The India and Nepal Diaries Part 13
Contains some strong language
The names of other people appearing in this diary have been altered
To a degree this is a story about not very much. Mainly about being young and slightly stupid in places and cultures we didn’t know or understand. Everything told here did take place and it is more or less an exact transcript of my actual diary. And so, on that note, I do not advise anyone to do anything we did. However, we learnt a lot from it and, I think, came back from our exploration as wiser people. I hope you may also.
Again, the bus stopped at a canteen. It was about 9 am but the sun was already shining down with considerable heat. The chairs and café area was inside a wattle and daub hut with thin mud walls and a tin roof. Its windows looked out onto an endless flat line of fields and wetlands as far as the eye could see. Indeed, the land around us had been totally flat for the last 3 hours or so of travel. We had come down off the mountains and were now on the plains bellow.
The windows of the bus were eternally open and the pollution and dirt entering through them stuck to our sweaty bodies so much that we could practically rub it off in roles of dark grime.
At 12 mid-day we got to the Nepalese – Indian boarder. We spent the last of our Nepalese rupees then found the Nepalese boarder office to get our stamp out in our passports. We had almost been in the country the full three weeks that our visas allowed.
The boarder consisted of a bridge and a river. On Nepal's side, water buffalo and farmers but not much more. On India's side, there were cows and farmers with the addition of armed guards. We wondered across in the baking sun. The border guards then directed us further and further down a road to immigration office. This was fine except that there were about 5 buildings that all looked vaguely official and had something to do with immigration written on the side of them.
Finally, we found the building. Inside were three men watching TV who in gruff, pissed off tones told us we needed to get printed copies of our passports and visas to give to them so we could re-entre. The print shop they directed us to was in a hut with a couple of ancient yellow stained printers. They probably got quite a lot of silly tourists like us who didn’t know that every document and to be copied at every place we went, including hotels.
Finally, all was sorted, they had cleared us to go through. We checked our passports and they had stamped the entrance stamp above the Nepalese Visa. It doesn’t matter where they go but even so.
From the boarder we got a cramped bus for ₹30 to Siliguri and then from there we tried to find a hotel. We had looked up hostels, but for some reason there was none. There were, however, a plethora of hotels and guest houses which varied massively in quality. Several of the ones we tried didn’t seem to have working lights, toilets or air conditioning, let alone clean rooms. They would have been about alright if we couldn’t find anything better (they were certainly cheap), but in the end we found a rather snazzy hotel of reasonable price and after the long journey this was great by us.
It was already late so we sat and rested, had much needed showers, then went down to the hotel restaurant that overlooked the road bellow. It was over staffed. We were the only people in there and each of the 6 or 7 waiters seemed to come up in turn and ask if we needed anything. Upon the foods arrival they then had to serve in onto our plates for us. No matter what we said they wouldn’t stop doing it. It was rather interesting because they all seemed rather underconfident and they would hang around at our shoulders and then retreat to watch us eat from a corner. We felt a little uncomfortable. The food was good though.
I went for an evening walk. The Streets were alive with people, car lights and shop fronts illuminating the road. There was amazing street food being sold on every corner. I went into an Indian sweet and cake shop and got chatting to the guy behind the counter who gave me a couple of cakes to try for experience. They were very sweet and extraordinarily different to what you would expect in a western sweet and cake shop. While walking back a man tried to teach me some Hindi and another man gave me some roasted peanuts from a wok full of them on his street stall. Everyone was very friendly.
Turned out breakfast was a self-service, Indian Style, set up with curry and japatis etc... or you could have a micro bowl of cornflakes and some sweet toast and jam, depending on how you felt. The waiters either stood around watching or did everything for us, which slightly undermined the point of the self-service. We didn’t want to offend their kindness though, and so only made a few muted attempts at saying we would rather do it ourselves before shutting up and allowing them to work the cornflake dispenser for us.
We got a tuk tuk to the train station with a speedy driver. Whatever he was doing it was definitely classed as dangerous driving but was also very good fun.
Our proceeding search for the ticket reservation office took us on a walk all the way around the station. We saw the narrow gage Darjeeling hill train line which starts in Siliguri and works its way up into the hills and finally to Darjeeling, a place famous for its tea. Unfortunately, none of its iconic steam engines where about, as Darjeeling was taking strike action in protest to try and become their own independent state, instead of being part of West Bengal.
We found the reservation office in an unmarked corner away from the main station, filled out or reservation forms for which you always needed your passport (bum bag. Always carrying money and passports) and phone number. Neither of us had a phone that had any network coverage, but we would write down the number from the redundant Indian sim cards we had both bought all the same. 2AC tickets were about £20 each to get us from here to Kolkata (Calcutta) about 350 miles away.
We came across a tourist information centre, found out the only attractions in Siliguri were a safari, an ISKCON temple and three shopping malls. Apparently, it was more of a business city.
We decided to go to the ‘City Centre’ and got into a set-route communal tuk tuk which, to our surprise, drove us out of town and away from the centre of the city. It turned out ‘City Centre’ was actually one of the shopping malls on the outskirts of the city. 4 young lads who had jumped into the tuk tuk and started bantering at us offered to show as around. They were set up to play on a stage in the centre of the mall for ‘Friendship day’. What ‘Friendship day’ was and what you were supposed to do for it we weren’t sure, but then I guess the clue is in the name.
The mall mainly consisted of branded clothes shops with the occasional restaurant, momo stall or ice cream stand thrown in to mix things up. Between these there were the advertising boards with schools, medical practices and smart phones all displayed and vying for our attention. Indeed, the new Oppo ‘selfie expert’ phone was everywhere and seemed to be branded purely on its ability to take good pictures of oneself… but then looking around it was apparent that this was superbly targeted advertising. Couples and groups all stood about snapping away, capturing every moment of their experience in the mall for ever.
On the top floor was a cinema which had a total of three films showing on repeat until the end of the month. One of these was a Bollywood film called ‘How thingy met thingy’ or ‘When who-what met him-what’ or something else to do with the boy and girl meet up theme. Anyway, what ever it was titled, it was popular and was being shown every hour throughout the day for the month. There was only one film showing in English (Dunkirk) and this was on once at 9.50 in the morning. Despite the earliness, we were again seeking a little escapism and we booked tickets for the next day.
Searching for further amusement we decided to go to the only historic touristy building we had heard about: the ISKCON temple.
The temple and gardens were crowded. To enter the building, you had to deposit your shoes at a counter and go in bare foot (or with soaks of you had any). The inside was bright and highly decorated with casts and pictures of gods looking over the world and the people. There were charity stands and a lot of people praying and giving offerings. There was also a devoted music session taking place in the middle of the floor.
In the top of the temple was an incredibly kitsch sound and light show filled with all the essential fiberglass sculptures, wacky lighting and crackling speakers needed to make a haunted house. The place explained the creation story and the hellish consequences of sin. It was basically a fear-based morality warning, but it definitely seemed to be more like what you would find on a ghost train at a fair ground. The child in the guy’s arms next to us was certainly terrified.
We went back to our hotel on an electric tuk tuk. They are apparently being fazed in as they are cheaper, quieter and produce much less pollution. However, many drivers still seem to prefer the faster, easier-to-mend petrol gulping ones.
The plan – to checkout, watch movie, go to the Bengali safari and then find somewhere nice to eat before getting our overnight train to Kolkata.
We left our rucksacks at the hotel and arrived at ‘City Centre’ to find an abandoned building. Gone were the hoards and masses of the day before, replaced with echoes and hollowness. The same went for the cinema. There was a total of about 6 people in there including us.
Upon emerging back into the real world, we tried to hail a taxi to take us to the safari only to be told it was closed on a Monday. For some reason, in most places we had been to, it seemed to be the policy that half the city would close down on a Sunday and then the other half on a Monday. We had fallen foul to this several times, and again now. Whether it’s organised which establishments close on which days or whether it’s up to each business I’ve no idea. It certainly seemed pretty random to us.
We decided after a lengthy discussion that walking the streets was not what we wanted to do. Instead we ended up working our way to another mall to see if the cinema there was showing a different film. There really was nothing else locally to do.
Again, we went via the Hong Kong Bazaar which, now it was a Monday, was open. It turned out to be less of a china town and more of a three-story block with numerous shops selling the exact same women’s clothing, very cheaply. We walked on through the busy, thriving streets.
He mall had the exact same clothing shops with a few changes and additions here and there as ‘City Centre’. The cinema had nothing we would be able to understand on. We did nothing. Then getting bored of doing nothing we sat and debated why there were so many malls, coming to the conclusion that it was something to do with a growing middle class who, for the first time, really had proper expendable wealth and nowhere they particularly wanted to spend it, other than while out on a shopping trip for the essential fashions of the modern age. It has to be said the malls were pretty amazing places and I could see the attraction; 4 or 5 stories of sparkling clean flours and shiny glass shop fronts displaying clothes of all colours, phones of the newest design and foods from clean cafes. Everywhere there were dapper people walking around the airconditioned building, going up and down the escalators and lifts and keeping out of the sweaty heat outside. To us the whole place felt out of place amongst and the other dusty shops and street stalls along the main roads, but then perhaps it is a foreshadow of what India may look like more and more in the future.
On the top floor we found the best smoothie place in the world, and sat happily slurping away while watching people go about their shopping trips.
Finally, the time came to find a place to eat supper. We went for food at a restaurant with waiters who would just walk off if they got board or distracted. This was vaguely amusing, bordering on irritating. Then we went and picked up our bags and, with the same speed crazy tuk tuk guy, disappeared off to the station to get our train.
On board we were top bunks, again allowing us to disappear into our isolated bubbles for the night, cut off from the world whizzing by just outside the carriage a few inches beyond our heads.