Day 1 (Singapore – Kolkata)
Our trip began with a Silkair night flight from Singapore to Kolkata. We felt our minority presence even before actually reaching India as almost all the passengers on board were Indians. The in-flight dinner served was also typical Indian cuisine- a choice of fish curry or vegetables with basmatic rice. Our plane landed at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport (a.k.a Dum Dum Airport) around 12 midnight.
The airport was quite run-down despite being named after an important historical figure in contemporary India. We approached the pre-paid taxi booth beside the immigration counter to book a taxi. The taxi receipt stated INR 240. We paid using a INR 500 note but was short-changed by INR 100. The cashier nonchalantly returned us the shortfall when we confronted him with the receipt. Similar scene of over-charging and nonchalantly returning the shortfall when questioned repeated several times during our trip. The Bengalis, unlike the Chinese, will not make any “apologetic excuse” in overcharging or harass for higher fee when exposed- consider it as a non-hypocritical approach to corruption? We boarded one of the ubiquitous yellow colour Hindustan Ambassadors taxi. The taxi was antiquated but it had a very big boot which easily accommodated all of our luggage. The taxi ride to our hotel – Shivangan hotel took about 20 mins. We were greeted by the hotel security guard at the main gate, and had to take an old elevator with scissor gates to reach the check-in counter on the second floor. Unfortunately, we had to take turns to go up in the small elevator as it could only accommodate 3 person (with no luggage) at one time. Fortunately, the hotel room was clean, hot shower was provided and the staff were very polite as well.
Day 2 (Kolkata – Bagdogra – Yuksom)
The next day, we woke up around 8am in order to catch our flight. Our first meal in India- breakfast provided by the hotel, was ironically American style, consisting of sunny side up/omelette and toasts. After checking out, we took a taxi back to the Dum Dum Airport for our flight to Bagdogra. It was entertaining to sit in front beside the driver, watching him manoeuvre the antique beast skilfully through the congested thoroughfare shared by other cars, trishaws, bullock carts and even cows. Halfway through, i realised that the taxi had no side mirrors- the driver must have removed them so that he could manoeuvre through the traffic better.
We boarded a Jet Airways flight to Bagdogra. The duration of the flight was only an hour but we were pleasantly served with in-flight lunch. At Bagdogra Airport, we were picked up by a man with a placard bearing my name. He wasted no time in introducing himself to us. Once he confirmed our identity, he grabbed our luggage trolley and directed us towards a Mahindra MPV in the carpark. He handed us over to the MPV driver and extorted tips from us. We paid him INR 50 and he happily scurried back to the airport, perhaps to make a few more pick-ups. The driver must have outsourced his pick-up responsibility to the porter, living up to the nation’s ultimate reputation for outsourcing!
The driver drove us to a petrol kiosk and requested INR 1500 from us to pay for the petrol top-up. We were both hesitant and reluctant because all the land transportation fees were supposedly covered by the tour package. We gave him the money as he promised to pay us back once we reached Yuksom. We later found out that the driver was also outsourced and not a staff of the tour agency.
The driver drove us to the Sikkim Tourism Office in Siliguri (30 mins journey from Bagdogra) to apply for the Restricted Area Permit (RAP). The office was manned by two friendly East- Asian looking staff (the majority of Sikkim population are of Nepali ethnic origin). The permit application process was FOC, red-tape-free and completed within 30 mins. We then continued on with a 7 hr winding and rocky journey to Yuksom. The road condition was quite bad with numerous pot holes and falling rocks (from the hill slope/cliff above the road). As a result, we only managed to travel at an average speed of 30 km/hr along the 160 km stretch of mountain road (National Highway 31A) which runs along the banks of the Teesta River from Siliguri to Yuksom. At certain points, the MPV even had to cross shallow streams which cut the road perpendicularly as they flowed down from the mountains above. Some sections of the road were so narrow that only one vehicle could drive through at a time. For such sections, we had to wait up to 15 mins for the opposite traffic to clear before it was our turn to drive through.
Halfway through the journey, we reached Melli (border town between West Bengal and Sikkim) Police Checkpoint where we were required to submit our RAP for further endorsement. The actual endorsement process was actually quite fast but it took us more than 20 mins because of the queue (other foreigners) in front of us.
It was already sunset by the time we entered Sikkim. We spent the next 3-4 hours cruising around the mountains in pitch darkness. We also had to endure the blasting of Bengali pop songs from the car audio on repeat mode. Towards the end of the journey, the driver lost his way and spent an additional hour in finding the right route to Yuksom. We finally reached our hotel – Yuksom Residency, at about 930pm. The hotel staff came forward to welcome us in their cultural way by putting a scarf (khata) around our necks. We felt like VIPs. The hotel was majestic looking with hot shower and friendly staff, the only downside was that there was no heater available, and it did not help that it was about 15 Degrees Celsius that night. Dinner was garlic rice and fried baby corns served to our rooms. We started our Acetazolamide medication for combating high altitude sickness on this day.