Leave Russ Foundation. Catch the Guwahati Express train from Chennai the following day to Kolkata. Stay in Kolkata for two days. Head to the Nepali border. Take my DBZ Backpack. Easy.
That was my original plan. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a ticket on the Guwahati Express, as the entire train was full. So, I decided I would stay in Chennai for the day. I then decided that, actually, I might as well try and still get the Guwahati Express, but decided not to at the last minute due to feeling unwell on my train from Madurai to Chennai. I therefore got off one station early, and headed for my favourite accommodation in Triplicane, Chennai, once again. “He then said “Bomb”.”
At 10am that morning, I left to head towards the train station once again to purchase a train ticket for the following day. The hotel owner told me I should wait until 11am, at which point I thought he was a complete idiot (if you don’t turn up at 10am, you stand no chance of getting a ticket). He then said “bomb”. Slightly confused, I asked if he meant at the station. “Yes”, he replied. It had turned out two carriages at Chennai Central station (the station after the one I had got off my train at earlier that day) had been hit by bombs (low-intensity IED’s). This was quite a scary thought, as the bombs had happened at the time I would have been at Chennai Central earlier that day. The really scary part is that the train that was hit by the bombs was the Guwahati Express; the train I had planned to board that day, if it wasn’t for the lack of tickets. One dead, sixteen injured; this was a chilling thought.
Nevertheless, thankfully I had avoided that train, and secured a waitlisted ticket for the next day. Security had been hiked up at all the stations in Chennai, and I even attracted TV cameras whilst my bag was being searched. The bad news is my ticket was still wait listed, and so I didn’t have a seat on the train, so I decided to cancel and book a general, unreserved ticket (with my plan then being that I would bribe a ticket inspector for a seat). Unfortunately, the previous days events and the summer holidays had led to this train being hugely over-subscribed, so my plan failed. Thankfully, I did have a seat for most of the journey after meeting some Indian’s who made some space for me, but I didn’t have a bed for the entire night. Somehow, I managed to stay in the reserved section of the train for the entire journey, despite numerous armed traffic police and ticket inspectors coming along and speaking to me (I had an unreserved ticket, so should have been in the incredibly crowded section of the train!)
Eventually, after a long 28 hour journey, I had arrived in Kolkata to meet Ellie and Beth – who had flown up the previous day. If you are wondering why I took the train, my ticket cost me just £3.30, as opposed to a £60 plane ticket, although if I had bought a reserved ticket it would have probably cost nearer to £8. I headed to the Broadway Hotel, which was actually quite difficult given I had no address, no GPS and no battery on my phone at all. We had a triple room, which included a balcony and a range of 1950′s furniture (to go with the antique, 1950′s working lift in the hotel!). “Banned from a cake shop”
Our stay in Kolkata included jelebi, colonial Britain and er, being banned from a cake shop. Yeah, after less than 5 hours in the city I managed to have an argument over a bill, cause an Indian man to be very loud and angry, and give some business lessons to a business. Who’d have thought working out VAT could be so problematic?
We also visited Victoria Memorial, an amazing building with stunning marble architecture. The building was commissioned for Queen Victoria’s jubilee, although the building wasn’t actually completed until 20 years later! Our visit genuinely felt like being on the red carpet at times; not only did one person want a photo with us, but we then attracted a crowd of other people taking photos of us whilst we posed with another local. It feels laughable, particularly when you think that you are just another person viewing a famous monument!“Dirt, swarms of flies, poverty, pollution…”
The following day, we boarded another train with confirmed tickets in 3AC (the air conditioned class in between non-AC Sleeper and 2AC). The journey came and went without any problems, and we eventually made it to Raxaul, the Indian side of the Birganj crossing to Nepal. Raxaul is a town that few people stay in at all, given the dirt, swarms of flies, poverty, pollution and lack of infrastructure. And I can understand why. However, Ellie, Beth and I had no choice as the visa only last 15 days and their flight was booked in 16 days time so we couldn’t cross the border that day. And I’m glad we didn’t. Sure, Raxaul was everything that I listed above. However, it was also an intriguing place to explore; full of life with wonderful street food (did I mention jelebi?!). This is a part of India that feels as though it has been left behind, with the main road being made of mud (it was lovely to walk in, given the torrential rain the previous day) and small backstreets that reminded me slightly of Varanasi.
Our plan was always fixed that we would move on the following day, and so we made our journey across the border to Nepal. A seven hour bus ride to Pokhara began, after a painless process acquiring our visas. After a one hour stop whilst our bus was being repaired (reason; unknown), we eventually made it to Pokhara in the evening; the start of our Nepali adventure.
For the first time, I booked some trains back down to Madurai about 20 days in advance (I am normally last minute with train bookings, using the TATKAL system that allows me to book trains one day in advance, for a small fee). I then received a text from Berlin in Madurai, asking whether I could arrive one day earlier as Christeena, a young lady who has grown up at Russ Foundation, was getting married. My stay in Nepal shall therefore only last for 11 days, however I will get the chance to experience an Indian wedding, at my favourite place in the world. I think I can agree to that!