22.09.2011 - 23.09.2011
If your bus is Arughat bound
And there's an ocean of mud on the ground
Abandon your seat
And resort to your feet
Else your trousers will surely be browned
Bus travel in Nepal is not for the faint-hearted as we've discovered on our previous trips here. And so it proved again this time around with our journey from Kathmandu to Arughat Bazar. Our experience has taught us some of the unwritten rules of bus journeys, and as we sped towards the bus station in our hotel taxi I ran through them in my head:
- It doesn't matter where or when you board the bus, there will always be someone sitting in your seat.
- It doesn't matter how far in advance you book your ticket, you will always be sat near the back of the bus or on the roof.
- Your bus will break down at least once during your journey.
- Journey times include an allowance for breakdowns.
- Your bus will have been designed for half the number of people it is carrying.
- There is always room for one more person on the bus.
We arrived to be met by Ram, our trekking guide, and some of our porters. Our first bus was a Toyota minivan which seemed to be in reasonably roadworthy condition. We climbed slowly out of the Kathmandu valley on the highway to Pokhara. This is the best road in Nepal but it is difficult to average more than 30mph. Not that this stopped our driver from trying. Once out of the Kathmandu traffic we only had the long-distance buses and trucks to contend with, and the driver began to practice some of his more audacious overtaking moves. Nepalis drive on the left, but this rule is only casually observed when approaching a slower moving vehicle on a blind bend. Nepal could do with some of the fantastic road signs we saw last year in Ladakh, such as "be a Mr Late not a Late Mr", and "be gentle with my curves". We picked up more passengers at several places en route, so by the time we had swerved off the main highway, crossed the Trisuli river, and arrived at Dadingbesi, we were jammed in like the proverbial sardines. The white knuckle ride was over for the time being. We retired to a roadside cafe for lunch and waited for bus no. 2 in the sticky heat.
The second bus was a different animal entirely, a large blue and white Tata vehicle with monster truck tyres. With hindsight this should have given us a clue as to the condition of the road to Arughat. Ram announced that he had our tickets so we boarded the bus and took our seats near the back (after evicting the two Nepalis who had decided to claim them for themselves).
We watched as more and more people congregated around the bus; this was clearly going to be another sardine can. Not only that, but all the gear and food for our 15 day camping trek somehow had to be squeezed on board. Boxes were stacked in the aisle to shoulder height and bags were stashed on the roof (along with several of our porters). We each had a bag wedged between our legs, and boxes on our laps. And just when it seemed as though breathing in and out was going to get difficult, we were off.
For the first few minutes, we enjoyed the passing scenery and the cool breeze on our faces. Despite the cramped conditions, perhaps this wasn't going to be too much of an ordeal. Then we hit the first muddy ruts. The monsoon rains had turned the poorly drained stretches of road into a quagmire with deep tyre ruts. And each time we hit one of these patches we were pitched and tossed around like a trawler on a squally sea. The bus lurched from one side to the other as the tyres struggled for grip in the glutinous mud, giving those of us in the window seats a close look at the huge chasm beyond the edge of the road. What started as mild panic soon became sheer terror and my thoughts went from "that was a close one" to "you've got to be kidding", to "ohmygodwereallgoingtodie"! Goodness only knows how the porters on the roof were managing to cling on.
After two hours of this torture our nerves were shredded and we decided that we'd had enough. We extricated ourselves from our seats (a process which required the skills of a contortionist) and continued down the road on foot, guided by Ram. He took us down to Taribesi, a one horse town next to a bridge over a river, and promised us the road would improve beyond this point. Such was the painfully slow progress the bus was making, it was another half hour before we heard its tooting horn. Shortly after, it came hurtling triumphantly across the bridge and stopped to pick us up.
From this point things got worse. We started up a steep incline, but a rocky gully that cut across the road proved too much for the bus which got stuck. Everyone disembarked to inspect the problem. The front axle and the chassis were at wildly different angles, and one of the rear wheels was spinning in free air. Nepalis relish these kind of situations, and 30 minutes later, all four wheels had been reunited with the road and were were back on board.
We continued to climb the hillside (the road was just as bad as before) until we reached a flat stretch where the mud looked deeper and gloopier than anywhere else. There was no way round it, so the driver got out and walked ahead to pick his line. Back in his seat he revved the engine and we surged forward, but it was immediately obvious we weren't going to make it. We were stuck again, and this time, no amount of Nepali resourcefulness was going to free us.
With the light fading, we made the decision to find somewhere to stay the night, accepting that there was no way we were going to reach Arughat. Our bags were offloaded and we walked a short way to a small hut at a crossroads. The resident family let us camp in their front yard and fed us dinner. We went to bed under a tree full of snickering monkeys, which somehow summed up our day.
The next morning we awoke, counted our mosquito bites, and watched the monkeys descend from the tree and scamper into the nearby fields to wreak havoc. We continued the final few kilometres to Arughat on foot. As we neared the village we heard a familiar tooting horn and were surprised to see the very same bus we had abandoned the night before with a fresh load of wide-eyed white knuckled passengers, and a smug looking driver. It seems we had underestimated Nepali resourcefulness after all, but at least we escaped with our lives.
The tragic footnote to this tale, is that around one week later, Ram heard from his wife that the Arughat bus had overturned and fallen off the road, killing the 13 Nepalis on board. Most would have been on their way home to celebrate the Dasain festival with their families. We were right to resort to our feet...