A Travellerspoint blog

Watch your feet and hold your nose!

Varanasi

sunny 42 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

And just like that, our five senses went into complete overdrive. We were in Varanasi, a city that you cannot really prepare for. Grant was actively not looking forward to visiting, but it's one of those places you supposedly can't miss in India. There's no doubt that the place is full-on, but amazingly it turned out to be a really enjoyable place to visit.

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Catching an autoriskshaw in Siliguri on the way to the train to Varanasi - the guy two to the right of Grant jumped in to the already full rickshaw and sat on the lap of the guy to Grant's right, resulting in great hilarity

There's so much to say about Varanasi, it is hard to know where to start. We took an autoriskshaw into town from the train station early in the morning when we arrived and found ourselves in what felt like an oven. Temperatures here at this time of year are always over 40 degrees and rarely drop below mid 30s, even at night. We had booked a room with AC in a guesthouse, but now had to find it. Varanasi's back alleys (known as galis), where the guesthouses are located (behind the famous ghats) are like rabbit warrens - narrow, shadowy, unevenly cobbled and packed with people, dogs, monkeys, goats, holy cows and overloaded mopeds squeezing through the masses, horns blaring. It's probably ten degrees cooler in the alleys than out in the glare of the Varanasi sun, but the trade-off is that all manner of people and beasts are also lurking there, avoiding the heat. Then there's the smell - the sweet perfume of incense cannot mask the underlying smell of excrement. The alleyways are covered not only with the litter one comes to expect in India, but with an array of animal turd which you have to carefully step around. As we walk up the alley to our hotel, the smell of animal turd changes to the distinctive aroma of human poo. Welcome to Varanasi!

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Shots from the galis of Varanasi, full of life, colour, and smells - not all of them pleasant!

Our guesthouse was relatively clean, and we just about managed to maintain a room temperature of 30 degrees by having the curtains drawn at all times and the ancient AC unit running full blast. The room became a sanctuary for us in the middle of the day when it was just unbearable to walk around the city because of the heat. 

Mother Ganga and the ghats of Varanasi

Varanasi is all about the Ganges river - or "Mother Ganga", as it is affectionately known to Indians. The river is believed to have all kinds of healing qualities and has made Varanasi one of India's holiest cities, with a history stretching back 3,000 years. Pilgrims come here to bathe in the Ganges to wash away sins in the sacred (and horribly polluted) waters. People come here to die as they believe that doing so in Varanasi will release them from the Hindu re-birth cycle. Bodies are brought here to be cremated on huge public bonfires so the remains can be spread in the river. India is the land of the caste system and a strict hierarchy applies in death as well: paupers are cremated in an electric kiln for a few hundred rupees; a funeral pyre will cost a few thousand rupees, and if you want to burn on top quality sandalwood you will be looking at a bill of around 50,000 rupees.

We took a couple of boat trips out on the river - once at sunrise and then again at sunset - to see the different rituals going on. We would not have swum in that water if you had paid us, but it is powerful to see the devotion of so many pilgrims fulfilling a life-long dream to come here and do it. 

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Scenes from our boat tours on the Ganges where devout pilgrims brave revoltingly polluted water to clean themselves of sin

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It's not just human bodies that are committed to the river - this is a dead cow that crows are beginning to devour. People are bathing a few metres away.

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Manikarnika Ghat - the main burning ghat - with its funeral pyres burning around the clock. You will literally need cash to burn if you want to end up here. The houses roundabout are hospices for those waiting to die in the holy city.

Varanasi is the city of touts, and boat trips are the favourite service to peddle. Our general rule with touts is to go with the one that seems "decent" - a very vague test based on a friendly face and a good gut feeling. For our evening boat tour, we met a decent chap who proposed a reasonable price to take us in his boat. However, when he palmed us off to his "brother" rather than taking us himself, Helena made it very clear to him in a public manner that she was unimpressed with his lying. The poor guy looked very sheepish and dropped his price in response. Victory to the tourists!

Half an hour later, it was time for us to be taken on a guilt trip of our own: some guy jumped on to our boat at the burning ghat and told us we could take a photo of the ghat in return for 1,000 rupees. He explained that this money would go to the hospice he allegedly managed. We declined and said we would go without photos, but he persisted: "you are in the centre of karma and you have the chance to do something good - will you not take that chance to improve your karma?". We were not convinced - this dude could have been anyone and playing on guilt to extract money is a fairly low tactic. We're beginning to realise that "karma" translates as "cash" in India. We allowed him to get back off our boat, no doubt to lie in wait for the next hapless tourist craft.

Back on dry land, we enjoyed wandering along the ghats that line the river for several kilometres. You see all sorts going on here apart from the pilgrims bathing and swimming in the river. It is here that you can watch local men and women washing clothes and sheets in the river - right next to a sewage outlet, we were amused to note - and hanging them out to dry. Holy cows and goats kick back beside the river, men sip tea, holy men snooze, touts do their thing and tourists wander. Judging by their smell, certain ghats are reserved unofficially for bodily functions: at one spot we picked our way across streams of urine and tried not to breathe in the smell of a public urinal baking in the intense heat; at another spot nearby we averted our eyes as a guy squatted in full view to take a dump on the upper step of the ghat. It never ceases to amaze us that while showing public affection such as holding hands and kissing between men and women is frowned upon, the sight of someone taking a dump hardly raises any eyebrows. We couldn't help but laugh in another spot where one guy was peeing into a stream running down to the Ganges from the top of the ghats, while another guy a few metres below was cupping his hands and drinking from the same stream! 

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Snaps from the ghats, where all sorts of activities (and snoozing) are going on - just be grateful you can't smell it!

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Southern Indian men and women shave their heads when they come on pilgrimage to Varanasi - it's big business on the ghats

Every night, there is a "puja" ceremony at the main ghat known as "Ganga aarti", which we caught on our first night in town. It's a very moving event at which pilgrims sit en masse on the street and chant together as they watch a spectacular ceremony. Pretty much all religions rely on a fixed arsenal of tools: music, communal chanting, dazzling colours and smells, smoke and fire. This ceremony had all of these in spades - great Indian music playing, the crowd chanting and clapping, and seven guys in robes up at the front displaying various types of burning items. There were plenty of other tourists like us there, soaking up the ambiance.

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The view from where we sat on the ghat watching the puja

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One of seven guys dressed in robes leading the ceremony. The incense sticks smelled nice and the crowd enjoyed the smoke display but was soon itching for more firepower.

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Bring on the big guns - incense canisters. Still, the crowd wanted more...

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Now that's what I'm talking about - some kind of flaming Christmas tree with a silver snake head attachment. The crowd's fire lust was satisfied

The Golden Temple - a soldier for every pilgrim

Varanasi's other big attraction is the Hindu Golden Temple, which we visited on our last day in town. We have no photos as all belongings have to be left outside and a very thorough, butt-clenching, personal search performed by one of the hundreds of soldiers stationed here before entry. We entered in bare feet an inner part of the old city where we walked on damp white marble slabs and admired the intricate carvings of the Vishwanath Temple. Along with the many other pilgrims we bought a small basket of fresh flowers from one of the many stands selling these and deposited them in front of a bearded holy man sitting in one part of the temple. There is almost one machine gun-touting soldier for every pilgrim here. Security is tight because of religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims: a large mosque sits right behind the Hindu temple, surrounded by ten metre double barbed wire fences with machine gun posts trained upon it. It's how we could imagine Jerusalem feeling, without having been there. It's sad that religious sights are so often marred by extreme tension and overbearing security. 

There are so many soldiers with so little to do that they become unofficial tour guides, indicating the way tourists should proceed around the temple. They also have a serious weakness for nice western girls, so Helena managed to sweet talk one of the soldiers into letting us through to the Gyan Kupor Well, a sight that non-Hindus are not normally able to visit. 

It was a cool visit but nice to slip the flip-flops back on since you never know what the liquid is underfoot in Varanasi!

Backpackers should play bongos, man

We found ourselves a music guru to give us both a tabla (Indian drum) lesson one afternoon in Varanasi. Suffice it to say, it is a lot harder than you might imagine but we did feel like proper backpackers for an hour as we tapped away at the drums!

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Getting into the tabla rhythm in Varanasi

Follow the guidebook!

The Lonely Planet and other such guidebooks are divisive tools among travellers. A listing can make or break a local business, and sometimes you feel like a place that is listed in the guidebook can just rest on its laurels and make lots of money off lazy tourists. However, in Varanasi our Lonely Planet definitely came up trumps in showing us the way to the famous Blue Lassi Shop - a Varanasi institution. We squeezed in to the small shop every day with tens of fellow backpackers and ordered the different lassis (nature, apple, banana, mango...). Two days in a row we had lassi lunches - they were so good. 

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Scenes from Varanasi's Blue Lassi Shop, home of possibly the best lassi in the world

We should have just followed our guidebook for all our meals but we decided to go off the beaten track one night by trying a restaurant we were given a flyer for that promised live Indian traditional music. It wasn't in the guidebook but what was the worst that could happen? Pretty bad as it turned out. We were the only people in the restaurant. There was no music. Our food took an hour to arrive and was cold. The rice was so overcooked it was like porridge, the potato so undercooked it had a texture like an apple. We of course complained and were referred to not one but two managers (in India there are always at least four people doing a job where one would do). Manager two smugly explained that there was no music as we were not at the restaurant we had received a flyer for; the flyer was for Fuji Ganga restaurant - we were at Fuji Ganga Home's restaurant. This is another feature of india: successful business names and logos are blatantly copied by competitors so that you can never tell which is the original business and which is the fake. Everyone knows of the Western world's critique against India when it comes to not respecting intellectual property rights, but it's becoming obvious to us that nobody is suffering more from this than the Indians themselves.

As far as the food was concerned, manager two explained that the chef was ill so the waiter had had to cook our dinner! With perfect comedy timing, as manager two told us this manager one was busily turning away an Indian family that had come in to the restaurant, explaining that the place was closed as the chef was ill. Closed for them maybe but not closed for gullible white tourists apparently!! The comedy of errors was complete; we paid a reduced bill and returned to our hotel seriously concerned about what food poisoning was in the post from the useless waiter's terrible meal. 

How do they do it?!

Once again we have wondered in Varanasi at the incredibly zen attitude of Indian people. They feel the heat just as badly as we do, as they keep telling us and as the sweat on their brows makes clear.  It cannot be emphasised enough: Indians live on top of each other in  very basic conditions in what is effectively an oven for at least six months of the year.  And yet, they remain for the most part so incredibly friendly and helpful not only to us tourists but also to each other. 

We have lost count of the number of Indians who have approached us to help with directions or have simply exchanged a smile and an Indian head shake with  us.  At the Golden Temple, after we had cleared a thorough passport control, one of the soldiers gave a huge smile and shook Grant's hand. When we stopped to buy a bottle of water at a stall one night, the shop keeper's face erupted with joy and he exclaimed in the typically polite Indian manner "you are most welcome at this shop!". When our rickshaw driver almost ran a guy over in the street in Varanasi, the two men simply exchanged a glance and a nod and continued on their respective ways. The British or Swedish option to show road rage, honking the horn, is not really an option as Indian drivers honk their horns with practically the same frequency as they breathe. Either way, we had not expected such politeness, helpfulness and good humour but have quickly got used to it travelling here.

Posted by Grantandhelena 04:17 Archived in India Comments (1)

Tea time in the Himalayas

Chilling out in Darjeeling, cup of tea in hand

sunny 20 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Night train in India

We were slightly nervous when we got to the Howrah train station in Calcutta. Unable to get 1 AC tickets (i.e. 1st class with AC) we were going in 2AC. One could think that we should be reassured by the number of classes below 2AC (3AC and then another class without AC), but let's just say that our first days in India hadn't given us any reason to be reassured.

Our hotel had been very keen for us to leave early, hence we arrived at the station about 1,5 hours before our train was due to depart. It was very busy, not surprising in a country where about 20 million people take the train every day. Having read the Lonely Planet's train station warnings beforehand we were expecting to be hassled, but our wait turned out to be blissfully uneventful.

When the platform for our train was announced we saw thousands of people head for our train - again we asked ourselves, what was this going to be like? We started to walk toward our carriage along what was the longest train either of us had ever seen. We passed the crowded and hot non-AC carriages and so did not want our carriage to be anything like that. And then, at last, she was there: 2 AC, with our names on it - literally!

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We found a 2AC carriage with our names on it

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This photo only captures a small part of what felt like the longest train in the world

Having found our compartment, we breathed a sigh of relief - it was clean, reasonably quiet and our fellow passengers were nice. One of the four berths in our cabin was taken up by a guy from Calcutta, and it was through chatting to him and his friends, on their way to Bhutan for holiday, we understood that Calcutta's well-off middle class lives well outside the poor city centre. Our other neighbour was an Indian doctor, who greeted us with a very plummy "Good afternoon!". Although being Indian, he was the archetype for a British gentleman (more so than any Brit we've met). It transpired that he had studied and lectured at Edinburgh University. Now retired, he continued to lecture as he found great pleasure in it.

One of the differences between  2AC and 1AC quickly became obvious - we had only curtains, as opposed to doors, to close off our cabin. The fact that they were drawn didn't stop salesmen of chai, food and snacks, chains, padlocks. pyjamas, water, toys and beggars to come in to our "cabin". We were hoping they would stop during the night and so they did, thankfully.

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A night in 2 AC

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"I could really do with a cup of tea...Ah but here is the tea salesman!"

In short, our first train ride in India surpassed our expectations. We were only about an hour late in to our stop New Jailpaiguri. 

After some dithering we managed to find s decent jeep that could take us to our destination in Darjeeling. After three hours of scary, winding roads up the mountain we finally arrived. 

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At a breakfast stop on the way to Darjeeling. Not really sure where this stairway is going too...

Darjeeling

"Tea!" is probably what comes to mind to most people when they hear Darjeeling - it was definitely the case for us. That, the Himalayas and the trekking, the colonial heritage,  and of course the film "Darjeeling unlimited", had convinced us that this was a great place to visit. We were therefore slightly surprised by what we saw in downtown Darjeeling where the jeep driver dropped us off: mad traffic with cars puking black fumes, honking horns, lots of litter and dirty buildings,  albeit not on the same scale as Calcutta. This was not the idyllic hill station we had imagined!

The walk up to our hotel slightly eased our minds, it turned out traffic up on the hill was restricted and hence there was less of the black smoke and noisy horns. What is more, we started to appreciate that  it was distinctly cooler than Calcutta, which felt amazing.

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View of Darjeeling

Tea, tea, tea!

As mentioned, Darjeeling is well known for its tea. Some of our Darjeeling highlights were consequently linked to tea. After checking in at our hotel, we went to the Windamere Hotel for some afternoon tea. Windamere is an old colonial hotel and it was lovely to sit in the lounge, enjoying the atmosphere while sipping on tea and having scones and cucumber sandwiches.

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Afternoon tea at the Windamere

Next tea stop was the Happy Valley Tea Estate, from where Harrod's in London gets its tea. There we enjoyed a guided tour with one of the workers. What struck us is how manual the process still is. Women pick tea leaves by hand, assemble it in baskets on their back, before it's time to dry it.  They are paid by the kilo and are required to pick at least five kilos per day. The conditions inside the factory seemed pretty tough too (it was so hot). All in all, it seems to be hard work making tea - something to remember next time you go for a cuppa at Harrod's.

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Happy Valley Tea Estate

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It IS hard work picking tea!

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Our guide shows Helena the anatomy of a tea leaf

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Tea pickers having their tea leaves weighed..

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...and this is where the tea leaves dry

After our tour, we went for a cup of tea in a small cottage just next to the factory, where we met the "five second tea lady". Formerly a tea picker herself, she now entertains tourists, telling them about Happy Valley's teas, when she's not the goalie in the Happy Valley football team (at age 69!). We ended up staying a good hour there, chatting to her and Czech, American and Austrian tourists and drinking absolutely lovely tea.

The best of Happy Valley's teas can only be sold to and by Harrod's. However, the workers get a small allowance of top quality tea themselves which they unofficially sell on. Hence we were able not only to have the "Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery" tea, but also to purchase some ourselves, needless to say, considerably cheaper than in London! Now why is she called the five second tea lady? The tea is such good quality that the tea leaves only need to be in the water for five seconds to give enough flavour. What is more, the tea leaves can be reused twice.  The five second tea lady was definitely a Darjeeling highlight!

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Five second tea lady at Happy Vallley Tea Estate

Our last tea stop was the tea shop Nathmull's where we also had a cup of tea... But after this we were dying for cup of coffee.

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Our last cup of tea in Darjeeling - at the institution Nathmull's

And it is also about the mountains

Having left Darjeeling and come back for our trek, we were keen to visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Darjeeling was the base for many of the early Mt Everest expeditions, as well as later the home of Tenzing Norgay, who together with Sir Edmund Hillary, was the first one to climb Everest. Norgay was also the first director of the institute.

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Helena in front of Tenzing Norgay statue, outside the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The inscription notes that the statue was unveiled  Sir Edmund Hillary

The exhibition was perhaps not the most interactive or updated we have seen, but it still managed to convey the notion of what an extreme venture it is to climb Everest. Just seeing the changes in equipment was mind boggling. The first attempts in the 1920s were made in tweed! It was also interesting to see what a hero Tenzing Norgay is for the Sherpas and increasingly for the whole region. It's bizarre that more people know of Hillary than Norgay.

We had two nights on either side of our trek in Darjeeling and it was a really pleasant place to hang out. However, it did not turn out to be the pristine, colonial, hill station we had hoped it to be - but we are starting to realise that pristine places in India are hard to come by!

Posted by Grantandhelena 23:46 Archived in India Comments (0)

Trekking the Himalayan Borderlands

Singalila Ridge Trek, West Bengal, India and Nepal

sunny 20 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Being in Darjeeling with the Himalayas on our doorstep, we wanted to go hiking. We decided to do the five day Singalila Ridge Trek, which snakes its way along the India/Nepal border through the Singalila National Park.  

We hit the road early on Sunday 13 May, finding a jeep driver in Darjeeling and agreeing a reasonable price to take us to Maney Bhanjang, 90 minutes from Darjeeling and the start point of the hike.  Once our driver had offloaded the two pig carcasses from the boot of his jeep and mopped up the blood, we were on our way just after 7am. With the windows down, the dead pig smell soon disappeared and we could enjoy the views from the twisty mountain roads accompanied by our driver's favourite Indian hits, some of which were not bad. The soundtrack added to the exotic scenery as we bumped along.

On arriving in Maney Bhanjang (2000 metres), things went incredibly smoothly - something we have learned to never take for granted when travelling, and always appreciate when it happens! We paid our entrance fee to the national park, got hooked up with a guide, Rikesh, and porter, Satchin, and had time for porridge and tea for breakfast. By 10am we were on the trail - miraculous!

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Our route - snaking between Nepal and India's West Bengal and Sikkim regions

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Grant and Rikesh, our guide, taking a break

The first day of hiking was not what you would term scenic. We followed a jeep road most of the way up the mountain through pine trees and mist that meant there were no views. Satchin seemed to be really struggling with our pack so we piled our day pack full of some of the heavier things from the main pack - since he spent most of the next four days beating us along the trail, we probably fell for the oldest trick in the porter's handbook!

The highlight of the first day was visiting a small monastery in Chitrey, just inside Nepal, shrouded in mist and sitting at 2,400 metres. Here we found young monks who were far more interested in playing cricket than in seeing us sweaty foreign hikers. However, one of them let us have a look around their small temple so we could take a few snaps. Rikesh, our guide, also explained that in this monastery monks live in solitude in caves for 7 years under a vow of silence, during which time they cannot cut their hair or nails.  When they emerge back into the outside world, local people come to meet them and receive their blessing as they are considered very holy. It's a process that is painful even to contemplate.

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Chitrey Monastry

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Young monks prefer cricket to tourist banter

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One foot in Nepal, one foot in India

It was onwards and upwards from the Monastry as we zigzagged between Nepali and Indian territory up to Tonglu at 3,070 metres, before finally reaching our base for the night in Tumling, Nepal (2,970 m).  On the way up we stopped for lunch at a tea house for some noodle soup and sweet tea - eating is always the best part of hiking!

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Lunch stop in a tea house up the trail

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This little guy was not keen to let Grant back out on the trail

As we were hiking along the trail after lunch, Helena asked Rikesh if we were getting close to our destination, to which he answered cryptically "when we get to that ridge, we will almost be close to our place". Er, thanks for the clarification.

We did make it in the end. Our base for the night in Tumling was a beautiful spot called Shikhar Lodge where we were spoiled with an ensuite room with western toilet - quite a luxury in these parts! Not only that, but as we were in Nepal they could have an open fire in the main room of the tea house (not so in India, as we would find out painfully two nights later), where we quickly found a seat and a cup of tea.

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Luxurious Shikhar Lodge

We were not alone on the trail. Also staying at Shikhar were Kate and Nick, an English couple both medics, and Tom and Lucy, bankers from Sydney on a one year world tour. It transpired that Lucy was in fact from Galashiels, a town 20 miles from Grant's hometown in Scotland. Borders folks are indeed well travelled! We enjoyed a long afternoon of chatting with our fellow travellers over cups of tea before retreating to the fire for more chat and dinner. Also staying at the same place was a large Indian group, but they were travelling by Land Rover along the ridge trail so they did not get to join the hikers' banter!

After dinner when we were still sat chatting, our guide came to tell us about the routine for the following morning. It took him a very long time to get his points across and we couldn't help noticing that he didn't seem to stand too steadily. Was the altitude getting to him? After what felt like an eternity of awkward moments, he paused and confirmed what all of us had realised a long time ago: " I'm drunk". He then started telling us how one of the other guides had put alcohol in his drink... He kept telling us the story over and over again, and we kept saying, that it was ok and "good night, see you tomorrow!", but silently we contemplated that we had another four days with this guide and we were hoping that this was just a one-off. The next day we didn't mention what had happened. Unsurprisingly, neither did Rikesh.

Next day we were up by 5am to see the mountains for the first time. As the sun rose we could see the Three Sister peaks and various other Himalayan peaks in the distance for about twenty minutes before the clouds rolled in. 

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Finally seeing the Himalayas emerge from the mist on the first morning gave us all a boost

It was a boost to finally see what we had come up here for and we set off for day two with a spring in our step. The weather was hot, the sky clear and the trail more interesting and scenic than yesterday. We enjoyed chatting to our fellow hikers along the way.

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Indian army guard posts - we passed at least one a day and had to produce passports every time. Although the Nepal border is clearly not in the same category as Kashmir, there is a huge Indian army presence up here

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Better weather and better views on day two

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Grant and Satchin, our porter, taking a break

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Typical Himalayan Buddhist decoration along the trail

The final hour and half of the day was a killer. As the clouds suddenly swept across the mountain reducing visibility to around 10 metres, we faced an ascent of over 500 metres altitude gain up a steep cobbled trail to get to our base for the night. 

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Traffic's a nightmare up here...

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Where the hell are we?

When we finally reached Sandakphu (Nepal) we were sweating, gasping for air and our heads were hurting from the altitude. We were at over 3,600 metres and it was blowing a gale. The Sherpa Chalet where we we staying for the night was parked on the edge of a cliff in about the most exposed spot possible. It was a cold night up there, where the only heat came from a metal wheel rim filled with hot coals that was plonked in the middle of the dining room floor. Besides the cold, we were feeling the altitude as our hearts raced at the slightest movement. It was not a great night's sleep.

Day three was another early start to check out the views at 5am and now the Himalayas were even closer, plus they had been joined by a significant addition: Mount Everest. The sky was beautifully clear, the howling wind had stopped and we could finally appreciate the beauty of the spot where we had spent the night. 

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5am, day three, blue skies and Mount Everst visible 100 miles away inside Nepal -third peak from the right in case you didn't recognise it!

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A few more shots from around Sandakphu

Tom and Lucy were headed back to civilisation today and the rest of us were feeling slightly envious over breakfast as we contemplated three more days of hiking in the cold. 

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Breakfast with our trekking buddies Nick and Kate, feeling jealous of Tom and Lucy escaping to the foot of the mountain

However, luckily for us the trek was set to get better.  Day three was truly spectacular as we hiked along the mountain ridge that separates India from Nepal under clear blue skies. We could see the ridge trail stretching in front of us, pine tree-lined slopes on either side and the Himalayan peaks in the distance. It was what we had come here for. 

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Following the line of the ridge between Nepal and India on day three - spectacular!

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One of the side effects of the altitude is that Helena's right arm became freakishly long

By now the days had settled into a regular rhythm: set off at 8am, lunch stop 11am, reach base for the night by 3pm, pass through at least one Indian army post on the way and drink at least five cups of tea. 

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Rhododendrons (Nepal's national flower) line the route

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Some of the local wildlife - yaks. Seriously cute beasts!

Night three found us at 3,600 metres in Phalut (India). It may have been 30 metres or so lower than the night before, but it made Sandakphu seem like a summer camp. Our accommodation was a tin hut that was so exposed that the wind rattled right through it. Within an hour of arriving, the weather closed in and we were surrounded by thick cloud and howling wind.  It was 3pm and there was nothing for it but to crawl into our sleeping bags and shiver our way to dinner time.  There was no fire in our hut - this was India. We braved the smoke of the small cooking hut next door for dinner just to get some warmth from the fire. The dhal bat (rice and lentils) and vegetables tasted so good - it was hard to believe the woman running the place had prepared it in this tiny, basic kitchen with only a clay, wood-fired cooker in the corner and not even a sink, just barrels of water.  By 7pm we were back in our dark and freezing room, zipped up tightly in our sleeping bags and praying for sleep. It was another of those moments when you wonder why you chose to do a five day hike in the Himalayas!

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Our accommodation in Phalut for night three - perfectly positioned to get in the way of any and all gusts of freezing wind

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Up here is Land Rover country

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3pm, freezing cold - nothing for it but to get all your clothes on and get in your sleeping bag. Why are we here again?!

Luckily the combination of decent sleeping bags and general exhaustion meant we slept well. Day four was an even earlier start to catch sun rise and hike up the hill behind our hut to see if we could catch a view of the mountains. Unfortunately the clouds were much thicker than yesterday so the views were not so hot. However, the walk got us warmed up and there were some nice Bhuddist prayer flags at the top.  We crawled back into our sleeping bags for another hour then had our breakfast porridge and tea before setting off for day four of hiking.

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Day four morning views not as great as day three but spectacular nonetheless

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What it's all about - a cup of tea with a view for breakfast

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This hen seemed to think our room was a cool place to hang out

On the fourth day we dropped 1500 metres in height over 15 km as we headed for lunch in Gorkhey. The trail brought us through dense forest and the temperature increased significantly, which given where we had been for the last two days was very welcome! It was so hot in Gorkhey that we had to eat lunch inside to shelter from the intense sun.

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Descending to Gorkhey for lunch - this trail is "Nepali flat"

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Farming landscape around Gorkhey

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A couple of young villagers who were interested in our camera

After lunch it was another 7km of sweaty hiking through dense forest to get to Ramam, our base for our final night in the mountains. It was while walking through the forest that Rikesh came out with another great quote.  After a steep climb through the forest, we stopped for water and Helena asked if the trail would continue to be so steep. "No, after this it is flat", responded Rikesh.  Helena looked at the trail in front of us and pointed out that it was in fact clearly sloping upwards. "It's Nepali flat", Rikesh clarified.

At 2000 metres, our final night's base at Ramam felt seriously civilised - we could breathe thick air, full of oxygen and see many other houses across the valley in Sikkim, making it feel veritably urban compared to where we had been.  We also enjoyed the best food of the entire trek on the final evening together with Nick and Kate, washed down with Sikkim "Hit" beer.

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Our base for our final night, Ramam

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Some bizarre Indian/Nepali proverbs that decorated the walls of our room

Next morning, we had a relatively short 14 km to walk mostly downhill through farming villages to our end point of Rimbik village. The weather was hot and the scenery in the lush valley was beautiful. As we walked we passed potato and pea crops, cardamom and wild strawberries.

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The final push to Rimbik, dreaming of a hot shower...

We were both glad to be finishing up after five days trekking, though. We had taken the extravagant step of booking our own private jeep to ferry us back to Darjeeling (taking the usual shared jeep would have meant squeezing in with 9 other people!) and enjoyed the 4 hour trip back along twisting mountain roads.  For the last five days we had braved the elements, hopped into Nepal for a while and enjoyed spectacular scenery - now it was time to get back to civilisation!

Posted by Grantandhelena 08:24 Archived in India Comments (1)

In the heat of Calcutta

First taste of India

sunny 40 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

The drive into Calcutta (officially spelled Kolkata now in India) did nothing to alter the city's reputation of being very poor. The first impressions have already been mentioned: basic airport, a taxi that definitely had seen better days etc. It continued along these lines - a road full of potholes, sided by shacks. Then we saw a couple of men sleeping on the pavement, then ten more, then fifty, a hundred. In the excruciating heat, they didn't wear anything but their undergarments. We did see a couple of women but there were definitely more men. At first you don't believe your eyes -"Did you see, those people were...", but sadly you get quickly "used" to it. Some of them slept in their rickshaws or on the boot of their taxis, which effectively serve as their work and home

Despite it being after midnight, we saw lots of activity, people walking about and trucks doing work. We saw at least two herds of goats being moved around by their...shephards, which, in most cities, is a rare sight. We also experienced the most ambitious speed bumps ever. We think we understood the logic: with speed bumps that most resemble a recently ploughed field with huge concrete furrows, even very scruffy cars (the only type you see in Calcutta!) would have to make the effort to slow down.

Many cities have poor areas but generally you will eventually pass through some nicer areas as you approach the centre. We kept waiting for that to happen throughout our 40 minute taxi ride, but it never did. In our three day stay, we never discovered any classy areas of the city, shopping malls, or any buildings resembling European city features - the whole place felt like a very run down small town / slum. 

When we at last arrived at out hotel on Mirza Ghaleb street, it still felt like we were in a rough neighbourhood. We would later learn that the well to do Calcuttians  live well outside the city and that's also where the luxury hotels are. We would also realise that our area, by Calcutta standards, wasn't rough at all, and our hotel was true bliss with its air conditioned room (thanks to the wedding present from the Brussels crew!).

Calcutta  was until 1911 the capital of British India and it is rich with colonial architecture, albeit mostly in a state of very poor repair. Our first venture the day after having arrived was to visit the Victoria Memorial. It was supposed to be finalised in 1901 (for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee) but wasn't completed until almost 20 years after her death. The building, built out of white marble is truly impressive, and to our surprise, well maintained. The building was full of visitors but only a handful of Westerners. This seemed to be the case everywhere we went in Calcutta - probably the 40 degree heat had something to do with it!

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Victoria Memorial

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As often is the case here, special rates for foreigners

The building also included a couple of exhibitions, one on the topic of Calcutta's colonial history. When looking at one of the displays showing everyday colonial life of a British gentleman (everyday starting with being dressed by his servants) , Grant was approached by a couple of friendly Indians, asking where he was from. Grant promptly responded "Sweden!", slightly ashamed by the exhibit in front of him, and the Indians politely commented that it is a very cold country, then moved on.

Back outside the building we wandered through the beautiful park at the slowest pace possible. We heard some live music and as we couldn't resist the sound of the tabla and sitar we went to see what was going on. We found  a big audience gathered under an outdoor shelter on plastic chairs. As it was all in Bengali we could not follow what they were saying but we would later read that they were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of poet (and Nobel Prize laureate) Rabindranath Tagore. The woman we had been making a speech was Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of  West Bengal. She is the chief minster of a region with 91.3 million citizens (more than the UK and Sweden combined) and a sign of her importance is the fact that she the previous day had met with Hillary Clinton, who currently is touring Asia to promote "The New Silk Road". Ms Banerjee was also named one of the 100 most influential people in world in 2012 by Time Magazine.

While enjoying the music and observing the audience, we were struck by the fact that we never saw such a big group of people in China that was so quiet. The crowd was being very attentive to the music being played and the speeches that were made.

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Celebration of what would have been the 150th birthday of poet Rabindranath Tagore

Despite being a Nobel laureate, we can both admit that we had not heard of Tagore before, despite him being labelled "the ambassador of Indian culture to the world". The next day, however, we decided to visit his house, which today is a museum. Calcutta is known to be cultural and intellectual centre and visiting Tagore's  house, we started to understand why. Born into a privileged family and very intellectually gifted, his house became a meeting point for the Calcutta intellectual elite. An intellectual superstar, he met a number of international dignitaries during his lifetime, including Einstein. His home was by far the nicest we saw in Calcutta and, even better, nice and cool.

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Tagore's house

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Tagore himself

Seeing the cultural sights was of course interesting but equally, if not more, entertaining, was to walk  around Calcutta and be amazed by the chaotic atmosphere and everything that was going on. Traffic is utterly mad and often there are no pavements to talk about - you better just keep out of the way of the stream of rickshaws, trams, cars and buses. There are people everywhere going about their business, it seems that there is not a  millimetre of space that is not taken up with some commercial activity. Everything is for sale.

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Calcutta

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Enjoying a sweet lime juice

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Need something sharpened? This guy will do it for you (and note the guy on the left who sees a potential customer)

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A chai in the street - 3 rupees (5 Euro cents)

Coming to India from China is pretty interesting. It might be too early to draw comparisons... but that hasn't stopped us before. The similarities are obvious: populous and developing countries, Asian, super powers, "flexible" (i.e. no) queuing system etc. But there are also some interesting differences, the most important being the language. The fact that so many people speak English opens infinitely more possibilities to interact and talk and it makes it easier as well as more dynamic. Secondly, it feels as if during only a few days we have been met with more smiles than we received throughout our two weeks in China and people are definitely more "polite" in the sense Europeans understand it. Indeed, the majority of Indians we met in Calcutta were extremely charming. Indian customer service is exceptionally good as well. Thirdly, Indian crowds are not as loud as Chinese crowds and you don't see people screaming at each other the way we often saw in China (we could never figure out when they were just having a conversation and when they were actually having a row). 

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Snaps from our walks through Calcutta

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The Calcutta flower market

A similarity as well as a difference is that just like the Chinese, Indians seem to be fascinated by us here. There is plenty of staring, people are wanting to take photos with us (and often do, shamelessly), ask where we are from and so on. While the Chinese perhaps were slightly more impressed by Grant's height, it's Helena who gets the most stares here. Thankfully Grant's presence keeps most comments off, but not all of them. It makes us think that it could be very tough for women travelling alone in India.

A final difference is that the poverty is much more overwhelming here than in China. The misery is heartbreaking. We saw three year olds sleeping stark naked on the street and marginally older kids begging, and there are beggars and homeless everywhere. The dirt, litter mountains and mad traffic, adds to the overall image of chaos and poverty.

Sadly, many buildings that clearly were once beautiful are in a state of decay. We couldn't help getting the impression that the last Brit who left after independence turned off the lights. The several refugee disasters have taken a toll and over 30 years of communist rule haven't helped. It is estimated that 30 percent of Calcutta's population lives in slums.

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The building for the English language newspaper The Statesman - not so statesmanlike anymore. We walked into a crumbling, pitch-black empty lobby where there wasn't even a light bulb to help you find your way

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Everywhere buildings falling apart....

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...but admittedly there were some nice ones too...

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...including St Paul's Cathedral

The extreme poverty was of course what brought Mother Teresa to Calcutta and we visited the house where she established her charity, and lived for 50 years. Her story is an amazing one, having grown up in Skopje and moved to Calcutta to help the poorest people in the world.  Her missions are now found throughout the world, inclining Sweden and Scotland, and her work is continued by many followers. The hardship she put herself through is very clear when you see her small bedroom with a simple wooden bed and writing desk, located directly above the hot kitchen of the convent and with no air conditioning.  Mother Teresa is also buried in the house and her grave is a shrine for pilgrims - a large group of Indian school children were there the day we visited.

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Mother Teresa's grave, surrounded by Indian school children on a field visit

On our last day we went down to the river Hooghly, hoping to catch a breeze on one of the many ferries trafficking the river. We took a few different ferries up the river between the different "ghats", enjoying the cooler air and the sights.  It gives you a different perspective of the city to get away from the crowded streets and alleyways.

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The Hooghly river is full of ferries...

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...and this is the one we got

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In the 40 degree heat, these guys had the right idea

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At the ghat - the communist party may not be in power anymore, but we sure saw its flag a lot

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Grant with the Howrah Bridge in the background, one of the third busiest bridges in the world - 100 000 vehicles and 150 000 pedestrians cross it daily

We took the ferry to the Bagbazar Ghat and decided to go for a stroll there. Not sure if it's something many tourists do as we got lots of stares. Being close to the river and one of Calcutta's train station it was buzzing with all sorts of trade activity - we were busy trying to get it all in (and avoiding getting hit by cars and rickshaws).

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It wouldn't be India without the holy cows

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In the area between Bagbazar Ghat and Howrah Bridge

Our post on Calcutta would not be complete without mentioning the food, which is completely awesome. Bengal is known for its cuisine and it certainly did not disappoint. We ate brilliant curries and other local delicacies each day, and especially enjoyed the Bengali sweets at the famous K.C. Das restaurant with brilliant old-school service. Don't visit Calcutta for the beautiful buildings or the peace and tranquility, but do visit for some of the best food you can find anywhere!

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Lunch in Calcutta one day

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Scenes from KC Das sweets emporium - fantastic Bengali desserts with great old school Indian service

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:16 Archived in India Comments (6)

It's a long way to Calcutta

Hong Kong to Calcutta via Shanghai and Kunming

overcast 25 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

On Monday 7 May we sadly had to leave Hong Kong as we had a date with India. Being on a budget, we had ended up with an indirect connection on China Eastern airlines from HK to Calcutta with two stops, in Shanghai and Kunming. It was going to be a very long day.

We left for HK airport at 10am HK time and got checked on to our Shanghai flight. At check in, several bomb shells were dropped on us in quick succession: 
(1) our flight was delayed by over an hour, leaving us with only 90 minutes in Shanghai to make our connecting flight. Ok, should still be fine, but...
(2) our bags could not be checked through and we would need to collect them and re-check them for the second leg of the journey with China Eastern. Bizarre, but that should just about be doable...
(3) we would have to clear Chinese immigration again, even though we were only transiting through the PRC. By sheer luck, we had multiple entry visas so we could technically do this, but this could be seriously time-consuming...
(4) our second flight left from a different Shanghai airport terminal from the one we arrived into, and we would need to take a 20 minute shuttle bus to get from one to the other.  Ok, we'd better get ready to spend the night in Shanghai because there is no way we are making this connection...

We made the most of our delay to enjoy Pizza Express at HK airport. This would prove to be the high point of our day.

Our plane left just after 14h00 and would take over two hours to get to Shanghai. Our connecting flight would leave at 18h00. We were never going to make that plane.  As we descended to Shanghai, we got the hostess to move us to the front of the plane so we could hit the ground running. 16h25 - the plane door opens and we literally sprint through the airport, clear passport control by queue barging and get to the baggage collection point. 16h40 and the bags are out (we've never seen bags arrive so fast). We sprint to the shuttle bus area and jump on the first bus we can. Nothing happens, the driver is enjoying a chat outside and is in no rush. Finally, he climbs on board and we leave. It's 16h45. Sure enough, by taking a back road around the airport perimeter, the bus deposits us at the other terminal twenty minutes later. We might make this flight after all! 

We needed no encouragement to do our best to get out of Shanghai. Helena ran ahead to check in while Grant collected the bags. We checked in, cleared customs and got to our gate with 15 minutes to spare before boarding. It was nothing short of a miracle.

The flight to Kunming was three hours long and uneventful. Clearly the Shanghai-Kunming route is not as glamorous as the HK-Shanghai route. We had an old 737 that had seen better days, no TVs and a repetition of the food we had been served three hours earlier minus the Haagen Dazs they had distributed on the HK flight. 

It was 21h00 when we got to Kunming. All we wanted was to be in Calcutta but we had another flight to take yet. Kunming airport is a strange place. The check-in area feels more like a bazaar, with open stalls selling all kinds of random produce. We had to wait in the small international check-in area for the desk to open and were surrounded by throngs of Indian men with densely packed plastic carrying cases - it transpired these were all Calcutta shopkeepers who regularly come to China to stock up on cheap clothes to sell in India.  The fact that it is worth these guys flying to China and using their limited baggage allowance to buy clothes to then sell at Indian prices in Calcutta really tells you something about clothing prices in China.

One of the Indian merchants struck up some banter with us and let us jump to the front of the queue. Of course, there was a catch - he was over his 30 kg baggage allowance and wanted us to check in one of his bags as our own. With visions of ending up in a Chinese or Indian jail for smuggling (which would be worse, one wonders?) Helena firmly told the guy "no". But we kept our place at the head of the queue and got a window seat with extra legroom as a result. We got the better end of that deal! The Indian guy went off to try to convince one of the Chinese guys to help him out.  We cleared passport control, stamped in and out of the PRC within the space of five hours - surely some kind of record.

Helena was one of three female passengers on the flight. The rest of the passengers were Chinese and Indian businessmen.  Here  was a fascinating opportunity to see how the world's greatest traders, the Chinese and the Indians, would interact when thrown together. In the event, this was the quietest we had ever seen a group of Chinese people being - they seemed to be as shocked as us by the quick talking banter of the Indians.  In the queue for passport control, one of the Indians very blatantly jumped to the front of the line and ended up being told off by the Chinese for his behaviour: brilliant irony in China, the country where no-one queues for anything!

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Chinese v Indian businessmen: who would win? Find out on China Airlines

We hit the international departure lounge, a very dull place to spend a couple of hours. We took a few snaps, which give a flavour of the place.

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Kunming International Departure Lounge - a thoroughly depressing spot

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No-one is here to sell this stuff, and we guess no-one would want to buy it anyway

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Eh?

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The free water fountains were the best facility in the departure lounge - we never got to sample the "VIP Lounge" in the background

Fortunately we boarded on time and left Kunming behind just before midnight. On the bus to the plane we watched the masses of Indian merchants struggling to carry their "hand baggage" with them - on top of the 30 kg they had each checked in, every one had three fully stuffed shoulder bags to bring on the plane, bursting with cheap Chinese clothes. They were battling to get on the plane first to make sure they got overhead locker space. Thank God the plane was not full because it probably wouldn't have managed to take off otherwise!

We lost 2.5 hours in time difference and landed in Calcutta just before midnight local time. Getting off the plane felt like stepping into a sauna - intense, dry humidity. The airport we arrived into made Kunming look thoroughly space age - Calcutta airport is a real cattle shed. Apart from a couple of soldiers with pump action shot guns and some families sleeping on the floor, the place was practically empty. We booked a pre-paid taxi to our hotel and stepped out into the parking area to find the car. At the edge of the road there was a desk and chairs set up with a couple of official taxi people sitting behind it and a bunch of drivers loitering around. No-one seemed in any rush. The official took our voucher and called a driver over, who casually led us to his Ambassador taxi. You have to see these things to believe they exist: they look like something out of the 1950s and they are Calcutta's official taxis.

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A typical Calcutta Ambassador taxi - looking like something out of the 1950s

One of the guys loitering in the car park asked us which hotel we were going to, and on hearing the name told us it had closed and we should go to another one with him. Thirty seconds outside the airport and we had witnessed our first Indian scam! We told him where to go and jumped into the taxi. He seemed unbothered - the scam had been distinctly half-baked - and just wandered off into the darkness of the parking lot. 

The taxi set off and bumped its way out of the dark parking lot: Calcutta here we come!

Posted by Grantandhelena 07:51 Archived in China Comments (4)

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