The Himalayan railway is a steam driven railway which is a world heritage site and is known as the Toy Train due to the narrow gauge track that it uses. It has been in operation for over 120 years, slowly plugging along up and down the mountainside. Having been on it....SLOWLY is the word. The journey was scheduled to take 7 hours, but in the end it took over 9.5 hours due to a couple of fallen trees blocking the track. In all, its a reasonably comfortable train ride, but if you aren't any good with heights, then I would stay away from it. It inches its way along the side of the mountain with nothing but a couple of thousand feet drop on one side for large portions of the way. One of the interesting bits of the journey, although slightly depressing is the change of scenery as the train runs into Siliguri at the base of the mountains, suddenly you leave behind the relaxed, mountain lifestyle, back to the "gritty" Indian lifestyle that we had pretty much forgotten.
The 2nd part of our journey was the overnight sleeper train which we had booked online from England and had some trepidation about. On arrival into the station, we were able to find our platform having asked a few people,and set about getting some food and waiting for the train to arrive. When traveling by train in India, you cannot select your seats when booking, only the class of carriage. When you get to the station, they have produced a list of names that morning, detailing the carriage you are in, and the seat numbers. There is a main list on the noticeboard of the station and there is also a list on each of the carriages, confirming who is in them. Now, if this sounds like a reasonably sensible system, then you have never traveled in India. What actually happens is this.....
You wait till the train arrives, realise it has about 40 carriages on it. You then try and find the noticeboard, only to realise that no list has been put up so you don't know which carriage you are in.
You then rush around looking at the 1st class carriages to see if you can find your name, realise it isn't there and then start looking for someone in charge. After I spoke to the station manager, he checked his list and confirmed which carriage we were in before mumbling something unintelligible about being at the end and disapering.
We then asked about 10 various station officials, porters etc where carriage HA1 was as it wasn't clear. This led to one of 2 responses.....being ignored (quite common) or being given contradictory information (very common).
Eventually we found our carriage, checked the list and confirmed that this was ours and stepped into the unknown. And after all that, it was actually quite pleasant. The photos show how the carriages are arranged with 4 bunk beds that pull out of the wall, all clean fresh linen and blankets and even power sockets to charge my phone. We all quietly drifted off to sleep awaiting our arrival the next morning in Calcutta.
Calcutta was a bit of a shock to all of us.....mainly because it was no way as bad as it had been made out. Whilst in Darjeeling especially, we had bumped into other travellers who warned us that it was worse than Delhi, but it wasn't Yes, there were probably more beggars there than we had experienced in Delhi or Agra, but you just ignore them and move on. In contrast though, the city itself was much nicer, definitely better laid out and has a better infrastructure left over from the days of the British. Including a large park (similar to Hyde park) called the Maidan which offers a respite from the heat and humidity. It does have its problems though, it is much more obviously polluted than either Delhi or Agra, It also doesn't have as much of a tourist presence, both due to its reputation I guess as well as a lack of real attractions. This has a knock on effect that more of the cab drivers and staff had weaker English, not a huge issue, but when your hotel is a little hard to find, then a driver who just stares at you blankly is no comfort.
The worst example of this was the driver we initially hired for the day, like we had in Agra. He was provided by our hotel and hadn't a word of English. We initially didn't think this was a problem as the hotel owner asked us to write a list of what we wanted to see and he would explain to the driver. At least this way, we wouldn't get driven to loads of shops we didn't want to etc. Unfortunately, our driver didn't seem to understand Hindi either and proceeded to drive us first to a private members club....with no explanation as to why, and then the planetarium ??? Neither of which were on our list. We tried in vain to explain, with lots of pointing at the map and all we got was a blank look. After 20 mins or so, we cut our losses, gave him an hours pay and walked away, - even sacking him took another 5 minutes of hand signals to make it clear to him.
After that, we got on okay around Calcutta on foot, it was much more humid in Calcutta than other places and this made the walking tiresome, but we took it easy as we had plenty of time. We also stopped in a few shops On the 2nd day, we made the visit to Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta where here grave is. This was quite a good afternoon in all, whatever you may think of her and I have some reservations, she did a awful lot of good work and has set up an impressive organisation. The mission is mostly closed to the public apart from a very good exhibition of her life and the room with her grave. They are also the only place we went to where the "donation" felt in any way voluntary, rather than feeling pushed into it. All in all a good end to the Calcutta leg.
We left our hotel nice and early and endured another cab ride in an Ambassador car. These are the morris minor looking cars that you can see in my pics and they are all over India. They have a number of flaws though, the boot is never big enough, not helped by the spare tyre sitting loose in it. There is no headroom so i spend most journeys slightly hunched over. I also banged my head a lot on the doorframe. And most importantly, there is no air con, which made for a diesel fume filled ride to the airport through all the traffic. And its at the airport that our problems started...........
Calcutta airport is SMALL, when we arrived there were only 4 flights scheduled to leave that night, and we were in plenty of time for ours which left at midnight.. When we got to check-in though, everything started to go wrong as the girl at the desk said she couldn't find our reservation. This then went to her boss who eventually found our reservation, but advised us that it had been exchanged and wasn't valid. To cut a VERY long story short, we spent nearly 2 hours trying to persuade them that we should be on the flight,as to be honest the alternative was another night in Calcutta which we didn't really fancy trying to organise at nearly midnight. In the end, after going to the main guy for Singapore airlines in the airport , we had to cough up £300 to get on the flight. Hefty, but a price worth paying to make sure we got to Singapore. And boy, was paying to get to Singapore worth it....