OK, let’s imagine a narrow one-lane road, with no clean shoulder, where the asphalt kind of just disappears into the side of the road, with dirt and asphalt blending together.
Now, imagine that there are two lanes of traffic on this narrow road, with cars going in both directions.
And let’s say that there aren’t really any cars driving on this road, there are just huge trucks and coach buses. And there is no dividing line to help drivers stay in their lane.
And now, let’s throw in that the drivers are all driving on the opposite side of the road, that is, if you aren’t British. That is, they are all driving on the left side of the road.
Let’s top it off with making sure there are no traffic lights. Anywhere. And barely any roundabouts to help control the traffic.
And finally, imagine that the asphalt road was built about 40 years ago and hasn’t been fixed since. So the road is NOT REALLY a road. It’s more like dirt and rocks and filled with pits and holes where the asphalt has broken up.
That was what we experienced today as we rode on a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
At 7 am this morning, we got on what is called a “tourist bus” with our trekking guide. (more on him later) Driving through the city at about 25-30 miles an hour, it took us about an hour before we left the city behind us. During that time Jay and I were glued to the window. We couldn’t take our eyes away from what we were seeing.
For the past three days we had only been in the tourist neighborhood called Thamel. Now we were seeing a different, huge part of the city from the relative safety of the bus. I say relative, because I realized that if we arrived at our destination alive in this type of traffic and driving conditions, it would be a miracle.
As we drove along the streets, dust billowed out everywhere, stirred up by the trucks and buses and motorcycles. People walked and rode motorcycles and bicycles with their faces covered by masks, protecting their lungs from the pervasive clouds of dirt.
As we “sped” along the road sometimes at about 15 miles per hour, we were able to spot tiny fragments of people’s lives.
While I’ll try to describe a very little bit of what we saw, there is no way I can convey how surreal this was.
We have seen movies and read books, and watched the news. We know that Nepal is a very poor country. We’ve seen pictures. And yet, to see it in person is unbelievable. It's hard to reconcile what you have learned in a theoretical, abstract way to what you see with your own eyes.
To catch a tiny snapshot of the lifestyle in which the people we saw live felt very much like voyeurism. And yet, as these scenes played out in front of us, outside, along the road, Jay and I stared out the window, unable to turn away.
A tiny girl, about three years old was sitting on a little potty in front of her house, that was really a shack made of corrugated sheet metal, her dress pulled up above her chubby belly, and her mom looking on, encouraging her to go.
A family had woken up and had all congregated outside of their corrugated metal hut, warming themselves in front of a fire they had built from the garbage that lay around them. The cloth that they used as the door kept opening as more members of the family emerged from the hut. Little children joined older siblings, and the mom was scurrying around preparing something for them to eat.
A small group of women were squatting over a central faucet located near the road, washing their vegetables at this communal water source.
A young girl stood outside her shack by her baby brother,who had only a shirt on, and was helping him put on his pants.
A group of young men stood in a circle around a fire that they had built in front of a row of stores. They were all talking and drinking a steaming hot liquid, eating their breakfast.
People were streaming along the street, on their way to work, on their way to somewhere.
The roads are very dusty. The buses and trucks kick up all the dirt and dust covers everything. The street signs seem so dirty, and yet they may have just put up last week. They are just covered in dust and dirt.
As people were opening their shops, they were doing a lot of cleaning of the dust, sweeping their dirt walkways of the accumulated dust with short-handled brooms, hunched over as they swept, throwing water from pails onto the road to alleviate the dust, washing cars, and windows.
Near the outskirts of the city we came to a field that had many large satellite dishes, and they were all gray and black with dust.
Construction workers and road builders were using the most primitive equipment and techniques to build.
This particular photo shows the men at work across from the bus stop. Notice the ladder, the tools to remove the wooden support beams that held up the concrete as it was drying, the lack of any safety equipment as they worked on the upper floors.
As we left the city we began to see open areas with fields and small gardens, the road conditions improved a bit, and we began to climb the hills towards Pokhara.
This is when we both fell asleep. For me, it was an escape mechanism. You see, as the bus was driving along this narrow road I described above, as we were climbing along the hills, with drop-offs just below us, the trucks and buses were passing us by with only inches to spare. And if a bus was going slowly and we wanted to overtake it, we just moved into the other lane of oncoming traffic, just honking the horn and then kind of playing chicken with the oncoming traffic. And then moved back into the correct lane.
This happened over and over again, and between the narrow roads, the hillside maneuvers, and the bumpy ride, I just couldn’t watch anymore.
When we woke up, maybe an hour later, here are some things that we saw.
A gigantic quarry was on one side of the road, and trees that were supposed to be green but were instead gray with layers of dust were on the other side of the road.
Corrugated metal, stone, and plywood shacks were next to beautiful buildings.
The trucks and buses were brightly painted with cheerful messages and pictures.
The beauty of the distant mountains juxtaposed with the dusty streets and dilapidated buildings.
The dilapidated buildings juxtaposed with the newly built, beautiful, creatively designed and boldly painted homes.
Many suspension walking bridges spanning the river that we followed all the way to Pokhara.
We stopped along the road for breakfast, and then a couple hours later stopped for lunch. At these roadside rest centers there was a buffet for $2.50. Lentils and rice and curries and boiled vegetables and noodles. You just move along the line and pick out the food you want to eat, bring it to a table in the outdoor patio and eat while looking at the distant mountains. At some point the driver gets back on the bus and we continue the journey.
A young boy, about 15 years old, worked on the bus, helping the driver. When we departed Kathmandu he passed out water to everyone, offered us newspapers, helped us with our bags. When we got to the various rest stops he would proudly announce in English: “Breakfast stop! 20 minutes for breakfast!” And when the break was over he called people back to the bus, counted the passengers, making sure the right number of people were aboard, and then signaled to the driver that it was ok to move on. I wondered why he wasn’t in school.
The distance between Kathmandu to Pokhara is 208 kilometers, which is a little less than 130 miles. It’s mostly congested city and then mountain roads. Also take into account the bathroom break, the breakfast break, and the lunch break. So how long did it take us to get to Pokhara?
Take a guess.
In the US, driving country roads, in the mountains? Maybe 4 hours? 5 hours? It was an 8-hour ride.
We arrived in Pokhara at 3:00. What a day, what an experience!
Walking into our hotel, and seeing how beautiful it was, we realized what a luxury it was and how privileged we are in our lives. The distance between the lives we had glimpsed from afar and the life we lead is staggering. I had read about it and had been advised about it and yet seeing it and realizing how true it was in person was a very different feeling and experience. And yet, here we are, just watching, observing, and documenting.
And we move on with our lives. The hot shower was amazing, and the bed was SO comfortable. And tomorrow we leave for our 8-day trek.