Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Long Ride From Kolkata to Delhi - Bewildering Indian Train Journey

Indian Railways (IR) is government-owned and is responsible for the operation of the country’s railway transport, as overseen by the Ministry of Railways (headed by Manmohan Singh). Introduced in the country in 1853, it now has more than 64,215 kilometers of track and 7,083 stations, carrying over 30 million passengers daily. It is the world’s second largest employer of utility and commercial workers.
Considering the vastness of the Indian landmass, it is nothing short of spectacular that most of India have trains servicing them, except for the Sikkim and Meghalaya states. This makes traveling around the country convenient since most tourist sites have train connections (except the hill station of Munnar, the outer reaches of the mountains, as well as the embattled state of Kashmir).


These train seats are roughly classified into the following: First Class AC (as expensive as airline seats with provision for blankets, big spaces and private coupes); AC Two-Tier (individual berths comprising 2 vertical tiers, with 4 of these sleepers per couch); AC Three-Tier (3 vertical tiers, the top berth usually cramped, not recommended if you need adequate space to sit or stretch your arms; claustrophobic space; the best seat is the lower berth, since you don’t have to keep climbing up your “bed”); 

First Class Non-AC (very rare, in fact I haven’t tried this one); AC-Three Tier Economy (non AC, no bed sheets provided); AC Car Chair (AC seats in rows of 5, usually for day travels); Seater Class (similar to the Car Chair but with no AC, less comfortable bench-style seats); Sleeper Class (the most common seats, less space, non-AC); UR (cheapest, entry into the train is guaranteed but seats aren’t as these are very crowded; tickets bought for these seats have to be used within 24 hours, a last recourse when you need to catch another train elsewhere and you couldn’t get any seats from the regular trains when you need to go).

Trains can also be classified as 1st class, 2nd class (cheaper than the 1st class, AC but with lesser space between berths), 3rd or Sleeper Class. I've tried most of these trains, except for the 1st class which I refuse to avail. Why would I purchase one for an amount that could buy me a plane ticket to my destination?
Train travels are adventures in themselves. For the most part, the whole system is a bewildering cacophony of sounds, sights and nerve-wracking motion on congested platforms and train cars. Though I’ve re-read general notes on train travels in India (I even bought the “Trains at a Glance” guidebook available at most Indian train station bookstands), I was just out of my wits following couch numbers, train names, platform locations, coach and seat numbers, and finally, if I am taking the right train moving towards the right direction. To cut the long story short, I am always overwhelmed and intimidated by most of my train rides.

This was one of the reasons why I suddenly decided to join my friend Junaid from Kolkata to Delhi. I was supposed to stay for another day before taking the train to the capital Delhi, but I honestly didn’t know where to start. Where do I buy my train ticket? What the hell is a tatkal? Why did they accept my money and booking when there supposedly isn’t any available seat for my planned train? What the heck is going on here? I was suddenly caught in the maelstrom not quite removed from the Twilight Zone.

Howrah Railway Station in Kolkata

Kolkata to Delhi covers a distance of 1,461 kilometers (around 900 miles)! Thus travels are only feasible by air (which takes approximately 2 hours) or by train. Buses aren’t practical. We purchased 2AC seats (2-tier, AC, side berths) at 1,800 rupees each (around $40 or PhP1,740). Kolkata has 2 major stations for long distance travels: the Sealdah and the Howrah. Ours was to depart from the Howrah station.

After a filling pizza dinner, we rushed to checkout from our hotel, then we hailed a taxi to take us to Howrah. Our train was to depart at 7:50PM. Junaid hired a porter because he had all these bulky baggages that were unusually heavy, I could hardly lift them 2 inches from the ground. We scampered and moved through sinewy crowds. I didn’t really know much as to our direction. I just followed. My friend had done this hundreds of times before.


Once again, the whole transit was a blur, I eventually found myself inside a couch. Junaid took the lower berth, so I didn’t have a choice but to climb up my loft. I was of course a little pissed off why I had to take the “bed” above. I hated climbing up there. Once the train was moving, I laid down and kept to myself. Tantrums are annoying. You get into its moment even though you know you’re not supposed to. By 9PM, Junaid reached from his berth below to nudge me. I felt better and conciliatory. I was the “guest” after all, I should behave. All this time, some food-wallahs and chai-wallahs were roaming in steady succession, shouting in ear-splitting fashion, “Ccch-ai!!!!!”… “Ccch-ai!!!” We bought “dinner” – the delectable, ubiquitous dhal, rotti and something Junaid said was a “pickle”. He paid for the meal and wouldn’t accept my money. I tried to masticate through what to my taste buds was an unpalatable gastronomy.

Railway platform at the Howrah Station in Kolkata taken at 7:20PM.

I wasn't sure if taking photos would be considered rude so I didn't use the flash, thus this quality.

My friend Junaid took me with him to Delhi. We met in Dhaka, Bangladesh and crossed the horrific Benapole-Haridaspur border.

Our 2AC sleeper train to Delhi.

This would encapsulate my transient Indian life, straddling 25 hours until we reach Delhi. Though I was able to sleep sometime before midnight, it was light. I’d find myself awake when a whistle blows. At 6:30AM, after visiting the couch’s bathroom for my cramped morning ritual (nope, you can’t shower there – toilet is a small cubicle with limited running water and nothing else), I was greeted by a friendly smile on my way back to my seat. What followed was 2 hours of animated conversation with an amorous mother who was curious about me. She kept referring to his grown-up son (seated beside her) who worked as “supervisor at a molasses pumps”. I could swear she was talking about a 12 year old instead of the grown up 28 year old beside her.

It would have to be one of the most endearing characteristics in the mechanics of an Indian family; that a son or a daughter will always be “little children” in the eyes of their mother (or father) regardless of how grown up they've become.

For the remainder of the day, Junaid and I would just chat – college, family, girl friends, sex mores among Indians (quite interesting topic haha); travels, etc. In between chats, we would sleep again, buy cups of tea, and I would sneak out of my couch and head towards the entrance/exit doors to see the countryside we were lazily passing by. No, there’s no idyllic view to be appreciated from our windowless AC berths, which really defeats some of the joys of train travel.

The few snaps I got from my moving train had been not up to par, but they were treasures to me. These were ribald pieces of stolen moments from a magical land! The thought somehow overwhelmed, but I was riding a dream.

Our coach compartment, consisting of 6 beds. Our spaces were the ones located at the other side of this space, just beside the aisle. Mine was the upper berth, so I had to keep climbing up and down from it.

This is how our train car looked like inside. It has assigned seats, as well as car numbers, etc. You have to get to the correct car or else, you'll be standing by the door until your next stop - and this long-distance train had very few stops - as it traveled for almost 25 hours, instead of the expected 23.

A view of a river as our train rushed over a bridge. This was taken through a heavily stained glass window at the train entrance, before I learned it was alright to open the door on a moving train. Love these "inferior shots" because I'm reminded of how desperate I was to see the countryside. There were no windows inside our couch.

This was a common scenery - miles and miles of Rape Plants (aka "colza"), a plant of the mustard family. I remembered such scenery all throughout my train rides in Europe where "rape plants" are endemic. Check this link from an English farm - http://www.flickr.com/photos/42137324@N08/4579266901/lightbox/.

By 6 PM, I was restless. It dawned on me it was going to stretch much further than the expected 23 hours. By 9:15 PM, I was already reading station signs as we passed through them. Yamuna Station. 9:23, all Allahabad. 9:43, Subedarganj. 10:00, Bam Hrauli, Manauri, Mandharganj, then Kanpur! When we finally reached Delhi Junction Railway Station (aka Old Delhi Station - not the New Delhi Railway Station), we took a prepaid taxi to the southern district of the city called Chhatarpur, just beside a residential complex called Tivoli Garden Resort. Nope, this isn't the district in the state of Madhya Pradesh (south of Andhra Pradesh). This is a zone in South Delhi, far away from the hustle of the touristy capital.

If you've seen one of those ruminating movies where the protagonists stick their heads out of the moving train to feel the rush of the wind against their hair, well, guess what? I did that too - with my camera even. It wasn't safe so I wouldn't recommend it.

On a road towards Delhi the morning after we departed Kolkata. Now count those empty container drums - 17 containers - being pulled by a lanky man on his bicycle.

Delhi Junction Railway Station - our stop in Delhi. Now it has to be mentioned that Delhi has several train stations. Near this station (see the map below) is the New Delhi Railway Station, India's main railway and the country's 2nd busiest station. Nizamuddin Station is south of Delhi Junction. So better check your terminal stop 1-2 hours before arrival.


We made it to Delhi. If felt like forever. I stood in front of a secluded street in a well appointed area far from the bustle of Delhi. I shivered from the chilly air. Novembers in the capital can be nippy. Winter was starting to cloak its icy breath all over the cosmopolitan jungle. And I’d never forget as I watched the flickering streetlamp. Particulates randomly floated around and scattered through the beam of light, and the air smelled musty.

I remembered a piece from New York Times a few years back.

By mid-November, sharp, cool winters, like previous winters, envelop this city with a thick dirty haze (bluish in daytime) settling across much of the capital, causing sore throats, colds and other respiratory illness. 
Writer Sanjoy Hazarika reported, “Airline flights are often delayed by smog on the runways, and drivers are often forced to switch on their headlights in daytime to avoid accidents. The city's haze is caused by severe pollution, much of it from factories and power plants and from the exhaust pipes of cars, motorcycles and scooter rickshaws. There is much natural dust. Soot is caused by wood stoves and the burning of leaves, coal and cow dung by poor people who cannot afford other fuel.”
Two of every five residents suffer from lung, liver or genetic disorders due to highly-polluted air in the capital city of 14 million, the privately-run Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute concluded. Was I to become part of the statistics?

Like a pinch in the privates, I was reminded that I indeed was in Delhi. A few days later, I was already sporting my own version of a sore throat, hoarse voice and an annoying paroxysm of cough.
But I kept my prayers. I was grateful. It wasn't the notorious Delhi Belly!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Delhi Junction Railway Station (aka Old Delhi Railway Station) was built by the British in the style of the red colored fort, before independence. It was built in 1900 and opened to public in 1903. These days, it services about 200,000 commuters and tourists from 200 trains on a daily basis. Identification of such trains - for tourists like me - can be daunting. 

Many of these train carriages don't carry English signs. Since this is the Old Delhi area, Chandni Chowk (the notoriously congested local market space), the Red Fort (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Jama Masjid (the national mosque for Muslim Indians) are nearby. In fact, to get to the more central New Delhi area, you can take the metro from Chandni Chowk station. There are pre-paid taxis just outside. Don't risk the tiresome haggle! This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's ekabhishek and flickr's Johannes Bader.

Long train ride from Kolkata to Delhi covering a distance of 1,461 kilometers or 900 miles. This took us 25 hours, arriving in Delhi at around 10 PM.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Victoria Memorial Hall - Exquisite Beauty as Historical Legacy in Kolkata

When you read or hear references to the “Victorian era” in arts and literature, it pertains to the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria from June 1837 until her death in January 1901. This was 63 years of peace and prosperity for the British people; an era preceded by the Georgian Period and succeeded by the Edwardian Period. More importantly, this pays homage to the longest reigning monarch in British historyQueen Victoria, Buckingham Palace’s first royal resident However, Queen Elizabeth II will surpass this record if she remains on the throne until September 9, 2015.

From May 1, 1876, Victoria carried the additional title – “Empress of India”. The imperial title had a sprawling coverage over a huge land comprising India (except Goa which was under the Portuguese and state of Sikkim), Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Five years after her death, the foundation stone of the memorial was laid down in 1906, but it wasn’t until 1921 when the memorial hall was finally inaugurated. The British government didn’t spend a dime for its construction. It was funded by the British Indian states and well-heeled, albeit "generous" patrons who wanted favors from the colonial government.

A British architect named Sir William Emerson, who originally came to India to build an art school that didn’t quite materialize, was approached. Asked to design a building in Italian Renaissance Style, he bucked the idea and went on incorporating European and Mughal elements (Indo-Saracenic style) into the structure, employing white Makrana marbles. This would become Emerson’s crowning glory, who also designed Mumbai’s Crawford Market.

Victoria Memorial Hall is massive – 338 feet by 228 feet, and rises to a height of 184 feet. The memorial ground is a glorious breathing space of gardens and ponds, all 64 acres.


From Sudder Street, we hailed one of those ubiquitous Yellow Taxis. But one look at me, and the driver wouldn’t budge to drop down the meter. You have to remember that I was with Junaid who’s Indian (well, Kashmiri). I didn’t understand much of their verbal tussle. All I knew was, he wanted to charge us 250 rupees flat for a ride that only took us 15 minutes. People from our hotel said it's supposed to cost us in the vicinity of a hundred rupees. “He is a tourist. He is rich!” I could tell what he was saying. Indian drivers live in an alternate world of wide-eyed greed. Junaid and the driver went on for 5 more minutes before they finally settled down. All because I was an Asian foreigner who walked around with money on my face. Haha. I looked rich, I should pay 1,000 rupees for every kilometer my taxi takes me.


Now before anyone tells me that India is supposedly a cheap place for foreign travelers, think again.

Despite the relatively low standard of living in India, foreign tourists are exponentially charged for everything. So you can do the math: If you have 10 places to visit in Kolkata, you'd be expected to pay 250 rupees for one ride (regardless of the transportation). 250 rupees x 10 destinations – for the cost of transportation from point A to point B. That’s already 2,500 rupees just for transportation alone.

Now let’s add up the entrance fees. Victoria Memorial has a 5 rupee ($0.11 or PhP4.80) entrance fee for locals and 150 rupees for foreign tourists. Indian Museum has an entrance fee of 150 rupees ($3.34 or PhP145), plus 50 camera fee (5 rupees for locals). Now, if you have to visit 10 of such tourist sites, add up all the entrance fees, and you will need to rake up about 2,000 rupees for the entrance fees alone.

In a single day’s visit to 10 places, you would have to set aside a minimum of 5,000 rupees for entrance fees and transportation. We’re not even counting in hotel charges and food expenditure. If you were to visit 10 cities all over India, do the math and tell me if India is cheap. I am laying it here again just to inform the na├»ve and uninformed. India is indeed incredible, but there is an uneven price to pay for such eye-popping marvel. But we digress.

Our taxi dropped us right in front of the entrance gates of Victoria Memorial Hall. Junaid paid his 5 rupees. I paid my 150 rupees. I saw a vendor peddling maps of Kolkata. I knew I didn’t have enough time to actually use it, but I like buying maps since these aren’t exactly available in Power Books, Borders or National Bookstore. Besides, I might be back sometime in the future.

The white building was immaculate. I loved the gardens surrounding the hall; the ponds placidly taking the afternoon sun. Cameras were prohibited inside the building so we just walked around the museum, filled with sepia photographs. I saw photos of the Malay royalty from Shah Alam. The whole tour didn’t take an hour. It was too bad I couldn’t take photographs. Junaid and I proceeded to the benches outside as we basked in its laidback atmosphere.

The architecture was exquisite. If only I didn’t have to pay double for my taxi ride back to my hotel.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Lion at the entrance.

Queen Victoria

Majestic garden and placid pond.

Howrah Bridge with their population of greed, err... I mean yellow taxis. FYI, you can't take photos of the bridge these days. Taking photos there constitute a felony.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Uncertainty in Kolkata - A New Day in India

A scene from the roof deck of Afreen International Hotel along Marquis Street. Notice the smattering of yellow Ambassador Taxis which is (a color scheme) unique in Kolkata.

From Karunamayee, Salt Lake City area where Dhaka-bound buses depart and terminate, we walked towards a Pre-paid Taxi Booth in the dimly lit bus garage and paid around 100 rupees to get to Marquis Street, in the fringes of Sudder Street, the backpacker’s ghetto. Junaid, a Kashmiri doctor I met in Dhaka, has obviously done this a hundred times. There was no reluctance in his resolve, and I was just glad to tag along. I was still shaken from my horrific border experience.

We stopped right in front of Aafren International Hotel (10 Park and Marquis Street, Kolkata; aafreen@cal2.vsnl.net). This wasn’t even mentioned in my LP, but it deserves to be. We paid 800 rupees ($17.80 or PhP775.80) – a single double-bed, AC, bathroom, cable TV. If we split the bill, 400 rupees is painless. Since I only had 300 rupees with me, I excused myself and looked for a money changer. Junaid had paid, but I was going to hand him my share. I handed my passport at the counter (they photocopy this) and logged myself at their government-regulated logbook. This procedure is standard practice all throughout India. A rather intrusive list of details have to be filled up: passport details, profession, visa number, date and place of entry into the country, coming from and going to (destination), etc. Every detail has to be accomplished.

Our room was at the 3rd floor. I was a bit uncomfortable sharing a bed with Junaid, but so was he, I reckon. Later that night, we slept with a pillow securely tucked at the center of the bed. But before bedtime, we decided to checkout our nearby surroundings.

Afreen Hotel, Marquis and Park Streets. This photo only courtesy of TripAdvisor's tiggeritto.

Our room at Aafreen Hotel (above) and the view of the roof deck (below).

Kolkata - then "Calcutta" - was the capital of the British Raj until 1911, and the country’s 3rd biggest city after Mumbai (22 million) and the capital of Delhi (19 million). Greater Kolkata is home to 15 million people. It was where Nobel Peace awardee, Rabindranath Tagore, thrived as an artist and a poet. It’s also home to Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Mercy. And for all intents and purposes, Kolkata is India’s cultural capital.


But a walk through its congested streets wasn't as threatening as I thought it would be. Yellow Ambassador taxis would occasionally stop for us. Rickshaws pulled by barefoot men were a common sight. There is a moral issue constantly questioning the aforementioned practice, so I watched the whole scenario with intense curiosity. Was patronage of it immoral? Honestly, it didn’t feel like it was. When the bigger picture starts intellectualizing, it paints a different perspective than what occurs in reality. That poverty allows these men to slave through by pulling carts with people on them is no different from seeing farmers persevere under the harsh sun plowing their fields. Yet no one labels the farmers' sacrifices immoral. When trapeze artists risk their life and limb to entertain a paying circus audience, the public calls it performing arts. But how different is it really from these barefoot rickshaw workers?

The cloak of fatigue gradually crept in as Junaid and I made our way into the night crowd. It had been an unpleasant 15 hours from Dhaka. We walked side by side in silence as we observed our surroundings. How do I figure in a historical city of 5.2 million residents? As the Hooghly River snakes through this West Bengali land mass, it was starting to dawn on me that transient as I may be, I was making my baby steps in “Incredible India”. Sooner or later, I’d be navigating strange new places in India on my own. For now, I was walking with a friend. And I was grateful for the opportunity.

Roti for breakfast. Mine was fried egg, dahl (below) and roti. The combination wasn't commendable. LOL

The next morning was a new day. I was excited. It felt like my first day in India ever. Junaid promised he’d take me to the Victoria Memorial, though I never asked. There was also a bit of tension surfacing between moments of conversation. I had shown him my tentative itinerary for the whole trip. If you travel, you have to have an adjustable skeletal framework of where you want to go. My plan was to stay for one more night, then head for Delhi the next day. But Junaid had planned on taking the night train to Delhi. This seemed to bother him. I was a bit sad. And how does that make a day fraught with excitement and sadness in alternating intensity?

We had our breakfast in a food joint that served the usual – roti, dahl. I ordered roti just to conform, but I also ordered fried egg. In this congested little restaurant, everyone was enjoying a hearty breakfast. I picked pieces of my roti (see photo) while engulfing my eggs. Junaid was concerned. “Eat more,” he would encourage. But roti was not an acquired taste for me, the way other people consider steamed rice tasteless.

Kolkata, it would seem, was a small world. And Indians move in small circles. In its vastness of 1.3 billion population and 2.8 million square kilometer of land mass, people navigate almost within a common subset. How else would you explain fellow Kashmiris meeting each other in the far reaches of Kolkata. Junaid introduced me to his friend (photo below). Small world, indeed. Since it was close to noon, we’d need to check out from Afreen Hotel if we weren’t willing to pay another 800 rupees. Junaid’s friend suggested that we move into his room which was 50% cheaper and he didn’t need to check out until sometime in the evening. We moved our baggage.

Meeting Junaid's friend. He was Dhaka-bound.

Junaid took me to a store selling mobile loads and sim cards. He asked for my photo and thrusted an application form for me to fill up. He wanted me to get an Indian sim card so he could check on me once he’s gone. I didn’t have such plans until I heard his suggestion. But it wasn’t a bad idea, just in case I’d need help. Using my own Philippine-based sim for Indian use was expensive and SMS didn't work. I could make and receive calls, but no text messaging. In fact, whenever Junaid would text, he'd use his Bangladeshi sim card. I was to claim my new indian sim card after an hour. India, once again, follows stringent measures regarding purchase of sim cards.

Sometime in the afternoon, he finally asked me if I didn’t want to join him that night for his train to Delhi. It didn’t take an hour when I eventually made up my mind. The whole train system was new to me, and stories about it intimidated me. We went to a travel agency and bought our tatkal tickets. We were, understandably, wait listed. Train seats in this vast rail ways required reservation days ahead of a planned trip. We would know for sure if we got sleeper seats at 6PM.

Buying our Delhi-bound sleeper train seats.

Domino's delectable pizza!

We visited Victoria Memorial later in the day, which I will post separately. While the Indian sun gradually set over the horizon, I told Junaid it was my turn to treat him for dinner before we leave this city. Truth to tell, I wanted a hand on deciding for our meal. I was desperately looking for food that agreed with my constitution. Domino’s Pizza – a huge circular plate of Hawaiian, spruced with a lot of pineapple, anchovies, etc. Next door was a small cinema hosting Kolkata Film Festival. I was tempted, but I’ve already agreed to join Junaid en route to Delhi. Junaid actually looked smug for having convinced me to leave Kolkata earlier than planned. Turned out he was a favored son from an influential political family. He usually gets what he wants. In this case, I didn’t mind. It was to my advantage. We were bound to say goodbye in Delhi anyway. For now, I felt safe. It felt good to bask in the confidence of others, for a change.

This train ride will be something to talk about. I know it.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Mother Teresa

Sweet tooth in Kolkata

Before leaving Kolkata, I had suggested to Junaid that he should buy a pair of shoes. His slippers were in their early stage of disintegration. He agreed. This was our shoe store visit.

Hooghly River snaking its way through Central Kolkata.

Up next: Victoria Memorial!

Immorality in patronage of human-powered rickshaws?