Friday, November 4, 2011

Rooftop Riding

By Kathleen

Ok so the busses in Nepal are bad, not as bad as say Vietnam, but bad. You think I would have learned by now to not trust the time frames and to expect no toilets. As we careened up and down the mountains between Kathmandu and Pokara I was struck by how beautiful the views were, or would have been I suppose if it wasn’t for the persistent haze of pollution and dust.

It’s a serious shame how polluted Nepal is. Here we are in one of the outdoor capitals of the world and it’s filthy. Locals and tourists alike contribute to the piles of rubbish on the side of the roads and the busses spew black smog into the air leaving you gasping and wishing you had a cigarette because at least that is filtered. The peaks of the mountains were lost in the haze and though I am in the Himalaya it hardly feels like it.

Busses and trucks fill the highway, a slender strip of road just one lane for either direction, clinging to the side of the mountains that rise sharply from a tropical forest floor. The buses in the true Indic style are painted with faces and slogans.         “ Wel-come”, “ Good Luck” and my favorite “ Speed Control”(yeah they are called brakes and I sure as hell hope that you have them). You should always be wary of getting on a vehicle that has “ Good Luck” painted above the door.

The curves were sharp and the drop incredibly steep but there at least the smog helped, you couldn’t see either the mountain peaks above or the valley below so its wasn’t as terrifying as it would have been. The careening made me fear for my life at points but that too served a purpose… at least I wasn’t thinking about how much I had to take a piss. There’s no stopping for ladies, just the gents who get to pee off the “edge of the world”. I suppose I could have joined them but then it would be a bunch of Nepali guys watching me hike into the bush and who’s to say if the bus would have waited for me to return.

Leaving Bahktapur was sad, it was such a beautiful city but we wanted to see more of the country. Kathmandu is a bonified shit-hole worth only the airport and few short stops. Pokara at the other end of the valley is the gateway to the Himalaya and you can see the snow crested mountains lining the edge of the lake. In between there are tens of dusty little towns clinging precariously to the side of the road, all concrete and poverty, nothing much worth seeing. However higher up from the road there are a few little gems, one of which was our destination Bandipur.

Once Bandipur was a trade hub, a last stop before the dangerous trails into Tibet…. That’s’ all over now with the boarder closed and McAdam roads replacing dirt caravan routes, but the town remains. Few tourists visit here and it’s a wonder why, the village is perched at the top of a peak with terraced paddies of rice and wheat and veggies draping down below it like a skirt. Nearby there are caves to explore and in the right weather paragliding.

I’m not one for heights or dark confined spaces so both of these marvels were lost on me but it was lovely to spend a day wandering the streets of the town and trying to catch baby ducks.

Getting up their was an experience, after being on the public bus for 7 hours we were let off in Dumre a sketchy little way point, more of a glorified truck stop than a town. There we were told that getting up to the top of the mountain and our destination was impossible.  It was after dark and we hadn’t booked a Jeep. The guide book had said nothing about having to book and Jeep and really that seemed unlikely so despite the persistent arguing of the local motel owner I told Fiz to go ask around.

Just as we were begging to give up hope a Jeep filled with around 23 singing Nepalis pulled up next to us. “ Bandipur!” the driver shouted, “ Bandipur?” we asked, “Bandipur 300 rupees” he answered, about 15 times the going rate, but it was either that or spend the night in Dumre, we paid and jumped on, the roof was the only available spot.

With one leg over the sitar and one arm to hold on with we rode upwards, and upwards… and upwards, each turn taking us higher into the night and deeper into the forest, all was black. The young Nepali girls riding up top with us began to sing a merry song back and forth with those sitting below and as I started at the moon I found it amazing how beautiful life can be.

Then the headlights on the Jeep went out, great…, luckily there was some Neplai innovation and a lamp was procured, this had apparently happened before. With the only the lamp to guide us I was glad for the cover of darkness, shielding me from the sight of the drop below. The lights did come back on eventually.
When we were offloaded in Bandipur the power was out and the city was dark except for candles. The guesthouse, the restaurant all was light by the glow of flame and for a moment it seemed as though we had take a Jeep right into the 1830s, complete with the locals cooking our dinner over wood fire.

The next day we met two travelers, a couple, one Aussie the other from home and teamed up to enjoy the evening. He was biking (BIKING!) the highway so we made plans to ride the bus with his lady. Which we did, at least for a short while, in the stylish Nepali comfort of the bus roof.

Now really you would think, the roads are dangerous enough why get on the roof? Well, one the pollution is less bad when you are in a breeze, you can stretch out up there and the views are ten times better…. And you can smoke…. You know the usual reasons.

For anyone who’s ever been impressed at Fiz’s rolling ability they would be all the more so to see him doing it on a bus roof, in the Himalaya as we careened around corners. Champion skills.

Eventually we were made to get down and ride like normal people in the bus where the diesel fumes leaked back in the cab and gave all of us a choking headache for the remaining hour and a half.

Pokara, sadly, is a disappointment, the weather has been bad and if I’m in the mountains well then I’d be damned, you can’t see anything through the haze, not even the lake. So much for pristine nature.

It seems likely that I won’t see the Himalayas at all, the plane ride in will be my only glimpse at their majesty. I’m sure I am not only underprepared materially to walk but totally physically unable to do any of the trails. I’m not a whimp I’m just pathetically out of shape. I know my limits. Hopefully in a couple of years when we come back to India we can make a pit-stop here and actually do some treks, the thought of them will be my motivation.

They say the weather will clear, and visibility will return in 3 or 4 days, but by then dear readers we will have moved on. A new plan stirs us and we are canceling our time in Chitwan to head across the boarder early. India is next but only for a moment to see family and get visas. Then, well we have to eat and in order to eat we’ll be needing money. Word amongst backpackers is the jobs are easy picking in the land down under…

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