Varanasi to Siliguri, a Gorka strike and a birthday

So the final day in Varanasi arrived and we have a train booked from an out of town station in Varanasi to Siliguri (West Bengal). Our train departs early evening, so we had the morning in Varanasi to kill. With the extreme heat plus bags, we opt to chill in Fagin’s Restaurant and eat our last veg Biriyani and read our books. I am totally engrossed in Shantaram – so I have no problem with this plan!

Our hotel manager has told us that he will pre-book a rickshaw to take us to the main station and from there we will be able to catch one of several trains to the out of town station to connect to our 12hr train. All packed up with our luggage we embark in the heat, through the winding lanes for the last time towards the rickshaw stand. To our surprise we have been booked a cycle rickshaw…we realise that unless we a battle with an auto rickshaw over the price, we have no option other than to load our bags onto the cycle carriage. Balancing precariously with Al having to sit on the arm rest, the driver sets off into the dense, chaotic traffic. The driver is so slight, I think he weighs less than one of our backpacks, so I do have my doubts on whether we will make it up the inclining road to Varanasi Juntion Station! Miraculously we make it in one piece and embark on stage 2 of catching our train to Siliguri. The station concourse was rammed. Families, luggage, the odd goat all sat on the floor in their respective parties. We soon learn that there are several very delayed trains, explaining the vast amount of people who appear to have submitted themselves to being at the station for the long haul. Although the ‘out of town’ station, Mughal Serai that we needed to get to wasn’t far away and there were supposedly many trains going there, it was proving difficult to suss out which platform to next delayed train would stop at. Station officers, we have discovered, are very unhelpful and rarely actually know what is going on. Luckily, the tourist information man turns out to be the most helpful person we have met in India. He made a concerted effort to give us the correct valuable information we need. We decide to risk not buying a ticket, as navigating queues and the chaotic concourse seems worth avoiding for the 30 min train journey. Our connecting train turns out to only be a mere 2 hours late which is comparatively small to our wait in Jalgoan!

When the train did arrive, finding our train carriage was a little more tricky than usual and the LCD screens were not working on the platform. After asking a guy in uniform we locate the correct carriage and then embark on wading through bodies and luggage to find our reserved berths. The train is extremely full, and when we do find our berths, they are already occupied and all the floorspace is full of luggage, including a huge metal trunk. The battle, unfortunately, commenced…

No one would own up to the trunk, no one would tell us where their reserved seat was, and no one was prepared to move themselves or their luggage. So it was a case of either standing for 12hours or fighting for our rightful seats that we had confirmed and paid for. From previous lessons when we feel we have come to a standstill, the only way to solve it is get on with it. Al moved the unclaimed trunk so that we could access a cavity of space for our bags, with the intention on putting the trunk back as soon as we had of loaded our heavy bags. Of course as soon as he moved the trunk, the rightful owner spoke up. Not prepared to help us, he made a problem, of course this attracting attention to us and the situation. Explaining to him our intentions was useless when it became clear that English was a no-go, as was our broken Hindi. He only spoke Assamese and wasn’t really responding to our sign language, other than a bewildered blank expression! He finally understood that we meant no harm to his luggage when Al pushed the hefty trunk back into place. All of a sudden I looked around to see a sea of curious faces – of course this is quite normal when you are the only white people in the carriage – but when extra attention is focussed, it feels all that bit more intimidating and harder work.
The next battle was actually being able to claim our seat. No one was willing to give up the space, nor were they willing to show us their reservation slip so we could figure out who it was who thought they would take our seat for the next 12 hrs! Al, rightfully, asks the only adult on the seats if he can see her ticket, so we can try to decipher who should and shouldn’t be there. Out of nowhere a bellowing man comes to her defense. He was very confrontational, defensive and domineering. It turns out that he is her husband and father of all the kids sitting on the berths. Eventually they make space for us to sit, but by this time, we definitely have an audience now. I just wanted to go and hide somewhere. It is pretty uncomfortable when you feel like the odd one out, even though you may be fighting a righteous cause. It felt like we were fighting a loosing battle, especially with this man shouting his head off and making us feel like we are being unreasonable for wanting to use our reserved berths.

When things quietened down and the curious faces stopped staring as much, Al breaks the awkward silence with the man in an effort to pass an olive branch. The man receives it happily and explains to Al that the reason he was so defensive is partly to do with the fact he had spoken to his wife. Also, that he is the ‘head’ of the party, so Al should have found him to clear up the problem. This was a strategy we had been unaware of, but will definitely put into practise next time. He told Al, ‘My wife doesn’t speak English. She is not in charge of the party. She doesn’t know what is going on’ and winked at him as he smiled. It is one of those cultural differences that caused offense without intention. I thought how weird it must have been for him and his family to see me act as an individual and speak to Al with my own opinions during that journey. I certainly don’t practise the ‘woman should be seen and not heard’ mentality!

All of this aside, the journey was amazing once we all relaxed and got on with it. The journey took 6 hours longer than it should have. I think this was due to a thunderstorm and traffic on the lines with all the late trains clogging up the rails. The family got off the tain at Bihar which gave us a little more room and breathing space. For me the best part of the journey, above all other train journeys in India so far, was the change in landscape. So far many of the views have been of dry, arid, barren and sparse landscape.When I woke up at 5am for loo, I peaked out the window to find a beautiful green, lush countryside with sugar cane fields and the odd paddy field. WOW. Al and I squeezed onto his middle berth bed which allows you to just about see out the top of the cabin window, and we catched the changed landscape whizz by. Late morning we went through strong rain, which was really exciting as I hadn’t seen rain that heavy since England. It is quite a relief to see rain and green after dry weather and cracked earth.

As the train journey continued, as always, people move around and make themselves more comfortable. An old Holy man along with some younger men shared our cabin. It turned out they had been on the train all the way since Dehli and they were travelling to Gujurhat (Assam) for a special Hindu event where pilgrims from all over India were attending. Apparently there were to be sacrifices of animals such as chicken and goat. At one point the older man began to mix up some kind of concoction which Al and I watched very curiously. 5-10 mins later he offered us a glass of a thick chunky liquid which turned out to be chickpea flour, chili powder and water mixed together to make a very warming and filling drink called ‘Satu’ traditionally from Bihar. The old man explained to us that it would give us ‘raw energy’ and advised us not to drink anything else other than water for the rest of the day. It tasted pretty good and definitely filled a hole! It was brilliant to be involved in their culture for the remainder of our journey.

A Sikkimese guy also chatted to us in flawless English (refreshing and this stage of our journey!). He was really friendly and it was a lovely first encounter of a Sikkimese person. When we finally arrived at New Jalpaiguri (near Siliguri), he did his best to point us in the direction.

We had intended to get to Darjeeling as soon as possible, and by the Toy Steam Train. However, this turned out ‘not to be’. There were no Toy Trains available indefinately, so we decide on finding a place to stay in Siliguri with the idea of somehow getting Darjeeling the next day instead. Siliguri wasn’t the nicest place I had seen, and was definately a transit town- not somewhere you want to be stuck for too long. It was grubby with a lot of traffic and that was about it!

Exhausted, we decide the best tactic is for Al to scout around for the best deal whilst I guard the bags next to a petrol station. Eventually Al came back having done a stirling job of negotiating a nice room nearby.

With it being my birthday the following day, we thought it pretty apt that we locate somewhere for a beer and some good grub. Surprisingly we managed to find the perfect place. A tandori restaurant with a TV sceen to watch to footie and G&Ts! Yay. Al treated me to a great evening. Just what the doctor ordered after our mammoth journey.

In the evening, from our hotel, we heard a bit of commotion and rather bad singing on a loudspeaker. From our window we could make out a few trucks full of people driving slowly down the round with green flags. ‘How nice’ we thought, ‘some kind of parade’. The next morning it became apparent that actually we had been very dumb. It had been a Gorka protest, with the knock on effect of the West Bengali Hills being restricted due to an indefinite banda (strike). SO, no Darjeeling for us! Al was disappointed as he had his heart set on treating me to high tea in for my birthday. To be honest, I had a great day anyway- I am travelling around India after all!! We found somewhere for tea in Siliguri and I ate as many Indian sweets as I could for breakfast as my alternative birthday cake. YUM.

To celebrate my birthday we did a street crawl of the street food…Momos (steamed dumplings), Egg rolls, pakora. And then we couldn’t resist repaying the same tandoori restaurant a visit which was equally good. We soon discover that this part of India goes to bed pretty early and when we reach our hotel that night, we a locked out. After shouting for a while, Al decided that the wall with metal spikes didn’t look too hard to climb. Unfortunately, he didn’t see on of the spikes, which went right into his foot. SHIT. Luckily we managed to make enough noise for the hotel concierge to hear us and let us in. Al’s foot didnt bleed too much, just was painful due to how deep the spike had gone. Not great, seeing as we were hoping to be trekking soon! Well, it got a load of iodine on it and a lick and a promise. Fingers crossed that it heals without infection.

With the banda not having been lifted the following day, we decide to get a jeep to Gangtok (Sikkim) as the route can bypass the roads that were off limit. At the jeep stand we found a group of travellers with the same idea as us, so after some haggling with the jeep driver, all 10 of us catch a jeep to Gangtok. It was one of the first times since Goa that we had encountered ‘travellers’, and the jeep journey ended up being a great bonding session. Half way to Gangtok, we had agreed that some birthday drinks were in order and that we should have a little party when we arrive. In true me style, I was more than happy to continue my birthday for as long as possible! Bring on Sikkim!!

Written by Laura

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