India & Nepal

November 2005

Part 5:

A Passage to India


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November 13th (day 16): Raxaul

On the 12th, the day after we'd returned from our trek, we had visited Bhaktapur (in Nepal) and then taken a night bus from Kathmandu to the border with India. We arrived in the border town of Birganj at 8am, having driven 12 hours to get a mere 100km from Kathmandu. From here we would cross the border to Raxaul on the Indian side.

Most travelers going from Nepal to India cross the border at Sonali further west and head on to Varanasi. We had read warnings against crossing here at Raxaul, from people who'd had unpleasant experiences with criminals and corrupt border officials here, but since we wanted to go to Bodhgaya before Varanasi it would be too much of a detour to cross at Sonali.

When we got off the bus we were told by the local rikshaw drivers that the border was closed today because of elections, and that it would be impossible to cross. We had one driver take us to some office where again everyone told us that the border was closed. Luckily traveling experience has taught me never to trust locals who say you can't go somewhere, so I was stubborn and insisted they take us to the border anyway. Sure enough it turned out they had all been lying; we could cross without a problem.

Now we had a new companion who was accompanying us. On the bus a 16 year old Nepalese boy called Jenish, who of all Indian and Nepalese people we met on this trip spoke English the best, had asked to read in our Lonely Planet guide. He was going to his uncle in Bangalore in the south of India, a long journey. Curiously, he didn't have any luggage, not even a small bag. After much talking it turned out he had run away from home after a fight with his mother, and he didn't even have any money with him, just the clothes he was wearing and a small map of India from a school book.

He asked me if he could come with us until Patna (a big city on our way to Bodhgaya). I realised we would be taking on a lot of responsibility with that, but I sympathised with his adventurousness and since he was determined I figured he'd be safer with us than on his own in any case.
On the Indian side of the border Danny and I had to fill in some papers in a little immigration office, where I'm sure we provided the only bit of work that day for the three extremely slow officials. They talked to Jenish but as he'd expected he could enter without a problem, since India and Nepal have an open border for each other's citizens.

So now we walked into Raxaul, the town on the Indian side of the border. It is the most miserable place I've ever visited, and I've been places by now. The town consists of one wide, endless dirt road with perpendicular side streets and decaying concrete buildings everywhere.
The atmosphere was somewhat spooky and rather tense. There were soldiers everywhere, and we also saw a number of satellite trucks from TV news crews. This was funny because soldiers and news crews had been the last thing we'd seen when we'd left India two weeks earlier. Back then it had been because of the bomb blasts in Delhi, and I went to a news reporter to ask what was going on now. It turned out there were indeed elections this day in Bihar, the state of India we were in, and that all traffic had been forbidden that day for security reasons, which explained why we didn't see any cars or busses or even rikshaws.

Bihar is the poorest state of all India and has the country's highest crime rate (the famous movie Bandit Queen is about Bihar's criminal gangs). Bihar also has regular violence between the different castes here, and there are also Maoist rebels fighting the government, so you can see why elections are rather tense here. Later we found out that on this very day while we were in Raxaul, an army of about 1000 Maoists attacked a town elsewhere in Bihar (Jehanabad, south of Patna), killing three policemen and freeing 400 prisoners.

Our plan had been to get on a bus to Patna straight away and get to Bodhgaya by the evening, but since all traffic was banned due to the elections we were stuck in this dreary place for the day. Busses would start driving again in the evening though, so we just had to wait it out.

I first persuaded Jenish to phone his mother to at least let her know he was alive and well, which he did, and then we went looking for a hotel to rest. After much asking around we found the only hotel in Raxaul in a side street and rented a room for the day. While walking into the hotel I suddenly realised that two western men asking for a room for the day, while accompanied by a Nepalese boy, could very easily be interpreted wrongly, but no questions were asked by the guys hanging around the reception.

The hotel was a concrete dump without any guests, but at least we were off the streets.We left the door of the room open all the time just to make sure the staff wouldn't have any wrong ideas about us. We got some food and drinks and spent the day reading, watching our room's little TV (which thankfully had BBC World), and most of all talking sense to Jenish.

It turned out that the real reason Jenish was heading to Bangalore was not to visit an uncle, but to meet a guru called Sai Baba, of who he was wearing a small picture around his neck. Make sure to click that link and see Sai Baba yourself; Danny and I first thought he was one of the Jackson Five. Jenish told us Sai Baba is a wise old man who is rumoured to be a reincarnation of Shiva and do miracles. We'd never heard of him, but after reading up on him now I can tell that this guy has millions of followers, but is plagued by the scandals that are typical of cult leaders, including accusations of having sexual relations with young men among his followers - which is scarely relevant.

I literally spent hours reasoning with Jenish, trying my hardest to persuade him to go back home but treating him with respect, as I would like to be treated myself in his case. I told him I admired his determination and courage to undertake something like this, but that he was not nearly well prepared enough for such a journey, and that if he pushed on without money and clothes he'd have to beg and become dirty and possibly sick. He would have to return home like a loser then, while if he returned now he could face his parents with dignity, having managed to get to India on his own and without any problems, and having returned out of free will, not out of necessity. I argued that he could then start saving money and preparing for a proper journey to Bangalore, which I said I was certain he could make, while now I considered his chances of making it very small.

Jenish said that he had to make this journey now, not later, because Sai Baba is a very old man and might not live long. He had that glow of religious conviction and said that with enough determination, people can overcome any difficulty. If necessary he would just walk all the way to Bangalore, following the railtracks he saw on his little map of India to find the way, and would beg for food along the way.

I kept arguing and didn't seem to be making any progress at all, but towards the evening he suddenly gave in and agreed to go back, and he was clearly very relieved once he'd made that decision. In fact he said so himself a bit later and thanked me profoundly for having convinced him. So we walked Jenish back to the border, first taking a photo of him with the train that was standing still there since he had never seen one before (Nepal has no trains).
At the border I gave him enough money to get back to Kathmandu. We've exchanged some emails about our further adventures since then; he made it back home alright and his parents weren't too angry apparently :)

A few hours later Danny and I left Raxaul, which was a rather intimidating place in the dark, on a night bus headed for Patna.


November 14th (day 17): Bodhgaya

Bodghaya is the most important of the four pilgrimage sites related to the life of the Buddha, so it is like the Mecca of Buddhism. It was here while meditating under a banyan tree for three days and nights that Gautama Siddhartha attained enlightenment, after which he began teaching Buddhism. This happened around 500 BC and Bodhgaya has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.

The night bus from Raxaul dropped us in Patna at 5am. This historic town is the unnamed setting of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, but we just saw another ugly concrete Indian city. It was still dark and the streets were deserted. A lone, very poor looking rikshaw rider was supposed to take us to the train station but dropped us at a hotel instead, pointing to it and frantically saying "station! station!". The poor chap hadn't understood a word we said, so we just paid him and wandered through the town on foot until we found the station ourselves. There was no train that would take us to Bodhgaya in time to still visit it that day, so instead we rented a taxi to take us there, which cost us 1500 Rps (35 euro) for a three hour ride.

We arrived in Bodhgaya around 8:30am. We had expected it to be a sacred place with a hallowed atmosphere, but instead found a tourist trap full of Japanese and Chinese tourists being harassed by rikshaw drivers and souvenir vendors. There were also many visiting Buddhist monks to lend the place some dignity though.

The main attraction of the site, the Mahabodhi temple, was wrapped in scaffolding for restoration, which was another disappointment. The temple was first built in the 3rd century BC, right next to the holy Bodhi tree. The current structure dates from the 7th century and is 54m high. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
At the back of the temple stands the holy Bodhi tree. The original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha meditated was lost, but a sapling of it was planted in Sri Lanka in 288BC and survives to this day (or so I read), and this tree here is a sapling of that one. In the garden around it we saw some western Buddhists worshipping by throwing themselves to the ground repeatedly. They just looked silly, and further damaged my high regard for Buddhism.
Near the main temple complex, each country where Buddhism is a major religion has built a temple in its own national style. Some looked very nice but they were all closed between 12 and 2pm and we didn't wait around to visit them. The same goes for the 25m high Buddha statue that was built here, but I got a good shot of it from the gate.
This is a good time to mention the Maitreya Project, a plan to build a 152m high statue of the Buddha in Kushinagar, another of the four pilgrimage sites. Judging from the site they are very serious about it but don't have the finances yet, so I doubt they'll ever get anywhere.

To Varanasi

We left Bodhgaya at 1pm, taking an autorikshaw to the nearby town of Gaya from where we took a train to Varanasi. Along the way our train passed this insanely wide dried up river.
We arrived in Varanasi around 6pm and after much fighting with hasslers who were trying to 'help' us, we took a hotel near the Ganghes in the highest building of the city. This was the end of an exhausting sequence that saw us wake up in Kathmandu, visit Bhaktapur, take a night bus, spend a day in Raxaul, take another night bus, take a three hour taxi ride, visit Bodhgaya, and then make another long train ride. Needless to say we slept well that night.


November 15th (day 18): Varanasi

Varanasi is the holiest city and place of pilgrimage of Hinduism, so we got to visit the holy places of two of the world's four big religions in two consecutive days. You may have never heard of Varanasi, but you've probably seen images of it: it's the city by the Ganghes where each morning masses of Hindus bathe in the holy river together, since it is believed that bathing in the Ganghes washes away sins. It is also believed that dying in Varanasi ends the cycle of rebirths, so many Hindus come here to die. Corpses are half-burnt on the river banks and then released in the water, which along with industry and human waste causes massive pollution.

Bathing in the Ganghes

The throngs of bathing Hindus are the main sight in Varanasi. All along the river bank there are steps into the water called ghats to make it easier for the bathers to get in and out. Tourists can watch the spectacle from the river on rented boats. It speaks volumes about the Indians that they are generally not bothered by this. Tolerance is the principal quality of their culture - and they need it in such an overcrowded country.

Since we were so exhausted we overslept by hours and missed the busiest bathing time, but by the time we'd rented a boat for a 1 hour trip on the river there were still plenty of people bathing, and it was as strange a sight as you'd expect.

Varanasi Streets

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. Though it has few old buildings you can feel its age, if only by realising that the rituals of burning corpses by the river and bathing in the water have been going on in this exact same spot for well over 2000 years.

Another unique characteristic of Varanasi are the incredibly narrow streets of the old city; you can literally touch the houses on both sides of the streets at once here. It is a huge maze of which no map exists and in which we got lost again and again, like every visitor. You can always just go to the river bank to figure out where you are though. The main hotels have also painted signs on the walls everywhere so it wasn't that hard to get home.

The Caged Mosque

Varanasi has some monuments which we visited but none were particularly noteworthy.One site was interesting though: a mosque built by Moghul rulers over the ruins of a Hindu temple. In 1992 a Hindu mob destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, which had a similar history, and hundreds of people died in the hindu-muslim violence that followed. Some Hindu nationalist leaders have said that the mosque in Varanasi would be next, so security is very intense there.

We were only allowed on the site (which lies in the old city and is surrounded by houses) without camera or mobile. The white mosque is sealed off by high metal fences which are built almost against its walls and reach to its roof, so the mosque has effectively been put in a cage. Pity I couldn't take pictures of that because it was a weird sight. Next to the caged mosque a small Hindu shrine had been built were people were praying.

Diwali

By coincidence we were in Varanasi on the very last day of the Diwali festival, a major Hindu festival which began two weeks earlier (the Delhi bombings had been timed to coincide with the preparations for it for maximum effect). In the evening there would be a big closing celebration which we were looking forward to witness.

Most tourists went out on boats to watch the spectacle from the rivers. Fortunately we didn't because it turned out to be a major non-event. Masses of Hindus gathered on the river banks where thousands of candle lights had been placed on the steps of the ghats, which looked nice, but nothing happened. We were standing on the central Dasashwamedh Ghat where the crowd was watching a stage, but nothing was happening on that stage either. Still the crowd applauded regularly, for no apparent reason.
As we returned to the hotel we felt sorry for all the tourists who were still stuck on the dark river with absolutely nothing to see. Suckers! :) Around midnight we took a night train out of Varanasi.



<< Part 4: Everest BC Trek (2/2)    -   Back to Index   -    Part 6: Madhya Pradesh >>





Godsmurf Sun 04 Nov 2007 @ 14:52
Assuming you're talking about Everest BC trek: I didn't see any snakes and can't imagine there being any that high.

Carole Davt Fri 02 Nov 2007 @ 13:59
Wonderful pictures and story-----a real girly question--are there any snakes up there??? and how tough is it to complete??


Della Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:55
Nice pictures and writing! Your photos really bring back to my mind the days i spent in Nepal!
Go ahead and share with us more your travel notes and experience in the future!

Godsmurf Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 13:41
Hehe. Should be up within a few days!

eleni Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 01:56
Great! i was anxious and still am for no. 7 :)
It's like you are reading a book and when it starts to get really interesting you realise that some pages are missing...


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