Day 17 – October 4
In order to partly recreate the atmosphere for this post, please listen to this song on repeat for at least a couple of hours, then start reading the text.
It was a long and rough day. It all started innocuously in the morning, with our intention of traveling to Pokhara. There are 2 options for getting there from Jomsom: a 20 minute flight at around $110 or a series of 3 buses at under $20 that would need over 10 hours for the 150 km drive. We picked the buses and decided to do the trip in 2 days, as we had the time and wanted to see more of Nepal.
We arrived at 6 am at the ticket counter in Jomsom, as instructed. We were waiting in a small crowd at a closed counter. Eventually, at half past 6, somebody came and started issuing tickets. All the people formed a Nepali queue, which is quite similar to a rugby hurdle. Obviously, as I was the first to come, I was somewhere in the middle of the hurdle. Still, being one foot taller than everybody else has its advantages. I managed to wheeze my way to the front and get tickets for the first of three buses, at $9 per person. Andreea was already in the bus, having occupied good seats.
Prices here are differentiated between tourists and locals. You don’t get to find out the original prices, as they’re written in Nepali.
At around 7, the bus, an antique example of what unskilled workers are capable of putting together, started on its way to Ghasa. The road was again a dusty dirt one, ill fitted for any vehicle or animal powered carriage by Romanian standards. We were being thrown in all directions, as the bus was swaying on the bumpy road. Our knees were constantly hitting the metal frames of the seats in front. But we were still luckier than the guys standing or the ones hanging out the open door.
At one of the stops, an old western lady got in. One of the Nepali in the bus said there’s no more room and she should wait for the next one (although it was never full for locals), but she was very categorical in taking this bus, so the guy shut up. “There’s another bus in maybe 15 minutes, you say? I know what’ maybe’ means to Nepali. The bus may be here in a few hours or even tomorrow. I’m taking this bus! I have an injury, I need to get to a hospital today.”
Her name was Adriana. She was Italian and she had lived in Germany and the US. The day before, while riding a jeep, she hit her leg on a sharp corner and got an open injury. She was in Nepal by circumstance, after not receiving the visa for Tibet.
“Fuck the Chinese!” Adriana said after telling us about her failed trip to Tibet. “They’re like the Nazis! When Germany was killing the Jews, everybody kept their mouth shut. It’s the same now, as China is killing millions of Tibetans.”
Rumor from the back of the bus. A group of 3 young Chinese made themselves noticed. “Yes, fuck the Chinese! You get to leave your country, so you have some power there. Why don’t you speak up against your country?” The dispute faded, as the bus got too crowded. Yet, at times we could still hear Adriana talking to the Nepali next to her: “No, I don’t want to eat that.” “I told you before, I don’t want to eat, stop offering it to me!” “Stop touching me!”
After about 2 hours, we finally made the 35 km to Ghasa. Here there was a bit of confusion between tourists. Some were saying there was a landslide up ahead which was blocking the road, so we would have to walk for the first 7 km. The Nepalis we would ask would give us mixed answers. Nobody seemed to know. So we sat down and had a noodle soup. While finishing the soup, we saw people were starting to board a bus. We jumped in line, but were too late to catch seats.
It’s wrong to say we were standing in the bus. The roof was too low for either of us to literally stand. Andreea managed to find a seat handle to lean on. I made my way towards the door, where I had more space in order to bend my body and fit. I was clinging to two metal bars, as the bus was throwing me in all directions on the bumpy dirt road. I started developing a kind of symbiosis with the other travelers. I would push into them, they would push into me. Together, we would keep each other in balance better than taken individually.
Most times, the acoustic background was dominated by high pitched Nepali music. They also have normal sounding music (some catchy Indian songs: , , , , ), but it seems bus drivers mostly listen to the high pitched one. I think the music helps them disconnect from their conscious self and reach an innate state of sharp reflexes and fast reactions, much needed for driving for hours on such roads. For me instead, the music had the ability to augment time. Seconds felt like minutes, while minutes felt like hours. The trip felt like going on forever, in an infinite loop, in a parallel universe, in a twisted hell, one of inescapable high pitched voices, primitive instruments and silly sounding rhythms.
The road was carved on the site of the mountain, on cliffs above the roaring river. It was too narrow for two buses at a time, so each time two met, one would have to stop, even back up to a wider spot, and let the other one pass. Before each bend in the road, the driver would honk to alert whoever might be there. He had a separate horn for this, which produced a honking melody, like in an old pinball game, after getting a high score.
I was painfully counting seconds pass, when the bus stopped. We weren’t in any village. People started getting off. It looked like we would be here for a while. Getting out, first I enjoyed the air and the space – so much space – I could finally stand straight! Then I saw there was a bus in front of us, jammed onto a section of rocks. These weren’t off road vehicles and their ground clearance wasn’t very good.
Waited for maybe half an hour until the group of Nepali drivers managed to get the bus going and end the road block. Reassumed my contorted place in the bus and continued our ordeal.
In the village of Tatopani, Adriana was getting off. I asked her for her seat and she said yes. While trying to stand up and let Andreea sit, one of the Chinese girls tried taking the place. Adriana was blocking her with her body and, since Andreea was having a hard time getting through, I jumped in and sat down. I didn’t see most of what happened next, but it involved a slap fight between the Chinese girl and Adriana. As I managed to turn around, I saw as Adriana, blocking the slaps, handed someone her glasses and started fighting back. A second Chinese girl jumped in. I grabbed one of them, as other passengers intervened to stop the fight. With their help, Adriana managed to leave the bus.
Then I think the Nepalis tried to get rid of us. One of them said “Here bus stop long. People eat”. We stayed in the bus, as we were too shaken to do anything else. A few people – tourists – got off. Then the bus left, without them.
With Andreea sitting in my lap, holding her backpack, with my backpack at my feet, it was less of an ordeal. Eventually, we made it to the city of Beni. 40 km in over 4 hours. This is where we planned to stop and sleep. But we didn’t want to spread the agony over two days. Today was already ruined. Let’s get it over with!
I bought tickets (about $2 each, with all three buses costing $15 per person). Andreea bought water and baby bananas. Only stopped in Beni for 10 minutes and we were already in the third bus. This time, it was a coach, so we were hoping to finally see some tarmac.
And indeed we saw tarmac. Intermittently. Needless to say, the road was bumpy and we got shaken, as the bus slowly wound its way around the mountains that make up Nepal. The road would fool us with smooth tarmac, before throwing us up and around over off road segments. I bit my lip once after hitting my head to the seat in front.
Needed over 4 hours for the 80 km to Pokhara. Sometime after dark, after 11 hours on the road, we made it there. The city was pitch black. Load shedding, obviously. Made our way around town using car headlights to see where we were stepping.
We already had a booking for a (hopefully) clean room, but it started the day after. Went to see if they had a free room today. They didn’t. Tried at other fancy hotels, without luck though. We finally found a room at a more budget option. $14, after cutting the price a little. For this, we couldn’t expect AC, TV or clean sheets. But, after 2 weeks in the mountains, we were OK with that. All we deeply desired was a shower. While undressing our sweat and dust impregnated clothes, we started comparing bruises. Andreea had scratches and bruises on her knees, from hitting the seat in front of her. I had a bruise on my shoulder from clinging to a bar and another one on my thigh, from unknown circumstances. Showered and slept with the ceiling fan on, our only relief against the heat of the night.