump and the brightly coloured pipework, which rather spoiled the effect of it all. Incredible India.

The wedding itself seemed to pass off very well, although I'm no expert on weddings, that's Rita's department, (she's gonna kill me for that!)  We didn't quite manage to get an invite, but we had a great view from the roof above the reception area, easily accessed from the temporary dining room we had to use because the wedding had taken over the usual dining hall as well.   And a good time was had by all.  Luckily for us, the music and dancing didn't go on all night, as our room overlooked the garden where the wedding was held.

We waited until the following Monday for our tablets to turn up, but there seemed to be a problem with the courier, and Vishal was away working and having problems with his mobile, so we decided we couldn't wait any longer and would set off again tomorrow.

Back to Itinerary

Tue 6th December to Thu 8th December
We tried to get seats on the train to Malda, in central West Bengal, but no such luck.  So we had to go for a bus, and the only ones leaving in the morning were the state run buses.  Oh what joy.  I had to put the bikes up on the roof myself, which I prefer to do anyway so I can make sure they're fastened down properly, and I normally lock them to the roof rack as well.   The bus wasn't too full as it left the bus station, so we managed to get fairly good seats in the middle of the bus, well forward of the rear axle.  Seats behind that are more prone to bouncing, we find, although I'm not quite sure of the theory behind that.

It was only 250km to Malda, should be there in no time, even allowing for the occasional stop.  We seemed to race along at times, felt like 40 to 50mph, but it was to take up 7 hours before we rolled up in the Malda bus station.  That's less than 20 mph on average, and we only had 2 longer stops of about 10 minutes each?  Why does it take so long?  One place we lost a lot of time was at a railway level crossing, a common place for hold ups. I've gone into detail about the Indian drivers habits at level crossings, and needles to say, this one was no exception to the general rule, but deserves special mention..  The crossing was in the middle of a small town, and the road through the town was quite narrow, only just wide enough for two vehicles.  We pulled up behind a long line of vehicles, mostly trucks, and our driver turned off his engine.  At this point I thought this could go well, if everyone keeps their cool and wait in line, when the crossing opens, we'll soon be over.  I spoke too soon.  After twenty seconds of waiting, and with nothing coming the opposite way, our driver got impatient and took off down the wrong side of the road.  Of course, after 50 yards, several trucks came from the opposite direction, and we then spent the next 15 minutes inching backwards and forwards, not getting anywhere, but finally managed to pull back into the left hand lane and the lorries passed.  You'd think he'd have learnt his lesson by now, but no, twice more we set off on the wrong side, only to completely block the road twice more for 10 minutes or more.  After an hour, we finally made it across the railway line, and slowly picked up speed.  If everyone had queued up orderly, like we British like to do, we could have been across in 15 minutes.  I despair.

Found a nice hotel in Malda, on the edge of town, the Royal Park.  Quite a new place, it even had a lift.  We opted for a more expensive room, Re1000, mainly because it was so much better than the cheaper option we were offered, and Rita negotiated 20% discount because we're such nice people.  Well, we like to think so.  We had dinner in the "restaurant", I use the term with caution as it was a room with tables and chairs.  The thing that clinched it was the table cloths, with the stains of a hundred meals still on them.  Nice.  I went for a veggie option, as Rita always does, not sure I fancy risking any chicken here, although our fried noodles turned out to be quite edible.       

Why Malda, many people will ask.  Actually, most people would ask where the hell is Malda.  Its not a famous place, but it is quite well know in India for its succulent mellons, but down the road a little ways in the deserted city of Gaur.  Gaur was an important local city until it was sacked by Sher Shah Suri in 1537, and, as if that wasn't enough, the local population was wiped out by the plaque in 1575.  What remains of the city today are a number of ruins of temples, mosques and palaces, spread out over a large area and now surrounded by farming and mango trees. 

Gaur is about 15km south of Malda, 3 km on the main road, then a pleasant, if slightly bumpy cycle to the old city.  We saw many different types of water birds in the water lakes, streams and fields alongside the road, and we stopped so often to watch and photograph them and the local people, that it took us almost 2 hours to reach the first of the ruins, the 15th century Tantapara mosque.  The first thing that struck us was how nicely the gardens around the ruin were maintained, neatly mown grass with edged with nicely trimmed hedges.  I'm not sure I've seen anything quite like it for neatness anywhere else in India.  Perhaps its because this place doesn't get very many visitors?  The mosque itself is built of small red bricks, with some fine carvings in the brickwork above the arches, and a domed roof, also made of brick.  There was no one else there as we walked around, not even a guard or someone offering their services as a guide.  Again, I suppose there are so few visitors its not worth somebody's time to wait around on the off chance.

The next important building was the Lattan (Painted) Mosque, where we found a number of people at work rebuilding some parts of the building, and doing it very well.  It's called the Painted Mosque because it used to be covered in green, white, yellow and blue glazed tiles, some of which were still in place, but it was difficult to imagine how it would have looked in its hey-day.   One of the workers, one of the bosses I'd say, took it upon himself to guide us around the building, even opening a locked gate so we could have a look inside.  Of course, this brought forth a request for baksheesh, so I gave him 20 rupees.

We cycled further south, thinking we would come across the main group of buildings, but I had miss-read our position on our little map, and we soon came across a long queue of trucks.  At the head of the queue was an armed guard, it was only when we tried to go pass him to have a look at the huge old gateway just beyond that we found out we were trying to cross the border into Bangladesh.  We didn't realise we were so close to it.   This was not an official entry point for tourists, so even if we had a Bangladesh visa, we would not have been allowed to cross.  Shame, really, it was an interesting looking gateway.

Turning back north, we soon took a side road to try and locate the main palace, it must be up here somewhere.  After 20 minutes of cycling along winding lanes, we hadn't seen anything but a lot of paddy fields and mango trees.  We came across a small village and tried to ask where the palace and mosques were, but they kept on pointing back the way we had come.  We didn't have time to go back, so we headed back in the Malda direction.  The road we were following petered out into a dirt track, but it was mostly dry and we passed several other people on bikes so we pressed on.  After crossing a few narrow bridges across a river and negotiating the narrow paths around a paddy field, we came across the palace we had been looking for.  Of course, I knew where it was all along!

The palace had been a huge wooden building, and nothing now remained of it except for the extensive stone and brick foundations, which were in the process of being excavated.  The whole area was surrounded by an enormous brick wall, apparently 22 yards in height. Most of it is still there, quite an impressive sight.  Now we had relocated ourselves on the map, it was quite easy to find the other interesting building to visit. At one mosque, we came across a group of Indian tourists, the first group of visitors in the area we had seen all day.  They were being driven around in a land cruiser, and they had a guide.  Time was getting on though, and we still had about 15km to go to get back to Malda before the sun went down just before 5pm, so we had to crack on.  We stopped at a couple more ruins on the way, and passed through several small interesting villages, one of which had a small scale silk worm farm on the go.  We could see the various stages of the silk worm, from it roaming around free as a....a .. silk worm, to them cocooning themselves in little yellow ball, then finally being murdered in boiling water so that they dont turn into moths and break out of their cocoon, thus breaking the precious silk thread.   

We got back to the hotel a dusk, couldn't face the dirty tablecloths in the restaurant so we dined in our room.  A suitable end to a really quite special day, probably one of most enjoyable days in India this time.   . 

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Fri 9th to Sun 11th December, 2005

Problem with the buses.  There are strikes going on in the private bus sector, so only the government buses were running.  We wanted to go to the university town of Santiniketan, supposed to be a nice place to visit by all accounts, where the philosopher Tagore set up a uni there, but we spent an age trying to find a route by bus and were told so many different options and nobody really seemed to know, so we gave up and got the 9am Kolkata bus instead.  Sorry, Santiniketan, not this time.

Its a little over 300km from Malda to Kolkata, so based on our experience the other day, that's about 8 hours, allowing for the fact that the road we're travelling on is one of the main roads in West Bengal, the back bone of the state.  Well, it is supposed to be, but I've seen mud tracks in other countries which are better maintained than this one!  Calling it a road would be an exaggeration, its more a sequence of potholes connected by infrequent patches of something that might have been, at some stage, tarmac. I'm sure I saw a family of rhinos living in one of the pot-holes as we drove around it!  After about 6 hours of jostling and bumping along,  at around 3pm, we hoped we wouldn't have too much more to do, so we tentatively asked the conductor what time we would be arriving. He held up five fingers.  Great we'll be there at 5pm, we though.  How wrong we were.  He meant another 5 hours, we realised some time later, after we passed a sign saying Kolkata was 125km away.  Oh well, there's nothing we can do but grin and bear it.

At 8:15pm, we arrived at the Esplanade in the centre of Kolkata. I unloaded the bikes from the roof rack, lowering them down to Rita on the road below as she also tried to keep a watchful eye on our luggage.  Luckily, t'was fairly quiet in the area at that time.  Actually, we were quite surprised by how quiet the roads seemed, relatively at least.  We both thought that Kolkata was jam packed solid all the time, but we managed to cross the road with our bikes with little effort, and cycled easily down the road to the backpackers area of the City, around Sudder Street.  We found a nice room at the fairly new Presidency Hotel, after checking out several other on Sudder Street itself which were too expensive, grubby and/ or small.  It was getting late, we were hungry, and we could always look for somewhere tomorrow.  Re1200 for a night was a little on the expensive side for our budget, but this place seems quite expensive.

Had a late dinner at a busy bar/restaurant on Sudder Street, not too dingy for an Indian bar, perhaps they've learning the errors of there ways!

(Rita writes) 

Kolkata, or Calcutta as it used to be called if you are as old as me. We arrived there at around 8pm after yet another hideous 11 hour bus journey from Malda - half way between Calcutta and Siliguri.

We got off on the main drag and Paul unloaded bikes much to the amusement of the locals. A lad of about 16 with no legs and fingers, sat near us in a home constructed elaborate wheel chair and I asked him the way to Sudder Street, back packer area of the city. It wasn't far and we made off up the road. We passed the wonderful OBEROI Grand hotel en route and we were tempted but then we can live in India for 2 months for one breakfast there, ( perhaps not quite) - so we moved on.

The street was a seething mass of rickshaws, trucks, buses, beggars cows, goats, crows and kids in rags, peddlers and "with a complete absence of toilets - people carrying out their bodily needs in the street". We arrived near a hotel called the presidency and other places round about looked dire - so I thought lets try our luck and barter hard. Bear in mind if you have a shit journey you also need somewhere a bit easy on your sensitivities and this place turned out to be just the ticket. Bikes in our room and on the fourth floor but at £7.00 each per night we booked in expecting to move on the following day. That didn't happen and we remained there for the duration of our stay in Calcutta.

We were up late next morning and ate in the small and scrubby hotel cafe, a pretty nice fruit salad and Paul ate omelette - OK!!!!

We stepped outside at around midday to be met with stinky open drains, kids begging, plastic makeshift tents strung up along the pavement railings, rabid, scabby dogs, touts pushing tours, rickshaw cyclists, disabled beggars on platforms with wheels, cattle, crows, goats and kids, monkeys, marigold vendors and tiny shrines.

We have had serious thoughts of buying, renting or stealing a vehicle for the rest of our stay here since we had already almost met our master on the roads on cycles several time. Today we looked into the possibilities with Tata and Maruti, two big companies over here. After a stressy exercise we came to the conclusion the Indian market is not yet ready for this type of entrepreneurial spirit in their tourists and resolved to let the train take the strain.

I had thought we would visit mother Theresa's home when we were reminded of her as we walked down the famous Park Street, where all the posh restaurants and gathering places and theatres used to be in the days of the British Raj. Her bust on one of the junctions, with a banner displayed behind for Pioneer was a clever shot. But poverty meets you here at every turn and we didn't somehow feel the need to see any more than our fair share.

We ate in the Lotus 33 restaurant where we had a fine Indian meal but rather pricey at around a fiver each (by Indian standards) - However I was pissed off with the attitude of the restaurant manager. I thought the waiter was one of the best and intended to tip accordingly but could see the manager was hanging around to grab whatever we left. In the end we left nothing on the table and the Manager had the audacity as we were leaving to say "Nothing for me?" He was mean and calculating. The waiter I gave a tip as we walked downstairs, the manager spitefully was watching incase I did this - so I made a big show of it. Who says the class system doesn't still exist?

Following day we walked over the Maidan towards the famous Fort William, now an army barracks and towards the racecourse. The Maidan is a huge park with mango and banyan trees where all and sundry can be found flying kites, playing cricket, flogging samosas, pakoras, juices, pan, and even candy floss, and punters operating horse rides and carousels for kids.

The horse racing takes place quite early in the day, because of the heat and we thought better of losing our money on the last race, but it was interesting to see the Indian champagne set enjoying their wealth in the members enclosure quite a contrast with the other extreme that we have witnessed elsewhere.

The fabulous Victoria memorial building in brilliant white marble stands impressively behind the Maidan and dominates the whole area. ( We also came across the almost equally impressive St Paul's cathedral where a xmas pageant was being rehearsed). The Victoria memorial was built to commemorate her sixty three year reign and erected with funds given by the Indian people!

Our friends Vishal and Anju recommended the book "City of Joy" by Dominique Lapierre to us and now half way through it I would also recommend it for exactly capturing the flavour of this phenomenal city.

We visited the colonial and famous Fairlawn hotel in our Sudder street area -it's quaint and expensive and we had a couple of beers there. The meal times are formal and one is attended by waiters in turbans!! Its the ideal place for rich English women travelling alone!!!!!

The following day I visited the huge museum. Well worth it for the great exhibits of stuffed wild life of the country, the varieties of insects and the variety of statues of the Hindu gods, but also for the marvellous building itself which has been kept in fine order.

We contacted our Calcuttan friends and they recommended Lindsays roof top restaurant for a meal. Surprsiingly Indians have not yet grasped the sensuous luxury of open air roof top restaurants and we have found very few as we have travelled. This one was small and even so offered a covered and dark alternative nearby (why so dark and dingy I ask myself). The food there was Indian, Thai, Chinese and continental and very good.

Thinking ahead we booked our ticket out and the following day we cycled off early in the morning over the winding Hooghly river to the very famous HOWRAH station, passing again the Maidan and the Stadium where the first cricket match was played in 1804.

Howrah station is am amazingly modern place relatively and I was impressed. A station of the Victorian style much like the feel of Paddington. It was of course swarming with yellow taxis (probably over 100 within my view) and "coolies" and thousands rushing here there and everywhere on their commute to work.

Paul dived straight into a cafe and bought a masala dosa - impressing the locals by eating with his bare hands not using knife and fork!!!

I took a couple of veggie burgers and some fruit (readily available) and we got on board our train for the 8 hour trip to the town of Bhubaneshwar. We could feel the change in the countryside as we travelled towards the coast. We were entertained by a host of food vendors on the train, Orissan dancers and transvestites who simply wanted to embarrass us into giving them money - my they were good looking!!! We had a really enjoyable journey, pleased to get out of the masses of the state of West Bengal heading towards the beautiful state of Orissa.

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