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October 27, 2003

Traffic Jams and Toilets (Two Weeks around Nepal)

The secret of stress-free bus travel in Nepal is: Don't Look Down! We were travelling on a public bus along the main road out of Kathmandu. Looking straight out of the window I could see the forested hill on the other side of the ravine that ran next to the road. Looking down a little, I could see where the road used to be - a mess of jagged concrete that had been battered and eroded by many seasons of monsoon rains and landslides. Looking down at a steeper angle, I still couldn't see the edge of what was left of the road. Only by looking straight down, with my head right up against the window, could I see the gap of a few inches that separated the wheels of the bus from a sheer drop into the river.

The tour group was about a week into a three-week itinerary: we had finished the Helambu trek, explored the old town of Bakhtapur (near to Kathmandu), and were now bound for Bandipur, about halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara. It was only two weeks since I had left London, and I was still getting used to the idea that I would be away from home for many months. I was glad to be easing myself into the trip by starting with an organised tour, since the group was small (only 9 people) and the atmosphere was friendly. And it was good not to be alone.

At about midday, the bus stopped at a roadside cafe where we could get lunch. The traffic was heavy, and we had heard rumours that somewhere behind us a bus had gone over the edge into the ravine. (We later found that this was true, and that many of the passengers had been killed.) There was also talk of some sort of trouble up ahead. After finishing lunch we got back on the bus, sat there for ten minutes, then got off again. Many other tourist buses were parked outside the same cafe, but none of them were moving either. Three hours later we were still there.

I was not so concerned about the long wait, since I felt in no condition to get back on the bus. I'd started to feel bad about an hour into the journey, and by the time we reached the cafe my stomach felt ready to explode and my head was spinning. I felt like all the energy had been drained from me, and sat for most of the time slumped onto the table, head resting on my folded arms. Around me, the rest of the group were talking, but I couldn't register what they were saying. Apparently a couple of them had tried to talk to me, but I was too out-of-it to notice. Everything felt blurry and fuzzy. I had been waiting for the inevitable illness since the day I arrived in Nepal, but now that it had arrived I had no idea what had caused it. The cinnamon roll I had for breakfast had tasted a bit suspicious, but a more likely culprit was the food at that dodgy hotel in Bakhtapur the day before.

At last, at around 3.30pm, we were ushered back onto the bus, which was now like an oven after sitting in the sun for 4 hours. On the road outside the cafe was a long procession of vehicles, stretching around the next bend, and who knew how far beyond? Old rusting buses, lorries, cars - it was a wonder that they had made it this far along the bumpy road. Most of the time, they sat with their engines turned off, but every couple of minutes they would splutter into life, edge forward a few meters, and come to a halt again with a loud screeching of worn-out brakes. Into this clapped-out, ramshackle convoy, our bus pushed its way.

The air in the bus was suffocating, so many of us got out and walked alongside the traffic jam. I found a shady spot by the side of the road and hoped that my stomach would hold out until we reached a place with decent toilet facilities. From some other passengers we heard that a bus ahead of us had been attacked by Maoists, and after two or three hours we reached a military checkpoint which had evidently been hastily constructed in the wake of the attack. Soldiers walked around toting unfeasibly large guns, and checking each vehicle in turn; it was difficult to work out what they were looking for (maybe Maoists returning to the scene of the crime?), and it seemed to be mainly a show of force. Past the checkpoint was the bus that had been attacked, sitting burned out in the middle of the road. The next day we read about the incident in the papers: the Maoists had stopped the bus and demanded money from the passengers. When they refused, the Maoists set light to the bus, but were nice enough to let the passengers off first.

A little after sundown we arrived in Bandipur. It was once a prosperous trading town, lying on a main route between India and Tibet, but with the opening of new roads the town began to go into decline. When malaria was eradicated from the Terai region (in the south of Nepal), many of the town's population took the opportunity to move there, where the soil was fertile and they could make a good living from farming. Recently, the town has been "re-discovered" by small numbers of tourists, and we stayed in a guesthouse owned by the company that was running our tour of Nepal. It was called "The Old Inn", and had been restored from an old run-down building using local labour. The Old Inn turned out to be the perfect place to crash out after the stress of the bus ride, with a terrace at the back overlooking a valley, and the mountains in the distance. The food, apparently, was excellent, although I didn't feel like eating much.

The day starts early for the people of Bandipur, and we were woken long before sunrise by the temple bell. I was feeling better this morning, and after it got light I took a walk along the main street, which was a short parade of wooden shops and houses. There was a sleepy feel to the place - most of Bandipur's charm lies in the fact that life there has remained more-or-less unchanged for many years. Of course, this atmosphere could be destroyed by a sudden influx of tourists. It's a fine balance, but at the moment it looks like the company running The Old Inn is operating very responsibly: tourist money has been channelled into improved sanitation and more efficient agricultural practices, and the town certainly does not seem over-run with visitors: the only other tourists we saw were another couple also staying at the Old Inn. I would have liked to spend more time exploring Bandipur, but by the middle of the morning my illness had returned, and so my wanderings that day were limited to the vicinity of the guesthouse toilets. Very nice toilets they were too: Western style (not squat - thank god - don't think my legs could have handled it...), with a window, conveniently positioned at head-height, that looked out to a glorious view of the mountains. When I raised my head back up after a particularly violent retching session, it was some sort of comfort to look across to the peaks of the Annapurna range. I consoled myself by thinking that there were much worse places where I could be ill.

Anaesthesia, antiseptics and antibiotics are undoubtedly three of the most important discoveries in the history of medical science, but surely the development of Imodium and similar gut-paralysing drugs must rank closely behind them. I find it unbelievable that the team behind their development did not receive a Nobel Prize. Two of those beautiful little pills got me through the next day's long bus ride from Bandipur to Pokhara. On the way, we saw several lorries and buses tipped onto their sides, which did nothing to calm our nerves. At least there were no Maoists this time. Pokhara is definitely a tourist town, and the whole area by the side of the Phewa Thal lake is given over to guesthouses, restaurants and bars. Taking a rowing boat out onto the lake gives great views of the Annapurna range - especially Machhapuchhare, the famous "Fish-tail" peak (although the double-peak that forms the fish-tail shape is not visible from the town). Our time in Pokhara was spent shopping for souvenirs, messing about in boats, and escaping from a dodgy "Hard-Rock Cafe" bar where a live band were murdering "Californication" and the proprietor seemed intent on selling us rather more than beer. By now I was feeling much better, and was back on solid food again after the previous day's diet of rehydration salts.

On our first morning in Pokhara, we got up early and hiked up the hill to Sarangkot, a well-known viewpoint. We got there well in time for sunrise, but a thick layer of cloud enveloped the peaks; now and again a tiny hole would appear in the grey mass of cloud, and the shining white flank of a mountain would appear, before quickly vanishing again. Even from these little hints, it was obvious that the view must be stunning when the sky is clear, and I felt that it was a view that I just had to see before leaving Nepal. I considered the idea of returning to Pokhara when the tour was over, but flights were expensive, and I was going off the idea of bus travel.

From Pokhara, it was another long bus ride to Chitwan National Park. The problem this time was a short concrete bridge, one side of which had been washed away in a landslide, meaning that only one vehicle could cross at a time (remember, Don't Look Down...) We also passed another burned-out bus (although no-one knew the story behind this one), and one that was laying on its side by the road. Luckily the hotel was a good one, with huge bathrooms where we could shower away the day's accumulated dust and grime. Chitwan National Park is home to tigers, giant sloth bears and one-horned rhinos, as well as a large bird population. At this time of year, just after the monsoon, the vegetation in the park is lush and the grasses have grown high, which makes it difficult to see animals from ground level. The solution is to ride on the back of an elephant, which we did on our first morning in the park. We didn't see any tigers during this little "safari", but we did see tiger food (spotted deer) and a couple of rhinos. In the afternoon we floated down the river in narrow canoes for a few hours, spotting some rare Gharials (fish-eating crocodiles) basking on the sandbanks. The afternoon's walk through the jungle was less successful - the only wildlife we saw were the leeches that crawled up our trouser legs. But we did see some tiger tracks - which, according to our guide, were only a few hours old. Our guide also claimed that he could smell a tiger, but we weren't so convinced.

The bus ride from Chitwan back to Kathmandu was pleasantly boring and uneventful, apart from a traffic jam just outside Kathmandu, probably caused by the start of the Nepali new-year celebrations. To mark the end of our three-week tour of the country, we had a Big Night Out in Thamel (the main tourist ghetto), starting at the Rum Doodle Bar - the classic mountaineer's hangout, where the walls are covered with signed posters from years of climbing expeditions. Hillary and Tenzing's signatures are on the wall somewhere. We moved on to a bar where a covers band were knocking out classic 70s and 80s rock, and bearded mountain-man types sat by themselves and played air guitar. After one drink there it was on to somewhere livelier, where the cocktails were cheap and the music a bit more contemporary, before returning to the hotel in the small hours.

Then it was over - during the next few days the group slowly dispersed, some returning home, others continuing their travels into India or Australia, or opting for even more Himalayan trekking. Soon, only David, Katie and I were left in Kathmandu, and we were all craving that view of a Himalayan sunrise that we had been denied at Sarangkot. Our best chance of seeing it was from the town of Nagarkot, one of the most popular viewpoints in the Kathmandu valley. Nagarkot lies about 30km from Kathmandu horizontally, and 600m vertically - and David and I felt every one of those 600m in our legs as we rode mountain bikes up the steep dirt road. It wasn't so much the steepness that was a problem, but the rocky road surface, especially since I have absolutely no mountain bike technique, and a sense of balance that has already been demonstrated on the trek. Eventually I got fed up of going over the handlebars whenever the road got a bit rocky, and just pushed the bike up the difficult bits. Katie had decided to do things the easy way by getting a taxi up there, and if I were to go to Nagarkot again I'd probably do the same. At this point I must mention a heroic bit of riding by David: after spending the day struggling up that hill, it was not until we got to the top that he realised he had left his wallet at a small village shop about a third of the way down. No chance of getting a taxi there, since the road was far too rough for cars, so the only option was to cycle down, then all the way back up again. He made it in record time, retreiving the wallet and making it back to Nagarkot just as it was starting to get dark. There were a couple of celebratory beers that evening.

View from Nagarkot

And in the morning the sky was clear. And we could see the mountains and the sunrise. And it made up for the disappointment at Sarangkot, and all those interminable bus rides, and the stomach bugs. The sweep of the mountains stretched all the way from the Ganesh Himal over to the Everest region in the far distance. And it was only then that I felt my visit to Nepal was complete.

Posted by Steve on October 27, 2003 12:59 PM
Category: Nepal


Did you do the INtrepid Himalayan Kingdom tour? Would you recommend it? I'm mulling it over currently.

Posted by: Renee on January 9, 2004 08:24 AM

Hi Renee,

The tour was with Intrepid, and was called "Nepal Encompassed". I'd definitely recommend it - just remember that they won't be taking you around in a luxury air-conditioned coach! The trekking part of the tour is only for 7 days, but some of them are tough, so it's worth putting in some training before you go.

And stock up on Imodium.


Posted by: Steve on January 10, 2004 10:42 AM

Yes, I'll be bringing the medicine cabinet and I'm breaking out the weights. :) Thanks!

Posted by: Renee on January 10, 2004 05:17 PM

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