There is an expression about Kolkata, “Where Kolkata leads, India will follow”. Well that’s the gist anyway. This can be seen throughout its recent history. Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, was the centre of the British Raj until the capital was moved to New Delhi. During this time money poured in from the British Empire and it underwent huge industrial growth. In the 1940s, when Britain’s power began to dwindle, it was in Kolkata that the rumblings were the loudest. Bangalore’s prominence as India’s tech capital may have stolen Kolkata’s crown, but when you are zipping around on the underground system, it does still feel like quite a modern city.
For the next stop along our Indian journey, we caught a train from Bodh Gaya.
Making sure we found the fixed fare booth just outside the station, we climbed into one of Kolkata’s famous ambassador taxis. They look like the love child of a New York yellow cab and a VW Beetle. The traffic was sluggish, a strange change in India, and we crawled towards our destination, the New Market area. This is where you will find a large selection of reasonably priced accommodation.
When we finally got there, the taxi driver asked for more money, another third in fact. There is an understanding that a fixed fare is just that, fixed. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. We chose to use this service so we didn’t have to argue over fares, metres and other haggling which we didn’t need after a long train journey. The driver became enraged when we told him we were going to pay the agreed price. He started to shout extremely loudly, I think he was trying to embarrass us so we just paid him to be quiet, but we held firm. Another guy who was passing asked what the problem was, we explained and he said, “You are correct, just walk away!”. So we did! Feeling somewhere between shell shock and slightly advocated, we set off to find the hostel.
I have been searching high and low for the name of the hostel we stayed in, but I’m not sure it exists any more….and no wonder.
To reach the place, you had to walk down a side street that doubled as a public urinal. There was an actual block for gentlemen to wee into but it was almost overflowing. The stench of boy’s toilets was exceptionally pungent in the heat.
The hostel rooms were constructed of un-plastered concrete. Each grey box remained incomplete. The top foot of the wall was actually just open to the world outside. The sound from everyone’s rooms was clearly audible as it echoed around the bare walls.
The word “en-suite”, although technically true, was a little misleading. What the booking website failed to mention, was that there was no door….or curtain…or screen of any kind; nothing, in fact, to separate you from your loved one who was busy relieving themselves. It was pretty grim.
The river Hooghly (pronounced hoo-lee) runs through Kolkata, and along it’s West Bank, you will find a huge expanse called the Maidan. This doesn’t look too big on a map, but walking across it in the heat, without cold water, it seemed endless. It is also called the Brigade Parade Ground but the idea of marching up and down it in the sun seems brutal! Kolkata is a very urban space. There is dirt, dust and concrete overpasses, this makes the green field, “the lungs of Kolkata”, all the more refreshing.
The Victoria Memorial
Towards the South of the Maidan, you will find the Victoria Memorial. This large marble building was built in memory of the self-proclaimed “Empress of India”. On approaching the museum, you will find a very austere statue of the lady herself.
The building is a real mix of British and Mughal design principles, with some fun little Venetian bits thrown in for good measure.
We spent an hour or so nosing around. There is a nice collection of oil paintings, some copies of their counterparts in London. We then got lost in an exhibition all about Kolkata’s history in relation to the British Raj. In particular, the information about India’s struggle for independence was thoroughly engrossing. It really left us reeling. Atrocities were committed on both sides and it was an awfully sobering experience.
St Paul’s Cathedral
No, not that one.
Just after we came out of the museum, the sky started to threaten.
We dashed towards a large building, St Paul’s Cathedral. Inside, the clamour from outside fell away and the simplicity of the clean white walls cooled the air inside. Large fans hung from the ceiling and it looked like a church somewhere in America’s Southern states. We walked around the entrance and then sat for a while, soothing our throbbing feet.
Happily the clouds passed without disgorging their miserable contents.
In London, we have signs on our bus stops that tell you the buses that stop there, where they go, and they even countdown to the moment the bus arrives. In Kolkata, they do things a little differently. Each bus has a man who hangs from the door of the bus and shout its route out to the waiting crowd. We found ourselves at a busy crossroads, each corner of which was an informal bus stop.
Buses raced in, their destination callers bellowing. They screeched to a halt, and then almost instantaneously started pulling out again. People threw themselves into the open doorway and pushed into the already packed interiors. If they faced a wall of stationary passengers, they would join the destination callers, hanging onto the open doorway, shopping bags dangling over the road.
The Mohor Kunja Park
Opened just 2 years before our visit, the Citizen’s Park is another little slice of green in the middle of this hectic city.
We strolled around the colourful flowerbeds, and then took our places on the stone bleachers for this park’s main event. Every evening, the fountains erupt into a musical show. The music started and the water rose and fell in time, in a riotous collection of clashing colours. Super tacky but super fun and when you are a penny pinching backpacker, every free activity is a small win. Below is a short video of the fountains, you may want to turn your speakers down (or off).
Check out how terrifying this “cute” bin is!!
I’m not going to lie, by the time we reached Kolkata, we were after comfort food. I don’t mind curry twice a day, every day, but it was fun to mix it up. We went to a pizzeria called Fire and Ice. Our day’s activities had been almost free and so we could splash out on a brilliantly cooked, mozzarella-topped pizza treat. I’m pretty sure we had to share one but it was great and it was a nice change of atmosphere.
Our other foody indulgence was a McDonald’s. I have written a whole article about Karl’s strange travel habit regarding McDonald’s (read it here). Let me just say that Maharaja Macs are about a zillion times nicer than their beefy counterparts.
With Kolkata’s reputation as a modern city, I think I was expecting somewhere a little more clean and zippy. Kolkata was a surprisingly grimy city. It has huge concrete overpasses above you, a small underground system below and a mass of humanity at street level. Saying that, it has a really interesting history and has some wonderful surprises. We also arrived in Kolkata during an amazing time of year but I’ll tell you all about that next time.