Crossing from Nepal into India
The travel itinerary for the day had us leaving Chitwan in Nepal and arriving in Varanasi, India a short 21 hours later. We were reminded of our recent Cambodia to Thailand crossing and vowed to do the simplest and most direct route, whatever the cost.This was it… the only way to land cross into India from Nepal. The trip would include a jeep, a couple buses, a couple bicycle rickshaws, an overnight train and an auto-rickshaw (tuk tuk).It would be another adventure!
The morning started at 5:00am. We finished our dugout canoe excursion and were in the open jeep shortly after. The jeep portion of the journey was quick and uneventful. It was a transfer from the hotel to the makeshift bus 'terminal' in Chitwan. Our first bus leg was disappointing. Once again we were on a 'tourist' bus in Nepal. If you've read our Nepal blogs you'll understand our frustrations.
We were cramped and squished into seats that could barely fit one of us, let alone both of us. Our knees were in our chests, our bags were jammed under our feet, the chairs did not recline, unmovable armrests were sticking into our sides, and there was no air conditioning so all of the windows were open allowing dust and exhaust fumes to enter. We spent the six hours saying "are we there yet?" and "please… no more people!" Imagine the rush hour commute on public transport in any major Canadian city; at some point there just isn't any more room. In Nepal however, they always seem to find room for one more! Once every square inch onboard is occupied they just switch to the rooftop. We'd like to say that it was a 'culturally enriching' experience… but it just sucked.
We were told that we would be dropped right at the Sunauli border crossing numerous times, by numerous people. So when the bus pulled into an empty bus terminal with no border in sight, we were puzzled. Already agitated and grumpy, you can imagine our frustrations when we were swarmed by a dozen rickshaw drivers as we got off the bus. They were all shouting and grabbing at our bags, trying to get us to use them for transportation. Apparently the bus station was another 4km away from the border crossing. We contemplated walking (purely out of spite because we didn't like the approach of the rickshaw drivers) but it was brutally hot… and did I mention 4km away!
Eventually we were explained the process and the fees by a calm Nepali man who spoke good English (many of the rickshaw drivers were Indian). We caved and agreed on two bicycle rickshaws… our bags were far too big for one. Riding side by side, our drivers inched their way to the border. We had agreed on a price of 30 Nepal rupees for each bicycle ahead of time (something that must ALWAYS be done in Asia if you don't feel like getting fleeced). One of the drivers said that they "we're the good guys. Many of those other guys will try to rip you off, not us though" they ensured us (Of course not!).
We are always skeptical, sometimes to a fault, because we've heard this pitch many times before… too many times actually. Sure enough, when we arrived at the Nepal immigration they said that it would be 30 more rupees to get to the bus stop on the Indian side. We had originally agreed on transport directly to the bus stop in India, so this was a new twist to our deal. Sensing that they were going to have 'hidden fees' or 'switched currency to Indian rupees' (worth almost double), we decided that we no longer needed their services and let them go for the agreed 60 Nepal rupees. But not before they tried to convince us that Nepal money was worthless in India so we should give them all of our remaining Nepal rupees… now that was a new one! The funniest part about the statement was that directly behind him were several currency exchanges.
The border crossing itself was pretty straightforward. It was similar to the Bolivia-Peru crossing in that you stamped out at one place, walked about 150 meters through unidentified territory, and then got stamped into the new country. We had already obtained our visa several months ago when we were in New Zealand, so the process went smoothly. It was shocking to witness the clear lack of security at the crossing. People came and went as they pleased. No one even bothered to check us or question us; we probably could have brought in anything we wanted.
The Indian 'customs agent' was a cheery man that wore a loud shirt with a big 'USA' printed on the front. He was the 'high five' type of guy that just wanted to help you out (very nice first impression of India). It was a drastic difference to the typical customs agents that we've encountered at major international airports; aside from the elderly New Zealand agent who wanted to tell us all about his previous trip to Canada with his wife.
The office was nothing more than a hole in the wall with a sign in the front that said "STOP: CUSTOMS". Funnily enough, we almost missed it with all of the other retail signs and touting street vendors. In fact, we could have easily walked into the country without stamping in, but leaving would've been a big issue. It was not what you'd expect from an official government office. It wasn't really even an office; it didn't have doors or windows, just a few dusty chairs and an old wooden table that has seen better days. The process was quick and easy and our new friend (USA 'high five' guy) had us pointed in the right direction to the bus stop. We threw our heavy backpacks on and hiked the short 300 meters… and the Nepal rickshaw drivers said it would be another 4kms?!
We knew instantly that we were no longer in Nepal. It felt like the population had tripled within seconds. The next bus on the journey was much better. It was adult sized and the tickets were printed from a handheld device. We were put at the front of the bus where we had shotgun views and all the leg room we could ask for. The roads are paved and actually have two lanes, a refreshing change to the undersized Nepal roads that handle traffic moving in both directions.
The four hour trip to Gorakhpur passed through several villages and small towns and it was a great way to see the Indian countryside. We couldn't believe how many people there were... and we thought there were a lot of people in Japan! The highways had a never ending flow of villagers and cyclists moving in every direction. The towns were wall to wall people that created traffic jams. India is the second largest populace in the world with 1.1 billion, but to see it for the first time was jaw dropping. This was only the countryside… what would the city's be like?
The bus slowly pushed its way through the streets of Gorakhpur and stopped outside of a bustling market. When the driver turned off the engine we knew we weren't being dropped off at the train station… another piece of info that was not communicated properly. It was now night time and the city was alive with loud horns honking and people swarming the streets.
Luckily Indians are friendly and helpful people. An older gentleman who spoke English could see our confusion and offered to escort us to the train station because it was on his way. It was only about 500 meters and he was a well groomed, businessman who didn't appear to have a hidden agenda, so we accepted and followed him. Unlike other situations in poorer countries, he was true to his word and brought us directly to the front entrance without looking for money.
Then we waited.We had four hours to kill before our overnight train departed. It was a little unsettling sitting in a train station at night in a new country, especially when it's a country where it's culturally acceptable to stare.We had hundreds of eyes staring at us from every direction… now we know what it feels like to be a movie star! It was an uncomfortable feeling. Not a scary feeling, but a very foreign and awkward feeling. People were taking pictures of us and stopping 10 feet in front of us, just to watch us sit… how weird is that?
Eventually a friendly young student sat down beside us and started talking. Within minutes we had a few more sitting on our bench asking us personal questions (another acceptable practice). The interesting thing is that they seemed like they were already good friends, but they had never met before. Indians are very curious about foreigners. At one point we had a semi circle of about 20 men standing around us, listening to our conversations. Saying nothing, just watching and listening intently. It was definitely a culture shock and a first.
The young men were very helpful and ensured that we boarded the right train and the right cabin. We fully anticipated delays but the train departed right on schedule. The border crossing went much smoother this time. It was just very long... but interesting.
We had crossed another border and were now only seven hours way from our final destination…