A Nightmare on India’s Streets

Kushinagar (India), 16.07.2013

We left off our last post with the impressions of lush Nepalese mountains, a flight to see the Himalayas, and great food. We had arrived hours late at the Nepal-India border in Birganj due to the delays in the mountain flight, heavy traffic in Kathmandu, and a more complicated road through the mountains then expected. We had almost no Nepalese cash left and tried to find a gas station that accepted credit card throughout the day, without success. (Usually credit card acceptance and good diesel are found at the same stations.) Reaching the border our tank was pretty much empty. While having no Nepalese cash was not an issue any longer, we were also low on Indian cash.

DSC_0123As I got out of the Nepalese customs office, I asked several soldiers and policemen where I could find Nepalese immigration, but was told not to worry and just cross into India. So we got into the car and drove towards the bridge leading into India. There was a crazy amount of traffic of trucks, cars, tuktuks, rickshas  horse and ox carts, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, all together fighting to get through, cutting each other’s way off. Traffic came to a standstill, and we waited in the car as several people, all Indian men, kept looking at us, some of them even bluntly staring through our windows with their noses almost glued to it. Some minutes later I touched the windscreen wiper by mistake, and it wiped away a huge amount of dust from the windscreen, that kept filling the air. We had been cueing for over an hour, feeling ever more uncomfortable, disgusted by the dirt and rubbish outside and annoyed by the chaos. At some point I got desperate, the sun was going down. I left the car and walked to the bridge in front of us to check the situation. 10 seconds out of the car I was wet of sweat. My throat started to hurt, the smell on the bridge was horrible. What had happened was that some super smart Indian truck drivers had started to overtake waiting trucks on the narrow bridge and got stuck in the traffic coming the other way. Other even smarter drivers of smaller vehicles had followed these trucks and tried to overtake the overtaking trucks, blocking all movement on the bridge. In over an hour of this, nobody from the Indian police had noticed or acted upon the mess. In the meantime a constant flow of masses of pedestrians moved everywhere on the bridge. Nobody dared to do anything, and everybody was just waiting. I went to the officials at the Indian customs office, that had a great view right on the bridge. “Hello sirs, what is the situation here? Any chance I can cross the bridge with my car today? Can you do something to free up the bridge?” I got many surprised, resigned views as a response.

Back in the car, I didn’t know what to tell Helena. We were stuck, unable to move in any direction, the daylight was fading out. We could not move on to India, not drive back to stay in Nepal. Finally there was some movement in this caos, Indian policemen armed with sticks came towards us through the vehicles standing around, and started to move the trucks. Some drivers didn’t follow their instructions, and the police started to hit the trucks and drivers with the sticks. “Let’s hope they don’t start a fight now, that the people, horses and oxes around us don’t freak out, we can’t escape anywhere.” It took them half an hour to unblock the situation, and we finally crossed the bridge and parked the car on the other side.

With our documents in hand we went to the immigration office. Two terribly annoyed bureaucrats greeted us and started to search for the Nepali exit stamp, that we didn’t have. “Are we here to enter India or to exit Nepal??” They insisted we go back to Nepal and get our stamp. I got loud: “Sir, did you see what is going on out there? We need to move on and have no time for this BS now.” They didn’t move, and we had no alternative then to get back out in the caos. We walked over the bridge again, the air filled with dust and smog. Our eyes and throats hurt, it smelled of litter and rot and excrements. The Nepalese immigration office was well hidden behind two lines of trucks and only had a small sign on the roadside. The office was in a tiny house down the dam of the road under some trees. The location was made not to be found from the street! The Nepalese official took his time to complete formalities, had us fill some forms, put stickers in our passports and finally stamped them. We were both completely wet from sweating. With our passports now in order, we walked back, again over the bridge, into the Indian immigration office. The Indian bureaucrats took their time too, one checking the work of the other, and we had to fill Indian forms now. As I wrote, sweat poured down on the table and my form. It took these two guys ages to register us and stamp our passports. After our fury at the first visit, they enjoyed having us wait now in retaliation.

With immigration done, customs was the last thing to do. Helena went back into the car to safeguard it as I looked up one of the customs officials in their outdoor office overlooking the border bridge. He took me to another building across the street, that he had to open up to register our Carnet. This place seemed more like a garage or a barn from the outside, with its two metal doors. Completely filthy inside, the floors were full of sacks with merchandise and 5l cans of mustard oil featuring the slogan “health is wealth”, that made me smile for a moment in this environment where health is the last thing that comes to your mind. The officer put on the aircon and several fans before starting to look in the metal closets for the Carnet register. There were mountains of papers, registers, files on all tables and in the six closets. Some of them dating back almost a decade. In the third closet he finally found what he was looking for, and started a diligent, thorough registration process, that consisted in copying the previous one and finding our information in our various documents. At all these borders we passed so far we had the impression that most officers have no idea what they are really doing, but just try to find a similar process in their many paper documents and then try to replicate it. Here I was at least lucky to have just one person to deal with, that didn’t get distracted by other colleagues interfering. In the middle of all this, suddenly the power was cut and we were in pitch black darkness. We waited for a while, suddenly one metal door was pushed open and a guy with a tablet and a candle on it entered. I thought it was anoher customs official and didn’t pay too much attention initially. But then a smell of incense filled the room, the guy walked towards the officer, who took some candy from the tablet and paid the guy. Suddenly the light came back, the guy gave the officer his change while this one bowed several times at the candle. After the officer had finished his spiritual candy break, the Carnet procedure continued. At 21:00 I sat in the car again, sweating, exhausted. 4h of borders is almost a record, only Turkmenistan took longer so far.

It was completely dark outside, the only light came from the trucks on the road, if they had them on. We stopped at two gas stations at the border town, but they didn’t take credit card. At the second one we fuelled up for the last 1000 rupees we had and got less then 18l of diesel. Autonomy was 195km now, average consumption on Indian roads being quite high. We found no ATM in the darkness, no shop we would have deemed clean enough to buy water or snacks. We wanted to find a hotel on the road, and had a last option in a place some 180km away. From the border the roads were Turkmenistan-style: stones, huge potholes, sand. The difference here was that there were always people on the sides, walking along, eating, urinating, defecating. As we drove on slowly, colourful saris appeared in the light beams of the car and faded into the darkness again. Temperature was still 30 degrees outside. Visibility became bad every time we approached a truck, they all whirled up bid clouds of dust behind them. We passed shanty towns along the roads, and a party with loud music, flashlights, people dancing and singing. Then the darkness took us back.

At 23:30 we finally reached the highway. At the entrance we found a gas station where the staff said they would take credit card. But after just 13l in the tank another guy came towards us and stopped them, no credit cards accepted. We had to give them 13 USD and left. The road was very good initially, and we were relieved, dreaming of a shower and a bed. But a few minutes later the tar disappeared again, and a track of stones, sand and potholes followed. In a constant interchange of tarred and Turkmenistan-style roads, the bad stretches became longer and longer. At one point on a tar piece I thought to have seen a cobra snake on the road, the head looking at us. A fata morgana? We slowed down, carefully avoiding every possible pothole, visibility was bad due to the complete darkness and the dust clouds of the many trucks. Two times we ran into sudden roadblocks on good stretches of tarred road, on the few occasions we could speed up a bit. The second one had no signs on it, and on both the left and the right side there were tracks. We hoped the left one would lead us around a construction of a bridge, but we ended up on a mud track in the fields down the dam of the highway. We had to turn around and take the other way, driving on the opposite lane of the highway with no lights. After a police checkpoint the road got bad again as we drove among a group of trucks, driving slowly and carefully in slalom around the craters on the road. Suddenly we hit something with the front of the car and the engine responded with a loud “tac tac tac tac tac…”. This didn’t promise well. We managed to reach the left border of the street and stopped, turning off the engine. After waiting a moment we tried to turn the engine back on, same noise, and the engine started shaking the entire car. Game over! No engine = no power, no aircon, no light, no movement. I got out of the car, and for a second looking at the roadside I thought of the cobra again, and the people we had seen using the roadsides as their open air toilets. We were loosing some liquid from the front part of the vehicle, but no oil or diesel.

DSC_0124Here we were, stuck in the middle of nowhere, after midnight, on a pitch black Indian highway, with trucks racing past us. We were without phones, since our sat phone got confiscated at the border, Helena had lost her phone at a hotel and my phone since some days couldn’t emit or receive phone calls, courtesy of Vodafone’s fantastic roaming service (one of these days I have a nice post to write about this company’s excellent customer fooling abilities). We took our Darth Vader lamp out and stopped two trucks. The two drivers and their crews came to check us and our car, nobody spoke english but somehow we explained what happened. They gave us their phones, we called 100 (police), but the number didn’t work, and the guys explained us the police wouldn’t help us anyway. They also told us that we couldn’t stay there. The Bihar locals would rob us and cut our throats. Sweet! Since no help was in sight, the only option was towing us to the next police checkpoint, 20km away, at the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh (UP) border. We got the rope out that Nicolai from the mechanic workshop in Bishkek  had given us, and tied the car to one of the trucks. Very slowly we progressed, making just 13km in 50 minutes. After a break, where the truckers offered us tea, we continued. Then the rope cracked suddenly. We fixed it again and drove on. Our battery was low, error messages appeared, and I expected the car to shut down at any moment. We finally reached the border with UP as the first daylight appeared. The border soldiers welcomed us and spoke to the truckers, who told them what had happened. The police confirmed it was the best thing to do to come to them and not have stayed in Bihar. We washed our faces and hands at the water pumps at the side of the road. Still the local mosquitoes and flies found our smell and sweat very appealing.

IMG_0113IMG_0111For the truckers, Tasleem and Nazim, it was time to leave. We wanted to give them some money, at least for the phone calls and tea, but they didn’t want any. We took a picture together and said farewell. How often had we sent truckers to hell on the road in India, yet tonight we had met some very fine men out there. Thank you Tasleem and Nazim, you saved us! We hope we can return your friendliness and unconditional help one day, if not to you then to some other traveller in need.

DSC_0129 DSC_0140 IMG-20130716-00086We tried to sleep in the car for a few hours, but the mosquitos, flies or the police woke us up several times. More people came to stare into our car and at us. I wrote an email on the Blackberry to Land Rover in Delhi asking for help. Ironically email on BB was the only line of communication we had left. The police brought us tea. At 05:40 an email conversation with the people at AMP Motors in New Delhi started, that involved Europassistance to get our car back into their service center. They wanted to send us a truck – in at least 7 hours. It was early in the morning and already over 30 degrees. We hadn’t eaten since the Nepalese momo lunch, were completely wet from sweating, stinking, dirty, had no water or food with us. Suddenly a police officer came and told us there was a truck that could get us as far as Lucknow. We checked the truck, it was huge, but it could get us away from the border. What should we do? Trust these 2 drivers or not? We agreed to have them take us to Kushinagar, the place where Buddha died and also the location of what the LP described as a good hotel. We called the hotel and made a reservation. Then we pushed the Evoque into this massive truck with the help of everybody standing around. We were happy to get away from the border, since too many people wanted to help us. Every 10-15 minutes somebody else showed up with another idea that wasn’t feasible. While we appreciated the good intentions, we got more and more confused. And the crowd around the car kept growing.

IMG-20130716-00090So we ended up seeing the road from the inside of one of those trucks that we had cursed for their slow speed, sudden lane invasions and blocking of the road. The cabin was very basic, zero electronics or technology. Behind the two seats was a makeshift bed for us to sit on. Few km after the border the road was blocked. Construction ahead. We waited and waited, for at least two hours. The truck on our left played repetitive folk music while the driver started smoking grass. Men on bikes drove between the trucks selling mangoes. Our truck driver, a very friendly young fellow speaking zero english, bought some and offered them to us with a smile. The heat was brutal, my shirt completely wet yet again. Suddenly all trucks moved, only to stop again some meters ahead. The truck to our right had a gas stove in the cabin and the crew of three started to cook some food. The highway started to smell of tasty curry. We moved on several times, only to stop again a few meters later. As long as we didn’t move, the drivers were a community of men on the road, talking and joking with each other, everything was cool and friendly. The moment the engines started up, all was forgotten and a fight to death for every cm of road exploded. These guys would ram every other truck just to move a little further, taking no prisoners.

DSC_0148Finally we made it past the construction site. Also here some extra smart drivers had invaded the opposite lane, blocking traffic. Unbelievable, and the police stood there taking no action. Once out of this mess again the traffic situation normalised. First Helena fell asleep on the back bench of the truck, then me. The driver woke us up as we reached Kushinagar. Here it took us a while to find the hotel. The truck driver managed to get this huge car transporter into the village and right in front of the hotel. We pushed the car out of the truck and onto the hotel’s parking lot. The gate of the hotel said “closed for renovation”, we were the only guests. As we said fare well to the drivers, Sanju and Shileadra, this time as we offered them some money one of the guys was for taking it, the other not. In the end we gave them 40 USD, it was all we had with us at that moment. In the hotel, we got some food, the first meal in over 24h, and more importantly a shower. As I organised the towing of the car by email, I fell asleep in the hot room, under the fan, after this nightmare on the streets of India.

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Trip data for the day (same as in the previous post)

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One response to “A Nightmare on India’s Streets

  1. Pingback: Coast to Coast | Eurasia 2013

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