by Shashanka Nanda
It was the winter of 1997-98, I was a 1st year student at the Delhi University, when a bunch of friends decided to spend the New Year in Chandigarh & Simla. The plan was to take a train to CDG and from there on meet up with another friend who lived there and proceed to Simla. We were all set, when at the last moment our friend from CDG, Mr. Amit Sharma was thrown out of his house by his dad (albeit temporarily)...
We were really depressed seeing our grand plans being washed down the drain, when a brilliant idea struck a friend, Ruchi who belongs to Nepal. She suggested that we go to Pokhara in Nepal to visit her sister who was married to a captain in the Nepalese Army. This sounded like a brilliant idea, and I for one was most excited at the idea of seeing the Himadri range up close & personal. I have done a lot of climbing in Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Garhwal etc. but never in the real Himalayas!!
Immediately, travel plans were drawn up and the route chosen was to Gorakhpur (GKP) by train and bus from there on. The touring party consisted of Pranav, Meenal, Ruchi & myself. We got RAC tickets in a train then known as Gonda Express. Now apparently it runs as 4048 Satyagrah Express with slightly revised timings.
I reckon it was 28th Dec, when we left fro GKP. Leaving my residence for the station I called on the IVRS system to check the status I was told that we had confirmed seats now and gleefully met the rest of the lot at Nirula's (Delhi's famous pizza and burger chain) in Connaught Place from where we went to NDLS. It was about 1700hrs and the train was scheduled to leave at 1730!! Without bothering to check the status board, we went directly to the FoB and started asking the coolies (I hate using this term, please excuse) but none of them had an idea of the train.
So I asked my friends to wait there while I checked at the enquiry booth. I took the ticket from Ruchi & sauntered to the counter when I opened the ticket and....... horror of horrors it read Delhi Jn. (DLI) & not New Delhi as we had presumed. I swear if somebody had timed me that day, I would have broken the world record for 100m & 200m sprints!!! When I told me friends about the situation they started laughing cos they thought I was playing a prank, but it took all of a second for the color on their face to drain away when I showed them the ticket!! After that all hell broke loose, and before you could say Taxi, we were already on one rushing towards DLI. For those who don't know, it takes about 25 mins on a light day to reach DLI from NDLS, and it was about 1515 and rush hour had begun in Old Delhi. The Sardarji at the steering wheel was one of the very best and he skillfully weaved his way through the traffic. He didn't need a horn, he had me leaning out of the window, hurling the choicest of Punjabi expletives at anyone or anything that came remotely close to delaying us!!
He dropped out outside DLI at exactly 1730 and luckily we didn't have to climb any stairs to reach the platform as the train was right in front of us. We started hunting for S8, our coach, but there was nothing beyond S6!!!!! Not knowing what to do, we boarded a IIS coach just as the train started moving, and then it dawned on me... I had called the Hindi IVRS number and my coach was S 'Ek' meaning 'One' and not 'eight' as I had heard it!! We planned to get off at GZB at run to our coach but the way was blocked by innumerable daily passengers, we just couldn't even leave our seats, so for the moment we had to stay put where we were. The train hauled by a Gonda WDM2 was to take the Delhi - Hapur - Sitapur - Gonda route.
Darkness fell thereafter and it really started getting cold. We boys, in all our bravado were not wearing anything beyond a pullover and a light jacket and the cold really started biting. The girls had more sense and had packed in a couple of shawls. We just huddled together in them, while the train trudged slowly through the fields of UP. The fog had started coming in really bad and the train reduced to a crawl, and finally came to a halt at Pilakhua. A few passengers got off, but I guess it was too late for us to go and retrieve our seats in the SL, and the lack of vestibules in the coach made things difficult.
The train stood for a long time at Pilakhua, and it was the first time that I really started noticing our co-passengers. Most of them were daily commuters between Delhi & neighboring towns. They spoke in an accent typically found in the bustling markets of Chandni Chowk, Dariba Kalan, Chwari Bazar etc. I guess most of them simply weren't used to having 2 good looking girls in jeans in their coach and I suddenly realize that almost the entire compartment was staring at us!!!
We had generally been talking in English, and our attire & rucksacks made us look like sore thumbs in the entire coach!! None of the stares looked friendly, some were simply ogling and one particular specimen brazenly was scratching his privates in public!!! I could even here some snide comments being passed about us (specially the girls) and I almost wanted to get up and teach one or two a lesson, but I knew that I would be up against the entire lot, and it would be a downright stupid move and simply chose to ignore them.
We had been stationary at Pilakhuwa for almost an hour now. Most of the passengers had also gotten down the coach was a much 'happier place' so Me & Pranav I decided to stretch our limbs and take a leak while the girls chose to stick it around in the coach itself. Stepping outside, we saw the reason for the halt.. it was fog. Fog so dense that you couldn't see anything beyond 5 metres!! And I ain't kidding.. infact while we were standing there on the adjacent track, I told Pranav that I could here a WDM2 approaching, he said no, if there was one, we could at least see the headlamp. Barely 15 secs later, we heard a sharp blast from what could have been nothing but a WDM2 horn we jumped off from the track. We saw what looked like a zero watt bulb 10 miles away, but was infact the headlamp of the damned WDM2 and it was barely 20m away. Thankfully it was virtually crawling, so no hard done. For the record, It was a Ludhiana WDM2 with the Hapur shuttle.
This train was packed with evening commuters and they were all getting restless, so much so that the combined mob of both the trains started stoning the signal cabin, forcing the poor fellers inside to abandon their posts and run for their lives!! Hearing the commotion, the poor ASM of the station came to the scene, only to be caught hold by the irate janta and was thrashed soundly!! Seeing things go out of control, we thought it was better to be with the girls and we got back in the coach. For the next 30 mins or so, we could hear all hell break loose outside and then all of a sudden the Hapur shuttle's blew it's horn and started moving. Seeing this almost all of the crowd forgot everything and clambered on!! It was all peaceful within a minute!! Apparently the SM thought it was best for these buggers to go ahead and face trouble themselves so he let the train go in spite of the fog. Later we learnt, that the crowd had even ransacked the station and even broken the furniture and using it as firewood to keep them warm!! Privately, I was wondering whether it was really a good idea to travel not knowing what lay ahead, but still decided to stick it!! Finally around an hour or so later, the fog reduced a but and we were given the go ahead. We crawled slowly to Hapur, by when our stomachs were screaming with hunger. A typical small town station, Hapur at around 2230 hardly had any stalls open, except the guy with the bread-omlette tea stall!! Those days I used to be vegetarian, but the hunger was such that I didn't even think twice before digging into the omlettes. In all we must have finished a dozen omlettes between us, which topped by the piping hot chai, made for a heaty meal:o)
We settled down in our seats, and the coach had literally emptied itself, so that we could easily stretch our legs. Since the windows totally fogged out, we could barely see the countryside. It's only when the stations came by, did we have a semblance of where we were. Slowly, the entire coach was asleep and there was hardly any light, save for the faint light bulb near the doors. There, between in the passage between the toilet doors sat a gaunt man, somewhere in his 80s singing a song in the local dialect 'Chodi Sundar Avadh Nagariya....' (Thus left the beautiful city of Ayodhya... referring to the Ramayana where Lord Ram is banished to the jungle for 14 years). His singing went on all through the night, though I could not pick up most of the words, those lines still ring clearly in my head whenever that night comes to my mind.
All night long the train crawled along at a snail's pace and many time used to stop for long intervals at wayside stations. Morning at around 0700 we reached Rampur, a distance of 189km in a mere 13 hrs!!! The train stopped for about 30 mins at Rampur we had breakfast which was repeat of last night's dinner, omlette, toast and chai!! The long halt allowed us to stretch our legs our bit. And then off we went again. Fortunately for us, the same came out pretty soon and it was real bright and visibility was great. And for the first time in 15 hours we crossed 60kmph! The driver settled down to a steady 70-75kmph and we were rolling down the fields of UP. The landscape was boring, with the monotony of mustard field after mustard field. Me and Pranav named it DDLJ country. Now u'd ask me why, well if you have seen the Bollywood tripe called 'Dilwale Dulahaniya Le Jayenge' would remember the song which shows Amrish Puri & his family traveling GS class on a WDM2 hauled train running through lush mustard fields...
We reached Sitapur City around 1230 hrs where the train halted for 20 mins or so. Surprisingly the loco was changed there... Another Gonda WDM2 took charge of the train and it set off, halting for another 15 mins at Sitapur Cantt. only 4 km down the road; where we had lunch consisting of ripe guavas. Then the new loco really stretched it's legs and we creamed past the 100kmph barrier. The dilapidated rake, AB or VB I can't remember was threatening to come apart at it's seams but the driver kept up the pace relentlessly. There were halts every half an hour or so, but they had no effect on our man who drove like a man possessed. We really covered up some lost ground and reached Gonda Jn. at about 1530 hrs. From there on till GKP, the ride was pretty sedate and at Maskanwa, all hell broke loose again. As soon as the train halted hordes of milkmen piled on into the coach, not before hanging their milk cans by the window rods with the help of hooks. Within a matter of seconds each and every window and rows of milk cans hanging, and some even hung their bicycles on the windows!! Despite our fears, the milkmen were pretty civilized and none of them bothered us for a seat and despite the crowd we were sitting comfortably.
But it wasn't long before trouble of another sort started. We had crossed Khalilabad station and were now on the outskirts of Gorakhpur, when suddenly one of the milkmen got up and said Achha bhaiya raam raam, hum chalat bhain (OK brother, time for me to go) and with these words, he promptly pulled the chain!! The train stopped, he along with many others coolly got off, detached their cycles and milk cans and made off. The poor guard and I guess the assistant were left with the task of resetting the alarm and the train started in about 5 mins, only to halt again within the next kilometer or so!! Leaning out I saw another lot of milkmen getting off and making their way home, while all the time the poor guard could just shake his head and curse them under their breath!! It took us nearly 50 mins and some 7 milk halts to cover the last 10km to GKP and we finally got off at the station at 1920 hrs, 26 hours after we had left Delhi!!
But that was just the first half of our journey to Nepal, we still had to cross the border into the Himalayan Kingdom and I for one had no clue how? That's where, Ruchi the expert took over and led us outside the station and bang across the board 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 after burners!! 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 c#$%ya 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 a neck had anyone messed with me then. Ruchi, though had other ideas... She 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-62s 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 realy 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. Ruchi suddenly 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 stall 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, and I studied at Kirori Mal) and he almost leapt up!! Turned out that he too had studied there, and asked me if I knew Bobby? And sure as hell I did!!! 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 sip from our bottle was enough to wake him up 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 of rum I 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 bu 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 Ruchi 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 Ruchi'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'.
Pranav 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 Ruchi's family later, we were back to the poinky poinky of the Nepalese highways. Ruchi 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 milkaman, 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 PF1 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 WDM2 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 Paranav home, and reached mine to trying to cook up a 'decent' explanation for my newly pierced ear:o)