The India and Nepal Diaries Part 2
Contains some strong language
The names of other people appearing in this diary have been altered
To a degree this is a story about not very much. Mainly about being young and slightly stupid in places and cultures we didn’t know or understand. Everything told here did take place and it is more or less an exact transcript of my actual diary. And so on that note, I do not advise anyone to do anything we did. However we learnt a lot from it and, I think, came back from our exploration as wiser people. I hope you may also.
We woke up at 8, or at least Leon did. The alarm failed to go off on my new phone that I had bought at the Chandni Chowk market the day before. It was the cheapest bit of crap they had and I had that knowing voice in the back of my head, telling me I shouldn’t buy it, as I had handed over the money to the man behind the counter. So no surprise when its battery failed to last through the night.
We packed our stuff, sat, played cards and ate bananas. When we left we caught a taxi to our new hostel for ₹600. It dropped us slightly short and we had fun messing around with an ATM again. I am already worried about how quickly money seems to be flowing through my hands. Leon worked out that with the spending money we had, our daily budget, including for accommodation was just below ₹1,700 each (about £20). I already know I’m spending more than this most days. But then Delhi is expensive - comparatively - , particularly when you are not wise to all the cons and have no idea what prices should be. This is exacerbated when, for every transaction, one is hurriedly trying to work out what’s relatively being paid in pounds and then whether that sounds about right.
The hostel looks good inside. It’s a place called goSTOPS. Rooms are 6 person bunks, but look good. We’re sharing with two French Canadian tourists who seem nice. There’s an AC common room.
We sat down and immediately met two British travellers, Alex and Bethany. They seem to know a lot more about what they are doing and about India itself than we do. But then Alex is a medical student and he has speed read the large Lonely Planet Guide. They had only arrived that morning but had already sorted out their train tickets for the next three weeks. Apparently buying tickets is a nightmare and trains are generally pretty fully booked. We were aiming to catch one the next day.
They gave us a train ticket form that they had picked up and we rushed off by tuk tuk to the New Delhi train station to try and buy ours.
On arrival all was mad. We were on the wrong side of the station and so had to go in, passed security checks, across and then back out the other side through the throng of people. We were following signs for the ‘Tourist Information burro’. However, as we’d been warned, there were people trying to tell us to go in the opposite direction. I have no idea why? I assumed it was something to do with money.
Finally making it to the burro we met two Germans who offered advice and conversation while we all waited. The actual buying of the tickets was reasonably simple, though the ticket itself is printed badly and incredibly difficult to read. (Both our tickets were on one, wallet sized piece of paper).
We got directions to a currency exchanger in this amazing market street full of shops and stalls and lined with massive overhanging signs. Apparently we need US dollars to get a Nepalese visa… and an ID photo… which we don’t have… we’ll have to sort that later.
Two out of three currency exchange places won’t do it, but the one that will seems legitimate. However, both me and Leon realise we haven’t got the faintest idea how to tell if Dollars are real or not. We had to take the chance.
Upon arrival back at the hostel we met a rather charismatic, well-travelled Dutchman called Tony. He was about 20 and looked like a classic US high school baseball player (or at least my image of one) with tank top, nee length shorts and backwards facing cap. He proceeded to lead us four Brits (Leon, Alex, Bethany and I) away from our planned place of dinage to a bustling street and into a dodgy looking chicken restaurant, most of which was set below street level. In true British fashion we all trooped in after him, none of us willing to say we thought this was a really bad idea. Even Leon who’s been vegetarian for a year or so was taken in and sat down at a grotty looking table in a stupidly hot corner of the room. I can only think it was the pressure of the moment. Tony pretty much preceded to order for all of us, which was fine as there was really only one thing available on the menu – chicken tikka.
Our drinks arrived. It was some weird lemonade soft drink; a product of the Coca-Cola company and we studied their grimy bottles before putting them to our lips. Mine had some ominous looking reddish grot stuck just below its rim which refused to move even when encouraged to by the use of a tissue and some alcoholic antibacterial goo Bethany had in her bag. In an ‘oh fuck it’ mood, induced by the perceived pressure of one’s peers, I drank it anyway.
The chicken arrived and looked alright. It was spicy. I ate little, hoping that somehow this would help me avoid the famed 'Delhi belly'.
On the way back through the growing dark we stopped off at an Indian cake shop and bought two incredibly sweet, incredibly sticky date mush lumps. These turned out to be rather nice though I wished I had had some tissues as they got everywhere. Luckily we chanced upon out first super market and went in to buy some plus other essentials.
The decided next move was to buy some beers and retire to the hostel’s enclosed garden space. This was pretty much a gap between several buildings filed by a ring of chairs and box tables. We were joined by two Dutchwomen and then three Indians, a woman and two guys, all of whom where lovely and all of whom brought more alcohol. We chatted, had fun and somehow managed to get almightily pissed. I have no idea at what point Leon left or at what point I managed to get back to my room, but it was the early hours of the morning. Even when intoxicated I somehow managed to open my locker to get out my sleeping bag, brush my teeth and remove my clothes. I don’t remember any of it.
Whether it was the chicken or the alcohol I don’t know. My guess is it was probably a combination of both. However, at some point in the night I threw up. I preceded to spend the rest of the night in the bathroom in a weird state of mind. Time didn't seem to be working. I have no idea how long I was in there for. It could have been an hour, it could have been half the night.
At about 8am I crawled out, got back into bed and fell asleep for way less time than I would have liked. We had to be out of the room by 10 so I had to be up. I had a lovely but needed hot shower and packed my stuff, my body screaming the whole time to remain horizontal.
The rest of the day was spent with me dozing on cushions in the common room, while Leon feeling better but still not great, taught most of the rest of the hostel’s occupants how to play Russian whist.
At some point a couple came over to say hello and check if I was ok. It turned out they were another pair of British medical students, again wielding a large Lonely Planet guide. They gave me a nausea pill and sat down to play cards and chat to Leon.
In actual fact, while horizontal I was having a pretty good time. The hostel had an interesting play list of music which mainly seemed to consist of The Beatles. In all honesty I could think of nothing more pleasurable than lying down with eyes closed in a lovely cool room and listening to a bit of classic 60’s pop. The fact that the moment I stood up I wanted to be sick, was the perfect excuse.
After finally getting some sleep and waking up feeling better, Leon and I revitalised ourselves with some rich tea biscuits, a coke and a game of pool on the most bowed table I have ever seen. Interestingly, though each bottle says it, if you ask anyone for a Coca-Cola they have no idea what you’re talking about. Everyone says coke. That’s just the way it is.
The two medical students came and sat down and we got chatting. It turned out they were off back to the UK that night… I asked if they would like £18 in small change that I just happened to have in my bag and if they could give me some rupees in exchange. They laughed and agreed to swap it for a £20 as they didn’t have any Indian money left.
What had happened was this; we had been collecting donations to help support a school in Nepal that we had a connection with. We were going to visit it later on in our travels. Anyway, the donations Leon had collected in the newsagents and pub in our local village had somehow got into the pocket of my bag where I promptly forgot about them, failing to deposit them in a bank. Of course, once in India I had no idea what to do with them. No one really wanted £18 in coins. So they just sat in my bag making an entertaining sound every time I opened the top.
We left for the train station at 6.15 pm. Our 13 hour train east to Gorakhpur was set to leave at 7.50 pm but we wanted the time to sus out the rail system.
After managing to work out what train and platform we needed to be on we spent ages trying to work out how we were supposed to know our carriage and seat number before realising they were on our tickets.
The trains are air conditioned with a central aisle and compartments with bunks in. Food was brought to everyone who wanted it and our compartment companions seemed very nice, even giving us a packet of Indian style bourbon biscuits.
You can tell the railways are a matter of national pride as on board the train everything runs like clockwork. The ticket man comes along with bed reservations and names. Men walk up and down the corridor selling water, Chai tea and snacks. The chef comes to take the seat numbers of the people who want either the vegetarian or the meat meal.
There are 4 in our booth and two more on the opposite side if the aisle. I am on one of the top bunks opposite Leon on the other side. We’re both doing the same thing which is to work out the best position to have our rucksacks in. As a pillow or as a foot rest. We’re still worried about having our stuff nicked and there’s no room on the floor for it anyway. The compartments are enclosed and only have two windows, one on either side of the train at bottom bunk level. So for me and Leon we are completely cut off from the outside world. The metal roof and tight nature of the bunks makes one feel as though you were in a war bunker or a cabin of some ocean liner.
I slept incredibly well and to our unjustified surprise the air conditioning worked superbly. If anything I was too cold as opposed to too hot.
It was now early Sunday morning and upon arrival into Gorakhpur everything appeared dry, but cooler and more humid than Delhi. The streets are less crowded and the people, in my opinion, look healthier.
We got a tuk tuk to our hotel (there didn’t seem to be any hostels). They sat us down before check-in in front of an incredibly corny but amusing Bollywood movie; the chisel-jawed hero walking lonely and holding the same, beaten down and sad expression for the entirety of the section we watched.
The room we are shown to is a weird combination of immaculately painted gold arches and mouldings contrasted with sections of bubbling paint. There’s a grandfather's clock in the corner and a strange, tacky looking 1980’s style double bed surrounded by similar furniture – the whole décor is rather kitsch.
We went out for an initial walk, discovered there wasn’t very much and turned to go back. Then a car pulled up and one of the men inside asked us what it was we were looking for. We said a shop that could take visa photos. He seemed to know one and offered us a lift. We took it.
The place turned out to be literally 5 minutes away, but the owners of the establishment directed us to another shop instead. According to them it was closed on a Sunday and we should go there tomorrow. We decided to walk on and have a look to see if we could find it. We got about 500 yards down the road and found the same man, the shop owner, on a motor bike beside us and beckoning to us to get on. As the roads were relatively empty, the bike looking ok and the concept an entertaining one we hoped on. Of course we also had no idea where we were going, nor how far it was, so a kind man on a bike taking us there sounded great. We already felt like we’d done a great deal of walking and getting lost.
The shop was indeed closed but looked promising. We walked home.
I decided to go for another wander and really enjoyed dawdling down the different streets, watching life go by. There wasn’t really that much to see. It was mainly rows of concrete and brick suburban houses, most with flat concrete or tin rooves and all made to a very similar design. The streets were neater than Delhi but not cleaner. There were cows everywhere, chewing nonchalantly on any vegetation there was, and where there wasn’t any chewing on compostables or rubbish instead. Between the houses there were loads of little shops, each of them selling more or less the same items: crisps, chocolate, Bombay mix, nuts and similar. Chocolate is really never something one should buy because, as we discovered, all these places get regular power cuts and so it melts and goes off.
I did find a barbers and decided to try it for the experience. It was very entertaining and I even got given a shave with a proper cut throat razor, which was a first. The smiling young man doing the cutting was lovely, but didn’t seem to know what to do with my thick fair hair and my persistent cows lick (it’s a problem barbers have expressed before). In the end he just left it, which in all honesty was no surprise. I do the same on a daily basis.
I went home. We ate a nice rice – veg biryani and headed for an early night.
Our hotel is called the Kings Prince Palace Hotel. Certainly royal. There seems to be a real trend of calling things exceedingly long and zealous names. It's great!
Please click to see The India and Nepal Diaries Part 3