Ben Stubbs braves the smog and crowds of Kolkata on the back of a Royal Enfield bike.
There is something undeniably cool about riding a motorcycle. Call me impressionable but the image of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider makes me want to buy a leather jacket and grow a moustache. When my wife and I arrive in Kolkata, the most chaotic and confronting of Indian cities, I jump at the chance to explore it from the back of two purring 350cc Royal Enfield bikes.
I have signed us up for a day tour of the city with locals Rajesh Shaw and Mowgli Kumar, who show adventurous tourists their home city on customised motorcycle tours.
On the move ... Howrah Bridge and the Hooghly River. Photo: Getty Images
With helmets on, we start in the downtown area from our hotel, Chrome, and roar straight out into a crush of morning traffic. Normally these traffic jams are enough to test even the most patient traveller, though we don't have to worry as our drivers slalom to the front of the queue in between the buses, idling cars and cycle rickshaws painted like mardi gras floats. We putter past chai stands where teenagers expertly juggle boiling kettles and watch in uncomfortable awe as schoolchildren sit atop tana rickshaws pulled along the bitumen by wire-thin men walking with bare feet through the melee.
The wind hits my face and Rajesh kicks the motorcycle up a gear.
I nearly forget where I am until we screech and swerve for a Brahman bull trundling across the road as if it is obeying an invisible zebra crossing. Twisting like Tetris pieces to fit through the traffic, we continue up to Park Street and it is as if Rajesh has suddenly muted the chaos around us. We leave the bikes and walk into a lush laneway of crypts and tombs, dating to 1769, inside the South Park Street Cemetery. The British used the cemetery during the infamous Bengal famine of 1770 that claimed 10 million lives across the state.
Sprawling ... Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. Photo: Getty Images
Rajesh says he always likes to bring people to the relative peace of the cemetery at the start of the tour, as the first gulp of modern Kolkata can be overwhelming. The rows of overgrown trees and bushes hide the tombs of the expats who once called Calcutta home. Rajesh shows us a grave that resembles a bathtub. "Even in death the British wouldn't take a shower," he says with a smile as we stumble across a crypt that has been cracked open. "Grave robbers?" he suggests.
Back on the bikes we pass the enormous Mullick Bazaar where the stalls are stacked with mufflers, exhaust pipes and disassembled vehicles. The market is notorious for stolen goods. Rajesh tells me that the last time his bike was taken he came straight to the underground market here and got it back within hours.
Rajesh suggests Mother Teresa House or the tourist haunts of Sudder Street for our next stop, though I'm after something we couldn't normally see. Rajesh and Mowgli look like Indian surfers, with tattoos, muscle tops and long mops of hair. They discuss the next destination and decide to show us "The Mountain".
A busy street in the Howrah Bridge district, Kolkata. Photo: Getty Images
The cliffs looming above us are grey and smouldering. I see a woman on the edge of the precipice placing objects into a large hessian sack on her shoulder.
"Welcome to Garbage Mountain," Rajesh says.
We are 10 kilometres outside of the city at the Kolkata dump. This might not seem like your average tourist site, but Rajesh thinks it's important to see the reality of his home. "Fifty-thousand people rely on this mountain for their living."
Flower market, Kolkata. Photo: Getty Images
I watch children and old ladies pick through the smoking piles of refuse on the 50-metre-high heap that stretches for kilometres. "It's methane," he says of the hazy, fizzing gas rising from the rubbish. Landslides of garbage slip down the slope as crows converge on a carcass.
Rajesh sees that it has made its mark so we start up the bikes and drive to the holiest site in Kolkata.
The square outside the Kalighat Temple is throbbing with pilgrims buying flowers and offerings to give to the three-eyed god, Kali. Beggars grab my sleeves and rickshaw drivers hock great red globs of pan juice on to the street around my ankles. Rajesh guides us through the dim corridors of the 200-year-old temple as bells start ringing and Hindus rush around us to the source of the noise.
"We're in luck," he says, pushing us into the current of worshippers. At a black stone altar in the centre of the temple, a priest drifts between the burning candles with a baby goat. "It's an offering to the gods. We are just in time."
My wife, Laura, senses what is to come and she inches behind me. The priest places the goat on the altar and produces a machete. With one fluid motion steel strikes stone and a crimson mist of blood flies into the air. The offering is whisked away into the temple and we flow out with the crowd back to the street.
It's lunchtime so we get back on the bikes and zoom across the city, past the flower market and train station to the Howrah Bridge that stretches like a black tongue across the Hooghly River. Rajesh and Mowgli take us to their favourite restaurant for dhal, rice and river fish - it's a no-cutlery affair and I'm smeared with food like a two-year-old in seconds. We continue past the white Victoria Memorial sprawling across manicured lawns, the towers of St Paul's Cathedral that date back to 1839 and the open fields of the Maidan in the inner city.
We stop at the lights and I see a group of brightly dressed dancers approaching the traffic. "Hijras - Indian eunuchs," Rajesh says.
As they get closer, shaking tambourines and dancing in front of cars and bikes, I see the hint of an Adam's apple and the afternoon rouge of stubble that gives them away. Getting donations from weddings, family events and commuters is the only way many of India's third sex can survive, Rajesh says.
A dusty red sunset leaks across the streets as we ride. It is spectacular, though it signifies that peak hour is on its way, so Rajesh suggests we head for Chrome. We stop past the Nimtala burning ghat, where families still cremate their loved ones on the banks of the river.
It costs 500 rupees ($9) for a burning with a pyre of wood coated in clarified butter.
Our last sight as we finish our alternative tour of the city is Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Asia. Street after dimly lit street is populated with women, and men, idling on stairwells and street corners waiting for callers. We motor through the area as other bikes peel off and stop in the darkened alleys around us.
Kolkata is confronting, dirty and it smells like no other place on earth. There is something about it, though. The vibrancy of life and the enduring quality of the place that was once the capital of the country make me want to see it all again tomorrow.
I see a group of tourists walking back to the hotel as we pull in on our gravel-voiced motorcycles. The tourists look on with wide eyes as my wife flicks off her helmet and dismounts. We're sweating and covered in a film of smog, though as we walk like bow-legged cowboys after seven hours in the saddle, I think we're a little closer to that Easy Rider cool I've fantasised about.
The writer travelled with assistance from Thai Airways and Small Luxury Hotels.
Three other ways to see Kolkata
1 Calcutta Walks If motorcycles aren't your style, the tours with Calcutta Walks allow you to uncover the best (and worst) of the city at a more leisurely pace. There are a range of walks to suit your interests, including the Wetlands Walk, In the Footsteps of the Raj and the Photographer's Walk. calcuttawalks.com.
2 Sundarbans Once you've explored the city, the Sundarbans are a great place to experience the natural beauty that exists only a few hours away in the world's largest littoral mangrove forest. Take a boat trip and search for Bengal tigers, pink river dolphins, deer and bird life. sundarbanchalo.com.
3 Bengali cooking lesson Taste, smell and cook the cuisine of West Bengal on a personalised cooking adventure. Take a trip to the markets with a guide to select the best ingredients then head back to a local home to cook your Bengali feast.walksofindia.com.
Thai Airways flies to Kolkata from Sydney and Melbourne, with a stopover in Bangkok, from $1199 return. thaiairways.com.au.
Chrome is a boutique hotel in the heart of Kolkata. It has 59 rooms (the theme rooms are a highlight) and four suites, a swimming pool, free wi-fi and a transport service. Rooms from $103. chromehotel.in, slh.com.
Tour de Sundarbans takes tourists on motorcycle rides through Kolkata and the surrounding countryside from 1500 rupees ($26) a day. They will tailor rides to your needs. tourdesundarbans.com.