A dangerous road: Kathmandu to Pokhara

A few months ago, after I had booked my flights to Nepal, I stumbled upon a TV program entitled “the world’s most dangerous roads”. That episode explored a route that included the journey between Kathmandu and the trekking centre and tourist resort of Pokhara 200km to the west.

A couple of comedians (actual) anchored the piece and it looked pretty hairy, one caveat though was that they attempted their adventure in the monsoon season…not a good decision but probably good TV. I was therefore a little anxious about the journey and hoped that it was not going to be up to my epic trip in Laos a few years ago.

Options for this route include flying, the previous week a Buddha Air flight crashed on an Everest sightseeing trip killing all on board, or taking a public bus. Private car is also a possibility however you would need a driver and a full complement of passengers to make it worthwhile.

I chose the bus.

This mode of transport also broke down to a “luxury” air-conditioned bus provided by operations such as Greenline or Golden Travels that included both drinks and lunch, or a tourist bus style service at a much cheaper price but cramped and open to the elements. You pay your money and make your choice! As the Greenline bus depot was next to my hostel and they had space I shamelessly paid my $15 USD and anticipated falling off a cliff in luxury.

tourist bus kathmandu to pokhara

An early start for the five hour journey was essential as road blocks, landslides and accidents can cause long delays and the route is best travelled in daylight. Knowing that, I was quite happy as we pulled out of Thamel in Kathmandu at 8am on the dot… only to come to a grinding halt ten minutes later in the crush of rush hour.

Kathmandu is set in a sunken plateau and in order to get out one first has to climb, and climb and climb. The bus groaned and squeaked as it dragged itself upwards, stalled and broken down trucks and minibuses dotted the roads causing plenty of tailbacks and creating obvious chicane fun for the speeding drivers. Our driver was mindful of his cargo and took a little bit more care on the bends relying on his mirrors and the road ahead as opposed to the obvious telepathic skills that the other lunatics were using.

These drivers, and their assistants who leaned out the doors waving and gesticulating to other vehicles, are obviously used to the road. They know all the bends and potholes and are well aware of the dangerous areas. That does not stop them sailing over the edge on occasion and disappearing into the chasm below. Reading the Kathmandu Post is akin to getting the form on a demolition derby as crashes and fatalities are gone over in much detail.

no room to spare

We arrived for lunch in a pleasant resort about two hours late and halfway to Pokhara where some passengers changed for another bus south to Chitwan. This afforded us a nice break in the journey to admire the scenery and stretch the legs.

There is a kind of social reasoning and care in the villages and towns of Nepal. I came across road blocks where a donation from the bus driver was requested in order to assist the family of a local man who was killed driving his truck on that same stretch the day before. A few villages exact a tax (seemed to be about 50 Rupees) from each bus as they passed through. At one point riot police were deployed, face masks and shields donned, in a rural setting that seemed most incongruous and caused us yet more of a delay.

The journey was becoming a bit of an endurance test but the Air-Con kept working and we had plenty of breaks for the bathroom where needed. I was starting to think that the extra paid for the ticket was becoming money well spent.

Despite the obvious risk of the road madness the route passes through some spectacular scenery; from towering mountains hosting perched settlements and terraced cultivation to small villages with day to day life going on giving a fascinating insight to the way Nepali’s live.

Many travellers stop off en route here to do white water rafting, camping on the shores and running the rapids as the rivers heads west. I was here in October and the water seemed just about right, even for beginners, though after snow melt or the monsoon I can imagine that the conditions would become much more demanding!

anapurna range on the road to pokhara

Around Ghorka we entered “little Switzerland” a local tourist area with foreign built cable cars traversing the river soaring skywards up to the mountain peaks along with a sign that announced the region as an “open defecation free zone”. That caused me some thought.

After crossing the river the road flattened out at last and we ploughed on uneventfully to Pokhara three hours late and in need of a cold beer. The bus park is a little outside the lakeside tourist area however plenty of taxis were on hand to ferry passengers to their hotel. I was fortunate that my hotel had sent a driver so I was spared the negotiations and soon had that ice cold beer in hand sitting on my veranda and toasting the most dangerous road.

Beyond the Iron Curtain – One: The beer hunters

Boundaries for travel are getting pushed back every year, with some exceptions due to political unrest, and more and more of the world is opening up for tourism. This ranges from the once closed Sultanate of Oman to previously war torn Sierra Leone.

In Western Europe we were once locked out from our neighbours in the east by the notorious “Iron Curtain”. It seems hard to believe now, that countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and the then Czechoslovakia were difficult, if not impossible, to visit. Accommodation outside of grotty overcharging hotels was tough to find unless you had the requisite contacts and correct papers.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall all that began to change, it meant that their citizens found it easier to visit the west but it also meant that budget travellers could head east and see what the fuss was all about. The Czech velvet revolution had just occurred in the winter of 1989 and four of us were mad keen to head over to Czechoslovakia and visit Prague, its enigmatic capital.

prague a deserted charles bridge

Our mission started in London at a small hostel in Bayswater where, alarmed at the price of beer, we started a discussion on where in Europe had the cheapest. A fellow backpacker produced a battered set of notes a friend had written down about his recent trip to Prague and in bold was written 10 Cents for a pint of Pivo! At that point I think we were all in, notwithstanding the fact that we had absolutely no idea what Pivo tasted like.

We managed to get flights to Munich (where we easily could have blown all our savings just at the Hofbrauhaus) and secured an overnight seated train for Prague. The trip was routine and uneventful until we reached the frontier where Immigration and border guards came on to the train to inspect our passports. Three of us were British and that presented no problem, our passports were stamped and they moved on. Our other team member was Australian and was dozing in the luggage rack, they gave him a bit of a poke and he woke up and handed over his passport. They examined this for a while and asked where his visa was. This woke him up smartly and he replied that he didn’t need one. That was probably not the wisest move as they hauled him down told him to grab his bags and threw him off the train!

By this time we were all fully awake, the train started to pull away slowly as I leaned out of the window and shouted that we would wait for him at the main station in Prague at midday for the next two days, after that he was on his own!

speeding tram

We arrived at Hlavni Nadrasi, Prague Central Station, the next morning bleary eyed and like lost souls. We had no guidebooks or maps so that was the first thing to take care of as well as change up some money. There were a few tourist info boxes and one set us up with a hotel, The Narodni Dum in the working class area of Zizkov which set us back about USD$10 for the room… a bargain!

My first thoughts of Prague on the way to the hotel were grey, grey and grey! It was freezing cold and damp, people shuffled along the paths and the sky was leaden. Not a welcoming feeling.

Things brightened up when our missing team member turned up at the station at midday, they had held him until the train had left then stamped his passport and made him wait three hours for the next one. He was unfazed by this and as keen as the rest of us to explore.

Food was our priority so we scouted around for a café or something similar. After a short while with no such type of restaurant showing up on our radar we asked a few locals, one spoke reasonable English and directed us to a small shop without any sign and said that would be a good choice.

It was just like the scene in American Werewolf in London where the two backpackers enter the pub on the moor and all talking stopped as the locals stared at them for a while before carrying on as normal. Fortunately a table was free and we hurried over to minimise the fuss.

old town square

This was definitely a neighbourhood café, not catering to any tourist trade, but the waitress was friendly enough and after handing out a stained one page menu said just one word… pivo?

We all smiled and the tension was broken, our first pivo was to arrive but what the heck were we supposed to do about the menu? All in Czech and it may as well have been Greek! Naturally, and we all know this now, the beer was excellent and sure enough it was cheaper than water. We solved the food crisis by wandering around the café, smiling at other diners and looking at their food; they must have thought we were nuts.

Meat, dumplings, gravy and some cabbage looking stuff seemed to be the favourite so we went with that. Happily it was tasty and inexpensive; we were getting to like Prague although we had yet to see any of the old city. That was about to change, time for some culture!