Corolla over the friendship bridge
The Nepalese border was as chaotic as I'd expected. A long desk with a fan swirling above and large paper weights holding down lose papers. We sorted our visa out (after convincing the border guard once again that yes, the photograph of Lindsey really was her) and had them stuck in our passports. The new burgundy passports (well, they're not really new now I suppose) are cheaply made and the gold crest that is embossed onto the front easily rubs off (this never happened with the old black story books!). It is not clear which way up the passport is, and so our Nepalese visas were unwittingly affixed upside down. Unlike some other westerners we'd met on the Chinese side who'd picked up their Nepalese taxi for $15 dollars per person, we found a driver who was willing to take us to Katmandu for $10 for all of us. A result. And so we motored through the north of Nepal in a tidy Toyota corolla, the sort you no longer see on the streets of England because they have all long since rusted away. My preference was to stay in Freak Street. It is much quieter than the tourist area of Thamel, and has a far better ambiance to it, but our driver refused to drive around that area so we headed into Thamel. As we sat in the traffic of Katmandu city, the presence of soldiers on rooftops, patrolling the streets and standing behind sandbag barriers with guns pointed was obvious. The Maoists detonated their first bomb in Thamel whilst we were there. And then we were in Thamel, checking into a hotel that Gael had been recommended.
The hotel was cheap. In fact it was the cheapest in Thamel. How do I know that? Because we were the only non-Hebrew speaking guests staying there. Everyone else was Israeli and you can always rely on the Israelis to find the cheapest accommodation. The hotel was like a suburb of Tel Aviv and was very noisy. The Israelis speak loudly and shouting comes easily. They enjoy nose bleed techno at loud volumes and forget there are other guests staying in the hotel. Probably because all the other guests are Israeli as well and are with them as they party. So sleep was hard to come by, but inertia prevented us from finding other accommodation. The shower was solar powered which is great if you like your hot shower in the heat of the afternoon, but a pain if like me you worship a hot shower in the mornings when there is no warm water in the tank and it is icy cold from the chilly evening.
We sorted out our Indian visas at the Indian embassy. As with so many things Indian this involved significant bureaucracy and hassle. First we had to have a telex sent (in duplicate) to the London Embassy granting their approval. Then return several days later to have this approval approved by the Nepalese embassy before filling out a third form. Finally we return for the last time to pick up the visa. Looking on the board to check we had had our visa approved by London I tried to find our names and nationality. They were buried in a long list of a familiar nationality- Israel. Dozens of Israelis were being approved every day. An Englishman behind me passed comment at this. "Look at 'em all" he said, 'half of Israel is going to India!" To this he added, "can't really blame them though can you. Who'd want to be in Israel now?"
Snowman apple pies
Stella and Melanie are still in Nepal and we meet them for dinner. Stella is with her Nepalese boyfriend's twin brother who she is staying with. I get on well with Ram and his friend Ravi. Ravi is connected with the royalty and runs a call centre handling calls for a US Telco. We agree to meet again before we leave.
We spent no more than a few days in Katmandu doing much of nothing. A large amount of time was spent on the internet, catching up on mundane gossip from home, in real time using messaging software. This made our moods gloomy rather than upbeat and like all addictions that it was becoming, our internet use was becoming unhealthy. We wandered around the town, not so much seeing sights as absorbing the chaos of it all. Lindsey was positively beaming, so glad to be out of China. Even better, she found places to drink her favourite nectar, Indian chai; milky and sickly sweet, laced with aromatic spices. We walked down Freak Street and turned left at the end and entered my favourite eatery in Katmandu, the Snowman cafe. It is a dark building with nicotine stained ceiling and walls. Faded hippy paintings and a dog-eared poster of Bob Marley look down on the Formica tables. Unlike most cafes in Katmandu, CDs have yet to reach the Snowman. Cassettes still rule the roost, playing to an era when this place was buzzing. Woodstock still lives on in the Snowman; the soundtrack is of the Doors and the Rolling Stones and Janice Joplin, Hendrix and Crosby Stills and Nash. The snowman opened its doors in 1966 when the first hippies were arriving on the sub-continent from the overland trail. After the trip through Turkey and Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, eating lentils and rice and shit-on-a-stick, the Snowman would have been an oasis of good food. Times change, the hippies are gone and western food is all over Thamel, but in my books, the apple pie in the Snowman is the best apple pie in the whole world. The banana chocolate cake of which Lindsey had more than a few plates, came a close second. Moist and tasty and a perfect pudding in every sense of the word. The odd backpacking tourist has replaced the hippies, but Freak Street is barely a shadow of its former self and most tourists stay in the hectic, hassle heavy streets of Thamel. More common in the Snowman now are youths in school uniforms. It feels at times like a sixth form common room. As we devour our cakes a teenage couple canoodles in the alcove under the staircase.
And then back to Thamel and our Israeli hotel. Thamel is becoming more like Had Rin in Koh Phan Ghan and I reflect on the fact that with each visit (for this is my third) the place sprouts more up market tourist junk shops and neon begins to drip everywhere, visually polluting the once interesting back streets and alleys.
Getting out of Katmandu is difficult. The Maoists are causing trouble and disrupt the country it seems on an almost daily basis. The day we choose to leave we discover they have called a bandh (or strike) in the area we must pass through. No busses will run and break the bandh. The Katmandu Post newspaper reported the bandh highlighting the powerlessness of the authorities and the reason for bus drivers staying at home. "...enough to instill fear among the policeman at Lamahi, both the Armed Police Force and the police who were suggesting the passengers, drivers and motorists proceed towards Banke at their own risk! Even the army men could not be seen on the highways or streets." So there was no security personnel to provide protection to those citizens who dared to defy the so-called bandh.
I lamented about the strike to the hotel manager.
"Better fly to Varanassi" he said.
"No, we don't fly" I retorted.
"But then you are not a man if you don't fly"
"Look, we have not come half way across the globe by land to start flying now"
"But why ever not?" he chided me, "be brave man".
"Because we are on a mission." And then the phrase from the Blues Brothers came to my lips and this was good because invoking the name of God in these parts always works in stopping the questions. People have tremendous respect for the spiritual here. "We are on a mission from God" I said, "to get to India without taking a plane. Planes travel in the heavens. We do not want to trespass in the realms of God". I stopped short of adding a drawled hippy "man" at the end of my sentence.
The day after a bandh was called in Katmandu valley so we spent another day in the town. This was not so bad and we met up with Ram and his friends. They were young, rich and idle. Only Ravi and their friend who owned the hotel, the roof of which we sat on, worked. The others had either finished their studies and waiting for their families to find them good work or waiting to go on to further education in the west. But there was no precociousness or silver spooned unpleasantness with them as you might expect. They were friendly, articulate and we talked about Nepal, western culture, money and the future. Gopal was a jack-the-lad and talked about women. He was going to work in films, "the best job for babes" he bragged, "I'll find me a fit love interest in the film business".
With news back home that many of my friends are starting families, and musing on how I used to hang out with my mates when I was their age (they were all around 25-26), I told them to enjoy their youth. For it would not be long for them, like me, that their friends would be imprisoned by family responsibilities. And an inability to find a baby sitter. Or maybe not. When you live with your family and are stinking rich, I suppose such things aren't such a concern. I drank beer as they polished off a bottle of whiskey, mixing it with soda. It was getting cold on the roof and the sun was setting. The tab was picked up by one of the lads and we said our farewells. It was a shame we'd only really got to know them on this last day in Katmandu; it would have been fun to spend more time with them
Taking the Tata bus outta here
The central bus station in Katmandu was further away than I thought. Despite having persuaded the rickshaw wallah to use the meter (no mean feet I assure you), I had underestimated the distance and how much it would cost us. I handed the driver our last wad of rupees, supplemented by a couple of dollars.
First things first; find out what bus to catch. I queued up at the counter. There was a scrum with little adherence to calls of 'line, line' by the weaker men at the back. The shove grew stronger the closer I got to the counter so that when I finally arrived at it my arms were pinned to my side. I found it difficult to retrieve my ticket from my pocket to hand it to the moustached man behind the glass window. As I fumbled a hand brushed past my right ear waving a large denomination note. A voice babbled at my ear, the heavy breath that warmed and wetted the side of my face had a heavy stench of paan. The mouth was red and Indian, and smiled when I told him to chill out 'shanti baba' I said to him.
We found our bus, and after putting our bags on the roof boarded it. All was fine until the bus was departing (ten minutes late) and a mad scramble ensued to get on the bus. A rotund man with a stern face tapped me on the shoulder and asked for my ticket. "This not your seat" he said to me. I said nothing, but Lindsey argued with him waving our ticket in front of his nose, "yes, these are our seats, look, nine and ten." The man put her in her place. "Madam, you have ticket for seat A9 and A10. You are sitting in B 9 and B10. Well how were we to know that they label each side of the bus with a letter? Needless to say the seats for which we had a ticket were taken and it took the bus conductor a while to sort the issue out. We could stay where we were, rotund man was sent to the back! As the bus inched forward the assortment of beggars and hawkers pushed their way off. The man with the stump as an arm and the cheerful fellow wearing a grubby red knitted Benny hat with his arm dripping in plastic watches that he thrust in peoples' faces were last off. Scheduled to leave at 7:45 we were actually moving at eight.
It was a matter of minutes before we'd stopped again, to let more people board. The aisle filled up with bodies, some standing and some seated on small whicker stools with bicycle tyre bases to stop them slipping around. Naturally there was much argument over who sat on these and it seems that everything was a palaver. There is much shouting and chaos and I am just sitting and smiling and thinking hey! We're going to India. And then I'm thinking we don't have any money, but it augers well, the bunch of bananas and four bread rolls with sustain us for the nine hour bus ride and by the end of the night we'll be chowing on a ruby murray, and may even be on a train to Delhi.
The bus is wide and boxy with two reclinable seats and a thin aisle. The reclining mechanism is controlled by a large knob under the seat that is stiff and hard to operate. Lindsey tries to recline her seat but comes in for a string of abuse from the glum gentleman in the seat behind her. He gives her no end of grief during the trip, poking his foot between the back and seat and pushing the seat back forwards. Now you must understand that Lindsey positively never swears. She is more likely to utter words in Swahili than speak obscenities. So it was with amazement that I saw Lindsey turn round and swear at him.
The ceiling of the bus was covered in burgundy and gold velvet. At the front was a clock that didn't work (it was already quite clear this bus had no need or use for time keeping), and a glass case with a Hindu deity surrounded by flashing LEDs. It could have been Shiva or Lakshmi or any other of the pantheon of Gods, but the glass was so grimy I couldn't tell.
The bus did not so much move as crawl; we were caught in the morning Katmandu rush hour. Car culture came relatively late to the Kingdom; the first car was carried by porters across the hills from the plains of India not so long ago. There are still comparatively few roads in Nepal, so most of the traffic is concentrated in Katmandu valley, and we found ourselves in the midst of it that morning. On the outskirts of Katmandu we crawled into a petrol station and waited for the bus's large diesel tank to be filled. I look at my watch and it is 8.45. According to the bus schedule we should have been travelling for an hour and you can travel quite a distance in an hour. I reckon we'd gone barely a mile.
The journey to the border at Sonali was fairly uneventful save for the regular armed security checks when everyone except us got off the bus and had their possessions searched. The landscape went from hills and fast white water rivers to the plains of the Terrai. After you have seen the magnificence of the Himalayas any other landscape somewhat pales into insignificance so you will excuse my lack of description of it.
The final frontier
At 6pm the bus stopped at Sonali and the masses descended. We were second to last off. Last off was an Irishman who'd sat at the very back of the bus. We removed our bags from the roof manoeuvring them down the side, carefully avoiding the fresh vomit that dribbled down from one of the windows. Any more bags? Yes said the Irishman and was handed down an enormous red suitcase. You don't see that often, a traveller armed with a suitcase.
We jumped in a rickshaw following the Irishman and his suitcase. I felt like Ben Hur as we raced his rickshaw, having to stop myself from pretending to whip the rickshaw wallah who was already at full tilt.
The Indo-Nepali border bore little resemblance to an International border crossing. There were just two pole barriers demarking each frontier. The Nepali immigration office was hidden in a small building behind a flower garden. With exit stamps our rickshaw wallahs peddled us into India. They could have kept on going. There was no-one to stop us. The Indian immigration office was just another shop front on the street that was lined with shops selling saris and metal kitchenware and groceries. The immigration officers didn't see us pass; they were more concerned with feasting on the pile of monkey nuts on the desk. It was our Rickshaw wallah who suggested we ought to stop and get our papers in order. The officers didn't seem very interested, and it was a hardship for them to push their pile of monkey nuts to one side and stamp inky seals into our passports.
And then that was it. Six months to the day after slamming the front door shut in Hampton Court; after crossing eleven preceding borders, we'd made it. India at last.
Red suitcase and northern lights
Both Lindsey and I liked Brian from our first meeting him when he struggled with his enormous red suitcase from the roof of the bus. (On account of his hobby, I call him Brian but that was not his real name). He was softly spoken with little trace of an Irish accent, even less so of the usual harshness of his home town of Belfast. As Irishman are often wont to do, he made generous use of profanities but with none of the usual "feck"; for him a stone is a stone and a "fuck" is a "fuck" and that word gingerly peppered his language.
Is it something about this trip that we are destined to meet teachers? Brian was another primary teacher but jacked it all in to enjoy the pleasures of travel. With a bulging red hard suitcase. Isn't it ever a hassle?" I asked him pointing at the case. "Mate, if it ever gets to be a hassle I just find someone to carry it for me". I liked his thinking.
Brian had commenced his trip on an overland tour in the back of a truck with ten other paying souls. It was cheap and he was covering a multitude of countries in the Middle East before following the old hippy trail to Katmandu. But after two weeks Brian had had enough. It was the air-conditioning and free mini-bar for three dollars that did it. They were in Syria and had already had a couple of nights sleeping under the stars and Brian wanted a wash and somewhere decent to stay. (That was another thing about him, he was obsessive about cleanliness- he wouldn't accept crisps or biscuits because his hands weren't clean enough). At a stop by a monument, a tout showed the group photographs of a clean hotel with AC and a free mini-bar for three dollars, yet that night he found himself once again sleeping outside. "In a fuckin' sandstorm mate. I can tell ya. That's when I decided enough was enough and got the fuck out of there". Brian wasn't in for roughing it, but like me he was on the wrong side of thirty and had put the days of slumming it to the distant past. So we chartered a car to take us to Gorukphur.
Brian was back in India after trekking in Nepal. He had a visa for Iran and was going to use it. He wanted to get to Delhi as quickly as possible to catch a flight to Tehran. Then, after month in India "It'll be down to Goa to party, party, party" he said. "Anything trance and techno mate" he said when I asked him about clubbing, "only once a week now though" he added. Anyone who goes clubbing every week must surely use some sort of recreational stimulant so I asked him about that and he told us about pills on the London dance scene. But his real passion was for marijuana. "Mate, it's my hobby" he told us, and went on to describe his hobby in detail. Brian has green fingers of the hydroponics variety, growing hybrid 'Northern Lights' pot plants in an artificial environment with lamps and chemical nutrients. He'd built a special room in his house. "Mate, it's no good scrimpin' and' savin'. If you're gonna do it, you've gotta do it professionally. The lampshade is most important, you've gotta have a decent lampshade. It'll cost you a few quid but without it ya fucked". Like his obsession with cleanliness, he had an obsession with his health and smoking. He didn't touch cigarettes or alcohol. He explained that when he smokes the buds he harvests from his plants he doesn't actually smoke them. "Mate, I don't want to inhale all those impurities, I just want the THC. I toke through a glass water pipe, heating up the buds with an electric paint stripper. That vaporizes the THC and gives me the hit. I just chuck the bud away after the THC is gone". I commented that this sounded like it would get him dangerously stoned. "Mate, it's cerebral" he said, "I don't go in for any of this mellow shit". "What about the police?" I asked him. "I'm just an anonymous guy in a big city," he said, adding "I like to keep it that way".
Baldy and the retiring rooms
At Gorukphur we go straight to the train station, on the off chance that we may be able to get a reservation on the 11pm train that night. At the booking counter the clerk rolls his head in that peculiar Indian way and says "jungle class". I have to ask him to repeat himself. "Reservation not possible" he said, "only jungle class available. Better you take tomorrow train".
Getting a ticket for a train in India is never a problem. It is the reservation that is the problem. Unreserved second class is what the British; pre-independence would have referred to as third class. It is a seething mass of humanity with the wooden bench seats overcrowded, and people squatting in the aisles and hanging out of open doorways. I travelled this way just once, for twelve hours, and vowed never to do it again. It is a living hell. And to put it in this booking clerk's words, "Jungle class". Resigned to our fate of taking a train the next day, we needed to find somewhere to stay. At major stations in India you will find 'retiring rooms.' These are usually cheap and clean, if somewhat noisy alternatives to the flea-pit hotels outside the station. We went to the retiring room's booking office. It was empty. I went to the station masters office to enquire of the clerk's whereabouts, and also of the possibility of getting on the Delhi bound train that night by way of the tourist quota, or VIP quota, or Freedom fighter quota, or any number of other quotas that are set aside for reservations on trains. But to no avail. I was told to just wait for the Retiring Rooms clerk in his empty office. Western impatience is futile in India. Eventually he arrived, a small balding man wearing a grubby dhoti and thick rimmed glasses. A typically cryptic conversation ensued.
"Hello sir" I say. Experience in India has taught me the value of starting off deferential. Often I wonder if this is what it would have been like dealing with officials in Britain in the decades before I was born, "Do you have any rooms?" I ask.
"No" came the short and simple reply.
"Oh," I exclaim with surprise, "so you are full?"
"No, we have two beds"
"Arrr, two beds in a dormitory?"
"No, in a deluxe room"
"So you do have a room then?"
"Deluxe room at three hundred rupees. You will take it."
"Can we see it first?"
"Is it any good?"
"Very good. It is deluxe".
"But it is your only room and there are three of us. Do you have any other rooms?"
"But you said you only had two beds"
"Two beds in deluxe room. Beds available in dormitory".
Brian suggests that we take the deluxe room and he'll find another hotel. Dormitories are not his style. "Ok", I say, we'll take the deluxe room".
"Three hundred and thirty rupees" says baldy.
"Eh? But you said three hundred earlier"
You pay deluxe supplement. Look on board". Outside the office is a board with the different room tariffs written in Hindi and English. You would need a PhD. in Indian Railways Official Notices to decipher it.
"But on the board it says the supplement for air conditioning is twenty five rupees"
"That is not the same supplement. You pay three hundred and thirty rupees." We are getting nowhere and will get nowhere so I agree. "OK, we'll take it". Baldy then asks for our names, passport numbers (I am expecting him to ask for our fathers names as well, which is not uncommon) and our train ticket numbers.
"But we don't have train tickets. The reservations counter is closed. We will get our tickets tomorrow"
"No ticket, no room" says baldy and I laugh. Laugh at the ridiculousness and the realization that we are deep in India again and I just love it. We walk over the road and check into a fleapit with no name and a couple of cows munching on cardboard by the front door.
After a cold shower we find a dhaba, dodging the runny cow pats that litter the roads. It is busy. We enjoy our first taste of spice and rice. I am in my element again. I love it here. Lindsey is overwhelmed. And Brian announces he's going back to his room to toot on a pipe.
Gorukphur railway station
It takes almost two hours to change money and get reservations for the one o'clock train the next morning. This was primarily due to dealing with the money changers. With the banks not open for several hours we used the black market and getting a good rate proved difficult. What proved almost impossible was changing my pounds. It seems that Her Majesty's ex-colony no longer favours notes with her face on them. It is a sad day in India when Franklin is preferred over old Lizzie. When we did find someone who would take my sterling the rate was atrocious. But cash we needed, there and then to pay for the tickets on the one o'clock express to Delhi.
Brian was the centre of the coolies' attention as we walked to the station, all of them wanting a piece of his red suitcase. He told them all to piss off. We planted ourselves down on platform number five and waited for our train to arrive. At 12:30 a local train pulled into the platform and the already busy platform became a volcano of activity. Incessant cries of 'chai, chai, chai' from the tea sellers, walking along the platform with a large aluminium teapot with a can of hot coals strapped beneath it. Wallahs pushing carts selling puri, frying omelettes, another pushing an e.coli cart, (sorry, I mean an ice cream cart). By the side of us a man was shouting in deafening Hindi. I presume he was saying, "Luvly bunches of bananas, only 5 rupees for five" for he carried a huge basket piled high with tiny over- ripe bananas.
I don't know where this train is going to, usually there is a board on the side of the train which announces its origination and destination, but on this train it is in Hindi. I look down the long length of the train and see no sleeper cars or first class or AC cars, so it is an all station stopper. The carriage by us is over- flowing with life. Coolies push on, carrying bags for passengers, whilst other passengers push their way off to buy food from the platform vendors. A couple of men squat down in front of the side of the train and take a piss between the platform edge and train. A beggar stands in front of me with her palm outstretched. I don't look at her face but see that she has no toes on either foot. She shuffles away. A man walks towards us, itching his crotch. It is a common sight in India to see men re-arranging their parts. His flies are undone and as he gives them a good scratch his penis flops out. "I don't think we were supposed to see that" says Lindsey. He pops it back in and does up his flies as though this was normal and walks on. "I know what it is" says Lindsey. "What's been bothering me about this place. There are no women. It is all men". I look around and she is right. The women are invisible. They are there, but it is the men who swarm and are seen and stare. And look at them stare. Through the horizontally barred window of the train dozens of dark beady eyes are fixated on us. The train driver blows the horn and there is much commotion and hullabaloo as the passengers fight their way back onto the train, and no doubt there is pandemonium on the carriages as people fight there way to find non-existent vacant seats and then the train is gone and the platform returns to its relative quiet and we are left with the stench of human wee.
To Delhi with snores in our ears
Our train arrives and we find our berths. Unlike previous trips to India when we have travelled second class, we can now afford ourselves the luxury of going in air condition class. The carriage is almost empty but as we travel west, it slowly fills up. Brian produces Scrabble from his suitcase and we pass the time playing Scrabble with a crowd of interested faces intently watching on. As we are making ourselves comfortable for bed, a couple of well built Sikh guys board the train and find their berths opposite ours. Any sleep I was dreaming about is banished by these two men who could snore for India. The volume is intense and the man closest to me wakes himself up several times, groaning before nodding off again and striking up in unison with his snoring mate. At one stage he is so loud I sit up and go to tap him on the shoulder and ask him to sleep on his side. That usually reduces the intensity of snorers whose volume peaks when they are on their backs. But as I approach him I see he is already on his side! I curl the pillow around my head and try in vain to block out the noise. And then it is four thirty in the morning and we are in Delhi.
We were expecting to arrive in New Delhi railway station, with a collection of hotels around Par Ganj opposite. But we found ourselves in Old Delhi station instead. Scum seems to settle around railway stations in the early hours and Old Delhi station is no exception. People who I would describe as 'nasty pieces of work' (probably decent, honest human beings but at 4.30 and sleep deprived by Sikh snoring you will excuse my dislike of them), approached us and hassled us to take their taxi/ rickshaw/ hotel. Brian had found a coolie in a red uniform to take his suitcase so he bounded along whilst Lindsey and I struggled with our packs. It is a mystery that despite how much junk we sent home, and we'd just posted 15kg back from Katmandu, the volume of our bags never decreases. I spotted the prepaid taxi booth in the far corner, told the touts where to go and marched over to it. 24 hours it said on the side, the clerk was asleep on the floor. I rattled the metal grill, "oi! wakey wakey" He awoke in a doze, asked me where to and filled out a form in a slow somnambulism. We took an auto rickshaw, passing goods vehicles loading and unloading and road building in progress. Individual stones were being laid by hand into the hot tar. What a job! We arrived outside the hotel and waited for Brian to arrive in a rickshaw after us. We woke the guy on duty at the hotel up but he informed us he was full. I wandered around and finally found a reasonable clean place for us to stay. Back in Delhi!