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Transport Trauma

Sunauli, Nepal

The direct train from Agra to Gorakhpur is only once a week, so we had to get to Delhi first and catch the sleeper from there. We remembered from the guide book that trains from Agra to Delhi were frequent, which I took to mean several times an hour, which would give us plenty of time. After sitting at Agra station for more than an hour with no sign of a Delhi train, we found a kiosk selling the Trains at a Glance guide and started looking through it. Dismay set in as I looked through the many possible trains from Agra to Delhi and started to realise that they all seemed to leave in the morning or the evening, but none in the afternoon. There was one option which meant that we would maybe just make it, but it didn't seem sensible to leave such a small margin. We thought we were going to have to quickly change plans and take the bus, which was slower, meaning that we would have to leave for the bus station immediately. Before we left, we thought to ask at information, just to make sure. It turned out there was an express train arriving quite soon, and the reason we had missed it was the station it terminated at, Nizamuddin, did not say “Delhi” in the name. We would still have to change to New Delhi Station, but it would be no problem to get a local train. Apparently.

The train to Nizamuddin was nice and fast and it the nerve-wracking seemed to be behind us. The station was impossible though. After waiting for twenty minutes or so in a “queue” with Indians pushing in from all sides and Joanne getting increasingly annoyed, we made it to the front, where we were told we were in the wrong place; it was general class, downstairs. In the queue-cum-scrum we had got chatting to an Indian who was back on holiday after living in New Zealand for five years, and we saw him again in the downstairs queue. When we got to the front of that, we were told again that we were in the wrong queue and we had to go upstairs. At this point the NZ-Indian saw our frustration and stepped in to help. After a few minutes of heated Hindi he turned around, exasperated, and admitted that he had not been able to make any sense of the situation either. He had obviously forgotten what India is like, did not seem to be able to believe how impossible everything is. He suggested we should just get a taxi, but I was not ready to give up and you always have to look after the pennies on a trip this long. I had a flash of inspiration: every Indian railway station has an office with a sign above it saying “Station Superintendent's Office” and I thought it had to be worth a try, so we went in and I explained that we were trying to get to New Delhi Station, but neither ticket desk was able to help me. He stood up and looked past us and told us there is a train on platform three now and it leaves in two minutes. “But where do we get a ticket? Can we get one on board?” I asked, to which he replied “Don't worry about that – nobody will check”. So there it was from the superintendent's own mouth. The train was very crowded as it was now rush hour, but nobody asked for a ticket and we made it to New Delhi in plenty of time

The train to Gorakhpur was already very very busy. We had booked the top bunks for this trip, so after the two journeys we would know which option was better. After our first journey we were fairly convinced that the top bunk was going to be better: peple had been able to go to sleep when they wanted because you don't have to wait for the seats to be converted into beds if you are on the top. However this train was so busy that the top bunks were already full of other peoples luggage when we got on. There were far too many people in our carriage and where there were eight berths there were about fifteen people. There was some grumbling but a man assured everyone that the three girls with lots of luggage were getting off in just an hour, which would have been 9 O'Clock, the time that seats are supposed to be converted to beds. At 11 O'Clock they were still on the train and we were exhausted, having got up so early to see the Taj Mahal. Every day I become more certain that Indians hold no moral value in the truth. However they did get off shortly ater that and we went straight up to bed, allowing the other people in the carriage to put their beds down too. Now that we were there, the top bunks were definitely better, as you are less aware of the constant movement below, although this means your belongings are more in danger of course. Also it is only occasionally when someone goes past carrying something on their shoulder or head, that my feet were bashed instead of the constant pummeling they got below.

The next morning at Gorakhpur we faced the next part of our journey: we still had to get a bus to the border then, over the border, get a different bus to Kathmandu.Gorakhpur looked like a horrible place so we were happy when we found a local bus leaving just after we arrived. It was very cheap and not too uncomfortable and deposited us about 200 metres from the actual border post, although all of the auto-rickshaw drivers who met us off the bus seemed inexplicably convinced that the distance was two kilometres. We were wise to them though, and the small collection of foreigners who had gathered on the bus made our way on foot. The border was a fairly casual affair which you could easily have walked through without dealing with any officials or paying for a visa, but the risk of being caught inside the country without one and the fact that hotels like to see it means that most people would be happy to walk in and pay the fee. In the Indian immigration office they told us that Rs1000 and Rs500 Indian notes were illegal in Nepal and they could be confiscated on the other side, so I had to change quite a lot of money across the road. Nepali currency is soft and is pegged to the Indian Rupee at a rate of 1.6 Nepali Rupees. However the money changer explained that, although 1.6 is the official rate, Rs500 and Rs1000 notes only attract a rate of 1.5; this is also official he said. I suspect this was just another con, but I didn't want to risk all my money being confiscated, so I handed it over.

The other side of the border was even more relaxed and the idea of someone from customs going through my stuff to confiscate high-value Indian notes seemed farcical. The guys at Nepalese immigration seemed unusually nice and friendly, smiling and chatting with us as we organised our visas. We were planning to stay about ten days, but when it came to filling in how long we planned to stay on the form, I asked how much the various visas cost. There was a 15 day visa for $30, a 30 days visa for $45, and another, maybe 90 day visa, which was far longer than we would be staying. So, I filled in 15 days, since it would cost the same as ten, deciding that this would give us a reasonable margin if our trek ran a bit late. Joanne saw what I had written and did not seem happy: how can we stay 15 days when we don't even have seven weeks for India and Nepal together? I explained that it cost the same, and it was just a safety margin, so she went along with it.

The border town is called Belahiya on the Nepal side but, confusingly, most people seem to call it Sunauli, which is the town on the Indian side. There isn't any gap between the two, so I suppose it would all be one town were the border removed. We discovered the next bus was leaving soon, but would get into Kathmandu about 2am, asssuming it ran on time. We decided it would be better to wait for a later bus, and arrive about 6am, saving us one night's money for a room, as well as being more convenient. After a bit of haggling we were able to get the fare down to Rs400 Nepali. They even took us to the bus to show us that it was worth the fare. It looked OK. Most insistent haggler was a guy called Al I first took to be a Scotsman, although an Australian girl was talking about him as “the Irish guy”. We made use of our time waiting for the bus to have something to eat. Disappointingly it just seemed to be Indian food. At dinner we discovered that everyone was planning trekking, but everyone else was planning on trekking in the Anapurna region, which we had ruled out because the treks there were all too long for our schedule. Al only had a vague plan. Apparently the reason his accent was so hard to pin down was that he had lived lots of places, including, most prominently, Derby followed by Edinburgh, but occasionally Cornwall would come through on a long “a” like “paaassport”.

When it came to bus leaving time, it soon became obvious that the bus was not OK. It was sufficiently plush for them to call it a deluxe bus, but there was less legroom than I've ever encountered before on transport. Even Joanne was having trouble. Evidently Nepalis are very short, or else they have armour-plated knees. Not long after we were wedged into our seats, some locals came on, apparently with the same seat numbers, and we were dismissed to the back of the bus. The road was not very good and the suspension on the bus was not very good, and at the back of the bus you could feel every stone. Going over big holes we were bounced off our seats so that our heads hit off the roof. Needless to say we did not get much sleep on that night bus. In fact we got none at all. Joanne cursed herself for moving and said that next time she would stay where she was and the local could go to the back, after all it was our seats.

We arrived in Kathmandu exhausted.

permalink written by  The Happy Couple on May 27, 2009 from Sunauli, Nepal
from the travel blog: Michael's Round-the-World honeymoon
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