Travel in Nepal is notoriously laborious, a scoot over a mountain can take hours as the bus chugs along held together by sweat and hope negotiating single track roads where a seemingly insignificant mistake can easily snuff out the occupants as it falls hundreds of feet into the valley below. I am sure the driver of the bus from Pokhara to Bhairawa failed to obtain an education, I can think of no other reason of why he had such disregard for gravity and the fact that bombing round a blind corner like a mad man, Hindi music blaring out was a seriously bad idea that held dire consequences and meant he was unlikely to get paid come Friday. There was more than a few close calls and at times I genuinely feared for our safety. I was not alone, hanging out of windows was people chucking their guts up. Oddly the first we noticed on the 16 seat bus was directly behind Charlie. Then about an hour later I noticed some commotion behind me as a woman launched herself over Charlie and bulleted her face out of the window in order to the bless the earth with the contents of her stomach. I felt sorry for Charlie, but the pity felt was short lived when me and Abi realised the hilarity of the situation.
The journey was actually one of the most beautiful bus journeys we have ever taken. With Pokhara being at the foot of the Annurpurna range, but in the valley, if you head South as we were then you invariably have to get out of the valley. This means scaling the mountains. Along the route the road passes through villages, rice fields, and the scenery is quite spectacular. I’d love to say we sat in absolute awe for the eight hours the bus took but we didn’t, we soon couldn’t wait to get off and the journey really dragged.
Conveniently the bus broke down in Butwal, at the bus station and so we had to change buses where the ticket guy tried to charge us again, it wasn’t happening and with a smile of failure he left us alone for the hour long journey to Bhairawa. We actually arrived around 3pm, some 2 hours later than scheduled.
We hopped straight into a Jeep made to seat 6 people but extended to about forty for the quick journey to the frontier town of Sunauli, or since the Nepalese tend to just spell things as they sound – Sunowli.
Having crossed this border before we knew to ignore all the touts claiming you cant walk across it and those who claim they can drive you right across it as its a few km. it’s not, literally it’s about 100m and after a quick check out from Nepal we walked into India.
It was the typical chaos you expect, but oddly it seemed like someone had turned up the temperature quite markedly. It was suddenly around 40 degrees and the sweat began to seep through our clothes as the sun burned every piece of bare skin we had.
I knew where to catch the bus and headed for it. Suddenly I realised we had just walked into India on the sly, we hadn’t been stamped in. This might seem odd but you literally have to go out of your way you get stamped into India at this crossing. I know people reading this might think ‘bonus’ easy way into India without the hassle of getting a visa; and you’d be right. However, go try and check into a hotel, or and more awkward, try and leave the country. It’s not possible. I know, try the old ‘didn’t realise what I was doing sketch’ might work, probably won’t. You’ll get a hefty fine and if you can’t/won’t pay expect to get locked up until you have a change of heart or mysteriously stumble across some cash.
At the immigration desk sits three officers with a couple of members of their posse. They could not care less if they tried. Sat with my passport in his hand, reading the front page and thinking he is going to catch me out the first officer asks “you American” I laughed and pointed to the passport saying obviously not and he responds “alright guvnor” couldn’t believe it, a comedian too. My lucky day.
There is no rush whatsoever in India, any one will tell its one of the hardest things to come to terms with. The last bus to Gorakhpur (the transit point we needed to be at in India) left in about half an hour. The officer was asking us to come in and sit down, I think he wanted to get the pipe and slippers out but I explained we were in a rush. So the process goes like this……Officer one tries to catch you out, tells a joke and then checks your visa. The second officer then checks the same and passes it to the third who also checks it. Then after 10 minutes of messing about we were given departure cards. I explained we weren’t departing but arriving. So, the whole process of checking started again, then we got the arrivals cards and filled them out, officer one checks them and stamps your visa. Officer two checks and then writes something on the visa, officer three checks it all and then hands it back to you with a smile and a warning “bus to Gorakhpur is 70 rupees, pay no more” with that good advice we left and walked off. in search of the government bus.
It is exceptionally difficult to obtain Indian Currency outside of India and if you are caught bringing any in it will be confiscated and so it’s not worth the risk. Money changers are ten a penny at borders and so off we looked for some black market money. We attracted a lot of attention, an awful lot. I had in cash 1160NRS and the forex exchange to INR was about 715INR the guy offered me 300. I told him not to be ridiculous and he told us we would not get a better rate anywhere. Some guy made a beeline for me and asked how much I wanted for the money. I said 690 would be fair and he almost broke his arm whipping his wallet out to complete the deal.
There are about a billion jeeps all heading to Gorakhpur and they carry ten people. The driver won’t go for less than 1000INR and so generally you pay 100INR each and when he is full he leaves. We opted for the the government bus which is much more likely to go where it is supposed to and a lot less likely to have unplanned breakdowns right out side specific restaurants/hotels.
The bus was an absolute killer 3 hour journey. The kids had completely had enough, we were thirsty, hungry, tired and constantly dripping in sweat. I am not joking, I have been in saunas that weren’t as hot as that journey on that bus. And so, when we pulled into Gorakhpur at 6pm I asked the kids what they wanted to do. Basically we had to to get to Allahabad some ten hours away on a train, or eight on the bus. Should we carry on through the night or continue the next day. The reasons for going via Allahabad were completely logistical and essentially we had to be there by the 31st where we then had a train booked to Agra. In simple terms we had to get out of Nepal and across Northern India in just a few days.
Charlie wanted to carry on, keen to continue the adventure and to at least get some hardcore relaxing time at the end. Abi had had enough and suggested we stayed the night and drag the journey out. Unsure of train times and availability I courted a compromise – if we could get a train that night we would leave and sleep the 10 hour journey overnight. If not, then we would stay. Both agreed it was the best way to go forward. And this really is what I tend to do, affording us major flexibility I always consult the kids, how are they feeling, have they got any ideas. Ultimately I make the decision but I can honestly say the vast majority of decisions made take into account their input and are made as a unit, not a case of me and them. Something I pride us on, our family is exceptionally close in all areas. Many times I have been called into school because Jack has got involved in something to do with Abi or Charlie with Jack etc. We are a real unit and no where is this more prevalent than when travelling together.
Having been to India several times before it was completely stupid of me to think for a second that when dealing with anything governmental it would easy. For instance, the ticket office for the train station is naturally not in the train station, but some 500m down the road. We found this out after queuing for half an hour at the enquiry desk. Now, in India about 50% of the population know how to, and will readily queue. About 30% don’t under stand the concept and so just stand around at the front wondering what the heck is going on, they probably don’t even realise they are in a train station, they were just passing by and spotted a queue and like flies to light were attracted to it, and the remaining 20% think queues are simply human indicators devised to let them know personally just where the front is. A queue in India is a tense place and I learned way back in China that it is every man for themselves. Pushing, shoving, shouting, all part of queuing in India, we’ve seen people be supermanned through the air from queues, uppercuts a plenty and all out brawls.
In any case we we told we couldn’t buy tickets and headed off to the reservation office. Of course it shuts on Sundays and so returned back to the station to queue again, this time we were told you can’t buy tickets. I decided to go find the station manager and ask just how on earth you buy a ticket. He didn’t know either, he basically said that it is less hassle to buy tickets on the day. We had been in India about 2 hours and had had enough with bureaucracy already. We found a decent hotel across the street and yet again faced Indian red tape. How it could have slipped my mind that checking into a hotel is a mission in itself I’ll never know. But basically you have to fill out a form with all your details including passport and visa details. This needs to be done for all three of us. Then this all has to be replicated in a checking in book. Basically everything has to be done in great details for each person, twice. The stress of the day had made us all drum up a real appetite. When eating street food we tend to stick to deep fried food, the feeling is that anything dodgy, of which there is bound to be, will be burned out. Samosas are 4 rupees each and onion Bhajis (though called Pakoda) were 2 rupees. That’s about 4 pence and 2 pence respectively. We grabbed a few bottles of thumbs up and then went to watch TV. The Indians right now are going mental about the 2012 Olympics because supposedly some woman gate crashed the opening ceremony when India were all mooching out with their big white grins and bouffants. Conspiracy theorists abound and apart from some boxer who is supposedly doing well that’s what dominates the headlines here.
Up at 4am we headed back to the train station and after about an hour finally managed to secure a ticket to Allahabad. We had general class which is basically a few carriages where open reservations are made, in other words if the rest of the train is sold out it becomes a free for all to get a seat. It is fierce and certainly no place for kids, bodies come flying out of carriages head first, it’s a scrum of moustaches, greasy hair and throw back shirts. Those that bag a seat sit holding in a piss for twelve hours through fear of losing their seat and those who don’t get a seat have a long stand and like hawks wait for even an inch of seat to be come available so they can make their move. Add to that no air con, no windows and it is a place reserved for the hardcore.
By the time we got there people were hanging off the storage racks and it was about 7 to a seat. Continuing down the train we found the luggage carriage and figured we’d just slip ourselves in there.
And so it was, the train pulled out of Gorakhpur at 5.30am and the sun still seemed to be rising, and as we chugged along through the plains of Northern India it shone almost discreetly on anything that would reflect its unforgiving and tortuous rays.
The next chapter of the trip had hit us full on, you don’t quietly slip into India unnoticed, you arrive with an almighty bang, assaulted from every single angle, there is no where to hide and it takes no prisoners. India will hit you with everything in its armoury and will sap you of everything you have. But repel the onslaught and clamber beneath the aggressive facade and we know full the mystique and beauty that the sub continent holds.
Overwhelmed and excited we were ready.