A few months ago, after I had booked my flights to Nepal, I stumbled upon a TV program entitled “the world’s most dangerous roads”. That episode explored a route that included the journey between Kathmandu and the trekking centre and tourist resort of Pokhara 200km to the west.
A couple of (actual) comedians anchored the piece and it looked pretty hairy, one caveat though was that they attempted their adventure in the monsoon season…not a good decision but probably good TV. I was therefore a little anxious about the journey and hoped that it was not going to be up to my epic trip in Laos a few years ago. See my article The Road to Hell.
Options for this route include flying, the previous week a Buddha Air flight crashed on an Everest sightseeing trip killing all on board, or taking a public bus. Private car is also a possibility however you would need a driver and a full complement of passengers to make it worthwhile. I chose the bus.
No room to spare!
This mode of transport also broke down to a “luxury” air-conditioned bus provided by operations such as Greenline or Golden Travels that included both drinks and lunch, or a tourist bus style service at a much cheaper price but cramped and open to the elements. You pay your money and make your choice! As the Greenline bus depot was next to my hostel and they had space I shamelessly paid my $15 USD and anticipated falling off a cliff in luxury.
An early start for the five hour journey was essential as road blocks, landslides and accidents can cause long delays and the route is best travelled in daylight. Knowing that, I was quite happy as we pulled out of Thamel in Kathmandu at 8am on the dot… only to come to a grinding halt ten minutes later in the crush of rush hour.
Kathmandu is set in a sunken plateau and in order to get out one first has to climb, and climb and climb. The bus groaned and squeaked as it dragged itself upwards, stalled and broken down trucks and minibuses dotted the roads causing plenty of tailbacks and creating obvious chicane fun for the speeding drivers. Our driver was mindful of his cargo and took a little bit more care on the bends relying on his mirrors and the road ahead as opposed to the obvious telepathic skills that the other lunatics were using.
These drivers, and their assistants who leaned out the doors waving and gesticulating to other vehicles, are obviously used to the road. They know all the bends and potholes and are well aware of the dangerous areas. That does not stop them sailing over the edge on occasion and disappearing into the chasm below. Reading the Kathmandu Post is akin to getting the form on a demolition derby as crashes and fatalities are gone over in much detail.
We arrived for lunch in a pleasant resort about two hours late and halfway to Pokhara where some passengers changed for another bus south to Chitwan. This afforded us a nice break in the journey to admire the scenery and stretch the legs.
Typical ‘tourist’ bus
There is a kind of social reasoning and care in the villages and towns of Nepal. I came across road blocks where a donation from the bus driver was requested in order to assist the family of a local man who was killed driving his truck on that same stretch the day before. A few villages exact a tax (seemed to be about 50 Rupees) from each bus as they passed through. At one point riot police were deployed, face masks and shields donned, in a rural setting that seemed most incongruous and caused us yet more of a delay.
The journey was becoming a bit of an endurance test but the Air-Con kept working and we had plenty of breaks for the bathroom where needed. I was starting to think that the extra paid for the ticket was becoming money well spent.
Despite the obvious risk of the road madness the route passes through some spectacular scenery; from towering mountains hosting perched settlements and terraced cultivation to small villages with day to day life going on giving a fascinating insight to the way Nepali live.
Many travellers stop off en route here to do white water rafting, camping on the shores and running the rapids as the rivers heads west. I was here in October and the water seemed just about right, even for beginners, though after snow melt or the monsoon I can imagine that the conditions would become much more demanding!
Around Ghorka we entered “little Switzerland” a local tourist area with foreign built cable cars traversing the river soaring skywards up to the mountain peaks along with a sign that announced the region as an “open defecation free zone”. That caused me some thought.
After crossing the river the road flattened out at last and we ploughed on uneventfully to Pokhara three hours late and in need of a cold beer. The bus park is a little outside the lakeside tourist area however plenty of taxis were on hand to ferry passengers to their hotel. I was fortunate that my hotel had sent a driver so I was spared the negotiations and soon had that ice cold beer in hand sitting on my veranda and toasting the most dangerous road.