Kolkata (nee Calcutta): India

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February 16th 2014
Published: February 16th 2014
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And now I'm in India. Kolkata to be precise (if you haven't heard of Kolkata it is because it used to be called Calcutta). There was a little drama when I was trying to check in at the airport in Bangkok and for a while I thought I wasn't going to make it. New Zealanders and a few other nationalities can get a one month visa on arrival for India which does away with the need to get one in advance like most people have to. When I was checking in at the Air Asia counter the man there starts flicking through my passport and then says “do you have an Indian visa?”. I say no because New Zealanders get a visa on arrival, and he says no I need a visa in my passport. I said again that we get a visa on arrival and he looks up on his computer where it says New Zealanders “require a visa” for India, and tells me I need one in my passport. I broke a bit of a sweat then, thinking “have they gone and changed the visa rules just recently and I didn't pick up on it?”. He goes away to check with someone, then comes back and says I need a visa and a return ticket. I say I have a return ticket, with Thai Airways, and show him the e-ticket which I fortunately had already printed out. He goes away again with all my bits of paper, and then comes back and says I need a hotel reservation for Kolkata, which I didn't have because I was planning on just heading to Sudder Street and seeing what I could find (Sudder Street is the backpacker place which has the cheapest rooms, and which is fairly close to the Alipore Zoo). Sorry, can't let you on the flight without hotel reservations he says. I can go book somewhere, print out the reservation, and then check in – but I need to be back before the check-in counter closes. What about the visa, I ask, have you sorted out what the deal is with that? Oh yes, you get a visa on arrival but you need to have the hotel booked. He directed me to an internet cafe in a hotel opposite the airport and I just booked the least expensive place on Hostelworld. There was only a choice of three, none of which were on Sudder Street and none of which were particularly cheap, and the one I booked did not have good reviews! And that is how I ended up in the Travel Inn Kolkata, aptly situated in a street named Lower Range!

The flight got into Kolkata at just after midnight because the airlines which offer cheap flights like to punish people for taking cheap flights. I wasn't sure how the visa on arrival was going to go at the Indian end but it was easy as pie, the only minor issue being that I knew the fee was US$60 and so I had specifically got some Baht changed into US$60 for that purpose but it turned out that the office at the airport wouldn't accept US dollars so I had to pay in rupees anyway. Also I didn't have a passport photo with me for the application; the officer made head-shaking tut-tut-tut noises and then photocopied my passport and used the picture from that. There was a pile of other applications on the desk which had already been processed and apart for one they all had photocopied pictures as well. I just slept in the airport for the first night to save money, and then at 6am took a taxi to the Travel Inn which, although it looks like an abominable slum from the outside is actually perfectly serviceable inside. The taxis in Kolkata are yellow cabs, which just say “India” when you see them (and in a first for me, the back seat of the taxi was swirling with mosquitoes!). The city as a whole, from what I have seen, is “Indian”. It is like a southeast Asian city but there's something different, I can't quite place it but it looks and feels different somehow. It is certainly a lot more, er, “run down” than any other Asian city I've been in!

After checking into the Travel Inn I headed off to my first Indian zoo and first Indian aquarium, namely the Alipore Zoo and the aquarium on the other side of the road from the zoo. It turned out, once I had looked at google maps, that where I am staying is actually a bit closer to the zoo than Sudder Street is. It took me about forty minutes to walk there, during which time I discovered that India doesn't believe in labelling streets so you can find your way around. However I saw a five-striped palm squirrel along the way, a species I have seen in Western Australia but never on its home ground. At the zoo I found huge numbers of Indian flying foxes at roost as well as quite a lot of wild birds. Most I had seen already this trip (and this year), but the jungle babblers and Indian pond herons were both lifers.

The Alipore Zoo is one of those really messy sort of zoos with paths going all over the place so you are continually cutting back and forth trying to see everything, and you always leave feeling like you've probably missed something important. There's no proper theme to the collection. The birds are mainly housed at one end of the zoo around the lake – and there are a LOT of birds here – while the hooved stock are mostly at the other end, but otherwise everything is just sort of higgeldy-piggeldy. Waterbird aviary then elephants then lions then more birds then hippos, like that. Best animal in the zoo was the Malabar giant squirrel, which was exceptionally beautiful. It is a pretty big zoo but I didn't catch it at a good time because it seemed like half of it was closed for renovations and reconstructions. Where-ever I was there would be corrugated iron fences up, abandoned cages, old overgrown paddocks, dilapidated aviaries, signs saying “work in progress”. Also India does not believe in tidy, so there's no attempt made to keep anything in order, whether it is the construction areas or just the usual business-as-usual areas. It's sort of like walking around a half-abandoned zoo which just won't be let go. The domestic cats roaming all over the grounds don't help the impression of neglect. I'm not sure if they have downsized the collection (there were a lot of empty enclosures!) or if a lot of animals are just off-show, but it must all be for the future good. I came across the old chimpanzee cage, a nasty nasty concrete bunker now sitting idle behind fencing before it is demolished, and later found the new chimpanzee enclosure which is a relatively large moated island which, while it could certainly do with more climbing structures, is a vast improvement. The zoo map (on sign-boards around the grounds – they did not appear to have a paper version) is actually more a blue-print of what the zoo will look like when finished rather than where everything is now. So I had to use it as a sort of general guide and try to ignore name-tags that said things like “Echidna House” and “Insect House”; I would like to know what would be displayed in a “Sonebursa Enclosure” though!

On the opposite side of the road from the zoo is the Kolkata Aquarium. It costs 5 rupees to enter (the zoo costs 20 rupees – there are about 50 rupees to one NZ dollar so not exactly expensive!). The aquarium is tiny. Photography is not allowed. I started to list the fish in my notebook (first tank “Scarus sp parrotfish” – they were parrot cichlids) but quickly realised that barely any fish in there would get a second glance at a pet-shop. The corridor goes in a U-shape and the tanks line each wall, very much like a pet-shop except the tanks in pet-shops look better and the fish don't generally look on the point of death. Very depressing place. There's a comment book at the exit which had some less than complimentary jottings inside.

The Botanical Gardens were on the Kolkata bird-watching cards the next morning (as in today). First I had to get a taxi. The first driver wanted 500 rupees to take me there (twice what the taxi fare from the airport was!) and when I said to use the meter he refused. So I tried a different taxi who also refused to turn on the meter and said it would be 250 rupees. You know that if you're being quoted a price and the request to use the meter is refused then you are being ripped off, so being the contrary person that I am, I didn't take any taxi from there at all. Instead I put off the Gardens for the moment and walked to Sudder Street which took about an hour. I quite like the Travel Inn where I have been staying the last two days – the room is clean and the staff are friendly and helpful – but it is situated in an extremely inconvenient location with no public transport anywhere nearby and no food outlets. Sudder Street is just near the subways and has loads of little restaurants so when I return to Kolkata I am going to stay there. I got some breakfast, then found a guesthouse which didn't have as nice a room as the Travel Inn but it was less than half the price, so that's where I will stay later. I also checked up on the cost of getting to the Sundarbans for a day trip when I'm back in Kolkata – I will only have one day free to do it, so it depends on whether there's anyone else going because I won't be able to afford it by myself. From Sudder Street I then got a taxi to the Botanical Gardens for 140 rupees.

The Gardens have a 100 rupee entry fee plus 20 rupees for cameras. They are very nice gardens, but they would have been even nicer if it hadn't been raining solidly all morning (so no photos were taken apart for some quick shots of the giant banyan tree). Also there is a lot of work going on in the grounds with diggers and almost every road was just a thick wadge of mud, the kind of mud which sticks to your shoes and then more mud sticks to that mud, and then more mud sticks to that mud, and you end up with shoes weighing three times what you started out in. Despite the rain I had fun with the birds and saw 33 species in total. I was also looking out for squirrels (both five-striped and three-striped palm squirrels are found in the Gardens) but I saw zero squirrels. Instead I saw a small Asian mongoose (that's a Small Asian Mongoose to avoid name-confusion!) which, like the five-striped palm squirrel yesterday, I have seen previously in an introduced location (Fiji) but this was the first time in its native range.

The Gardens are full of birds. I'd like to get back there when it isn't raining because I reckon I would see a lot more than I did. Many are ones you can see everywhere (common mynahs, jungle mynahs, red-vented bulbuls, that sort of thing) but I was surprised to find lots of bronze-winged jacanas on just about every bit of water here, along with the expected white-breasted waterhens, common moorhens, cattle egrets, pond herons, and common and white-throated kngfishers. There was even a common sandpiper by one ditch. Up in the trees were green bee-eaters, black-hooded orioles, verditer flycatchers and lesser goldenback woodpeckers. On the way to the giant banyan tree I saw some Indian ringneck parakeets. These have been introduced to several parts of the world (including the UK) but I haven't seen any of those ones so the first ones I got to see in the wild were right here in India. Later I saw some moustached parakeets which are related but much more colourful. The giant banyan tree was amazing! It is in the Guiness Book of Records it is so big (it covers an area of 3.9 acres and has a circumferance of over 450 metres). Banyans are a type of fig which send roots down from their branches to the ground, where they take hold and grow into new trunks and gradually spread outwards. The one here looks like a forest of trees because you are literally surrounded by trunks (it has 3618 prop-roots!), but they are all one tree. The original centre trunk no longer exists though, having been removed in 1925 after it was infected with fungus following some storm damage. I could hear koels up in the canopy of the giant banyan. I thought I saw one but when I got the binoculars on it, it turned out to be a rufous treepie (which is actually better than a koel). Then I saw some more birds in another part of the tree, and a couple of these were koels. The others were yellow-footed green pigeons. These are real bullies! There were quite a lot of coppersmith barbets up there too and whenever one landed a pigeon would come crashing towards it to scare it off, and then sit there looking very pleased with itself; then another coppersmith would land nearby and the pigeon would go after that one too. Coppersmiths are just wee birds too. It's like a sheep chasing off rabbits for no reason. As an aside, the reason coppersmiths are so called is because their call is this really monotonous “poop poop poop” which goes on all day long and sounds exactly like someone beating a little hammer on a copper pot.

First thing tomorrow morning I fly up to Guwahati in Assam, and go straight to Kaziranga National Park.


18th September 2014

Nice post, I do not know about these haunted places before. Thanks for sharing.

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