The overland trip from Darjeeling to Kathmandu has always been rated as hell and one of the worst journeys in Asia. This time was no exception. It could have got off to a better start as I woke up early feeling the effects of my FA cup Final beers and what a drab game it was too. I finally dragged myself out of bed but took ages to get myself into gear, finish packing and go for breakfast. Darjeeling was shrouded in a very thick fog so no last glimpses of Kanchenjunga. I wasn't too bothered about time as I knew that I wanted to take the overnight bus from the border to Kathmandu, leaving too early would get me there in the middle of the night.
Eventually, after a final chat with Uncle at the Aliment hotel and some last minute 'advice' from him I set off for the taxi stand. He told me not to take one of the Siligiri jeeps from the top of town (a much shorter walk) as "they are cheaters, they will stop everywhere and take too much time". As he advised I went to the proper booking counter in the stand, I have to say it is much cheaper that way, only Rs82 but I waited ages for my taxi to fill up while those all around filled and went. I think mine got to the position of one place left and groups were turning up filing the others but not mine. After a 45 minute wait we left, even with the cheater stopping taxis I would have been half way down the hill by then.
The fog lifted to be replaced by thick and heavy thunder clouds or maybe they were waiting there all the time. On the very edge of town the rain started and boy did it rain, the road flooded, traffic was chaos and all of the jeeps windows misted up. The traffic was so slow that the train overtook us and that is saying something if you know how slow the train is. Because of the rain everyone closed the windows and it soon got really stuffy in there. Being in one of the sideways facing back seats I couldn't see out and I couldn't get any fresh air, with the continuously winding road I soon started to feel carsick and had to lean and strain to see out of the front window to prevent myself from adding to the unpleasant odour already in there. I survived and eventually the rain stopped at Kuresong, about halfway to Siliguri. For some reason the driver had decided to take a back route down, he explained to the Hindi passengers that the main road was built in 1860 and that this one was built in 1840 which I think was the last time it was maintained. Not only was it in a bad condition but the hairpins were never-ending bringing back the queasiness until we hit the plains and the straighter roads. I hadn't realised how far down the hill the tea-plantations spread, from what I saw on this back route there is possibly more tea being grown on the plain than there is in the hills and I bet it all gets classified as Darjeeling which I think is a bit of a con, who would buy Siliguri Tea?
Now for some good luck, when I reached the taxi stand in Siliguri there was one place left in a jeep waiting to go to the border, last time I did this trip I waited all afternoon and then had to pay for the whole taxi to get to the border before it closed. As soon as they had fitted five more people, including myself, into that final place the race too the border began. There was no hurry and the border wasn't going to close but the driver decided to drive like a maniac and that's a maniac by Indian standards not western ones. At the Indian border post I was the only one who had to get out and see them, they were telling me that I had to take my pack with me but I realised that they were going to dump me there so told them to leave my bag on the roof and wait. I was only five minutes doing the formalities and I'd paid for the whole trip. A similar thought struck me as had done on the India Nepal border when doing the Sandakphu trek - If they are worried about Maoists and terrorists why are they only checking foreigners and then only foreigners who look foreign, Osama could wander through this border ten times a day without the slightest hassle.
I may as well have let the Jeep carry on without me as halfway across the frontier bridge we hit a traffic jam and were all dumped there to walk the rest of the way. Carrying my full pack I suddenly realised how hot it was back at sea-level. When I got to the Nepali Immigration office I had quite a sweat on. They were all very jolly in there, I guess they must have been missing their baksheesh during the strike. The $30 visa fee is now $30 and IRs100 the latter being the backsheesh. Now I had to remember Uncle's comments again, "ignore the crocodiles just after the border, go past the bus stand to 'Darpan Tours and Travels'". I did have a few crocs snapping at my heels but they weren't very hungry as they were easily brushed off. Darpan is run by Uncle's Nephew and he was expecting me. They were fairly pleasant in there and sold me a ticket for the 5pm bus. I've no idea why he wanted me to talk to his uncle to tell him everything was alright, all I had was a ticket, I hadn't seen the bus yet which could be a complete wreck. I had another 3 hours to wait to find that out.
I've no idea where it came from, the last time I looked it was clear blue skies but as I was sitting in the office booking my bus ticket and almighty thunderstorm erupted over Karkavitta, maybe it sneaked down in my pack. When the rain stopped I went for a walk around the border town, changes some Indian Rupees into Nepali and got something to eat. When I returned to the office there were two American girls waiting for the bus too, at 4:30 Nephew's mate told us that the bus was ready and to follow him. Welcome to the Pineapple Express, the entire roof of the bus was piled two feet high with pineapples. They squeezed our packs into the small hold area at the back of the bus and we got on. The bus didn't seem that bad but certainly couldn't be ranked as luxury nor AC and my seat, number 13 wasn't in the middle as he'd shown me on the bus plan but the second back row behind the rear wheels. The sceptets who's seats were officially the two in front of mine tried to blag the two seats behind the door, I didn't rate their chances of getting them for the entire trip. At this point we were the only three people on and the driver had disappeared. I spotted that the speakers were in the ceiling rack either side of where I was sitting, I had my Swiss Army Knife in my daypack, now was my opportunity, I could easily snip one lead to each before they tried to turn on the music.
At the scheduled departure time of 5pm the bus moved a few hundred metres to the centre of town where we sat amongst a plethora of other buses all loaded with strange cargoes. a few but not many more people got on and naturally the girls were moved to their ticketed seats. An almost empty bus left town at about 5:30, this was too good to be true, I might even get to lie down during the night. It definitely was too good to be true, for the first hour we stopped every five minutes picking up more people until there must have been close to 80 people on the bus, many of them using it as local transport between surrounding villages. Eventually as the sun set and we got further from Karkavitta we seemed to settle into all seats full and only a dozen or so sitting in the corridor. There were only three kids on the bus, then why oh Brahma did all three of them have to be sitting in the seat behind me. They were all small and of the female variety, the smallest of them insisted on leaning over the top of my seatback, banging me on the head, accidentally pulling my hair and coughing and snotting above me. I tried a few times to give it a surreptitious punch but I couldn't get a clean shot it. Before anyone calls the Nepali NSPCC, I'm only joking - I got it a great shot first time. No, no, despite a great urge to punch the worst I did was give it the evilest of my evil stares.
My seating partner was a Tibetan looking guy, however if he was born in Tibet he has done a marvelous job of adapting to the Nepali way of life. He has shed all ideas of personal space and become an expert lean-over-open-window-chuck-rubbisher. I could tell the moment that I saw the bus boy point him to the seat next to mine that he was going to be a head on shoulders sleeper too, I think I must have a magnetic shoulder, everyone wants to sleep on it, except pretty women that is.
Very soon the music went on, Bab Hindi and the Wailers at full volume, oh why did I miss the opportunity to cut the leads? The music was enhanced by the three screaming kids behind me, I knew this was going to be a fun night. If you exclude Tibet from China, Nepal is the world's tallest country stretching from the Terrai on the Gangetic plain at almost sea level up to the 8000m+ peaks of the Himalaya. It is blessed with a strip of flat level land in the Terrai which has the main East West or Mahindra highway running along it, this should make most long distance travel flat straight and comfortable. Should, unfortunately it doesn't, the road is in a terrible state and contains more lumps bumps and holes than well, a lumpy, bumpy, holey road anywhere else I know of, a miniature Himalaya modeled in tarmac. My seat behind the rear wheels didn't help matters, every lump, bump and sideways lurch was amplified by the fulcrum effect. I banged my head on the luggage rack on the major bumps and my shoulder on the window and head on the window frame at every sideways lurch, I ended the journey with a very bruised shoulder and a big lump on the side of my head.
One of the stops before the sunset was by a huge pile of sacks by the side of the road, when they took the sacks away there was an enormous pile of coconuts sitting there all of which joined the pineapples already on the room - change that Pineapple Express to Pina Colada Express. We stopped for supper at about 10pm, at midnight we stopped for a town where the mini-devils and their mother from behind me got off, hallelujah, all I had to contend with now was the physical torture. As much as I tried there was no way I could sleep on this bus but somehow everyone else on the bus looked like they were sleeping soundly. Yes, my friend's head kept gravitating to my shoulder but I found that a sharp shrug made him rearrange his sleeping position. Throughout the night we stopped at regular intervals of two or three hours, these stops served no other purpose than pee stops, I don't know what people were drinking to need to stop that often. Then I thought that maybe they were some new safety stops implimented after the strike which was primarily concerned with safety. If they were they certainly made no diference to our driver nor other drivers on the road, they still drive like maniacs. When it got light enough to see them we passed at least 3 recent crash sights, two head-ons and a truck hanging over a ravine. They have to realise that the government can't tackle the safety issues, it's up to the drivers to drive in a manner appropriate to the road and vehicle conditions.
30km from Kathmandu we stopped once more, this time for an official breakfast stop, I'd much rather we'd just carried on into town for a real breakfast. Eventually we climbed the road up and into the Kathmandu valley and into the Kathmandu congestion. For a country aledgedly reeling under a fuel crisis there was no lack of traffic on the ringroad which was effectively gridlocked. Major roadworks weren't helping the situation and when we next stopped and a few people got off I knew this was going to be the end of the journey. The bus boy came on and told everyone this was the last stop, randomly by the side of the ringroad. Taxis and a few touts surfaced so obviously it's not unusual for the trip to end here. We were told it was 7km to Thamel, why to they always say 7km? After a hunt in my pack Mr GPS informed me that it was 3.5km which was further than I was hoping. The tout that initially thought I was going to make a phone call on the GPS then tried to tell me how it worked and said that it meant Durbar Square which could be 3.5km but Thamel was 7. I tried to explain that I'd set the point and knew that it was a rooftop restaurant in Thamel, then I gave up. I shared an overpriced taxi with the Americans with a driver who clearly aspired to be be either a bus driver or dead. After dropping them off at their prebooked hotel, I walked to my old favourite the Lhasa Guest House.
Kathmandu is an enigma, every time I visit there are less tourist, more trouble and yet more shops, restaurants and hotels. I don't know how they all survive, surely one day the city is going to implode. I did find a new tourist attraction yesterday as evidenced from the photographs, 'The Garden of Dreams'. It was built in the 1920's by a member of the Royal Family or aristocracy but was left to turn back to jungle over the last 40 or so years until it was 'rediscovered' and renovated in the last few years. At Rs160 I thought it was a bit steep and was reluctant to go in but I ended up having a very relaxing afternoon and got to play with the zoom and macro settings on my new camera.
I've been trying to decide which trek to do and yesterday I plumped on the Langtang Trek which was the first one I ever did in Nepal. I bought the map last night and planned on making final preparations today. When I left the hotel this morning there was something definitely amiss. Every shop was shuttered and I was sure that I hadn't misread my watch this morning, I checked the day, no not Saturday (the Napali Sunday) - strike. I found an open internet cafe and searched the news until I found confirmation. The City was under a lockdown in protest over someone killed by the Maoists recently. This contry is infatuated with stikes, first for the Maoists, now that they are coming to power against them. The country is officially to become a Republic on the 29th May, I forsee problems, I might get out before then if they don't go on another indefinite strike before I get out. I've been assured that tomorrow is a normal day so everything being well I should be back in the mountains by Friday.