Monday, November 10, 2014

Darjeeling to Kolkata


From Darjeeling we hired a car / taxi to drive us down to Siliguri, near where we'd catch the train to Kolkata. The main road to Darjeeling is about 1 1/2 lanes wide and often narrower due to parked cars, people, dogs, goats, etc. It's also falling apart, with giant potholes. Darjeeling has a population of about 250,000 and the surrounding area probably as much again. Imagine if the only way in and out of Saskatoon was by a back alley!

Our train left early so we had booked a hotel in Siliguri. It’s always hard to tell what hotels in these remote areas are going to be like, regardless of the photos or reviews. But Hotel Sinclair turned out to be quite nice, a big step up from Darjeeling. Especially compared to the rest of Siliguri which is pretty “rough”. We were back down out of the mountains so it was hot and we enjoyed the swimming pool to cool off and get rid of the dust coated feeling. And then we managed to hang out in the bar/lounge long enough to drink a whole bottle of Sula (Indian) wine. I called the hotel “posh” on Facebook but Shelley wasn’t convinced it really qualified other than in relative terms. I was happy to find some birds and butterflies in the garden around the pool. It doesn't take much to keep me happy :-)


I was a little nervous about catching the train the next day, but although the station was huge it wasn’t too busy and we only had to ask a few people to find the right platform and train car. The hardest part was figuring out which seats were ours. All the berths were in the “sleeping” mode with curtains drawn and we couldn’t find seat numbers anywhere. After squeezing through the ridiculously narrow corridor back and forth several times someone took pity on us and pointed us to the right seats. It wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it was relatively clean and comfortable. The two men we shared our “cabin” with were unobtrusive. It was a 12 hour journey so we got lots of reading done.

When we arrived at Sealdah station in Kolkata (previously Calcutta) it was more like I had been expecting - zillions of people everywhere, some sleeping on the ground, the rest hauling their luggage in all directions. We managed to find the way through this chaos to the exit. We weren’t sure how to go about getting a taxi but were immediately approached by a driver who led us to his taxi. At this point we thought we were home free. Not! I told him the name of our hotel but he didn’t seem to recognize it, so I showed it to him on my phone. I assumed he knew where he was going since he headed out into the midst of the crazy traffic amid the blaring horns. But then he started trying to tell us (in broken English) that the hotel was too expensive and he would take us to a cheaper one. No, no, no, we said, we have already booked. He shut up and kept driving. Only to take us to some grungy hotel that he no doubt got a kickback from. No, we want our specific hotel. At which point it become clear that he had no idea where our hotel was. He stopped and we talked to some other taxi drivers and people on the street. But they didn’t seem to know it either. The other taxi driver tried to get us to switch to his taxi, which we might have been more inclined to do if we thought he knew any better where to go. So we drove around some more through the crazy traffic while our driver made multiple phone calls trying to figure out where to go. It turned out part of the problem was that his eyesight was bad and he couldn’t read the name and address from my phone. So we stopped and dug through our luggage to get a printed copy of the hotel reservation. Unfortunately it didn’t have a phone number for the hotel. We drove around some more and eventually, as much by luck as anything, we stumbled across the hotel. At which point the driver wanted an extra tip because of all the trouble we had been. I tried to say that was his fault, not ours, and paid him what we had originally agreed (before getting into the taxi).

Thankfully the hotel turned out to be luxurious (again, we hadn’t been sure what to expect) and we were immediately surrounded and escorted by hotel staff. In no time we were checked in and taken to our room. Shelley admitted that we had finally reached a hotel she would call “posh”.

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