Today started with a bit of a disaster when I awoke to find that my new laptop, Sony Jim, that I had cunningly placed between me and the wall the night before, was a lot more delicate than my old laptop, Dell Boy. The screen had cracked in the night (I must have rolled over against it). This was not a good start to the day and I was determined to not let it overshadow the rest of today’s shenanigans. I had two – maybe three – countries to reach before the end of the day and a cracked laptop screen was the least of my worries – I had no visa for any of the countries I wished to visit.
The train pulled into New Jalpaguri station in Northern West Bengal at 8am. After throwing my bag into the station cloakroom and a bit of negotiation, I managed to score a taxi to the Bangladeshi border at Chengrabandha. It’s not that far away – perhaps thirty-five miles – but This Is India, so the trip took over SIX HOURS. No, really.
The road to Bangladesh was the worst I’ve experienced in India so far, and was so chock-a-block full of gaily painted trucks there was no chance of escape. And by ‘gaily’ I mean it in all senses of the word – happy, homosexual, a bit naff. Come to think of it, India has to be the gayest country this side of Saudi Arabia (which is by far the gayest country in the world). Funnily enough, being gay was illegal here until very recently, but let’s look at the evidence:
1) You often see men holding hands but never men and women holding hands.
2) Have you watched a Bollywood film? They’re all musicals! With song and dance routines! The only people who like musicals are a) middle-aged women b) gay men. There have been over 64,000 Bollywood films made since the thirties. And all but three of them have been musicals.
3) The brightly coloured floral designs adorning each and every truck and look like something from a Gay Pride parade.
4) LOTS of men have moustaches. Which are gay.
5) Everyone is gay or NOTHING MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL.
A-hem. So, er… yeah, Bangladesh. Eventually my driver took me on the back road to the border and after a quick natter with the Indian border guards they let me go and have a chat with the Bangladeshi border guard who was literally three metres away – no big fence, gates, barbed wire etc. here – in fact the only thing that gave away that I was now in another country was the flag and the large ‘welcome to Bangladesh’ sign.
So I got to cross the border, touch Bangladesh soil and ask if I could take a photo (my request was denied). Ack! But the GPS showed I had crossed the border so at this point (and over 600 days on the road) I’m beyond caring. After a good five minutes of jumping up and down going ‘whoop whoop whoop’ I came back to India and got back in the taxi.
“Back to NJP (New Jalpaguri) sir?”
“Nope. Let’s go to Bhutan.”
“We won’t make it before dark. The roads are very bad”
“It took us six hours to get here. Whatever happens, it will be quicker to go to Bhutan.”
After a bit of haggling, my driver relented and off I jolly well popped. Again, the border was around 30 miles away, but it still took us three hours to get there. The roads were indeed, very bad.
But the Indian countryside was magnificent. So so green and yes there were ladies in saris picking leaves from tea bushes; paddy fields and cotton plantations: the rural idyll Indian-style. Farms and farmers, villages and villagers, I guess what hacks would call the ‘real’ India. Luckily for you, I’m not a hack so I won’t go down that road, but let’s just say that although the rural poor are the poorest of the poor, there was a measure of contentment that I found lacking in the big cities round these parts. Isn’t that always the way?
Oh, I almost forgot – Bhutan – yeah, file it under the same heading as Sao Tome, Comoros, Djibouti and Kiribati – under “countries you didn’t even know existed.” It’s a tiny, secretive kingdom in the Himalayas that has (successfully) shunned modernity for a long, long time. I think they only got televisions a few weeks ago. Lucky them – imagine wondering all your life what it would be like to own a television set, you finally get one and the only thing to watch is ‘India’s Got Talent’. Urk. Unlike Bangladesh, I would quite like to visit Bhutan, go for a tour, that kind of thing. However, in this trip it’s just going to be a border hop I’m afraid, but for a very different reason than my Bangladesh innie/outie – like St. Petersburg, Samarkand and San Francisco, there are places that I don’t want to ‘do’ just yet and I certainly don’t want to ‘do’ them alone.
I need someone to nudge and say “wow – look at that!” Yeah – sad but true.
So it was getting dark as I hit the Bhutanese border. There was no Indian ‘side’, just a big Chinese-like gate announcing ‘Welcome to Bhutan!’ Fantastic! I walked up to the gate, chatted with the border guard (a kid dressed in jeans and a t-shirt), showed him the article about me from The Hindu and he smiled, nodded and let me through!
Unbelievable! It was so so easy!
So I found the first sign I could find that said ‘Bhutan’ and filmed as much as I could on the other side, ensured my GPS was getting a good signal and after about five minutes headed back.
Then I got into trouble.
The guard on the way back was wearing a uniform and he wasn’t happy about my little bit of international subterfuge. I tried to explain, but he didn’t speak much English. Luckily, at that very moment the kid in jeans came through to the Bhutanese side of the gate.
“He told me I could!” I said, much in the manner of a schoolkid ratting on his mate. The kid in jeans smiled, explained something in Bhutanese to the uniformed chap, and then it was all smiles and handshakes and don’t do it agains.
But by then it didn’t matter. I had done it. Two nations knocked off the list in one day; 165 down, only 35 more countries to go – and I’d be hitting nation 166 tomorrow morning. I walked triumphant back into India.
The taxi ride back to NJP was just as terrifying as the night before with Sonu, but with the added terror of the monsoon rains belting down so hard I’m amazed we weren’t washed away. It was around ten o’clock by the time we got back. I paid my long-suffering (and, hell with it, long complaining) driver, checked into a hotel and crashed out for the night.
For the first time in a long time I felt as if I was moving again.