HIMALAYAN TALES #5: CROSSING THE BORDER FROM NEPAL TO INDIA
001. Okay, before I jump into the border crossing business I'll just give a little recap of how we reached this point in the trip so far, because my posts haven't quite been chronological. We arrived in Kathmandu ---> then travelled to Pokhara ---> then trekked Annapurna Base Camp ---> returned to Pokhara ---> then returned to Kathmandu again ---> before jumping on a bus to Lumbini.
002. Lumbini is said to be the birthplace of Buddha and one of the more convenient towns to reach near the border of India, just a simple nauseating 12 hour bus ride from Kathmandu. The town is quite small but naturally draws in a lot of Buddhists who want to see the sights. There isn't really a backpacker scene, but we only stayed 2 nights to organise ourselves to cross the border via land into India. The 24 hours of transit we embarked on to get from Lumbini, Nepal to Varanasi, India was an experience so say the least. I hope that it can be helpful for anyone else planning a similar route!
003. Our day of travel began at 7.30am in Lumbini, hailing a local bus on the side of the road to take us to a town 1 hour away called Bhairhawa (also on the map as Siddharthangar) . We arrived there at about 9am and asked around on how to get to Sunali, the name of the town at the border. Friendly locals and taxi drivers point us across the road to an area where shared mini vans and taxis were picking up people. Bhairahawa to Sunali is only about 5 km on a straight road and doesn't take long at all.
004. We jumped out of our shared mini van, and started to walk towards the border. There are people EVERYWHERE at this border crossing and trucks lined up for kilometres. Make sure you see the very small Nepal immigration/government building and get your passport stamped OUT of the country, then walk across into India!
005. From the moment you step foot in India you will be hassled about buses, rickshaws and exchanging money. It's best to get rid of all your Nepali rupees before coming to India because they have no value and we found it impossible to exchange everywhere else. There are some Indian people are the border who want to exchange your Nepali rupees for you, but it's a little bit of a rip off. It's okay if you just have small money left to exchange to pay for a bus, but the best option is just try not to leave Nepal with excess rupees and start fresh in India using an ATM or something.
006. Another key point is make sure you get your passport stamped INTO India! I know it seems obvious, but the immigration office again is quite small and not signed too well, so make sure you keep walking until you see it. With every man and his dog hassling you for a bus or rickshaw it's easy to want to jump on one and get out of there but the passport stamping business is essential.
007. From Sunali we boarded a local bus to take us to Gorakhpur, a town where a train station runs. We had taken one too many 12+ nauseating bus rides in Nepal so were very much looking forward to a nice easy-breezy train ride - or so we thought! The local bus packed us in like a tin of sardines, even when you thought it couldn't possibly be more full, they managed to squeeze extra passengers on. Surprisingly though, we arrived at Gorakhpur in the estimated time of 3-4 hours later. At Gorakhpur everyone walks off the bus and automatically piled into rickshaws to take you to the train station nearby. Honestly, we had no idea what was happening but just followed suit with everyone else who piled into the rickshaws routinely.
008. By the time we arrived at Gorakhpur train station it was 2pm and we managed to buy a ticket for a train to Varanasi at 4pm for less than $2. It's probably worth mentioning that at this point we had not seen another Western person or backpacker at all, and nor did we until the next day. The intense stares and constant attention were something we didn't experience in Nepal at all and were a little unprepared for. It's considered somewhat normal in Indian culture and as a visitor you just have to accept it as best you can. We were waiting at the train station for a few hours and made friends with a young Indian guy who spoke English quite well. We chatted and he asked questions about Ben's didgeridoo he was carrying around. For the entire time we were surrounded by at LEAST 20 Indian men, who didn't really speak English and just wanted to be part of the excitement... which really was just two white people waiting on the platform for a train with a weird wooden instrument. I couldn't even tell you how many selfies I was in that day or what the hell has happened to them now. WELCOME TO INDIA HEY?!
009. After many delays, platforms changes and general sense of confusion our train finally arrived at 7pm (3 hours later than scheduled). We were beyond excited to be on a moving train and away from our celebrity status on the platform. This train wasn't particularly full and you could just sit in any carriage you liked. However, a couple of hours into the journey one of the train conductors/security people came up to us sounding a little distressed and asked us in very broken English to follow him. We were confused but just went with it anyway- what else can do you? He took us off the train and led us into a completely empty carriage. It had black out barred windows and assured us it was for our safety. The only other people who were in the carriage were his fellow workers. The whole situation felt so strange and bizarre but we just went with it and trusted that his intentions were kind.
010. The empty carriage was actually totally fine, if only just a little strange and we managed to sleep for an hour or so. When we finally pulled up at Varanasi train station, the end of the trip, it was 2.30am and we had NO accommodation. Our original plan did not involve arriving this late and we tossed up just waiting on the platform until sunrise... but the station was FULL of people covering the floor already sleeping and after our "for-your-safety" experience we thought it was maybe a bad idea.
011. But of course this is India, a country of 1.3 billion people and we found the loveliest rickshaw driver ever to take us somewhere away from the train station. The trouble was that at 3am the only places actually open were hotels that charged $150 a night... which at this stage was literally a couple of hours. At one point we just decided to try and roam the streets for a couple of hours until the sun came up but the kind rickshaw driver wouldn't take no for an answer (or our extra rupees). In the end we did end up finding a place that was $20 for the most disgusting place I have ever rested my head, but after the longest day of my existence I accepted my fate of the dingiest room in India, just for a few hours of sleep.
012. This was ridiculously long, I apologise, but I hope it can possibly help someone out in the future who may be trying to plan the same route!