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The former capital of British India, the port of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) today forms the commercial and industrial hub of eastern India located on the eastern banks of the Hooghly River (about 150 kilometres upstream from the Bay of Bengal), which is a tributary of the Ganges. Most travellers tend to visit the areas in Kolkata that are south of the Howrah Bridge, around BBD Bagh and Chowringhee.
During the British Raj Kolkata was known as the Jewel of the East and was the capital of the country till 1911. It still bears the Victorian imprint on its streets and structures. Today, it is still the most important city in the east, the nerve center of trade and industry of the State.
To the first time visitor, Kolkata is indeed overwhelming with its 15 million inhabitants (or maybe more). It presents a unique blend of 19th century Europe and the throbbing vitality of a metropolis of teeming millions. Densely populated and polluted, Kolkata is often an ugly and desperate place, that to many, sums up the worst of India. Yet it's also one of the country's more fascinating centres producing some of India's finest literature, theatre, films, art and culture. It is also known as the "City of Joy".
If you have never been to a large foreign city, be prepared for an onslaught to your senses. It is easy to be stunned into shock when you first arrive in the city. Pay attention to what is under the surface of everything. If you look through the dirty exteriors of buildings, there is beautiful architecture. If you see the beggars when they are not "actively working" you will often see genuine smiles and a certain playfulness. New Market (sp?) is an eye opening experience for anyone only familiar with western life, especially the meat section (don't breath too deeply there, and never through your nose). If you give Kolkata a chance, it will steal a piece of your heart that will always remain there.
Mother Teresas Home for the Destitute and Dying also allows tourists. Do not take a camera. This is a strange experience and should not be done on whim, or without serious contemplation about whether or not you would like to see people in the final period of their lives. You may also want to consider what right you have to go there for no other reason than the craving like curiosity many travelers try to appease. The home is manned by nuns who are very serious. It will never be what you expect. You will see death in the faces, eyes and often un-clothed bodies of the residents. Donations are a must, and should not be token amounts. The residents here are here because they have nowhere else to die, they do not pay to be here. They will also accept some volunteers. The criteria is uncertain, as some who volunteer are turned away, while others are propositioned. Do not go here lightly.
Just walking down the street can be somewhat overwhelming. From the smells of spices, unwased bodies, flowers in the rain to urine and everyhting in between. You will see the very young to the very old asking for money because they are hungry. You may see a body being transported in a glass box filled with flowers on the back of a flat-bed truck. Or the various paan sellers who will mix a variety of spices (and some mystery ingredients) into a folded leaf to be placed inside your lip like chew (do not swallow the contents, depending on the mixture it could cause quite a revolt in your stomach). There are also smoldering ropes you may come accross that are there so passers-by can light their cigarettes (or biddy, an indian cigarette that is very cheap 3 rupees for 40).
The Kalighat temple is somewhere that is quite accessable to tourists, but it can be mobbed by worshippers and hawkers, so prepare to be amazed and repulsed and generally overwhelmed by the experience! You can take a taxi or auto-rickshaw and then you have to walk the main street to get the rest of the way and this is where the vendors will be hawking all manner of devotional kali images. Kali (the dark goddess of destruction)resembles a mad 3-eyed black-faced demon-woman with a red or gold extended tongue. It can feel a little sinister when you can suddenly smell blood and a tethered goat is bleating and waiting to be sacrificed. A 'butcher' then sits cross-legged as he chops up the recently sacrificed beast. The meat will then be cooked and distributed to the devotees. It all feels a little macabre and almost medievel, but quite fascinating all the same.
Kolkata has a tropical climate with an annual average temperature of 26.8 °C. The monthly variations are generally between 19 °C and 30 °C, although in the winter temperatures can dip to 10 °C and summer often sees temperatures above 40 °C. Summers are hot and humid in Kolkata with the warmest months being May and June, whilst winter is a short two to three months (around December and January). Winters are generally considered the best time to visit, weatherwise.
Located at Dum Dum, approximately 17 kilometres north-east of the city centre, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport (CCU) is quite small for a city this size. The international terminal is clean, though basic and it hasn't been refurbished since 1950. The domestic terminal is more modern and much busier than the international terminal and has been expanding rapidly in recent years with the explosion in domestic traffic and new airlines.
Several international carriers, including Singapore Airlines and Indian Airlines, fly on Kolkata and connect it with cities like Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Frankfurt, Dhaka, Singapore, Kunming, Dubai, Chittagong, Kathmandu, Yangon, Paro (Bhutan) and Frankfurt.
Domestic carriers like Air India, Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines connect Kolkata with other major cities of India, including Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi, amongst others.
From the airport to get to the city the best bet is a Pre-paid Taxi. If taking a taxi there do mention which terminal you want. There are money changing facility at the airport and if you already do not have any you should get some changed.
The preferred option to get to the city from the airport is to take a prepaid taxi, which should cost around Rs. 150-250 depending on your destination. Alternatively, you can take the rail link to Dum Dum and board the metro from there.
Kolkata is well linked to other parts of the country by rail and also serves as the gateway to North Eastern India. Kolkata has one major railway station which is located at Sealdah, with a newer station 'Kolkata' opening in 2005 but still not accommodating many trains. Another major railway station is located in Howrah on the bank of River Hooghly, which technically lies in the next city, but is often considered part of Kolkata. Among others, express trains like the Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express link Kolkata to Delhi and other nearby places. Shalimar terminal station in Howrah is acoomodates many express trains.
There are computerised Railway Reservation Offices at several places in the city, though the one near Strand Road on Fairly Place is the most popular.
According to plans, trains are running again since late 2007 between Calcutta and the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, for the first time in over 40 years. Although there were connections from Calcutta to the border and across the border further to Kulna, there weren't any connections to Dhaka at all from the west. This direct option takes about 12 hours including border formalities.
Travelling by car is not generally recommended unless for shorter journeys. The Grand Trunk Road which was built in the 16th century by the Mughals leads into Howrah all the way from Pakistan and adventurous travellers journey into or out of Kolkata on this road. In recent years development of express ways has improved the quality of car travel. Cars can be hired with a driver relatively cheaply in this city.
Esplanade Bus Station in the Chowringhee area is the city's main station for inter-state and inter-city buses, with bus services serving many places in West Bengal. Dhaka in Bangladesh has regular connections as well (13 hours). Companies offering these trips include Shohagh, Green Line, Shyamoli and Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation.
With its location on the Hooghly River, it is possible to enter Kolkata by boat, especially from nearby towns and cities.
Ferries also connect Kolkata with Port Blair on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Along the river bank there are several points (normally called ghats or jetties) where you can board regular ferry services. Travelling by river through the city allows you to get a view of the sometimes decadent river front and is a nice, hassle-free way to visit attractions near the river bank.
There are regular ferries (boats that simply ply across) from Babughat to Howrah which are pretty economic. Booking a boat personally for a ride is a bit costly. There are options to book a boat for a luxury river cruise along the Hooghly River. Short cruises are from Babughat, Floatel or Fairly Place jetties and takes you up to the famous Dakshineswar Temple and the Belur Monastery. Day long cruises are available from the same places and these touch all the important colonial towns along the riverbank. These towns are Bandel (Portuguese), Chinsura or Chu(n)chura (Dutch), Sreerampore (Danish), Chandan Nagar (French). Get in touch with the West Bengal Tourism office in BBD Bagh (Dalhousie Square) for details.
The percentage of street area is very low in Kolkata and therefore taking a car will ensure that you get stuck in traffic jams, and then find no parking place. Self-driven cars are usually not available on hire. You have to hire a car with a chauffeur. If you are planning for a city tour do not hire a car. Instead use cabs. Cabs are called Taxis here and they are yellow in colour. If your travel plan includes visiting places in the outskirts of the city you can book a car from a travel agent. The standard Amby or Ambassador (4 seater) comes at INR 55 per hour or 6 per kilometre whichever is higher. The sleeker and faster Indica (hatchback) comes at INR 65 per hour or 7 per kilometre. Tata Sumo (MUV) is at INR 75 per hour or 10 per kilometre (all rates for 2011 first quarter). Try to get a car that hails from a garage near to the pickup point because you will be charged for the garage in and garage out kilometres/hours as well.
Do not drive yourself in Kolkata. The rules of the road are insane at best. The lanes painted on the road are not even taken as suggestions. Pay attention to how few vehicles have side-view mirrors. Most do not have any, and those that do, have them folded in. This is because cars drive too close together, and would constantly clip each other. Like american football, driving in Kolkata is a game of inches.
Besides the human complications and dangers of driving here, there are cows. You may find yourself stuck in a long traffic jam when the four lanes of traffic (on three painted lanes) bottleneck down to one lane to get around the two cows that wandered onto the road to lay down.
You may also notice that when someone is driving with a red flag out of one of there window, Indian drivers will try to get out of the way. This is because if the flag is hanging out of the passenger side window, someone in the vehicle is injured and they are being taken to a hospital. If the flag is shoved out the driver side window, the car has no brakes!
If the vehicle you are in is ever in an accident (especially if it has hit someone, someone outside the vehicle is injured, or you are at all unsure who caused the accident) get out of the vehicle, and leave the scene immediately. It is quite common for any driver who causes an accident to be immeditely beaten by a crowd of bystanders. Sometimes the other occupants (who may have been napping the whole time) will be pulled out and beaten as well. People have been killed by angry mobs at the scene of car accidents. It has been known for busses to be pushed onto their side by the mob if it has clipped and injured a pedestrian. This is a truly strange aspect of some large centres in India that is hard to understand. In all other ways you will find the indian people to be polite, quick to smile and genuinely want to be helpful. This mob mentality about punishing traffic incidents is the single biggest reason to never get behind the wheel in Kolkata.
The most effective public transport here is the metro rail (subway or tube). It runs along the north-south direction without any branching. Multi ride tickets are available which are a bit cheaper than single ride ones.
Almost every metro rail station is also a terminus for the autorickshaws (three wheeled vehicles) as well. So, you can take a north-south run on a metro and then go east or west on an autorickshaw. Unlike other Indian cities, here in Kolkata autorickshaws can not be hired. You have to be a shared passenger, travelling with other three or four people and paying a fixed fare for a fixed distance.
Though less used than before, the Calcutta Tramways have connections in the city as well.
Buses are numerous in Kolkata. There are cheaper regular or private buses, luxury air-conditioned buses and a whole range between these extremes. Buses ply along fixed routes. A warning about the city buses in Kolkata is that they never seem to stop moving. The drivers are trying to beat the clock and so, in heavy traffic you must throw yourself off and on whlist the vehicle is still in motion. This can add to the stress of the journey as it feels quite dangerous when you are not used to it! The best options are deluxe buses from CSTC (Calcutta State Transport Corporation), CTC (Calcutta Tramways Company) and WBSTC (West Bengal Surface Transport Corporation).
Travelling by foot is not advised in summer. In winter, autumn or spring you can walk along the main city centre or Esplanade. Esplanade is also called Dharamtalla. A very nice walk could begin in the early morning at Tiretta Bazaar where you can savour the famous Chinese Breakfast of home made buns, momos, dimsums et al and then you can visit the synagogues and churches along Brabourne Road. You can then go down to College Street (the book alley) for a walk amidst books. You can return via the Central AVenue to Esplanade and walk to the impressive Indian Museum. Then you can continue along the same street and visit the Birla Planetarium, the St. Pauls Cathedral, and the Victoria Memorial Hall.
Kolkata probably has the widest variety of eateries of any Indian city, reflecting the value of food amongst it's native Bengali population. You get almost everything to suite your palate and pocket, from upmarket plush restaurants serving different varieties of provincial Indian, Tibetan, Middle Eastern, European and East Asian food to ubiquitous roadside food stalls of every size and sophistication. These roadside stalls serve fast foods to different snacks to most elaborate meals. But no visit to Kolkata is complete without visiting a Bengali sweetshop. No other city in the world offers such a mindbogglingly wide variety of sweetmeats in so many sweetshops.
Amongst many different varieties of meals two are particularly worth mentioning. In the last few years many upmarket restaurants have started serving Bengali meals. Although they are available all over the city the best Bengali food are available in the 'less touristy' areas of North Kolkata. Some traditional Bengali restaurants in North Kolkata, more than a century old, still serve food in traditional earthen pots and banana leaves. There is also a thriving Chinatown in East Kolkata offering spiced up Chinese food to suite Indian tastes. This became so popular initially in Kolkata that the concept was exported to other Indian cities and eventually beyond India.
Roadside stalls are everywhere but the ones in the central office district of BBD Bag are probably the most in number.
Kolkata is also the best city to experience its famous Bengali fish preparations. Bagda or Golda king prawns or Hilsha fish are particularly recommended.
|Bodhi Tree||48/44 Swiss Park||Guesthouse||82|
|Hotel Himalay||134/1 Mahatma Gandhi Road Kolkata-700 007||Hostel||72|
|The Best Inn||1B Sushil Sen Road (Off Chowringhee Road & Elgin Rd. Crossing)||GUESTHOUSE||67|
|North Star Hotel||66/1 Dum Dum Road||Hotel||69|
|Trans Aid||99/5/9B Ballygunge Place||Hostel||-|
|Debidas Banerjee||1967 Rajdanga Main Road, Nabapally||Hostel||-|
|The Pride||BG 12 Action Area-1B New Town||HOTEL||-|
|Bhammar's Inn||13- A, Dover Road Ballygunge Circular Road Near St. Lawreance School||Guesthouse||-|
Internet cafés are called Cybercafes in Kolkata and they are usually available at street corners near important junctions.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Privately owned STD booths (from which you can make local and international calls) are also available on busy street corners. In these booths they have electronic counters so you can see your bills ticking and hang up. Avoid using hotel phones because they always overcharge you. STD and ISD rates vary, so get to know the reduced rate time slot (mostly after 10:00pm). Police number is 100.
If you are staying in Kolkata for a long time it's better to take a pre-paid connection on a mobile phone (GSM cell phone). These phone are cheap nowadays and call charges are also low. To get a GSM cell phone connection you have to show/deposit your ID proof. A photocopied passport will serve this purpose.
India Post is the national postal service of India, and on their website you find details about prices to send postcards, letters and parcels, both domestically and internationally. For most postcards to send internationally, it is better to visit the post office before writing on the card as you may need quite a few stamps. In general, post offices are open from 10:00am to 1:00pm and 1:30pm to 4:30pm in most bigger towns and cities, though there are regional variations and some might keep longer hours or be open during (part of) the weekend as well. Ask around. Post Offices are located in important places and not on every corner. The General Post Office or GPO is located near BBD Bagh (Dalhousie Square). From here you can send out large items for shipping to your country. Musical instruments are better sent this way than carrying them as baggage items on aeroplanes. The airport staff often do not handle delicate things carefully and they may get broken inside the parcel. There are people on the street, near the GPO, who will pack your parcel and seal it meticulously against a charge. Decide on the price before hand or you may get fleeced.
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Ask HeinzMarmite a question about Kolkata
I have lived and travelled in Kolkata on and off the last 10 years and have built up considerable knowledge on the city.
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