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Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kolkata: an Unusual First Trip to India

Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kolkata: an Unusual First Trip to India

Old Dec 11th, 2010, 12:01 AM
Join Date: Nov 2007
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Lovely report....I am feeling like I am right there....thanks for taking us on your trip with you.

Driving in the mountains, particularly in the Himalayas is dangerous, although very scenic.

Have you seen the IRT TV show on travel channel...the India road trip from Delhi to Simla and nearby mountain towns. It is billed as one of the most dangerous trucking drives. It's a fun show, done well and shows beautiful scenery to boot. The IRT show makes you aware of the mountain rock slides and rain water washing out portions of the road, frequently with little warning.

Don't know if you get travel channel where you are, but IRT show you might enjoy. They started out with truck drives on the frozen tundra in Canada but have now graduated to the Himalayas.

Looking forward to more.... great writing, Kathie.
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 12:08 AM
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Yes your descriptions are vivid as usual. Almost don't need the pics(that's almost Cheryl,lol). Still here and waiting for more.

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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 08:19 AM
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keep it coming...its wonderful in its descriptions..

it sounds so different than many parts of india
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 09:58 AM
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Still reading and enjoying your descriptive report. It's the next best thing to being there.
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 10:32 AM
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Mumbai [nearly]. Me too. Glad those hotels worked out.
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 11:50 AM
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My husband and I went rafting when we were staying at the Wildflower in Shimla. Luckily the river was not too wild at that time of the year, as the three hour drive to the river had been more than enough excitement for the day.

Just as Kathie describes it, the roads are literally carved from the mountain. Rockslides from above block the road, There are rarely any guardrails; it is often just rocks painted white to let you see the edge, beyond which is a long, very steep and barren slope. SEveral times we saw cars way down that slope...it was too steep to even bother retrieving the cars.

Adding to the mix is the almost universal refusal of Indian drivers to stop at a space wide enough to pass when they see another vehicle approaching. They like to wait till they actually meet, no matter how narrow the road, then inch around each other. once, when we were the car on the cliff side of the road, my husband and I got out to let the cars do their dance. We figured watching it would not be as traumatic as living it!

I always take Ativan when I have to go on the roads in India......

Great report. keep it coming, Kathie!
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 11:52 AM
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Pelling to Glenburn

Cheryl was up very early and out in the garden with her camera and tripod at 4:30. It was clear at that hour and she started taking pictures with exposures as long as two minutes. She got some stunning shots, including one with the stars above the snow-capped peaks. By the time it was light out, the peaks were again obscured by clouds. She became sort of a celebrity at Mt. Pandim because of this. We met some people from Mt. Pandim later in the day at the border stop who told us that the manager was telling everyone about Cheryl getting such stunning photos. Cheryl chuckled that at 5 am, while the mountains were visible in the early morning light, someone opened a window, stuck their camera out, and took a flash picture!

As I reflect on our time in Sikkim, dogster’s comment that it is “not India” is so true. Sikkim has had a long relationship with Tibet. The Choygals traditionally chose a bride from Tibet. The two major trade routes to Tibet go through Sikkim. Even before the Chinese invasion of Tibet the country had welcomed immigrants from Tibet, but since the Chinese invasion, Sikkim has welcomed refugees, creating jobs, preserving Tibetan culture, etc. I’ve already commented on how clean Sikkim is. People are very friendly, smiling and waving as we drove by, always willing to chat. Children love clowning for the camera, and wanted to see their photos. Sikkim has not yet come to see tourism as a cash cow. That is both charming and frustrating. The ex-pat manager of Mt. Pandim commented that Sikkimese aren’t ambitious “They don’t look at advertisements and say ‘I want that.’ I guess in some ways that’s a good thing.” Indeed, it is. And yet, we were frustrated at not being able to find local crafts or local products, things they could offer to visitors that would remind them of the value of what is produced in Sikkim

Drive to Glenburn

The drive was 4 and a half hours, including a 30 minute stop for a picnic lunch. We had to stop at the Sikkim border and get checked out of Sikkim – our passport, visa and permit numbers were carefully recorded and our passports were stamped. The roads past the border continued to be narrow and winding, but the pavement was not as broken up, nor did we see whole areas of rock falls or sunken areas necessitating refilling the road bed, as we saw in Sikkim. We had to wait about 10 minutes at a spot on the Sikkim side, as they were clearing a rock fall.

While we have “Watch for Falling rock” signs in the Cascades, the signs in Sikkim are a bit more dramatic “Shooting Boulders” was my favorite.

When we arrived at Glenburn, we were greeted by Najma, the manager. She was very “take charge” and immediately wanted us to decide what we wanted to do the next day.

Glenburn is lovely. High atop a hill, it has a commanding view of the nearby valleys and hillsides, and of Darjeeling town. There are two bungalows, each with four suites. Several of the suites at the upper (Burra) bungalow have space for a third person. The suites in the Waterlily bungalow all are two-person suites. We had a beautiful suite with two balconies and a huge bay window overlooking the mountains. It’s wonderful to have so much space! The bathroom is large and lovely and has a soaking tub. There are no heaters in the suites, but the beds have electric mattress pads that were much appreciated.

We unpacked and relaxed, then had lunch at 1:30. The lunch was very good, with lots of fresh produce from the garden. The other guests here so far are interesting and we compared notes on our travels in Sikkim.

Our “Relaxation Package” comes with two massages each and two reflexology sessions each. We made massage appointments for the first afternoon.

Before dinner we were invited to a bonfire, where drinks and hors d’oeuvres were served. We were then led to the dining room where seats were pre-assigned. This seemed a bit odd to me, but it was the first night and everyone had just arrived (a large group who occupied the whole place had just left) so I guessed this was her way of getting people to interact with each other. The food the first evening was (not very good) Indian food. At the end of dinner, she said, “Well, that’s our one Indian dinner,” as if it were an obligation she was now done with.
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 11:58 AM
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Yipes, Lcuy! I'm glad to report that drivers in Sikkim are more cooperative than the drivers you encountered.
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 01:48 PM
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Kathie, thanks for this detailed TR. Looking forward to more about Glenburn. Since it's expensive(by my budget baseline) am curious if your opinion on if it is worthwhile. (There are other tea plantation resorts, much less $, that are supposed to be terrific too.)

Sounds like Glenburn caters to non-Indian people. They think you WANT non-local food?

I've encountered the preassigned dinner seats at another hotel which interestingly, is also at the high end tariffs. Another thing you encountered--that the minute you check in, places want you set set up activities. But it was kind of endearing--as if they dont want you to forget that they have all these activiiteis We just firmly and politely said, "Thank you, we just need a few hours to settle in a bit" The other thing was when they knock on the door to remind you of whatever...dinner seating, safari, etc

So..I love to read your impressions of what was unusual and different in this part of India!!!!

LCUY--are you serious about the Ativan??
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 02:55 PM
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Great report! Did you have any altitude problems?
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Old Dec 11th, 2010, 03:14 PM
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Glenburn caters to a wide variety of nationalities, but a goodly number of Brits and Australians. We met no Indian families when we were there, but I do know that they get a fair number of Indian families. There were two expat families living in India we met there. I should note that the manager, Najma, had only been at Glenburn a few months.

We had no problems with altitude. The highest we stayed was a bit over 6000 feet, so not that high.

We had agreed to do the walk down to the river and the hike over the bridge to Sikkim today, but discovered at breakfast that we were instead scheduled to go to Darjeeling. We’d said we wanted to go into Darjeeling and do some shopping, and Najma said everything would be closed the next day so we had to go today. She rushed us up the stairs to the car – which was not waiting, we had to wait for it. I was beginning to get the picture that everything was on her time schedule.

As we got into the car, she gave the driver instructions totally contrary to the instructions I had given her about what we wanted to do. I spoke up, but she said, “No, no, you should do this.”

It’s about an hour and a half drive to Darjeeling town. Najma had the driver buy us tickets to the toy train. It’s not something we would have chosen, but we went along with it. Everyone raves about the toy train, but I must have missed something. I am sure for train buffs it’s a must-do. But for the rest of us… The train runs right along the road between Ghoom and Darjeeling. So we drove through Ghoom to get to Darjeeling, took the train from Darjeeling back to Ghoom, them drove back to Darjeeling from Ghoom. So in two hours, we saw the same stretch of not very interesting road three times. I had wondered whether the train went through areas one doesn’t see from the road, but at least this segment does not. We frankly felt it was a waste of our time.

We did stop at a monastery in Ghoom, which is a part of the yellow hat sect. They reportedly have an original copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but you must make pre-arrangements to see it.

We weren’t interested in the other places Najma gave as destinations: the zoo, Himalaya Mountain Institute, etc. We really wanted to do a bit of shopping. We asked to stop at a teashop and bought some white tea we wanted. We then went on to look at Pashminas. The shop the driver took us to was excellent, with a wide variety of options in grade and pattern and color. We bought both for ourselves and as gifts. The only glitch was that Cheryl accepted the offer of a cup of tea. It was lukewarm, and she immediately was intensely sick. After recovering from the acute phase of her illness she decided it was safest to head back to Glenburn. The only other thing we wanted to do in Darjeeling Town was to walk in the historic area, so we missed that.

We went back to Glenburn, rested, read and enjoyed a quiet afternoon.

To our dismay, seating at dinner was again assigned. There was general grumbling from the guests about this, as all of us found it annoying, but any suggestion that things might be done differently was shut down immediately. We even discovered that Najma had nixed anyone talking about Tea Trails while they were at Glenburn. She didn't say so to us (probably didn't hear us mention it) but she told another couple they were not to talk about it.

The next day we opted for the walk down to the river. This combined with a walk across the suspension bridge to Sikkim. We walked halfway down, then were driven the rest of the way to camp. We had lunch at the camp, relaxed a bit, and then were driven to the trailhead for the walk into Sikkim. Annoyingly, Najma called the staff while we were at the camp to ask what we wanted to do the next day. We told her we'd decide the next day. The scenery is spectacular. The bridge is 109 years old, but is as solid as can be. I expected the bridge to sway and generally be scarier than it was. The fact that you didn’t see the river when you looked at your feet made it feel easy to walk across.

After our hike, we headed back to Glenburn. I have to say that how bad the roads are does discourage one from doing very many things away from Glenburn. Even this day of (mostly) walking involved probably an hour and a half in the jeep. The ride is very rough and uncomfortable.

We had foot massages when we returned. We were exhausted. Cheryl was still not 100% after her bout of illness the previous day, and I had a cold, so we decided to skip dinner. There are no phones in the rooms, so we couldn’t call and say we were skipping dinner, but we assumed they would figure it out. We went to bed and were asleep when the first of three people sent by Najma knocked on our door. Saying we were sleeping and wanted to be left alone only caused her to send someone else. The last time, I didn’t even respond to the knocks on the door. The next day, Najma did apologize for bothering us, but the whole episode for me epitomized just how intrusive she was.

This had been one of those trips when we have been doing something active every day and have had little time to relax. So the next day we decided to relax – spend time reading, writing, doing a bit of Tai Chi overlooking our view, and getting another massage.

Our last full day at Glenburn, we took the Tea Tour. We had also done a tea tour at Tea Trails in Sri Lanka. I find the tea tours fascinating, and we enjoyed tasting the various teas. We bought teas to take home with us for our own use and for gifts. Cheryl went on village walk in the afternoon. I was still feeling under the weather from my cold, so stayed at Glenburn.

The next morning, we packed and were driven back to Bagdogra airport for our onward journey to Kolkata.

Reflections on our five days at Glenburn

The bungalows and the guest rooms at Glenburn are lovely. The views are beautiful, though we never got a clear view of the mountains during our stay.

There is lots do – walks, both long and shorter are available, and Glenburn supplies excellent guides. There is the famous walk down to the cabin by the river and the walk across the suspension bridge to Sikkim, as well as shorter village walks. The manager seems to feel it is her job to encourage everyone to do as many things as possible.

One thing that was promised as a pert of our package was a cooking class. Once we got there, the literature says that they have an "open kitchen" policy and anyone can go observe the cooks. Frankly, there was no dish served while we were there that I had an interest in duplicating.

Meals: food is mostly good, but by no means exceptional. The food is not as good as at Tea Trails, for instance. The manager assigns seats to people at dinner. We found this rather annoying. Even more annoying was the hostess reprimanding a guest for moving over next to his wife after half the guests had left. She pointedly told him she had separated them. Guests were treated as naughty children. Wine, beer, other alcohol is not included in the price. I find that kind of silly. And the first night, in particular, they pushed people to drink, and only later did anyone find out that they were being charged for it. Even the room info simply says to ask about the alcohol policy. The mediocre Indian wine is charged at $5 a glass – this must be a big profit maker for them, as one of the guests said she saw the same wine in the market for $10 a bottle.

The “picnic lunches” packed for us three times were pretty awful. The same bland sandwiches are served each time, plus a banana and an apple each and “brownies” that were dry and remarkably un-chocolately.

Guests are asked to supply detailed information about dietary requirements. Remarkably, all of this information appears to be ignored. Vegetarians are routinely presented with chicken dishes, saying, “it is not meat, madam, it is chicken.” We saw several vegetarian couples presented with food they could not eat, without so much as an apology by the hostess.

I have to say that the most annoying part of the stay was how controlling the manager was. She had firm ideas about what people should/shouldn’t do, and she enforced them. Input was not only not solicited, but when given by guests it was ignored or punished.

When it came time to check out, we were surprised to be told we couldn’t use our credit card “today” because their machine was not working. While I have no idea whether or not the machine was working, I know very well that they could have written down the numbers and sent them through once the machine was working again. It was clear that they wanted cash. We did have enough cash, so paid them in cash, but I was annoyed. I felt nickeled and dimed again.

I expected to love Glenburn. I wanted to love Glenburn. It was a splurge for us at $500 a night. It could have been a wonderful experience. But the manager would need to learn how to listen to what guests want. People could be encouraged to mix rather than required to sit in a particular seat. Food could have been better planned with guests’ needs in mind. Guests could be informed of the opportunities without being shoehorned into what the manager felt people should do. There were certainly things I liked about Glenburn, but there were annoyances too big to ignore. For $500 a night, I expected it to be my vacation – not someone else’s idea of my vacation.

We had some lovely times there. We didn’t let Najma ruin our days there, but I would not return.
Kathie is offline  
Old Dec 11th, 2010, 07:46 PM
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The drive from Glenburn to the airport was three and a half hours. We arrived plenty early, and mindful of the business class seats that were unfilled on our previous domestic flight, I asked at the check-in counter about upgrading our tickets. The agent said we’d have to go outside the airport and ask at the ticketing window. Since we had time, I did so. I told the man that we were interested in upgrading our tickets. He played with his calculator a bit, and came up with a price of $400 to upgrade our tickets. This was more than we had originally paid for our tickets, and I said so. He just nodded.

I went back in and checked in for our flight.

The flight was an hour and was uneventful. Again, only two of the four business class seats were filled. Like the other domestic flight, it was fairly orderly.

We arrived in Kolkata, retrieved our luggage and got a taxi. We opted not to take the traditional Ambassadors, but opted for a slightly larger car with air conditioning for 600 rupees. Both are available at pre-paid taxi desks inside the airport. It was an hour and a quarter drive from the airport to the Oberoi Grand.

We found ourselves getting excited about the city as we drove to our hotel. It was a good reminder of how much we love cities.

The Oberoi is lovely. We were checked in quickly. We had a pre-paid voucher from the booking service we used.

It was a pleasure to get settled in our room and unpack a bit.

As dinnertime came, we found ourselves too tired to plan to go out, so we did what we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing, and ate at the Thai restaurant in the Oberoi. The food was very good (albeit quite expensive), but it is unlike us to be eating Thai food in India when we are flying back to Bangkok in a few days.

We only had two full days in Kolkata. I felt our only chance of getting a feel for the city was the Calcutta Walks Tours. We had made arrangements with Calcutta Walks for a full day tour, a combination of driving and walking, and an early morning walking tour.

Breakfast was included in our room rate at the Oberoi. They have a lovely buffet, and make eggs to order.

We met our guide, Malini, at 10:00 in the lobby. We hoped to get an overall sense of Kolkata by sampling a variety of areas to visit. She had chosen a good variety of things to show us. The day was exactly what we were looking for.

Cheryl got great photos of our days in Kolkata, so I will just summarize what we did and saw and let you look at the photo galleries to get a glimpse of our experience of Kolkata.

Our first stop was a very ornate Jain temple. Malini talked about Jainism and about the man who built the temple.

We walked in the old market area. Like old markets in other Asian cities, one block will be all shoes and the next block will be office chairs. I always love walking in markets! The markets areas are so lively. People were very friendly, and always glad to chat.

We visited the home of Tagore, the first Indian writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

We walked in the pottery area Kumartuli. This is the place where the figures of the gods and goddesses are made, from the straw forms through the finished painting. Festival time is over, so it was not as active as at other times. Nonetheless, there is always something going on there. We noted a batch of straw figures with large tummies, which I assumed were pregnant women until Malini told us they were all going to be Santa Clauses.

We stopped in the University area, and walked by the stalls of second hand textbook sellers. We also stopped at the coffee house where the intellectual and political leaders of the time hatched the independent nation of India. There is a large portrait of Tagore on the far wall.

We visited the flower market, which is next to the river. We could see the bridge a million people walk across every day. That’s incredible.

Last was a stop at the new market, much like market areas in any major Asian city with modern goods of every type. Cheryl bought spices and t-shirts. Be sure to bargain.

Our day with Malini was a full 8 hours, and we felt we got exactly what we wanted from this day. She was informative and we really enjoyed taking with her. Malini was a delightful guide and I highly recommend her.

For dinner, we went next door to the Peerless and their excellent Bengali restaurant, Aaheli. We opted for the vegetarian thali, which was very good.

The next morning, we had a walk scheduled. Originally, we were to go with Ifte, but he had family obligations that prevented him from being our guide. He did, nonetheless, pick us up at our hotel at 6 am. There was one other person going with us, a chiropractor from Australia. On the way to meet Manjt, we stopped at Ifte’s favorite Chai wallah. He maintains it is the best Chai in town. All I can say is that it was the best Chai I’ve ever had. We met up with Manjt, and we were off on our walk at 7:00. This was the Confluence of Cultures Walk, about which dogster wrote so eloquently. I won’t try to compete with dogster’s account. We did slightly different things than he did (no watching Armenians wrestling, for instance) but saw all of the various ethnic groups he described.

We had a delightful time with Manjit. This is his neighborhood, and people greet him in a way that helps you see the city through his eyes.

He does do some street food stops. I mostly didn’t sample but Cheryl did and enjoyed it.

We had the opportunity to meet and chat with some of the neighborhood characters, which was a lot of fun.

We spent three and a half hours walking and were never bored for a moment. The streets are so alive, and it was wonderful just to be there and experience that.

We found ourselves already talking about which walking tours we want to do next time we are in Kolkata. I can’t say enough good things about our experience.

We got back to the Oberoi at 11:30, and despite the fact that breakfast was over at 11:00, the buffet was still out and they let us go in and have breakfast. I noticed we weren’t even the last people to do so.

We decided to spend our last afternoon at the Oberoi spa. It was a great way to wrap up our time in India. We both had facials and had these great “Lava Shell” massages, in which polished shells are filled with a hot substance and used to smooth your muscles. Lovely.

The next morning, after another great breakfast, we were off to the airport again. This trip on Jet was not as chaotic as the first. The Indians boarding in Kolkata mostly didn’t have luggage to check, they had cargo. Something is going on here with importing/exporting that I expect explains all the carry-ons as they left Bangkok and all the cargo as they leave Kolkata.

I was surprised at just how small the Kolkata airport is, a mere two gates. Signage is just terrible, but there are always people around who will direct you.

When get got back to Bangkok, Cheryl commented on just how clean the airport is. And as we drove to our hotel, she also commented on at how drivers stay in their own lanes. There is really a contrast effect between India and Thailand.

This was our first trip to India, but it won’t be our last. We had a marvelous range of experiences.

We absolutely loved Sikkim. The Elgin Hotels we stayed in there were nice historic hotels. Prices included all meals. We paid about US$ 180 a night at Nor Khill and about $145 a night at Mt. Pandim. Tipping was not expected. Entry fees to monasteries in Sikkim were quite low, usually 20 or 40 rupees, between $.50 and $1.

You’ve read about our mixed experience of Glenburn. The price there was $500 a night, including all meals, laundry, transport from your last destination to Glenburn and from Glenburn onward to your next destination. Even though there were annoying things about Glenburn, I’m glad we didn’t stay in Darjeeling. We were not charmed by Darjeeling, but perhaps we didn’t have enough experience of it. Others at Glenburn who had a couple of days in Darjeeling had no better impression of it than we did.

We found we loved Kolkata, which was a bit of a surprise. The Oberoi Grand, which is, indeed, grand, cost us $700 for three nights. We could have gotten a much lower price if we were there before Dec. 1. The price includes a big buffet breakfast. We felt no need for lunches there.

Calcutta Walks charges 50,000 Rs for a full day city tour, about $115 and includes pick up and drop off at your hotel all admission charges, and some little extras. For a walk of about 3 hours, the cost is 2000 Rs per person, about $93 for two people, including pick up and drop off, some street food samples and such.
Kathie is offline  
Old Dec 12th, 2010, 12:00 AM
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Lucky you had that amount of cash on you. Even if I did I probably would have refused to pay that way or tell them that I only had so much(maybe half)or at the least get a discount for paying cash. How tacky can a place be? Mark the Glenburn as a loser of a place.

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Old Dec 12th, 2010, 01:47 AM
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To think we consdiered the "five day" Glenburn pkg for next yr, which their website says is what most guest are happiest with. Hmmm. Thank you for saving us a bundle!!! And thanks for the impression of not just you and Cheryl, but others, that Darjeeling town.is not worth a long stay
Glad to hear you loved Calcutta Walks! Love reading all the details of our trip. Fascinating, and helpful!!
Keep dry
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Old Dec 12th, 2010, 07:14 AM
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Sorry your time at GLenburn didn't live up to your expectations. Every trip has one place that doesn't...Your just happened to be exspensive. But ...you did find some enjoyment there. Glad to hear Kolata was enjoyable as we are looking at it as part of our trip.
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Old Dec 12th, 2010, 08:32 AM
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travelaw reported a few Indian hotels that had "broken" credit card machines. Shapura Bagh where we spent one night and which was reasonably expensive also had a "sit-in-the-dining-room-where-we-tell-you-to" policy. We rebelled and asked a woman who was traveling alone to join us.
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Old Dec 12th, 2010, 09:38 AM
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Kathie: Again I must tell you how much I enjoyed reading your well-written and well-organized report. I visited Darjeeling and Calcutta more than 25 years ago, so I don't need to tell you that it brought back many memories. I especially liked how you summed up the Glenburn experience with your reflections segment. The description of Najma was spot on-(reminded me of officious travel-industry people I've met on various trips to India in the past.) You really brought the Glenburn scene to life. I certainly won't be heading that way any time soon, though!

Where would you like to travel on your next India jaunt? (I have no doubt that there will be a "next" one before too long!)
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Old Dec 12th, 2010, 10:34 AM
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Thanks for your comments, everyone.

Now for the grand finale of this report, Cheryl's photos.


This link will take you to the index page for the trip, and you can choose which segments to view. The tiny arrow at the bottom of the first photo of each section will turn on the slide show function.
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Old Dec 12th, 2010, 12:19 PM
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What a great intro to India! Sikkim & Calcutta are both on my "list" for the future.

You were so gracious at Glenburn.It sounds like you didn't let it ruin the other aspects of your visit though! I hope you will send a copy of this report to the owners, as they might be interested in giving Najma some feedback.

CaliNurse- I always joke that Ativan makes all my traveling possible. I do not fly well, and get really nervous when taking long trips on bad roads. it is an anti-anxiety, anti-nausea drug that doesnt' make your brain foggy.
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Old Dec 12th, 2010, 12:35 PM
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Lovely photos and your description of Calcutta makes me want to visit even more, maybe in combination with the south which I have never seen. Glenburn looks wonderful but doesn't sound as tempting.
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