Monday, 15 March 2010

Day 1: An interesting bus journey

The bus limps slowly past open-air butchers, school children and hodge-podge housing, up and over a pass, and into the valley beyond. Thanks to the strike, there are two days’ worth of traffic to contend with and we move impossibly slowly, through the dust and fumes of the traffic ahead.

As we wind our way down the other side of the pass, the traffic begins to flow more freely and we’re soon flying round vertiginous corners, with inches to spare between us at the trucks coming the other way. Occasionally we pass the burnt out carcass of a bus that has seen better days after missing a corner and plummeting into the gorge below – a vivid reminder of our mortality if ever we needed one.

Whilst Nicky sleeps, I eye the large suspension bridges, drooping perilously between the cliffs, with great suspicion: I’d heard the rumours and knew I was going to have to face my fear whilst on the trek.

After a bladder-bursting two hours, we finally come to a stop where I can alleviate myself of my ‘coffee wee’ – the wee you need precisely one hour after a morning coffee. Nicky and I also grab a couple of samosas then head back to the bus. Just as we get on, the bus driver starts her up frantically and swings her out into the road, leaving a handful of passengers behind. Cries go out for the missing passengers but the driver insists he has to move the bus. There’d been an accident.

Later on, we found out that a child had been hit by a bus. The child’s body had been flung into the road. The locals had rushed to him and, in their ignorance of first aid, had scooped him up and shaken him to revive him. If he hadn’t been dead before, he most certainly was after. In such a situation, the road is often closed: not for investigation - as this will rarely happen - but out of mourning. Our driver was desperately moving the bus so that we didn’t get caught up in the road closure.

We accumulate the remaining passengers and are soon on our way. Just half an hour on we come across another accident. A group of people stand looking down over the cliff edge towards the river below: a motorcyclist had missed the corner and plummeted off the side and they were looking to see if he was still alive.

Finally, we make it to Dumre – a miserable little town filled with insalubrious touts. As soon as we step off the bus, we are surrounded by unsavoury characters trying to direct us to buses for our onward journey to Besi Shahar. We do our best to ditch them and make an escape to an area up the street where we can assess the situation. We ask a bus driver nearby which bus we need to take. He’s desperate to ignore us but we’re persistent and he finally points to a rickety rust heap with wheels. We make our way there, followed again by various touts. I see a fellow gringo, blond(ish) haired, blue-eyed and standing like a beacon at 6ft 4. I ask him if it’s the right bus and he quips that it’s the bus for Everest. It takes me a while to figure out he's joking.

Having declined all offers to be parted with our bags, we finally manage to make it onto the bus, keeping our bags up front and within view. Behind us are sit an American couple, behind them is their guide and on the back row are four Russians, complete with typical Russian headwear.

I ask the American couple what the cost of the bus is, expecting it to be minimal given that we were travelling a mere 42km. Their guide informs me that the cost is 150R. I’m instantly suspicious as we’d only paid 400R for the 4.5 hour journey form Kathmandu. I explain to the couple that that is a ridiculous price and that the journey should cost little more than 50R.

The ticket collecter – a young boy about 19 with a smirky, smackable face – slithers up to us and asks us for 100R each. I argue with him that we should only be paying 50R each but he doesn’t budge so we cough up 100 each. On hearing that we’d only paid 100R, the American couple’s guide suddenly erupts in fury at the ticket collector. A row of dramatic Bollywood proportion ensues and gradually various other people on the bus join it. Everyone is shouting in colourful Nepalese, hands are waved, the ticket collector smirks, and even the bus driver stops the bus to join in.

It transpires that my young, smackable friend the ticket collector had been charging a range of prices for the short bus ride. The Russians, who stood out like sore thumbs and spoke little English, fared worst and were charged and extortionate 300R each, the Americans were charged 150R, we were charged 100R and the locals a mere 70R.

The argument continues to wax and wane for the length of the journey, sudden bouts of fury punctuated by gentler, pleading tones combined with arm touching. As we progress from village to village, the bus gradually fills beyond capacity, even collecting a couple of goats along the way.

By the time we arrive at Besi Shahar a couple of hours later, it is with welcome relief that we step off the bus and into a café, inviting the beacon blond to join us for a cup of tea.

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