Saturday, September 20, 2008

To Nepal and Back - Part 2

Continued from Part -1

R the Nepal expert took over and led us outside the station and bang across the road we saw a huge board touting all sorts of buses to various cities in Nepal. We made our way into what seemed like a fairly decent travel agency and enquired about buses to Pokhara and were told that there were 2 sorts... Delux costing Rs. 170 and Super Delux at Rs. 190. We promptly paid for the super deluxe and the guy asked us to report back the same spot in an hour giving us ample time to catch our first meal in more than a day. Wolfing down sumptuous aloo parathas with curd and butter, I was relieved at making it one piece thus far. We were all excited about finally making it to Nepal and the worst seemed behind us.

We got to the agency at 2030 at about 20 mins later a mini bus - those Indo Jap Canter types showed up, already packed with people and there were atleast a dozen more including us who were supposed to get on the same!! I asked the agent whether 'THIS' was the 'Super-Deluxe' ride, to which he said that Indian vehicles are not allowed to cross the border, so this'll be our transport to the border at Sunaoli from where the 'Super-Deluxe' would take over!! Having no choice we plonked our bags and butts into a small place behind the driver and the fellow took off like a Sukhoi on full afterburners!!

The drive through the streets of GKP was a crazy roller coaster ride and I could almost see my maker at every turn - and during this ride where we picked up more passengers, I thought I saw GKP station twice again... apparently he was going around the town to pick up as many 'sawari' as he could and it was nearly 2200 when we finally hit the highway. I don't recall the journey much as the bus was packed tighter than any Virar fast at 1900 hrs while the driver executed some moves which would have made him an instant star on the WRC circuit. After what seemed an interminably long journey, we got off finally at the Nepalese border... it was my first time at an international border except that it didn't even look like one. To me it appeared like one of those weekly markets one sees in rural India, made up of shacks selling everything from 'Rekbok' shoes to live chicken! The conductor of the bus asked us to cross the border on our own and catch the bus which would be waiting outside Hotel 'Hilton Palace'. Well the crossing of the border was totally uneventful, the Indian cops didn't even give us a second look while the Nepalese posse was a bit more enthusiastic. They asked us to prove our identities (we showed our college IDs) and they sufficed as Indians don't need passport/Visa for entry into Nepal & vice versa. Ruchi spoke to them in Nepali and we couldn't make out much, but within a minute the officer smiled warmly at us and said 'Welcome to Nepal'.

Well, I had never expected that I'd actually 'walk' into a foreign country having always imagined airport immigration counters as the way to go. This was totally new... the no man's land between the two countries was actually being used as a parking lot for tourist taxis!! As we made our way towards Hilton Palace, Ruchi was very peppy back in her own country listening to Nepali rock blaring from every shop!! When we found Hilton Palace, well... we were in for a shock!! The hotel was closed, lock stock and barrel and no sign of even a tyre tube, leave alone a super deluxe bus!! Fearing that the bus might have left without us, we ran around asking people but no one had any clue about a bus, and we learnt that the hotel was closed for almost a year!!

We rushed back to India to the spot where the bus had dropped us and that too vanished!! In it's place, were just a couple of cycle rickshaws and their owners were grinning at us with a smile that told me something was horribly wrong!! I asked them about the bus and they said it had left within minutes of dropping us there. Asking about the 'Super Deluxe', I was told 'Saheb, aapka to chutiya kat gava. Nepal ka aakhri bus, to saadhe saat baje nikal jaat hai' (Saheb, you've been fleeced, the last bus for Nepal leaves at 1930 itself.) So I asked that if they knew this, then why didn't they tell us before as they had been around when the bus dropped us. And I got even a bigger bomb as a reply.. he said 'agar oo samay bataye diye hote, to abhi ee maja thode hi aata??' (Had we told you then, then how could have we enjoyed this joke at your expense now?)

Flabbergasted, I didn't know what to do except that I would have ripped a skull or two off their necks had anyone messed with me then. The situation was saved by Rwho promptly burst into tears!! Here we were two guys and two girls, at midnight at an international border with nowhere to go. Trying the Indian police post was no help... the boys were dozing in their chairs. Talk of porous borders... An entire division of Chinese T-72s could have rolled across the border with the Red Army marching to blaring sound of trumpets and these guys wouldn't have had a clue!!

Again, the Nepalese cops were a bit more helpful, they knew this was common practice but they couldn't much as such things happened on the 'other' side. What he did do, was to guide us an all night taxi stand some distance away who could probably help us. Reaching there, we just found a little kid who said that his boss had gone for his dinner and would be back soon. I was tired, dog tired and feeling very very guilty looking at the equally tired and longer faces of my friends. This wasn't a holiday that I had planned, it was a nightmare and I had led them into it!! It was getting really cold and my hands were freezing, I really wanted to get me self a drink that's exactly what I did, there was a booze shop open next to the taxi stand along with a phone booth. R called up her sister Pokhara and her husband advised us to reach Butwal, a cantonment 26km away somehow. He said he'd call up there and make arrangements for us, but we'd have to get there somehow.

One thing about Nepal though, the clean fresh air of the mountains felt so much refreshing after the noxious vapors that one breathes in Delhi, but after a while... our nostrils actually hurt; so clean was the cold air, but it felt real good to be back amongst the mountains... any way; there we sat, on a little platform by the roadside, shivering in the cold and helping ourselves with some vodka wondering what to do next, when the Taxi company owner arrived. To my surprise, it was a it was a Sardarji who ran the show. I shouldn't have been surprised though, haven't you heard of Santa Singh, at whose dhaba Neil Armstrong & Edwin Aldrin had chai - 'malai maar ke' in the Sea of Tranqulity? Anyways, turned out that Bittu, a strapping Sikh in his late 20s was running the show inherited this business from his dad away on a pilgrimage to Amritsar. I narrated him our problem in my best Ludhiana Punjabi and sure enough he'd heard it before. He asked me where I was from and I said Delhi and then he asked me what college I was in. Taking a fat chance I said Khalsa (this is the most famous Sikh college in Delhi, though I actually studied at Kirori Mal) and he almost leapt up!! Turned out that he too had studied there, and asked me if I knew his cousin Bobby? And sure as hell I did (didn't I)!!! Well within a minute a driver was roused from his sleep. The 4 foot something 'Bahadur' as most Nepalese are known was irritated at the prospect of driving on a cold night, but a shot from our bottle was enough to entice him and I promised him there would be more if he dropped us at Butwal quickly.

Khalsa camaraderie aside, we had to pay 650 Rs. for a 26km ride!! I would have traveled AC first class instead!! But as the adage goes, beggars can't be choosers... so then off we went, and it seemed that our Bahadur, who sat on a cushion to be able to see out of the windshield (I wonder how his feet touched the pedals) was in a bit of a hurry to get the bottle that I had promised and for the second time in a space of hours, we were at the mercy of a fighter pilot without wings. But then our senses had been numbed by fatigue and alcohol and all that we cared for was for a bed. We made it to Butwal somewhere around 0200 and made it to the hotel that had been booked for us. There was an army officer waiting outside the hotel and he escorted us in. Safely tucked into the warm rooms we crashed and woke up only at about 1000 and met the girls downstairs for breakfast and to decide the further PoA.

Enquiries revealed that there was a bus to Pokhara every hour, and it would be a 5 hour run till there. Breakfast was again bread-omlette and a short walk later we were at the bus stand. The bus was a fairly decent Tata chassis with the body built in UP but had comfortable seats. Only problem, the roads were real bumpy and we were the backbenchers!! The fare at the lunch stop en route did not look very exciting, and R had told us that there was a Nirula's joint in Pokhara as well, so we decided to skip lunch and whet our appetite for the stuff at Nirula's. We reached Pokhara late in the afternoon and after a quick reunion between the sister's we hailed a taxi to take us to the lakeside where the joint was situated.

A word about Pokhara here. Situated 140km west of Kathmandu, it's a typical Nepalese town circled on 3 sides by the great Himalayas dominated by the famous Annapurna peak. The mountain is revered as the local deity in this parts and also the patron goddess of this region. The mountain is also known locally as 'Macha - Puchare' meaning 'Fishtail', a name derived from the kink in the mountain's peak. The center of attraction in the town is the 'Phewa Tal' (lake) around the banks of which most tourist attractions are situated.

We boys were put up at a hotel run by an Nepalese army veteran in the Mahendrapul area, while the girls stayed home with R's family. It was only when I woke up the first morning in the hotel and stepped into the balcony, did I realize the full meaning of the phrase 'room with a view'! One of the most breathtaking sunrises of my life was unfolding right in front of me on the slopes of the Annapurna. The fishtailed peak was hidden by a slight mist but the flanks below were tinged in the most amazing orange I have ever seen in my life. Just sitting in the balcony and reading the newspaper with the morning coffee would have revived the most slothful of men. After getting ready, we went for breakfast to our host's place, which was a typical Raj-relic military bungalow, with beautiful manicured lawns. The lawns themselves offered amazing vistas of the Himalayas and the sumptuous fare served by Khem Bahadur & Netra Bahadur; the household helps invigorated us like a full bottle of divine nectar.

The next one week was spent in the company of friends going for trekking & mountain biking along the trails on the slopes of the Annapurna range, boating in the Phewa Tal, a breathtaking mountain flight around the snow capped mountains which was all the more scary because of the advancing age of our Dakota (DC-3). I never knew these old hags could even fly!! Evenings were spent partying in the numerous restaurants around the town. Still, we could never stay out late as one can do here, and usually we were back at around 8. One evening, we dropped the girls home and headed back to our hotel. We hadn't had dinner and decided to order from the kitchen, and upon enquiring we were told that only two items were available at that 'late' hour: namely Wai Wai (branded Nepalese noodles) and the standard Nepalese 'Thali'.

P ordered Wai Wai and me the bold and the adventurous decided to try the Thali. Well his noodles arrived promptly and he gulped them down while I looked hungrily in his direction. My order arrived a full 45 mins later, and it consisted of boiled rice, spinach vegetable, yellow dal (lentils) and some pickle. One morsel later I knew why it took so long... after all it would take the fastest Nepalese jet atleast 'SOME' time to fly to the famous Tihar Jail of Delhi and back. No wonder Charles Sobhraj escaed at the first chance he got!!

The new year eve saw me sloshed at 7 PM but still I managed to light my traditional cigar at mid-night!! But faster than we expected though, it was time to head back home:o(The return journey was to be the same way. We were to catch a bus from Pokhara to Sunaoli border, and a teary farewell to R's family later, we were back to the poinky poinky of the Nepalese highways. R slowly was lulled away to sleep by her tears, and the other two were dozing as well, but I couldn't catch a wink of sleep as a sudden bout of depression hit me!! At around 3 AM the driver stopped at a highway dhaba (restaurant) and announced that we'll move only around 5 AM. We all got off to stretch our legs, but I was in no mood for a conversation. So I just idled around and was surprised to see a booze shop open at that hour!! What was even more surprising was the fact that it was manned by a girl who wouldn't have been a day older than 12!!

I was feeling real cold and decided that a little vodka might do me some good, so I bought a quart clear stuff and gulped half of it straight... rest I mixed with some Limca and walked back to the bus. I didn't feel like going back to the dark gloomy interiors so I just sat on the road, propped against the bus and lost in the train of my thoughts. The only sound you could here was of that of rain, but there was no rain around...instead millions and millions of dew drops were falling off the leaves onto the forest floor, creating an uncanny sound. I sat there for god knows how long, as truck upon truck thundered down the highway inches away from me. Just as the gray dawn peeped behind the hills, we were off again and stopped only when we reached the border.

The crossing again was a mere formality, with the Nepalese guards wishing us a thank you & good luck while the Indian boys were exactly where we had left them 8 days back, in their chairs.... sleeping. We caught a mini-bus back to Gorakhpur, and the driver of this one was by far the worst of the lot I had ever come across, swinging madly between lanes he drove like a fiend. While his crony, the conductor held on the door handle and leant out crazily substituting for the horn that the bus didn't have. Anyways, he was more entertaining that any bus horn that I have ever heard and his chaste Bhojpuri admonishments to every milkman, cyclist and jay walker on the road were a real treat.

We reached Gorakhpur station around 0900 and headed straight to the reservation counter to book our tickets back home. The reservation counter those days used to operate on the token based system so just took our token and waited for our turn while chatting nineteen to the dozen about our experiences in the past few days. Finally our turn came and we managed to get RAC accommodation on the Shaheed Express back to Delhi. After freshening up on the surprisingly neat and clean toilet & bath complex at the station, we headed out for some breakfast and in the joint outside the hotel we bumped into the same travel agent who sold us the 'Super Delux' bus tickets a week back!! I wanted to throttle him there and then, but my friends held me back, but this fellow upon seeing us had the gall to ask us how our trip to Nepal was??

Well that was about all I could take and I flew from my chair and grabbed him by the throat and had him pinned on the floor. It took more than half the restaurant to free that fellow from my grip and even then he was threatening me with dire consequences for my actions. My temper wasn't willing to subside either and I had to be dragged back into the station.

We parked ourselves into the waiting room which basically was an open sided room which looked onto the platform thus giving us ringside view of the proceedings. Our train, which was supposed to turn up at 1330, got late by an hour every hour and finally wheezed in at about 1700 behind the most ancient loco I had ever laid my eyes across. We thankfully had got the berth numbers right this time and settled down in our respective side lowers. By Gonda, we even got confirmed berths which was all very well except that the cold was making us shiver like a tuning fork!! A tot of rum and a helpful blankets by some kind military men literally saved our lives as we dozed off. Around midnight we are at Lucknow and a steaming kulhad of chai revived me, while the others were now fast asleep. I nodded off again and got up next morning somewhere around 1000 and were surprised to be told that we'll be reaching Delhi in an hour. There was surprisingly no fog around and the weather was sparkling in the warm glow of the winter sun.

We reached Delhi Jn. around 1130 and bade goodbyes after a thoroughly enjoyable & memorable adventure which I'll remember to the smallest detail to my grave. I dropped P home, and reached mine to trying to cook up a 'decent' explanation for my newly pierced ear :o)


Perakath said...

What a brilliant story! Why did it suddenly come to mind?

Soulmate said...

That was a very interesting read. Nepal is quite fascinating, but I guess your journey was much more adventurous and memorable than the stay there...

Sidhusaaheb said...

I've been to Nagarkote, from where the views were quite breathtaking too.

Pokhara sounds interesting.

BTW, with the regime change in Nepal, I wonder whether we might soon be requiring a visa to get there.