Sunday, January 09, 2005

Day 15 - Kolkata

Up at 5:30.

First tourist attraction of the day will be Belur Math, on G.T. Road. I am out of the lodge by 6:00 AM. The road to the Belur Math turns out to be easy, with me needing to take just two deviations.

I park my cycle at the cycle stand and proceed to have a look at the temple dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna.

Wow! What a place. The surrounding lawns are also tastefully done and well maintained. The main temple building is superb. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed even outside the temple! The temple houses a single marble idol of Sri Ramakrishna. There are small shrines dedicated to Swami Vivekananda and other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna as well. And here flows the Hooghly - what a sight! A perfect photograph is there for the asking - but the rules say otherwise. All in all, an hour well spent!

Time for breakfast - sandesh (a sweet), poories and singada. Tastes good, except for sandesh.

Next in line is the Dakshineshwar Temple. Sri Ramakrishna used to meditate there. I reach the temple soon enough but finding a place to park my cycle becomes a major task - I finally settle for a nearby cycle shop.

Nice temple (see the pics!). All sorts of Pooja items are available nearby. This temple is also on the banks of the Hooghly. Actually, there is a boat from Belur Math to Dakshineshwar Temple. There is a long queue for darshan, so I skip it! Hope that doesn't anger Kali mata!

A special thing I see here is bangles made by cutting conch shells! They are cool.

Next stop - Shyam Bazaar - I don't stop here since it is nothing more than a routine bazaar. Nicco Park - an amusement park - comes next. Bad choice by me!

Next stop - Science City. There is some parking problem w.r.t. my cycle but the security guard helps me out this time (after getting to know about my trip). I am curious to see what's inside, so I pay the entry fee and get in. I opt for the cable car route to enter Science City. The ride is much better here than at Vishakapatnam. Among other things, there are several small assemblies in Science City which demonstrate basic scientific principles. Unfortunately, the parents haven't done their homework before coming in, so they are in no position to make their kids understand them. And I am running short of time - so I have to skip the goodies like space ride, some videos, 3D film show, etc.

One look at the watch is enough for me to exclude Birla Temple and Kalighat Mandir (I've seen enough temples, anyway). I head towards Victoria Memorial. This is an impressive monument made of marble. The surrounding lawn is not very well maintained, but it seems to be a popular picnic spot. I am terribly hungry at this time (nearly 2:00), so I eat atleast 8 poories and one large guava (guavas are quite costly here and sold by kgs - one kg costs 30 rupees). I also eat a fruit salad. The clever shopkeeper has hidden a mass of cucumber with papayas and is selling it as fruit salad! For now, all's well that ends in the well (my stomach!). I spend sometime looking at the memorial but am quickly bored.

Next attraction is the Metro Rail (this is the underground railway network in Kolkata). I entrust my cycle to a panwallah and go underground to catch a metro rail. This stop is Rabindra Sadan. I take a to and fro ticket to Tollygunge. The Metro Rail is impressive! The platforms are neat and well lit. The trains are small and light. Even if you don't get a seat, nothing to worry - you won't need to stand for long! I want to take a few snaps, but photography is prohibited here too (why??). The train picks up speed very quickly and blazes through the stations. Helpful messages about the current station, next station, which side to get down from, etc are repeated in Bangla, English and Hindi. In a short time(maybe 15 minutes max), I am in Tollygunge. I have to act as if I am going out and coming in to return back to the platform for my return journey. The ticket to Tollygunge has been swallowed by the machine at the exit! An important thing to note is that the trains run on time. I asked a guy when the train is and he said 2:12 - I was surprised at this precision (too much to expect an Indian Railways train to arrive correct to the minute!), and had almost started to laugh. The smile on my lips died as I sighted the train soon after! If you happen to be in Kolkata and want to go around quickly, I would recommend the metro rail - and sync your watch to its clock, please, for best results!

After this, it is time to see Rabindra Setu, the new(it is more than 10 years old, FYI. It surely is relatively newer than the original Howrah bridge) cable bridge over the Hooghly. Photography is prohibited here too - but the place is too good to resist. Nice bridge - go see the pictures. The hallowed Eden Gardens is also visible from here.

After the bridge, there is a mass of criss-crossing fly-overs. I select the one that leads to G.T. Road, with every intention of reaching my lodge. (It is evening by now).

At the end of the flyover, a signboard indicates the direction to take for a Botanical Garden. It is still 4:10 only, so I have time for a short visit. The garden is about 10 minutes of cycling away. Near the garden, the usual problem of parking doesn't arise as there are two competing service providers (!). There is a verbal fight between them for the rights to host my cycle - with one guy claiming precedence since he is handicapped. I settle for the other fellow - and reward him further by drinking tea at his shop. The botanical gardens turns out to be a big place - with many species of trees and plants on display. Everyone is busy with their friends, family or companion. I am bored quickly and end my visit in a jiffy.

After the garden, I head straight for the lodge. First thing to do is to drink a refreshing cup of tea at Pandeyji's shop. I am convinced that he is the best tea maker in Kolkata - nowhere else did tea taste so good. After the tea, I rest for awhile in my room.

Time to browse the net and see the response to my blog post (done yesterday). I chat with the WebWorld guy. He has heard of cycle tourists but hasn't met one. So he wants a snap. I am only too happy to oblige!

Back at the lodge, it is time to make my cycle a 'luggage' item - I am off to the railway station for this. Many enquiries later, I reach Gate 17. A coolie (old man) comes around to help me - service to others is service to self, isn't it? I have to fill a form, which I do, and pay 10 rupees to the guy who gave me the form. After that it is time to haggle with the coolie (porter). I am adamant that I wont pay a rupee more than 20. My argument is that the cycle is extremely light-weight. The form-guy comes to my rescue and finds one more coolie to do the job for me. The form-guy pockets an additional 10 rupees and the porter has to rest content with 20 rupees - 85 rupees goes to the railways.

On the way back to the lodge, I eat a crappy dinner. But I am not unhappy since I can eat more still! I rest in the lodge from 9:30 to 10:15. After that, it is time to pack up and leave. Before leaving, I take one last 'dose' of 5 rupee tea at Pandeyji's shop.

Reaching the railway station takes less than 10 minutes. Not many signs of new year celebrations are to be seen - all I can hear is a song blaring somewhere.

On the railway platform, I get talking with a fellow passenger. I tell him about the trip. Sometime later, he says that somebody else has also come on a cycle - and points to my cycle being pushed around by the coolies!

It is 11:30 PM by the time the Howrah-Tirupati Express comes to the platform. I just lie down in my reserved upper birth. A big group going to Bhubaneshwar wants to stay together, so me and Dharam (a fellow passenger going to Tirupati) are pushed by request to the next cabin.

A flurry of Happy New Year SMSes is enough to announce that New Year is coming. Unfortunately, I can't reply - I am getting a "Service Unavailable" error message from the phone. And changing to my regular Hutch SIM card makes no difference. Grr... Anyway, my prepaid balance must be less than 10 Rs now, so no need to shout at anyone!

It is a chilly night, so I put on my gloves and use my dhoti as a rug. The train leaves at 11:50 PM - just 10 minutes late. There are cries of "Happy New Year" from everywhere.

Soon, Kolkata fades into the distance...

And that marks the end of my trip. The return journey will take two more days, but no more cycling!

My final odometer reading was 11387.3 and the start of trip reading was 9617.9, so the total distance that I have covered is atleast 1950 kilometers! And I have had loads of fun!

Time to rest!


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