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Sunday, May 27, 2012

ESCAPE FROM THE MOUNTAIN OF DOOM

ESCAPE FROM THE MOUNTAIN OF DOOM

Darjeeling wasn't all bad. The good thing was "I saved a bit of money" over normal India. I was renting a nightmare of a room for 250 INR. The ever wet squat toilet and the scary outside showers weren't too appealing. The room was interesting for it's collection of flying insects.

Because everything in Darjeeling is a climb up or down a steep hill, it wasn't a city I really enjoyed kicking around in. Fat, smoking people dislike hills. Yet another bout of 'traveler's tummy' didn't help either. Not wanting food at all because you are jumping for the toilet every few minutes does make for a great weight loss program. Screw exercise and eating healthy - just eat everything until something pulls the plug! It's like a wonder drug.

There was a great restaurant there named Sonam's Kitchen. The food was pretty decent but what I really liked was how little seating there was. This forced people who didn't know each other to sit together. As a result, I met a lot of great tourists. Also, the people who owned and ran the restaurant were great. I got an opportunity to hang out with both locals and tourists there.

Because of the nightmare that is Indian Rail, I got stuck longer than I anticipated in Darjeeling. The town is not nearly as cool as it looks on paper. I'd personally not wish to travel back there and would advise many places over it. I'd rather deal with the heat of the low lying areas than the extortionist prices people have begun charging to get up and down the mountain. Naturally, it costs more to get off the mountain than onto it. If you're wanting to go there to see the wonderful mountains in the distance, just forget it. The weather alternates between overcast and foggy.

Due to the influence of Ellen and Jonas, two tourists I met, I did indeed visit 'Happy Valley' tea plantation. The tea plantation I visited in Georgia was more interesting and the guide didn't hit you up for a tip afterward. We picked up another lone tourist named Eemay and went off to watch Jonas painstakingly taste tea. I recorded this and when I can get access to wifi, will upload it.

Getting train tickets in India is very complicated at times. Since all of the Indian tourists flooded into Darjeeling it became one of those times. Rather than wait for hours in line and need to bribe the officials at the train station (yes) I decided to just pay four or five dollars over the normal price and get someone else to do it. In retrospect, he did a nice job.

Because I would be traveling for thirty or forty some hours nearly in a row, I decided to go the best possible class. In India, this is 2AC. That means the bunks are two high and it is air conditioned. Below that is 3AC then 'sleeper' and after that is 'the huddled masses'. Anyone who travels last class is either desperately poor, insane or stuck with no alternatives.

I followed the advice of my travel agent. Although the train I would be taking after arrival in Calcutta left four hours later, I had my ticket booked for the following day. Trains which are four hours late are not really uncommon in India. It turns out I need not have bothered but it was a good precaution and I'm sure that sleeping at the shitty rat trap didn't hurt.

Getting off the Mountain of Doom (where Darjeeling lies) was a lot more challenge than I had thought it would be. Due to the masses of Indian tourists desparate to escape the heat of the low lands, other Indians figured it would be a great time to jack the prices of transport up. These costs are supposed to be fixed by the government but hey - this is India. Judging by how many people are constantly trying to sell me drugs, there doesn't seem to be a lot of law around. So they jacked the prices. After wandering around for a while with a young gentleman from my travel agent (who was carrying the backpack - yes he did get a tip because he didn't ask for one) it started to look like I wasn't going to make it off the mountain. Everything was full. Fortunately, I ran into two people from the Czech Republic who were even more desperate to leave than I was, Ivetta and Radim.

Sadly, they had believed their travel agent when he told them lies like leaving at noon for a five PM train would be more than enough. I first met them standing forlornly at a very crowded queue for the jeeps down. It wasn't moving because everything was full. After checking out the situation, I suggested we split a jeep. It was 666 INR each. Yes, Satan lives in TJ. Oh - I shouldn't have put in those last two words. Anyway, that got us off the mountain but was a bit more pricy than the standard 150 NRS to get up. Turns out that Ivetta was great company. Radim couldn't speak any English. Oh, it would so suck to travel without speaking English. Radim, if you're reading this, bless Google Translate and study English!

After all of the hard driving to get off the mountain and rush to the train station we discovered their train was running three and a half hours late. Yes, three and one half hours.

While we were hanging out waiting for our respective trains, I was leaving my bag in their care. I told Ivetta "If I'm not back, avenge my death!" She responded "Maybe you'll have some nice things in bag." Sounded just like Jana when she said that. It was a bit spooky - like Jana was in the train station with me, planning my doom. Maybe it will become a standard thing for all women from the Czech Republic - plotting Logan's doom.



CALCUTTA

So I took a twelve hour train ride from NJP to Calcutta. The train sleep wasn't good at all due to the crappy, irregular tracks. I spent most of the time listening to my audio books.

Calcutta was a bit more green than a lot of the cities I'd been in. But you can't polish a turd, as the saying goes. The beggars were memorable. They don't really have a 'tourist area' - it's just a normal street with a couple more hotels than average.

Most of the hotels were full but eventually I found a craptastic room for 350 INR that made me wish I had mosquito netting. There were no screens in the large windows though they had sturdy bars. I left the lights off and the fan blasting high and hoped the bugs wouldn't find me. The room was just big enough to hold two beds and a table. I had to dust off crumbs from gods know what before getting on a bed. The horrifying bathroom was right across the hall. The walls were of the "we're too cheap to build all the way to the ceiling" variety. For 1300 INR I could have gotten a double air con but again no wifi. I can say 'dump'. On the upside I discovered I really don't care if it is a cold shower when it is that hot.

I questioned Indians on why they have 'foreigner only' guest houses, hotels and such. Apparently, the foreigners complain about the Indian guests playing loud music and shouting at each other all night with the TV's blasting like they've all gone deaf. It's nice to know it's not just me.

In case you didn't guess, yeah, I was the only foreigner at this particular hotel. If you'd like to stay at a very depressing place, be sure to check out the "Tourist Inn".

The only place of some interest in the 'tourist area' is the 'Blue Sky Cafe'. It was packed with tourists. I don't know if it was because of the decent food or the air conditioning.

I did some wandering around the part of Calcutta I found myself in. I even picked up a local guide who guilted me into a 'donation for needy kids' after he had gotten me thinking he was just a friendly helpful man. Bzzt! Wrong. Welcome to India, bitches.

The British left the Indians a lot of public parks and the Indians stocked them with annoyingly persistent beggars. I have no idea why there are so many Indian tourists here, especially given the heat.



LUXURY TRAIN

Because I'd been willing to shell out extra money for comfort, I was on a pretty exclusive twenty four hour ride. I had the luck of sitting with a very cool, educated and friendly Indian family. Even the two twelve year old boys (cousins) were pretty smart. I wasn't that smart at age twelve and some of the unkind might argue I am still not. Because India is a mix of good and bad, I also had the bunk above me occupied by someone I named 'naughty monkey'. This amused the crap out of the twelve year olds. I'm pretty sure they guy spoke English also but he was wise enough not to say anything or I'd have ripped on him to his face instead of just clowning around for the kids. Yes, he was mildly rude to me at the outset so he became marked for messing with by Logan. I was thinking about Johnny Chimpo. It's Afghanastanamation!

The eleven or twelve person family group had booked their train tickets three months in advance. Since that time, the fares had gone up so the conductor collected the difference. I asked if the fares went down would they be refunded the difference? In theory, yes - but in practicality no I was told.

This was the kind of fancy train that sent by people to spray lemon scent on the floors and curtains periodically.

On all long train rides, there is usually a secret smokers area. Since it is illegal to smoke on the train, there is some sort of outlet - often the conductors room. When I inquired about it I was encouraged to smoke in the bathrooms.

Near the end of the journey, teams of railway guys began coming around with a small bowl of mints on a large tray decorated with one hundred rupee notes. This is to show what they were expecting to get as tips. Naturally, my white skin screamed 'ATM' to them and they hurried over to me. The first group got thirty rupees which they weren't happy about and put into their pocket so other people wouldn't get the wrong idea and start shelling out anything less than one hundred rupee notes. Sure, giving them sixty cents might be seen as cheap but it is most of the one dollar I've received in donations from the paypal account I linked on the main page after the readers encouraged me to go through the chore.

In my stress, agitation and urgent need to get off of the train I forgot my 'butt blanket'. This makes me sad as I've wasted about $8 USD. Bummer.



MUMBAI

I was in a foul mood due to both my twenty four hours of confinement and being shaken down for tips when I got to the sweatbox known as Mumbai. I poked around there to see what sort of lodgings were available. While it is true that a place could be gotten for 200 INR it was the kind of place you'd want to bring your own booby traps for added security to. The less throat slitty places seemed to range above one thousand for a fairly crappy place. For a decent place, you're looking at two thousand on up. It amazes me that anyone would spend that kind of money when they could be staying in Europe for that. Yes, I think Europe is better than India - especially if you have to spend the same amount of money in either.

This would go a long way toward explaining why I didn't see any other tourists in Mumbai. It is India's most expensive city. There were some interesting looking buildings and such there but since the cost of a room exceeded my total daily allowance I decided to take a pass. Unfortunate because Mumbai is the last place that has many of the consulates I need when I figure out which country I'm wanting to head for next.

Given the choice between sleazy or completely out of my price range, I chose to immediately flee and head to Goa hoping it would be better. Sure, I'd just gotten off of a twenty four hour train ride and was going to be going for another twelve but what the hell.

Something that deeply shocked me was the wild differences between prices at travel agencies ten meters apart on the street. The first was 800 INR, the second 1500 INR and the third 1200 INR. Baffling. Nothing special was offered in any of the cases other than the 800 INR bus was scheduled to leave at 7PM (which, in Indian tradition became 8PM). The really surprising thing was when I went back for my ticket they told me it will only actually be 650 INR. This shocked me. I kind of expected them to just pocket the difference. I wrote down the name in case anyone needs to book a ticket through them: Konduskar Travels Pvt Ltd. Not a great name but I was impressed. The bus itself was average but on the newish side.

The ride was a hellish twelve hours but unlike Nepal, I actually managed to nod off a few times.



GOA, LAND OF CHEAP BEER

Unlike the rest of India which taxes the crap out of the beer, Goa has chosen not to. That means the beer here is less than a dollar as opposed to over two dollars. The architecture is nice as well. I've dubbed most of the architecture in Asia as 'box of utilitarian crap' but this architecture has a bit of flare to it. And there are a lot of plants.

Since I've managed to score a room with AC and hot water, I may spend several days investigating this city as well as looking for affordable places that offer wifi. For those curious, the initial price was around 700 or 750 INR but I managed to get it down to 630 INR. I tried and tried for an even 600 INR but just couldn't do it. When I did the bargaining, I was hanging out with an English tourist named Karen. She isn't into the whole bargaining thing but seemed surprised that I got the price down. Remember, if you're not into bargaining in Asia you are into getting ripped off. Your choice.

Another note on Goa - due to the Jesuits, pretty much nothing is open on Sunday. Really - it was rough to find an open restaurant. But I did - the belly always can find food. I was chatting with the owner of the hotel who thought that in America nothing was open on Sundays. Maybe when I was a kid this was so, I informed him, but the home of capitalism always is open for business now. These days, you either have to be living in the buckle of the bible belt or some sort of backwater hicksville to not have things open on Sundays.



DEATH OF THE BAG

The strap broke. I managed to do some makeshift repairs with the cord I always carry but it is looking like it's pretty much dead. I am currently checking out new bags for a replacement. I may end up taking one I bought for 150 INR (down from 350 INR) to a tailor for some custom work such as replacing the zipper and adding pockets. I'm going to wait to see if I like it or not first.

Yes, I am sad that the bag is dead. No, I couldn't bring myself to throw out the corpse of it yet. I've had that bag for over fifteen years and I just wore it out through constant use.

Funeral services are yet to be scheduled.



WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO DO

I need to do some research to see if Sri Lanka is cheap and has anything I would like to see. The place I am definite about wanting to go is Indonesia. The tricky bit will be to find out where I wil pick up my visa. If you get a visa ahead of time, you get two months and it can be extended a further four months. Should you get a visa on arrival, you get one month extendable by only one month. And I need to see if I want to go to the Philippines. I know I don't like the cooking I've had from it in the past. What's up with all those jagged chunks of bone in stuff any way? It's like they beat the animal to death with a sledgehammer and stuck it in stew. Yech. All of my nightmares about Filipino food aside, I need to research and find out if I can stay in these countries cheaply. I don't think I'll ever be visiting northern India again but I'd like to find out where I can stay cheaply at a nice or at least decent spot. For some odd reason, I'm thinking I'll eventually end up back in the Republic of Georgia. In addition to great folks there a 360 day visa and the possibility of a job there are hard to beat. But I want to see a bit more of Asia first. I might work on getting an Indonesian visa in whatever country I end up visiting. Then again, I might just go for the visa on arrival. If I want to stay more than two months, duck out into another country to visit then get it there. I may have been (again) making it harder than it needs to be. I would feel silly working on getting a two month visa if I feel ready to leave after a month.

And I'll need to find out if it is possible to go by ship or if I'll be stuck flying in.

Something else I will have to keep an eye out for is Ramadan. This year (2012) it is July 20th to August 18th. And don't forget the week of festivals and clogged travel after it is complete! I hope to be in an extremely touristic area with my rent already pre-paid for that time and just sit still. Eating, drinking or even smoking in public during the day time are frowned deeply upon by the devout as they are going out of their minds from lack of food, water and nicotine.



MY IMPRESSIONS OF INDIA THUS FAR

In regards to the places I've been, "I Never Do It Again" (I.N.D.I.A.). It was interesting but I can live without the needless noise. It is possible to live very cheaply in India but I would like a bit better 'quality of life'. Aside from a few cool people I've met, the food is the only other thing which I love. We knew that before I came to India.



LOGAN'S PSYCHIC PREDICTIONS

When I was in Kathmandu, I prophesied that the people making the new constitution would ask for another extension. I was told this would be impossible - they were required to complete it on the date assigned after four years of extensions. None the less, I said wagging my finger, they will ask for another extension. They will do this because the people who set up the committees for making the constitution were not as clever as I. In the original contract, they'd find that their pay would keep getting reduced until they owed the government money after a few extensions. When people are faced with not getting paid much they will suddenly get it done.

In the "Indian Express" (May 25, 2012) the people working on Nepal's constitution asked for a three month extension.

HA.

Sadly, for the people of Nepal this will mean a lot more strikes. I also predict a 20% chance of a civil war. This percentage may rise if the people start other things which will provide markers they are building up to it. As to what this will do to Nepal's tourism, the phrase 'no lube' comes to mind.



LANGUAGES

I wish to god I was smarter and could retain more but these are the languages I can still remember two words or more in. Note the only one (aside from some English) I can have a bit of a conversation in is German. If I could speak all of these fluently, I'd be a happy camper. And I'd have 'badass' printed on all of my t-shirts.

Arabic
Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (all the same language but with different names)
Cambodian
Chinese
Czech
French
Georgian
German
Hebrew
Hindi
Japanese
Korean
Nepali
Russian
Thai

The truly sad thing is that there may be others I forgot I can speak. When I get into the country (or speak with it's people) some of it percolates back up. But actually learning a language is rough. A bit too rough for me but with the useful languages (ie spoken in three or more countries) I do try to put a bit more effort into it. I decided to make a list more for myself to look back on.



PRICES

Happy Valley tea, 100g 225 INR on up to five times that price, depending on which 'flush' and so on.

Vegetable au gratin (yum), 175 INR
Plain rice, 48 INR
Soda, 18 INR

Shared taxi off the Mountain of Doom (Darjeeling, Land of Thunder, sits atop it), 2000 INR. Wowza.

Lunch for three at a decent air conditioned restaurant in the train station including sodas, 460 INR.

Tuk tuk charge for about half an hour of riding, 180 INR.

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PICTURES

{{2011}} London, GB | Rail N Sail | Amsterdam, Netherlands | Prague, Czech Republic | Budapest, Hungary | Sarajevo, Bosnia | Romania | Chisinau, Moldova | Ukraine: Odessa - Sevastopol | Crossed Black Sea by ship | Georgia: Batumi - Tbilisi - Telavi - Sighnaghi - Chabukiani | Turkey: Kars - Lost City of Ani - Goreme - Istanbul | Jordan: Amman - Wadi Rum | Israel | Egypt: Neweiba - Luxor - Karnak - Cairo | Thailand: Bangkok - Pattaya - Chaing Mai - Chaing Rei | Laos: Luang Prabang - Pakse | Cambodia: Phnom Penh | Vietnam: Vung Tau - Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City

{{2012}} Cambodia: Kampot - Sihanoukville - Siem Reap - Angkor Wat | Thailand: Bangkok | India: Rishikesh - Ajmer - Pushkar - Bundi - Udaipur - Jodhpur - Jasalmer - Bikaner - Jaipur - Agra - Varanasi | Nepal: Kathmandu - Chitwan - Pokhara - Bhaktapur - (Rafting) - Dharan | India: Darjeeling - Calcutta Panaji | Thailand: Bangkok - again - Krabi Town | Malaysia, Malaka | Indonesia: Dumas - Bukittinggi - Kuta - Ubud - 'Full Throttle' - Gili Islands - Senggigi | Cambodia: Siem Reap | Thailand: Trat | Turkey: Istanbul | Georgia: Tbilisi

{{2013}} Latvia: Riga | Germany: Berlin | Spain: Malaga - Grenada | Morocco: Marrakech - Essauira - Casablanca - Chefchawen - Fes | Germany: Frankfurt | Logan's Home Invasion USA: Virginia - Michigan - Indiana - Illinois - Illinois - Colorado | Guatemala: Antigua - San Pedro | Honduras: Copan Ruinas - Utila | Nicaragua: Granada | Colombia: Cartagena | Ecuador: Otavalo - Quito - Banos - Samari (a spa outside of Banos) - Puyo - Mera

{{2014}} Peru: Lima - Nasca - Cusco | Dominican Republic | Ukraine: Odessa | Bulgaria: Varna - Plovdiv | Macedonia: Skopje - Bitola - Ohrid - Struga | Albania: Berat - Sarande | Greece: Athens | Italy: Naples - Pompeii - Salerno | Tunisia: Hammamet 1

{{2015}} Hammamet 2 | South Africa: Johnnesburg | Thailand: Hua Hin - Hat Yai | Malaysia: Georgetown | Thailand: Krabi Town | Indonesia:
Sabang Island | Bulgaria: Plovdiv | Romania: Ploiesti - Targu Mures | Poland: Warsaw | Czech Republic: Prague | Germany: Munich | Netherlands: Groningen | England: Slough | Thailand: Ayutthaya - Khon Kaen - Vang Vieng | Cambodia: Siem Reap

{{2016}} Thailand: Kanchanaburi - Chumphon | Malaysia: Ipoh - Kuala Lumpur - Kuching - Miri | Ukraine: Kiev | Romania: Targu Mures - Barsov | Morocco: Tetouan

{{2017}} Portugal: Faro | USA: Virginia - Michigan - Illinois - Colorado | England: Slough - Lancaster

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