“Between 6am to 7am” is not the ideal time for anything in my opinion, least of all tackling international borders. But it was, we were reassured, the only time that it’s possible to cross from India to Nepal with a vehicle. So, after a long, hot and dusty day traversing Uttar Pradesh it seemed we were going to be in for a short night.
On the plus side, there’s nothing like getting up at 4.30 in the morning and packing in the dark to add a real sense of adventure to a journey. Or so I told Emilie. We were still cutting it fine though and time was tight as we sped towards the border. Thus the sight, on rounding a sharp corner, of the road disappearing into a sea of mud with three Tata trucks entombed within it at various unnatural angels was not such a welcome one. One of the advantages of travelling by motorcycle however is that you can go places the four-wheeled cannot, and we managed to slither our way around, squeezing past the sleeping monsters and, after a short and unsuccessful battle of wills with a bulldozer, continued on our merry way.
We started doubting the directions as we neared the border and the road became more of a track – surely this could not be the way to the India-Nepal frontier? Finally we were directed across a single-track bridge and sure enough soon arrived at a tiny run-down immigration office where two gentlemen in tracksuits were sipping tea while lazily perusing the morning newspapers. Most traffic in this area apparently goes through another crossing further to the south leaving these chaps just to cope with the occasional Western biker. They greeted us with a smile and a yawn and shuffled off to find some forms for us to fill in. The subject of us also being accompanied by an Inidan-registered vehicle – which we had thought might lead to innumerable questions and delays – seemed however to be of no interest to them whatsoever (international smugglers take note).
After the gentlemen had returned our passports and returned to their newspapers, we ducked under a barrier and into the no man’s land between the two countries. On the other side we had to scramble down a bank and across a field to reach the even more casual Nepali immigration office, staffed by a jovial mustachioed gentleman in a stained white vest who appeared to have just rolled out of bed. He greeted us warmly, took out his ink stamp and assured us we were very welcome in Nepal.
Our first border crossing in the bag, we hit the East-West Highway with a sense of elation, speeding pass shimmering green paddy fields with the misty foothills of the Himalayas rising behind them. The traffic was much lighter on this side, the odd bus or tractor but mainly old men on bicycles, school children in bright green and blue uniforms skipping along to class, women walking with huge grass bales balanced precariously on their heads and the odd creaking buffalo cart.
Another big difference from India was the regular army checkpoints. Western Nepal has long been a troubled region and was one of the areas hardest hit by the decade long civil war. As in Myanmar, the tight grip of centralised control – here the monarchy, there the military – had been the lid on a pressure cooker, keeping in check the demands for rights and recognition from myriad groups, be they centred around race, religion, or region. Once that control eased, managing these various and often conflicting demands for a say in the new order became a key challenge for the new regime, one that Nepal has been struggling with for several years now and that Myanmar is just starting to face. We hadn’t seen any other foreigners for the last couple of days and here was no exception – the soldiers at the checkpoints looked startled to see us but invariably the stern faces above the rifle sights would break into a broad grin as we waved and Namaste’d our way through the checkpoints.
Waking up in one country and going to bed in another is for us one of the joys of travel, especially when those two countries are as diverse and fascinating as India and Nepal. Having crossed our first border there’s a feeling of really being into the journey now, along with a – slightly nervous – anticipation for the roads into the mountains that lie ahead.