I switched my seat, leaving behind the aromatic onions and instead settling on the engine cover right next to the driver. The location was luxurious: forced to face the rear of the bus I had my legs squeezed into a gap between the gearbox and a makeshift wooden plank that served as seating for two more people as the engine kept radiating heat, in particular when the monster-bus tackled narrow uphills. In order to avoid hitting my head against the broken TV-set (which I failed at every time the bus rushed through a larger pothole) I had to slouch down and twist myself onto my elbow. This was peanuts however – behind me was the best view in the bus.
The path out of Kathmandu was ominously terrible – a slow grind through deep wet mud with an occasional boulder thrown in just for the fun of it. I was immediately glad to have ditched the car-plan. Dashain traffic made the drive a slow slog of navigating reckless taxis, skittish pedestrians, suicidal scooters and the most placid cows who were determined to ignore all the fuss going on around them.
My initial observations of the bus driver had marked him as an experienced older man, calm and in control of his situation. It did not take long for me add a mental asterisk: “and he is set on breaking the land speed record for this route.” No wonder so many in Nepal say prayers as they take a bus ride.
As the road climbed up the slopes of Nagarjun mountain, views on Kathmandu valley opened up. End of September is the end of monsoon season, but the rains hadn’t quite left yet. The sky was hazy with humidity and the hills at the other end of the valley were hidden from sight. The potholed road was lined with trees on both sides and had shrunk in size to properly fit only the bus. Soon enough we crossed the pass out of Kathmandu valley and left the trees behind.
The mountain roads in Nepal are diverse, ranging from your average “unsafe” to a less than desirable “suicidal”. You’re guaranteed to have a dangerous drop on one side, the road is barely wide to let two cars pass and the surface keeps shifting from potholes to broken concrete slabs to mudbaths with bathing boulders. Also you can forget about guardrails. Survival depends on honking, as blaring the horn means you are here, driving. Depending on the context, it is also used to signal the other guy that he is either driving too slow, driving too fast, or that he shouldn’t be driving at all.
The only larger town on the way to Syabru Besi was Trishuli. This is not to say there was no life between that and Kathmandu. On the contrary – the steep hillsides were dotted with small houses and striped with tiny rice-terraces. Every once in a while the bus would drive through a village, slowed down by lazy dogs sleeping on the streets, small children running around and junkyard-worthy minivans stopped in the middle of the road, loading and unloading goods and people. Truth be told the minivans fit right in with the background of colorful small stalls and shops with their abundant displays under half-rusted tin-sheet roofs.
As we kept crawling forward on the side of the mountain, my initial exhilaration with the complete lack of road safety slowly subsided and gave way to a more relaxed enjoyment of the ever-changing magnificent scenery: the distant mountains and valleys, the waterfalls and streams (some of which we had to drive through). Every once in a while I would chuckle at other vehicles on the road: some were overloaded with goats on their way to be sacrificed for Dashain, others with people (some sitting on the roof) on their way to enjoy the goats.
Reaching Trishuli, sitting in a larger valley about 70km from Kathmandu, took a little over 3 hours. We stopped there for lunch (thankfully included in the “ticket”) and more importantly – stretching. I’m sure that for locals each bus arrival is a source of entertainment – watching people awkwardly struggle to get out and then start doing funny movements, jumps and twists in the middle of the road. But the break was necessary and lunch – simple rice with curry – was perfectly decent. Soon enough all had found their places back on the bus and the drive could continue, now with the mountains of Langtang National Park looming high ahead.
The second leg of the drive was the one I’d read dreadful stories about, though the beginning of it was actually very enjoyable. The road left the valley floor of 600m a.s.l. and started rising sharply, zig-zagging the serpentines to heights over 200m. The views back on the valley kept getting more and more awe inspiring as we climbed to the village of Kalikastan. Passing the village the road leveled out to head north, with the mountain to our right and the ever-narrowing valley to our left.
Soon we came to the border of Langtang National Park – the first of several checkpoints to check our trekker’s cards and national park entry permits. The stop provided for another welcome break to stretch our legs and get out of the bus. After two guards had marked down our personal details and permit numbers in triplicate, we were allowed entry. Meanwhile the entire bus was being checked for illegal goods and straggelers. One of our co-travellers explained that this thorough inspection was for two reasons: national park security is taken very seriously in Nepal, that is in constant battle with illegal loggers and poachers; in addition, this particular road extends to China and will soon become the second fully operational land link between to two countries. As we left the checkpoint it became evident why the link wasn’t “fully operational” just yet – the road changed.
The patchy potholed tarmac disappeared and suddenly I got the feeling that I was in a movie on Discovery channel. The monster-bus switched into low gear and you could feel the atmosphere in the bus tense up. It is impossible to say if there had ever been a proper road – even if there had, it was now hidden under what looked like an enormous loose landslide upon which successive vehicles had trampled a narrow path-like…. thing. Driving there on a motorbike would not be much of an issue – the path is wide enough for 2-wheelers and a bike would have the flexibility of driving around dangerous bits e.g. where the loose ground is obviously giving away and sliding down the 1500m drop. For small cars the road would be impassable, they would get pinned on the rocks and stuck in the patches of deep sticky mud. This narrow road would be a challenge to drive, even without being located on a steep mountainside.
In Kalikastan I had relocated to the front-row seat, which gave me excellent views down into the ravine. It also gave me great views of the road ahead and the approaching cargo-trucks. Every time the vehicles had to navigate each other on the narrow mountainside, I felt a special kind of dread-laced exhilaration. On the one hand I had always wanted to experience this kind of perilous bus-travel (I had flashbacks of seeing BBC’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads), on the other hand dozens of people die every year in Nepal from driving, sliding or crashing off the steeps sides of roads like these.
Fortunately the drivers behave accordingly – during the most dangerous parts of the road, the bus kept being passed from the outside to minimize risk to passengers. Nevertheless I was happy not to have decided for a road-trip, and happy once we reached Dhunche.
Dhunche, sitting at 2000m high is the local district capital and the starting point of several smaller trails into the national park. For us it was another police checkpoint and the start of the decent towards Syabru Besi. By the time we reached the valley floor and crossed the river, we had been driving for over 8 hours.
The mountains loomed high around us as we were pulling into New Syabru – a small tourist village lined with recently constructed guesthouses, promoting hot water and good food. The English signs were complemented by Chinese ones – the place was clearly prepared for the influx of Chinese tourists, travellers and trade that the new border connection would bring.
Once off the bus we decided to use maximise the little daylight left and headed straight down the road. Half a kilometer outside new Syabru, across a long pedestrian suspension bridge, is the start of the trail – the village of Old Syabru Besi. We found a guesthouse next to the bakery and prepared for the travails ahead with fresh muffins and masala tea.