A Travellerspoint blog

A tale of two buses: a white-knuckle ride in Nepal


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

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:

  1. It doesn't matter where or when you board the bus, there will always be someone sitting in your seat.
  2. 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.
  3. Your bus will break down at least once during your journey.
  4. Journey times include an allowance for breakdowns.
  5. Your bus will have been designed for half the number of people it is carrying.
  6. 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.

The newly-resurfaced Arughat road

The newly-resurfaced Arughat road

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.

Walking is not only safer, it's quicker too

Walking is not only safer, it's quicker too

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.

The last-but-one nail in the coffin for the Arughat bus

The last-but-one nail in the coffin for the Arughat bus

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...

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:30 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking buses monsoon Comments (2)

Trekking in a winter wonderland


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

We have just arrived in the small village of Braga on the 30th day of our epic trek in the Nepal Himalaya. Rejoice, for the Internet has reached these parts and we can give you an update on our travels - just a brief one, mind, as the web doesn't come cheap at 3,500m!

Once again Nepal has given us more of everything. More incredible mountain scenery, more heart-warming hospitality, more gompas, more bites (leaches, mosquitos, and bed bugs), more cranky yaks, more veg-fried potatoes, more daal bhat dinners and more near-death experiences on the local buses than you can shake a broken Leki pole at.

For the first 15 days of our trek, we were accompanied by a retinue of Nepali staff carrying camping and cooking equipment and food: Ram, our guide, Phurbar, our cook, Dharma, the assistant guide and seven porters.

For the past fortnight, we have been staying in teahouses, acccompanied by Ram and a single porter, Sinkhada, who has been carrying both our heavy backpacks.

Suffice to say the trekking has been wonderful so far, and we have made it this far with bodies largely in tact and most of our gear still functioning. We have been busy preparing lots of juicy blog articles for you, so as soon as we get back to civilisation proper, we will be posting regluar updates.

But first the trekking continues! With two 5,000m passes under our belts, we were due to attempt a third as we trekked up to Tilicho Lake, this time without guide or porter. However, we awoke this morning to find a winter wonderland outside our lodge, and snow still falling. The Tilicho trek requires perfect conditions, so we have had to change our plans. We are now sitting it out in Braga to see what the weather does. If it clears we will cross the Thorung La pass for the second time in 5 years. If not, we have to trek down the valley and catch the bus back to Kathmandu. On the bright side, we have have just gorged ourselves on chocolate cake and apple pie, at the same bakery in Braga we first discovered in 2007.

Winter arrives early in Ngawal

Winter arrives early in Ngawal

Apple pie and chocolate cake never tasted so good

Apple pie and chocolate cake never tasted so good

Jen and Chris

Posted by Chris Parsons 22:46 Archived in Nepal Tagged food trekking nepal Comments (0)

The rain in Nepal falls mainly... everywhere

Dodging the monsoon in Kathmandu


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Having landed under blue skies in Delhi, we thought perhaps we had missed the tail end of the monsoon, but alas it was not to be. The descent into Kathmandu flew us through several layers of cloud, and droplets streaking along the plane's windows signalled the rains still lingered over Nepal.

It took just one day for our meticulously planned itinerary to fall apart. We have arranged a trek which links together trails through some restricted and protected areas, which means five separate permits are required. As it turns out, one day was not long enough to satisfy all the bureaucrats and officials needed to authorise our trip.

We have made the most of our time here, despite the rain, which has been persistent but is refreshing and cooling. We visited the Gardens of Peace yesterday, an relative oasis of calm which was once part of a government ministry and has now been renovated. Here, the blaring horns of Thamel (Kathmandu's tourist ghetto) are slightly less intrusive, and the plants, after three months of heavy watering, are particularly lush.

Chris in the Gardens of Peace in Kathmandu

Chris in the Gardens of Peace in Kathmandu

In the afternoon I braved the traffic-choked narrow streets as I set out for Durbar Square, the heart of the old city. Crowded into a tiny temple courtyard with pilgrims, tourists and locals, we waited patiently for a six-year old girl to appear at an intricately-carved window. She is a living representation of the Buddha, has been chosen for her beauty and bestows good luck upon anyone who witnesses her face. As she appears, tour guides shout "No cameras!" to the mob, who raise their cameras to the window in unison, then drop them, gasp and burst into spontaneous applause. The girl looks non-plussed, but has been trained to act that way. A strange experience.

Woman spinning cotton in Bhaktapur

Woman spinning cotton in Bhaktapur

Today we took the local bus to Bhaktapur, a nearby city in the Kathmandu Valley. This is the cultural capital of Nepal, and was a truly eye-opening experience. We learned that koi carp like doughnuts but can't swallow a cigarette lighter. We also learned that you can never judge a temple from its cover. What appears Hindu from the outside can turn out to be Buddhist within. And that some of the more intricate thangkas, or Buddhist paintings, can take one individual two years to complete.

Jen in Bhaktapur

Jen in Bhaktapur

This afternoon, a miracle happened. The rain stopped, the clouds parted and distant hills and mountains appeared for the first time. Perhaps my encounter with the living Buddha has had something to do with this turn of events? It certainly bodes well for our trek, which begins tomorrow with a seven hour journey by local bus to the trailhead at Arughat Bazar. Wish us well, it will be some time before you hear from us again!

Clearing skies over Kathmandu

Clearing skies over Kathmandu

Posted by Chris Parsons 09:59 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

Travel Plans, Part 2

Biking and eating our way through Indochina and Thailand

4 days to go!! Almost hyperventilating with excitement now!

In the last entry I told you all about our trekking plans in the Himalayas; now it's time to reveal what else we've got planned for the rest of our adventure in Asia.

In mid-November we leave the glaciers and gompas of Buddhist Sikkim for a change of pace in Vietnam. Our down jackets and thermal base layers will be surplus to requirements as we cross the Tropic of Cancer and head for sultry Hanoi. We'll be based here for a week, and top of the agenda (apart from counting our blisters) will be to visit the incredible Ha Long Bay area.

Hanoi is also the starting point for our next activity, and some of you will think it's even crazier than the trekking! We have signed up for a 3-week mountain biking trip into the northern highlands of Vietnam and across the border into Laos. The trip is run by a specialist UK company called Redspokes, and you can read all about it here - all 1200km of it! Along the way we'll encounter Hmong hill tribes and the historic city of Luang Prabang.

The bike ride finishes in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, from where we catch a flight to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. From here, it's a short hop to the coast where we will only have one thing on our minds - beach, beach, beach! A few days in the backpacker mecca that is Sihanoukville will hopefully ease the saddle-soreness and achy legs. We can't visit Cambodia and not include Angkor Wat in the itinerary, so our next port of call will be Siem Reap, from where it's easy to arrange trips to the temples. We may even feel ready to hire bikes and cycle round them!

As we head into the final month of the trip, we'll be on the move again, this time hopping across the border into Thailand and catching a night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north of the country. There's lots of sights and activities in this region, including National Parks, waterfalls, caves, elephant camps, Thai cookery schools and trekking - if we haven't already had our fill. We will also be celebrating Christmas with the Thais in Chiang Mai.

Southern Thailand will be our final destination, but we'll only have three weeks to see some of the highlights. We start by flying to Phuket and heading up the Andaman Coast to Khao Lak, the starting point of a 3-day snorkelling tour of the Similan Islands. New Year will be spent in Khao Sok National Park in search of gibbons, bears and hornbills. We'll be staying in a traditional raft house and looking for jungle wildlife by boat and on foot.

We'll use buses and ferries to island-hop down the Andaman Coast to Koh Tarutao National Park, via Krabi and Koh Lanta. Here, we want nothing more than an idyllic beach on which to pitch our tent and enjoy the last few days of freedom! Finally, we hot-foot it to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for our return flight home and the harsh reality of the British winter, bills and work!

Posted by Chris Parsons 12:43 Tagged cambodia thailand vietnam laos planning Comments (1)

Travel Plans, Part 1

Trekking in Nepal and India

Two weeks to go!! Here are a few more titbits about our travel plans!

Our trip divides quite neatly into two equal parts. For the first couple of months, we'll be in the Himalaya in Nepal and India. Some of you will already know that we've fallen in love with Nepal, so this seemed like the obvious place to start our travels.

September and October is the post-monsoon season, when the skies are usually clear and the trails pounded by thousands of trekkers. On both our previous trips we travelled independently, taking advantage of the network of trekkers' lodges in the Annapurna and Everest regions. With so much time available, we now have the chance to venture into a less-visited part of Nepal. Independent trekking won't be possible, because of the lack of infrastructure and regulations which prevent unaccompanied trekkers wandering into restricted areas (particularly those close to the Chinese border.) So we've arranged a trek with a local agency, Nepal Environmental Trek and Expeditions, and they will be providing us with a guide, a cook, our porters and all the camping equipment and food for the first four weeks.

Our trek starts in the Gurkha region, a few hours' drive west of Kathmandu. The plan is to trek around Manaslu, one of the world's highest mountains - we saw it from the Annapurna Circuit in 2007. The Manaslu Circuit is not yet as developed as the more famous Annapurna Circuit but more lodges are being opened every year and soon it will be possible to walk the whole route without a tent.

Manaslu from the Annapurna Circuit

Manaslu from the Annapurna Circuit

A week into the trek, we branch off the main trail into the Tsum Valley, a very remote high-altitude region close to the border with Tibet. This valley only opened to foreigners in 2007 and is beyond the reach of the Lonely Planet! We will spend about a week exploring the area and visiting Ganesh Himal Base Camp at 4,200m (13,780ft).

Rejoining the Manaslu Circuit, we continue around the north side of the mountain, climbing gradually to a high point of 5,135m (16,847ft) at the Larkya La. From what we have read, this pass crossing can be difficult due to unpredictable snowfall, even in peak season. If we make it across, we will head down the valley on the opposite side to join the Annapurna Circuit at Dharapani.

We will luxuriate in hot showers and apple pie for a couple of days as we head up the Marsyangdi valley, before striking off north into another restricted area called Nar Phu. Annapurna trekkers rarely venture into this valley because of the permit required and the lack of tea houses. To leave the Nar Phu area we will attempt another high pass, the 5,322m (17,461ft) Kang La. I'm already dreaming of the view!

Back down on the Annapurna Circuit, we will wave goodbye to our guide and porters and continue on our own, fully laden this time! We will also be faced with a choice - up or down the valley? My preference is up, either retracing our steps from 2007 over the Thorung La, or attempting a more adventurous pass crossing which includes a wild camp at 5,000m on the shore of Tilicho Lake. Apparently this is prime snow leopard country. Beyond the pass lies the town of Jomsom, the end of our five-week Nepal trek.

You can see a map of the trekking route here.

Next, to Sikkim in north-east India. This is a fairly tortuous journey overland so we will probably use internal flights to cut out some of the gruelling bus journeys. After crossing the border at the end of October, we arrive in Darjeeling. Time to take tea, ride the toy train and generally masquerade as normal tourists.

It won't last long though - from Darjeeling, we will embark on our second trek in West Sikkim. This area is less established as a trekking base than Nepal so we will be on another fully-supported camping trek, this time with a local agency called Yak and Yeti Travels and Expeditions. We will have yaks instead of porters, but I'm hoping we get a bona fide guide and not a yeti! The trek will follow the Singalila Ridge, very close to the border between Nepal and India, from where we will hopefully have grandstand views of Kangchenjunga, the world's 3rd highest mountain. Our high point on this trek will be the Goecha La, a 4,940m (16,200ft) pass.

All being well, we will finish our trek in Yuksom on 11/11/11. We then haul ourselves on to a train for an overnight journey to Kolkata, where we catch a flight to Vietnam, ready for the next adventure...

Posted by Chris Parsons 17:38 Tagged india nepal planning Comments (0)

Welcome to our new travel blog

347_Chris_..tungste.jpg

Hi everyone, Chris here. In just over 3 weeks' time, Jennifer and I will be embarking on an exciting 4 month trip to Asia. We have both taken sabbaticals from work and will be spending the time travelling from Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur via Nepal, India, Indochina and Thailand.

Several people have asked me if I'd be writing a blog - I suppose that question has now been answered! It's something I've considered before but always with a few reservations. We've tried keeping journals on some of our trekking holidays but after the first couple of weeks I have to admit it's harder to maintain momentum!. Indeed, my first travel journal was an epic that filled three notebooks, recording my experiences during six months of travel through South America. Despite my best efforts to keep it up-to-date, the second half was written at home, several months after I returned! The unsurprising truth is that we both prefer the experiences of travel to writing about them afterwards.

On the other hand, sharing photos of our trip whilst we're on the road is something we're both quite excited about. Our families have been subjected to some marathon slideshows over the years, and I'm sure they are already dreading the prospect of 4 months-worth in one sittting. Putting our best photos on a website as we go will hopefully save them from this fate!

I shopped around for a solution and settled on Travellerspoint, where this blog is hosted. It has only a few discreet adverts, features a map of our route and allows us to upload unlimited photos. Don't worry, I'm sure we'll be limited in practice by the connection speed in Internet caf├ęs and the rate at which our camera fills memory cards! You can use http://parsonsontour.travellerspoint.com or the simpler URL http://www.parsonsontour.co.uk to find us. Go on, bookmark it now!

We leave on 18th September, but before we go I'll write another entry with some details of the places and activities we'll be taking in. In the meantime you can take a look at our Travel Map for an idea of where we're heading. Once we're on the move, the blog entries may be sporadic at times, so there's hopefully no danger of this becoming a chore.

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:49 Comments (2)

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