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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

India: Bhopal

Wednesday was one of those days that makes you want to throw in the towel and bury your head under the pillow. I was trying to get from Mandu to Indore in time to catch the train to Bhopal, where I could buy an onward ticket to Gorakhpur, just south of Nepal, but almost everything that could go wrong went wrong.

It didn't start well. The bus from Mandu to Indore arrived two hours late, missing the train to Bhopal by ten minutes, so I had to jump on another bumpy bus to Bhopal instead. This bus arrived only one hour late, giving me no more than a few minutes to rush to the reservation office at the train station, where I was lucky enough to be the last person able to book a ticket before the 'Closed' sign went up. I then went looking for a hotel, and after trying eight places that were full or had no single rooms, I eventually found somewhere on the ninth try, a place perhaps best summed up by my receipt, which was made out to 'Mr Froiengner'. I collapsed, exhausted but happy to have achieved at least something in the form of my train ticket for tomorrow.

My relief was short-lived, though, as it turned out my ticket wasn't a reservation, but simply an indication that I had been placed on the waiting list, in 23rd position to be precise. Unfortunately the 'Closed' sign prevented me doing anything about it – such as trying a different train, a different route or a different class – so even my rush to the reservation office had been a waste of time. Never mind; at times like these, when some people light Hamlet cigars and some people drink too much, I have a solution.

Back in the Australian outback my solution was to find the nearest mountain and climb it, but in India I have neither the necessary personal transport nor, in the central plains, any convenient mountains. However, there is another wonderful thing I can do to cheer myself up, and it can only work in India: when it all gets too much, it's time to treat myself to a slap up meal with all the trimmings. The meal I had in Bhopal was huge, tasty, accompanied by a big, freezing bottle of beer and rounded off with a pleasantly priced bill of just £2. That's right: £2 will buy you a monster meal here, and as I normally spend about £1 on my evening splurge, doubling the budget really is a treat. Good old India.

The next day I managed to upgrade my ticket to air-conditioned class – which meant I also got a sleeping berth – but the price was five times higher, jumping from Rs210 to Rs1001, or from just over £3 up to a comparatively whopping £16 for the 864km, 19.5 hour journey. It's easily the longest and most expensive trip I've done so far in Asia, but when you consider that a 1000km bus journey in Australia costs over £50 – and that's in a reclining bus seat rather than a berth – then even in air-conditioned class, Indian Railways is still ludicrously good value for money. Transport is always a big chunk of any travel budget, but public transport in the developing world is generally pretty cheap, particularly for visiting westerners. We really are the lucky ones.

Union Carbide

Anyway, back to Bhopal. After spending the morning visiting nearby Sanchi, eating some more wonderful food and discovering a branch of the Indian Coffee House, a wonderful chain that does simply divine masala dosa for breakfast as well as the best coffee I've had in India, I spent the rest of the day exploring Bhopal while waiting for the train. Before arriving in Bhopal I'd thought the name sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it until my guidebook reminded me of one of the most tragic stories in the history of India.

Back on the sultry winter's evening of , the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal gave the residents an early Christmas present of 15 tonnes of methyl isocyanate. This instantly deadly gas, used in the manufacture of pesticides by the American multinational, seeped out of the factory and spread through the town as people slept, killing thousands and permanently destroying the lives of countless others, 'countless' being the operative word here as accurate figures are hard to come by. Officially the death toll was recorded as 5000, with over half a million people having their health permanently destroyed by the disaster, but many people think that these figures are rather conservative and that the death toll is closer to 20,000.

Of course Union Carbide, being a big corporation, struck a deal with the Indian government as far as compensation was concerned, so precious little has actually appeared and helped those who lost everything, and although Bhopal is back to relative normality and Union Carbide has closed its factory and left the area, the spectre of the world's worst ever industrial disaster looms in the past. It's scary stuff indeed.

As for the town itself, it's another wonderfully busy Indian city with a few mosques, temples, museums and the like. Unfortunately I was a bit too busy running around trying to find a hotel room and somewhere to eat, but that's life on the road for you.

Bumpy Ride North

My unexpected air-conditioned two-tier sleeper journey was an eye-opener, being a step above first class and second only to the ultimate luxury, the air-conditioned first class sleeper. After extensive travel on second class sleepers – the cheapest sleeper class – AC is amazingly quiet (due to the windows being sealed) and full of little luxuries, like curtains to pull round your berth and individual reading lights. The chai men are also conspicuous by their absence, a major blessing that alone is worth paying five times the price for. Sure, the luxury of AC class is fairly illusory given the standard of my current lifestyle – in Europe these AC carriages would probably be consigned to the scrap heap and standard Indian second class would no doubt contravene a whole host of EU directives – but I found the long, long journey north simply wonderful after all the bouncy buses and rickety rickshaws of budget India.

It also gave me a chance to read my guidebook to Nepal, and I liked what I read. Not that India is getting me down – quite the opposite, in fact – but the idea of western food, some of the best trekking in the world, short distances to travel and a lack of Indian madness and mayhem all sounds like a holiday after just under three months in the heat of the south.

The only blot on the smooth landscape of air-con heaven was the sudden change in body temperature I suffered at midnight, which was followed by a good old session heaving up my previous two meals in the less than salubrious environment of the Indian Railways toilet. It's funny how these regular bouts of sickness have simply become a sideshow to the main picture, no more than another inconvenience like putting up the mosquito net every night or taking the daily dose of vitamins and minerals; I just hope it's not all being caused by one bug that steadfastly refuses to leave my system, or it might continue beyond past my return home.

Excluding my stomach, things went according to plan, and before I knew it I'd arrived at Gorakhpur, hopped on a bus and arrived at Sunauli, one of the few border towns with Nepal. I spent a few amusing hours wandering back and forth over the border, which nobody seemed to mind one bit, so I can now say I've been an illegal immigrant in Nepal; I also changed some money, booked a bus for the morning to the Himalayan town of Pokhara, and settled in to enjoy my last night in India for a month. Needless to say, I ate myself back to health in my rather pleasant hotel before hitting the sack, ready to tackle Nepal in the morning.

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