To have your concept of a slow travel day be completely redefined, take a vacation to Nepal. Where traveling a 200 km distance at home would take a little under 2 hours, that same distance between Kathmandu and Pokhara will take around 7. No matter the route, a long and bumpy ride is in your future when traveling in the country, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
So when the time came for us to depart Nepal for neighboring India, we got very excited. Not so much for all the things worth seeing in India, those go without saying, but rather due to the fact that we can get back to using trains as our primary mode of transit. They are just as slow as anything else, but being able to walk around or stretch out on a bed can make a considerable difference during a travel day that seems like it will never end.
But before we could get back to our favorite mode of travel, we had one large hurdle to cross. One long day that I have always considered to be my most dreaded of this 18-month trip: traveling from Chitwan National Park, Nepal to Varanasi, India.
That day had arrived, and we were mentally prepared for a long and tiring journey going to a city that is, quite frankly, not that far away.
A Very Short Distance Indeed
When considering covering long distances with relative speed, I am reminded of the journey from Hong Kong to Hanoi that I did in record time all with public transport. Like the crossing from Nepal to India, that journey's most common route had a ludicrous time requirement and was not something my restless body would be happy taking without a fight.
But where records are made to be broken for faster travel, the crossing from Chitwan to Varanasi seems to do everything it can to win the title of the slowest. This 400 km distance (~250 miles) is often reported to take a whopping 21+ hours and include no fewer than two buses, one rickshaw, an overnight train, plus whatever mode of transportation you need to and from the bus/train stations in each city!
So while we could cover that ground in 4 hours at home, or a reported 8-9 hours with a private car on this route, we were faced with one very long day while using public transport.
For us, cutting down the time or even just preventing the need for a silly overnight train, can be worth a bit of a splurge. With our minds made up, we knew we only had one option to make this trip go faster and that was hiring a long-haul taxi in the border town of Sinauli, India.
With no other option to get to the border faster in Nepal, it was time to endure the first, and hopefully only “tourist” bus of the day. So departing our hotel at 9:00 am for the 9:30 am bus, we began our long journey to Varanasi.
The Long-Haul to the Border
Unlike other tourists buses in Nepal, the bus from Chitwan may call itself that but it is, in fact, anything but.
This retrofitted local bus comes with the bright and colorful designs you've seen time and time again in Nepal and has little space for the occupants on the inside. Once you leave the bus station in Chitwan, the “tourist” distinction goes away as the bus will slow down to pick-up as many people as possible until it is overflowing with Nepali's standing in the aisle for hours on end.
So for the next 4+ hours we bounced our way towards the border, with many random locals using my leg as a makeshift stool in the rough patches.
This painfully slow bus ride was not a total loss; however, as we made a new friend who was also eager to get to Varanasi as soon as possible. Like us he had a maximum budget he was willing to spend, very similar to our own, and we soon teamed up to go it together (and reducing our own cost by 33%, score!).
It was at this point we actually started to believe that this crazy idea might just work.
The Easiest Border Crossing in the World
The crossing from Nepal to India was perhaps one of the easiest we ever had. After leaving the tourist bus at the final stop, you need to take a rickshaw or jeep a few more kilometers to the check-point while paying around 100 to 150 Nepali rupees per person (depending on your haggling skills). As there are no shortage of touts waiting to take you to the border, this segment is incredibly easy.
The immigration buildings are, quite literally, shacks on the left side of the road (if heading to India, and right side if heading to Nepal). The signs are barely there, and buildings surrounded by other shops, so keep an eye out for them as you go.
The giant “welcome to India” sign is a good landmark, as Nepal's immigration is just before and India's a brief walk after. An intermediate guard checks your exit stamp from Nepal as you go under the sign, so if you make it there without seeing the Nepali building you've gone too far. There is an additional building for Indian customs (on the right if heading to India), but you likely will not need to stop there if you have nothing special to declare. Keep on walking and immigration is not much further on the left with a low and rather old sign just in front.
As this was non-eventful and took less than 30 minutes overall, we'll skip to the most important part: negotiating a taxi.
Come Here My Friend, Where You Go?
For the typical journey, all you would need to do after entering India is negotiate a shared jeep or grab a government bus to Gorakhpur to catch the overnight train to Varanasi. If you're lucky, and early enough, that Gorakhpur bus may even continue on to Varanasi if you want to spend 10 hours in a packed bus like the Nepali one you took earlier in the day (of course, when an online schedule says 10 hours, keep in mind it probably means 14). Your tout interaction is low, and you'll spend a minimal amount of time at this stop.
But since we wanted to hire a taxi for this long route, talking to the annoying touts was exactly what we had to do.
The touts at the border after you cross into India are relentless, but not nearly as bad as is reported online. Admittedly, it was 3pm and not the dead of night where they are said to be a lot rougher (a scenario I'd not want to be around to verify).
They'll flock to you asking if you want taxis to Gorakhpur, some even offering Varanasi, and will lie to you any way they can to get you to spend money through them (transit, currency exchange, you name it). As a general rule of thumb, assume anything they elect to tell you without you asking is not true until you work them over quite a bit.
Just before these interactions; however, we were lucky enough to receive some “insider” info from the very helpful border control agents who told us that the taxi should be no more than 4,500 Indian rupees, or a little under $75 US for the whole way. With three people that was a price we could stomach, as another couple we spoke to had hired a car from a private company to Lucknow (just a bit further in distance) for around $125 with driver as they had to also cover the cost of the empty return trip.
Knowing our price, we were determined to not pay any extra.
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Once engaged, the touts started requesting rates of over 10,000 Rupees, then 7,500, and one very relentless driver kept telling us that we would only get our requested 4,500 if we found a taxi who was already coming from Varanasi and would otherwise need to make the return without a fare (which was, unfortunately, somewhat logical even if another lie).
As we were with the above mentioned couple who hired a car, we decided to walk with them about 4-5 blocks down the road to the business they used to see what kind of price we could get. As we did, that one pesky tout followed us the whole way while bartering the price down on his own as we ignored him and said we'd return if the company couldn't help us.
Before we could make it the 5 blocks to the car agency, he finally agreed to our rate and we were on our way to inspect the car. At this point I regret not making it all the way down to the car rental company so as to recommend it in this post, but if you act like you are going to one a few blocks down you will have no shortage of people following you (and some may even point in the right way if you ask).
The Last Hurdle – A Few Unintended Changes
It is incredibly important at this last step to get a few clarifications from the driver and ask some of the following questions (or if needed, demand them for the price):
- Check the car's visible quality and do not put your bags inside until all details have been arranged.
- Make sure the driver has a cell phone and will drop you off at your hotel directly.
- Ensure that you do not have to pay any extra (return trip, meals, hotel, tolls, gas) and that it is all included. Even if it is included, you may want to buy your driver's meal anyway to be nice for such a long drive.
- Make sure that NO ONE ELSE will be in the car with you, an issue we had pop up and will get into more below.
- Agree to pay the final rate after you arrive and not before.
At this point we had to deal with a few final hurdles that you will likely have to endure for a similar arrangement.
First, our driver was not the tout who arranged the deal for us, but a random Indian who spoke very little English. Our driver and the tout who negotiated with us appeared to have an argument as the tout took a 1,500 rupee commission that we had to pay upfront while only giving the driver 3,000 for himself. Not surprising, but the driver seemed pissed at the tout for slighting him an extra 500 he had requested (which I later tipped him anyway since he was pretty good).
Because the driver spoke limited English, and the tout took an upfront cut of 1,500 rupees that we had to pay right off, we had to be especially diligent to ensure that he understood that the final rate would be 3,000 rupees when we got there. After 4-5 confirmations from the driver, we were good to go. If we got scammed, at least the three of us were only out 1,500 (~$25 US) and not the whole amount.
While waiting, we had also exchanged Nepali money at a pharmacy as we needed to get the above mentioned 4,500 rupees somehow to pay our tab. Although this is generally a stupid thing to do, we had no other options as I hate using ATMs in cities I do not sleep in just in case the machine eats my card for a day. The employees all wanted to give us an exchange rate of 55:100, which is well under the official rate of 62:100 of the day. After being a bit persistent, our tout agreed to raise it to 58:100, but the pharmacy worker was not budging. We got him to agree to 56:100, but he still only gave us 55:100 in the end. At that point we didn't care about arguing over $1 and gave up after an $8 loss on a $75 change. That wasn't much worse than other exchange places you may stumble upon in a big city, so we won't complain much.
A few minutes later and the taxi was driving onward to our last stop – Varanasi!
The 9 1/2 Hour Drive, Otherwise Known As An Eternal Loop
We expected the drive to take around 7 hours, and in true Indian fashion it took 9 1/2 (after a 3:30 pm departure we arrived at 1:00 am on the dot). Our guest house manager, who stayed up to wait for us, could only say “this must be your first time to India” in response to my quip about not realizing how long it took.
Clearly he knew something we didn't.
The ride itself is mostly uneventful. In the dark you are driving on a rather bumpy road at no more than 40-50 kph for most of the journey. There was one stretch of road that took us over 90 minutes just to go around 30 kilometers, to which every road sign indicating the remaining distance (and how little we had actually covered) caused us to become a little stir crazy. It can be pretty bad, and we could only hope the car held through and the driver kept his word to take us to Varanasi.
Halfway through our driver stopped briefly at his house in Gorakhpur, likely to tell his wife he wouldn't be back til the next day, and then asked us if he could pick his brother up to go to Varanasi. As this was not part of the deal, we were pretty much against it. There was only the small seat for a 3rd person left in the back, and he wanted to put all of our backpacks with valuables in the trunk to make room. After telling him it wasn't in our agreement he relented, driving on without issue.
The villages came and went, with each looking the exact same as the last as if in an infinite loop. Wondering if we were going in circles, we only had a few rest breaks and street signs indicating the remaining distance to remind us that we were actually covering ground.
The pace was slow, but we finally made it to Varanasi proper just after midnight.
Overall, the worst part of the drive for us was in Varanasi itself as our driver clearly had no idea where he was going. Between stopping to ask for directions every 30 seconds, and our hotel calling every 5 minutes, it was a bit chaotic and reminiscent of my taxi experiences in Egypt (where they also have no idea where they are going half the time). In what should have been 15 minutes took well over an hour to get where we needed to go.
As we rolled up to our final public square, we saw a clean-cut guy who looked to be waiting for someone. It was the guest house manager, and we had made it at 1am, a full 16 hours after departing. We got out of the car, paid our driver the remaining money (which at this point was 2,500 as we gave him 500 for gas halfway through) plus a 500 Rupee tip for the trouble.
We got our bags, turned around, and realized he just got a flat tire right at the very end of the journey. A miracle for us that it didn't happen earlier, and another hassle for him to have to deal with at 1am. He motions for us to go, and we were off to our room and a long, long sleep worth every penny we spent to get it.
This Method Isn't for Everyone
In the end we only really saved about 4-6 hours of time. For us, avoiding that poorly timed night train and getting a good night's sleep was worth the extra $30 or so we spent plus the cost of another night in the hotel in Varanasi. India is a country that is best started on the right foot, not while groggy from an incredibly arduous travel day, and we are very glad we splurged to ensure that it did.
For you, the real question comes down to whether you value time or money more. If you are like us, and can find someone to split the taxi with, the price was perfect and the extra sleep wonderful. If you don't care how you sleep one night and are okay with losing a couple hours in an effort to save money, the night train should be perfectly fine even if it ends up being a very hectic day.
The biggest perk to us? Our hotel manager asked us how much we spent out of curiosity and said we got a very good price that Indians would get, not a jacked up tourist rate. We cannot help but think back to the very nice workers at the Indian immigration office and thank them for the tip, because without them this all would likely never happened.
As excited as we are in doing this journey in what appears to be record time for those without their own car, the next time we're ever faced with this crossing we are going to fly.
Looking for things to do in India once you arrive? Why not visit the Kerala Backwaters for a kayak tour, check out the many places to visit in Munnar for tea, the Itimad ud Daulah Tomb in Agra (also known as the Baby Taj), or check out some of the famous India beaches!
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