Whirlwind India trip and bus rides to Kathmandu

First picture is of a crowded Indian train from Delhi to Agra, and the second is me just posing with a cow in Varanasi.

As I write this, I’ve now been traveling for a good number of days. First, a day long bus commute from Singapore to KL, then a whole day of flying from KL to Bangkok to Kolkata to Delhi. Then, a 4 hour train ride to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is). Then an exhausting overnight train ride to Varanasi (India’s holiest city). Then, an all day local bus ride to the Nepalese border. Then, an all day bus ride from the border to Kathmandu. Basically, that’s nearly 6 days straight of transit of some sort. I’m definitely exhausted from it all.

I arrived in Delhi around midnight and was happy to have my driver waiting for me as I exited the airport. He drove me through the deserted streets of Delhi and I was reminded that I was in India as soon as I saw the cows lounging amidst the heaps of rubbish strewn about. I met up with Niki at our hotel and we were both so excited to see each other; we talked for hours catching up about our respective time apart.

After only a couple of hours of sleep, we packed our bags and headed to the train station to buy a ticket to Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal is. We had thought the train would be only 2 hours so we bought the cheapest ticket possible. Our ride turned out to be 4 hours long, which, as the train got increasingly crowded became more and more uncomfortable. The car we were in had sections that had 4 wooden platforms/beds to a section. We climbed on the top bunk/wooden platform and initially shared our bed with our bags. It was comfortable enough… but we couldn’t stretch our legs out or hang them over the edge, as we would’ve put our feet in the faces of the people below us. The fan in our section wasn’t working. And the train got increasingly crowded with each stop the train made. We crammed a few more people on our berth, but the situation below looked to be far more uncomfortable. Finally, we arrived to Agra and got off our beds. The interesting thing is that all the men jumped up to grab our seats and left the woman standing. As we exited the train, we had to push pass the hoards of people loading the train with no regard for those exiting. I’ve learned that in such populous places, like India and China, pushing is the norm, whereas waiting in an orderly queue will get you nowhere.

We spent a whirlwind afternoon and evening in Agra. We only bought a train ticket to Agra and just figured we’d buy our onward ticket to Varanasi upon arrival in Agra, as the line at the Delhi train station was long and the customer service less than stellar. Well, I’ve been to India before so I should’ve known this, but trains fill up fast and it’s best to reserve tickets as far in advance as possible. Well, once we got to Agra, we learned that all the beds in the air-conditioned cars were full. So, we spent some time trying to figure out other options, but found nothing suitable. So, we decided to head to the Taj. Last time I saw the Taj in broad daylight, this time was sunset. It’s a beautiful building no matter the time of day. We got lucky because it was full moon, so we got to watch that rise over the Taj.

Upon leaving the Taj, we headed back to the train station where we learned we could book an unreserved ticket – which is just a general ticket, which means you have no seat, or no bed, but you just stand/sit/lie where you can. We were told that we could upgrade our ticket from the conductor onboard. Thinking this was a great idea and even better price (less than $3), we excitedly purchased our tickets. We chatted for awhile with two awesome 60-year old German women who were traveling for just 5 days. They inspired us to take a reunion trip when we’re 60. J

So, the train arrives a bit after 11pm. We hop into the 2AC car with the German ladies (2AC is the nicest train car – basically, each section has 4 beds, with sheets, a pillow and blankets, a curtain dividing it from the train “hallway” and air conditioning). We sat on empty beds for awhile and when there were still a few empty beds and the train started moving, we decided to pick two beds and hope to just pay for an upgrade when the conductor came by. Well, not 5 minutes after climbing into bed and taking pictures of our victory does the conductor saunter through our car. He was none too pleased to find us there and we were told to go to the sleeper class. So, with heads hung low, we sling our backpacks on and walk through a couple of cars of 3AC (same as 2AC, but just 6 beds to a section instead of 4) until we get to the sleeper car, which we can’t get to, because a large garage door-type thing made from corrugated metal is closing off the nicer train cars from the riff-raff. Bear in mind that India is not exactly the world’s most egalitarian country in the world and doing something as overt as locking the poor people in their cars so they don’t sneak to the more expensive sections would be considered normal.

We finally get the door unlocked for us and enter the dark, extremely crowded sleeper car. There are 6 beds to a section, no AC, no blankets and more than 1 body to a bed… not to mention all the bodies we walked over on our search for a spot. Finding nothing, we’re told to go sit between cars (where the bathrooms are located and thus the overwhelming stench of urine and feces). We finally find a vacant bit of floor between some beds, so we decide that this will be home for the night. The area definitely wasn’t large enough for both of us to sleep comfortable, so we sat up and literally took turns sleeping in the others’ arms for the next few hours. At 4am, a lot of people got off the train, so we were able to move to actual beds. I ended up sharing my bed with a random Indian dude sitting at the edge of my bed. I woke up to discover that he was using my hip as a pillow. Normally, I’d have swatted a stranger away who was lounging on my body, but it’s India. Men walk down the street with fingers interlaced; they spoon on the floors of train stations; they stand extremely close together – basically, personal bubbles don’t exactly exist.

At 7am, we decided to see if a bed in the 3AC section had become available, and you can imagine our elation at finding multiple empty beds. So, we found two beds where the sheets weren’t overly tousled and eagerly hopped into bed for a few really, really good and welcomed hours of sleep. At the end of it all, Niki and I were both really happy that we a) got to Varanasi when we wanted to b) eventually upgraded ourselves to a nicer bed and c) only paid less than $3 for it. Granted, we did endure a few hours of sleeping on a nasty Indian train floor, but at the end of the day, I’m really grateful for a travel companion like Niki who doesn’t complain when we get ourselves into undesirable situations and just laughs along with me about whatever pickle we’ve most recently gotten ourselves into.

We finally arrived in Varanasi and got to our guesthouse, took a MUCH needed shower and set off to see the sights. After devouring a large lunch, we ran into the German ladies again, so the 4 of us set off to see the burning ghats. Varanasi is India’s holiest city as it’s located on the holiest point on the Ganges River, which is India’s holiest river. About 300 people are burned in Varanasi each day, 24 hours a day. It takes a body 3 hours to burn and I forget how many kilos of wood are required. Bodies are burned with sandalwood, which is fairly expensive and the elderly are required to buy their own wood for their own cremation, which costs roughly $3 USD per kilo. As such, you have a plethora of very old people in Varanasi, literally waiting to die and begging for money for their cremation. The Hindus believe in reincarnation and that you are reincarnated to the same caste as before. The reason people come to Varanasi to die is that they believe if you are cremated in Varanasi, you can escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha, or nirvana, ultimate enlightenment. No caste is discrimated against during cremation, and as such, there are many Dalites (the Untouchable caste) who hope to die and be burned in Varanasi.

At the burning ghat, I took 2 photos, which you’re not supposed to do, out of respect for the dead. Oops. But, I was trying to be discreet about it, but I guess I wasn’t that discreet, as a local man cum guide seeking money consequently demanded payment for that privilege. I apologized and offered to delete the photos, but he would have none of that. He wanted money, claiming it wasn’t for him, but for the elderly to buy their wood for their cremations. After a lengthy altercation, I finally paid him a portion of what he demanded and we went on our way.

We went to the main ghat and watched the sites there for a bit – a bit less activity than the early morning bathing, laundry and praying rituals, but still just as gross to see women dousing themselves in river water and the swallowing it. Ew, ew, ew. Not only are ashes of the deceased dumped in the river each day, but there are 5 types of people who can’t be burned in Varanasi – children under 12, pregnant woman, those with leprosy and I forget the other two types. In lieu of being burned, their bodies are tied to a rock and dropped off a boat in the middle of the river. And that’s not even why the river is as dirty as it is – there is a sewage plant a few kilometers upstream that dumps heaps and heaps of sewage into the river, unnecessarily polluting it. Varanasi is one of India’s most fascinating and disgusting places to see. I’m intrigued by it, but also equally disgusted and happy to be on my way.

The next day, we left Varanasi early in the morning and caught a local bus to the Nepalese border. This was an 11 hour affair. Our bus stopped exactly twice this whole time. Towards the end, there were about 8 people begging for a bathroom stop, which was repeatedly denied. Finally, we were granted our wish and got to pee in a garbage-strewn field behind a chai shop on the side of the road. We crossed the border into Nepal with ease. I had forgotten to sign my Indian immigration form and the officer looked at me and said “what, do you expect me to sign this for you?” I thought he was joke-being-an-asshole, so I laughed and said that I would sign it. And he wobbled his head and said, “no it’s ok – I’ll sign for you” And he scribbled my signature for me. Ahh, the security of it all – so different from the western world.

We crossed to Nepal and made it through immigration with equal ease and finally found a restaurant in which to eat, as we were starving, since only 4 samosas comprised the bulk of my eating for the day (we were on the bus that just didn’t stop…and when we were at the stop where we got the samosas, the bus driver nearly drove away without us – he was on a mission!). We shopped around at a couple of hotels and finally settled on a $4 room, as it had an en suite bathroom with hot water. Given that I did nothing but sit on a bus all day, I was filthy – my body was absolutely clad in dirt. My hair felt thick with grime and my pants, which were clean in the morning had a visible layer of dirt and grime on them – all from just sitting on a filthy Indian bus all day.

So, our room was good enough. We showered and as we were sitting on the bed – I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I look again and hesitate to tell Niki that I had just seen 2 cockroaches, as the night before, in Varanasi, I was typing away on my computer in bed and looked up to see a mouse staring at me at the head of our bed. I’m not super squeamish or disgusted by bugs and the sort, but a mouse in my room is not cool. That night (in Varanasi) we were able to change rooms, though the men running the guest house thought we were crazy as they’d come to find us standing on our bed and squealing about the mouse. This room in Nepal, however, was MUCH worse than the one in Varanasi. We talked about it and decided that cockroaches weren’t that bad – they exist in this part of the world. All was cool until we saw a mouse scurry along the wall. And before settling in for the night, Niki wiped some bugs off of her pillow. This place was disgusting, but the town was dead – the stores literally all shut down by 8pm and the other places we had looked at weren’t much better. So, we sucked it up for the night and went to sleep in our cockroach and mouse-infested room.

So, now it’s been quite a few days of traveling – I’m currently on a bus from the Nepalese/Indian border to Kathmandu – and I couldn’t be more excited to do a load of laundry and to sleep in a clean-ish bed and to not take a bus or a train for at least 1 day. I know I’ll get my wish. Tomorrow I meet up with Dean, my boss from Cushman and Wakefield and my sister. Shortly thereafter, we’ll head off for 3 weeks to hike the Annapurna Circuit, where we’ll have no access to internet the entire time. I’m really excited about the hike as I built my trip around this hike specifically and have been wanting to do this for quite some time. In our three weeks of mountain fresh air, we’ll reach 17,769 ft at the highest point – the world’s highest pass! – and circumnavigate some of the world’s tallest mountains. So, Happy Thanksgiving to all – I won’t be in touch ‘til after the holiday has come and passed.

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