Monday, November 27, 2006

A passage to India

Having returned from India a couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be a good idea to document what I did before my memory completely fails me. Links to the photos and videos are at the bottom of this article should you have no desire to read through my travel blog.

I flew from London Heathrow to Kolkata (Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose) International Airport arriving in the early morning to be picked up by Yipi and my cousins.

The flight arrived perfectly on time, and I must grudgingly admit that this British Airways flight was much improved from my previous experiences. I arrived in good spirits and only a little exhausted. On greeting them around 6am we make the journey to Serampore by car, which was quite interesting, especially being able to watch various festivals taking place en-route. I stayed at Serampore for a couple of days, which provided a good opportunity to catch up with relatives and see the festival in Rishra.

We managed a day trip to Kolkata to see various attractions such as the Victoria Memorial and Howrah Bridge as well as catching up with even more relatives (Indian families tend to be quite large).

The next evening we make the journey from Howrah station to New Jalpaiguri by overnight train, which was comfortable, if a little noisy. Sleeping is a task that is incredibly difficult to do on trains in India, due to the amount of hawkers on the train selling practically everything under the sun.

On arrival at New Jalpaiguri we grabbed some breakfast and hired a driver and vehicle to Gangtok in Sikkim. The scenery soon started changing the closer we approached Sikkim, the warm lowlands soon made way for the Himalayan foothills. We eventually reached the checkpoint to Sikkim after a few hours; we met with the border official to obtain permission for entry to Sikkim. Sadly Yipi was refused entry to Sikkim due to her Chinese passport, our efforts to convince him otherwise were futile. We then end up retracing our route and then head towards our alternative destination of Darjeeling via some spectacular views of the river Teesta.

Darjeeling is famous for its tea; whilst I had dreams it would just consist of tea plantations it was in fact a bustling town, with a huge amount of activity. We made Darjeeling our base for several days staying in the Hotel Dil.

There are plenty of attractions in and around Darjeeling; highlights include the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (where Tenzing Norgay became director), Tiger Hill to watch the sun rising, Tibetan monasteries and various tea estates.

Just up a small hill from the Mall there is a Buddhist temple with prayer flags everywhere and some cheeky little monkeys that look ready to steal your shoes.

Kurseong was our next destination from Darjeeling, which although not really a great distance, it took over 3 hours by toy train. No prizes for guessing why it's called the toy train, incidentally it must travel at something between walking and running speed (Good opportunity to do a Superman impersonation!).

We arrived in Kurseong in the evening and eventually found a satisfactory hotel, which served extremely good food.

The following day we did a local sightseeing trip of Kurseong and the surrounding area. We went to the Makaibari Tea Estate on a Sunday, which meant the place was closed for viewing but we were able to buy plenty of tea.

Kalimpong was our next town we stayed at for a couple of nights, before heading to Lolegaon via Lava. Lava is an extremely small place with not a great deal to offer apart from a nice Tibetan monastery.

Lolegaon is basically a small village with very little to do, though fortunately saved by its magnificent views of Kangchenjunga and a canopy walk.

We had to settle for accommodation in the half built Yankee's Stay hotel, as we weren't able to get a bungalow on the forest range. Lolegaon is surrounded by forests and is an ideal area for trekking; a perfect spot for watching the sunrise is around 4km away. We were unable to see the sun rise due to cloud cover, but did see some superb views of the Himalayan range.

Siliguri was to be our final destination before heading back to Kolkata. The journey to Siliguri takes about 2/3 hours and you can notice the temperature rising incredibly quickly as you start to descend.

I guess by the time we reached Siliguri from Lolegaon the temperature must have doubled. We arrived in the afternoon and eventually decide on staying at the hotel Dolly Inn. Siliguri is a large and extremely busy city, especially compared to the towns we had visited in the previous week. We spend most of our time here shopping in the crowded markets.

The following day we check out of the hotel and manage to cram five of us and all our luggage in an auto-rickshaw for the journey to New Jalpaiguri train station.

We catch the evening train to Sealdah train station which arrives on time in the morning, where we fight with taxi touts before getting a taxi to Howrah station and then finally back to Serampore.

We take a well deserved rest back in Serampore and then do a little shopping in the evening for saris etc.

The next day we pay a visit to the Science City in Kolkata, followed by some more shopping, eating and meeting relatives before I head back to the UK in the early hours of the following morning.

India is one of those places you either love or hate, whilst it can be extremely noisy and chaotic the good parts definitely outweigh the bad. Hopefully I will be returning within the next year.