The Road to Kathmandu - The Hippy Trail and Silk Route
The jeep bumps and bounces its way along the narrow, winding road, veering dangerously close to the steep precipice where, 200ft below us, the river Teesta roars. Fortunately for me though, I'm wedged so tightly between the three other people I'm sharing the front seat with that I only lurch around slightly, despite the horse sized potholes in the road. We pass encouraging road signs saying ‘Don't be silly, roads are hilly' and ‘safe drivers don't die – make today accident free.'
Just then, a large orange truck with eyes painted on its front comes hurtling towards us blaring its horn. ‘Oh God, I'm going to die!' With my heart in my mouth I shut my eyes. We swerve out of the way just in time and I open my eyes to find we're all still alive. One thing I've learned about India is that the biggest, nastiest vehicles rule the road, don't mess with them.
The friendly Himalayan bazaar town of Kalimpong where I have been teaching English for the last six weeks already seems miles behind me, but its sleepy colonial atmosphere still lingers. As do its smells; a peculiar combination of spice, Indian sweets, diesel and cow dung which seems to cling to your clothes. It is a quaint town bustling with fruit sellers in its centre and has enchanting Tibetan Gompas towards its periphery, where robed lamas twirl prayer wheels and chant Buddhist mantras. Right now it is a school holiday and I've decided to venture into neighbouring Nepal for a week, much to the alarm of my parents back in England. I have come to the Himalayas alone to explore this land of mystery that has attracted travellers for generations, ever since the first pioneering Hippies set off across Asia aboard their magic bus in search of enlightenment. Personally I am sceptical of both Hippies and Enlightenment, shunning the yoga/Buddhist cults of Goa and think perhaps ‘enlightenment' is just a cannabis induced state of mind. However, the stunning landscapes of the Himalayas fascinate me and I'm here to discover the secrets of Nepali culture.
I smile at the Nepali lady I'm squashed against. ‘You going to Kathmandu?' she asks. ‘Yes, by bus' I reply. ‘Ooohh you very brave' she says, shaking her head. Does this statement surprise me? Not in the least. Of all the people I have spoken to, each of them has said the same thing; ‘Don't take the night bus.' I have been told numerous times to fly and warned that, if I do take the bus, I will most probably be killed. But, being an impoverished student there is no way I am about to blow £100 pounds on a one way flight when I can get a bus return for £8. So by bus it is.
Our jeep deposits us at Kakarbhitta, the border town between India and Nepal. I catch a rickshaw ride across the bridge to the immigration office where I'm promptly given a Nepali tourist visa and soon enough I find myself on board the bus bound for Kathmandu. ‘This isn't so bad' I think as we set off. We pass through the seemingly endless terai, by small thatched huts and children playing in the dusty road, monkeys loitering in the shade of banana trees and women washing clothes in the rivers. As night descends, I'm lulled to sleep by the sound of tinny Hindi songs being played on the radio. Suddenly the bus stops and I'm rudely awoken. ‘What's happening?' I ask my Nepali companions. ‘Strike' one man answers, and hands me a mango. I look at it, wondering whether to eat it or throw it. We pile off the bus while the Madheshi rebels argue with the driver. A group of Nepali guys come over to talk to me. ‘Is this usual?' I ask, uncertain as to whether strikes are a mandatory part of bus travel. ‘No, no' the man replies, ‘not usual. This very unlucky.' You're not wrong there, I think to myself as both voices and fists are raised by the rebels. The Madheshi community in Southern Nepal are demanding a federal state and a greater representation in Parliament, which is currently dominated by hill communities, so protests are frequent. After about an hour the driver races to the front of the bus. He yells something in Nepali and I'm propelled onboard. As we pull off there's a commotion outside. Angry men run alongside the bus, shouting, and hurl rocks at the windows. My window is open and I stare at a rock which has newly landed at my feet, narrowly missing my head. Suddenly this doesn't seem quite so safe.
Twenty hours of bus ride later and with a numb backside, we finally approach Kathmandu. Mist swirls through the gullies between the hills and rises up from the river below us, looking as though some sleeping dragon has just exhaled a furl of smoke. Terraced rice paddies cover the hillsides and the mountains appear indigo on the horizon. Ahead of me stretches Kathmandu, with its maze of temples and ancient buildings. As we approach I realise that I actually don't know a thing about Kathmandu. Back in Kakarbhitta the guy at Assish Travels who had arranged my bus and hotel had assured me that ‘In Kathmandu a person from the hotel will meet you. Don't worry.' But as the bus crawls into the higgledy-piggledy, sprawling city, I'm beginning to have doubts. Where exactly does the bus stop? One by one my fellow passengers dismount and are lost in the chaos of rickshaws and motorbikes until it's just me and the two young bus conductors. They grin over at me. The bus turns abruptly off the road and starts squelching through god knows what, down an alley way next to a smelly river. And boy does it smell. The first thing that hits me is a stench of putrid, rotten foulness. I gasp for breath, ‘WHAT the hell IS that?' Then I see the culprit. Piles of decaying fruit and unspeakable brown slime are all around me; it's the Himalayas of waste. Holy cows happily nuzzle through the heaps and the flies are in their element. ‘We have to stop at this fruit farm to unload the bananas' one conductor tells me, pointing to the bunches of bananas on the roof of our bus. ‘Probably be half an hour.' ‘Oh god' I think as the warm fetid smell of rotten mangoes engulfs me, ‘I'm going to be sick.' All I can think is ‘get me out of here oh please get me out of here now.' Yes, the Kathmandu fruit farm comes close to top in my list of worst places ever. The two young conductors sidle up to me and one, called Santos, sits down beside me. He is a little too close for comfort. He peers at me ‘You look like Avril Lavigne' he says. I can hardly keep a straight face. Yeah…. You couldn't get a more unlikely match if you tried, although Brad Pitt and Rick Waller might come close.
On the way out of the ‘farm' we pass a group of dishevelled tents, if you can even call them tents. Half naked, skinny children scamper through the mud as their mothers wash clothes in the filthy river. My heart goes out to them. Living in a cloth tent with the stench of rotting fruit forever present must be a living hell.
To complete my experience of Kathmandu I reach the hotel to find that the hotel has never heard of me and even if they have there's no space anyway. Ha ha! not really, just joking. It actually gets lots better. The hotel; Blue Diamond, is lovely. It's clean with friendly staff and comfortable beds for very reasonable prices. However, when I enter my room I come face to face with something very unpleasant. Sat upon the table, looking almost pleased with themselves, is a bowl of mangoes. After the fruit farm episode I believe I never want to see a mango again.