Guest blogged by Anne
After a 20 hour train ride we arrived for a short one night stopover in Delhi. Alice and I went on the same awesome street food tour as Dave did when he was here a few weeks back and ate far too much. Eating far too much seems to be a bit of a theme at the moment.
Next morning was an early start on an extremely fancy train to Kalka. They brought us more newspapers than you can possibly imagine, served us a multi course breakfast and had porters to lift our luggage into the overhead luggage racks.
At Kalka, we changed into the narrow gauge Shimla “toy train”. The railway is a world heritage site, and really amazing. It was an incredible feat of engineering when it was opened in 1903 and is 96km long with 102 tunnels, 864 bridges and 919 curves. Even the carriages and the old manual points and signals are original, although they only use steam occasionally these days. The train climbs around 1400m into the foothills of the Himalayas, and the views are spectacular.
The railway was necessary because Shimla was used by the British as their summer capital (they couldn’t handle the Indian heat). It was transformed from a small village into a crazy Tudor town, built on an incredibly steep hillside. It is a historically significant place for Indians as well because both the partition (which created Pakistan) and the independence negotiations happened here. We did a guided tour of the Viceregal’s house; wandered about on the Mall which is a long traffic free shopping street created by the British and visited a nearby recreational spot with a picnic ground and a nine hole golf course also frequented by the British. Although there isn’t a lot to do in Shimla, the place is so steeped in history so you’re walking around in the footsteps of Ghandi, Nehru, Lord Mountbatten, Rudyard Kipling etc etc. We were lucky that there had been a big snow storm a few days before we arrived, somehow mountains just seem so much more impressive when snow capped.
Next stop after an overnight train and a flight from Delhi was Kolkata, the second largest city in India. Kolkata is best known for extreme poverty and slums a la Mother Teresa, but it is actually a very vibrant, modern city with relatively good infrastructure and plenty of open spaces. And the worst traffic in the universe. The city doesn’t have that much in the way of traditional tourist attractions, but is great for experiencing life in a modern Indian city. We ate some delicious food including a multi-course tasting menu at an Indian fine dining spot for my birthday (Dum Phukt), amazing biryani at a crazily busy local canteen (Arsalan) and a Bengali feast at a local spot (Kasturi) where you get a big plate of rice and then they come past with trays full of little bowls of Bengali dishes (lots of fish and seafood and very spicy). We also had a traditional English breakfast at Flurys, a famous English tearoom which opened in 1927. It was interesting what a wide variety of prices we saw for meals and drinks. A fresh lime and soda (yummy) can vary from Rs25 (ZAR5) to Rs150 (ZAR30) and a portion of biryani at the local canteen was Rs200 (ZAR40) whereas a main course at a fancy restaurant can cost in excess of Rs1000 (ZAR200).
We were in Kolkata for a Saturday night so we experienced some of the night life at a cute bar called Someplace Else. The final of the new Indian Super League was on, and it was won in the last minute by the local football team so there was much celebrating on the go. We got caught up in a team visit to one of the malls the next day and it was quite fun to see the screaming fans and over-the-top security (with ‘stand up for champions’ being played on repeat for at least an hour). Unfortunately in Kolkata we had to say goodbye to Alice, who is off to Japan. We have really loved traveling with her, and are going to miss her a lot.
After Kolkata, we had a metro, tuk tuk, plane, car, train journey up into Darjeeling. Darjeeling started off as a convalescent place for the British because of its ‘healthy’ climate. Pretty soon they realized that the area was ideally suited for tea growing and it developed into a more important settlement. We arrived in Darjeeling on the Darjeeling toy train which has only recently been reopened after issues with landslides and maintenance. The train line follows the road for most of its route so it goes straight through the middle of towns and right past people’s front doors. Sometimes it just meanders across the road and the cars have to pay attention (or speed past it at the last minute hooting). They still use steam on the ‘joy ride’ section of the route which is an out-and-back tourist ride but the steam engines struggle on the steeper bits. The railway is also a world heritage site like Shimla’s and dates back to the 1880s when it was built to exploit arbitrage opportunities between the bottom and top settlements. Funding was by public share issue.
We found that both Darjeeling itself, and it’s toy train, had more character than Shimla and we enjoyed them more. Darjeeling is a bit smaller and more quaint than Shimla, and where Shimla has views of the lower Himalayas, from the Darjeeling town centre you have a magnificent view of Kanchenjunga in Nepal which about 75km away, 8586m tall and the 3rd highest mountain in the world. Food in Darjeeling was also fantastic, heavily Tibetan influenced with momos (a type of dumpling, a bit like a gyozo), noodle soup dishes and things made with fermented soy beans and the like. For the first time in India we had pork (delicious). We stayed in a lovely guesthouse called Revolver.
Tourist attractions in Darjeeling include the zoo (which houses mostly Himalayan animals and runs an important breeding program for clouded leopards, red pandas and Himalayan wolves); the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute museum (set up by Tenzing Norgay who lived most of his life in Darjeeling, many of the early Everest expeditions started here); the various tea estates (we did a tour of Happy Valley) and Tiger Hill. We skipped the cable car. The Happy Valley tour was very interesting, even though the factory is empty because it’s winter. We learnt about how tea is grown, picked (by hand, only the top two leaves and the leaf bud), withered (to partially dry it), rolled, oxidized, dried and graded (the worst stuff goes into our flat tea bags!). They also explained the differing process for making green, white and black teas, all of which come from the same plant. The tea grown in Darjeeling is the Chinese species as opposed to the Indian Assam variety, and is regarded as some of the best in the world. You need special accreditation to call your tea Darjeeling. The guide very diplomatically explained that very little Darjeeling tea is sold in India because Indians like to drink their tea with milk and sugar (and often masala spice) so the cheaper Assam tea will do. Happy Valley has an exclusive arrangement with Harrods, and similar stores in Germany and Japan. We did a tea tasting in the afternoon p, including a tea that cost over ZAR1000 per kg!
Our early morning trip up Tiger Hill was a real highlight. Hundreds of people go up to see the sunrise so it is complete chaos, Indian style (traffic jams, hooting, shouting, cheering the sunrise etc), but worth the 4am wake up nonetheless. Rather than standing with the crowds facing east, we used the magic of Google to figure out that the mountains were to the north and watched the first sunlight hit them from a perfect spot. You can see 4 of the 5 highest mountains in the world (including Everest!) on a clear day and we were very lucky with the weather.
Our last night in India (assuming no flight issues later…), was spent at beautiful Homestay called Rangbhang on a small orange farm near a town called Mirik. A perfect end to a wonderful trip, India has exceeded our every expectation and we have loved every hooter-filled minute of it!
Some random Indian quirkiness:
– Indians love a chat. Usually starting with “where you from?” And “where you going?” They are either trying to rip you off, sell you something (ideally at a ‘tourist’ price ) or are just genuinely trying to be friendly and helpful. It is impossible to tell which. Our favorite scam was the ‘my hobby is collecting foreign currency’ one.
– Indian electrical and plumbing arrangements are hilarious. There is a switch/tap for everything, and then normally a few mysterious ones which don’t appear to do anything. One of our showers had 7 different taps, somehow we got the configuration wrong and came home to find water pouring through our bathroom ceiling.
– I was expecting India to be smelly, and of course there are rubbish dumps and latrine areas that stink, and cow dung all over the show. In general however, considering how many people there are, the country is pretty clean. You see street cleaners all over the place, small business owners and traders keep the areas around their shops clean and things like the railway platforms get washed regularly. Our experience was of an Indian that smells mostly of incense and the delicious aromas of street food (frying garlic, simmering ghee, grilling chicken), with an underlying whiff of urine unfortunately…
– The sound of India is undoubtably the hooter. On Indian roads you are only responsible for looking in front of you and you rely on anyone coming up behind you to hoot so you know they’re there. Hooting is constant and ever-present.
– India has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world for good reason and the flavour of India is definitely sugar. Sweet lassis, sweet tea (chai), cakes and pastries everywhere, sweets which are basically either made of condensed milk with sugar added, or soaked in sugar syrup, or both, everywhere you look, you find something sweet
– Indians love to take pictures, preferably of us. We decided that gangs of boys could only have pictures of Dave and Alice and I handled the families and children. One dad even handed his baby to Alice for a picture. Neither party enjoyed the experience.
Some tips for travelling in India:
– Carry toilet paper. The toilets in general are decent (generally 7 to 9 out of 10 on the Alice-Anne toilet scale), even on the trains and at tourist attractions. Our biggest complaints were lack of toilet paper (-1 point), water everywhere (-1 point) and a vague whiff of urine -1 or 2 points depending on strength).
– Travel by train if you can, especially overnight. Travelling by road can be hair-raising and slow. Air travel is fine but the airports tend to be far out of town and flights are often in the middle of the day. The trains are fantastic, although it’s best to reserve seats in one of the higher classes.
– In the big cities, the metros/undergrounds are excellent, cheap and easy to use. Uber is also a winner where it operates, and very cheap. If you travel by tuk tuk or taxi, you ideally need to know the ‘correct’ price so you can negotiate from a position of strength.
– Eat ALL the things. Order a variety of dishes and share. Try the sweets. Apart from making ourselves sick from overindulgence, we haven’t had a single issue.
Next stop Columbo, Sri Lanka!
Train travel in India http://www.seat61.com/India.htm