Thursday, March 20, 2014

Train travel in India - Kolkata to Darjeeling

We decided our next destination: Darjeeling.
Mainly because we want some tea... or was it because we've seen the movie "The Darjeeling Limited"?

Either way, that's where we're headed next. So, to get there, we need some form of transportation.
What better than our old friend, the overnight train?
So we jumped in a cab and headed to the railway station that we thought would be the appropriate one for a train leaving in the afternoon.
Jump in a cab
The station we went to was Howrah Railway Station, north-west of the city centre, on the banks of the Hooghly River (a tributary of the Ganges). We went there, as it's only logical that a big station where trains leave to go to where we want to go, would sell tickets to that destination...right?

Not so fast, you're in India now, bucko!
Logic might be at play somewhere in the country, but not in the train ticketing system.
We showed up, and apart from a sense of awe at how chaotic the station is, we also had fun looking for a ticket office for the train to Darjeeling.

We asked a bunch of random strangers (possibly station staff, we couldn't be sure), and eventually found our way to the "Computerised Reservations" ticket counter, where we were unsurprised to see that the counter we had been directed to was closed for a shift change.
Fortunately, we only had to wait 5 minutes... ok, 10 minutes, until the clerk appeared, and shifted his favourite (very well-used and quite filthy) keyboard across from the neighbouring PC to his station, then we could inquire about the ticket to Darjeeling.

Of course, he told us we were in the wrong place entirely. At this station, they only sell unconfirmed berths/seats, and only to Indian people.
Us foreigners needed to go to the Foreign Tourist Reservation Office, which was not even at the station.

Deep breaths, count to 50...

OK, so where might this office be?

Across the river, in BBD Bagh. He was kind enough to write the address and suggest that we take a boat across the river, as it's a lot quicker and cheaper than a taxi.
The address to go to

How to get there from Howrah station
After some doubts that this might be a wild goose chase, we set off, finding the river pier and buying two tickets across. At 5 rupees each, it sure was cheap!!
Riverboat ticket window
Going to the boat
On the boat

A helpful local, who happened to be going to the same area, told us which boat and then when we arrived, walked with us to the office. Ah, the kindness of strangers.. :-)
So we found it easily, but without this helpful gentleman, we might have searched for ages.

The office had 5 clerks, two of whom were actually doing anything, the others were sitting around chatting over tea.
Clerks serving the people ahead of us
Eventually, it was our turn - waiting is the name of the game in India, it seems - and we got help booking our ticket. In India, it's not just a matter of telling them you want a ticket to a destination and coughing up the cash, nooo, you have to fill in a form for it.
Paperwork...

We then paid our money and got the ticket on the Darjeeling Mail train, departing 10pm from Sealdah station, which is located a bit closer to our hotel than Howrah station is.

So now, all we need to do is show up and get on the train... presumably...

Embarrassing admission time: When we were waiting for the clerks to finish assisting the folks ahead of us, we actually read the Lonely Planet India book's section on how to get to Darjeeling from Kolkata. Naturally, it tells you: go to the Tourist Reservation Office to get your tickets.
Captain Picard knows how we felt..