After several hours hard trekking we reach the mountain village of Syabru Besi. It’s mid morning and the sun hasn’t come over the mountains yet. I look forward to sitting down in a tea house and having a cup of sweet Nepali tea, with milk and sugar and a taste of cardamom. I’ll rest my weary feet, chat with my brother and work out my next move.
There’s a commotion in the street. A bunch of skinny youth are shouting “Bus! Bus!” and waving their arms about. There is panic in the air: the bus is about to leave; the driver is gunning the engine and, judging by the reaction of the boys, it’s probably the only bus that day. It might be my only chance of getting back to Kathmandu.
But I’m in a shop buying some drinks. The shopkeeper doesn’t have any change and she’s wandered off to find some. Shopkeepers in Nepal are very trusting, they often leave their shops completely empty while they go off and do other things. Don’t they have thieves in Nepal?
Time is crawling. Every second counts. Where the hell is she? The bus will leave without me. Then I’ll have to walk along the gravel road, along the steep gorge, by a roaring river and climb hundreds of metres up to the next village. I’m mentally geared to trek along this road, for several days if necessary, but I’m skint: just two days trekking has cleaned me out; accommodation is cheap but the meals are expensive. I’ve got just enough cash to get a bus ticket back to Kathmandu. I’ve got to get this bus, but where the hell is the shopkeeper? I start to panic.
I’ve been trekking with my brother Magnus, a super-fit-and-cool Dude who works in Nepal. I got the bus up here and he rode his Indian motorbike, a Royal Enfield Himalaya — a machine that was built for roads like these. He’s not getting the bus; his bike is parked up in the next door shop and he’s chatting with the shopkeeper who’s been looking after it these past two days. He’s not stressed; my brother doesn’t care if I miss the bus as he thinks I should just keep on walking; maybe he doesn’t remember what it’s like to be skint.
We’re in a spectacular part of Nepal, north west of Kathmandu, in a deep gorge. We’re on the edge of the mighty Langtang mountain range, one of the classic treks of Nepal, and we’re just below the frontier with Tibet. Around us are paths switchbacking up impossibly steep mountainsides, spindly-looking houses clinging to the hillside, rivers that charge and plunge and consist of water that is either white with foam or pale grey with deposits of the bedrock. I want to stay more, I want to walk forever through these mountains, but I will just run out of money and I don’t know what will happen then.
Eventually the shopkeeper emerges with a fistful of dirty notes. I grab them and jump onto the empty bus. I toss a bottle of water to my brother and say: “Water for you. See you back in Kathmandu.”
We’re off, moving fast along a smooth piece of asphalt. But I know you can’t trust a good bit of road; in fact, you know you will pay for it very soon with some hellish bumps. Sure enough, here they come: bump, bump, bump.
Now we’re crossing a bridge and I catch a glimpse of a spectacular view down the gorge: mature trees growing on cliff sides, waterfalls, massive boulders shaped by centuries of water erosion.
Most travellers, trekkers and tourists end up getting buses in Nepal. Unless you can afford to fly, buy a motorbike or hire a jeep, there’s no other way of getting around. It’s quite an experience. The worst problem is the 3-hour ordeal of getting in and out of Kathmandu — the roads are single tracked and jam packed full of trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes. Soon the whole city will stop; the traffic will block it completely. Gridlock.
This reminds me of something that happened in Romania, over 10 years ago. Before the financial crash of 2008 the number of cars in Bucharest grew exponentially, and traffic became slower and slower. At one point I cycled up to a big crossroads where the vehicles had got jammed up with trams and everything had ground to a complete halt. There was a moment of silence as everyone involved just turned off their engines, stopped shouting and contemplated what was going on. The silence was so unusual that it felt stunning and I think everyone shared that feeling. But it didn’t last — within minutes it was back to normal: the horns started blaring, arms were being waved, engines revving, faces became angry again and everyone was shouting at each other.
I spent a lot of my time in Nepal riding on buses. It’s not the sort of thing that gets written about in travel articles, probably because most travel writers get flown to the resort that’s paying for their services. But for real travellers, the humble bus is a staple of any journey in Nepal.
These are my observations about travelling by bus in Nepal, some of which will be (I hope) of value to future travellers to this little nation:
The Empty Bus Syndrome
The bus I’m on is empty and I spread myself out luxuriously on the back seats. I hope it will stay empty all the way but I know what will happen: at every settlement the young man with a bouffant hairdo and a wedge of cash in his fist, leans out the door and shouts “Kathmandu! Kathmandu! Kathmandu!” Within two hours the bus will be packed. This isn’t a problem as Nepali people are friendly and polite (many travellers told me the Indians are much more pushy).
Learning from Bumps
I spent a lot of time thinking about suspension. Why are the bumps so violent on this bus? Whenever we go over a bump I get thrown into the air and often I bang my head painfully off the bit above. I end up gripping anything I can get hold of in order to stop my head getting whacked, but it doesn’t work. Nothing seems to work. A fat man got on board and is now fast asleep; his head lolls from side to side but he doesn’t wake up. I try and sleep but it’s like trying to relax on the back of a wild horse.
Then I remember the lift I got in a rugged Indian pick-up truck: I was standing in the back, holding onto a crossbar, with three other men. About four women were sitting on the floor, one of whom was breastfeeding a baby. Even though we were crossing a very bumpy road the ride was as smooth as silk as my legs absorbed the bumps, they went up and down like pistons, and I realised that our legs are a brilliant suspension system. I could tell the jeep had good suspension as the women seemed to be sitting comfortably on the floor and the baby remained firmly attached to his mother’s breast.
Now I’m standing at the back of the bus, standing like a surfer, riding the bumps and they are no longer a problem. Life is good. But the young conductor isn’t happy; he’s walking up the aisle towards me, clutching his wad of Nepali rupees (it never leaves his hand) and looking concerned. His face tells me that this is unseemly, that passengers on his bus don’t stand up and that I’m breaking the social order. He struggles to find the two words of English he knows to deal with difficult customers like me. “Sit down,” he says uncertainly. I explain my logic, discuss suspension and discomfort; he looks at me in bewilderment, gives up and wanders off.
I went on another journey in Nepal in a 4×4 Pajero jeep and it was very comfortable. The reason I didn’t get tossed around like a dice in a shaker was because the Pajero has shock absorbers, and these compensate for the bouncy effect of the springs. When you hit a bump the springs go “boing” and throw the vehicle up, while the shock absorbers (or “dampers” in America) go “hiss” and they slow down the effect of the bump.
Trouble with shock absorbers is that they’re expensive and on rough roads they will break often. I can imagine the conversation at the Bus Garage:
Bus Driver: My shock absorbers have done again?
Bus Owner: What? That’s the third time this year. Are you trying to bankrupt me?
Driver: No sir, but the roads in the mountains are very bumpy.
Owner: Yes, yes…
Driver: Can you get me some new shockers, Sir?
Owner: Absolutely not. You’re killing me with these bloody shockers. Just drive without them for a bit.
Driver: But that will be most uncomfortable for the passengers, Sir. They will get thrown around like nobody’s business.
Owner: Don’t tell me about the passengers. They’re bloody grateful to be getting a lift. It wasn’t so long ago that there was no road there at all and it would take them days to get into town. They don’t know any better.
Driver: But what about the foreigners, Sir? The ones with the big noses, the short trousers and the rucksacks. They’re always complaining.
Owner: We don’t need that sort on our buses. They don’t pay any more than the peasants and all they do is complain. If they don’t like it they can walk.
Driver: Anything you say, Sir. I must get going.
Owner: On your way then. Soon enough nobody on this route will remember what it felt like to have shock absorbers.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Nepali buses are covered with false promises. On the back of the buses are written a bunch of modern services: air conditioning, individual reading lights, WIFI, ABS brakes and music. Here is an example, the bus I’ve been describing in this article:
I can’t comment on the ABS brakes as I’m not a mechanic but what I can say is that the only item on that list that actually works is the music — and it comes blaring out at maximum volume.
The idea of individual reading lights while your head is being smashed off the (broken) air conditioning vent is laughable. First time I took a bus in Nepal I was impressed with the “Free WIFI” sign and the password was helpfully scrawled on a window by a black marker pen. But when I asked about it the conductor nodded his head to indicate that it wasn’t working. On my second trip I asked again and got the same result. By the third trip I didn’t even bother asking, by then I had got into the Nepali mentality when riding a bus: gratitude that I was moving in the right direction.
Anyone who’s been on a bus in the Himalayas must have thought about death, and how close it seems. On the flatlands, when the bus is overtaking on blind corners and gunning the engine to its maximum speed, it doesn’t always feel like the end is nigh as the drivers are good, very good, and you get to know that oncoming traffic will screech to a halt when a speeding bus appears on their side of the road.
The scary moments are when the bus is alongside one of the many precipices, thousands of metres up, and the road is bumpy. The combination of no shock absorbers with a series of sharp bumps result in a rolling motion as if you’re on a boat at sea. The bus is rolling from side to side and it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to realise that the whole thing could just fall of the edge.
In many places you can’t see what’s down the precipice; there is a drop for a few hundred metres, then some trees and below that only mist and a bottomless chasm. We are thousands of metres up, twice the height of Britain’s highest mountains, and the bottom of the gorge is so far away we can’t even see it. What would happen if we went over the edge? Would anyone notice? There are no crash barriers along the edge of the road and in a few seconds we’d be into the mist and gone.
After many hours of this you start to get blase about death. In the course of one bus journey I have gone from sheer terror at the prospect of immediate death, to a sense of doubt (“maybe we can survive this journey?”) and finally to a feeling of acceptance: “we’re all going to die one day so why not stare it in the face and enjoy my last moments.”
All this has helped me to live in the present and stop worrying about what might happen.
Being Broke is Good
One of the nicer features of long distance bus journeys in Nepal is that they all stop at sprawling roadside restaurants, with large buffets that can cater for hundreds of people at once (all the buses stop at the same places). You can have a pee, get a drink, enjoy a snack and even indulge in a huge meal.
First time I rode a bus I ordered the buffet and made an absolute pig of myself. I was instantly ill, not because the food was bad (it was delicious) but because I had eaten far too much. This is my curse, my failing, my weakness.
This time I didn’t make the same mistake, not because I have a newly found sense of discipline and self control (I wish) — but I’m skint. Every rupee counts and I can’t afford a choice of rice, curry, Dhal, salad and soup. I’m happy with a cup of tea.
In fact, I’m not even hungry. At our first stop a hustler came on board with a tray of short, washed cucumbers that had been cut in half. He offered me one, took 20 rupees (about 10p) and rubbed some salt mixed with chile powder into it. Absolutely delicious, in fact so much so that I blew another 10p and got another one.
The reason I say that being broke is good is because it makes me eat more healthily. This fits with the eating patterns people in less developed countries: they eat less food than us fat westerners and they don’t eat the processed, packaged and canned crap that gives us cancer and heart disease.
That’s it. End of article. End of Nepali bus experience. If you liked this article please leave a comment below. I really appreciate all feedback, even if it’s rude and critical.
All the photos were taken by Rupert Wolfe Murray