Calcutta, Darjeeling, Varanasi
India, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh
Calcutta - Siliguri 600 INR
Siliguri - Darjeeling (Jeep) 130 - 150 INR
We arrived in beautiful Darjeeling, at the foot of the Himalayas, at the end of May 2013. In Siliguri, with another eight passengers, we hopped on the old jeep. From time to time, we slowed down, and some young monks dressed in the classic Buddhist orange robes jumped on the jeep roof. At times, the total crew of the Jeep counted 17 people. The road was winding steadily uphill, and the temperature was gradually declining. While in Siliguri we wore flip-flops, t-shirts, and shorts, after an hour of the bumpy ride up the hill, we were shaking and shivering due to the cold. Of course, we had our hoodies deep in the backpack on the roof of the car. During the ride, you will enjoy beautiful views of the mountain peaks, endless tea plantations, and you can observe the regular mountain life of local villagers along the way.
We arrived in cold (15 ° C) and rainy Darjeeling in the afternoon. According to the hoteliers, the season was in full swing, and we could see it with our own eyes. Soaking wet, wearing slippery flip-flops we were recklessly passing through the streets of the city asking for accommodation. We have covered 30 hotels and guesthouses of various quality and categories. Everywhere we have been told that the capacities are being filled, and they remarked that without a prior booking we might be in serious trouble. The battery in my phone died, and we lost GPS navigation. At the very last moment, a sympathetic young owner of Ivy Castle (map) put us out of the misery. At the time of our arrival, the building modifications of this cozy hotel were just finished. The owner of Ivy Castle has an entirely different approach to business than the vast majority of hoteliers in Darjeeling. Instead of renting, exploiting and leaving, he chose a completely different business concept. During his travels through Europe and studies in St. Petersburg he has drawn inspiration and has now sought to customize the hotel's distinctive style to the needs of Western travelers. Each room has its original character and style. Employee approach is very personal, rather friendly. With the owner himself (in his 30s), I spent long evenings having interesting conversations. At the end of our stay, he cooked for us his version of biryani with a pomegranate apple, and very emotively we said goodbye to each other.
We were offered a Deluxe Room overlooking the snow-capped peaks of Himalayas and K2, with a private bathroom and hot water for 600 INR. Now you will pay 1,500 INR for the same Deluxe Room online and 1,000 INR for Standard Room. In general, be prepared to pay about 700 INR for a poor quality room in Darjeeling.
Walking through Darjeeling is an intense experience. Friendly people with typical Nepalese features serve gourmet delicacies like Momo (80 INR), chicken broth (25 INR), fried bread (20 INR). Females at the market sell grilled corn from the mini grill (10 INR).
Check the beautiful Himalayan Zoo and history of mountaineering in the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (100 INR, map). Get a ride on a "historic" steam train (in fact, electric) that will take you, while loud constant whistling, on a historic narrow-gauge railway track dated back to 1881 (335 INR to the Ghoom Station, map). This scenic UNESCO mountain track offers stunning views of the mountains, valleys, forests, tea plantations, and local villages.
I recommend reserving one afternoon for a stroll along the narrow local paths around the city, at the end of which you will enjoy the views of the terrace-shaped and picturesque town of Darjeeling.
After a four-day exhausting cruise on an outdated old ship from the '80s originally from Gdansk, we finally approached the shores of Calcutta. We were far from winning. We docked in the Hooghly River Delta and waited for another 24 hours for a new captain from the mainland to come and replace the sea captain and navigate the ship safely through the river canal to the center of Calcutta.
After five days, our feet finally touched the mainland again. Entirely sweat, sleepy and most of all hungry. Due to the exhaustion, we did not have the energy, nor we were in the mood to argue with rickshaw drivers, so to go from the Kidderpore Dock to Sudder Street we took the exclusive Indian classics - an old taxi ambassador from the '70s (INR 200). The cheapest accommodation for backpackers can be found on Sudder Street. We checked a few options there. Definitely avoid Maria Hotel! Unless you're after the experience of a homeless person sleeping under the bridge. The receptionist pushed the first room's door heavy latch, the door opened, and we gazed at the smelly mini shed-like room without a window, in the corner of the moldy walls, there was a bunk with filthy tattered mattresses (springs sticking out). The sweet smell of the room was accompanied with the heavy stench originating from the shit-all-over Turkish toilet next door. I had to stop breathing. Through the persistence of the receptionist, we quickly peeked into the second room. This room was a bit bigger than the previous one - the more room for mold and aged dirt (300-500 INR). Without hesitation, we hurriedly left this squat in a second and went out to look elsewhere. Anyways, check out for yourself how the cheapest accommodation in Calcutta looks like (Maria inclusive) - photos here.
Soon we found an acceptable Shan Guest House (Shams, 500 INR, map) in the narrow and dirty alley of Totte LN south of Sudder St. We got a room in a box whose walls were made of thin chipboard sheets. This ample space on the first floor of the house was divided this way into several rooms (3 double and 1 single). We shared the window with the adjoining room as we shared a clean bathroom and a toilet. Our landlord was definitely not happy that we were washing clothes in the bucket in the room since we were wasting his precious water (he was a cheap-ass). However, the accommodation was OK. Online rates for double rooms start in Calcutta at 800 INR.
We ate like kings at the cheap Super Fried Chicken (map). After five days on the ship eating only rice and thin unspecified sauce out of a metal bucket, in Super Fried Chicken we cried out of bliss when we got served our first serving.
Sudder St. is fully adapted to the needs of Backpackers. You can purchase sim cards here (485 INR, 2Gb mobile internet at 372 INR), browse the web in a PC cafe (20 INR/h), take a pulled rickshaw ride (100 INR per 1.5 km) or cycle rickshaw ride (100-150 INR for 2 km, Calcutta is famous for Cycle rickshaws). Get a hair trim in the barber shop, where the barbers are still masterfully mastering their craft, especially with a blade (50 INR including head massage).
For shopping go to the market area between Fenwick Bazaar St. and Chowringhee Rd ( 5-minute walking distance). They sell everything here: jewels, clothing, shoes, food, fruits, home utensils.
If you are hungry, you are in the right place. Every day you can try something new, from the street snacks (wrap for 20 INR), through KFC (260 INR per meal), Domino's, sandwiches to Indian biryani. At the fruit market at the Humayun Pl. and Bertram St. junction cool your throat with an excellent freshly mixed juice made from exotic fruits (50-70 INR). Then walk through the well-known New Market Green View (map) and finally watch some blockbuster Bollywood movie at the New Empire Cinema (map).
For sightseeing, go around Park Street, there is plenty to see. Besides the world-famous boutiques and iconic McDonald's (map, the disgusting McMaharaja has nothing to do with Big Mac), you can admire the different craft/profession occupations of each street. While in one street you only get plumbing, in the second it's going to be beds and in the other locksmith services. The most I was fascinated by a group of officials wearing suit rewriting documents on mechanical machines sitting at the edge of the pavement.
If you have plenty of time, take a stroll outside Sudder Street - best of Fort William, Victoria Memorial, and St. William. Paul's Cathedral, set amidst vast parks. After that sit back on a comfortable couch and watch the intergalactic show at M P Birla Planetarium (40 INR, map ).
Options what to see in Calcutta are endless, architectural, historical and cultural. It's up to you what you decide for.
Calcutta - Varanasi 352 INR, 12 h
After horrendous 12 hours spent in the sleeper on the night train from Calcutta, we finally arrived in the long-awaited Varanasi. At the huge Varanasi train station, you will not have any problem with ensuring your rickshaw ride to the Ghats (100 INR). We stayed near Vacharaj Ghat (450 INR). There is more than enough accommodation options mainly around Assi Ghat (prices start at 300 INR).
Our hotel featured an outdoor rooftop restaurant. The only problem we had was with the owner's lousy delusional son, who seemed to like spying on tourists and sexually harassing the female travelers. During one of our pleasant conversations, we had on the hotel's terrace with a group of tourists; one young Australian abruptly burst into tears. Apparently, she was harassed by this unfortunate man over the last few nights. However, we have no idea how far it has gone ... We experienced him spying on us as well during one night when I suddenly spot a moving shadow under the door - when he, hidden in the darkness of the hallway, was listening at our door. Or, when I went up for a Coca Cola to the restaurant, and within these 5 minutes this person appeared in our room standing in front of Magda alone in the bed.
All I have to do is warn the solo female traveler and encourage them to increase caution. There are many stories of Indian harassment out there - we've heard loads of them. Be careful!
We went for a walk along the ghats standing on the banks of the Ganges. Sacred Varanasi is presented as a very ancient and traditional place where the burning of the dead and the burial of ashes into the holy waters of the Ganges takes place. In the city, you will notice a very intense, almost palpable, spiritual atmosphere, which will get through your bones. The fact that the burning takes place right in plain sight is a powerful and unknown feeling for Western tourists.
Varanasi also has its negative face. As soon as we walked down the enormous stairs of Vacharaj Ghata, the paralyzing odor of decomposing excrements and urine stunned us. Unfortunately, this smell has to do a lot with the Indian thugs standing around, who randomly began to address us and offer all sorts of drugs despite the sacrament of the land. When the locals didn't offer drugs, then it was sightseeing boat trips (150 INR). The ancient Ghats are beautiful and architecturally fascinating buildings. The place is, however, neglected, dirty, smelly and full of addicted people.
Walk along the bank north to Sri Hanuman Mandir (map), where after dark you can watch the impressive burial ceremonies accompanied by fire effects. As long as the persistent beggars, cripples, dirty little children and self-claimed Holymen leave you alone for a while. And they will not let you breathe, trust me!