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Calcutta and Darjeeling Travelogue

29 Oct 1998 by Sara Bennett

Last week my daughter and I visited Calcutta and Darjeeling. First we flew to Calcutta, where we spent a few days at the Tollygunge Club. We swam and rode ponies, and we could have played golf ... if we could play! A short walk from the Tolly is a station of the new Calcutta subway system. It follows along the main tourist area of Chowrhingee, in most places is not much grungier than Boston's, and not at all crowded outside of rush hour.

We visited the Victoria Memorial, where there were two newly mounted exhibits. One was an impressive traditional-museum-style history of Calcutta during and after the Raj. The other was a postmodernist/neoMarxist critique of Victorian rule, starting with a red plastic chair inside a large glass case covered with frontal and side shots of Queen Victoria, then shreds of rotting Raj beaded ball gown, and so on ... rather good, once one got the drift. If a little hard to take in while being dragged around by a second grader!

Calcutta is much changed since my only previous visit in 1990, when the city appeared near or rather beyond the breakdown point. The transformation has occurred mostly within the last year and a half, I was told by an acquaintance there. The reason for the change, according to him: Calcuttans were simply tired of being ridiculed by the rest of the country! My home town, Cleveland Ohio (USA), had a similar image problem, so I guess I can relate to this. Calcutta still faces major problems, of course, like frequent long power cuts because the State of West Bengal can't or won't pay its power bill, but on the whole the place does not have the shambolic feel of before.

Then we headed by Darjeeling, first by train to the railhead at New Jalpaiguri, then up the mountain by taxi. The lower half of the road trip is lovely, through tea gardens and forest. The famed toy train is not at the moment running along this stretch, as the tracks were washed out by the monsoon. The upper half of the road trip, between Kurseong and Darjeeling, which almostly exactly follows the route of the toy train, is less picturesque; here houses and shops crowd the sides of the road/rail way.

Our first day in Darjeeling we walked several miles through the zoo and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), then to the ropeway (cable car) for a ride from Darjeeling to one of the nearby valley towns and back, then to the Tibetan Self Help Centre where we visited the various workshops. This was our best day. The remaining time, we mainly shopped, read, sipped tea, and played board games. And tried to get tickets for the toy train's one hour "joyride" to Ghoum and back. We succeeded on our third day of trying, but it was not really worth the amount of trouble we went to -- the train simply runs right alongside the road almost all the way, though the loop included in the train route because of the steep grade, is interesting.

The weather was cool and lovely, especially at night, though the lingering monsoon clouds kept us from seeing the Kachenjunga and other mountain views for which this spot is famous.

Darjeeling has a very good bookstore in the main Chowrasta 'square'. Here I discovered several of Peter Hopkirk's books on European involvement in Central Asia -- the Great Game period, the archeological discovery of the lost Buddhist cities of the Silk Route, and such like.

Our return was by airplane via Bagdogra, the airport that serves these parts. Back in Calcutta we had one night at the Oberoi Grand, not long enough fully to enjoy this lovely hotel nor to browse in the book, rug, handicraft, clothes and other stores that surround it. If I want to do some serious exploring, I'll have to return without a child in tow!

I've heard it's quite possible to travel overland from Bangladesh to Darjeeling, via the border post at Haldibari. I like to try this way, sometime when I am either (1) not traveling with a child, or (2) after I've talked to someone with recent experience of this route. (I have talked to someone who went this way years ago, and another who is planning to try it soon.) Also, Sikkim is quite close to Bagdogra/Darjeeling, and would be well worth including in an itinerary up this way.

Some aspects of traveling in India can be real day-ruiners. We ended up "sharing" our four-seater train compartment with a parade of eventually eight Indian males, one of them dead drunk. Visa traveler's checks seem to be very much the wrong flavor. The khaki-sari-clad security ladies at Calcutta airport international departure took the cake, however. Smiling madly, they carefully went through all our pockets and bags, even through each compartment of my wallet, where they found my medium-sized stash of rupees. They gleefully told me we had to go back through customs and immigration to exchange it for hard currency -- 20 minutes before flight time! When I stopped on the way out to ask the Customs officers about this (as they are actually the ones responsible for foreign exchange matters), they laughed it off and sent me back upstairs. When the "ladies" again tried to stop us despite Customs' verbal clearance, I blew! and they let me pass. Clearly they saw that I didn't "get it" that a "gift" would have smoothed the way. Actually I didn't, I have been spoiled by Dhaka airport I guess. 


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