Calcutta. What can I say? We had only been there overnight before, not long enough to gain an impression, so arrived confident we would find something to like - after all, we had never been anywhere in India that wasn't fantastic. We flew into Dum Dum, shared a taxi into the city with another Australian woman, and headed off to find a hotel. The trusty Lonely Planet guide suggests several hotels around Sudder Street, but all were full, so we moved up-market to a rather run-down but air-conditioned hotel with big, if grubby rooms. Just enough time to dump our packs, have a quick shower, and we were off to expore.
Despite our confidence we never did find anything to like about Calcutta. We were both extremely happy to be back on the Indian sub-continent; we feel comfortable and at home there, and know just what to expect in large Indian cities, but Calcutta affected us in a way that Bombay, Benares, and other cities have not. It was unrelentingly oppressive, with no redeeming features, and sapped our energy in the pre-monsoonal heat.
Calcutta was a place for lots of organization, arranging our restricted-area permit for Sikkim, getting rail tickets to Darjeeling, and talking to trekking agency representatives about the Government requirements for trekking in Sikkim, since we were fairly certain we could not trek without a guide, and needed to find out if we could go as a couple, or if there was a minimum group size of four (our last information in Australia). The local Indian Tourist Office was very helpful, providing maps and updated information on visiting Sikkim.
The restricted area permit, giving us a 15-day stay in Sikkim, took 24 hours to be issued, available from the Foreigner's Registration Office. Meanwhile, we made an attempt to get a visa for Bangladesh, originally hoping to return from Darjeeling to Calcutta by travelling on the rivers there, but found that no visas were being issued for overland travel - tourists could only fly in and fly out, defeating our purpose. It was at this stage that we decided to go to Orissa if time permitted.
Rail tickets are extremely easy to arrange these days, a far cry from the old system of endless queueing at bewildering railway station kiosks. There is a separate 2nd class and tourist-quota booking office in the commercial district, where tickets are issued, although you have to pay in $US or produce proof of currency exchange when paying.
We were trying to book to Darjeeling, but the ticket office would only book us as far as New Jalpaiguri (NJP); from there, the toy train line runs up into the hills to Darjeeling. Although we asked about booking on the toy train, our requests were ignored without explanation, and we settled for 2nd class air-conditioned berths for the overnight journey.
I was quite upset by our inability to book on the toy train, but as we left the railway office a man came up and started to talk to us - apparently a railway official. We were walking back to Sudder Street (quite a long distance) and he chatted away to me during the walk, about where we were going, and my annoyance about not getting a ticket to Darjeeling. In hindsight, I can see that he concentrated on talking to me, effectively shouldering Geoff out of the conversation, but at the time I wasn't noticing, just talking to him, He explained that he was an engineer based in NJP, and although the tickets were normally only issued at the station there, he could get us tickets for the toy train. I really wanted to believe him, to the point of being a bit irrational about it, and agreed to let him obtain tickets for us; I even paid him for them! Believe me - he was quite convincing. Geoff was extremely pissed off with me with good reason - we never sighted him or the money again.
It was oppressively hot in Calcutta. We were walking a lot, since this is our normal way of getting to see and appreciate places we visit, but the heat and humidity were adding to our growing dislike of the city, and it was with great pleasure that we finally checkout out of the coolth of our room and set off to the Howrah Railway station, to while away the evening, waiting for our train to leave. In the late afternoon, vultures were circling over the meccano-like structure of the Howrah Bridge, riding the sweltering air.
I love Indian railway stations - so much life and interest. Howrah is no exception; although we had about six hours to kill we were never bored, taking turns to wander off or sit with the packs, reading, talking, enjoying the diversity of peoples, languages, colours and activity. The train was fine; 2A/C consists of a carriage with corridor along one side and curtained-off compartments with four padded bunks, all kept pleasantly cool. You can order dinner from the staff, and bedding is available if you don't have your own. We shared our compartment with a young couple on their way to stay at the family home in Assam.
Early the next morning the train pulled into NJP, where enquiries revealed that the toy train had not been running for some years, landslides having blocked the line, although some sections of the track were usable further up into the hills, and work was beeing carried out to repair the damage. NJP is still on the plains, sweltering and smoggy, and it is a twenty-minute rickshaw ride to Siliguri, followed by a four-hour bus ride, before you reach Darjeeling. The road starts along the flat, soon passing through tea plantations, before starting the climb up into the foothills. All along the route the toy train line criss-crosses the road without warning, sharing the same small route carved out of the steep inclines - there are 132 unsupervised level crossings! Near Kurseong we passed the toy train engine, steaming along a repaired section of track, but there were no passenger cars attached.
The road wound steadily upward, but the smoggy air didn't clear; the prevailing winds push the dirt from the plains all the way up into these high valleys, to mingle with the smoke from countless fires used to cook in every village and town. The views were spectacular, but diminished by the haze. Nearing Darjeeling we passed through Ghoom, with its classic Buddhist monastery. The road narrowed, having been designed as a cart track, rather than a two-way motorway, and the bus stopped frequently to allow on-coming traffic to clear before being able to proceed. There were endless jeeps pushing and bullying their noisy way up and down the route, horns blaring, scattering pedestrians with gay abandon.
Darjeeling is quite a big town, perched precariously on the steep side of a hill and straggling along the extended ridge. Just walking from the toy train station to Laden La road told us that this was going to be excellent practice for trekking! Pedestrians climb up the stairways between streets, while the cars wind their way up switchback routes. Geoff and I are middle-aged sedentary people, sitting behind terminals up to 10 hours a day; halfway up to the middle of town, packs on our backs, we questioned the wisdom of doing this sort of thing to ourselves. Its marvellous what selective memory does - you only remember the good bits from the last trip, and forget the hard work that went with it. It was very obvious that we'd need to do a lot of walking around the town and surroundings just to be in any fit state to trek at all.
We found a nice little Tibetan hotel (the Shamrock) on a quiet back alley. It was clean, had running water (a rarity in drought-struck Darjeeling) and you could heat up a bucket of water using the immersion heaters provided. The views across the hazy valley were great - theoretically you could see the mountains, but the smog imposed its own limits.
With a week in Darjeeling before our Sikkim permit started, we spent the time initially just walking around the town, up and down the hillside, then extending ourselves to places outside of town, taking the Cart Road out to the tea plantation at Happy Valley, visiting the zoo and mountaineering institute, walking the circuit right out the ridge to the ropeway, back along to the Tibetan Refugee Centre, then into town, ending up at Chowrasta, enjoying the views and food at the Star Dust Restaurant, a favourite with both Indian and foreign tourists. During the week we toughened up, finding the steps less daunting and the walking very pleasant. A visit to the Youth Hostel was rewarding, giving access to the comments of other trekkers in the area, and an informative talk with the manager. The Tourist Office wasn't really helpful, although they did provide a trekker's map (badly out of scale), but a chance encounter with "Aunty", a lovely Sikkimese lady at the Pineridge Hotel tourist information booth, did give us renewed hope that we would be able to trek in Sikkim without first getting a permit. Aunty also provided maps of Sikkim, and hotel recommendations.
Tiger Hill is about 13km from down town Darjeeling. Our guide book suggested that accomodation was available, so we decided to walk there one morning, sleep over, and walk back the next day. There is a trail going from the top of the ridge across to Ghoom, avoiding the traffic on the crowded road, then a road up to the lookout. With minimum packs - just sleeping bags and a change of clothes - we set off, enjoying the walk until the very last section, beyond the pilgrim-crowded shrines, where it gets quite steep. At 9am we were sitting up the top, a mystical glimpse of Kanchenjunga rising above the clouds, looking like solid cloud itself. There were three British boys sleeping out on the summit, surviving on a $US5 a day budget - the sort of thing we used to do, but we were up-market this trip, averaging $US10 a day instead! Theirs was the only accomodation offering at the top, so after an hour or so we headed down again, to investigate a "Tourist Lodge" part-way down the hill.
Despite the sign, the Lodge appeared decrepit and deserted except for a dog; it barked for a while, then launched outright war on us, getting me from the rear, but luckily only biting my pants leg, and not breaking the skin. The dog raced off around the building, and re-appeared in front of us, all teeth, snarls and attack, and there was nothing else for Geoff to do but kick it off, while we rapidly retreated. So much for an overnight stay. We walked down to Ghoom, and then back to Darjeeling along the road, just for a change, arriving in time for a late lunch.
There are two bus companies offering transport to Sikkim, booked through agencies at the bus station on Cart Road. It is a good idea to book early, since they are crowded, and are liable to cancellation. On the day our permit started we set off on the 7-hour trip to Gantok, going through immigration at Rangpo, in the impressive new police/customs building. Once in Sikkim the road improved, and the sides were planted with a wide range of flowering plants, not all native - we recognized bottle-brushes from Oz! - but including lots of native orchids hanging from the trees. Even the air was cleaner and crisper, and, despite the restricted stay, Sikkim seemed to be welcoming us.