A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Friday, December 11, 2009

The India-Nepali Border Crossing

We were embarking on an epic and exhausting adventure by traveling overland from Kathmandu to Varanasi. The high level plan was to take a bus to Bhairawa, walk across the India-Nepali border to Saunali, take another bus to Gorakpur, and a train the last leg to Varanasi. Total travel time from door to door was estimated at twenty hours. The mere idea of this can make you queasy, but we pressed on. We are not hardcore vagabonds that relish in the least comfortable conditions, yet we similarly find ourselves with far more time on our hands than money in our pockets. We would gladly book the two hour flight on Jetstar like all the other sane people out there, but the adventure awaits...

We decided to enlist Touch Paradise to book the major legs of the trip, hoping to both give our friends some business and ourselves a break from logistical planning. I’m sad to say this didn’t make it any easier, cheaper, or more streamlined. Below is what we learned on the road, and there is but one way you learn on the road: the hard way.

The first important thing to know when you are traveling is where you are going. Duh. While this should be obvious there are at least a hundred cases where the local inhabitants call their city by several names or variations thereof. Either they are slow to adopt the new name out of habit or principle; or they have disdain for the anglicized version; who knows, whatever the case, it will be listed differently on your map, guidebook, tour brochure, train station board, and you will get a history lesson free of charge from the guy on the corner you beg for some semblance of clarity. This leads to a lot of unnecessary confusion and traveler heartache (like heartburn only it last much longer, sometimes your entire life) Let‘s take Varanasi: No one calls it Varanasi but you. It was once upon a time the ancient city of Kasi, then Varanasi, then anglicized to Benares or Banares which is still widely used, then back to Varanasi. This is but one example, there are millions of Istanbul’s which were Constantinople’s.

My advice for budget travelers is to book the train leg ahead but arrange the bus and jeep portions as you go. Expect to pay a maximum of 600 NPR ($8) from Kathmandu to Saunali which doesn’t include 150 NPR for rickshaw to the border. That’s right, the bus will stop a mile or so from the border, leaving you standing and scratching your head with all of your luggage.

The border is complete and utter chaos. There are cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, cows, pigs, and people all jammed into every square inch of road, facing off against each other in irresolvable gridlock. There is just nowhere to go: not back, not forward, not sideways. There are no sidewalks, and as a pedestrian, god help you, you have to traverse this insanity through dumb luck and some well-timed shoves. Let’s just say if you looked up the word ‘clusterfuck’ in the dictionary you would see a picture of the India-Nepali border crossing.

On a good night, if you are walking across the border with a valid passport and the appropriate visas, then you can get through the border checkpoint in 1 hour. We planned on two hours just to be safe. I was grouchy, flustered, and sweating by the time we reached the Indian checkpoint and realized that I had left my passport on the Nepali side. Fuck. Yes, that is two expletives in two paragraphs, and I’m seriously making an effort to restrain myself. All in all, it was a ten expletive day. Ron ran back through the gauntlet of obstacles in what he described was like OJ Simpson in the 70’s Hertz commercial, where instead of leaping over rows of departure lounge seats it was carts of chickens. "Go Critter Go!"

To get to Gorakpur train station the cheapest is the bus but can take 3-4 hours depending on stops. The jeep can take as little as 2 hours, so if you are short on time don’t risk missing your train connection by taking the bus. A jeep costs the locals only 100 INR ($2) but they will ask you to pay anywhere from 150-200 INR ($3-4), which you can try to negotiate unless of course it is nearing 6:30pm and the last jeep is leaving and you should be happy with any seat you get. This is what happened to us. We took the last two seats in the last jeep, which meant we sat in the trunk on fold down seats with several other people. We were cramped and hunched over, our interlaced knees smashed into each other.

A helper boy of about 14 clung to the back bumper of the jeep as we tore through the night on the bumpy roads. I was worried for his safety, and as he wore a thin shirt, for his stamina against the chill. He must have been reading my thoughts and opened the trunk - with the jeep careening at top speed - and climbed in on top of us, the unsuspecting passengers. This made the uncomfortable ride, several magnitudes worse. He did offer us a cookie. But when we asked for a reduced fare - only slightly jokingly - he just laughed and laughed.

We arrived at the train station: an enormous, unimpressive concrete structure amidst a crowd of heaving, smelly people. We had not eaten a substantial meal all day and our prospects were low. Either we could brave the food shacks outside the train station or take our chances on what lay within. Neither sounded appealing. We weaved our way inside and found a snack bar that offered several types of savory pastries and pies. We bought six for under two dollars and found a bench to devour them. Then we waited - generously sprinkled from head to toe with flaky crumbs - for our train.

The train prices vary depending on class. Third class travel is the cheapest at 150 INR ($3) for a pre-booked ticket, and isn’t bad if you have a hardy constitution and are prepared with warm clothes, insect repellent, water, and earplugs. Sadly, we had none of these items at the ready. There were no provided blankets and the windows were stuck open letting in sub zero freezing temperatures and big fat mosquitoes by the dozen. Apparently not an incongruous happening. It was so cold Ron dug his wool socks out of his backpack to wear on his hands. I wasn’t so lucky. I tossed and turned and questioned my travel motives: what am I doing this for?

We arrived at 5am in the morning without a room reservation. Of course, our rickshaw driver didn’t want to take us to a riverside guest house of our choosing but finally he relented. He couldn’t get us very close so I had to follow him through the twisting and turning alleys while Ron stayed behind with our luggage. The guest house was completely dark when the rickshaw driver banged on the metal door, stirring a clerk inside. A few excited words were exchanged in Hindi and guess what? They were booked. Big surprise, he had suggestions for where to stay, but two flop houses later, we managed to get a decent hotel suggestion out of him and checked in to the Singh Guesthouse.

Twenty four hours after we left Kathmandu we slithered into our hard platform bed and shivered under the shabby covers. Why is it so cold? Whatever happened to the whole fabled notion of the Indian summer?

Yes, I’m a bit cranky,...but can you blame me?


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