My long suffering girlfriend puts up with a lot, it must be said. Cars, for me, have become more than just a hobby and as a result she now has a forced appreciation for the automobile. On our previous holidays I’ve always found ways of incorporating car stuff (in Hawaii I almost managed to enter our rental car in an auto-cross…) which is why I’m convinced that there was a little more behind her suggestion of Nepal as our next destination than simply hiking in the Himalaya. ‘It must be impossible for him to sidetrack us to car stuff’ she surely mused with her friends before our departure.
Well, yes. But you’ve gotta get from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city and home to its only international airport, to the hiking trails in the Himalaya somehow. Citing my fear of flying (we would have to land at an airport listed as one of the ten most dangerous in the world in a 12 seat plane so it was a justified fear), I decided we would travel by road. Everybody loves a good road trip story, right? Our cheap bus tickets were booked and a sidetrack was taking shape.
I’ve never before experienced culture shock like I did when we touched down in Kathmandu. We arrived in the dark and I was completely overwhelmed; even more so in the early morning of the next day. Where exactly are we?
It had been a tumultuous few days leading up to our departure. My office job had been hectic and then a last minute opportunity had come up to share the drive of a friend’s new Porsche 991 GT3 from Adelaide to Sydney; I got back into Adelaide late Sunday night, and early Monday morning we jumped on a plane for Nepal.
Legroom was nonexistent on our cheap AirAsia flight to Nepal and it was a taxing experience to say the least. We caught a few hours’ sleep then walked the alien streets of Kathmandu with bleary eyes, and less than 48 hours earlier I had been pinning a new GT3 at 9000rpm across the Australian outback. I was thoroughly confused with life.
In the days before our departure my work colleagues had tried to talk us out of bus travel in Nepal and showed many horror YouTube clips, however it wasn’t until we arrived that I truly understood their point. Our Lonely Planet book confirmed the horror: ‘…you are 30 times more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than in any developed country…’
…and ‘With the cramped conditions inside Nepal’s buses, many locals and foreigners prefer to ride up on the roof. For legal reasons, we are required to say this is probably not a good idea – but the truth is that it is probably not significantly more dangerous than riding inside…’ Shocked by what we saw occurring on the roads, I contacted our guide Binod as soon as we touched down in Kathmandu and booked a private car and driver for journey to Dhunche.
Early the next morning the car and driver arrived at our hotel, as agreed. And the car for our journey? A Tata Sumo Grande – I have no idea what it is, either. And to be honest I really didn’t care. It’s one of the few vehicle’s I’ve encountered that has zero redeeming features but it looked relatively new, it had seat belts and seemed a much better option than the litany of buses clogging the streets. On an earlier morning walk we had discovered one of the few espresso machines inside a nearby cafe, so we had the last coffee we were likely to have for a while, buckled up and hit the road.
It’s only 119km from Kathmandu to Dhunche but the journey was scheduled to take just over five hours. Sitting back in comfortable Australia before our trip I struggled to comprehend just how this could be, but just a few blocks out of the Thamel tourist district it was becoming obvious just how slowly progress is made in Nepal.
The capital Kathmandu is situated in the Kathmandu Valley, a largely bowl shaped valley that is home to just under three million people and is roughly the size of Singapore. The various cities in the valley have morphed together and today it is one big urban sprawl that cannot be crossed with any sort of speed whatsoever.
It would be misleading to call the Kathmandu Valley pretty; far from it. But there’s an infectious sense of optimism here and a can-do attitude that we just don’t get in the West. The place is teeming with activity and there is never a dull moment. I had planned to get some reading done on this leg of the trip but I couldn’t stop looking out the window – around every corner there was something new and exciting or brilliant or ingenious or hilarious taking place. Vibrant is the only word to describe it.
Eventually the Tribhuvan Highway we were following climbed up and out of the Kathmandu Valley to begin the first of the many ascents that Nepal is famous for. It was here that we also encountered the first of the many traffic jams that Nepal is famous for, too. The locals are well accustomed to the wait – bus passengers got off the bus to relieve themselves in the bushes and to chat to friends and family on other buses, pacing along as the traffic crawled up the mountain face.
The moment was tinged with part amazement, but part horror too. The whole time I was worried about what hopeless horrific scene we would come across and how much blood might be spilt. We eventually reached a point where we could see the delay; luckily it was just a single broken down truck and it was quite entertaining watching the tow truck attempt a thousand-point turn as it blocked the narrow highway. During our time in Nepal we ended up traveling this road three times, and each of the three times we were stuck in stationary traffic for a minimum half an hour.
The lack of infrastructure in Nepal was becoming plainly obvious – this tight and narrow road is the main road between Nepal’s two biggest cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are no other roads big enough for the trucks and buses and there are no trains, so when the road is blocked the cities are effectively cut off from each other.
And when a rare bit of clear road opens up everybody puts their foot to the floor to make up for lost time. The express 12 seater vans are the worst – they sometimes have up to 20 people crammed in, and with all the luggage on the roof they are chronically overloaded and have an overtired driver behind the wheel trying to keep to an unattainable schedule. Knowing a little bit about vehicle dynamics made it even more horrifying for me – I could see the way the suspension was compressing and bottoming out over bumps, sometimes at 90-100km/h, and I could see how they were inches away from disaster, unknowing to all inside including the driver.
I’m making this sound like a nightmare but it really isn’t – it’s an exciting way to travel in a fatalistic kind of way and you just have to put the dangers out of your mind so you don’t end up a nervous wreck. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it but I’m certainly glad I experienced it. And it’s all worth it when you catch that first fleeting glimpse of snow-capped peaks off in the distance. In a weird way the craziness of Nepal is somewhat infectious, probably just as an antidote to our overly sanitised and legislated lives in the West.
The road flattened out as it followed the valley and speeds increased exponentially. We were making good time, but it all came unraveled when we hit a mid-corner bump at about 70km/h. We heard a large clunk followed by a rotational thumping from the suspension. Our driver slowed to about 50 and kept going, assuring us that everything was okay. I could feel the rotational vibration through the car so I encouraged our driver to stop so that we could investigate the noise. The Nepalese people try so hard to impress and to keep visitors happy, and I think our driver was trying to smooth everything over to avoid disappointing us with a breakdown.
When we stopped I looked under the Sumo Grande and could see that a ball joint that mounted the sway bar had broken and was flapping around loose under the vehicle, making contact with the rim. The driver assured me that he could quickly fix the problem on the spot – I was slightly curious as to how he was going to do this.
Some twine was sourced from a tool box and hey presto! He first tried to tie the ball joint back together, but when it was obvious that it wouldn’t work he tied the loose parts to the sway bar away and attempted to convince me that the vehicle was fit for the rest of our journey. I wasn’t convinced; we were less than halfway into our trip, we were traveling to remote areas, I had half an idea of the type of roads that lay ahead and not a huge amount of confidence in his driving ability. I reassured him that time was of no concern to us, that I would really prefer that we properly fixed the car before continuing our journey and that I was happy to help him with the repair.
After some back and forth the truth eventually came out. He had broken this ball joint before and had a spare in his tool box, but he didn’t want to have it changed at a roadside engineering shop as it would cost him too much – he would rather limp us to our destination, clunks and all, then limp back to Kathmandu where he could have it changed far cheaper. We eventually agreed to have it fixed at a nearby workshop and he managed to negotiate a reasonable rate on the spot. Within minutes an army of men came to the car and began work right away.
None of the employees at the workshop spoke English but I did my best to introduce myself and they showed me around their little shop, complete with mill and lathe and lots of rudimentary hand tools. I helped this guy to remove a sheared thread on this JCB digger hub while we waited, much to the amusement of his colleagues. These guys only see Westerners zoom by on tourist buses and here was some lanky white chap trying to make himself useful – and failing. It got quite a few laughs.
Life on this road was a little more sedate, and without being in constant fear we could sit back with the windows down and watch the Nepalese countryside roll away before our eyes. This was the road trip I had dreamed of. Locals toiled crops in the distance, children waved and giggled as we drove past and guys on motorbikes gave us thumbs-up.
We got out in Galchhi to stretch our legs and happened to stop close to the central bus stop. After seeing how crowded the buses were the extra cash for the private car seemed extraordinarily good value, if for nothing more than comfort and leg room. That would have been us packed in there with our bags.
We could hear the groan of a worn diesel engine under stress coming for miles and eventually the bus to Dhunche rounded the bend. We were even more grateful than before that we opted out of the bus ride, although a small part of me would love to have experienced a ride on the roof. I’m sure there’s a little bit of James Bond in everyone, me included, who thinks they would be able to jump off moments before an accident.
A 5km stretch of the road was wiped out in a huge landslide about ten years ago and it’s never been fully rebuilt. All that remains, and the only road into Dhunche, is a small little trail across the mountain face.
Buses, trucks, food, building supplies, ambulance evacuations, tourists, traffic in both directions. This is the only road that connects Dhunche to any form of outside civilisation and we crawled along in second gear at a snails pace, marveling in awe as we rounded each bend.
We got to a point where we could go no further. A mini-landslide had occurred that morning and a digger had not yet finished rebuilding the road. With no other way of reaching Dhunche we had nothing to do but sit and wait. There’s a kind of relaxation that comes when a situation is totally out of your control. We got out some snacks and took in this completely random situation that was unfolding. I thought of my desk and office back home, and reflected on how I felt just about as far away from that world as was humanly possible.
It was probably one of the most awe inspiring places in the world to be held up with road works. It was a rather communal experience – we made friends with groups of random locals and other travelers for over an hour while we waited. We had time to meet new people; time to just sit and talk.
We shared maps and exchanged stories on the places we had already been and gained tips and advice for the places we were heading to. This landscape is so rugged and the weather can change so rapidly that up-to-the-minute advice is crucial. It was also pretty cool to hear other traveller’s tales; the guy on the far left had so far spent three months exploring Nepal by motorcycle. This delay was nothing for him.
Our driver was keen to make good time (he was returning back to Kathmandu that night) so he pushed his way to the front of the line and was the first car across the new road. We knew that our fear of the road collapsing was irrational but we couldn’t shake it, so we decided to climb up the verge under the pretense of needing photographs for this story. With cameras poised the Sumo Grande made it across just fine.
Shortly after the road returned to tarmac and our speed increased once again. I still shudder to think how many cars have disappeared off this edge – you can barely see the bottom of the valley from the road and I think you would be missing for a long time before anyone found you.
… complete with soldiers armed with guns. Our papers, passports and hiking permits were thoroughly checked and cross referenced and the car was searched. It felt quite intimidating but the primary purpose is to stop poachers from entering the national park with hunting equipment and escaping with endangered and exotic animals. Wild tigers are becoming rarer by the day in Nepal and the army can enforce the law better than almost anyone else.
It felt like a genuine achievement when we finally reached Dhunche at about 5pm. In the space of a single day we had been through so many emotions and had seen so much more than in a whole month back in Australia.
The suggested five hours had blown out a little bit – with only a half hour stop for lunch and a half hour stop to repair the ball joint, it had taken us just over nine hours to travel the 119km from Kathmandu. You can drive the 730km from Adelaide to Melbourne in less time than that.
I can tell you, with frayed nerves from nine hours on Nepal’s crazy highways, that beer has never tasted as sweet as it did that evening. Whilst our road trip had come to an end, we had only reached the starting point of our trip proper – 12 days of hiking across the Langtang Valley region of the Himalaya’s. Where we were going there were no more roads, just narrow hiking singletracks, small guest houses and no internet.
– Car/road trip content ends here. But for those interesting in trekking, read on.
This was our view for just under two weeks. Our days uniformly went something like this: We got up early with the sunrise, got dressed and started to walk. We walked for 4-7 hours per day, slowly to give ourselves time to adjust to the altitude, arriving to our accommodation in the early afternoon leaving plenty of time for any unforeseen trouble. Getting stuck out here in the dark is the worst mistake you could make.
It got bitterly cold in the evenings. There was usually a communal fire in the main space of the tea house so from late afternoon we would sit around with the other guests drinking copious amounts of black tea, reading books and talking about our lives back home. It was a great way of meeting new people.
One night, high up, we got unexpectedly snowed in and cracks in the window let the blowing snow in and covered all our stuff. The cold air came in through gaps in the window frames and holes in the floor. I have never been colder in my life – those 1L water bottles were full and next to our beds and they were frozen solid when we woke up the next morning. We slept in the following day’s clothes because it was far too cold to get changed in when we woke up in the morning.
The grumpiness of waking up in a lukewarm sleeping bag on a freezing morning was soon shaken off when you stepped outside and realised you were in the Himalaya. This is rugged, unforgiving country but it is spectacular beyond belief. We didn’t suffer from altitude sickness but you could certainly feel its effects when you tried to exert yourself a little more. We crossed the Lauribina La Pass at 4,610m, and this photo was taken on a nearby peak at just above 4,700m. That’s not very high by Nepalese standards (Everest is 8,848m, Annapurna is 8,091m) but it was still huge compared to anything in Australia. For comparison, Mount Lofty is 710m and the tallest mountain in Australia, Kosciuszko
Once we had finished our trek we traveled to the Royal Chitwan National Park, down on the flatlands close to Nepal’s border with India. It was right here, trying to find wild Rhino’s in the evening sun, that my trusty Nikon D90 failed. My first DSLR and the sole camera that has been responsible for all of Any Given Reason up until now had an internal shutter mechanism failure. This was the very last frame it took – RIP old friend. Luckily I was also carrying a Nikon J1 compact mirrorless which got us through the rest of the trip, but it wasn’t a patch on the DSLR.
Royal Chitwan is the last game-filled national park in the world that allows you to enter on foot and walking around it was exhilarating. There are crocs and tigers and wild rhino here, and although we didn’t see any whilst on foot the thought always lingered.
If you’ve had half an eye on the media you would be aware that Nepal has suffered some catastrophic earthquakes recently, just a few months after our visit. The temple in this picture is rubble now. The road to Dhunche is completely gone, and Dhunche itself suffered heavy damage. Kathmandu was rickety to begin with and the whole Kathmandu Valley was heavily damaged with over a thousand lives lost there alone. You can see from this post just how much chaos Nepal is in at the best of times, and I shudder to think what it’s like over there now. Ten years after a simple landslide the road to Dhunche was still just a dirt track – this today is the worst earthquake for over seventy years. Nepal and its people will feel the devastating effects of this for years to come.
AGR isn’t the place to appeal for charity, but I will make one comment. If you’ve got a moment, head on over to the Red Cross or Medicins Sans Frontieres or any of the other fine charities and throw a few dollars their way. They need it.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles