Thursday, June 4, 2009
The Great North Eastern Expedition
Huh! what a great feeling! I always wanted to have a blog, but didn't have the right opportunity nor the inclination to publish one. Now that I am just fresh out of the Great North-Eastern Trip (Thanks Naveen! for that title suggestion) I have enough to write and share through this blog.
Let me try and make this livelier by adding pictures and some links wherever I can. The idea is to not sound like 'this seems to have been written by an old man' (Santhosh, you recognize this all too well). Also, I don't want my first blog to be an academic exercise. So, let me try and make it short and informational for you guys. I'll try and give some practical tips wherever I can.
How did it happen
The great north eastern expedition didn't happen all of a sudden. BTW, before you guys (other than Naveen, Venkat and Santhosh), start thinking that this is some sort of great Siberian experience that I am going to narrate, let me tell you that the the great trip was to North-Eastern state of West Bengal covering Darjeeling and Kolkata and nothing beyond.
Coming back to where I left. The seeds of such a trip were sown after my wife Parimala and I completed trips to the metros of North, West and South India. We were waiting for an opportune time to go to the East of India. And there it came towards the end of May when I knew that I would be relatively free of my regular releases in the office. Before Santhosh jumps in and says gaseous elements, releases here are project releases I am responsible for at my office. I gave 1 month advance notice to Parimala to free herself of all her appointments for 8-10 days and that worked. She could plan out her patient schedules and convince her superiors about a week-off. And as far as my daughter Akanksha is concerned, she was raring to go, what with 2 months of holidays in her school KV that extended till June 22. And there we were, ready to go to the Eastern sojourn.
Our plan was to go to Kolkata by flight, take a train to New Jalpaiguri and from there take a toy train to the top of the Darjeeling Hills. And on the way back, visit Gangtok and return back to Jalpaiguri before reaching back Kolkata.
Our trip started off exactly as planned. We left on May 24 2009 from Bangalore. Before we took the flight, I had to endure a scare. I was carrying a backpack that had some food items and few other things that Parimala had added. I happily sent it through the security check, but when the bag didn't come out in the normal queue I asked the security guy and found that the bag had been kept separately. When asked why, I was told that the bag had more than 100 ml of liquid items. It was only then that I discovered that the bag contained Parimala's cosmetics that amounted to more than 100 ml of liquid. Due to this I had to go through the checkin procedure again that consumed 20 more minutes and also almost made me lose my new mobile phone. After checkin in I had to send the mobile phone alone into the security scanner and didn't remember to pick it up again as I proceeded towards boarding. Just before getting onto the aircraft I remembered the missing phone. Thankfully the alert Spicejet ground staff recovered the phone for me from the security check. Phew!!
Practical Tip 1: Don't carry more than 100 ml in hand baggage (not even water). Remember to pick up your phone, watch and laptop that are separately scanned before moving on to boarding the plane.
Kolkata - first pass
We reached Kolkata at 12.30 pm after 2.5 hrs of flight journey. We didn't want to waste anytime before the 7.30 pm Kanchenkanya Express to New Jalpaiguri. So, we went to the 'Science City' at Kolkata. To our good fortune Kolkata was not so unpleasant as we had expected, with some welcome rains. We had heard stories of how Kolkata would be sweltering in the month of May and were dreading the experience. But it was good to see some rains and cooling. What we didn't realize though was that these rains were the precursor to a brewing cyclone in the Bay of Bengal.
Science City is a fabulous place for children and adults alike. When you visit Calcutta never miss Science City as it is both educative as well as entertaining for all. We spent about 3 hours at the Science City and it was a memorable experience for us, even though we felt the time we reserved for this visit was very short.
Practical Tip 2: Reserve one full-day (if you can afford it) for Science City. There are lots of educative things for children and to learn and immerse yourself in experiments and other events you need a full day. Don't miss Evolution Park, Space Theatre, 3D Theatre, Mirror Magic, Van De Graff generator (hair raising experience, see pic) and the rope way ride. Remember that different parts of the Science City have different entry fees. But the fees you pay is worth it. One more thing, take the ropeway ride towards the end of your Science City visit, as the rope way drops you almost at the edge of the Park from where you can go out easily. Also, don't visit Kolkata during May or any of the summer months. The best time visit Kolkata is Nov-Mar.
Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri
After the Science City visit, we rushed to the Sealdah railway station where we had also kept our luggage. The worrying part for us at the station was the non-confirmation of our berths. The previous day, the seats were in RAC and we were confident that we would get berths when the final list would be announced. As expected, we got confirmed berths, but the problem was Akanksha had got a seat away from the two of us. After some negotiations, we got her a seat next to us. The journey on this train was anxious for me, not because of the travel experience, but because of anxiety about the IPL final, where Bangalore was playing Hyderabad. I was in touch with Santhosh over SMS all through the match and used to get blow-by-blow account of the match progress. Unfortunately Bangalore lost the match, but I lived through the match every moment even though I was travelling on the train. On the train journey, there were other ominous signs as well. Rains were pouring outside throughout the night journey. We didn't quite understand why it was raining so heavily at this time of the year in West Bengal, without an inkling of Aila cyclone.
Practical Tip 3: Try and get a confirmed ticket if you are travelling on train to a place where train is the only mode of transport. If you cannot get a confirmation 5 days prior to your journey, go for Tatkal booking. Tatkal is now an easy option and by paying few bucks more, you are assured of confirmed berths. But, ensure that you book Tatkal 5 days prior to the journey as Tatkal seats are limited.
New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling
Once we reached New Jalpaiguri, we took an auto to the New Jalpaiguri bus stand, as we had heard that we could get sharing vans from there to Darjeeling. As far as toy train was concerned, which was one of the attractions of our trip, we had to drop the plan as people on our Kolkata-NJP train told us that it too slow and too time-consuming to travel on toy train and with rains, the experience could have been bad. In hindsight, skipping the toy train we thought was a wise decision as the Cyclone Aila almost completely halted the toy train due to massive landslides in Darjeeling on May 25 and 26. Instead of the toy train we hired a reserved Tata Sumo and had a deal with the driver to take us to Darjeeling via Mirik. This again was a wise decision, Darjeeling route via Mirik is a picturesque path dotted with tea gardens, lovely flowers and breathtaking hill-valley scenes. We agreed to pay Rs. 1800 for the Sumo trip to Darjeeling via Mirik that also included a visit to Mirik lake and the Nepal border where you get duty free imported items.
Practical Tip 4: Toy train to Darjeeling would be a great experience, but the long journey could bore you. If you want to experience the toy train, do travel on a shuttle train between Darjeeling and Ghum, that would provide the same experience at a lesser cost and lesser time. One more thing is that, in Darjeeling and nearby areas, reserved taxis are expensive, but it is good to hire them as you get to see places at your own pace, that you can never do on a shared taxi. Don't forget a visit to Pashupathinagar on the Darjeeling border where you get duty free cosmetics, woolen, fancy items, shoes and jackets. But don't buy electronic items as the Indian checkpost there could levy duties on them.
Darjeeling - Day 1
We reached Darjeeling at 5 pm in the evening on May 25 after the Mirik visit. We checked into the Pine-Ridge hotel and relaxed a bit, before we came out to look at the nearby shopping areas. We were excited to see a series of makeshift shops just in front of our hotel. We also discovered a pure vegetarian restaurant-Hasty Tasty on the same street as our Hotel.
Practical Tip 5: Darjeeling is a nice place to buy woolens, jackets, shawls, stolls and carpets. If you are a vegatarian, remember Hasty Tasty, which is a self-service restaurant that serves south Indian, north Indian and Chinese cuisine. In service restaurants, don't pay tips as Darjeeling Gorkhas don't accept tips. Even if you leave some change in the bill bowl, they'll chase you and return the change.
In almost every shop of Darjeeling, you see 'Jai Gorkhaland' slogans. Darjeeling inhabitants are demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland as they feel they are being discriminated by the West Bengal government, despite being highest revenue earner for the state through TTT (Santhosh, this is not that TTT :)) -- Tea, Toursim and Timber.
Darjeeling - Day 2 (Rain and more rain)
On May 26, when we woke up, we heard the roar of heavy rain outside. The intensity of rain was so high and the pouring was so intense that we understood that this was not a normal rain. As a confirmation, the hotel manager told us that due to the cyclone Aila hitting the Bay of Bengal, there were heavy rains all over West Bengal, killing people and destroying property worth crores in its wake. We were blissfully unaware of this as our mobile phones were not working, there was no power due to rains in Darjeeling and we had not seen newspapers for the last 2 days. At about 10 am, that day Parimala's phone started working and that is when we realised the intensity of the cyclone attack. My parents were worried and were trying all options to reach me. Parimala's brother was continuously trying to reach us. Since national TV news carried footage of Aila's destruction, everyone was worried. We called home and spoke to everyone immediately and assured them that we were inside the hotel and not caught in rains. It was definitely a scare and we were happy we didn't get caught in the cyclone and also could comfort our folks back home. That whole day, we were indoors, except for the occassional visit to the nearby shop to buy Akanksha and myself rain jackets.
Darjeeling - Day 3 (Sunny Day)
When we opened our eyes at 5 am alarm on May 27, we were surprised to see bright sunlight outside. We knew that the worst was over. But, we didn't know that the destruction caused by one full day of rains would make moving out almost impossible. There were massive landslides in Darjeeling that had killed many people and rendered thousands homeless. It had also blocked all roads to the scenic sight-seeing places in Darjeeling. Despite that we hired a taxi to go around the town and see whatever we could as we had lost a lot of time to rains. Fortunately for us we could see the Dali Monastery, Ava Art Museum, the Wildlife Museum, the Zoo, the mountaineering institute and the botanical gardens. We were happy that we could see something in Darjeeling that day. The Zoo is a good place to visit and the best part of our zoo visit was that we could take snaps of Akanksha wearing Nepali dress.
Practical Tip 6: When you hire a taxi, ensure that you know exectly how many sight-seeing points that the taxi guy would show you and what they are. Ask him the total distance he would be covering. Based on this decide on the taxi hire charges. Even though you end up paying Rs. 1000 and more you will exactly know what you will be seeing. Inside the zoo, there is a nice souvenir shop that sells fancy boxes, caps and bags. They are cheap and good. Also, don't forget to buy a picture book of Darjeeling that also has tourist information available at this souvenir shop.
Darjeeling - Day 4 (Tiger Hill)
We had to drop our plans of going to Gangtok due to road blockages caused by the landslides. We lost money on our hotel booking at Gangtok, but that gave us one extra day at Darjeeling. Thankfully we made the best use of this opportunity to visit the famous Tiger Hill, from where you could watch the Sun rise and also witness the sunrays falling on Kanchenjunga (the second highest peak in the World after Mount Everest). On May 28 at 3 am in the morning, we were woken up by the hotel staff to go on our Tiger Hill trip. We left the hotel at 4 am. And to our surprise there was already bright light outside. We reached the hill top at 4.45 am and ran to the visitors' lounge to witness the Sunrise. At 5.15 am we saw the Sun rise in all its glory. That was a great and memorable moment for us. Eventhough we couldn't see the Sunrays falling on Kanchenjunga, the Sunrise experience was good for us. We then wound up our Tiger Hill trip by visiting Batasia loop from where you can see a 360 deg loop of the toy train track and also a binocular view of the great Kanchenjunga.
Practical Tip 7: Ensure that you leave for the Tiger Hill as early as possible and occupy front seats of the lounge atop the Hill from where you can see the Sunrise and Kanchenjunga. Choose the Rs. 30 level of the lounge for a good view, eventhough the Rs. 40 level is supposed to give you an even better view of the mountains. Don't forget to eat hot bajjis at the Batasia loop on the way back to Darjeeling from the Tiger Hill. It is a perfect combination in the early morning chill along with hot tea.
Practical Tip 8: Don't plan your trip to North-East for just one week. Let it be for two weeks at least. Don't pack too many places in your itinerary in the space of a few days. Reserve at least 3 days each for Darjeeling and Gangtok. Apart from that you can also visit Kalimpong, Kurseong, Ghum and Mirik to see the scenic beauty and tea gardens.
Darjeeling to Siliguri
After a successful Tiger Hill visit, we left Darjeeling at about 2 pm in a shared taxi. We couldn't get a shared taxi to New Jalpaiguri, but instead we went to Siliguri from where we could get an auto to New Jalpaiguri. The journey from Darjeeling down to Siliguri is even better than the views in Darjeeling. You will savor every moment of this journey. We reached Siliguri at 5 pm and from there we took a shared 'Patpati' to New Jalpaiguri.
Practical Tip 9: Siliguri is a big town and is at the foothill of Darjeeling. Eventhough Siliguri is in the plains and is much larger than Darjeeling, the entire district including Siliguri and Darjeeling town is called as the Darjeeling District. However, New Jalpaiguri is in a different district--Jalpaiguri district. Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri are at the same distance from Darjeeling hills. But there are more taxis to Siliguri than to New Jalpaiguri. Yet, you need to go to New Jalpaiguri to catch long-distance trains. The reason for this is that New Jalpaiguri has broad-gauge tracks while Siliguri is still in the narrow-gauge era. It is best for you take a shared taxi to Siliguri from Darjeeling. From Siliguri, New Jalpaiguri is only Rs. 5 per head in shared auto and the autiwallahs don't cheat you.
Kolkata - second pass
We took the Darjeeling Mail from New Jalpaiguri to Kolkata and reached Kolkata on May 29 morning. We checked into the Hotel on VIP Road, had a small fight with the hotel staff as they refused to give us a room before the check-in time. From there we took a reseved taxi for sight seeing in Kolkata. Surprisingly the taxi charges (Tata Sumo)for a full day in Kolkata was just Rs. 1000 for 10 hours, excluding the parking charges. We saw the Belur Math, Dakshineswar Kali Temple, New Market, Indian Museum, Victoria Memorial, Kali Ghat before reaching Gariahat, the shopping hub of Kolkata. Gariahat is a good place for shopping sarees and leather items.
On May 30, we visited Gariahat again as Parimala wanted to buy more sarees and bags/leather items. On the way back to the hotel, we took the famous Metro and it was a great experience. With this good experience, in Metro we can't wait to see our namma Metro in a few years.
Practical Tip 10: Kolkata is a cost-effective place. You see all items cheap here and I thought Rs. 1000 for 10 hours in a Sumo was a good indicator of the prices here. The best part about shopping in Kolkata is that no hawker wants to lose a customer. This is a phenomenal attitude of customer oreintation. Even at the cost of only earing a few 10s of rupees, shopkeepers are ready to sell their goods. They don't want to lose a customer due to price alone. However, bargaining is rampant. You will never know the price of the goods. A safe bet is to quote a price that is 50% of the price told by the shop-keeper, especially for bags and leather goods. For sarees, a 50% cut may not be possible. So, a 40% bargaining for any saree more than Rs. 500 is a good one. Since bargaining is prevalent, sometime you also lose money. So, it is always good to talk to a few shopkeepers before deciding on your items.
Gariahat is a good place to shop for all sarees and leather goods. Bada Bazaar is also a good place for shopping, but it is a wholesale market. New Market as the name suggests is new and has several malls. Here you get goods at the same price as anywhere else in India. The NewMarket-Dharamtala area is a place where you have good restaurants.
Back to Bangalore
After the Kolkata visit, we took the flight back to Bangalore via Air India flight. We were thrilled to get meals on board as the same was not given on the Specejet flight. On landing in Bangalore, we could feel a fresh whiff of pleasant air. The Bengaluru international airport (BIAL) is a great marvel and this is all too evident when you come back from Kolkata. The airport is well organized and the sign-boards don't leave you with any doubt of how to navigate yourself out. On the periphery of the airport complex, just before you exit you see the counters of authorized taxis, rent-a-car and Golden Chariot train. You can make your choice and go ahead. Just outside the exit, you also see the BMTC Volvo bus stand. Journey from airport to the city is a breeze with so many options at your disposal.
Practical Tip 11: The authorized taxis from the BIAL are the Meru, EasyCabs and KSTDC. We took Meru on the way to the Airport and EasyCabs on the way back home. These taxi services are really good even though they are expensive. These cars are airconditioned and have meters fixed. At the end of the trip you get a receipt that indicates the distance, price per kilometer (Rs. 15) and the the total charges. Quite a transparent system.
With that we ended our great North-Eastern expedition. Hope you enjoyed reading (not tired!) this as much as I enjoyed narrating it (ouch, my fingers are aching after a couple of hours of typing!).
Check out the tour pics at: http://picasaweb.google.co.in/lh/sredir?uname=vinaybabu&target=ALBUM&id=5342605751299748769&authkey=Gv1sRgCKzZ9LXnjPCAugE&invite=CNCPg78H&feat=email