Kolkata, day 1

After arriving at Howrah Junction station in Kolkata, I took a taxi to the hotel I was booked in. The taxi was an ancient Ambassador Classic 1500cc diesel. The gears crunched as we took off from the taxi rank at high speed and weaved through the Kolkata traffic. There seemed to be no officially recognised road rules as we sped around trucks and buses, cut in front of other cars and taxis and overtook on the wrong side of the road.

Ambassador Classic taxis outside Howrah station

Ambassador Classic taxis outside Howrah station

We careened through the streets of Kolkata, pausing (in traffic) for the Driver to top up the radiator of the vintage vehicle. The Driver pulled over in a shopping district and said that we had arrived. I couldn’t see the hotel, so I checked Google maps and found we were still several blocks away, so I navigated for the taxi driver (sound familiar, navigating for an Indian taxi driver?). We came to the spot where the hotel was on the map, but there was no sign of it. The taxi driver disappeared into a shop, and asked for directions, he emerged a few minutes later, and drove a short distance down a small street before pulling up outside the hotel.

The porter carried my bags inside, and the desk clerk asked for my details. I gave them to her and she said “Actually sir, you are no longer booked in this hotel. We are unable to accept foreigners. We have rebooked you in another property.” This was a blow, as I had specifically selected this location as it was within walking distance of the metro, suburban railway and a tram line. I won’t go into the details, but I expressed my great displeasure (especially as I had booked on an Australian website, which specifically asked which country was on my passport). I asked where this new property was, and was told “not far from here”. I asked specifically how far “oh, about 10 minutes”. I asked if that was 10 minutes walking or 10 minutes by car, there was a nervous pause and an uncertain waggle of the head “… 10 minutes by car… sir”. Is there a subway station nearby? “Oh surely, yes sir, it won’t take more than 5 minutes… uh… by car…” I explained as politely as I could, my position on taxis, cars and buses, I asked to see the property on a may, and one of the porters showed me on Google maps; I saw a silver lining on the cloud. “Is that a suburban railway station?” The clerk brightened “oh, surely, yes sir”. “About how far is it… WALKING?” Oh, sir… perhaps 10 minutes, surely no more.”

I resigned to the fact that I was staying in the new hotel. Fortunately, I had not yet paid the taxi, so he was waiting for me. He was given detailed instructions by the hotel, and I was taken to the new hotel. As a precaution, I made him wait outside while I made sure they would take me, and when I was finally checked in by the clerk, I paid the man (900 rupees taxi fare) and gave him 100 rupees tip for the stuffing around.

My hotel was very nice (and worth about 4 times the original hotel), because it was a forced change, I pay the original hotel the amount of my booking, and they will pay any additional charges. After checking in, the clerk said “I’m sorry sir, the lift is not working today, you are on the 3rd floor”. Fortunately, there were plenty of porters eager to help the westerner with his luggage (and hopefully be tipped for their work), so we climbed the stairs to the room. They showed me the features of the room and I tipped them 10 rupees each. They seemed happy enough with this meagre tip, and went happily on their way. I had just plugged in all of my electrical equipment to charge and undressed to take a shower, when the phone rang. I answered, and the desk clerk said “Actually sir, we must move your room. There is a mechanical problem in the bathroom which requires immediate attention.” So I dressed and packed everything up again. The porters again came to my aid to carry my luggage up to the 5th floor. Once settled, I called the desk to ask for the Wi-Fi password “actually sir, the WI-Fi is not working today”. Of course it wasn’t.

A Kolkata suburban train at Ballygunge

A Kolkata suburban train at Ballygunge

After all of the stuffing around, I decided to skip the shower (I’d only get sweaty again anyway), and went out to explore. I decided to take a suburban train around to one of the tram lines, so I walked to Ballygunge Junction railway station. The clerk at the first hotel had not been exaggerating, it was an 8 minute walk from my hotel, through a very busy shopping area. I purchased my ticket (5 rupees or about A$0.10) and went to find my train. After asking a few people, who didn’t seem sure, I found the Majerhat Local service.

The railway line near Ballygunge station. All railway lines are active, with frequent goods and suburban traffic.

The railway line near Ballygunge station. All railway lines are active, with frequent goods and suburban traffic.

The 12 car train was not too crowded, and I enjoyed the breeze from the open doorway as we moved sedately out of the station. We continued slowly, and I wondered why; the track condition seemed ok and we had green signals. I discovered the reason why when I looked out the door; a shanty town was built right up against the railway line. People walked all over the line, resting under bridges and sitting on the tracks. Kids played across the lines, dodging the frequent suburban trains which shrieked through; their high pitched whistles blaring continuously.

The railway line near Ballygunge station. All railway lines are active, with frequent goods and suburban traffic.

The railway line near Ballygunge station. All railway lines are active, with frequent goods and suburban traffic.

I left the train at the first stop, Lake Gardens, and walked out of the station. I considered following the locals and jumping off the platform to cross the tracks, but my desire to stay alive for the rest of the holiday prevented me, and I used the footbridge instead. I followed the footpath into a park, and was surprised to find, in the middle of the noisy, chaotic city, a beautiful ornamental lake, complete with rowboats. The area had a large amount of trees, which sheltered it from the noise of the city, and the water cooled the humid air. Young couples walked hand in hand, families picnicked under trees, chai-wallahs plied their trade, selling out small cups of the sweet milk tea for 10 rupees. I stayed for a while, before walking to the nearby main road, which had a tram route running along it.

This beautiful ornamental lake is just a couple of kilometres from the slums near Ballygunge

This beautiful ornamental lake is just a couple of kilometres from the slums near Ballygunge

I walked along the road, in search of a tram. The trams in Kolkata are a token only, keeping the last remaining tram network in India alive. They run infrequently on short routes and are not a serious method of transport. I walked for about 10 minutes, until I saw a tram approach. They are 3 bogied articulated vehicles, but each section is separate from the other (more like two separate trams sharing a common centre bogie). There is no walkway between the two, but 500v power cables run from the rear car (with the trolley pole) to the front car. The left side of each car has a single open doorway.

A tram in Kolkata

A tram in Kolkata

A tram approached northbound, slow moving in the heavy traffic. I wanted to go for a ride, so I crossed the busy road to find a stop. I had seen no stops so far (in about a kilometre of walking, and wondered how to catch the tram. My question was answered when the tram came near; a man waved the driver down, and it slowed to walking pace. The man jumped on through the open door and I followed, the conductor rang the bell and the tram picked up speed. There appear to be no formal stops, passengers flag the tram down and jump on, or climb aboard when it stops in traffic. To get off, you ring the bell and the tram slows down, or you just climb off when it stops at a set of traffic lights.

Want to catch a Kolkata tram? No problem, just wave one down!

Want to catch a Kolkata tram? No problem, just wave one down!

I paid my 5 rupees fare to the conductor, who issued me a paper ticket. The tram was Spartan inside, with chipboard seats and wooden floor. There was no glass in the windows, and the Driver’s cab had no windscreen, only a metal grate. The dugagagagaga of the air compressor was very similar to the W class trams in Melbourne.

Inside a Kolkata tram

Inside a Kolkata tram

We soon reached the end of the line and most people got off. I stayed on, wondering what would happen, and was surprised and delighted when the tram turned into the depot, ran through it and around a reversing loop and back out onto the road! The conductor did not seem surprised that I was still on the tram, but held his hand out for another 5 rupees for the new journey.

I stayed on the tram to the opposite terminus (only about 20 minutes in peak hour traffic), and although it was only 5:30, it became dark very suddenly. This was only due in part to the setting sun; there were also very menacing clouds gathering overhead. As we entered the depot at the southern end of the line, the heavens opened and a torrential downpour started. Water splashed onto the seats through the glassless windows, and I felt sorry for the Driver, driving a poorly maintained electric tram, with no windows or doors on his cab!

Looking out through the Driver's

Looking out through the Driver’s “windscreen” into the rain

The tram stopped at the crew quarters, and the Driver an conductor left the tram, with half a dozen passengers on board. I became bored of waiting, and walked out of the depot (in the rain) towards a nearby Metro station. Kolkatonians seem terrified of the rain, and were huddled in doorways, refusing to come out (like Henry the green engine in the tunnel). I pushed my way through the huddled crowds into the Metro station, and caught a train to the southern terminus.

Inside a Kolkata Metro train

Inside a Kolkata Metro train

The train was old and like the tram, quite bare. Metal chequerplate flooring and plain plastic seats, which had obviously received only a minimum of maintenance. We exited from the underground portion of line, and rain began pouring in through the open windows. Passengers scrambled to close them, before sweeping water off the seats.

At the end of the line was an interchange with the suburban railway at New Garia railway station. Google maps told me that there were regular trains back to Ballygunge Junction near my hotel, so I bought a ticket and waited on the platform. I only had a few minutes to wait, and my train pulled in, passengers jumping off as it came to a stop. I boarded, and we sped through the suburbs, back to my hotel.

A taxi driver does some roadside repairs to his taxi in a side street near Ballygunge station

A taxi driver does some roadside repairs to his taxi in a side street near Ballygunge station

I left the train, and went in search of food. This proved difficult, and after walking for about 60 minute in the area of my hotel, I had found nothing agreeable. I was wet, tired and hungry, and beginning to despair, when a voice beside me said “excuse me sah, would you like an omelette”? I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly, and I turned to the little man at the footpath stall and said “you make omelettes?” He said “yes sah, I make you special omelette, only 15 rupees, ok?” I said “yes please!”. He beamed at me and broke an egg into a cup, chopped up some onion and mixed it in. He removed his chai pot from a charcoal stove and heated oil in a frying pan. He said “you want green chilli?” I told him yes, and he expertly sliced a small chilli and dumped it in the mix. He poured the concoction into the now hot frying pan, and as it was cooking, he cut 2 pieces of bread from a loaf. He placed the bread in the omelette mix and flipped it, making a concoction like Indian French toast. The then cut it up and served it on a metal plate. “Chai, sah?” I indicated yes, and he poured a small class of boiling hot chai for me. The omelette was excellent, and as I finished, he uncovered a pot of beans in curry. He said “I make you fried beans now? Only 10 rupees”. I was still hungry, so I agreed, he again heated the frying pan and scooped some beans into the pan. He chopped up more onion and chilli, and added a pinch of black pepper. He scooped it out into a little bowl and served it with a spoon. Again it was excellent and I complemented his cooking. He beamed again and said “you will come back again?” I promised to come for dinner again the next night, and trudged off to my hotel, feeling much more content (despite being soaked through).

At my hotel, I went to take my first shower since Shimla. The water in the shower was tepid… of course.

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2 responses to “Kolkata, day 1

  1. Thank you for your detailed description of public transportation. We will be in Kolkata next month and looking forward to it. Can you please let me know how you were using Google maps (iphone, tablet?) and link if you can, so we can use it when we travel. You are brilliant writer, well appreciated you sharing it with others. Thank you. Jay

    • Thank you for your kind words!

      I use Google Maps a lot while I’m travelling (android phone). The Transit directions are very good and mostly accurate (I did have a few occasions where they weren’t quite right).

      There are also a few good apps (Android – not sure about iPhone). In Kolkata, try looking for the “KolKata Rail” app or “Kolkata Suburban Trains” app.

      Hope this helps!

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