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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Kolkata (Calcutta)

INDIA | Sunday, 5 December 2010 | Views [2841] | Comments [1]

Thursday 25th Nov - We secured a room at the Galaxy hotel and then had breakfast at the Blue Sky café on Sudder street then went back and moved in. The immediate area is really nice and it will be a pleasure to spend a while here.

One of the great historical features of this area and only found in Kolkata are the 'Tana' Rickshaws. Pulled by guys on foot, some barefooted, they are a wonderful remnant of a bygone era. We caught one to near main park. They are restricted to certain places so are more of a novelty that a practical go-everywhere mode of transport. The more liberal way of getting around are the yellow taxis, which are everywhere.

We walked through the Maidan and park area where horses and goats are in abundance, on our way to the Victoria Memorial. Plying the roads around the park are some really pretty horse drawn carriages, similar to those in Mumbai. Ornate engraved metalware and fancy paintwork make each unique. Not sure of the costs of a ride?

The Victoria Memorial is surrounded by a park which can be accessed for a few rupees. The main building, however, costs Rs150 as it houses a museum. No photography allowed inside. It details the history in photographs, paintings and sculptures

It was built in 1901 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, but took nearly 20years after her death to complete.

After the VM we made a circuit around some other famous landmarks: St Pauls cathedral which glistens ure white in the sunshine and had  amasisve vaulted roof and stained glass windows. The Birla Planetarium next door, one of the world's largest. Throughout the day they do sessions in Hindi, Bengali and English. We would have had to wait 2 hours for the next English session, so may go back another day.

Northwards past the Indira Ghandi statue leads to the upmarket Park road. Some swanky restaurants and nice shops which we will return to another day. The poshest MacDonalds I think we have ever eaten in, and plenty of nice bookshops which we spent a couple of hours in. The largest being the Oxford bookshop, but I think that some of the smaller ones offer better prices. Back along Chowringhee road, which is filled with Hawker's Market stalls selling almost everything.

I had wondered about the change in name of this city....Kolkata was formerly known as Calcutta until 2001 when it adopted a more phonetic spelling.

Walking the streets is more enjoyable than any other of India's major cities. Something for everyone in its shops, and the nice Hogg market. Some prices seemed a little higher than elsewhere, but need to shop around a little more.

Another Bollywood movie at the ParadiseRoxy Cinema, to see Break ke baad (Rs100). All in Hindi as usual and this one was unusual as there was no dancing or singing at all. The same faces as in some other popular movies i've recently seen.

Saturday 27th November - After breakfast at the Fresh & Juicy café, we caught a taxi to Dalhousie Square for Rs36. What I hadn't realised was that the whole are, especially the main buildings would be under army/police surveillance and photography was banned even from the outside. One of the places I wanted to see was the 'Writer's Building', a government publications department. The typical red and cream colonial style building. Dalhousie square itslef is cordoned off with fencing and overgrown. Why it has got to such a dilapidated state I do not know. Flanking one side of it is the stately GPO (General Post Office) building with its white domed roof. We took the road down the side of the GPO to the strand road which follows the Hooghly river. Separated from it by the railway track and Millenium park gardens (Rs5 entry). At a few intersections it is possible to get down to the ferry terminals, which we will do another day. Glancing northwest fro the Fairly ghat ferry terminal, the Howrah train station building dominated the western bank with its colonial red and cream styling.

Further south and turning into KS Roy street was supposed to lead to the 'Black hole of Calcutta memorial' statue, but as it seems with so many monuments here, you cannot get in to see it. The Archaeological Survey of India seems to have surveyed them then locked them away from publi access. I had read about the rugular frequency of strikes in Kolkata, and today was no exception as we passed a large protest. Couldn't tell much about it other than it might have been something to do with BSNL?

To complete the circuit and head back north we got one of the most wonderful pieces of history in this city, the tram. Tram 22 dropped us back at the Esplanade junction and the conductor didn't charge us anything. Nice guy!

I had read that to visit the Marble Palace required a free permit obtained from the Tourism office on Shakespeare Sarani, so we trudged all the way there...to find it closed until Monday. We had missed it by 1hour. Oh well...had a nice walk through the lovely streets on our way to Park Street and a McDonalds before catching a Tana rickshaw...now nicknamed by us as the 'Slave Rickshaw', back to the Galaxy hotel. There is no other city in India where you can get so many unique forms of transport..yellow taxi, tana rickshaw, tram, ferry, as well as some interesting buses....just wonderful...thanks to the British colonial era in the main I think. It isn't jus beause I am British, but It is a shame that so any great things were developed, and beautiful buildings too, to be left to almost go to ruin when India took back control after Independence. There is one major criticism I have about India, and that is that it seems to lack the ability to maintain anything in a clean and presentable form. Cash has much to do with it, but to see hundreds of soldiers and police sitting idly all day around a building with nothing to do costs a lot of money, and yet they don't spend anything on maintenance. Different budget! All in all though, I think that Calcutta is a great city.

I had one of those moments later in the day when I realised that a problem I have could be solved another way, which may potentially make things easier in the future.

Sunday 28th Nov - Taxi to Alipore Zoo (Rs30 entry). A reasonable collection of animals including Giraffe, Zebra, Lion, Deer. Had hoped to see a Bengal tiger, but all we got to see was its tail inside its room. Rihinoceros and Hippo are also there and plenty of interesting birds.

A brief walk around the compound of the Ntional Library almost oposite the entrance before taking a taxi to Khalighat temple. One of those places were tourists seem to be sucked into a process by a guide that latches onto you as soon as you walk in. Shoes need to be left by the entrance. I was handed a big bunch of red Hybiscus, a red amulet ring and some incense sticks. First into the temple to offer some flowers and have the usual red tikka annointment. Next the tree where stones are hung as part of the wishes and the somewhat involved ceremony of throwing hybiscus into the tree whilst making wishes for everyone from your mother to your transport. And then the usual event happens...the donation book appeared. The last entry as expected was a foreigner, who had amazingly donated 2000 rupees! The fact the the last two zeroes had been added in different handwriting obviously had escaped them. They must think we are all stupid. He even insisted that they take dollars or any currency and that $20 would be ok. I gave him 20 rupees as had other people and walked out. Shiera attacked the guide as usual. Seems that this is a common event nowadays. She normally finds someone to attack, no matter how many years they have been doing it.  It is a stand of principles of course, but, sorry to say, many Indians don't have any principles, only a need to deceive for money. On the way out in the taxi we passed many effigy makers, who make them for the many ceremonys that take place here. Most weren't complete as I guess the finishing touches depend on who buys them. Back to Sudder street and a nice thai meal at the Blue Sky café. Seems almost pointless trying other places as two places here do everything you could want at reasonable prices.

So how many times do you get approached by touts when you become sarastic or rude to them...

'I have a shop'...good for you, now bugger off and find someone else who wants to go in it!

'My shop is this way'...good for you...now why do you think I am walking in the road? To avoid annoying people like you. Now you go that way to your shop, and i'll go the other direction.

'I have a taxi'...i'm so pleased for you....go shout it to the world so they can all be happy for you.

'Would you like to buy a shirt from my shop'... Do I look like the sort of person who buys the grottiest tat that it's possible to buy in the whole of India!

The Tana (slave-pulled) richshaw pullers can be annoying. They carry a bell which they sometimes shake in your face as if ignoring them isn't enough to tell them you don't want a ride. To me this is like a red rag to a bull...nothing is more demeaning than some idiot shaking a bell in your face like you are a dog. It makes me want to stick that bell right up his ass and make him ring forever!

Taxi drivers are possibly the worse....now, tell me if I am wrong, but...if I a walking down a road past a line of taxis, and I am deliberately looking the other way...why would you ask me...'Sir, would you like a taxi?'. I guess that is why on another occasion when I actually did want a taxi and i asked to go to the Zoo...and show him on the nice colourful map the zoo, and the picture showing the animals....clear enough to most human being with a brain...the taxi driver continues along the journey to ask where you want to go and he is already driving that direction? Duhhh!!.. For some, if you only have one brain cell, then it's a clear decision in life to either drive a taxi or run a clothes stall. Sorry if it offends anyone, but you get my point.

Well I finally finished George Orwell's book 1984 and what a struggle that was too. It does get easier towards the end, and the meaning of being sent to 'Room 101' becomes clear. Having to face your worst nightmare. The thing you most fear and want to get rid of or away from. As for the book...well, not everyone's choice of book,  but a classic and glad I chose it. And now for... The monk who sold his Ferrari, by Robin Sharma. My choice of books is getting weird I think! There is a nice opening phrase quoted from George Bernard Shaw...`Life is no brief   candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations`. Now isn't that I lovely maxim by which to govern your life.

Monday 29th November - only a few days left in India before we leave on Thursday. A few more sights to see over the next few days, and some things to buy, tasks to do.

First stop was the Nakhoda Mosque on Rabindra Sarani. We couldn't get in until 1pm and then we decided not to anyway, as the outside view was enough. The more pleasant experience though was wandering the streets around it. For men's Kurti, it is the best area I have seen. So much to choose from that I bought three Kurtis. The area is divided into zones. One for kurti, next for shoes. Another for electrical goods, another for musical instruments, and a quaint area for salvage goods. With the old tram running through the streets and the tana rickshaws too, it is like another world. I have been considering buying a sitar for a while, and here there are some great shops with quality instruments. Cash only, so might return another day.

We had intended to find China town and Elephant gate, but had run out of energy by that stage. Also, we had bought Shiera another couple of Punjabi suits that needed to be tailored and haven't got much time, so took a taxi back to Sudder street and visited a tailor to have them made up before we leave. Rs225 per suit. It is better to buy the material and make it up rather than relying on of-the-peg fitting. Never ending shopping...so much good value stuff around, that it is hard to stop.

Tuesday 30th November - Today's mission was to visit the Marble Palace in the north of Calcutta. Sounded easy enough. After stopping 13 taxi drivers with not one of them knowing where it was, we were getting a bit frustrated. Showing them a map made no difference. One taxi sounded promising and so we got in. He then drove a short way and stopped to ask another Indian the directions. He seemed to know here it was and told him where to go. The driver then promptly started to drive in completely the wrong direction, heading south instead of north. Thinking he was going to turn at some point, we waited a little while. It became apparent he had no idea and we were going further away. We had to stop him and got out without paying. After further attempts we gave up and went to the Metro station instead and took a train to MG Road stop for Rs4 each. The Calcutta Metro is very easy, cheap and clean, being patrolled by ared police with large rifles. One thing that is very noticeable about Calcutta is the presence of the armed forces everywhere. Moreso than any other place we have been. It wasn't too far from the Metro to the road for the Marble temple. Luckily, as we entered the road there was a street parade taking place. Colourful floats and people. Dressed horses and singing and music. A wonderful vibrant atmosphere of happy people and great photo oportunities. Got in with one group and did some Bangra to the beat. They were even handing out food and drink along the way. Awesome experience.

We had overshot the Marble Palace as we followed the procession so had to double back. The guide book had stated that a permit was required to visit the palace, and that was available from the Tourism office the other end of the city almost. A local tour company told us that the permit was not required and to just go. Of course, we got there to find a sign on the gate saying a permit was required. The guard on the gate said he would let us in for a few rupees though. We refused to pay him anything and just went in. Another guy told us no photography was allowed, but it would be ok if I paid him something. A ceremony was taking place in a small temple area. Cannot go in and no photos...ok if you pay a few rupees. Seems that everyone is into the scam. The main palace is lovely, old and elegant. The guides on the entrance ask for a donation to go in. We argued that it was government property and 'Free' to go in so refused to pay them anything either. There was a compulsory guide who was really nice and informative so I gave him a tip after the tour. I hadn't realised that the palace was still partly occupied and some areas are not for public access. The inside of the palace is beautiful. Olde worlde charm with Italian marble flooring throughout. wonderful rare paintings by some famous artists. Elaborate carved mirrors and furniture. Plenty of furniture covered in drapes that may not have seen daylight for decades. Parts of the palace look like they have not been dusted in years and everything has that neglected old look as if nothing has been cared for. In a way it actually added to the antiquity, giving it a really aged and beautiful appearance. The garden is large and surprisingly has an exotic bird area with some nice specimens in rusty cages, plus some wild animals like spotted deer, Barking deer (Muntjak) and a lovely Rosy Pelican. The workers were asleep under trees and on tables, adding to the impression that this place is neglected by everyone who works in it.

Back on the street and a walk to the amazing fruit market. First the banana section, followed by Oranges, Apples, Melons, Pomegranate, plums and plenty of others. Fantastically colourful and sweetly scented. Overriding the normal smells that would abound on the streets. So many happy and smiling faces when they see a couple of foreigners appear, especially with a camera. Laughing and jeering and great fun.

Rabindra Sarani road was even more crazier than when we had visited yesterday. It is so historic and full of life that it is a must visit place in this city. We tried to get a Tana rickshaw out of the area to the Esplanade, but it proved impossible, so we had to walk all the way. Turned out to be so congested due to a political rally on behalf of leading political party. Noisy speakers blasting their speech over tannoys and masses of poeople squashed into a junction that would normally carry transport, but for today had been stopped or re-routed.

We had a little altercation with a jewellery seller yesterday in that he gave me a bad 50 rupee note that nobody would accept. He knew it of course and when I went back to him today to face him with that very same dodgy note, he hung his head down to the ground and wouldn't dare look at me. He got a bit of a lesson in not messing with some people! I took an item of jewellery from his store, probably about 150 rupees worth, threw the dodgy 50 rupee note at him and walked away. He stood in shock and didn't dare to come after me. Hope he might think twice next time!

More shopping...will it ever end! Shiera's wardrobe is growing at quite a rate! Mine is a bit static...no more money left! Well, you have to get the bargains before leaving, and Calcutta is superb as long as you bargain hard and take no prisoners and always walk away at least twice to gauge if they will call you back. We have walked away up to 5 times in some case to get the lowest price. Always no more than half what they start asking for. Jewellery is the main overcharge. 500 can drop to 100. Clothes can drop from 350 to 100, depending on quality and time of day. The later in the day the better the price you can get. Got a new camera bag and flip-flops too. Funny really...we have all heard of Adidas...well the local Indian version is 'Odidas!

Another visit to a favourite street food stall and the delicious and spicy Batata Puri for 20 rupees followed by the best chai in India for 2 rupees a cup. They don't use plastic cups but throw-away pottery ones. That's 2 rupees!

Wednesday 1st December - It's December already...soon be Christmas! To that end I bought some Christmas cards today. They are in Hindi just to be different. No idea what they say, but neither will anyone who receives them...now that's different isn't it?

The highlight of the day was that, after much deliberation and wishing over the years, I finally bought a Sitar. Plus a carry case and what's called an electronic 'Tanpura', which makes the accompanying background sound. Searched around town and got a book and a DVD to learn to play it, and...it's big! In its case it is a bit of an item to handle. With already having my guitar, and now the Sitar plus we had to buy an extra bag to carry the extra purchases...ainly Shiera's new clothes...we have a logistics exercise on how to carry it all. I bought extra baggage allowance on the first flight to Bangkok to allow for it, but the Sitar might be a big problem. Will have to see.

Bought some medicines for Shiera's family to take back to the Philippines that are more expensive there. Here they don't bother asking for a prescription despite the warnings on the boxes.

A busy day that seemed to be spent flying from one place to another in a taxi, or taking a Tana rickshaw or walking. Tiring but achieved plenty.

We leave India tomorrow, so will post another journal from the Philippines.





I am originally from Kolkata, but presently settled in USA...loved your journal and your perspective of Kolkata...atleast I can say that all the corners of Kolkata are different and may change every day. This will not bore you like USA where all cities almost looks alike, have the same McDonalds and shopping centers with the same cars and people walking following the same patterns with no surprises....keep your journals coming...will appreciate a note in the e-mail where to look for or the link search...so long...

  AJAY Dec 29, 2010 5:28 AM

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