'Hallelujah, praise the lord’, were my first thoughts as I left the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, passport in hand, and a new six month Indian visa inside. ‘Procedure’ had been thrown out of the window. I’d rushed through Bangladesh and northeast India, visited the embassy three times, and ordered a ‘telex’ (whatever that is is). But I was finally ready to continue my journey.
(In fact, I was so enthused that I went to get a visa for the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’, as soon as I had paid for a £35 ‘letter of recommendation’ from the British consulate. I was a little nervous whilst I waited to be interrogated, yet that interview passed without a hitch. The smartly dressed man at the embassy, who sat behind a wide and expansive desk, only seemed interested in one thing; promoting the tourist sites in his country.)
Whilst getting my Indian visa proved to be a cinch, getting to India was to prove more of a challenge. The first time I tried to get a bus to the border, I was told to return the next day. The next day, I was told there were no buses because of a nationwide strike, which had effected every form of transport in the country – local and national. So it wasn’t until the third day that I finally boarded a bus, which hurled itself round mountain hairpins, and played chicken with oncoming traffic whilst overtaking slower vehicles. Quite why this was necessary I do not know, it certainly wasn’t to save time; after just three hours on the road, we stopped for an hour and a half!
I dozed in and out of consciousness for the next four hours, so was only vaguely aware of a three hour stop. After another couple of hours on the road I finally woke up, only to realize that the driver had gone to sleep!
At sunrise I discovered the source of those delays; the Maoists had attacked the road! They’d called another strike and, keen to ensure that everyone in Nepal took part, they’d attacked any vehicles which had remained on the move. Whilst tourists were safe, (tourism is the second biggest industry in Nepal, after agriculture, and even the Maoists are keen to preserve it), no driver with an ounce of sanity was going to drive on alone.
We were in a village which consisted of two rows of restaurants and shops, each of which sold identical products. Trucks had invaded that place. Buses had staged a coup. Wary travellers slouched about, desperately searching for respite from the burning sun.
The first person I asked said we’d be there for two days. The second said we’d leave in three hours. Had I asked twenty more people, I’d have been given twenty more answers, such is the South Asian penchant for making things up. As it was, the driver revved his engine and blew his horn after a mere twelve hours. It had been over a day since we’d left Pokhara.
We drove past the burnt out carcasses of three busses and three lorries. Those coffins rocked between the road and the scrubland, whilst a funeral procession of restless vehicles passed on by.
A small tree blocked the road. Eight soldiers looked on whilst the convey drove over that tree. It would have only taken six of them to remove it.
The third and final obstacle appeared after another thirty minutes. A bridge, which had the audacity to join two sections of road, had been shattered by Maoist dynamite. Cracks ran from one side to the other. Canes supported the fragile structure from below.
Whilst that bridge was deemed fit for human consumption, vehicles were not allowed to cross. Fortunately, a mud track had turned up to enjoy the party; skirting down the side of one cliff, passing through a small river, and snaking up the muddy bank opposite. I couldn't help thinking it was a relation of the road under attack, a cousin from Africa perhaps, who’d come to lend its support in the defence of a fellow road. Had it not appeared there, in the most improbable of places, we’d have been well and truly trumped.
A minibus, which got stuck in the mud, delayed proceedings by another hour. Then, finally, our bus made it. Twelve hours later we reached the border. And after another ten hours, we reached Haridwar; a town where Hindus wash away their sins in the Ganges, and where a group of wary travellers washed away 53.5 hours’ worth of dust from their skin, hair and possessions.
After a day in the heat of Haridwar, my bus to Manali was about to depart. I didn’t want to count my chickens, though, mainly because it’s mighty hard to count chickens; they disappear and re-appear with consummate irregularity, jerking under carts and between huts, over wells and through bushes. And anyway, there weren’t any chickens to count in that all-vegetarian town. But, all being well, I was about to complete my never-ending journey…
Sweat dripped from my every part of my body as I waited for the bus to leave. Not that the heat disturbed the locals. They listened intently to the touts who extolled the virtue of their wares from the front of the bus, like preacher-men at an evangelical church.
With my main bag wedged under my seat, and my day bag clipped onto the front of it, I went to get some fresh air. I was eating some ‘cherries’, which were actually plums, when a young English man asked me if I had a small bag. 'Of course I have a small bag', I thought to myself. But when I returned to the bus to show him, it turned out that I did not, in fact, have a small bag. That man’s girlfriend had seen a local running away with it, hugging it to his chest. And so, in a daze, I gave chase.
The thief was nowhere to be seen. But, at first, I felt fine. It was only when I realized that my bag contained my passport, Indian and Pakistani visas, that I became concerned. And it was only when I was on a bus to Delhi, to replace those items, that I became annoyed. A group of local lads had the audacity to be friendly, and that really pissed me off!
Before turning around and heading for Delhi I went to the police station, to report the theft. Five officials sat at a table, which was covered in a red plastic tablecloth. The faded paint highlighted their neat uniforms. They looked like a panel on cheap TV talent show.
Whilst two of them chatted, I explained my situation to the one lady who had noticed my arrival. She told me to write down what happened, then played with her mobile phone. After an hour had passed I pushed her: I only wanted a report for an insurance claim, I explained. But she insisted that I be interviewed first.
That interview, beneath a fan in an outside courtyard, only took a few minutes. Then, accompanied by four officers and one giant gun, I was taken back to the bus station. I couldn't believe that they were actually going to look for my bag. And, sure enough, they weren’t. They interviewed a couple of people and then let me go.
I arrived in Delhi at midnight and headed for a hotel. I explained my situation to the hotelier, put my bag away, and went to sign in. But the hotelier had a change of heart, and refused to let me stay without a passport. So I went to a second hotel, who refused to accommodate me unless I paid a hugely inflated fee. The third hotel said they’d let me stay. So I put my bag in my room and went down to pay, at which point the receptionist changed his mind and said that I should leave.
I ignored that request and returned to my room, locked the door, and went to bed. The duty manager kicked the door down. He threatened to call the police. When I welcomed that suggestion, he became infuriated, which calmed me down immeasurably.
Three policemen came. Having seen my police statement, they took my side. But the hotelier barely budged. He said I could stay for five hours, but only if I paid double the original price. When I refused, the policemen said I could sleep at their police station. But when we went to that place, I was told I could not stay. So we returned to the hotel, and after a brief argument I was finally given a room. It contained the noisiest generator in the world. I slept for an hour.
The next day I went to the embassy district; an upper class ghetto where high commissions line up side-by-side. Tree-lined lawns skirt either side of a dual carriageway. It's like stepping into another country.
The British commission charged me £115 for a new passport, but gave me an identity letter for free. Wahoo!!! They told me to come back in two weeks. The Indian ‘Foreign Registration Office’ told me they couldn't verify I had a visa until I got a new passport. And the Pakistani consulate told me it would be no problem to reissue the visa at that time too. I don't believe them, but I live in hope…
Now I’m waiting for a night bus to Manali. If I arrive it will complete a journey from Pokhara which can’t be more than a thousand kilometres in total. It would have taken eight days, and cost a few hundred pounds. That's IF I make it. I'm not going to count any chickens, but I’ve already started counting the cows...
SOUTH ASIA BLOGS
Back in 2007, aged 25, I was in a sort of cul-de-sac. I'd graduated from university with a top degree, but I didn't want to commit to the wrong career. So I went to India to 'find myself' instead.
As I travelled I uploaded a series of random blogs to my new MySpace page (remember that?) From the mystical Kumbh Mela festival to Delhi's Toilet Museum, these include a mixture of humour and insight, fact and emotion. I'd like to think there's something for everyone here. I hope you find something you enjoy...