Very Nasty Journey To Varanassi – India 2002

We thought the journey into Nepal was an epic one. How little we knew! The trip out of Nepal, back into India and onto Varanassi was meant to take around sixteen hours. It actually took ten minutes short of twenty four hours.

We boarded the bus in Kathmandu bus station at 19:00 full of confidence and enthusiasm. We were on a luxury video coach and should be at the border before we knew it.  Within half an hour we’d left the busy streets of Kathmandu and were heading down the twisty mountain roads in a train of buses and lorries. As usual, the driving style was combattant, and no prisoners were taken. We stopped for the first meal exactly one hour after we had started. The bus parked up outside a “transport cafe” (ramshackle shed with an old woman and a big pot of boiled rice, an equally big pot of something brown and steaming, and a stinking hole in ground round the back labelled ‘toilet’) and had half an hour rest. After another hour, we stopped at another “transport cafe”. And again and again and again. The pattern was briefly interrupted at 2am when we arrived at a police check point. Anyone who was sleeping (not many of us because the road was so bad and the driver was obviouly a maniac) was woken up and had their hand shaken by a very cheery guard with a large automatic gun. At this point, lots of locals got on so any free space that we did have was soon taken up.

The misery ended at 7am. We felt huge relief as we struggled to get our legs working. The Indian border at last. But no, the bus had stopped 3km short of the border and we needed to buy a rickshaw trip to get us the last bit of the way. 60 rupees was the agreed price (about 50p).

Once we got close to the border we had to report to a travel agent who would provide a ticket for the onward part of the journey (the ‘travel agent’ who had sold us the ticket couldn’t sort out the Indian half of the trip so we had to call into his ‘branch office’). The branch office took our booking slip and copied the details from the grey form onto a nice yellow form. And then told us that he couldn’t issue a ticket either and that we’d have to take the yellow form to his ‘branch office’ on the other side of the border at Senouli.

Back onto the rickshaw who had been patiently waiting for us outside the agent’s office (he must have seen this charade played out a million times before, if only we spoke Nepalese he could have told us all about it). We didn’t negotiate a price because we didn’t have any more than 60 Nepalese rupees on us. We had changed all the other rupees back into Indian currency already. We knew that we were storing up trouble for later but were too knackered to care.

It took about an hour to fill the forms in to let us out of Nepal and back into India, with the rickshaw chap waiting patiently all the time, and we finally arrived at the Indian ‘branch office’. Blokey there took the yellow form and copied the details onto a purple form (again, not a ticket) and pointed in the direction of the bus station. Back onto the rickshaw. The bus station was just a patch of road with a couple of buses parked on it. A stong smell of wee filled the air.

We’d been sold and paid extra for an Express Tourist Bus. Only five hours and we’d be in the historic holy city of Varanassi. We handed the rickshaw chap the previously agreed 60 rupees and were ushered onto the bus, the lack of a ticket didn’t seem to be a problem. Strange, it didn’t look very touristy, or express, but there were only Westerners on it so it must be right. The rickshaw guy got on and started hassling us for more money. How was he meant to feed a wife, six children, an arthritic mother and a lame donkey on 60 rupees? We didn’t have an answer so gave him a US dollar and told him it was worth 80 rupees. He got off looking very happy indeed.

Then came the usual “welcome to the country” robbery. Blokey who had told us to put our luggage on the back seat comes round and extorts 40 rupees off everyone for the privelidge of travelling with their luggage. We paid up and got a receipt that had obviously been used before for something else. All the funds were handed to the conductor as he got on, and the extortionist got off.

We set off through the misty early morning countryside. India is a huge country and huge amounts of it are totally flat. There’s nothing to see except fields leading to a flat horizon. The fields are always full of people doing farming stuff. Oddly however, there are never any sacred cows in the fields eating proper cow food. All the cows seem to live in the towns and eat rubbish. Some cows get roped into ploughing fields, but I don’t know where they go when they’re not ploughing. We certainly didn’t see any. 75% of India’s billion plus people live in rural areas, and the roads are almost continually lined with shacks and shanty villages. It’s fascinating to watch, but after several hours you get the feeling that you’re watching a repeat of the same thing again and again.

Still, arriving at a big city always makes things more interesting. The first big place we stopped at was Gorakpur. The driver, who seemed to be under the same mis-apprehension that he was on a tourist bus that we were, tried to drive straight through the city. The conductor, who obviously saw a vast money making opportunity, forced the bus to stop at the bus station. A smell of poo and wee came in through the open windows and a flood of locals stormed onto the bus. The bus was soon full and people stopped handing over money. The conductor got up and came over to us and a Swedish couple.

“You’ll have to move your bags onto the roof, you can’t take up space with them when people haven’t got seats” he served.

“But we’ve paid you 40 rupees so that they stay on the bus like you said we should” we returned.

“No you didn’t”, he volleyed

“Yes we did”, we returned.

“No, you didn’t. And if you had you’d have paid me 500 rupees”, he smashed to our backhand.

“We paid you the money, we have the receipts, and the bags stay where we are”, we scraped over the net not feeling very confident.

“I haven’t had any money. Whatever you paid counts for nothing, you’ve been ripped off by a bunch of charlatans”, another smash.

“But I saw the ‘charlatans’ hand you a load of money when you got on the bus. If you give us the money back then we’ll move the bags. No money and the bags stay. The choice is yours, buster”, Floss skillfully and forcefully lobbed him.

“Ah, did you? Hmmm…..”. He was suddenly on his back foot and struggling to make the shot. He tried staring us out.

All four of us stared back, in a unified and stoney silence.

“500 rupees?”.  It was a feeble attempt which failed to even reach the net. Defeated, he turned around and went back to his seat. The locals who were forced to stand, looked out our bags. We were smug.

After this ‘victory’, the rest of the journey dragged. We stopped, the smell of wee returned, people got on, people got off, we started, we stopped…. for another painful eleven hours, and all accompanied with a painfully distorted Indian music soundtrack. Turns out that everyone had been sold the express tourist service. It’s amazing how well you can get to know a total bunch of strangers when you’re trapped in a bus for nearly twelve hours! We eventually arrived at Varanassi at 18:50. Just twenty three hours and fifty minutes after we’d set off. We vowed never to get another bus again.

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