March 27-28, 2009
There’s a saying that India is actually an acronym that stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again”, while Nepal stands for “Never Ending Peace And Love”. Well, that wasn’t quite true in our case. Regarding India, this was already our second visit. And as for Nepal, well…
There are several border towns between India and Nepal, but the most common one is Sunauli, just north of Varanasi (which is why we decided to come to Varanasi in the first place). There’s a tourist bus that takes you from Varanasi all the way to the border, but it only leaves on certain days each week. We didn’t want to hang around longer to wait for the tourist bus, so we just took the regular public bus. That meant that we paid a little less, but also that we had to switch busses at Gorakhpur – not a huge deal. The ride to Gorakhpur was so tedious that we considered staying there for the night, but when we got there it really turned us off – dirty, and full of musquitos. So, we immediately jumped another bus to Sunauli.
We reached Sunauli late at night – the border was closed. We shuffled into the first hotel we saw. We got in line at the reception area and we met an Israeli gal, Hila, who shared with us some unfortunate news: not only is this hotel full, but all hotels in Sunauli are full (she checked). Why?? Apparently just a couple of days ago some Nepali politician was assassinated, and as a consequence the military imposed a road-block just outside the border town. That meant that if you chose to cross the border you could get stuck there. Naturally a lot of tourists decided to hold off – who wants to pony up a $40 visa fee only to get stuck in a border town? And as more tourists got cold feet, the hotels on the Indian side became more and more full.
The hotel owner was too nice to throw us out on the street, so Pnina and I slept in the restaurant along with a few other people. Those who had sleeping bags used them. As for Pnina and I, we lined up a few chairs next to each other to form a make-shift bed. Yeah, we didn’t sleep that well. At least it wasn’t cold.
The next morning we went around trying to figure out if the road curfue was still in effect. Nobody knew for sure, but a lot of rumors floated about. Word on the street was that the army lifts the road block for 2 hours each evening to allow tourist busses to go through. We wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so we walked to the border to investigate.
Now, the Sunali border is really strange. Most borders that we’ve seen force travelers to file through one gate for the source country, followed by another gate for the destination country. In each gate you’re required to show a passport, get a stamp, pay a fee, etc. But here in Sunauli it was chaos. The main street in Sunauli lead right up to the border, which was a big open gate. Along the way there were shops on both sides, and one of these shops happened to be the immigration office – very easy to miss. You could freely walk all the way to the Nepali immigration office – nobody stopped you to ask for an ID or whatnot. Actually, it looked like you could walk clear through into Nepal, but we didn’t test that theory.
(Hila and Pnina just hanging out in the border, between countries)
Anyhow, at the Nepali immigration office we couldn’t get any better information. Same story: yup, there’s a road block, and yes it’s likely to be open tonight, but we’re not sure when, or if at all. Yes, it was open last night, but that doesn’t mean anything.
Well, Pnina and I had no interest in making the day-long journey back to Varanasi to wait for this curfew situation to pass; we had enough of India and were ready to move on. So we decided to take our chances and cross over.
We went back to the Indian immigration office to get our exit stamp. Here, for the second time, we had to do a passport shuffle (similar to what we had when we entered Jordan). To clarify, we used our Israeli passport in India, but we wanted to use our American passport in Nepal. So, just like the last time, we asked the immigration officials to give us two exit stamps, one per passport. At first they flat-out refused. We started to explain why we needed the two stamps, and the senior official signaled for me to follow him to the back office. I thought he was looking for a quit space where we could discuss the issue alone, but when we reached the back he said “OK, we can do it, but it’ll cost you 500 rupies each”. A bribe! This was exciting! This might be surprising, but it’s the first time I encountered this kind of corruption in my life – Pnina and I didn’t have to bribe anyone so far on the trip (yup, not even in 4 months traveling in Africa). We discussed the matter between us in Hebrew, and decided that while corruption is despicable, we’re probably better off paying the money and moving on. I pulled out my wallet and the official’s eyes grew large as he said “I meant 1000 rupies each”. I flat out refused saying “a deal is a deal” (even if it’s a dirty deal). So we paid the bribe and got our exit stamps and moved on.
The Nepali side was like a ghost-town. Apparently the curfew was not limited to the roads – all the businesses were expected to be closed, or at least to make an apppearance. All the windows and shutters were closed, and many businesses had garage-doors pulled down in front of the entrance. But if you looked closely, you found that some door was still open, that you could still head inside and get service. We spent our day in one of these hotel’s restaurants. It felt like we were in a bunker, but the food was OK.
And in the evening we discovered that the romors were true – the army was going to lift the curfue. Around 8 PM everyone scrambled onto busses and we took off. When we reached the outskirts of town a bunch of locals blocked our path. Some of them banged on the bus and some climbed on top. It was a little scary. We’re still not sure what it was all about, but we think that these were simply locals trying also to make their way out of the border town on one of the few available vehicles – our bus. The bus proceeded slowly through the crowd, and after a few minutes we were out on the open road.
From there things were reasonably smooth. Can’t say we slept very well on this all-night bus, but at least we left the border town and we didn’t see any more curfew issues for the rest of our time in Nepal.
Oh, one more thing – when we entered Nepal we set our watches forward by 15 minutes. what a bizzare timezone!