Our arrival into Kolkata at 6am was met by hundreds upon hundreds of chickens tied up in unimaginably cramped conditions – making the once harrowing year 8 video lesson on battery farming chickens look like a 5 star retreat. We had hit the early morning chicken market as we made our way to the hostel and they were being thrown between different baskets and strung up by the legs on the handles of bicycles when a trade was agreed. The early morning bustle and strum of the city was already beginning.
For some reason in my head Kolkata had been a city I presumed would be particularly poverty stricken, but this has not been the case. In comparison to Delhi the city is an organised flow of movemen. Whilst still very busy, it has an iota of order. The city feels more developed with very wide roads, sensible power cabling and taller buildings. There are also no tuk-tuks clogging the streets so every motor gets a whole lane to itself. Our day yesterday involved exploring the North section of the city, getting lost on multiple occasions, partly thanks to the worst rough guide map we have yet encountered.
We think we saw the Armenian Church, although we can’t say for certain as its placement on the map was fairly off. The church was a peaceful haven among the busy roads and in stark contrast to the churches I visited in Italy it was completely empty, yet still beautifully ornate. Following this we headed over to the flower market and Howrah bridge. The market was a bit of a disappointment with only one style of rather plain orange flower garlands on sale at multiple vendors. The Howrah bridge is a steel monolithic monstrosity that towers over the water in a rather brutalistic fashion.
From here we went off in search of the Marble Palace, spending about an hour lost in the city as the frustrations of our map came to the fore. We eventually gave up on finding it and instead concentrated our efforts on finding a favourite of ours, the Indian Coffee House (ICH)! This one was located on college street, which yes, is in the hub of the university – they’re not the subtlest when it comes to names. This ICH is housed within a huge split hall and is around five times the size as the previous two we’ve visited. It has more of a feel of a school cafeteria with the bustle of young people outweighing the older Indians in there for a drink or to conduct business. It was still a great place, but didn’t have the same charm and atmosphere as the other two.
Following some much needed recuperation we ventured off down into the market district in search of the Lighthouse cinema – an art deco cinema with the promise of English movies. Initially we were going to take the metro, mainly for the experience, but the two ticket kiosks with queues longer than the time it would take to walk, so that dashed that idea. Kolkata needs to take a leaf out of Delhi’s book (and every developed transport system in the world) and install some computerised counters. A plus of this detour was we think we chanced upon the Marble Palace – it looked like a badly designed 70s shopping centre.
I’m sad to report that our search for English cinema ended in failure. We did find the now rebranded lighthouse cinema and then checked a further 3 places in the region, but all only showed Hindi films without any subtitles. Joe did succeed in replacing his broken day bag which after two stints of backpacking (Blaming George Pundek for its downfall) had seen better days. Joe now owns a delightful and rather bulky green and black number. We kept asking vendors for the smallest bag, but Indians carry so much rubbish round with them that they could all be used for long weekends away! It’s hideous (his words) and abuse on the matter will not be welcome! Unfortunately he opted to not go for the bag that had Facebook branded all over it.. in yellow.
Today we visited the southern section of the city which comprises the gardens surrounding the Victoria memorial. This was a stunning white marble building created to celebrate the British empire. Walking around the gardens and lakes was fantastic and a bargain 4p entry fee heightened the experience. From there we made the quick walk to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is the mother Anglican Church for all of India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka.
After a quick samosa we jumped into one of the very retro classic yellow cabs out to the botanical gardens. Kolkata has lots of transport options, these being the coolest. Unfortunately it still hosts human-drawn carriages, despite its attempts to stamp them out. These are essentially a small seat on wheels with a harness that goes over the guy who pulls it along at walking pace – gaining the person travelling no real benefit of speed, or respect from us. They’re horrific contraptions that unfortunately demonstrate the poverty levels in India with what people succumb to in an attempt to survive.
The botanical gardens were a disappointment, especially after the grandeur of the Victoria memorial. It hosts the world’s largest Banyan tree – a tree which only grows in Asia and is deemed to spread knowledge and wisdom to those who sit under it. The circumference around is over 400m, which had led to me picturing a huge tree that towers over the world. Alas the tree actually has multiple trunks, none wider than your standard park tree. It was still fairly impressive, but the gardens weren’t worth their £1 entry tag.
This blog is being uploaded from the Blue Sky Cafe, which we a visited a few times. It is a deservedly busy place nestled amongst the budget accommodation, serving what Joe declared as India’s best muesli, fuit, & curd, (I tried it this morning also – it was great), as well as a plethora of other fab food. The waiter had an abruptness that would be considered extremely rude in the west with phrases like, ‘tell me what you want, don’t think it’, whilst trying to get his attention. His mannerisms do have a certain Indian charm though and he is very efficient so if anything it adds to the atmosphere of the place.
We had become unaccustomed to city life after our time in the mountains and our exploring has left us with rather sore feet! Luckily for us our next destination is the coastal town of Puri, where hopefully the sun, sand and sea (fingers crossed for glistening blue water) will heal them before we take on Hyderabad and Mumbai! But first the luxury of a night in an air conditioned carriage (for a change) awaits!