Saturday, April 5, 2014

Pokhara to Varanasi - Border crossing from Nepal to India

The time had come to leave the peaceful city of Pokhara, and return to noisy, busy India.
We had decided against flying, both for cost reasons (US$200+ /person) and (mainly) to get the experience of going over-land.
We were heading to Varanasi!

After consulting both our Lonely Planet books (India & Nepal), as well as online resources like http://wikitravel.org - we had a plan to:

  • buy a bus ticket out of Pokhara
  • get to Sunauli on the Nepal-India border
  • go from there to the train hub city of Gorakhpur, and
  • get an overnight train to Varanasi.

First, getting the tickets!

We walked around Pokhara, starting with the travel agent closest to the Tara hotel, where we'd been staying. Our quest was for a "1AC" sleeper train from Gorakhpur to Varanasi, but we were told only "2AC" spots were available. We've already done a 2AC, on the trip from Kolkata to Darjeeling, so we had some idea what to expect..
We got a train price quote (Rs 2000/p) and a bus ticket price (Rs 650/p) for the Pokhara-Sunauli part of the trip. We were told that only two berths were still available. We took note of this and continued walking around. Never buy from the first place you stop...

The second place, Buddha Tours & Travel also told us only two tickets were available, and quoted Rs 1700/p for the train and Rs 700/p for the bus. We saw in Lonely Planet that the price should be about 610 Indian Rupees, so about 1000 Nepalese, so the prices seemed high. We decided to check one more place.

We walked another block, and at another tour/travel agent (there are plenty in Pokhara!), were quoted Rs 1800/p for the train. So we decided to go back to Buddha. Ommmmmm....
Buddha is watching you...


We forked over the money, and he started the process of booking the train tickets. Due to the speed of Indian Railways booking system combined with the Nepali internet speeds, he told us it'd take a while, so we said we'd be back later.

The lake was just across the road, so we wandered over that way to gaze on it. How's the serenity!?
A few minutes passed, and the Buddha agent (not a monk, disappointingly) came over to us with bad news: the train was booked out - we'd missed the last two seats.
We could either take a lower grade seat (3AC, where there are three bunks per row for a total of six in each cabin area) or travel another day.

This is where having time and being flexible comes in handy. We didn't want to get the triple-bunker, so we asked him to book the ticket for the following day. There were several available, so it went smoothly.

The journey - Bus from Pokhara to Sunauli

We settled our hotel bill the night before, and asked for transport to the Tourist Bus Station, to be at the hotel to pick us us at 05:45, as we were (according to the ticket) supposed to be there at 06:00 for the 06:30 bus.
We were ready at the right time, but there was no car. Apparently, the "be ready at" part of the request was missed, as they just called for the car when we arrived in reception at 05:45. *sigh*
After waiting a little while, the hotel manager offered to drop us off in his car, which we gratefully accepted. We're a little surprised that this isn't the normal service, as the bus terminal is a short drive (but annoying walk if you have bags). The hotel has a car, why not use it?
Anyway, we got there at about 06:05 (it was a short drive, maybe 5 minutes), and were told the bus wasn't there yet.

So we waited. We saw other Tourist buses, and assumed we'd be placed in one like these. After all, we'd been sold a ticket on a "Tourist bus"...
Expectation level set...


Nope!
This was the mechanical marvel we got to enjoy:
...and dashed, by The BEAST!!
Beautiful interior - check out the tassels!

So, slightly numb with the shock, we passed our big two packs up to the guy on the roof, and climbed in. The ticket had seats allocated, but we couldn't see the numbers anywhere, and on asking the attendant, were told to just sit anywhere.
This didn't help stop the sinking feeling of "this is a local bus, isn't it?"...

"Cozy" seating..


We sat down, and took up two seats each, as there were plenty of spares, and after all, it's a Tourist bus, so it won't pick up any more passengers after it gets going, right..? Right??

Wrong!
Of course, it was a local bus, it stopped after about a minute of leaving the bus terminal, to pick up some locals. This stopping and picking up and dropping off of people continued throughout the trip.

We eventually needed to squish up, re-arrange our 'carry-on luggage' to make room and only take up one seat each, as the bus got very full at some points.

Being a mechanical marvel, of course the trip wouldn't be complete without some along-the-way repairs.
The problem appeared to be with the suspension, as they were clamping one side together. Not being a mechanic not particularly well-versed in automotive part names, that's really all I can say..
They took about ten minutes to fix it, then we bounced along just as merrily as before, so I guess they did a good enough job.

Later, we stopped at a random selection of buildings.
"Lunch, lunch", said a helpful (English-speaking) local traveller. We decided to not partake of the food, as getting stomach upsets at this point in the journey would be very inconvenient! But we got out to stretch our legs.
Getting out..
..stretching (and putting bottle back into backpack pocket)..
The rest of the bus trip was pretty uneventful. Some scary cliff-edges, but that's par for the course in Nepal. We were both remembering the crashed bus we'd seen on the river's edge, when we were rafting..

We arrived in the dusty outskirts of Sunauli (actually, the Nepali side is named Bhairahawa or Siddharthanagar) and got a rickshaw ride to the immigration office.

The rickshaw ride was hot and dusty, a little terrifying at times (big trucks were sometimes mere centimetres away), but we got there. Only 250 Nepalese rupees for the 3km ride.

We went through Nepalese immigration and although we'd agreed for the rickshaw to take us to the Indian immigration too, we just walked (after paying the rickshaw guy, who'd waited).
India, being India, had an officer making us wait while they took and examined our passports, only to be handed them back along with the form we needed to fill out. Thanks immigration dude for wasting our time in the heat!!
Forms filled out, we got our stamps and were back in India!

Sunauli to Gorahkpur

Talking to other travellers
We had talked to another couple travelling on the Beast bus, and thought we'd agreed to share a vehicle from Sunauli to the Gorahkpur. We'd gotten separate rickshaws to the Nepali immigration post, and were going to meet again at the Indian immigration. We did, they got there first, and while our papers were being processed, they left without a word.. very odd.

We looked for them on the street once we finished immigration, but didn't see them, so we got a car (rather than squeezing into a shared jeep) for a reasonable amount, given the two-hour drive, and set off.

The drive was a re-introduction to the insanity that is Indian driving. Our driver didn't go more than 200m without hitting his horn, usually much more frequently than that.
He almost killed some motorcyclists in two "attempts" - I managed to doze a little, but Naomi said in shock "THAT was close!" after we narrowly missed one oncoming bike. Later, he almost rear-ended another, and had the temerity to accost the bike rider for poor driving (we assume, given body language and verbal tone).

We eventually arrived at the Gorahkpur station, with several hours to spare before our train.
Being starved (we missed breakfast, ate only some bread things we'd bought in Pokhara the previous day in anticipation of travelling), we decided to give Indian food a go. The restaurant selection in Gorahkpur is pitiful, at least if you want hygienic restaurants, but we picked one ("Gupta") across the street from the station.
Flies, cows and delicious food
While we were very sceptical, given the flies and overall 'look' of the place, the food was delicious and filling. And cheap! 180 Rupees for fried rice, daal fry, aloo paratha and a bottle of icy cold water.
We hoped we wouldn't get sick from the food..

After eating, we went to the station, and asked if our ticket was ok - it was a online booking ticket, and we weren't 100% sure it didn't need to be converted into another form (like a voucher would).
We were told it was ok, so we found the platform. It was dirty. Very dirty.
Trying to relax on the dirty platform.. no benches free..
We returned to the slightly cleaner area nearer the entrance and found a seat, got out our packet of playing cards and settled in for the wait. We still had three hours or so to kill.

Where we were sitting gave us a nice view of the rat-infested abandoned stall nearby. A large family of rats, in various sizes from HUGE possum-sized to tiny mouse-sized, were scurrying around.
While discussing the need for pest-control measures, we did admit that they were cute when holding food and nibbling.
Hard to catch on camera!

We also got to observe how Indian Railways clean their platforms:
Sweep all the garbage off the platform, onto the tracks!


The train departure time came, and we moved back to our platform (before time, of course), only to find the previous train still there.
Aaand it stayed there... for an uncomfortably long time. Several queries of locals and an official train-person later, we were reassured that it was ok, our train would be next at the platform.

Sure enough, eventually, the other train left and ours arrived. Late, but having heard stories of multi-hour waits and cancellations being common, we were happy to see it at all.

We shuffled aboard, after witnessing how to get a good seat in the 'cheap' sections - stand near the more expensive seats' area, and when the train comes, just grab onto the hand-rail of your carriage as it moves past and either climb on, or run alongside it down the platform! Beat the crowd onto the train!
Neat idea, if more than a little unsafe!

We found our berths, and because we'd asked for two upper berths, we weren't in the same cabin area. Problem!
Fortunately, the kindness of strangers came to the fore - a Nepalese couple had a booking where they would get two berths, and talked another guy into swapping his lower berth for theirs, and then swapped with us, so we had upper and lower in the same area. It was so nice of them!
So now we had the only two bunks in a smaller "cabin" area (usually, there are four to a "cabin" (no doors, just curtains, hence the quotes), so we had our own little area.
We secured our luggage, and made our beds, then went to sleep.

When we woke up, we were almost in Varanasi. The train was running late, but we didn't mind, as we arrived around 6am, rather than the scheduled 04:40. Nicer to arrive after sunrise.

We ignored the dodgy tuk-tuk drivers, and went with an honest-looking and hard-working cycle-rickshaw driver (who told us the tuk-tuk guys were trying to cheat us).
His price for the three or so km to the hotel was 150 rupees - three times what the tuk-tuk guys were claiming, but well worth the feelings of
a) supporting honest workers
b) a (financial) slap in the face of dodgy touts
It also fits with our strategy of not going with the pushy touts, but finding a quieter service provider on our own. So, hint to touts: be less pushy and you'll get customers.

We arrived at our hotel, and were lucky to be able to check in (very) early. Our weary bodies thanks you, Rivatas Hotel by Ideal !