Thursday, 30 April 2009
On the Spur of the Moment
The last remaining weeks of our time here is South Asia could well have taken a number of different turns. Fran was adamant that we should spend at least a week in Ladakh, but that would have meant internal flights as the Manali-Leh Highway is still snowed-in. We thought about Darjeeling and Sikkim, but rejected this plan as the trek to view Kanchenjunga takes at least fifteen days. We also rejected a trip to Rishikesh and Gangotri as the bus journey would be intolerable. Terry recommended northern Pakistan, but it seems that it’s a bit dodgy there at the moment, and it could all kick off at any time. So Jon then had a blindingly inspired idea. Why not go north to plan a week of action adventures and bask in the glories of the Himalayas?
On our final day in Kolkata we walked past Macdonald’s and felt a sudden urge to sink our teeth into a juicy burger, so we did! But not just any hamburger; cows are sacred in India so the traditional hamburger, as we know it in the western world, was out of the question. Can you believe that in Macdonald’s Kolkata branch you can get a fantastically tasty “McChicken Maharaja”? No? Well neither could we! It is evidently possible that you can go to a Macdonald’s in another country and still get a taste of the local culture! As we ate, we discussed our next leg of the journey more thoroughly. Hmmm… Where to?
After further exploration of the city, which included a brief visit to the Queen Victoria Memorial where we were followed by a young lad and his two mischievous looking pet monkeys, we decided to head back to squeeze in a final lassi drinking session before catching our next train. After all, were we going to be getting lassi so good anytime soon? The staff at the Blue Sky café may not forget us for a little while as we were regulars and caused great amusement there. Like the time where Jon had his sunglasses resting on top of his head and forgot they were there. Dare I continue? Well, Jon leaned back on his chair during a huge stretch and the glasses slipped off the back of his head, but the big mystery remaining to everyone else in the juice bar is, “How did the glasses fly fifty-feet into the air and land with a clatter on the table in front of him?”
The Bagh Express from Howrah station was a free-for-all, but the journey over the mighty suspension bridge over the Hooghly River was superb. It was an epic journey as the train was overcrowded and what didn’t help was a man from Bihar taking up all the space in our coach with boxes and boxes of dresses. There was not even room for him to sleep on his own bunk in the sleeper coach until he moved all of the boxes down to the centre, taking everybody’s legroom in the process. Numpty! What’s more is that these boxes had now created a whole new bed for some other tramp who, once asleep, elbowed Jon as he rolled over.
When we woke up, the train was still going but there were completely new faces. There was a family of four (a young, beautiful woman in an elaborate sari, a husband and their boy and baby daughter) and they seemed much calmer and happier than our previous fellow passengers. At the next stop, we noticed a middle-aged woman boarding the train whilst heftily dragging the largest basket of runner beans we had ever seen. As she forcefully crammed this case under the seat for storage, one of the runner beans must have fallen out as the mother of the child sitting opposite reached down to the floor to pick it up. Whilst the child was peering longingly out of the window in his own little world, his mum had great fun in taking the beans out of the pod and playfully chucking them at his head, and each time she then looked away innocently like a cheeky schoolgirl.
The very helpful gentleman at Indian Railways had told us that getting to where we wanted to be from Muzaffarpur was a doddle. Well, was he right? Not quite… The autorickshaw ride to the distant bus station (whatever happened to the idea of a joined-up, integrated public transport network with a seamless flow between media?) was the bumpiest and dustiest thus far, whilst the local bus to Raxaul was overcrowded and moved at a snail’s pace along rural dirt tracks, covering around 60km in over five hours. The picturesque tiny round huts with thatched roofs in every village we passed caused us to speculate on their function. Kitchens; latrines; grain storage: who knows? But rural Bihar does have a form of picturesque beauty, difficult for us to appreciate as the temperature under the collar rose sky-high from the painfully slow progress. Had we been sold a pup?
Yes: Raxaul was revolting. The air pollution was quite unbelievable. We cheered up a little, though, when we saw a wonderful wedding celebration, complete with Himalayan trumpeters and funky drum beats: perhaps they celebrate here to make up for the drudgery of everyday existence on the plain. After a smooth passage through Indian customs/immigration, we had managed to do it again: exit India!
The elaborate, oriental-looking triumphal gateway heralded us into another country. Sadly this massive gate is shrouded in huge dust clouds, partly as a result of a legion of gaudily painted Tata trucks belching filthy fumes from their convoy, and partly as a result of the incredibly dusty, unsurfaced roadway. After paying thirty dollars, we were in. The border guard was very friendly and was interested to know where we are from, and following a pleasant chat he proudly said, “Welcome to Nepal”.
Our first impression of Nepal was shattered by dust clouds, not to mention the roaring vehicles, none of which would even be considered for an MOT test. It would be straight to the scrap yard! Especially this decaying bus-shaped box of rusty iron, which took us to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, in fifteen hours even though the journey should have been ten hours. We’d paid for the ticket on the Indian side, but a discrepancy arose as we tried to board on the Nepalese side. The bus representative demanded 100 Rupees more. Jon maintained a steady, calm and level-headed course throughout the negotiations: that it simply wasn’t fair moving the goal-posts just because we were tourists. Jon’s constancy also worked a few minutes previously with a greedy rickshaw wallah, who demanded 500 Rupees but only received 300 from us, going away with a flea in his ear. Simon, on the other hand adopted the tactic of shock and awe with the bus company official. Nepalese people are calm and polite, even when they are lying, swindling cheats out to pull a scam on some poor, unassuming foreign tourists. But our two travellers knew better! When Simon actually ‘lost it’, the bus swindler was genuinely surprised. So were we, for the verbal assault he received began in the style of Arthur Scargill, and moved via Adolph Hitler to a pit-bull on ecstasy. Needless to say, the 100 Rupee surcharge miraculously vanished into the ether.
Arrival in Kathmandu came as a relief after spectacular Himalayan scenery which, with our rickety, old bus haring around high mountain bends, was just like the closing scene from “The Italian Job”. Was Kathmandu the paradise of temples, scenery and glorious old shops and stalls selling wares from Tibet and Nepal? Oh yes! Did our intrepid pair find a fantastic little lassi bar? Oh, yes.