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Posts Tagged ‘Sonali’

 

We arrive at Varanasi station cloaked in darkness. Despite not the slightest hint of light to the east the station is already heaving with people. Many of them lie discarded on the platforms having spent a chilly night under thin blankets. Others less fortunate huddle together with shirts wrapped around their heads to keep warm.

Varanasi Train Station

Waiting for the train at Varanasi station

As yet there is no expected time of arrival for our train to Gorakhpur. The swelling crowd seem ambivalent and more interested in obtaining chai. I go in search of the station master’s office. During our travels through India I have always found them extremely helpful and eager to guide a hapless foreign traveller. This morning is no exception. A loud man with a thick moustache and a straining belt directs us to the train’s conductor. He informs us that the train is delayed but is expected to arrive within the hour. There is nothing to do but find space on the crowded platform and join the others in search of chai.
Two hours later the train finally arrives. The conductor waves to us and nods. I think they feel sorry for us, almost knowing we are not used to pushing through crowds and fighting our way onto trains. We have been spared significant dramas in the last few weeks, but as if knowing this is our last train ride in India we are dished up one last epic battle. As the train slows the normally passive Indians panic and surge toward the open doors like frightened livestock. Standing back and waiting is tempting but also risky as you may not get on before the train departs. We pick up our bags and enter the fray one last time.
It’s a strange experience for us westerners. We would normally associate pushing and pulling as acts of aggression but here it’s just required survival and nothing personal. The idea is to smile remain calm and fight harder than the person next to you. For us it’s not always easy but with practice you start to get the hang of it. I glance at my opposition most of whom are several inches shorter and many kilos lighter than I. A few well timed pushes and arm blocks and we are on the train. Having built up the required skills it feels almost a shame to be leaving now.

Varanasi Train

Crowds rush to the train

We head north through farm fields and flocks of yellow flowers. I take one last opportunity to stand in the open door. It will be several months before we are on a train again and possibly none will allow you to open doors and sit on the stairs. We arrive into Gorakhpur station 6 hours later. By now it’s well after lunch and we still have a 3-4 hour bus ride to Sonauli at the Nepalese border. Motorised and manpowered rickshaws descend upon us as we exit the station. Apparently its several kilometres to the bus stand and too far to walk. A helpful policeman directs us to a corner about 100 meters directly in front of the stations main clock tower. A statue of a once important man astride a horse sits in the centre of the intersection. There waiting among goats and cows are several busses. One driver immediately spots us knowing almost every westerner in Gorakhpur is heading to the Nepalese border. He shouts out Sonauli, Sonauli and ushers us onto the bus with false promises of a quick departure. The bus is about half full so his claims appear at first possible.
An hour passes with only a trickle of passengers joining. To pass the time I go in search of oranges and decide I shall leave India having secured the best price for them on the sub-continent. I just want to try and get the better of a vendor once before I leave. I succeed in passing time but remain marginally ripped off. The bus remains idle, its engine cold and unwilling to start. It’s now almost 90 minutes and even the locals are growing impatient and angry. One passenger is shouting at the driver and then appeals to me in English that this is scandalous and criminal. He is well dressed and I notice he is carrying a leather briefcase. I am guessing he is a businessman of sorts. He continues to berate the driver and conductor in loud bursts while speaking to me in a calm but condemning voice. He even apologises for what he claims is a national disgrace. I like the Indians and I love the way they use our language to great and sometimes colourful exaggerations.

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

When the driver starts the engine and blows the horn we receive an immediate surge of interest from people on the street. The empty seats fill up quickly. Why he did not do this almost two hours ago is completely beyond me. With practiced tolerance and a pretence of cultural understanding I assume there is a good reason but the businessman’s shaking head has me returning to the belief that it’s just simple stupidity. With great difficulty he performs a U turn and heads back up the broken road a 100 meters before stopping. He then makes in the narrow street a 7 point turn that takes almost 5 minutes to complete before coming to stop and killing the engine. It’s all too much for the businessman and he immediately erupts into a volley of abuse and fist shaking. I like having him here. There is no need to get angry, I have a proxy who is doing a splendid job. Several other passengers join in and the surge of condemnation is finally too much for the driver to bare. He starts the engine up, spits out the window and pumps his musical horn before setting off.
Four hours later our bus sighs, hisses and stops among the littered streets of Sonauli. We wait to make sure we have reached the last stop. The driver waves his hand and shouts Nepal border. We retrieve our bags from the back storage area of the bus, a blessed rarity in India. A few bicycle rickshaw men offer to take us to the border. As usual we are told it’s too far to walk, in reality it’s only a couple of hundred meters away. I feel a nostalgic urge to dwell and accept their services as I know we are now spending our final moments in this wonderful country.

India Nepal border

Walking to the India Nepal boreder

The flow of human and motorised traffic is unabated at the border. Indians and Nepalese are free to cross without passport and formality. As such the immigration office is rather non-descript and unassuming. The immigration officer almost looks relieved and keen to be of use. He stamps us out and bids us goodbye. We pause in no-man’s land to take a photo. Ahead is a white arch with a Buddhist chorten and a sign that says “Welcome to Nepal” A small group of foreigners are gathered inside the Nepal Immigration building. We fill in a form and hand over $100.00 USD each for a 90 day visa. Within ten minutes our passports are returned and we are free to enter what was once a forbidden Kingdom.

India Sonali Immigration

India Sonali Immigration

The streets on the Nepalese side of the border seem less littered although it’s a bit hard to tell in the fading light. The sun has set as we go in search of a hotel. It’s always best to leave a border as quickly as possible but Kathmandu is still another 10 hours away. The first few inspections are a little depressing but we eventually find a satisfactory room for 1500 NPR. Conveniently the Nepalese Rupee is currently trading at 99 to the USD dollar so adjustment to the new currency is made easy.
Downstairs the restaurant is overstaffed and empty as our stomachs. We order a vegetable fried rice and an aloo or potato curry with two cans of coke for just under 500 NPR. I survey my surroundings with a combination of satisfaction and relief. It’s always comforting to have crossed a border. A feeling of progress and achievement on our journey. This time tomorrow night we will be in Kathmandu. Our travels towards Singapore will for a few months cease as we spend time trekking in the Himalayas.

India Nepal Border crossing

Crossing into Nepal

The next morning Sonauli is blanketed in thick fog. I open the curtains. Below me a lady is burning juniper branches and a chant is being played on a loud speaker. Despite the excitement and prospect of reaching Kathmandu I feel tired and lethargic. Yesterday’s early start and the long delays in reaching the border have caught up with me. I test the shower optimistically for hot water or tatto pani but none is forthcoming. Outside I can hear bus engines starting up and a chorus of horns. By the time we pack up and walk down to the street they have all but left. One pitiful example remains rusting and empty. The taxi drivers circle around me like some weak member of the herd that has become separated from the others. I feel willing to succumb to them as I just don’t have the energy to wait for another bus and face a 10 hour journey. An immediate departure and a promise of 6-7 hours is too much and we cough up 8800 NPR. The starting price was 9000 and I pitifully manage to negotiate a $2.00 discount! The car at least looks clean and I run through several justifications for taking the taxi instead of the bus which would have been 600-800 NPR each depending on service offered. It’s a rare moment of laziness but I still feel a bit guilty.

Sonali Taxi

Jelly Bean head

Our driver has a head shaped like a jelly bean and I find it difficult not to stare at him. He is friendly enough but not overly talkative. I am still a little annoyed at paying $88.00 USD to get to Kathmandu so I engage him in Nepal’s current economic costs. He explains that the cost of cars is very expensive when compared to India. I have no way of knowing this is true but nod agreeably. Our progress is slowed by the fog. Above the sun is trying to break through. The road is slick and shines like a mirror. So far there is no sign of the mountains for which Nepal is famous. Just flat plains and patches of mist.

DSC08805

Within an hour the early cloud breaks and we see the lower foothills of the Himalayas ahead. Large forested mountains that rise about a 1000 meters in height. The white giants further to the north are for now hidden. A couple of hours later we connect with the main road that runs between Pokhara and Kathmandu. We stop for some food, but opt for a can of soft drink and packet of chips. This seems to have become our staple diet during the day at small and suspect restaurants. My brevity for testing out local food has somewhat diminished knowing that we will start trekking in a few days’ time.

Lunch

Lunch

The rolling green hills of Nepal are a visual feast. Lined with terraces and dotted with charming houses and livestock. We start the climb up a long and winding pass. The road degrades into terrible condition. Trucks and busses send up large plumes of dust that force us to close the windows. Overtaking becomes difficult on the narrow broken surface. In the five years since we last came up the pass there has been no improvement at all. This is to use the Indian Businessman’s words a real National disgrace.
We snake our way up, overtaking where possible and sometimes where not. The vegetation changes from thick jungle to pine forests. Finally we catch a glimpse of the Himalayas. Among the huge bank of clouds to the north icy tips manage to break through. We crest the pass and Kathmandu comes into view. In the distance I can see a huge Chorten on a hill with a golden peak. True to his word our driver with the jelly bean head has us into Kathmandu within 7 hours of leaving. I feel a little satisfied at least in knowing we passed the busses that left early in the morning a few hours ago.

Nepal Village

Nepal countryside

We enter the tight busy streets of Thamel and get dropped off at the Kathmandu Guest House. Almost every souvenir and trekking shop has the chant Om Mane Padme Om playing and the air is filled with smoky juniper incense. We sit in the courtyard of the hotel too tired to check in and order a sweet lassi, feeling very excited and relived to have at last reached Kathmandu…

Thamel Kathmandu

The tights streets of Thamel in Kathmandu

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