Friday, March 19, 2010


A slideshow of selected photos from this trip can be viewed here.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Melbourne - 9.3.10

Arrived back in Melbourne last night (thanks Di & Al for the pick-up!) about 10pm after a fairly uneventful flight back from Kolkata - watched heaps of movies, ate a lot of aeroplane food & occasionally lapsed into sleep. Again, plenty of room - the two adjacent seat were also free, leaving space to lie down & stretch out. I'm feeling a little out of whack, time-wise, with the 5.5 hour time difference, so it'll be interesting to see how I am tomorrow when I return to work.

The Broadway Hotel - a budget level place - in Kolkata was a good choice (although the enormous resident cockroach in my bathroom & the swarm of marauding ants that attacked a biscuit I'd left on the bed did take the edge off it a little). It was a kilometre & a half north of the Sudder St/ western tourist area but very near the Chandni Chowk metro station, making it pretty easy to get around. The hotel was built in 1937, and the rooms are mostly quite large with high ceilings. According to a Canadian who's been staying there for the past 40 years, on & off, the only changes he's seen in that time have been some rewiring & TV sets added to the rooms. The downstairs bar & restaurant area is very ... atmospheric; it's dark, with shuttered windows & dozens of ceiling fans - probably even "art deco", as the hotel's own website describes it. At night, it's filled with scores of men sitting around drinking; a few are also eating - the food there is surprisingly good - clean, fresh & tasty. There were quite a few single blokes sitting at tables, staring into space & looking morose (I did wonder for a second whether this was a projection of mine, but I don't think so as I was feeling quite chipper. Good food & accommodation will do this for me).

Broadway Hotel

Broadway Hotel - bar & restaurant

Down the road was Anand, an excellent vegetarian restaurant, mainly frequented by Indian families, that makes pretty good masala dosa. I also indulged in a strawberry milkshake, butterscotch ice-cream & paneer pizza on my visit(s) there.
Just across the road from the hotel, on the corner of the busy intersection, two families, comprising of at least five young children & baby, were living. At different times of the day you could see them bathing, cooking food, sleeping, kids playing ...

The flight out was at 1:55am so I arranged a car to the airport at 9pm, leaving me with plenty of time to check in & deal with any unforeseen problems that having a bicycle might present. I organised a lad to wash the bike for Rs30, then put some cardboard around the dérailleurs, removed the pedals & it was ready to go. Temporarily removing the front wheel made it a little easier to cram it into the back seat of the Ambassador that was taking me to the airport. At the airport I did the customary but purposeless exercise of letting the air out of the tyres & turned the handlebars around, attaching them to the top tube of the bike. Luckily, airport staff (other than the policeman who told me I couldn't take my bicycle into the airport terminal!) were quite bemused by the fact that I was travelling with a bicycle & were exceedingly helpful. The fellow whose job it was to wheel the bike away after check-in made some joke about what a great bike it was & how he'd like to take it home ... I feigned alarm at this & so he went to great lengths to reassure me by accompanying me at a distance as I went through customs, pointing at the bike periodically to indicate that he was taking it to the appropriate place & not pinching it.
I had the sense that I'd finally, after 5 weeks, become acclimatised to & at ease with being in India - shame that I was at the end of the trip! No doubt about it, India's a tough place to travel through, and some of the cycling has been hard work. At times it's exasperating, infuriating, and of course highly dangerous on the roads. It taps into all sorts of emotions, some of which you might be surprised to see arise - disgust, rage, irritability, fear, sadness, powerlessness, hatred, aggression, apprehension, alarm ... Thankfully, at other times you might experience delight, awe, amusement, surprise, enjoyment, astonishment, relief ...  In a sense you're on the line - it tests your view of the world & how things should be, and your view of yourself - things you take for granted, or your expectations or 'rules' e.g. about courtesy, hygiene, service, fairness, reasonableness, common-sense,  personal space, care of the environment, etc. are out the window, and you are left to deal with your own reactions about these things. And some of these reactions can be a surprise - "... oh, I thought I was a little more well-adjusted than that!" The variety, challenge, eccentricity, rawness, unpredictability, non-PCness of the place are what draw me there (in addition to the various & wondrous tourist attractions of India & the pleasures of cycling). As I've said before, I both love & hate India.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Kolkata - Sat 6.3.10

Day 17 cycling: Darjeeling - Siliguri
DST = 76km; RTM = 4hrs 21m; ODO = 1180km; AVS = 17.4km/hr; cadence = 78; MAX = 42.7 km/hr

Day 18: train from Siliguri (NJP train station) - Kolkata

Back in Calcutta, this time staying at the Broadway Hotel, a big old hotel on Ganesh Chandra Avenue in the BBD Bagh area which contains much of the colonial architecture in Calcutta. The room is enormous & has no hot water but buckets of it can be supplied on request. The downstairs restaurant also doubles as a bar apparently, but the breakfast they turned out this morning after my arrival was surprisingly excellent. I wandered down to this nearby internet cafe to discover that I needed to have brought my passport with me to register. Upon my return, I was subjected to a complicated procedure, presumably to deter or detect terrorism. After giving my name, address & other details, I had to have my thumb scanned several times, my photo taken & a copy of my passport made ...
It was a beautifully sunny morning when I left Darjeeling yesterday morning after a satisfying  breakfast at a place called Glenary's, and the views of the nearby mountains were the best I'd seen since arriving there (but still not terrific - the heavy background haze still persisted). The first 7km to Ghum was all uphill - at which point I encountered a massive, kilometres long traffic jam in both directions due to a broken down truck. The roads are so narrow that it was with great difficulty that I managed to squeeze through. A 70km downhill ride all the way to Siliguri followed! My wrists were sore from using the brakes so much. What detracted from the delight of such a fantastic downhill run was the extremely poor condition of the roads, the number of reasonably tight curves, many spots where the train tracks crossed the road, and of course the traffic, although this wasn't very heavy - just sporadic bursts of small convoys of vehicles. The narrowness of the road often precluded both my bike & trucks occupying it at the same time. The dodgy pannier was also providing some concern given the bumpiness of the road, and towards the end one of the supporting hooks came apart again. I hadn't quite noticed on the way up how bad the road was, as I'd been travelling relatively slowly. You can see from the average speed of 17.4km/hr that it wasn't all that quick a ride overall, but the max speed of 42.7km/hr indicates I could go fast at times.
There was another massive traffic jam at Kurseong, and this time it was quite some a while before I could squeeze through. I heard the toot of the Toy train ahead & it was quite amusing to be able to catch up & overtake it. Overall, a pretty good ride, and the road picked up a little after the first 40km.
I planned to have a brief interlude at the Hotel Swastik Regency in Siliguri so I could freshen up, change clothes, check my bike in & have something to eat prior to the train's departure that evening. This was a bit of a miscalculation as I'd thought that NJP station was much closer to Siliguri than it turned out to be. It took me forever to cycle there, check the bike onto the train (not a straightforward task: I had to find the right office, fill in a large & complicated form & get the bike seat wrapped in hessian! Luckily there was man on hand to do this for Rs50. Phew!), get back to the hotel by rickshaw to do what I'd planned, then return to NJP an hour or so later to get the train. The train trip itself was relatively straightforward and so was collecting the bike at the end, once I'd found the correct office. The sight of the bicycle being wheeled into the shed I was waiting in was very pleasing, I can tell you. There were a few minor problems eg chain tangled up, back brake pad scraping) but otherwise AOK. I saved myself the hassle of cycling & got a taxi (later, I figured out that it probably wasn't actually a taxi) to the hotel. At first, there were no rooms available - I rarely book anything in advance - but the manager then proposed putting me in the family room until something did, which happened about an hour later.
So, I guess I'll hang out here for the next 36 hours before heading back home. The bike & I made it!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Darjeeling - Thursday 4.3.20

I returned to Windamere Hotel for their 'high tea' (Rs375) yesterday; this comprised one scone with jam & cream (the ubiquitous red coloured jam - possibly strawberry - you get everywhere in India... although once I was given green coloured jam), then a glass pot of tea with milk & sugar accompanied by a small basket containing: 3 triangular peanut butter (!?) sandwiches, 3 circular cucumber sandwiches, 4 shortbread biscuits & a chunk of marbled chocolate/vanilla cake. The slightly tragic aspect to all this was that I was the only guest there that day. Today however I went with two folk I've met here to the Elgin Hotel, another 'top end' heritage hotel - but without the reputation that Windamere has. This was much classier - the room seemed a lot fresher & classier, and the 'high tea' was overall, of better quality & quantity for the same price (although no cream with their scone ... and the same red jam). In addition to the cakes & sandwiches we were given a plate of pakora, and found it hard to finish it all. Also visited the Bengal Natural History Museum, a  terribly old-fashioned place with cabinets of bugs pinned to the walls, jars of snakes & fish, and a moth-eaten collection of stuffed birds, tigers, leopards & other creatures possibly found in this part of the world. Sometimes these sorts of museums have a perverse charm but this was pretty ordinary. I spent a few hours wandering around town today with Fran while Adam, who conducts his business via the net while travelling, spent a few hours working online. We checked out a couple of temples, Observatory Hill & the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. Unfortunately the zoo was closed today - according to the guide book it's one of the best in India. It's been good to take it easy & wind down before my final ride tomorrow - back to Siliguri & the nearby New Jalpaiguri (NJP) train station for the overnight trip back to Calcutta.

The road to Darjeeling

Make way for the Darjeeling express!

High tea at the Elgin Hotel

Darjeeling - Wednesday 3.3.10

The Dekeling Hotel is cosy enough, if you don't mind sleeping on a bed that feels little softer than if you were sleeping on the floor. A nice touch was finding that a hot water bottle had been put in the bed in the evening. The hotel has a common area with a wood-burning heater in the middle where you can hang out, read, & order pots of tea. The hotel is up several flights of stairs - I counted 70 steps to get to reception - and as there's really nowhere to store the bike safely outside during the night, I had to lug the bike upstairs (with a hotel employee helping out) to store in my room. It was such an effort that I think it'll have to stay there until I leave i.e. I'll walk rather than cycle around town. I should note also that the usual renovations are going on here - plenty of hammering & grinding started bright & early this morning. I had contemplated staying one night at the renowned Windamere Hotel but a visit there this morning left me feeling I mightn't enjoy it all that much - it's very much decked out in a British colonial style. It's relatively expensive - Rs6650 for a Standard room, single, and Rs7750 for a Superior room (plus sales tax, service charge etc.). The price does include all meals. However, I might try out their 'high tea' later.
One of the books that I had on my eBook reader was J.M Coetzee's book 'Slow Man' which I elected to start reading yesterday. It unfortunately & somewhat uncomfortably begins with an older fellow on a bicycle being hit by a car & having his leg amputated above the knee ...

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Darjeeling - Tuesday 2.3.10

Day 15 cycling: Siliguri - Kurseong [bike computer malfunction!]
DST = approx. 46km; RTM = approx. 4hrs; ODO = 1071km; AVS = 11km/hr; cadence = 73

Day 16 cycling: Kurseong - Darjeeling
DST = approx. 33km;  ODO = 1104km

Made it to Darjeeling early this afternoon & have taken a room at Dekeling Hotel - a deluxe room (Rs1360). I decided to take a chance with the Holi celebrations & headed off bright & early (well, for me, 8am is an early start). There were a few very powder-spattered, very pissed looking blokes around but otherwise everything was very quiet. I passed the nearby Hotel Conclave where the night before they'd refused to accept my Rs500 note, claiming it was a fake. I'd then gone to the ATM to use my credit card for the first time to withdraw money. It took three goes before money came out; I'll be interested to see how my account looks & whether the first two unsuccessful attempts actually did result in money leaving my account. Curiously, one of the Rs500 notes that came out was identical to the rejected note. So, I'm not persuaded it was dodgy.
No mountains were evident ahead as I pedalled towards Darjeeling - the smog or haze obscured much of what lay ahead. It was a lovely ride - the road was flat at first but then began to rise to a slope that was fairly constant all the way to Kurseong, my planned overnight stop about 45km away. The roads were quiet, & alongside & sometimes crossing the road, were the tracks of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.  Annoyingly, my bike computer failed - battery I think - at the 29km mark. As I ascended, it became colder, the clouds darker and the roads rougher. The people became friendlier it seemed, especially the occasional truck or van driver, but for some reason the dogs became less friendly. Carrying a big stone & then showing it to barking dogs usually scares them away. Everywhere were flags & signs saying "We Want Ghorkaland" and everywhere road safety barriers, buildings & even huge boulders carried words & showed maps of what was wanted & were painted in the Ghorkaland colours of green, white & yellow. Basically, local Nepali speaking Ghorkas (also spelled Ghurka)  want a separate state for themselves. At one point, the small diesel train withs everal carriages went tootling by. Very cute. It was an excellent ride, although hard work, and at times I wondered if my own battery might fail ... Siliguri is at an elevation of 119m; Kurseong is at 1458m, so I ascended some 1339 metres over the 45km. I checked into Cochrane Place at Kurseong, into a deluxe room (Rs2250). I figured some (relative) luxury was earned after 4 hours of steadily riding uphill. It was a slightly quirky place, full of oddities, antiques & general bric-√†-brac & a good range of various teas. For afternoon tea, along with some vegetable pakora, I had a cup of Kanchanjunga tea (Rs45) "darjeeling blend spices, cocoa & mint". Rather tasty. It was a cosy place, with a sitting room & a few eating areas, and 360' views - unfortunately it was very foggy outside. At 9:30pm the rain started to beat down, leaving the roads - and train tracks - quite wet & slippery for the next day.
As I left Kurseong this morning, it was very foggy & cool, but it started to warm up a little & cycling in shorts was still quite OK. The weather was quite labile however - from cloudy to sunny to dark. The road was fairly bumpy & the traffic quite a lot heavier than yesterday, suggesting that people were observing Holi & not doing much driving, but it didn't seem quite as steep as yesterday. Cycling ever on up did begin to lose a little of the charm of the previous day. A burst boil on the left buttock didn't help much either. I reached Ghoom (Ghum) and found to my surprise it was downhill to Darjeeling from there. Ghoom, the highest point of the ride, is at an altitude of 2226m, and Darjeeling is at about 2050m. I've checked in to a cosy 'deluxe' room the Dekeling Hotel (Rs1360), a "pick" in the guide book, with "possibly the best views in town". The view out my window is indeed pretty stunning. Darjeeling was quite confusing at first but I eventually found my way to the hotel after buying a train ticket at the railway station for my return journey from Siliguri to Calcutta on Friday night. The ride back down the hill to Siliguri on Friday should be fun (although the bumpy bits will take the edge off it).

Ghoom (Ghum) railway station