Walking through the ugly yellow archway onto Indian soil we were stopped very briefly by a policeman to check our passports and visas and that was it, we were in India. The border town on the Indian side of the crossing is called Sanauli and like most border towns it was dusty and incredibly busy with trucks and buses, all queued up waiting to get through. Immigration was located in a small run-down office on the side of the dusty road. If it wasn’t for the rusty, barely legible sign outside we would have walked right passed the run-down building. Sitting in a prison cell-like room complete with bare stone walls, a rough wooden table and a large curtain drawn across the entire front side of the building to keep the hot sun out, it was hard not to laugh at the lack-lustre attitude of the ‘officials’ in the office as they verified our visas and we were officially accepted into India for six months.
Our first destination was Kushinagar, the site where Buddha is said to have died. Along with Lumbini, where we had come from, Bodhgaya and Sarnath, Kushinagar is one of the four main pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Our first Indian meal was had just before we got on the Gorakhpur bound bus and certainly got us excited for the Indian cuisine which we would be immersing ourselves in for the next number of months. A small, modest, road-side shack was our restaurant and our dish of channa samosa was amazing and unbelievably cheap, this was a sign of good things to come. Satisfied after our simple meal we boarded the bus and began the two and a half hour bus to Gorakhpur where we would have to get a connecting bus onto Kushinagar.
Staring out the window at the passing countryside it became more apparent with every additional mile we drove that we were leaving Nepal well and truly behind and entering new territory. There were of course a huge amount of similarities between the two neighboring countries but a number of very obvious differences shone through as we continued on the road south. The most notable difference was the number of cows roaming around the streets freely, munching on the piles of rubbish that lay randomly along the busy roadside. Passing through small towns, the streets were lined with people selling and buying from colourful stalls packed with fruits, vegetables, snacks, clothes, toys and god knows what else. The small streets were much busier than they had been in Nepal and from our ideal vantage point on the bus, we watched as busy India went about it’s daily business oblivious to us gaping and analysing everything we could see.
We arrived in Gorakhpur without incident and found the bus to Kushinagar. Three hours later we arrived at the entrance to the sleepy little town, where a statue of Buddha sitting cross-legged, meditating had been built to highlight the spiritual importance of this holy place. Walking down the one street along which Kushinagar is built, we were approached by a number of locals all wanting to chat with us, take our picture or just walk along side us. People were genuinely friendly and very outgoing and with no other tourists in town, we were to be the focus of attention for the smiling locals. With no sign of any guesthouses we called into the friendly Yama Cafe and were pointed in the right direction by my dad’s namesake Mr. Roy. He steered us towards one of the many monasteries in the area and we tried for a room. The Burmese monastery was a lot more run down inside than we thought and the monks were charging way over the odds for the ant infested room so we went and found a quiet guesthouse and negotiated a price with the owner.
Of all the differences between Nepal and this, our first stop in India, was the intense heat. Well, that and the number of moustaches around the place. Having come from Korea not too long ago, where facial hair is basically non-existent the number of men with moustaches in India (or at leat this little part) was incredible. But back to the heat; we were sweating standing still and it was very difficult to enjoy the sights of Kushinagar when all we were concerned with was finding shade and cold drinks. Sleep had eluded us the night before because it was so warm but we persevered with the intention of seeing whatever Kushinagar had to offer. We walked around the small area in which, similarly to Lumbini, there were Buddhist monasteries representing countries from different corners of the world. The death place of Buddha was marked with a simple white temple in which there was a twelve-foot long gold Buddha statue laying down. Our morning sightseeing was interrupted only by the few Indian tourists, children and adults alike, who wanted to pose for photos with us. Funny to think how many people’s holiday albums we were going to be featuring in and we wondered what stories might accompany these awkward photographs but with the weather getting even hotter and the sights seen we retired to the comforts of the Yama Cafe. We had planned to travel throughout Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to the south, for a month looping around through Agra and then going North to the mountains, however with the weather the way it was we had to reconsider our options. Indians spend the hot summers in the North of the country in the state of Himachal Pradesh and so we changed our entire plan and decided to head north.
We took an auto-rickshaw back to Gorakhpur hoping make it to Delhi by train where, by our calculations we could catch another train north to the hill station of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. We arrived at the train station to book tickets but were not prepared for what met us. Walking into the shade of the station there were people everywhere, and I mean everywhere! Families were lying on the ground, there were queues a mile long at every window, people were sitting on the station platform ground and yet with all these people around there wasn’t a single person where we needed them to be the most, at the tourist information window. Eventually we figured out we hadn’t a snowballs chance in hell at getting on a train that day as it seemed that every person in India was trying to get a train to somewhere and so we started looking for an alternative way to get to where we were going. We talked with people around the train station and it appeared our only hope of getting to Dehli was either to take a twenty hour, public bus direct to Dehli, which we couldn’t even think of doing in the forty-eight degree heat or alternatively take a much shorter six-hour bus to Lucknow and take it from there. It was a no brainer and so with another new plan, it was off to the capital city of Uttar Pradesh. The bus arrived in Lucknow around midnight and luckily we got the last room in a hotel near the train station which suited us down to the ground. After a hectic few days travelling, it didn’t take long before the sound of the fan spinning violently on the ceiling faded into the distance and sleep took over.
The train station, directly across from the hotel, was going to be a big feature of the day today. The first visit was at 9am and was a shock to the system. Lucknow was the first big city we had visited in India and the poverty accompanied by the general chaotic-ness was an assault on the senses. I wandered around the train station trying to find where to get our tickets and luckily a police man took pity on me and helped me out, good thing as I was in the wrong building entirely. Telling him our plan, he looked at me bewildered “why are you going to Delhi? You need to go to Ambala, follow me.” To be fair, he walked me through the whole process, which would have been confusing without his help and after going from window to window I was told to come back at 3pm to see if the ticket had been confirmed. Escaping the heat in an air-conditioned coffee shop we waited, eager to get to the cool mountain climate. It was then back to the train station and unfortunately our tickets were not confirmed, we had been on a wait list but there hadn’t been enough cancellations and so we had to do the dance from window to window, cancelling tickets, applying for new ones and then we again had to return at 9pm to see if we would this time be granted confirmed tickets. With fingers and toes crossed it was back to Mahatma Gandhi Road for some sweet, sweet air-con and then at 9pm we eagerly went back to the train station. “Your ticket is not confirmed, please wait one more hour” the handsomely titled ‘chief reservatons officer’ told us. Trying to keep our cool, we slowly walked over to the plastic seats and waited, doubting we would be going anywhere. An hour passed and the officer behind the window, sick at the sight of us most likely, gave us the good news, “your tickets have been confirmed”. We practically skipped back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and made a bee-line for the train. Judging by the pushing and shoving to get onto the train we knew we were not the only ones eager to escape the heat and after bruising a few of our fellow passengers with our bags in the narrow carriage, we made it onto the train and were finally destined for the cooler climate of Himachal Pradesh.