Inspired by our fellow travelers at 45 Liter Nomads, we decided to make the journey from India to Nepal via the land route, rather than flying. I admit, a big incentive was the fact that the overland trip would cost less than $15, as opposed to about $170 for a flight. Every bit counts when you’re trying to survive on the road.
As we mentioned in the last post, the first step was to arrange an overnight train from Delhi to Gorakhpur, the nearest railway depot to the Nepali border. Of course, the Indian rail system is crazy, and all seats sell out months ahead of time. Well, except there are a few “foreign tourist quota” tickets on most trains. The trick is, you have to go to an actual Indian rail station to buy them. So we couldn’t do it ahead of time. Luckily, I had done the research, and knew how many seats were reserved, and on which trains. I also knew that they were typically selling out 2 days out, so we’d be stuck in Delhi for a bit after the flight arrived. No big deal, but it would have been a heartbreaker if we didn’t know it in advance. In the end, we got really lucky, and managed to get the last 2 tickets on the Gorakdam Express, leaving only 1 day after our arrival. We’d decided to go in Sleeper Class, which is apparently “what Indians ride”. It’s non-AC, with triple bunks, and substantially cheaper than the AC cars. Sounds perfect for us!
Although the boarding process was chaotic to say the least, after the train got underway things quickly calmed down and we settled in for a long night. The cars have no cabins, just banks of bunks in sets of three (across the car) and two (down the sides). There were definitely more people in these bunks than had tickets, but happily no one tried to impinge on our seats. After an hour or two, everyone started to get ready for bed as seats were folded down into bunks, and we folded ourselves into sleeping positions. I had an upper bunk, so was up in the rafters with the fans and dust blowing in from the outside. I certainly got a lungful or two during the night, but otherwise slept pretty well until the ticket inspector finally made his rounds at 5 am. Amusingly, he argued for quite a while with some guys who were doubling up on places, but in the end didn’t do anything at all about it. After that, it was hard to sleep, but we’d managed to get enough rest to make it through the day at least. We pulled into Gorakhpur Junction around 10 am, and ran right into a teeming mass of bus touts yelling “Sunauli, Sunauli!”. Well, once again, we were forewarned, and knew that we should ignore them and find the official station to get the real bus to Sunauli, the Indian border town. It wasn’t that easy to find, so here’s what you do. Coming out of the train station, take a left, then a right on the first big road. There will be some buses, with touts touting for them. Ignore their increasing pleas and continue 500 m or so down the street, with the number of buses increasing in density. After a while, there will be the station on the left-hand side. We talked to the nice men there and they told us exactly where to find our bus, and how much it should cost, which was great. Nonetheless, we still almost got taken by the touts, having the yell the question “Sunauli?” into each bus as we passed it. Eventually, some old men shouted back an affirmative, and dragged us into the bus, out of the arms of our oppressors.
After that, it was everything you’d expect from a bus ride in India. Packed to bursting with people and goods, the bus navigated the equally bursting streets with frightening determination. The law of the road is clearly “Biggest wins”, and our driver laid on his horn nearly constantly for the next 3 hours, telling every auto-rickshaw, bicycle, and car in his way that they had better remedy that condition quickly. As for oncoming traffic, it was a game of chicken, which had me cringing once or twice. But amidst all this, there were some moments of genuine joy, like seeing the perfectly stereotypical image of a cart completely overloaded with hay, pulled by two buffalo, and guided by an old man with a switch. This, right in the middle of the modern, automated chaos of the road. At the end of the journey, we arrived at the border, jammed our way through a few mile long backup of trucks, and were deposited within an easy, if noisy and dusty, walk to the border.
While at the Indian immigration offices in Sunauli getting our passports stamped out, we ran into an Irish couple who were crossing into India and who’d spent some time in Pokhara. They were really nice and helpful and gave us the name of the hostel they stayed at and the porter they used while trekking. We’re going to try to find both after arriving. They also reassured us that things immediately quieted down after crossing the border, which turned out to be a very welcome truth. We relaxed in the shade as we filled out our Nepali entry forms and got some advice on where to find an ATM and the bus station (ATM is next to the pink Hotel Aakosh on the right, and the bus station is also on the right, a little nearer to the border. There are only minibuses).
After negotiating past many rickshaw and cab drivers and various other touts trying to get us to take transport to wherever we were going, we were convinced to hop on a local minibus to Bhairawa, where we’d pick up the long distance bus to Pokhara in the morning. After confirming a cheap price for the short ride, we stuffed ourselves onto the bus like sardines and took off down the road. About 1 km in, the bus was stopped for a border control; apparently they wanted to look at everyone’s luggage. Luckily, this didn’t include digging through our backpacks, as that would have been a real pain. After the first checkpoint, the whole things was repeated about 200 yards down the road. No idea why. I think a few jokes were made about us, as the officer shooed us silly Americans forward and backward down the length of the bus as he inspected everyone else. We eventually arrived in Bhairawa, and after a bit of wandering, settled in at the Hotel Ghorka Prince, in a nice little room for only 500 NPR (about $6) This was after he showed us the 800 NPR room and we said “Oh no, this is too expensive for us”. After washing away the grime of the journey with our new friend, the bucket, we relaxed with our first taste of Dal Bhat, the traditional Nepali meal of rice and lentil soup, with accompanying vegetable. It was delicious, and we’re looking forward to the variations we’re sure to encounter in the next weeks.
The next morning, we easily found the bus station (on Siddhartha Highway, near the main intersection of town), and booked passage on a long distance bus to Pokhara. We were offered either the “mountain way” or the “plains way”. Both take the same time, but the mountain way is 100 km shorter (170 km vs 270 km). Though it was a bit pricier, we opted for the plains way, after reading about the hazards of Nepalese roads and drivers. We were immediately glad we had when we saw that our ticketed seats were in the back row of the bus! We immediately popped some Dramamine as a holy man blessed us, and we were on our way. The ride itself was pretty uneventful, nothing like some of the stories we’d read. We did stop by the side of the road for about half an hour for some local repair work to the luggage trunk. Apparently it was stuck shut, and a furious work of hammers and crowbars ensued to unstick it. The views were incredible, and my first view of the snow capped Himalayan peaks rising above the harvested fields and green hills was pretty magical.
Much of the ride was along several river valleys, and the clearly glacial “opaque aqua” water against that backdrop was mesmerizing. To top it off, we had a mix of Nepali traditional music and hip-hop piped over the sound system. A particularly surreal moment occurred when this switched for a while to a Vengaboys album from the early 2000s. The dichotomy of the dreamlike mountain surroundings and euro-pop was just odd. After the advertised 8 hours, we arrived at the main bus depot in Pokhara, happily none the worse for wear. I hadn’t felt even the littlest bit sick the whole trip, amazing given my past tendencies. Maybe we just got lucky.
Now, the trip wasn’t quite over. We still had to make our way from the bus stand on the outskirts of the city, to Lakeside, the main tourist district on the shore of Phewa Tal. After convincing the mob of taxi drivers and hotel touts that yes, we wanted to walk, and yes we already had a hotel booked (we didn’t), we headed off into the city. Several helpful locals pointed out our several mistakes, and we eventually ended up alongside the lake on the main street, promptly tracking down the hotel recommended to us (Butterfly Lodge). True to the report, it was just what we wanted. Dirt cheap, off the main drag, and with a lovely and relaxing garden. We settled in for the evening, somewhat bedraggled, and grateful to finally have arrived.
Here’s the details of the trip, as of November 2012, for anyone who wants to try the same thing.
Price Breakdown ($12.77 total per person):
- Overnight Train from Delhi to Gorakhpur: 312 INR ($5.72)
- Local Bus from Gorakhpur to Sunauli: 68 INR ($1.25)
- Minibus from Sunauli to Bhairawa: 10 INR (15 NPR, but we didn’t have small enough Nepali bills) ($0.18)
- Bus from Bhairawa to Pokhara: 490 NPR ($5.62)
- Walk from Pokhara Main Bus Station to Lakeside: free! (about 30 minutes if you don’t get lost. We did, of course.)
Figure another 250 NPR ($2.86) per person for a cheap hotel in Bhairawa, and whatever you spend on food for your journey. We chose to avoid all highway food stands on the bus rides after reading horrifying tales of gastrointestinal distress. A sack of bananas and cheap bread tided us over to our destinations.