Tag Archives: train

India Pt 5: Turtle trains & Ramshackle Chic Lodgings

28 Jan

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

I peered out the window of the moving train to see the oddest sight: a jeep filled with ten, terribly squished passengers speeding past, its occupants smiling and waving at us.

This was unusual mainly for the following reason: a jeep so laden down with body weight was still going faster than our train.

The boy and I had finally decided to say our goodbyes to Darjeeling, having had a wonderful three day break in the little town. But instead of taking the speedy route of a shared taxi down the hill 32km to Kurseong – our next stop – we opted for a lumbering and hilariously slow train journey instead.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

At first, we thought it would be a quaint way to travel. It was to take three hours to cover the short distance but – with the turtle-slow traveling – we figured we’d get the chance to enjoy the views down the mountain in a wonderfully relaxed manner and all at the low price of around £3 each for “first class” tickets (this relating to the ancient, dusty seats covered in a carpet-like material that were an upgrade from the wooden benches in “second class”).

But, as soon as we boarded, we realised our mistake – we’d forgotten how much people in all parts of India love to use horns. While we’d only experienced this in cars, as it turned out, the same logic goes for trains.

That’s right – THREE hours of a blasting, blaring train horn.

So much for a laid-back journey!

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

But, regardless, the trip was incredibly memorable. The old diesel locomotive runs along a frighteningly narrow track that zig-zags back and forth across the main road. This seemed to be the primary reason why the conductor had to blast his horn constantly – to stop distracted drivers plowing into the side of the carriages. When the train wasn’t trailing over the roadway, it mainly traveled alongside it, giving us a good view of the inside of the jeeps that beeped their way past. As we lumbered our way downhill, villagers would come out of their houses to wave at us, while dogs howled at the horn. At times, we passed so close to shops and houses, we could have easily leaned out the window for a packet of crisps or a pair of pants off a laundry line. It was – quite possibly – the oddest journey I have ever taken.

"The most tourist friendly hill station in the world."

“The most tourist friendly hill railway in the world.”

When finally we arrived in Kurseong – which labels itself the “most tourist friendly hill railway in the world” for reasons unbeknownst to the boy and I – we were longing for some peace and quiet.

P1170437We’d made reservations at Cochrane Place – a hotel on the town’s outskirts. Since we weren’t spending the extra money on a trip up to Sikkim, we thought we’d treat ourselves to a couple of nights of more upscale lodging.

The hotel was formerly the home of British colonial Percy John Cochrane who acted as the area’s magistrate in the early 20th century. It has been restored to house a wide variety of individually decorated, slightly ramshackle rooms and has a restaurant on-site, which made for easy dining.

At the back of the first floor was our room – am expansive, two-floored deluxe space with lounge, bedroom and a balcony that overlooked nearby houses and mountains. We even had a teddy bear to greet us.

King Kong anyone? Odd decor at Cochrane Place.

King Kong anyone? Eccentric decor at Cochrane Place.

But despite the more upscale space and welcoming soft toy, everything about Cochrane Place felt slightly haunted – from the old abandoned games room, to the colonial pictures on the walls and strange antique dolls in cabinets.

And, while at the hotel I can honestly say I experienced something that will haunt me for years to come – a stick massage.

Billed by management as a local treatment, I expected a “stick massage” to use, well, sticks, that would likely be rolled up and down my spine or arms to help the masseuse work out tough knots. Given I’d had 10 days of lugging around a heavy backpack, it seemed like just the thing that would relax me.

But oh how I was wrong. A stick massage is – quite literally – a massage that uses different shaped wooden instruments that are hit against the skin in a tapping manner to stimulate the nerves. As I lay on the bed, fully clothed, and had sticks rattled against me like a drum for an hour, I realised it probably would have been best to confirm how this massage was done before agreeing to it.

I’ve never seen the boy look so happy to have missed out on something than when I regaled him with the tale of being rat-a-tat-tapped for 60 long minutes.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

The bizarre nature of Cochrane Place was, however, one of its most charming aspects. We would dine each afternoon and evening with a different group of guests in the large dining room, chatting about our travels and asking them where they had been, while looking out towards the sparkling, lit up hills where thousands of strangers were likely eating their meals in their homes. In the daytime, we trekked around tea estates and up long, winding hills near the hotel.

Both it and the train journey will stick with the boy and I for years to come – and, sometimes, that’s what traveling is best for: experiencing the unexpected!

In Part 6, the boy and I head south for our last leg around Kerala and fall head over heels for Varkala.

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India Pt 3: Trains, Cows and the Ganges

4 Jan
Varanasi at sunrise

Varanasi at sunrise

The moment I fell for Varanasi was when it finally became peaceful. It was six in the morning, the pale sun was lifting a yawning head above the skyline and everything was dripping in an orange and pink haze.

Our captain.

Our captain.

The boy and I boarded a small rowboat with two young American girls from our hotel and our rower – an older gentleman with a welcoming smile. A little boy – no more than six or seven – hopped across the deck and over other boats to ply us with candles draped in marigolds to light and send bobbing out over the Ganges. We agreed to the inflated price he was offering and handed over our rupees, before lighting our candles, making a wish and nudging them away from the boat. Around us, dozens of other tourists were doing the same thing but – rather than feeling like we were on a tour group with these strangers – it felt oddly peaceful.

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We had been in Varanasi for less than 24 hours, having arrived via a 12 hour train journey from Delhi. I was still feeling delicate, having succumbed to Delhi Belly sickness two days prior, which saw me curled up in the fetal position at my friend’s flat in Delhi for an extended period of time. Primed with antibiotics and three other unpronounceable pills, the boy and I took a risk of boarding our planned on train and continuing our journey.

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Luckily, I managed to rest and I arrived in Varanasi feeling worse for wear but ready to continue our trip with increasing hopefulness.

Varanasi is considered the holy city in India. Belief goes that if you come to die in Varanasi and have your body cremated by the riverside at one of the burning ghats and your ashes spread by your relatives in the Mother Ganga (as they all refer to it as) you will break the cycle of reincarnation, finally allowing your soul to escape to the other world. It is here that people come to pray, to die, to live – it is a city full of more noise and colour than anywhere else I experienced in India but it also has its wealth of peace.

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We were met at the station by a young man from our hotel – Kedareswar Bed and Breakfast, a small, family-run place right on the river Ganges. We’d arranged the pick-up ahead of time opting for a non-AC car. What we found was barely a car itself dating back to the 1960s and driven by a man so sun-weathered and wrinkled we were amazed he was still able to walk, let along operate a vehicle. After multiple attempts to shut the trunk and doors of the pea-green car, our bottle-glasses wearing driver inched his way out of the train station lot into the insanity of Varanasi’s traffic.

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We had both thought that Delhi was bad – but Varanasi took chaos to a whole new level. It is the superstar of insane roads and with the smog, dirt and stench rolling in through our windows, it was soon clear that my nausea had not yet abated and that taking an AC car would have probably been wiser.

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When finally we arrived at the B&B – located at the end of a string of winding alleyways piled high with cow dung and rubbish – we were most glad to discover our place of residence for the night was cool, clean and relatively quiet bar the workmen pounding away on the building next door. It faced straight onto the Ganges and, at the cost of £16 for the night for a room with AC and private bath, was just right.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

After a nap, we went out exploring, but the 35 degree heat proved too much for my exhausted self – having not really eaten for two days I was weak. Instead, we did what we normally avoid and opted to take a tour arranged by the hotel. I’d heard negative things about the tours in Varanasi being overpriced and usually a scam, but we lucked out and had an honest hotelier who arranged for us to take a tuk-tuk with a knowledgeable and friendly driver all around the city.

The

The Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi.

We toured the beautiful, tree-lined grounds of Banaras Hindu University – one of the top universities in the country according to our driver – and proceeded to visit four different temples, including the peaceful Sankat Mochan Temple dedicated to Hindu Lord Hanuman, and the 8th century Durga temple, with its grounds filled with (not so evil) monkeys. For £5 for the tour for us both, it was well worthwhile in my state.

Evening puja.

Evening puja.

That evening, we punted out onto the Ganges in a private rowboat (arranged, again, by our hotel at a steal of 100r (or, £1.20 each) to watch the evening puja (or prayer) ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. Dozens of other boats came up beside us but we were lucky to be the only couple with a whole boat to ourselves to sit back in and relax while we watched the intense dance of men from the temple wearing orange and red, dance with fire and make music.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

But it was the next morning when I really fell for Varanasi. In that beautiful morning light, the city came alive as hundreds of people bathed in the Ganges, said their prayers and let the cremated ashes of their relatives float out onto the river. Despite the continual chaos of the city, that morning’s boat ride was filled with peace.

Our candles drift out.

Our candles drift out.

Varanasi for us both ended up being a highlight, which surprised me not only because I was still quite ill but because I had read numerous negative stories about it before arriving.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

I believe much of our enjoyment came from staying in a place with friendly owners, who seemed to really care about their guests, without wanting to rip them off or overcharge for tours/transfers/the room. It was basic but just right for letting the peace of Varanasi wash over our tired, Delhi trod-souls.

In Part 4, the boy and I escape the heat of central India and head north to the Himalayan hills of a tea estate and Darjeeling in West Bengal.

India Pt 2: the Taj, a fort and one evil monkey

28 Dec
The evil monkey sits and waits...

The evil monkey sits and waits…

It was a stand-off to rival the best of the Westerns.

The boy vs a monkey.

Perched confidently on a window ledge was contestant number one – the monkey.

And behind the table, grasping his Coke tightly, the boy.

And me? I was at the back of the room, squealing.

We’d arrived a few minutes before this scene began, trudging our way up the rickety stairs of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Agra’s main drag, Miyan Nazir Road. We were hot, dusty and thirsty, and decided to go upstairs to see some views of the Taj and experience greater airflow.

After our drinks (a Coke and a banana lassi so filled with unblended banana chunks it was rendered undrinkable) arrived, we sat back in squeaking, metal chairs to have a moment of peace.

And then the monkey swung into the scene.

At first, he simply stared at us, long arms hanging on the grate of the fencing around the rooftop’s perimeter. But then, after a scratch of his belly, he inched forwards…and then further forwards…until a few seconds later,  he was sat on the chair opposite us, looking very determined.

I switched into “flight” mode while the boy chose “fight”. Clutching his Coke, the boy and the monkey eyed each other up fiercely while I took to the back stage. The monkey then turned to me with a look that almost seemed to say: “That’s a bit rude. I’m just here for a visit.”

Feeling I’d hurt the monkey’s emotions, I edged a bit closer. But then he glared, gave a hiss and looked terribly evil.

At that second, the owner came back up for a smoke and chased the monkey away. But not before the monkey had peed all over the table, as if to say: “That’s what I think of you all.”

Agra Cantt station.

Agra Cantt station.

We had arrived in Agra that morning after a very early train journey from Delhi, which we almost didn’t make due to the fact a scam train worker wouldn’t let us through the gates, telling us our journey had been cancelled. This was despite the fact our train was clearly showing on the departure board and matched our ticket numbers. Yet another scam we had to deal with. We ended up sneaking onto the platform via the exit, just to avoid him but I noticed him trying the same thing on with many other confused looking tourists.

Luckily, the journey on the Shatabdi Express was very pleasant and – as it was 6am – we were able to watch the hazy colours of sunrise filter over yellow and green fields, casting a perfect pale light on the surroundings.

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After arriving at Agra Cantt, and taking a quick tuk-tuk ride into the main part of Agra (where the Taj is) we had a light breakfast, getting our first views of the astounding structure from a beautiful rooftop restaurant (this earlier one, without monkeys). Even from afar, it was magnificent.

The Taj in all its glory.

The Taj in all its glory.

As we were there on Eid, we discovered entry to the Taj was free before 10am so we headed quickly to the entrance to make it on time.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

The day was perfect weather wise – an azure sky and pounding sun made it hot even by 9am but we were more than chuffed with the temperature change from rainy London to not mind a bit of potential sunburn.

And, of course, the view was even better. While the Taj Mahal is one of those images most of us have seen umpteen times, nothing beats experiencing it in its marbly flesh. The waterways leading up to the structure are crystal clear and reflect its towering lines, while the gardens are hushed and delightfully cool. We wandered around for an hour, taking in every inch of this 17th century wonder. My favourite part was taking off my shoes (a rule when you walk onto the main section) and feeling the solid, icy marble beneath my feet. I saw dozens of tour groups wearing special socks over their shoes but I wouldn’t have missed getting my soles dirty for anything.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

After a long walk around and inside all of the parts we could visit, the boy and I took our leave feeling a delightful calm within us that only a structure of such beauty, spirituality and grandeur could create.

And then we met the monkey – so much for relaxation!

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

We continued on our journey of Agra’s sights by visiting Agra Fort, about two miles away from the Taj Mahal. This red walled fort dates back to 11th century. It acted as the seat of the Sultan of Delhi in the 15th century, but became more famous when seized by the Mughal empire in the 16th century, then becoming a walled city and the seat of Shah Jahan (the creator of the Taj). You can see the Taj from from the Fort, and it was here that he was eventually imprisoned by his son – Aurangzeb – and put in a cell with a tortuous view of his precious Taj, bound to never enter its marble surroundings again. While it is not half as famous as the Taj, it is well worth visiting if you have the time.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort

When finally we departed Agra for the journey back to Delhi, it was with a feeling of accomplishment. Seeing these incredible structures in person was a highlight of our trip to India. And knowing we survived our encounter with the evil monkey made it all the more pleasurable.

In Part 3, I succumb to ‘Delhi Belly’ and the boy and I find peace in chaotic Varanasi.

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