Monday, January 6, 2014

The Path to Buddha: Crossing the India-Nepal Border

Zhong Hua Chinese Buddhist Monastery at Lumbini, Nepal
We left India through a series of trains, rickshaws and buses. After taking the overnight bus from Delhi to Gorakhpur, we were greeted by a swarm of 30 men, most of them taxi drivers, trying to sell us a taxi ride to the Nepal border. We made the mistake of hesitating which gathered a larger crowd. What we wanted to do was take a shared jeep ride but as the train station emptied it became clear that there were no other travelers with the same idea. We would have to wait for the jeep to fill which could have meant all afternoon and we didn't want to cross the border at night. So, instead we had a rickshaw driver take us to the bus station which

was only a stone's throw away but we were thankful we did this because there isn't really a bus station. There is a street with buses parked on the side and the destination are all written in Hindi. The rickshaw driver told us which bus was headed to Sunauli which we would have never found on our own. Before stepping on the bus, a tout tried to sell us seats on another bus that he said would get their quicker and was cheaper. But if there is one thing India has taught us, it is that anything that sounds too good to be true is.
We made it to Sunauli and followed two young men with loads of goods, figuring the must be headed to the border. There is only one main road to the border so no need to take a rickshaw if you follow the traffic. We got our exit visas stamped on the India side which took about ten minutes and then walked across the border. An India official asked us if we got our passports stamped and when we said yes, he wished us well and waved us through. On the Nepal side, we went straight to the visa office to the right, filled out our forms, paid for our visas and got our stamps. (If you do this, be sure to pack a passport photo and American dollars, although a couple people were able to pay in Indian rupees.)We took the locals bus to Sunauli and besides the piercing horn that the bus driver used every three seconds, the ride was pretty cool as we got to see parts of rural India and more of the country life. Unfortunately, much like the urban parts of India, there is no waste management system and the garbage sometimes eclipses the country's natural beauty.
New friends
Sunauli is lined with buses and we just ducked our heads into a few and asked which one was headed to Bhairawa, which is about 4 kilometers away. We paid 15 Nepalese rupees each and embarked on a crazy little bus adventure after that. In hindsight, taking a taxi straight from the border to Lumbini would have been worth it. They pack the buses so tight in Nepal, that you will have people on your shoulders, at your feet, and almost on your lap. No one spoke English and everyone knows when to get off. We asked one young man if one of the stops were at was Bhairawa and he said yes. We got out right in front of a bus station, feeling super proud might I add. But we soon learned by one of the few people hanging around that buses to Lumbini were two more kilometers down the road.
Mike turning a giant prayer wheel
We decided to walk it, also a choice that wasn't worth it. After walking two kilometers along a dusty road, we were still nowhere near the right place, so we hailed a cycle rickshaw and he took us another kilometer or two down the road and made a left turn to a huge gate that read Lumbini. (Don't be fooled, it's still 23 kilometers away) We jumped on a local bus and I think paid about 45 rupees each and had another crammed bus adventure. But the bus loaded up with all sorts of people, young and old, Hindu and Buddhist, merchants and school kids and it was kind of a fun ride despite the cramped space. Nightfall came quick and we asked one of the young men on the bus if we were at Lumbini. He promised to tell us when, but we also could have taken the cue by the clearing of the bus at the Lumbini Bazaar. The Bazaar is only one small street across from the road from the main temple complex. (Bring a flashlight if you do this because Nepal has regularly schedule and unscheduled black outs.
Mike gives a photography lesson
We found a room at Lumbini Village Lodge which was better than Lumbini Garden Lodge, but still left much to be desired. The bathroom had a small flood from the leaky sink and toilet and there were more mosquitoes in the room than outside the room, but after so much travel, a bed was all we really wanted.
The food in Lumbini was not great, but the service is so slow that by the time your food arrives, it is delicious. But we did find amazing egg and cheese sandwiches at the Lotus restaurant across from Lumbini Village Lodge. (Keep in mind if you go to Lumbini, there is malaria in the Terai region.)
The next day we rented bikes and had a blast. We rode around the temple complex and visited the Maya Devi Temple which sits on the birthplace of Buddha. The site has been excavated which reveals a sandstone carving from the 14th century displaying the nativity scene of Buddha's birth as well as stone behind bullet proof glass marking the exact spot. At the temple we met many school children eager to practice their English. We ended up taking lots of pictures of them and with them at the centuries old tree dripping with prayer flags at the Sacred Pond.

We then cruised around visiting all of the Buddhist monasteries and temples in the West Monastic Zone. At one point, we stopped for a snack near the Lumbini museum and one of the kids we had met earlier was in line with Mike. Mike ended up buying him a juice and just before we took off on our bikes he came up to Mike and handed him a small Buddha pendant on a necklace, an offer of friendship.

The next morning we boarded a bus (Golden Travels) to Pokhara and thus began the worst bus ride of our lives. (P.S. If you want to book your own bus ticket in Lumbini, the ticket stand is a little red booth to the left when you come out of the bazaar.) When people say the buses in Nepal are the worst, they mean it. While the tourist buses are nice, the roads are terrible, the bus drivers aggressive, the buses have no heat, and the constant rattling and winding up the mountain is brutal. When we arrived at Pokhara, we were both sick for a couple of days. But, much like Lumbini, getting to Pokhara was totally worth it.
Outside Maya Devi Temple

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