● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Kolkata (Calcutta)

26th – 28th February

The Flight
From the moment we stepped into the check in line for our flight, we were in India. The queue was huge, and comprised mostly of Indian men with enough luggage per person to sink a battleship… or overweight a plane! Each had a couple of flatscreen TV’s, several other electrical appliances, and the usual huge suitcases. At the gate, after the normal security, the lighter that we had just bought to light our mosquito coils was confiscated, for no apparent reason – infact Ady was looked down on and presumed to be a’smoker’… strange.

Even though everyone is allocated a seat number and the plane was only half full, a riot ensued towards the rear of the plane as about 30 Indian men jostled around with the crew over their seating. Eventually, the plane started moving, people still up and down like yoyo’s and only when we were at the end of the runway was everyone finally settled. As we sat waiting to take off, we could hear the Captain on the radio to the control tower. We’re not sure if this was intentional, but it was a little strange to say the least. After we were informed that the wheels were up, the climb out of Bangkok was the strangest we’ve experienced, with the plane speeding up and slowing down, climbing and descending – coupled with the running commentary from the cockpit, it was slightly alarming.

Crossing Kolkata
2 and a half hours later, we landed in Kolkata to an airport that looked like it was from the 60’s! The international terminal, smaller than the domestic terminal, had little in the way of facilities, and we had to walk to the domestic area to find a cash machine. Offers of taxis flooded in, with prices ranging from 220 to 300 rupees (£3-4!) to take us into the city centre. We dismissed the offers and walked over to the other terminal.

At domestic arrivals, the taxi price had increased to 350 rupees, probably because people arriving into the domestic terminal are less likely to fall for the taxi drivers attempts to divert the taxi to a hotel where the driver receives commission! The first test of our new India Lonely Planet commenced. It is possible to get into the centre of town using a local bus and the metro, and the book tells you how. Up for a challenge, and keen to see the real Kolkata, we set off on foot, 10 minutes to the gap in the airport perimeter fence where the bus stop supposedly was.

Bundled onto the bus in Indian style, we took an empty seat. Ady was promptly moved on with some laughs and smiles, as he was sitting in a designated Ladies seat… For Rs5 per person, the bus hurtled through the streets on a rollercoaster ride towards Dum Dum metro station. The Dum Dum area of Kolkata is home to an old munitions factory, which used to produce bullets named after the area. Hollow tipped Dum Dum bullets were internationally banned due to the way they open up once they enter the body, causing terrible internal damage to the victim. We also spotted a very old factory with ‘HMV’ above the archway to the entrance. At first we though it must just be a company with the same name as the record company, but as we rounded the corner, we saw the famous dog and gramophone logo with the inscription ‘His Masters Voice’ in stone.

At Dum Dum Junction station (a bit like Clapham Junction at rush hour) we finally found the metro/subway/underground – nobody called it the same thing! Rs6 took us all the way to the city centre on the most efficient way of getting around Kolkata, meaning we spent 22 rupees instead of 220 to get into the city from the airport – result! After searching many hotels around Sudder Street, we went back to the first place we looked at! The Tourist Inn was the only place that was half decent, it cost us Rs500 per night for a huge room with brand new bathroom, hot water and a new bed. Surely this standard wouldn’t last…! After our first proper Indian meal, we crashed out at 10pm and pondered how smoothly it had gone so far.

11pm and the room started vibrating. The sound of jack hammers in the street rung round the whole area. A new electricity cable was being laid and an army of men had arrived, in the night, to get the job done while there was no traffic. After a couple of hours, the noise abated and we finally got some sleep. In the morning we saw how the men had managed to dig a trench by hand, the length of the street, and prepare for laying a cable. In 24 hours the job was complete – the road would have been dug up for a week back home!

Internet and Mobiles
One of our first jobs was to get hold of an Indian mobile prepaid SIM card. Two trips to the Internet café later (forgot passport first time – you need to get online in India) we did our research on what network to go for. We found out that in India, you can’t just buy a SIM and use it over the whole country for free – it is specific to the state that you buy it in. There was no way around it – once we left Kolkata, we would pay roaming charges for all our usage – still much cheaper than using a UK phone though!

Top Traveller Tip #17 – Don’t forget your passport when you go an Internet Café in India. You need to register at each place you use, and they will take your photo, fingerprints, and copy of your passport before letting you online. Best bet is to get a local mobile with mobile internet and check email on your phone – see below!

We then had our first real taste of Indian bureaucracy… we won’t go into the 3 trips to the shop it took to get a SIM card. Passport photos, copy of passport, letter from the hotel confirming we were staying there (a receipt won’t do!), shoe size, blood group…

Top Traveller Tip #18 – Mobile Phones in India. Go to a shop and get a list of the documents you need before you try to buy. If you buy a SIM card in India, be aware that you will be roaming when you travel around the country. It’s an extra Rs1 per minute to receive calls, and there’s an extra charge to make calls too. It’s still infinitely cheaper than using a mobile from home though, so worth the hassle of getting hold of one for your stay. There are no roaming charges for GPRS (on AirTel anyway) making it an ideal way to get online for email etc.

Anyway, we have an Indian mobile now. The number is 00919007120538. We’d better make some use out of it!

The City
A day sightseeing, by both us and all of the male population of Kolkata who took too much of an interest in Sam was fun, but not particularly exciting. The number of pictures taken (8!) show this! As our first city, it wasn’t the best choice, but the cheap flight into Kolkata made it the best option.

Our final memory of Kolkata will be our chaotic departure. With 1 hour to go until our train departure, and the station 15 minutes away by taxi, we thought we were home and dry. Unfortunately, no taxi would make the journey departing from the vicinity of the hotel (ignoring the illegal minicabs trying to charge 10 times the correct fare!). We had to walk against the flow of the traffic until we popped out of the one way system and were on the street where the traffic was heading towards Sealdah station. Now all the taxis were full, so we saved some money and hopped on a local bus. As ever, Sam was the focus of all the men, and couldn’t get off fast enough once we arrived at the station. We had time to spare – a good job as our carriage was 10 minutes walk from the back of the train!

The relative luxury of 2AC for 12 hours lay ahead, including the delights of the Indian Railways pantry car – we couldn’t wait!

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