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Published: March 17th 2014
The last stop in Assam after Manas National Park was the city of Guwahati. This is where I flew into from Kolkata and this is where I would fly out of back to Kolkata. The city used to be called Gauhati (pronounced go-hah-tee) but it has since had an official spelling and pronunciation change to Guwahati (pronounced gwa-hah-tee although all the locals still pronounce it the old way). Just like Calcutta changing to Kolkata. I got to Guwahati by train from the Barpeta Road station near Manas. I figured I should take at least one train while in India. It isn't a “real” train ride because it is only about two hours but it is still characteristically mental. The ticket cost 45 rupees (less than a dollar) but you don't even really need to buy one because it doesn't give you a seat and the trains are so packed that there's no way tickets could be checked anyway. The train didn't pull up at the platform it was supposed to so to get to the right platform, instead of using the overhead pass half the people just climbed through the other train, between the carriages, while it was still moving, and then ran across the tracks to the other platform. When the right train did arrive everyone formed a mad scrum to get through the doors first – just like China except here there's a reason for it. In China the ticket is actually for an assigned seat, here whoever gets inside first gets the seats. Everyone else has to stand. The train ended up at the Kamakhya Junction Station. I didn't have any information on Guwahati apart for that I wanted to go to the Assam State Zoo while there, and I had no idea on the lay-out of the city, so I just followed everyone else out of the station and down the road until I saw a sign for a hotel, the Maa Sharda Guesthouse. I got a basic room there for 500 rupees (about NZ$10). It had a shared bathroom which was inhabited by more mosquitoes than I had seen in all the rest of Assam put together. The hotel is no more than fifty metres from the train tracks and about every half an hour, day and night, a train would go past blasting its horn to get people off the tracks. And yet I liked staying there more than I did staying at the Florican Cottages at Manas.
The next morning I set off early (6.30am) to get to the Assam State Zoo. The manager of the hotel had said I could get bus number 17 from beside the main road (the AT Road, a couple of minutes walk away) and that would drop me right at the gate. I had left so early because I knew it would take at least an hour on the bus, probably more, and I also suspected that trying to sort out the bus system might prove trickier than he suggested. Sure enough, the problem I immediately encountered was that only the school buses had numbers in English. The others only had them in Assamese which to me just look like squiggles, and none of the drivers or conductors speak English. I thought I would walk to the bus station instead where things might be easier to deal with. The hotel manager had implied the station was just up the road but it wasn't. I never found out how far away it was because instead I asked an auto-rickshaw driver how much to get to the zoo, he said 300 rupees (about NZ$6), and I said sure why not.
I arrived at the zoo about half an hour before opening time. There were already a dozen people sitting around waiting. Rhesus macaques and house crows were running and flying (respectively) about the car-park. I checked out the entry prices posted on various signs. Adult foreigners were 100 rupees and then, just like the national parks, there were also additional charges for cameras – although at least they make distinctions between different types of camera instead of having a flat rate. A still camera was charged at 40 rupees, a still camera with tele-lens 300 rupees, a digital camera 100 rupees, an 8mm movie camera 400 rupees, a 16mm movie camera 1000 rupees and a home video camera 500 rupees. My camera, a digital SLR with a 300mm lens, was 100 rupees and they didn't know about my other little camera. (For comparisons, at the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata the entry price was 20 rupees and there were no extra charges for cameras). Everyone's bags are checked by a security guard upon entering and all food is removed. There aren't any cafes or restaurants inside the zoo, although there is one right outside the entry point which appeared to sell only snacks and drinks rather than proper food.
Taken as a whole the Assam State Zoo is a very Indian sort of zoo. Anyone who has been to India or seen photos of Indian cities might be able to picture it, with brown dusty paths, grimy concrete walls around the enclosures, rusty metal bars and wire, workers sweeping leaves and sand off to the side with twig-brooms, house crows bouncing about along the railings, little bonfires burning here and there to get rid of rubbish. It all looks very unkempt but also just natural for India. There is a great difference in how various animals are kept. If going clockwise (left) from the entrance the first half of the zoo is mostly good, but the second half is mostly awful. The hooved stock all have large – sometimes extremely large – enclosures, there are some very good primate islands covered in trees, some very good large enclosures for big cats, a very good bear island, some average aviaries and some huge aviaries. And then there are horrible small bear pits, small bare cages for small cats and civets, a vertical cylinder of a cage for an Indian crested porcupine with very little floor area (although at least it had a cave in the middle to sleep inside), tiny pens for hippos, menagerie-style concrete-and-bars cages for leopards, and a whole cluster of appalling cells for monkeys. I honestly don't know how to rate the zoo. Initially I was impressed because the first enclosures I was seeing were the primate islands and the ungulate paddocks, then it went very downhill when I got to the leopards and bears, then it got much better with the lions and more hooved stock, and then it just got all mixed up – good and bad together – before finally finishing with the horrors of the cages in “Primates World”. I think it is a zoo worth visiting but at the same time I am hesitant about recommending it as a zoo to be visited. I did expect it to be considerably better than it was.
Just near the entrance is an Ecological Museum which displays a wide range of stuffed animals and skulls. I think these are mostly ex-zoo animals, but perhaps not all because there are three baby Gangetic dolphins in there as well. Other particularly interesting specimens included four pigmy hogs, a hispid hare, three Chinese pangolins, several clouded leopards, and a marbled cat skin. I visited the museum at the end of my visit and the batteries on my small camera were at the end of their charge so I only managed one photo (of the hispid hare). I couldn't get a photo of the racks of babies and foetuses in jars of preservative, amongst which were pigmy hoglets, baby golden and Nilgiri langurs, baby hog badgers, a rhino foetus, a two day old chimpanzee (born at the zoo in 1979), and also a rhino penis. Most of these seemed to have come from the zoo's collection over the years.
When I was at Kaziranga, Rocky Singh had told me that Gangetic dolphins could be seen in the Brahmaputra River which flows through the city (the same river which flows through Kaziranga National Park), so the next morning I walked up the AT Road to find it. The hotel manager had said ten, twenty minutes. It took an hour. I did see the river before that, but it was only between buildings. There were a lot of cattle egrets along the river's edge, along with ruddy shelducks and other ducks too far away to see properly, but no dolphins while I was watching. There are a lot of gyms in Guwahati! In that hour's walk I passed three of them, which is weird because I haven't seen anyone here who looks like they go to a gym. All the gyms have pictures of bodybuilders outside – one even called itself a “bodybuilding gym” and another had a trophy in the window. The city is a bit mad, but not like Kolkata. It is still disgusting and dirty and clogged with traffic and full of diseased dogs, but it doesn't have that same feeling of post-apocalypticalness that Kolkata does. I still wouldn't live there though. There are quite a few internet cafes about, so I ducked into one briefly. There was supposed to be a “well-known” site for greater adjutants in Guwahati, namely “the Guwahati city dump” but I didn't know where this was and when I tried asking the hotel manager he had got a little confused as to why on earth I would want to go to a dump. I'm sort of surprised there even are dump sites in Indian cities, given the amount of rubbish piled everywhere in the streets. Some googling revealed that there are numerous dumping sites in the city and the adjutants appeared to be seen at all of them, so I found one on Google Maps called the Adabari dumping ground which was within walking distance. I'm down to my last few thousand rupees and I don't want to use an ATM to just get out a small amount more because of the fees charged on foreign withdrawals, so now I'm trying to stretch it out as much as possible for the last days in the country by not spending any money on taxis and so on.
In the morning I set off up the road to look for the dump. I had a rough map drawn from Google maps but it basically had a couple of railway lines and the approximate site of the dump. I found where I should turn off the main road, and this street led into a maze of alleyways through the slums. I kept going deeper, just turning left or right depending on whichever way looked most likely, with the local slum-dwellers eyeing me suspiciously. There was no logical reason for any white person to be in here. Nobody in here spoke English of course and I had no clue how to mime looking for a rubbish dump – after all, there was rubbish everywhere, lining every lane. Perhaps this was
the dump? I never found what I was looking for, and more importantly there were no birds in the sky. Above a dump there should be a blizzard of crows and kites; here the sky was completely empty in every direction. I did see a greater adjutant when I was at Kaziranga, it just would have been nice to see them in more quantity and get some photos (although I did get some good photos of breeding-plumaged birds at the Assam State Zoo).
The hotel manager had told me when I first arrived that there were no buses or shared taxis to the airport, I would have to take a regular taxi and it would cost 600 rupees (about NZ$12). This didn't sound right, and most of what else he had told me had turned out to be wrong, so when I was at the internet cafe the other day I checked this out and discovered that there is
a bus to the airport, it costs 130 rupees, and it leaves from the Paltan Bazar. I also discovered that the route went along the AT Road through Migaon, right about where my hotel was. I wrote down the number of the bus company and back at the hotel asked the manager if he could ring them up to check whether I would have to go to Paltan Bazar or if they could do pick-ups along the route. “Sure, sure, it's no problem, they do pick-ups,” he says, as if he has known about the bus all along, “you just wait by the road. There are many buses going out to the airport” I suggested he call them to check this out, he kept stalling, and I kept pressing. Something I had realised just after arrival in India, back with the general manager of Wild Grass at Kaziranga, is that Indians are lazy! They really don't want to do anything, so they will just say “yes yes yes” and fob you off without doing the thing they are supposed to be doing, even if it something as easy as making a phone-call. Eventually I got him to make the call and it turned out that the bus definitely doesn't pick up along the route, I would have to go to the start point to catch the bus which on the day I did by the cheapest way possible, namely to take a city bus from the AT Road to Paltan Bazar for 8 rupees.
Paltan Bazar is a much nicer district than Migaon. It is where I would have ended up if the train from Manas hadn't terminated where it did, but I just take the dice as they roll. At Paltan Bazar there are slightly cleaner streets (only slightly, but still), hotels with names like “Fame City Hotel” and “Amaze Hotel”, shops which look like actual shops and not like someone has just taken off the front wall of their garden shed and put up a sign, restaurants which look like you could eat there without getting Hepatitis, there are Baskin Robbins' and Pizza Huts and malls. It is almost like somewhere you could live. On the other hand, who needs all that stuff anyway?
The airport security in Guwahati is even more severe than in Kolkata, although that's probably not surprising given that a plane flying out of
Assam is probably more likely to be hit with terrorism than one flying into
Assam. As before I had to take out my batteries and field guide from my check-in luggage to be visually checked, then after the x-raying all bags had cable-ties put through their locks so that nothing could be sneaked in afterwards. At the next security check where the hand-luggage was x-rayed I had to take the cameras out of the bag so it could be x-rayed again, and then remove the batteries from my cameras as well. And then finally there was a third
security check, where everyone was again metal-detectored and frisked as they went through the gate to board the plane. Soon airport security is going to get to the stage where passengers are not allowed any hand-luggage at all and pockets will need to be completely empty.
In Kolkata I took the airport bus for 40 rupees (instead of a taxi for 280 rupees) to the Esplanade bus station which is about ten minutes walk from Sudder Street, the backpacker hang-out. I stayed at the Capital Guesthouse where there was a pretty grotty room for 590 rupees. I had one day free in the city before my flight out to Bangkok and originally I was going to try for a day-trip to the Sundarbans but I had no money left. I managed to stretch 4000-odd rupees out over the last six days in India, which was pretty good going, about NZ$15 a day, and that included buying a $30 pair of shoes. I really
had to replace the South Korean shoes which I was still wearing even though the soles were coming apart and the metal inserts in the soles were starting to stick out the side. I'm amazed I never got refused on flights with what looked like the tips of hidden blades sticking out of my shoes! Anyway the sole on one was literally about to fall off so I needed new ones immediately. The problem with buying shoes over here is that my feet are way bigger than most Asians' feet. There are stalls all along the streets selling shoes for just a few dollars, but just as in South Korea the only ones I could find in my size were much more expensive. I ended up with a horrible pair of tan Indian loafers which, being emergency shoes, aren't quite
big enough but they were the biggest shoes available. The only way I could look any more stupid is if I was wearing brand new South Korean shoes! I left my old shoes sitting beside the road in the box the new ones had been in. A couple of hours later when I want past on the way to catch the airport bus I saw the box was still there but the shoes had already found a new owner. I can just imagine some homeless Indian man with giant clown feet saying “finally I have found some thrown-away shoes which fit me!!” Then he would put on the shoes and strut around saying to the other homeless people “Look at me! I'm a tourist!” Ha, jokes at the expense of the destitute. Can I sink any lower?
For my last day in India I returned to the Botanical Gardens. I had been intending to go early but I finally had internet after three weeks and when I got up in the morning I got sidetracked with forums and blogs and emails and things, so didn't get to the gardens until about 9.30. It costs 100 rupees to enter the gardens, plus a 20 rupee camera fee. I gave the guy at the counter a 500 rupee note, and he very slowly counted out the change below the desk out of my line of sight. Nothing suspicious about that. He handed me the change with the notes all folded up together. As I opened them up he immediately said “oh sorry sir” and gave me the extra couple of 100s which he had “forgotten” to put in. I had come to the gardens mainly to look for three-striped palm squirrels. From what I found on the internet, both five-striped and three-striped palm squirrels live there, Kolkata being part of the two species' overlap ranges. I had seen five-striped palm squirrels before (in Perth where they are introduced, and one the last time I was in Kolkata) but I had never seen three-striped palm squirrels. Because of pouring rain on the previous visit to the gardens I hadn't seen even one squirrel there, but today was fine and sunny and there were squirrels everywhere, especially around the Giant Banyan where they were bounding all over the ground and scuttling all over the branches and trunks. All of them were five-striped palm squirrels. I'm not positive three-striped palm squirrels even do live in the Kolkata Botanical Gardens – on the internet I have seen a lot of misidentified photos taken there! I saw a small Indian mongoose meandering along one of the paths too. The regular birds from before were there as well. I had almost
got to 300 birds for the year to date while in India and I was hoping to see just a couple extra in the gardens to round it up but didn't quite make it. I had also been intending to visit the Marble Palace Zoo on this day to see chousingha but after visiting the gardens for the whole morning and the early afternoon the traffic was so bad that I wouldn't have made it until almost closing so that was cancelled.
I did manage to see one extra mammal in India before I left though. While I was sitting outside the Capital Guesthouse I saw out of the corner of my eye what I thought was small rat running along the base of the wall next to me. It turned out to be an Asian house shrew, the first one I've ever seen. Much
larger than expected (hence me thinking it was going to be a rat), sort of like if you had thought a capybara was going to be about the size of a hare. So my mammal total for the country ended on 26 which is pretty good considering no spotlighting.
Leaving India the security was a bit lax – I didn't have to take out either the batteries or
my field guide for them to check! I was flying to Bangkok with Thai Airways, the first time I'd used them. Normally I would be flying with Air Asia but they had been fully booked for that whole week and Thai Airways wasn't much dearer. The guy at the check-in counter in the Kolkata Airport wanted to know where my Thai visa was in my passport. I said I didn't need one in my passport and he looked unbelieving, but eventually he let me through. I'm guessing they mainly get Thais and Indians going on that flight route. When I got to the border check the chap there didn't know what my Indian visa-on-arrival was and wanted to know where my “real” visa was in the passport. I had somehow timed my departure and remaining rupees perfectly and hence left the country with exactly zero rupees. In the month in India I had spent exactly 92,000 rupees (about NZ$1750), not including the flights but including the 3600 rupees visa-on-arrival. That's just under NZ$60 per day on average which, given the costs inside the parks is actually less than I had expected. India is damned expensive if going there for wildlife!
Now I am back in Bangkok wondering what to do because my bank account is almost empty. I don't want to go back to the real world!! Stupid real world with its jobs and stuff.
First I needed new shoes. Again. The ones I got in India were no good for walking any distance in, with the back rubbing my heel and the front crushing my toes, so off I went to the Chatuchak Market where I bought another pair for 300 Baht (about NZ$12). Strangely enough, nobody would do a deal which included a trade with the Indian shoes and even the stalls selling second-hand shoes wouldn't buy them. So I just gave them to the lady at the reception desk at my guesthouse and said she could find them a home.
Tonight I am off on an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. I'm planning on getting in some more birds at Doi Inthanon before dragging my sorry carcasse home to New Zealand.
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