Day 1 – Kathmandu > Kolkata
Today is our final day in Nepal, and what an amazing two weeks it has been! The trekking here is great and we would definitely recommend it. We have found the people very friendly, especially those living in the mountainous areas where they all greet you with “Namaste”, meaning “Hello” in Nepali.
In Nepal festivals are numerous, one of the most anticipated being Dashain, as it is the longest and most auspicious. This particular festival celebrates the victory of good over evil. One of the main days of Dashain is in fact today, so many street vendors and eateries are closed and the streets of Thamel are much quieter than normal. We try our luck at Phat Kath, a cafe that we eaten in the day before and surprisingly they are open. According to the water they are open 365 days a year, perfect! I sample a Nepali breakfast which includes a chapatti of course, a masala omelette, fried potatoes with onions & peppers and a lassi style yoghurt (you will find out more about these later on). Apparently the chapatti should be dipped into the yoghurt, and it is strangely tasty!
Upon arriving at the airport for our flight, we discover that the visa forms for India I have printed are in fact the application forms and not the actual visa! Thankfully the check in staff allow us to use the Wi-Fi to access our visa and the issue is resolved, but a word of advice, the confirmation to say the visa has been granted is what you actually need!
After a slightly bumpy start, but a short journey of 1hour 15minutes with Air India we start to descend into a very green looking Kolkata. Once off the flight and through to immigration, it’s clear that the man behind the desk isn’t happy about our lack of correct paperwork. But after a signature verification and a few questions about the where’s and when’s of our trip we are finally into India!
The best way into the city is with one of the trademark yellow taxis of Kolkata. If you pay in the main arrival area, the cost should be no more than 455 INR which will get you into the central areas. I get the impression that not all taxi drivers are very familiar with the city as they should be due to the constant asking for directions, but we eventually arrive at our accommodation which is in the Taltala area of Kolkata on Doctor Lane. From looking online, hostels in the city don’t appear to be plentiful, so we opted for the Georgian Inn, a basic yet relatively comfortable guesthouse.
We steal some tips and advice from the few Western tourists staying there too, and decide to head out with one Australian guy who recommends a local eatery just yards away. Stepping out into the evening streets and already we feel the intensity that is India, lots of gawping stares, beeping mopeds and crazy smells.
The food is a spicy vegetable style curry served with slightly mouldy chapatti bread, but for a small price of 70 INR how on earth can you complain! Its certainly not somewhere where you will bump into many other tourists, however that’s the joy of these places. You really get a true taste of the local culture!
Day 2 – Exploring Kolkata
Without any particular plan for the day, we head out into the street of Kolkata. They are exactly how I imagined India to be, and it is certainly not a country for those afraid of embracing the wonderful culture India has to offer.With a population of just over 1.3 billion, and many of the countries people living in poverty,it really opened our eyes as to how lucky we really are.
We wonder further through the streets, map in hand, as it is very easy to get lost and despite much of the population having knowledge of English, it can often be difficult to communicate especially when asking for directions. The train booking office is on our route, located on Fairlie Place, so we pop by in the hope of booking a ticket for our onward journey to Varanasi the following day. However be warned, this process is not as quick and easy as you may imagine. For purchasing tickets you must fill in an application form and wait for the number to be called, and remember to carry your passport when doing so or else you could be refused a ticket! The wait in this particular office was around 3 hours, so it may be worth buying several tickets if you have an itinerary planned, to save further waiting elsewhere. In our experience, this was the longest we had to wait for tickets, however there are always unorganised queues in many of the booking offices so be prepared to be patient.
The remainder of the day is spent walking what feels like miles throughout the city, with a very shameful stop off at a Dominoes Pizza outlet. From now on we’ve agreed its local cuisine only!
Day 3 – Kolkata > Varanasi
Today we take the night train to Varanasi, our next destination, leaving us with the full day to see a little more of the city. Another wonder through the crowded streets takes us to Victoria Memorial, a popular spot for tourists and slightly similar looks wise to the Taj Mahal due to its white colour and grand gardens.
Its a small fee of 70 INR to enter the gardens, however to the price to enter the palace itself is a slight difference between 100 INR for Indian nationals and 700 INR for foreign tourists, something that we noticed with the price for a lot of other things! Its a beautiful break from the hustle and bustle of the chaotic streets. We soon realise that the memorial isn’t the only thing being photographed, and that we ourselves are a popular attraction amongst the Indian tourists! It’s a nice feeling to make their day, as many of them don’t often see Caucasian people. St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral is another interesting site to see the history left behind following the British rule over India.
To compensate for our lack of Indian cuisine so far, we eat at Blue Sky Cafe located in the Sudder Street area, which is a must if you are looking for a tasty and varied menu at budget prices.
Our train leaves from Howrah Junction railway station, which is in fact the oldest and busiest in India. The station itself is as hectic as you would imagine, people rushing to and from trains, and we even spot a tiny puppy wondering aimlessly amongst the chaos. You will find that there are also lots of beggars, and its difficult not to give them money, however we were always recommended not to, as this will only encourage it. Trains in India are divided into classes from 1st to 5th, some of which have AC and basic bunk-beds, others have no windows and have minimal space for sleeping. We opted for 3rd class tickets, which is essentially means that there are three bunk-beds per row as well as much need air-conditioning! I imagine that 1st and 2nd class are much nicer, if your budget stretches to this.
We were advised to buy a chain to lock up luggage onto the bars beneath the seats, as there have been reports of thefts so its better to be safe than sorry! As this was our first experience on a sleeper train we decided to keep our backpacks on the the bunk-beds while we slept, slightly uncomfortable being two tall people. The train is compact with not much space to move around especially when there are six people in one small compartment, but the advantage is having your own bed with complimentary towels and sheets. It is possible to buy food and drinks on the train, but only to purchase from the those working on-board and not strangers, as there have been reports of items being drugged, so beware! Many of the Indian travellers on the other hand are very much prepared for the long journey, bringing with them a selection of food.
Once we both manage to get comfortable, after a few disputes over who’s seat was who’s (something which happens on almost all trains), it was time to try and catch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep on the 14 hour journey!
Find out what we got up to at our next destination here.
What were your first impression’s of India? How did you find the sleeper train experience? We would love to hear about your thoughts & experiences!
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