Wednesday morning was fine and cool. The sun emerged from behind the Annapurna mountain-giants with authority, casting a warm glow over Pokhara. Today we planned to travel to Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu, to stay with friends before leaving Nepal. It would turn out to be an eventful journey.
Nepal, a sovereign Independent Kingdom between Tibet and India, has often been called a land of contrasts, with a range of transport options to match. We had traveled in buses with holes in the floor, dugout canoes, on elephants, in rickshaws, and in tiny three-wheeled minibuses that sound like lawnmowers. But today Nepal would find a new experience for us – a parting gesture, a memento.
Today’s journey began at the bus-park, where people milled around a collection of stalls selling delicious coffees, chaiya (sweet milk tea), fresh fruit, and hot breakfast food. We bought some bananas and oranges and sat with other bus passengers around an open fire with a cup of chaiya, waiting for our boarding instructions.
The Newspaper Mystery
A group of boys expertly stowed the bags and by 7:30 we were ready to go. The boys worked deftly, with the skill of craftsmen. Every square foot of roof space and every possible inch of vacant seat space were used. I noticed a copy of the Kathmandu Post near the driver’s seat and reached to pick it up.
“No, no,” came the driver’s response. “I am reading. Then my friend is reading.”
The paper was whisked away from me.
“I wonder what all that was about,” I said to Karen.
“He probably hasn’t read it yet. Maybe he’ll let you read it later,” my wife replied.
We rolled out of town to a clear sky, our driver enthusiastically punishing the gears. He was the picture of concentration, complete with beanie and bandana facemask as protection from the dust of the dry season and highway traffic fumes. With curiosity, I noticed that none of the driver’s friends were interested in reading the paper. It just lay there on the seat.
In seven hours we would travel 200 kilometers along the Prithvi Highway from Pokhara to Kathmandu. The road crosses Nepal’s Middle Hills with views of deep valleys and terraced hillsides, often following major rivers that provide the country with a quarter of its power through hydroelectricity, and tourists with serious rapids.
Roadside shanty-towns punctuate the journey, populated by opportunists looking to exploit the passing trade. Around halfway there is a turn-off to Gorkha. This hillside town with its incredible palace and temples was home to King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the 18th century. During a period of 30 years this extraordinary man unified a country of disjointed principalities without resorting to violence. He created a state able to resist the colonial armies that had conquered almost every other Asian country, defending the country with the now legendary Gorkha (Gurkha) soldiers.
Things Get Worrying
Three hours into the trip we passed the Gorka turnoff. By now, conversation had ceased as passengers slept, read and munched trail-food. Sagging seats were packed with clothes as relief against the road’s imperfections.
From my seat, I watched Nepal pass by. At the junction town of Mugling, the Marsyangdi and Trisuli rivers join to form the Narayani, a tributary of the holy Ganges. Another road turns south toward the fertile plains of the Terai, home to the Royal Chitwan National Park. We continued east, climbing toward the rim of the Kathmandu Valley. Then things got worrying.
Road conditions improved slightly, apparently signaling to the driver a need to travel at speeds far in excess of what most observers would call “safe”. The contours of the road, however, did not improve. We climbed rapidly and soared around many blind corners offering views of steep embankments and deep valleys.
Passengers previously pre-occupied with sleeping and reading were now alert and pre-occupied with looking out the window. It was not just our driver we were worried about. Besides the window views of precipitous gorges and hillsides, we braced for the onslaught of rapidly approaching trucks and buses coming the other direction. It appears the game of “chicken” was invented in Nepal.
We passed a truck on its side, and later, another on its roof. No one seemed concerned. Apparently this was a common sight along the road.
Outside our window, at the bottom of a deep canyon, the white-water rapids of the Trisuli River rushed toward their destiny with the Ganges. Karen and I looked at the rapids and then at each other: We would both rather be white-water rafting than on this bus!
Then the vehicle stopped.
Who is This Masked Man?
We sat dazed, pleased to have relief from the roller-coaster ride, but curious about why we had stopped. Someone spotted the driver at the back of the bus. He was jumping excitedly, waving his arms around and pointing. He was shouting for us to join him.
We filed off the bus, making our way cautiously toward the masked driver and his friends. The driver beckoned with his arm, as his friends peered over the edge of the cliff.
“Look, look,” the driver laughed, pointing again, this time to the bottom of the gorge. “Tuesday’s bus,” he said.
He laughed louder now, almost maniacally, and his friends joined him in some bizarre epitaph to the twisted wreck of yesterday’s bus in the valley hundreds of feet below us. Yesterday’s bus!
Nobody spoke. Maybe the driver’s mask wasn’t for protection against the elements. Maybe it was a disguise. Maybe this guy was a Maoist extremist and he didn’t want to be identified. Maybe he was just crazy. Whatever he was, he was back in the bus, and the engine roared to life as he prepared to continue our voyage of discovery. Strangely, we all quietly boarded the bus and sat down like school children threatened with detention if we didn’t behave.
The Newspaper Mystery Solved
Ten minutes later, we stopped at a roadside restaurant to stretch our legs and break up the trip. We returned to the bus ahead of the other passengers, and I saw the forbidden paper lying on the seat. Since no one was around, I picked it up. And there it was, on the second page.
The story explained that several people were injured yesterday, some critically, in a serious bus accident fuelled by “unnecessarily aggressive driving” outside of Mugling on the main Pokhara-Kathmandu highway.
“Maybe he didn’t want us reading it and worrying unnecessarily,” I reasoned.
“Maybe he didn’t want us spoiling his surprise,” said Karen.
We made it to Kathmandu and to our friends in Bhaktapur. There were no further incidents, and we recalled our tale around the dinner table, laughing at events that only hours before had us secretly praying for reprieve.
But Karen and I swallowed as we realized the terrifying truth: Somewhere in Nepal, there was an abandoned bus named after every day of the week.
Tips, Traps and More
Tip: Guesthouses are the go. Experience culture and comfort for less than half the price of a hotel. You’ll pay between $4 and $30.
Tip: Meet the people and save a bundle. Explore local markets, then picnic in a medieval square and feast on Nepal’s soul.
Tip: Visit from October to April to see the best weather. Things get sticky during the May to September monsoon season.
Trap: Walking? Get a decent topographical map (Schneider’s is good), and plan your walks to minimise steep uphill sections.
Trap: Taxis and three-wheeled “tempos” are plentiful and cheap but bargain hard – BEFORE you get in! Buses? Well, you’ve read about them!
Trap: Schedule showers for the afternoon. Solar power is popular and afternoons are your best chance of success.
More: Check out www.travel-nepal.com and www.visitnepal.com. I used Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Moon books for planning, and “Culture Shock Nepal” (John Burbank) and “At Home in the Himalayas” (Christina Noble) were great reads.
Author bio: Bored with the treadmill of capitalism and a successful Information Technology career in South Australia, Dave Underwood is looking for something a little more spiritual these days. Blessed with the “travel chromosome” and a fierce passion for gritty red wine and grittier blues music, most of his spare time goes to exploring new destinations and cultures with his wife and friend of 22 years, writing about it, and peddling the results.