We were expecting a fleet of taxis to greet us as we finished crossing the border into Nepal. Touts would be shouting “You go to Kathmandu?”, as they competed to get tourists as they exited the visa office. As our trusty Lonely Planet states, we should pay about 1500 rupees ($20) for a four hour ride to Kathmandu, the capital.
What we found were no taxis, a snaking line of 20 Landrovers holding irate French tourists, and complete confusion.
Dozens of enormous trucks were parked diagonally across the only road leading to the city. No one really understood what was going on, and there was some speculation that it was Maoist tactic. The Maoists are a political group that use guerilla tactics to try gain power in the Nepali government. While they generally leave tourists alone, except for charging “fees” when encountered on treks and on the road, they have resorted to kidnappings, general strikes and bombings to get what they want. Later on, we found out that it was actually a trucker’s strike, to put pressure on the government to control the Maoists, who had beat up a truck driver the day before who had refused to pay extortion.
Quick on his feet, Jonathan quickly grasped the situation – that if we didn’t get out of there fast, and ahead of all the other tourists, we could be at the border town for days. We picked up a Nepali named Krishna, who spoke some English, and who promised to help us get to Kathmandu by whatever means possible for a mere 4000 rupees. We walked around to the other side of the roadblock, and Jonathan and Krishna went off to find minivan drivers or any transport that showed up to try to get a ride while I guarded the luggage.
Our first ride was only 8 km down the road before we came to another roadblock. We dutifully got off the minivan, crammed with 20 Nepalis, and walked around the roadblock. Again, Jonathan set off with Krishna to haggle another ride.
In total, we found that the roadblocks were placed every 20-30km or so. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Jonathan was a complete hero, negotiating hard, finding any sort of transportation, trying to get us safely to Kathmandu as fast as possible. We didn’t know whether the situation would get more dangerous, whether there would even be any more transportation after each roadblock, or there would be government retaliation. All we did know is we didn’t want to be stranded in a rural mountain town in Nepal if and when it happened.
We wathced one roadblock go up literally 5 minutes afer we arrived. We saw the truck park across the road diagonally, and people rushing out to furiously trying to talk to the truck driver. Store owners began closing down the metal gates to their storefronts with an air of resignation. Bus loads of people walked wearily into town as buses reached the block and were turned back to where they came from.
I saw an old man giving a piggy back ride to an even older woman slumped across his back, with her bandaged bare feet dangling. As annoying and inconvenient the strike was for us, it really brought home that it could be a matter of life and death for others.
It was unsettling to drive in the dark on twisty downhill hairpin roads. On our longest leg of the journey, Jonathan sat in the back of the open air truck with 12 Nepali men, while I got the comfortable seat inside the cab. We passed a place just waiting to form a road block around 7pm, with 20 trucks lined up on one side of the road. We were waved through, hearing that they wouldn’t start blocking until tomorrow morning.
It was terrifying not to know who to trust – we passed a sketchy Maoist checkpoint, consisting of a bunch of scrawny yet overly macho teenagers wearing red bandanas, where the driver paid something and we were allowed to go on our way. The next stop had “Police” on it, some negotiation ensued, but then we were passed through after inspection. We were both on constant high alert, worried they would detect us tourists.
Just as we got comfortable, we were all booted off half an hour outside the city, and packed ourselves onto a crammed public city bus. The sun had long set, and we were in complete and utter darkness. The bus lights weren’t working, and random strangers whipped out their cell phones to provide minimal light as we got ourselves to the back of the bus and tried to guard our luggage.
After that, the bus dropped us off on the outskirts of Kathamndu, and we hailed a taxi for the final leg to the Kathmandu Guest House. It was almost alticlimactic, but a great relief to finally be there.
In all, we took 6 separate rides, consisting of a jeep, a minivan, public bus #1, open air truck, public bus #2 and taxi to get the 100 km or so to Kathamandu. Nine hours and 7000 rupees later, we were lucky to have made it – the “official” strike was actually scheduled for tomorrow…
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