Days 14, 15, 16, 17: Nepal: Lumbini and Chitwan

Crossing borders on foot often makes you thankful of how easy we all have it with airport borders. Crossing from India to Nepal was no exception but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in Varanasi, we had a train to catch. We were hoping to meet up with a French couple we had met earlier at the train station. We were dropped off an hour before our train was supposed to leave because the driver could not wait around any longer. Good riddance to him.

It was 11:30 pm and the train was going to leave at 12:30 am. We found a spot for ourselves and ran into our French friends who had been unable to book an air-conditioned coach and were travelling in sleeper class (like 3rd class but with no AC). We got wifi by borrowing someone’s Indian phone to get the activation SMS message and settled down to wait for the train.

The train was initially delayed by 35 mins, then 50, then an hour and 5 minutes. We suspected the cows walking down the rail track were partly to blame.

The train finally arrived at 2 am and we settled in for the night, this time in 2nd class AC which had only 2 levels of bunks and curtains! Quite the luxurious ride. The train was only 8 hours so we arrived at Gorakpur at 10 am and were only 3 hours from the border by bus.

As we hadn’t slept much and we were 4 people we decided to just take a taxi for a thousand rupees to the border. It was a bit shady as we had to pay for his petrol as well and we were still on the defensive due to our Indian experiences. In the end all was well and we were dropped off at the Indian immigration office.

The heat that day was pretty bad, (about 38 degrees centigrade) and with a lot of humidity so it was a long, sweaty wait for our passports to be checked and signed. Once we had checked out of India, we started the long trek across the heavily guarded border.

It was all one long line of trucks, stuck at the border for what looked like days. The line was over 3 km long and didn’t seem to be moving any time soon. We crawled through the traffic and found the Nepali office just past the border on the right hand side. If we’d walked on the left hand side, we’d be illegal immigrants right now.

The office was hot and the paperwork was way too thin for our amounts of sweat. Esther had also developed a splitting headache so everyone was in a great mood! We handed over our somewhat ripped forms, two photos and 50 pristine dollars (2 bills were rejected because they had minuscule tears on the edge, luckily I had brought spares) and we now had Nepali visas!

As Esther was not feeling great we headed straight to Lumbini in a local bus. It was hot, packed and as much fun as I remember. Esther, I think, wasn’t quite so enthusiastic but she stuck in there like a trooper and we arrived safe and sound.

At the hostel, we decided to splurge on an air-conditioned room. I felt that the bus and border crossing were enough discomfort for a day and Esther needed to rest. We had a relaxing evening and rested up.

In the morning we wanted some space so we rented an electric scooter and headed off to see temples. Lumbini is the birth place of Buddha and the international Buddhist communities have built big temples around the birth place. It was rather hot so we only saw the Nepali, Chinese and Austrian temples but there seemed to be no expense spared. The stupa which was built by the Japanese government is also nothing to sneeze at.

Lumbini only has sights for a day so the next morning we boarded another local bus to Chitwan. This bus was no fun. It had blaring music over the speakers but only had 50 minutes of music so after 4 hours we had more than enough. I put my headphones on and blasted Hamilton while Esther used earplugs to try to block it out. We thought we had it beaten and then the bus broke down.

We headed to the “garage” which was a dirt-covered lot with some bricks to lift up the bus a bit. After a while we realised we would be here for a long time so we headed to a nearby hut to drink some beer and eat momos. No point in stressing out about it.

After a change of parts, delivered by speedy motorbike, we continued on to our final destination. After one more bus and a tuk-tuk we got to a nice lodge and we booked our jungle walk and elephant safari.

Chitwan is a chilled, laid back community. We walked around the streets, ate some local fish and went to sleep early as we had a sunrise to catch.

Floating down the river in Chitwan at dawn, on an unstable log canoe is one of the scariest things I’ve done in a while. Every time I moved, the canoe would tilt and the water would lap up to the edge. We had crocodiles all around us and once they popped underwater, they disappeared. Jaws was a fucking rom-com compared to this!

Safely back on dry land, we headed off into the jungle and ran into a rhino. It stared at us from 5 meters away and I remember the advice of our guide. “If it charges, run up a tree”. I looked around and made the decision that I had more chance of launching the guide at the rhino to distract it than I had of ever getting up any of those trees.

Luckily the rhino decided it had better things to do and so did we. We walked in the jungle for around 2 to 3 hours and saw a few monkeys, a lot of insects and some scary tiger tracks. Overall really cool. We had also booked an elephant ride in the afternoon so it was time to go to the hotel and rest up for the afternoon.

Many things can be said about elephant rides, but I don’t think anyone has ever said they were comfortable. We spent an hour and a half on a lumbering beast with a kid that got very sick and another one that started playing video games on his phone. My legs felt like they were going to fall off and even though we saw some rhinos really close, I don’t think I’ll do that again.

We eventually made it to our hotel and went to do some shopping. On the way back we encountered another rhino near the road to the hotel. We pretended it didn’t bother us and bravely scurried along to our hotel. Having had enough for the day we went to sleep in preparation for our travels onto the calm shores of Pokhara!

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Days 10, 11, 12 and 13: End of India, Khajuraho and Varanasi!

I’ve fallen a bit behind on my posts so the next couple will be extra long, in an effort to catch-up to my travels!

We had left our brave adventurers (us) in Agra, on our way to Varanasi. We gathered our belongings, waved farewell to the shitty purple orchid Hotel and headed to our train. When we got to the station we had to say goodbye to Kuldeep. He’d been a great driver and I didn’t realise at the time how lucky we were to have met him. We said our farewells (after the mandatory tip) and boarded on our first class train to Khajuraho.

This was the best train experience we had, a first class cabin just for us 2. We could nap through the 8 hour train ride and someone even ran to the station to get us our lunch! Travelling in style.

When we arrived at Khajuraho it was dark and we headed straight to the hotel. This was the best hotel we stayed in during our stay in India, Harmony Hotel, if you’re looking to stay in Khajuraho, this is a great mid range hotel to stay in.

We booked a tuk-tuk for the next day to take us to the temples and we had dinner under the mosquito lamps. We went to bed early and got ready for another day of exploring.

Khajuraho is a great place for a chilled day of sight-seeing. All the temples are easily accessible by tuk-tuk and you can just walk around and see sculptures of voluptuos women and flexible men doing fun things to each other. We had lunch and good espresso at the Raja Cafe, saw the waterfall (not worth it) and then went to see the light and sound show. You can skip the show, unless you want to laugh at some very bad over-the-top voice acting.

We had a train to catch that night so we spent some time lounging in the hotel and then went to the station again. This time we travelled in third class with air conditioning and the experience was very different! We were in a coach with no curtains, stacked three bunks high. I couldn’t clamber in to my middle bunk so I switched places with an Indian girl and climbed in to the top bunk. I wasn’t too sure the chains would hold my sleeping mass so I felt good being the eventual squasher and not the squashed.

We arrived at Varanasi after little sleep and went to the ticket counter to get our tickets to Gorakpur and the Indian border. We ended up spending 2 hours there as there was a change of shift and the new worker had a rather loud disagreement with the lady that was working the morning shift about how she did paperwork… At least that’s what I gathered from 40 minutes of shouting in Hindi and pointing at ledgers and receipts.

We eventually got through that and went looking for our driver, who had left. We were intercepted by a very stoned looking guy that told us to wait there, he’d call the driver to take us to the hotel. This set the tone for our experience with the bunch of dodgy people that operate from the Varanasi Villa Hotel.

We had seen that this hotel was really far away from town and we had tried to change the booking but our travel agent assured us we would have a driver all day long for both days. I turns out there are 2 drivers that work with the hotel but they are shared with all the guests. Everything with this place was not quite what they told you it would be.

For starters the location on Google maps is false. It’s a lot further away from the town, in the middle of a field, you have to walk down a dirt path alley to get to it and there’s no way to leave unless someone comes to pick you up. Once we’d dropped off our bags, we were shepperded to a restaurant which was un by the same group of people. The food was OK but they did try to push the beers a bit too much, which I guess is where they make their real profit.

After dinner, our driver wanted to drop us off at the hotel but we told him we wanted to go in to town so he left and sent the other driver to take us. I had wanted to just wander around the ghats and see some Indian life but that was not to be. We were once again accompanied to see “the ceremony” which is 4 monks doing the evening prayer/blessing to the ganges. It was nice but very crowded and there seemed to be more tourists than locals.

I had hoped to have some free time after the show but alas all my hopes seemed to be shattering that day as we were taken back to the car through the swells of people and traffic and deposited at the hotel for an early night as we had a sunrise boat tour the next day.

Our alarm went off at 5 am and we crawled out of bed to go see the magical Ganges! We were grouped up with 2 other German tourists that were staying at the hotel and taken to the river. The driver offered us tea but we politely declined as we had spent the last 15 minutes talking about the German’s friend who had really bad food poisoning and was being violently sick. We decided to play it safe.

The river tour was a bit of a letdown. We were 12 tourists (many of whom we recognised from last night’s restaurant) taken up and down the river with little ceremony or explanation. It was ok at times but nothing too great. Kind of a perfect metaphor for our time in Varanasi.

We had breakfast at the hotel and after a nap met a Mexican guy who had been also roped into staying at that hotel. He had strangely enough been booked by the same travel agent we had in Delhi. We went to lunch with him to a nice but not too expensive restaurant. We had to insist to our driver not to take us again to that other place. Then we made him take us to Sarnat.

Sarnat is where Buddha first preached his teachings and there are some nice temples and relics. The museum is especially worth it. We had a train to catch that night so we headed back to the hotel and picked up some food along the way.

Our next adventure takes us across the border into Nepal and on to Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha!

Days 8 & 9: Agra, crazy town.

It all started rather normally. A long 8 hour car drive from Pushkar. I wasn’t looking forward to it but it had to be done in order to get to the highlight of our Indian trip: the Taj Mahal! Esther was very excited and I armed myself with patience for the trip.

As predicted, the trip was long and rather uneventful. As we were approaching Agra we saw droves of people dancing into town behind slow moving pickup trucks. The trucks had huge loudspeakers blaring what can only be described as techno-indian music.

Apparently we had arrived during a big festival day and tonight they had the big bonfire party to destroy the effigy of some villain from an old Indian story. I had 4 different people try to explain it to me and that’s all I got. In any case our driver Kuldeep promised to take us there that night.

We had some food and rested a bit in the hotel. This also allowed us to avoid the part of the festival we’re they cover you in coloured dyes as a “blessing”. That’s a blessing with a very good disguise.

We arrived at the festival and cajoled Kuldeep into joining us. As we are foreigners we got to go into all the VIP areas and wander around freely. I took full advantage of this and wandered as freely as I could. I played the good old tourist card and “did not hear” some requests to not advance into certain areas.

As a result I got really close to some of the pantomime acting and a bit too close to the fireworks. I now proudly display a burn on my lip from the impact of a stray rocket!

All this crazineess wrapped up around midnight and we crawled back to our hotel where we had a few hours before we were due to go see the Taj Mahal. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere and one of the worst places we stayed in India but it was ok that night for a quick few hours of sleep.

I’ll cut to the chase and just say that the Taj Mahal is one of the most stunning things I have seen. There are few times when a well known landmark has managed to take my breath away. Michaelangelo’s David, Mount Fuji and the Taj Mahal. All the ones I can think of. If you ever have a chance, go see it. At dawn. Amazing

After the Taj Mahal, poor Esther was not feeling well so we spent a day resting at the hotel until sunset. When sunset came around we went to the other side of the river to get another view of the Taj Mahal and to bring out Esther’s secret weapon: the T-rex costume! Suffice it to say she gathered quite a crowd while she danced around in the setting sun.

Later, it was time for beers, shisha and conversations as we said goodbye to our driver Kuldeep. We’ll miss him on our journey but it’s somewhat nice to recover some independence. We had a good night with him but when we returned to the hotel it was time for a bit of misery.

There was a big party going on in the lobby with very loud music until midnight and we also still had no Internet in the hotel. To top it all off, after a night of barely sleeping, we had no hot water and the breakfast was sad,  to put it kindly. With this great mindset we prepared to spend 9 hours on a train on our way to our next destination: Kujaraho!