Today was to be a long day of travel by train and bus with a border crossing into Nepal. Even with the early start necessary for the train, we were warned it might be a late finish if there were delays on the way. It was never likely to be a great day for photography.
We were moving at 3:30 am to dress, drink hurried cups of coffee, finalise packing, and be in the lobby by 4:00 am.
A few minutes later we took our bags outside to the waiting small bus and were off to the station. Our seats were booked but Ruby was leaving nothing to chance and wanted to be there early to ensure space on racks for our bags in case there was a crowd.
Our train was already in the station so we carried our bags up an escalator, down stairs to platform 2, and along the length of a long train to our air conditioned carriage most of the way to the rear of the train. There were already a few people aboard in other carriages but there was plenty of space to stow our bags.
After a 40 minute wait, during which we ate improvised breakfast of dry cereal or muesli bar and fruit, the train moved off. It was just a few minutes after the scheduled departure time of 5:15 am. It stopped a few minutes later at another station where most of the remaining seats in our carriage were filled. There was another stop a little later with a few more boarding. Ruby’s early boarding strategy was a good one even if it required us to rise a bit earlier.
The train picked up speed as it headed out of the city. By then the sky was beginning to lighten and the countryside was shrouded in mist.
The rest of the morning went on similarly. The sun gradually rose high enough in what seemed to be a cloudless sky to penetrate the mist (or was it smoke?) and cast shadows. The train alternately worked up to a speed that may have sometimes reached 100 km/hr and slowed to a crawl. Occasionally it stopped at a station and passengers got on or off. A couple of stations seemed busy with other trains also dropping and picking up passengers.
The countryside was flat and seemed richer than some we had seen elsewhere. There were green fields of grain and many seemed larger than what had been typical elsewhere but all appeared to be worked without machinery. Some of the houses that stood apart among the fields seemed more substantial than we had seen in other country areas.
By 11:00 am the train had paused about 7 km short of our destination, Gorakhpur. It waited there and then went on and stopped at a station about 5 km short. After what seemed an unnecessarily long stop it took off again and we soon arrived at Gorakhpur station. There we disembarked, walked the length of the long platform (Asia’s longest), and several minutes beyond to our waiting small bus. It was almost midday.
Ruby had arranged for us to have a home cooked lunch. The bus took us by some narrow winding streets into a relatively new housing area. The vacant lots mostly had water visible on the ground which was up to a metre below street level, suggesting mosquitoes would be rife. They did not bother us at lunch but other times might be different. The houses were mostly 3 levels of living with the lowest level raised about a metre above the street level, most likely a precaution against flooding.
Our host was the wife of one of Ruby’s colleagues. Lunch was steamed rice with four different vegetarian dishes and breads. Some but not all were spicy.
By 1:00 pm we were on our way again with the bus slowly wending its way across the city to the north. Beyond the city the road was elevated on an embankment above wide floodplain which was green with seasonal crops at this time but would be submerged during the monsoon. By that time we were seeing clear blue sky and the distant horizon was no longer lost in smoky haze.
The countryside beyond the floodplain continued flat but the road was no longer elevated. As well as grain crops we saw some scattered plantations of mango trees and tall straight trees that were evidently grown for timber but grain continued to predominate. The wide expanses of grain continued to be larger than those we had seen earlier last week but still worked by people with animals rather than machines.
About 90 minutes out of Gorakhpur we had a quick comfort stop at a cafe in a village on the road. Then we were off for another hour or so of driving to the border. The countryside continued to feature grain crops and the road went through a succession of small villages. Much of the land alongside the road was low lying and visibly wet.
We were at Sonauli just before 4:00 pm, got off the bus and walked into the Indian immigration area. They were processing arrivals and there was a long queue of those. We sat to wait and eventually Ruby found out they would not be processing departures for an hour. Our heads were left spinning as we struggled to cope with the idea that arrival and departure queues were both clearly in India and there seemed to be no control on either group wandering further into India.
While we were waiting Ruby found a money changer. I changed most of the Indian rupees I had for Nepalese.
It was an hour before we finally got to the entrance of the immigration office and found ourselves in what could have been a Monty Python sketch. We were told to sit outside, ushered in, and then told there were too many so we should sit inside. At that point we could see some of the processing points labelled for arrivals and some for departures. At that time all were processing departures but had all been processing arrivals for at least the past hour. Once at the counter the process was quick and we had officially left India only we had not physically left.
The immigration office was some way from the actual border crossing. When we got back to the road our luggage was on two pedal trishaws which we followed, walking, for about a km to the crossing where we walked through to Nepal and found their immigration office.
We had arranged our visas in Brisbane in January so we completed entry forms and submitted those with our passports. Others in our group had to apply and pay for visas which took a little longer. As we handed in our documents a large group of Buddhist pilgrims queued to apply for visas on entry. We wondered when or if we would see our passports again. By the time we got our stamped passports back it was almost 6:00 pm. It was 6:15 pm by the time we were all processed.
Our Nepalese bus was nearby and our luggage was soon loaded. I changed the rest of my Indian rupees before boarding the bus.
It was getting dark and, although the sky had still been clear when I last looked, the familiar smoky murk had descended. We had a bit less than an hour to drive to our hotel but the traffic seemed quieter and less frenetic than in India.
Hotel checkin was quick. Unlike in India, our Nepalese hotel did not require passports. We dropped our bags and went down to the restaurant to join the others for dinner. We both had chicken momos with an Everest beer for me and a Blue Lagoon for Majella. It’s good to have appetites again.
Start time tomorrow is not until 8:00 am so we can try to catch up on sleep tonight.