The India and Nepal Diaries Part 3
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.
After having a solid 9 hours sleep we rose, ordered a breakfast of ‘toast’, which was literally just heated up bread with some odd flaky butter that neither of us wanted to touch. It was strangely sweet and incredibly white, though somehow far too easy to eat. Both Leon and I wrote a post card to send home, then we left to go into town.
We got a tuk tuk who took us the 6 km to the centre quite cheaply and dropped us at a road full of large western style shops. I bought some ‘branded’ shorts having only brought one pair from home. Then we walked on, following directions to a post office on Leon’s phone. This took a fair while as it turned out to be a fair way, but we found some fantastic street food along the way and were very content.
The post office proved to be nothing more than a first-floor room up some dirty narrow stairs in a badly signed and grim concrete building. We sat down and persistently had people overtake us in the queue or direct us to different queues entirely. In the end a girl introduced herself as Theya. As was the case with a lot of people she incredibly friendly but rather short and thin. With her help it was established that we were in fact in the wrong post office and that we needed to travel across town. Luckily Theya offered to take us and within ten minutes and two tuk tuks, which she paid for at a fare far lower than we had ever given, we found ourselves back on the street we had started on. We had quite literally retraced our steps in less than a quarter of the time.
She walked us over to the gates of the post office which was set back form the road and unsigned so that we had not noticed it originally. For her help and for the tuk tuk fares we offered Theya some money, but all she wanted as payment was a selfie. Leon and I entered the post office only to find they were closed for the next two hours. We left.
Our next target was to try and find a bus station to sort out our tickets to the Nepalese boarder the following morning. We got a rickshaw to the place just as it started raining. However, in a humorous way this made us rather happy as we traipsed about all the parked busses trying to find the right place to buy our tickets. After being redirected about 4 times we found a staircase up to the admin office at which they told us we did not need tickets and that busses left every 15 minutes to Sonauli on the border from the road bellow.
We left to get a tuk tuk home. However, in high spirits we got out early to buy some fruit and walk the rest of the way back. As we wandered along several people came up and stopped us to chat: two Uni students, two kids and their bikes and few other strangers, all of whom were lovely. We all talked for a long while and by the time we got home it was early evening.
A watermelon had been bought and we cut it up intending to take it down to share with our hosts. We ended up all sitting and chatting about life, language, India, Britain and our favourite films for an hour or so. The strange conversation and communication techniques everyone adopted to overcome the language barrier were a constant source of amusement for all!
After retiring to our rooms, we ate, made sure of our plans and set up our bags for our trip to Nepal the next morning and then went to bed.
Patience and good humour always seem to be the best characteristics one can have.
We woke early but later than we meant to, about 7.30. Slowly got up and packed the last of our stuff. After again having a breakfast of sweet toast, we left saying good bye to the hotel staff who we accidentally woke on our way out.
This was all followed by a tuk tuk into town who drove us to the train station, not the bus station and parked up. We managed to convince the driver that this was not the place we wanted to be and were just pulling off when a man spotted out pale complexions and ran up, stopping the tuk tuk and shouting “Sonauli? You going to Sonauli? Quick come with me!” We obeyed, then promptly decided that the travel agents to which he was taking us was not a good idea and so started to walk away. At which point the man (who was just generally very in your face and no matter how close he was would not stop shouting) came back and started to chauffeur us onto a bus (one of only two), which was apparently bound for Sonauli, then proceeded to charge us ₹20 for the service. We payed him hoping he would go away. He didn’t. It transpired he was pretty much the buses ‘press ganger’.
After about half an hour the bus pulled away, did a circuit of the city centre, via the bus station, picking up people and getting progressively fuller the whole time, before setting off out of the city towards the boarder.
The journey was on a long, straight, flat road with a few villages and towns along the way. All the way along the road there was litter: litter in front of the houses, litter on the grass, litter in the water. It got slightly better the further away from the city we got, but not much. There were rice paddies and whole fields in which brand new trucks, diggers and busses seemed to have been deposited. This came as a surprise as we had not seen a single new work vehicle the entire time we had been in India. On our left was also a queue of brightly coloured trucks carrying steel, wire, bricks and any number of other things, all looking like part of some massive infrastructure project. There was mile upon mile of them, stretching out to the horizon and taking up half the road so both directions of traffic had to use one lane. The drive turned into a perpetual game of chicken with anything going the opposite way challenging our unknown bus driver to a face off. The trucks next to us just sat there, still.
Three hours after we left Gorakhpur we reached the boarder. We got out, ate a meal which included some dodgy looking liquidy dahl and which we immediately regretted, and then got our passports stamped on the Indian side before going to the Nepalese side to acquire visas.
The actual boarder consisted of two massive square gateways which faced each other across a space of about 100 yards. People appeared to be coming and going at their leisure.
The moment we crossed the space there seemed to be a marked difference. What the difference was, we could not explain, nor why it affected us so much. We could just feel it. However, our first impressions were of the little things, like the fact there were public toilets signposted, and the tourist and immigration offices were in logical places and reasonably easy to find.
The officials were friendly and spoke reasonable English. They gave us the forms to fill in and everything went very smoothly with the exception of one of the $20 notes we had brought to pay for the Visas. One of them had a small, round stamp on it which apparently made it unacceptable, so Leon was forced to go off to hopefully exchange some rupees for another $20 bill. About twenty minutes late he came back with one that had come off the ‘black market’.
We visited the tourist office, discovered there was almost nothing there and then went off to try and get some bus tickets to our next destination – the lake side city of Pokhara, high up in the Himalayas at the base of the Annapurna range.
On Leon’s $20 search he had made friends with a man called ‘Pops’ who worked as part of a travel agents and who arranged a bus, taxi and hostel room in Pokhara for us at a very decent price. “The Nepalese”, he was saying “don’t try and rip you off”. Someone even went and got us a cup of chi tea each… now I don’t drink tea, but this cuppa’ of hot flavoured water was lovely… though that might have been down to the quantity of sugar and milk it contained.
The bus to Pokhara was an overnight, 10-hour journey leaving at 8pm. This gave us about 4 hours to kill, so we went for a walk.
There was a rather stark contrast between the Nepalese and Indian sides of the town we realised. On the Indian side many of the houses were incomplete, colourless and the spaces in front uncared for. On the Nepalese side there was colour everywhere, the houses were ordered and there were even a couple of front gardens. The people were friendly and incredibly easy to talk to and the street food was delicious and appeared clean (we ate some lovely dumpling stew thing and some weird sweet millet seed pasties). This is not to say that the this wasn’t the case on the Indian side as well, but it was just different: the atmosphere was different, the way people walked and looked was different, the way people talked to you was different. There was still a lot of litter.
We stood by a food stall and chatted to a doctor who ran a local clinic. Then wandered around marvelling at the place, being followed by several laughing, cheeky looking kids. We bumped into the doctor again actually at his open fronted clinic and sat and chatted further, then walked around the corner and immediately got chatting to a couple and their daughter who were sitting outside their home relaxing.
After while we got ready to get on the bus. We played a game of cards then went to take up our seats. The bus was nice though the leg room was minimal, or at least too short for long western legs. Many Nepalese seem to be shorter and stockier on the whole, but this may have been an inaccurate conception as we met many tall people as well. Whatever the case, they always walk with purpose.
A man got on the bus and tried to scam us with a supposed unpaid baggage fee. We told him we were going to pay at the other end and he disappeared.
The bus filled progressively then left, picked up some more people and then was stopped by the police who examined it, the tires and our passports. Then we were off and feck, what a journey!
We travelled for a while on the flat, the roads a mixture of smooth tarmac and heavily potholed dirt track. Then suddenly we began to climb. On one side of us a cliff rose up into the night sky, while on the other a drop-off grew down into nothingness. The roads were a winding, potholed mess full of puddles and washouts just about wide enough for a couple of small cars to pass each other in opposite directions, but this did not slow the bus. We travelled at some ridiculous speeds around hair pin bends and while overtaking trucks and other busses. Sometimes we would both overtake and go around the bends at the same time, our squealing breaks vibrating the whole vehicle and our wheels literally within a foot of the roads edge, which so often was just ‘the edge’ full stop, a chasm of darkness the only thing you could see beyond. If ever bus racing was a sport the Nepalese would win it hands down. The buses genuinely seemed to race each other along the roads. At one point a bag jumped off the luggage rack, landing in my lap. In surprise I turned to the man behind me who grinned and said “we’re very proud of our country, we like it a lot”.
The bus stopped twice; once for a wee break and once for food and snacks. I had my head out of the window like a happy dog for the best part of 4 ½ hours. As the mountains slowly grew in size, I watched the world go by and saw some of the most amazing night time scenes I think I have ever seen.
I don’t know how any of us slept that night, the bus shock, jumped and shuddered so much.
At around 5.15 the bus went over a massive lump. I was now awake; the sun was rising and the view was incredible. We were weaving our way down to Pokhara out of the surrounding mountains. The scene as we descended was over a massive lake with the city stretched out behind it into the distance.
About quarter to six we got to the bus depo (literally an empty dirt and stone space for the buses to park on) and got off. Took our prepaid taxi to our hostel outside which out sleepy looking host stood. He was mid-thirties, thin built with long hair and sleek clothes. All in all a pretty cool looking guy. His name was Pokash and he showed us to our room saying we’d sort out the money later and we should get some rest first. And we did. We got in, showered and immediately fell back asleep.
At 11 we rose bleary eyed and went down to find that Pokash had been asleep as well. We sat, chatted and discovered that Pokash could sort out all the necessary hiking permits and things, though they were expensive. It turns out, as we had read on Leon’s phone a couple of days previously, that you need a permit and a pass to be able to go walking in the Nepalese conservation areas. Yet again we were spending more money than we wanted to be.
After sorting out all the necessaries Pokash offered to take us to his family restaurant where they served a superb breakfast. We went on the back of his scooter, buying a trekking map en route. The sun was out, it was a glorious day and from here we walked back. Apparently, it had been raining a lot in the weeks previously, but luckily for us all seemed to be dry, long may it stay so.
Having decided to walk we somehow managed to miss our hostel and continue going for about 15 minutes before realising anything was wrong. Our brains were tired sludge and we were feeling so warm and relaxed that the speed of our thought processes had decreased to about the same velocity as a treacle river. After retracing our steps back and finding the place we collapsed in our room, still exhausted from the nights journey.
At some point in time we realised that we should probably get out and look around, considering we were only in the city for a day. The lakeside where we found ourselves ambling was beautiful. Even with the water brown from the soil and silt washed down off the hillsides the surface gleamed in the sun, the glassy mirror reaching out to the foot of some amazingly big mountains. We didn’t do much other than discover Pokhara has a range of German cake shops, Italian pizzerias, Spanish restaurants and an Irish bar. There were also numerous other pubs and waterside drinking venues, all intermixed with the zillions of hotels, hostels and guest houses. We walked past a Gurkha barracks over which was a strange tree containing a large number of nesting egrets, and we walked past a hell of a lot of other tourists… there was literally another one every hundred yards down any street… and this was the low season.
On the way back to our hostel we stumbled upon a book shop. It was a place to put any Waterstones or W.H. Smiths to shame. Three floors filled with books on everything from what must have been the published set of Lonely Planet guides for every location on earth, to Douglas Adams, to world history and even sex books. All for about the third of the price of the same books in Britain. We were both impressed and amazed. Needless to say, I would have tried to buy half the shop had I been able to fit it all in my rucksack.
By this point it was late and we were thinking about food. We also wanted to go and talk to some fellow travellers/tourists to ask advice and hear the local gossip. Though there were copious amounts of other foreigners who we had walked past, none of them had yet acknowledged us, let alone stopped for a chat. But then neither had we tried to engage them. There was a strange, unsure awkwardness holding us back. I can only assume the same was true for them.
Upon returning to the hostel Pokash offered to take us to a local barbeque. In awkwardness we accepted then slightly regretted it. This was not what we had planned. We just wanted to chat to some people, eat and then get an early night for the start of our hike the next morning and now instead Leon’s vegetarianism seemed to, yet again, be going down the drain.
Our idea was simple. We needed to get over to the east to the town of Besisahar where the school was that we here to visit. To get there we could either get a bus, or we could walk as directly as possible over valleys that, according to our map, had no major paths, or we could go up and around getting quite high in the mountains just below Annapurna II along, what our map showed to be, a major route. We had been told that accommodation was not usually a problem as there were always guest houses and tea houses in the villages. It was our assumption that we were most likely to be able to find places to stay along the busiest paths and we liked the idea of having a proper good trek in the Himalayas. And so the third option was our chosen route.
We sheepishly followed Pokash, ending up at the second of two barbeque places, the first being closed. A load of different meets were ordered and a bottle of traditional Nepalese wine with a bottle of coke to mix with it. We immediately new this was going to be an expensive meal.
The meat range was spicy but superbly done. The wine, known as Raksi, tasted a little like watered down vodka, but was far too drinkable.
Pokash was great company and we laughed. Then he started offering us advice and told us to buy a tent, none of which fitted with our half made, ill formed plans. In an attempt to console ourselves and confirm that what we were going to do was the right thing, we split and went looking for tourists to interrogate. We met an Indian born British bloke called Robin who was currently being taught guitar by a chatty Nepalese guy. It turned out that Robin had arrived intending to spend a few days in Pokhara and three weeks later was still there without a booked plane home. He advised us to go to either ‘Busy Bee’s’ or the local Irish bar if we wanted to sit down, meet people and get a drink. So we did. Deciding Busy Bee’s sounded like a good option we entered, got drinks at a very high price (around £4.50 each with a 10% service charge slapped on the top… and that was the cheapest beer) and sat down.
The place was full and was kitted out with live heavy metal rock band, three mega TV’s showing Wimbledon, WWE wrestling and golf and a whole load of pool tables. We saw and decided to joined a couple our age and who were on a sponsored trip to an orphanage. They were both just out of college in Britain and like us, seemed pretty desperate to work out what the hell was going on and to find someone to talk to. We gossiped and learnt, through their stories, about the horror of leaches and then we headed for bed so as to be ready to start our trek early the next morning.
Very quickly we were taught that ‘dhanyabad’ was thankyou and goodbye and that it was commonplace to use ‘namaste’ to greet anyone you interact with – a greeting and good wishes from ones’ hart to another’s, I believe.
Please click to see The India and Nepal Diaries Part 4