Stuck in Siliguri (and Josh the Indian Travel Guru)

Kanchenjunga at sunrise, from Darjeeling

The view of Kanchenjunga from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling

Another mosquito drifted slowly past my face, lazy with blood. I couldn’t even be bothered to properly go for her in the heat, just vaguely wafting my hand through the humid air while I focused on the subtitles.

We were watching yet another heavily-censored American movie, subtitled in Hindi, and even though I could understand the audio and could not read the subtitles, my eyes kept trying to follow and decipher the Devanagari script anyway, without success.

This being socially conservative India, the sex scenes were fully scrubbed, kisses edited, the slightest hint of cleavage blurred, bad language erased, drugs not shown on screen even when the entire movie revolves around their sale; violence seemed to be fine, but not any resulting gore. I can confirm that with most of Tony Montana’s classic lines removed (though the most famous quote made the cut) along with his epic cocaine mountain, the Pacino gangster classic Scarface is little more than a boring parade of idiots with bad hair and terrible tastes in decor shooting each other to a backdrop of laughable music.

Danny and I amused ourselves by filling in the missing lines, arguing over the correct wording… “This town is like one big pussy waiting to just get fucked, man!”

“No mate, it’s ‘This town is like one big pussy just waiting to be fucked, man!'”

“No way man, you should just get fucked!”

And so on… in those pre-wifi days we couldn’t turn to Youtube for instant adjudication, and that particular debate rumbled on long after we’d left Siliguri and India behind (…and I think we both had it wrong anyway)

We’d been stuck in this shitty hotel in the decidedly unglamorous town of Siliguri for days, and arguing over Scarface quotes was the best entertainment we could come up with between meal times. And meal times were the one good thing about being stuck in Siliguri – our lousy hotel had a kickass kitchen that served up a dopiaza the better of which I’ve yet to meet, though we got so fed up of being stared at throughout our meals by the restaurant staff we eventually took to ordering it up to our room!

Rickshaw ride in Siliguri

Rickshaw ride through the scrappy town of Siliguri

We should’ve listened to Josh. Josh was our India travel guru from Australia, who we’d met a few days previously back up the hill in Darjeeling. A seasoned veteran of travel in India, he’d listened with a knowing smile and well-practised Indian head-wobble to our tales of getting scammed in Kolkata, clearly familiar with the terrain described.

We’d first been scammed by a fake taxi from the airport when arriving late at night, and then by a dishonest ticket office on Sudder Street who took our money for two train tickets to Siliguri, but only booked us one spot. The bastards gave us one real ticket, and one fake one for a non-existent berth on the train! It looked like we were going to be sharing for the night, but thankfully the conductor scored us a free berth for no extra charge.

Our guru had heard our stories, and then he’d given us a whole string of pearls of excellent tips and pieces of sage advice for travel in India. We were two young English lads in India for the first time, in Asia for the first time, backpacking round India for six weeks en route to Southeast Asia and Australia, and we may as well’ve had targets on our backs; Josh was a few years older, a seasoned travel vet, and a seasoned India vet. We felt like we should’ve written down everything he said in a travel bible and distributed it to other newbies!

I guess a lot of his advice would be out of date now, but some I’m sure still holds true; for example, to always aim to arrive in a new place by daylight, as nighttime arrivals make you ripe for ripping off; always book well ahead with your travel tickets, as millions of other people are trying to get where you’re trying to get and space is limited; if you worry about hygiene, get stuck into the street food as you can watch exactly how it’s cooked and prepared; never agree to hire a car and driver to drive you round Rajasthan from Delhi as it’s a rip off; never take on a rickshaw for the day for a crazy cheap price, as they’ll take you round all the bullshit scam markets whether you like it or not, wasting your time and also your money if you’re dumb enough to buy anything; it was a long list, and while a lot of it was in the Lonely Planet, this guy was giving us extra details with true stories as examples, and it was gold dust.

The most useful thing he explained to us, though, was how to buy train tickets. I won’t give the full explanation here, because things have changed a lot since – the improvements in internet usage in particular have made it a lot easier than it was back then, and you can now make your reservations online and pay with international credit cards (see the epic Seat61 India page for up to date tips on how to book Indian train tickets).

But essentially, back then the trick was to get a copy of Trains At A Glance (a hard copy of the timetable for every train service in India which is sold at railway stations for less than a dollar, and is now also freely available online), and to obtain a supply of blank reservation papers so you could have a bunch pre-filled with different train options before even doing battle in the ridiculous triple lines; Josh gave us his well-thumbed copy of At A Glance, as he was about to leave the country, and told us how to get buying tickets down from potentially a 2-hour job to a 30-minute job. His advice saved us plenty of time and hassle (once we started following it, that is), and he even left us his copy of Shantaram (essential reading for travel to India!)

However, when we left Darjeeling we’d totally failed to follow one of the golden rules – book well ahead, and don’t leave a place without your onward travel already booked (really in India at a minimum you want to be booking your onward transportation one step ahead).

We learned the hard way that sorting travel on the fly in India doesn’t really fly. We’d taken a jeep back down the mountain from Darjeeling to Siliguri, where we found it impossible to get a train ticket for that day or the next; after fucking around for hours in the station getting pushed and pulled in the sweaty heat, rival would-be passengers shoving us aside, beggar kids clawing at our sleeves, and the damn flies everywhere, the best we could get was a standing ticket for an unreserved car on a train heading west (we were aiming for Varanasi)… but when that train pulled in to the station, it was physically impossible to board it with our backpacks. People were hanging out of windows and doors as it was, and a whole shitload more were pushing to get on. No chance. So we went and found a cycle-rickshaw to take us to a hotel, and that’s how we ended up stuck in that scrappy hotel for days on end in Siliguri.

Sunset in Siliguri

The sun setting through a haze of pollution in Siliguri… I think I took this snap while we were searching in vain for an internet cafe

We should’ve listened to Josh, and we learned the hard way. The next day we woke up, had breakfast, checked out, and headed to the station; several exhausting hours later we left the station, defeated again, and went and checked back into the hotel for another evening of censored movies and dopiaza.

The following day followed the same pattern; it was like Groundhog Day! This time though, we helped ourselves to a healthy stash of reservation papers, and after a good session with Trains At A Glance over mango lassis we were armed and ready with half a dozen ticket options, forms filled in and ready to go.

Next day, we meant business; we went straight to the purchase line (now skipping the reservation paper line and the availability checking line), took no prisoners, and set a personal best for queuing time; once we had that ticket window, we held our ground, Danny trying to fend off the pusherinners coming from the sides while I slapped down reservation paper after reservation paper; first choice, computer says no; bang with the next paper before this other asshole can get his down; no again, bang again, no again, bang again! I think we finally managed to get our 5th choice train ticket, which unfortunately meant skipping Varanasi and going straight to Delhi – two days later! So, not ideal at all, but we had to get out of Siliguri so booked it.

And with tickets finally secured, we could relax and spend a couple more days wandering around Siliguri, eating lots of curry, watching lots of movies, and boring each other senseless with Scarface quotes.

Being stuck in Siliguri was ridiculous, and yet it’s somehow the most memorable part of our trip round India. We could only laugh at ourselves and at the situation, and the hotel staff had a good laugh at us too. The lesson was learned, and we never broke Josh the Guru’s India travel rules again!

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