Sunday, February 20, 2011

Guwahati to Siliguri by Road

That's Assam to West Bengal. An overnight journey of 15 hours by road. This took place in the first week of January this year, so it was cold. I am not sure about the temperatures but it must have been around 15 deg C. and lower as the night wore on.

And no, this was not a planned trip. It was a result of fog making it difficult for the pilot to land the Kingfisher aircraft in Bagdogra airport (West Bengal). Visibility was poor so the Delhi-Bagdogra-Guwahati flight circled for a while and then finally landed in Guwahati...leaving some of us in a fix. I needed to be in Siliguri, West Bengal. Not Guwahati airport, Assam.

Obviously, the detour didn't go down too well with most of the passengers. Me included. I had a week's leave and I was not willing to lose one more day in travel. There was going to be no flight that day and nothing the following morning either. I had no idea about the trains that plied from Guwahati station or their schedule. There was much grumbling amongst some passengers -- most of whom, I assumed, were tourists heading to Darjeeling or Sikkim. Bagdogra or Siliguri are the places you go through, if you intend to visit D and S.

Kingfisher ground staff was helpful and assured us that they would arrange something. A bus or private taxis were suggested. Some were not convinced because an overnight journey on Assam's roads and national highways are not generally considered safe. Simply because of the unrest in the state because of the ULFA. But there hadn't been any critical events at that time, so I didn't really think it to be too unsafe. I confirmed that with family over the phone and agreed to hitch a ride with co-passengers in a bus. Later, we learned there was no bus. There were only private taxis. The ones that wait all day outside the airport -- like a bunch of vultures.

Some passengers opted for the return option -- return to Delhi airport. Some agreed for a flight refund and probably stayed the night in Guwahati. I had no choice, no time to waste in Assam or the patience. Private taxi, it had to be. I sat through an overnight journey from Calcutta to Siliguri in a bag-of-bolts bus and lived to tell it. This should be no different. At that time, I had failed to include certain parameters that could have made my journey miserable.

Mode of transport settled, we gave our names to the Kingfisher ground staff. They made a list. Took us outside and started negotiating with the taxi drivers. I soon realised this journey was a first for the taxi drivers themselves. I mean, go gets off at Guwahati airport and asks to be driven down to another state! Anyway, what ensued was a long wait for people to get organised into groups of four. The trouble started when everyone soon realised that the cars were Altos, Wagon Rs and such. 4-seaters. Larger vehicles are not allowed at the airport. There was just one Tata Safari, which filled up real quick. Obviously. But they also had to wait the longest. All the drivers had decided to set out together, in a line. There was safety in numbers and it helped those who didn't know the road from Guwahati to Siliguri.

By this time, I had made friends with four people who were going in my direction - Siliguri. One of the women was Nepalese, I think. I could not understand where she needed to get dropped off but I figured she would be better off with another group that room for one more person in their car. Not only did we have to make sure there were only 4 per car (excluding the driver), we needed to make sure everybody's luggage was fitting in securely.

I made sure the lady found a group and returned to mine -- an elderly Swedish lady (who I found out later was married to a man who had his roots in Siliguri), her daughter and a Sikkimese guy who works in Mumbai. All of us spoke mainly in English. Understood each other well. The Swedish lady, Mrs. B, took comfort in the fact that I could help with Hindi translations. My Sikkimese friend, J., knew Nepalese and Bengali too. So he could converse in Bengali with the driver. I believe Bengali and Assamese dialects are similar. Not the same. Just somewhat similar.

Anyway, all of us wanted to go to Siliguri and not Bagdogra, didn't have an agenda of going off to trek in Darjeeling or visit Gangtok, Sikkim. All four of us had family in Siliguri. Unfortunately, the entire troup was getting held up because of a few disgruntled passengers and also because the drivers were waiting for their money. Kingfisher paid each taxi. The ground staff made sure everyone got a ride. They had a list with all the names, ensured that everyone was onboard. Signed off and only then did they get off their shift.

There were passengers who thought they were going to get SUVs and be driven down in style. I never heard anybody promising such cars and I didn't really give a damn. When you live in India, you get to see the smallest car overloaded with God knows what all. Anyway, I could understand some of the concern. Unknown places, hilly region, you feel safer in a larger, stronger vehicle. I mean, even Mrs. B was not entirely convinced that her luggage would be safe in the Maruti Alto. But she soon realised that she could not stay the night in Guwahati with her daughter. No way to know how good or safe the hotels were.

At around 5pm, all the cars pushed off. I think there were about ten cars in all. Loaded with diverted passengers and luggage. January, so the sun had already set and it felt like it was 8pm! I love the cold weather so I never really felt that chilly. As the journey wore on, I had to wear my jacket. It was nice and cold! There was lots of fog too. There were stretches where all the cars had to have their hazard warning lights on, just so that every driver could know if there was a vehicle in front of him.

I could not sleep at all. Strangely, I was excited to be on a journey like this. I have always had a lousy experience while travelling to Siliguri. Flight delays, offloaded, even spent a night at the Calcutta airport, ended up travelling on days when there was curfew in Siliguri. But never had I been a journey like this. Beats waiting at an airport terminal. Plus, all of us were getting to know each other better, asking questions, telling each other where they were from, what they did, etc. Also, I wanted to keep an eye on the driver and the road. The last thing I wanted was the driver falling asleep at the wheel. This was no picnic outing.

Turned out that the drivers were really good. All very young but really close knit. They stuck together, took turns in leading the retinue, continuously on the phone to reach anybody who seemed to have broken away from the party. And most of all, none of them drank alcohol -- inspite of the cold. And nobody ate dinner at the small roadside inn we stopped off at. Our driver was worried he would feel sleepy if he ate. So they all stayed hungry....right till about 1.30 am. I think that's when we had covered a fair bit of ground and were mostly half way there...half of almost 445 Km!! They were entitled to the meal. A quick stop at a local booze cum dinner inn, some cigarettes were shared and we were on our way again. No alcohol again. Water was served in empty-rinsed-out beer bottles. :)

I realised I have not shared the route yet. I don't think this is the exact route we took but we probably took most of the highways. Unfortunately, Vodafone's roaming GPRS refused to work and the Assisted GPS on my Samsung Galaxy 3 didn't work at all. I couldn't chart our route, neither could I help with telling the driver where we were. So much for technology. And I had to make sure I had enough batter left till morning -- so that I could announce folks in Siliguri that I had arrived. For someone who relies so much on Maps, Google and Wikipedia, I was pretty much on stranded on an un-connected island.

First thing I did when I got back to Bombay, was to find out how far it is from Guwahati to Siliguri and try to identify any areas I had gone through. Unfortunately, I couldn't recognise anything. Even the driver wasn't sure of that names that night. So I am granted that bit of ignorance. It was fun, nonetheless. We reached at around 8am in the morning, after umpteen number of stops, meetings to decide which road to take, a tyre puncture and other random stops. Here is the map.

View Directions to Hotel Air View, Siliguri, West Bengal in a larger map

So the trip ended well and I felt like I had been through a super adventure, feeling like one of those Wodehouse characters who is described to be an 'explorer', one who knows many languages, has broken bread with an undocumented tribe, and shot a charging bull elephant right 'tween the eyes. No, I would never shoot an animal. Just saying. I felt that way. City boy does an overnight journey, cuts through wilderness in a little car, with three others he has just met. Broke bread with fellow drivers. That does not happen every day. And the travel companions turned out to be very friendly and interesting. This made the journey all the more enjoyable. If I were saddled with a scared tourist, a cribby couple who hailed from my part of the country or a snoot, I would have been done for. I would rather be in a car 15 hours with fat, jolly people, than with people who can't deal with the cold, a different place or worse -- be a little positive and make the whole experience that much more tolerable.


Anonymous said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post!


Aristarkhos said...

Oi! I just noticed your comment 'awaiting moderation' like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

Thank you. I noticed you don't update your blog anymore. Some interesting stuff there. Plan to update, revamp, do it up and all that jazz, eh?


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