20th September 2017
I was woken around 5am, by a man loudly singing, somewhere nearby in the carriage. His song sounded like some kind of meditative chant. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and assumed he was practicing some kind of early-morning religious ritual, rather than just been an asshole. I managed to drift off again for a few more hours, until it became too warm to sleep.
The train arrived into Gorakhpur at around 10am. I collected my bag from underneath the bottom bunk, stepped off, washed my face at the station’s water fountain, ignored the mob of rickshaw drivers at the exit, and began walking towards the bus terminal.
I’d barely walked a hundred metres towards the terminal, before passing a parked bus on the side of the road, with the ticket salesman standing outside it, trying to drum up business.
“Hello sir,” he shouted to me as I neared. “Sunauli?”
I couldn’t remember if that was the name of the border town.
“Nepal?” I asked him.
“Yes sir, this bus go Sunauli. Is town at border to Nepal. Is one hundred Rupee.”
After my long train ride, I was glad to have found a bus so easily.
By 11:45am Indian time, we’d arrived at Sunauli, the pair of small border towns, which exist to police the huge numbers of trucks, buses, and cars passing between Nepal and India each day. By 11:55am, I was sitting in a restaurant on the Indian side, having just ordered a comprehensive breakfast. I checked my phone, to reread the advice Claudio, my Mexican friend from Varanasi, had messaged me about crossing the border.
I realised two things: firstly, it was now 12:10pm Nepalese time; and secondly, the final bus of the day to Pokhara supposedly left at 1pm.
I wolfed down my food, when it arrived at 12:25pm. I paid, and powered my way to the Indian customs post, a hundred metre walk to the south. By the time the official had finished up with the stack of Sri Lankan passports he was working on, and had stamped my visa, it was 12:40pm.
I hurried to the border crossing, a three hundred metre walk to the north.
“I take you to border, only twenty Rupees,” a rickshaw driver shouted at me, noticing my haste. Out of habit, more than anything else, I shook my head and kept going.
The border itself was refreshingly penetrable. After dealing with heavily-patrolled, barbed-wire-clad fortresses at every border since leaving Europe, it was nice to cross one where declaring yourself at customs almost felt optional. I’d already walked through the decorative gate separating the two countries, and was technically in Nepal, before I looked around to try to find the offices I should be reporting to.
By the time I’d paid $40 for my month-long visa, and had filled out all the required paperwork, it was a minute before 1pm. Outside the customs office, a man approached me, asking me where I was looking to go.
“I need to take the bus to Pokhara,” I told him.
“Oh, my friend, I think the bus already leave,” he said. “It is last bus of the day. Only way to get to Pokhara tonight. Follow me, we see if it leave.”
We walked along the road, away from the border gates, to the nearby bus station. My guide found the bus, just as it was departing. Thirty seconds after I boarded, we pulled off onto the highway, and began driving north.
My race against time was rendered a little bit less dramatic, by the fact that we immediately stopped by the side of the road for half an hour, for the driver’s assistant to shout destinations at the passing pedestrians, trying to fill up our empty seats.
Eventually, we left Sunauli, and I began a ten hour odyssey, involving three different buses, and some of the worst roads I’d ever driven on. Instead of heading directly north to Pokhara, we took an enormous detour to the east, stopping at least once in every town and village to let passengers on and off. As night fell, we reached a terminal in the city of Bharatpur, where everyone got out, and I was wordlessly directed onto a minibus. We then drove west for a few hours, until everyone got out again, and I was shown onto another minibus, which took me along the windy, mountainous road, on the final stretch to Pokhara.
By the time I’d been delivered to Pokhara city centre, and had walked to Puskar Guesthouse, it was nearly midnight. I met Claudio, sitting in the hostel’s reception, drinking beer with a dozen other tourists.
“I thought you weren’t going to make it,” he told me. “Come on, sit, have a drink.”