3rd to 7th November 2017
Kathmandu to Kolkata
I spent very little time in Kathmandu after returning from the Everest Region. I had to get to Kolkata, in India, as soon as possible. On my first morning back in the city, I got up early to walk to the bus station, and work out a route to the border.
Thamel, the very central district of Kathmandu, is the main tourist hub in all of Nepal. The collection of four or five parallel streets and connecting alleys, each only a few hundred metres long, are crowded with hotels, restaurants, and trekking shops, all geared towards foreigners. In this tiny area, the westerns outnumber the locals by two to one. Step just a few paces outside Thamel, however, and westerners are almost non-existent. On the half-hour walk to the bus station, I didn’t see any other foreigners.
After a few minutes of walking around the ticket stalls, trying to make sense of the routes and destinations being advertised, a salesman with decent English approached me. He told me that I should ride to Kakarbhitta, a town on the very eastern section of the Nepal-India border. This route seemed only slightly less direct than the southern border route I’d been planning, and I knew that once I was inside India, I could find countless buses to any destination. I bought a ticket for the overnight bus leaving in the afternoon, and walked back to Thamel.
I had a few hours to kill before my bus left. I bought a copy of ‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer; the book that I’d read one hundred pages of in a guesthouse in Everest. I went to a clothes shop to buy a new pair of trousers, since my month of trekking had taken a sharp toll on my current pair.
I’d bought the pair back in Isfahan, in Iran. My own trousers had torn, so I’d been wearing a pair of jeans borrowed from Brent, my Australian travelling companion, who was considerably smaller than me. The young salesman in the clothes shop I’d gone into had handed me pair after pair of ill-fitting, uncomfortable trousers. He didn’t seem to see any reason why I wouldn’t want to buy a pair that extended from my ankles to my chest. He kept knocking on the door of the changing room, asking me why I was taking so long to try them on. He and his older manager laughed constantly, whenever one of them would try to talk to me in English, as if I were just some entertainment to them. They’d tried to enormously overcharge me for the one pair I found that were roughly my size, only reducing the price to moderately-above-fair when I tried to walk out of the shop.
My every instinct had been telling me to just leave; to find another store, where the owners would treat me with a bit of dignity. I didn’t, because clothes shops had proved difficult to find, for some reason, and because I hated every moment of wearing Brent’s skinny jeans.
As I left the store, wearing my new, slightly-oversized trousers, I shook the men's hands, out of habit. Each responded as if I were some over-friendly, drunk stranger in a pub: shaking my hand with indifference, if I really insisted.
Just before I walked out, the young man asked me
“Would you like t-shirt? Very good. Good price.”
He called to me again as I left the shop. As soon as I’d stepped outside, the pair burst into laughter.
As petty as the incident may seem, it really stuck with me. Every time I put on the trousers, for the next three months, I found myself wishing that I hadn’t given the men a single cent; that I’d just stuck with Brent’s jeans for another hour, and bought properly sized trousers elsewhere (soon after buying them, I’d sewn up the bottoms of the legs up by a few inches, making them manageable).
That’s why it felt cathartic, in a way, to find a clothes shop in Thamel where the salesman handed me a well-fitting pair of trousers within minutes, didn’t disturb me as I tried them on, and charged me a quite reasonable 1,700 Rupees (around €14).
I’d paid 1,500 Rupees for the deluxe, air-conditioned bus to Kakarbhitta. Of course, the bus wasn’t air-conditioned. Even the overhead fans were turned off for the duration of the sweltering ride. I’d bought the ticket, however, knowing that this would likely be the case. I’d traveled in this part of the world long enough to know that what is promised, is rarely what you get. I’d chosen the deluxe bus, instead of the cheaper regular bus, not because I’d wanted air-conditioning, but because I was willing to pay an extra few Euros for the possibility of a bit for comfort.
After almost no sleep, on the rough, bumpy, overcrowded roads that Nepal considers highways, I reached Kakarbhitta by 7am. I found a local cafe for breakfast, then walked across the border to India, stopping on each side for my passport to be stamped.
From Panitanki, the tiny Indian border town I’d arrived into, I found a local bus to take me the hour’s drive to Siliguri, a larger city to the northeast. From here, I found a travel company offering overnight buses to Kolkata, and bought a ticket.
In the eight hours or so I had to kill, between buying my ticket and the bus leaving, I walked around the chaotic centre of Siliguri, taking in the atmosphere, and eating multiple big meals. My appetite still thought I was trekking Everest.
Despite the number of tourists who come to India, very few cities ever see any foreigners. The country is just so big, with so many places to visit. The tourists all end up visiting a few dozen areas, leaving the vast majority of cities almost entirely untouched by outsiders. Siliguri seemed to be one such city.
This, for me, made the place much more pleasant than Delhi, or Agra, or Varanasi. Nobody was approaching me to try to sell me anything. The city centre was crowded, and chaotic, and loud, and dirty, but I was allowed to walk through it undisturbed, which made all the difference.
I stopped in a tiny barbershop for a haircut and a shave. The barber had likely never served a foreigner before. I asked him how much he’d charge, before we began.
“One hundred,” he said, with a tone that suggested he was overcharging me, and he thought that I knew it; as if he were asking me to take pity on him, and give him a few extra Rupees.
Since 100 Rupees is around €1.35, I agreed.
The man tried to offer me a body massage, and a head massage, and a comb, to get more money out of me. I declined these offers, but gave him 200 Rupees anyway, since I can’t, in good conscience, pay only €1.35 for a shave and a haircut. He thanked me sincerely, as if I’d given him an enormous gift.
My bus to Kolkata was air-conditioned, and drove on much smoother roads, allowing me a few hours sleep. This is a major difference between India and Nepal. Both countries are inexpensive, with enormous amounts of impoverished residents. In Nepal the people and the government are poor. In India, however, while many of the people are poor, the government is wealthy and powerful enough to provide the essentials, like decent roads, and nuclear missiles.
I arrived into Kolkata at around 7am. The city, I soon realised, wasn’t exactly what I had been expecting. All I’d known about Kolkata before arriving, was that it contained enormous slums, which Mother Teresa used to work in. I’d imagined the city to be far more chaotic, and crowded, and painful than Agra and Varanasi combined. However, the centre of the city at least, proved to be spacious, and peaceful, by Indian standards anyway. As I walked around, looking for a cheap hotel, nobody approached me, looking to sell, or to beg. Kolkata, like Siliguri, is far off the main tourist trail.
I tried one hotel, which asked for 1,500 Rupees (around €20) per night, three times what I’d been expecting to pay. The next place asked for 1,460 Rupees. Since I’d missed two nights of sleep, was starving, desperately needed to use a toilet, and just wanted to drop my heavy backpack, I checked in for one night.
The next few days flew by in a blur. I extended my stay in the hotel for two more nights, since once I was settled, I really didn’t want to move. My room was basic, but had working air-conditioning, a reasonably comfortable double bed, and an ensuite with a hot shower. I spent most of my time sitting on my bed, writing about my trek in the Everest Region.
I only left my hotel for food. Three times per day, I’d walk out onto the busy streets, and look for a restaurant. All written language in Kolkata was in English. Signs, advertisements, menus; all English. Of course, this didn’t mean that everyone could speak the language. I’d sometimes get frustrated, when reading a menu, and unable to ask the waiter about what was written.
‘Mixed vegetable curry, with plain rice and fried aloo’ a menu might read.
“What’s ‘aloo’?” I’d ask the waiter, who’d usually be hovering over my shoulder.
“No, what is aloo?”
“ . . . one aloo?”
“No, I do not know what aloo is. Tell me what is aloo.”
“ . . . one aloo?”
“No . . . English?”
I didn’t find it annoying that they didn’t speak my language; it was annoying because it felt like they didn’t speak their language.
Usually I left the waiters a bit of a tip. I’d leave thirty or forty Rupees behind when collecting my change. Unless, of course, if the waiters deliberately hovered over me while I was picking up my cash, in an obvious attempt to try to pressure me into leaving a tip. In that case I’d give them nothing.
I spent some time outside of my hotel room for other reasons. I went to a large electronics mall, to see the upmarket smartphone and computer stores where wealthy locals spend their cash. I went looking for an internet cafe, since my hotel only had slow WiFi at the reception.
Unlike in every other city I’d seen in India, the taxis in Kolkata were metred. This should have made getting around the city much easier, since I wouldn’t have to haggle over prices, and risk getting overcharged, or into arguments. The drivers would never try to charge me by metre though. They would refuse to turn it on for me, and drive off if I insisted. They would demand a flat fee, multiple times what the metre would read.
Once, I got into a taxi to drive ten minutes across town, to an internet cafe. I kept careful note of the metre as we went. By the time we’d pulled up outside my destination, the metre was showing 25 Rupees. I took 40 Rupees out of my wallet, to give the man a bit of a tip.
“One hundred Rupee,” he said to me.
“No, twenty-five,” I said, pointing to the metre. I realised that he’d just reset it, so that it displayed ‘----’.
“One hundred!” he shouted.
I put the 40 back into my wallet, pulled out 25 in small change, cursed at the man, and threw the cash into his lap. I grabbed my bag, jumped out of the taxi, and stormed away. He shouted at me from his car, but didn’t get out.
Even here in Kolkata, a relatively relaxed, wealthy part of India, I was feeling frustrated. I was tired of being treated as an outsider, for whom a different set of rules applied. I’d only been back in the country for four days, and I was already thinking about leaving again.
I didn’t end up going to the Myanmar Consulate to apply for a visa, despite that being the main reason I’d rushed to Kolkata from Everest. The travel agency with whom I was trying to organise the permissions needed to enter the country overland from India, had told me that there was a hold up in the process. In light of the Rohingya situation near the Indian border, the government had stopped issuing travel permits several months ago. The agency I was dealing with had expected the permits to become available again in early November, but still hadn’t heard anything from the government. They advised me to try to find another way into the country.