India. We knew we would get here eventually, but it always seemed too far in the future to worry about… until now. To be honest, we were both a little apprehensive about it. India doesn’t always have the best track record when it comes to travelers. Everyone either loves it or hates it. We’re hoping we will love it.
Getting an Indian Visa in Bangkok
Getting our Indian visas was a total pain in the butt. It was arguably one of the worst visa processes we’ve ever gone through, and we’ve both had to get multiple US visas. Bangkok and Kathmandu were the only two places in Asia to get an Indian visa for foreigners. Thus the week and a half we spent in Bangkok just before we island-hopped in southern Thailand was just for that purpose. The frustration and bureaucracy of the whole process was a foreshadow of what’s to come.
We spent a whole day just preparing for the visa application, from filling out the online form, printing the paper form, booking flights and hotels, and researching an itinerary for the entire stay. I probably spent a few hours just reading all the tips other people left online to avoid all the traps and pitfalls (highly recommended!). We then spent another half day at the IVS office that handled visa collection for the Indian embassy. We thought we came as prepared as could be. After a long line at the office, we found out our plan of entering India overland from Nepal was unacceptable – we had to have flights booked. That may not sound like a big deal, but it changed everything. The port of entry was different, so we had to redo and reprint everything. We were not even in India yet and it was already so difficult! Ugh. No wonder everyone applying for a visa at that office looked so angry.
We ran to a local internet cafe and resubmitted the online forms as well as reprinted the paper ones, then went back to the office to get back in line. This time we managed to jump through all the hoops without an issue. Then we promptly cancelled all the flights and hotel tickets we booked. It’s things like this that contribute to the inefficiency of our society – think about how much extra, unnecessary work was created for everyone involved. Us, the IVS office, the Indian embassy, the online booking service, the hotels, the airlines, etc. etc. to book/process/cancel these “fake” tickets that everyone knew would be cancelled the minute after we submitted the application. In 8 business days, we finally got those darned pieces of paper in our passports. So far, not loving India.
Crossing the Nepal-India Border Overland
The original plan was to cross over to India from Nepal overland. We did all the research and made all the preparations. First, we had to take an 8-hour bus from Kathmandu to the Sunauli border. From there, we exit Nepal, enter India, then take a 3-hour government bus or jeep to the next town of Gorakhpur. Once we got to Gorakhpur, the choices expand, and we can take a long train or bus to the next city in India (preferably train). We didn’t think much about the plan. No big deal, we’ve done lots of overland crossings before.
And then we looked up the available trains from Gorakhpur. We had been forewarned that trains in India get booked really fast and we need to book in advance (as early as 60 days before). Obviously that was not a possibility – we didn’t even know which day we would be in India until now. From what we could determine from the highly unusable India Rail website, all the Gorakhpur-Delhi or Gorakhpur-Varanasi trains on the day we wanted had so many people on the waitlist, we would never get a ticket.
At this point we realized this overland crossing was going to be worse than we thought. We always knew it was not going to be a fun journey, but now we had some real obstacles. How long would we have to wait until a train from Gorakhpur had tickets available, whether in general class, in foreigner quota, or in taqkal (last minute tickets)? Would we have to overnight in Gorakhpur since it’s looking like we won’t be able to catch a train? Can we take a bus? We didn’t like all the uncertainty building up, especially since we will not have access to information during this potentially 30-hour+ journey. In a last minute decision, literally the morning we were going to take the bus (we had already bought the tickets), we found cheap flights from Kathmandu to New Delhi and made the split decision to fly instead. I have to say I don’t regret it. We usually opt for the cheaper method of transportation, but sometimes we forget it’s worth paying a bit more for comfort and less hassle.
Kathmandu to New Delhi
With our flight to New Delhi booked, you’d think the rest would be smooth sailing. Ha! If only. This is Nepal and India. We actually didn’t know for sure what time our flight departed – the flight booking confirmation said one thing, Google said another, and historical flight tracking said yet another. That’s never happened before. So we headed to the airport a few hours earlier than the earliest of those three times to give ourselves plenty of cushion. Good thing we did, because the lines began outside the actual airport. That was the first of five different lines throughout the airport for security, baggage shipping, customs, immigration, and security again. But we needn’t have worried about the time – flights in Kathmandu consistently board an hour or two after its scheduled “departure time,” as was evident on the screens.
It felt like we sat in the boarding area forever. We tried to ask for information, but there was literally no airline staff around. Other flights boarded and departed, but no news of our Air India flight. It soon started thunderstorming. One by one, the scheduled flights were delayed and eventually cancelled. Still no news of our Air India flight. With no updated information, everyone crowded around the security entrance prepared for a mass exodus. This was a fruitless thought, but during times like this we couldn’t help but think – Why can’t this ever be easy??
Our Air India flight was eventually cancelled and the exit stamps in our passports were “cancelled” as well. We spent the next hour making sure the airline will cover our housing, meals, and reschedule us on the first flight out the next day. At least we didn’t have connecting flights in New Delhi that we missed – we joked that we were the only fools whose final destination was India. On the bright side, Air India did put us up in a 5-star hotel in Kathmandu. Honestly speaking, it was akin to a regular nice hotel in North America/Europe, but trust me, it was incredibly fancy for Nepalese standards. Consistent electricity, carpeted floors, hot shower with a bathtub, central AC… oh, it was pure luxury. We both knew it was the only 5-star hotel we would ever stay at this entire trip, so we made sure to enjoy every moment. It was hard to say goodbye the next morning at 8am.
We spent another 6 hours sitting in the boarding area the next day. Kathmandu is literally one of the worst airports to be stuck in – it was hard just to find a place to sit. We were there for so long, I learned how to understand the accented English announcements that I could not comprehend the day before. The weather forecast predicted fog and thunderstorms for the whole day, so we knew the flight could be cancelled again. It would actually be comical to have two exit stamps cancelled. Again, all other airlines gave updates and announcement while Air India said nothing. When boarding for our flight was finally announced, 4 or 5 hours after it was scheduled to, the entire boarding area erupted in cheers. I don’t think we’re flying Air India ever again.
First Impressions of India
- We had really low expectations for India, and some aspects of the real thing were not as bad as we thought it would be. The New Delhi airport was new and modern. The New Delhi metro system was reminiscent of Hong Kong or London Underground (with a lot more people). Only one person tried to stop us from going into the train station, even though we read about unbelievably elaborate scams. We found ourselves thinking, “alright, this isn’t so bad…”
- Other parts were just as we expected. India is overwhelming in every way and a complete overload for the senses. There are people and rickshaws and cars and cows coming at you from every direction. Sellers are touting, cars are honking, beggars are touching you to get your attention. We have walked through some of the most foul-smelling streets I have ever been and learned to never take deep breaths here. There’s so much going on every second out on the streets, it’s hard to manage more than just walking through.
- I have never seen so many flies. There are flies everywhere, and it’s common to walk through a cloud of flies. I try not to think about the explanation for why so many flies are around…
- I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in a country with way too many people for its resources. Not only does this mean long lines, it means you have to fight for what you want. Canada has mellowed me, taught me how to be civilized, fair and wait for my turn in the proverbial line. It was quickly evident that I cannot be like that in India. If I hold back and wait for my “rightful” turn, then the countless people behind me will pass me without hesitation and my turn will never come. So the reality of it is this: if I want to get in front, I have to forcefully push my way up there like everybody else. It’s every man/woman for him/herself.
- The food here so far has been tasty, but definitely more vegetarian and spicier than what we’re both used to. Usually I jump straight into the local cuisine, but this time around, I think we’re going to ease into it. Let our stomachs adjust to the unfamiliar flavourings and lack of meat, and slowly introduce street food. We’re going to be more cautious about what we eat and drink for sure.
- They say it takes a month just to get used to the way India is. We’re starting to think that’s true. Until then, we’re going to take everything in stride, and remember that this is what we came here for. A pristine, organized India is not the real India. We came here to see this place for what it really is. Hopefully in a month, we won’t even bat an eye when a cow walks by us.