Monday, February 25, 2008


The bus ride from Pokhara to Sunauli and the Indian border includes several hours of lurching along twisty mountain roads. When I made the journey in October, I suffered quite badly from motion sickness. This time I was prepared, having taken an anti-nausea pill which proved to be effective. Having experienced the beautiful scenery once already, I actually drifted in and out of sleep for much of the seven hour ride (this despite the fact that the driver seemed to have learned to drive in India and used his horn like a battering ram). About the time we reached Bhairawa (the turn-off for Lumbini), and still a couple of kilometers from bus terminal at Sunauli, the bus stopped and deposited the remaining passengers. There was a transportation strike in progress, and no point in continuing.

We decided to spend the night in Bhairawa, the accomodation and food prospects looking more promising than those of the dusty, tout and mosquito-infested border. Mistake #1. We got a bicycle rikshaw to take us to the Hotel Glasglow. Our guidebook had given the place such a positive review ("practically perfect"), I figured it had to be at least decent. Mistake #2. The guy at Reception spoke little English, but told us the room rate (700 Nepali Rupees, or around $11. We'd paid 500 for our lovely room in Pokhara) and sent us to look at the room. It was really sad, and I got a sinking feeling in my gut. This is what we've got to look forward to from now on: India. Nepal was generally SO MUCH cleaner than India, and the Nepalis are generally a pleasure to deal with. Further, they have some sense of what foreign travelers want: clean rooms, good service, and, importantly, a pleasant atmosphere. In India, and this room at the Hotel Glasgow, everything reeks of neglect; there's simply no love. But we'd been up since 5am and were knackered, so we agreed to take the over-priced, nasty room. I asked where we could get a bus ticket for Varanasi and learned that we could only do that 4km away in Sunauli. We should've moved on then, but we didn't. Mistake #3.

After dumping our bags, we went out in search of food. The bandha (bandha literally means lock, and is the word for strike in Hindi as well) meant that nearly all of the shops and restaurants in Bhairawa were closed. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the only real food we'd eaten was a croissant and chai at the bus park and a second chai on the road. In desperation, we entered an upscale hotel and ordered Veg set meals in the completely empty restaurant. They were quite pricy, so we expected something rather nice. Mistake #4. The meals turned out to be the ubiqitous dal bhat, which is basically rice, dal, a veg and some greens. We didn't even get a papad.

Our spirits low, we considered our options. I figured that since we had to go to Sunauli anyhow we ought to just check out of the room and spend the night at the border. Surely it couldn't be much worse. Perhaps the hotel staff would take pity on us and let us just leave? Bellies full but hardly sated, we walked back to Hotel Glasgow and stated our case to the man at reception. He had a difficult time understanding what I wanted, but in the end said he'd have to charge us half the room fee. Fair enough, I suppose, but not completely acceptable. We decided to suck it up and just stay put. I'd walk off some of my ill humor with a walk to Sunauli to get the tickets, and Alex (who did not sleep on the bus) would have a nap. Dejected, we went up to the room. I happened to glance at the pillow on my bed. It had 5-6 strands of black hair on it. Alex's was the same. Yuck. I went down to complain, again experiencing language difficulties. A woman was sent in to change the bedding, a young man accompanying her (to supervise?). Everything ok? he asked. Sure. But then I went to use the bathroom and discovered that the toilet didn't even flush... That was enough to send us packing. I paid the 1/2 room rate, complaining about the toilet, etc, and we caught another bicycle rikshaw to Sunauli.

Like many border towns, Sunauli is dirty, mosquito-ridden, and utterly charmless. The main road is packed with money changers (both the Nepali and Indian Rupees are controlled currencies and can't be exchanged outside of their respective countries, though you are permitted to use Indian notes up to 100 rupees) and not much else. We found a surprisingly decent room for 600, drank chai at the hotel, then went to find a bus ticket. A couple of doors down we found a travel agent who sold us a direct bus ticket to Varanasi for 300 Indian Rupees. Mistake #5 (how big a mistake this was will be revealed shortly). The agent tried to get us to book a room at a place in Varanasi, and we said we'd think about it. Varanasi is notorious for touts who get ridiculous commissions from the guest houses, sometimes as much as 80% of the room rate. So it's not necessarily bad to arrange a room beforehand. In this case though the agent would obviously serve as tout, and we declined.

We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant. Mistake #6. It was empty except for a table of Tibetans. Alex tried to order three different dishes from the menu, and was told that none were available. (This is so common in India, the menus packed with tems that have probably never been available, as to be maddening.) He ended up settling on just a beer, which came directly from off a shelf at room temperature. The best I can say about my food was that it was edible.

The next morning we went back to the agent's to pick up our ticket. The guy there (not the one from the previous day) warned us that we were not to pay anything to the people on the Indian side, that sometimes the Indian guys would try to cheat you. Then he said to look for Mr. Babalu 50 meters up the road from Indian Immigration and drew us a little map.

When I last crossed this border in October, I failed to notice the Nepali Immigration office at all. I walked right across the open border and got my passport stamped on the India side. This failure to receive an exit stamp caused no small amount of trouble when I returned to Nepal in December. This time I dutifully went through the process on both sides. The representative at Indian Immigration was a credit to his office (or should I say an anomaly?), a surprisingly friendly chap. He looked at my passport. Sheila? This is a very good name, an Indian name, And Rae? That too is Indian. Very good. You are going to Varanasi? Very nice place, I am from varanasi. Are you married? Friends? Friends are ok when it is hot, but you need a husband when it is cold. This is the cold season. Then he looked at Alex's passport. Same birth year? This is very good, you should get married in Varanasi. Different country... is this a problem? We told him No, and that we'd think about his suggestion.

That little exchange with the border agent was our last bit of fun, really. We asked for the Varanasi bus and were directed to a pathetically decrepit government bus. The floor was filthy, covered in peanut shells and trash, seat cushions had fallen off their frames and were strewn about the floor... It had a post-apocalyptic feel to it. The sort of bus you can tolerate for a short ride, but not the kind you want to spend 10 hours on. We showed our ticket. Mr Babalu? Oh, go to that office up the street. Whew (or so we thought briefly.) We went as directed, and were advised by some two-bit goondas to wait at the picturesque (not) chai stall across the road.

Unsurprisingly, the bus that eventually pulled up was the same one we'd seen earlier. The goons from the office told us to get on, then proceeded to try to sell us the actual ticket for the bus, which was in fact 196 Rupees. We refused. The only people on the bus were the driver, the conductor, and a French guy in a hoodie. The goons tried to menace us, saying that if we didn't pay them the money, we'd have to get off the bus. The French guy came over and told them to get lost. The driver motioned for me to sit down. The bus folks were clearly familliar with this scenario, though not party to it. Alex demanded they hand over the tickets, which they eventually did with some *ahem* prompting. After the goons were off the bus and we'd finally pulled out, the French guy came over to tell us that something like this always happened at this border, that it is a terrible place. I later heard an interesting tale from a friend who'd also passed that way recently. He had taken the night bus, and before it started out a man had come around and sold them tickets for 400 rupees. It seemed a bit steep, but he paid and received his ticket. After the bus was on its way, the actually conductor came around. Every foreigner on the bus ended up paying 596 rupees for the 196 rupee journey.

If the bus at rest was post-apocalyptic, in motion it was merely apocolyptic. Everything-- the windows, the seats, the doors-- shook and rattled at full volume, a cacaphony liberally spiked with regular blasts from the horn. There was no suspension to speak of, and we bounced and lurched about in our seats. It felt like being on the inside of a maraca that was being shaken fervently, the noise and vibration of it. Alex shot some video, which has had us in tears with every viewing to date. Why is it that my favorite travel stories spring from the worst experiences?

The roads in the state of Uttar Pradesh can be quite bad, but I recalled the stretch from the border to Gorakhpur (the first major city on the way to Varanasi) to be ok. Our bus, however, decided to take a "shortcut" along something resembling a cow path much of the way According to our knowledgable ami, this route was indeed marginally shorter, though considerably slower, and was taken to save petrol. I wasn't entirely clear on who actually benefitted from this scam, but I do know that the three hour ride to Gorakhpur ended up taking us over five painfully-slow and extra-bouncy hours.

In the end, shaken and deaf, it was nearly 10pm when we reached Varanasi. That's 13-1/2 hours for an alleged 10 hour journey. In terms of the richness of our experience, we surely got our 300 rupees worth.


Blogger evr said...

Sounds kinda like my trip to Utica last week.. or maybe not!

10:14 AM  
Blogger Sheila said...

Utica? Is that in Greece?

2:42 AM  
Blogger evr said...

It might as well be.

7:47 AM  

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