By Everett Potter
On a recent Sunday morning, I arose at 4:45 am in the dusty village of Jomsom, Nepal which sits on the northern edge of the Annapurna range at about 9,000 feet. I had spent nearly three weeks traveling around Nepal with Dr. Antonia Neubauer, founder of the adventure travel company, Myths & Mountains. More important, Dr. Neubauer also founded READ (Rural Education and Development), a stellar organization that has built libraries throughout Nepal, India and Bhutan. I had seen half a dozen of these libraries in the Nepalese countryside, testaments to community work, willpower and planning in a country where such things are in short supply.
But now it was time to go home.
I intended to make the 20 minute flight from Jomsom to Pokhara and then fly from Pokhara to Kathmandu. I would spend the night in Kathmandu, and then fly the next day to Seoul, overnight, and then continue on to New York via Korean Air the next day. A long trip, yes, but there are no shortcuts, especially in Nepal.
Three days earlier, I had taken the flight into Jomsom. It was the best flight of my life, a 20 minute thrill ride right through a pass in the Himalayas, close enough to the Annapurna range (26,000 plus foot peaks) that it seems as if you’re in an Imax movie (with only slightly higher admission).
On this Sunday, I walked to Jomsom airport before 6, with my dusty, dirty luggage, which contained a few souvenirs, including a small piece of yak bone I had found while trekking to Kagbeni. At the airport, I waited in a cement room (amenities limited to matching his and hers pit toilets) behind locked doors along with a few westerners and a large group of chanting Indian pilgrims. They had flown up on a pilgrimage to Muktinath, one of the holiest Hindu shrines, which lies a few hours from here. We waited as the morning stillness gave way to a slight breath of air that shook the bush outside. Four hours later, that bush was bent sideways. By 10 AM in Jomsom, the dust-laden wind is usually blowing 30 miles per hour or better. This day was no exception.
At 10.01 , after no news or announcements, the police unlocked the doors and told us to go back to our hotels, all flights had been canceled for the day. A storm around the Annapurna range had produced winds that were so strong that the plane from Pokhara had to turn back after a mere eight minutes in the air.
There is a morning flight window into Jomsom of about four hours. Then the wind rises and goes crazy, gusting 50 miles an hour (or better) for the rest of the day and planes can’t land. In fact, it is sometime difficult to walk, and you’re instantly coated with desert dust. You just drink Everest beer and take anti diarrhea medicine and huddle in a hotel lobby to pass the time between trekking.
Now I was fortunate to be traveling with a smiling Nepali named Lava Thapa, who works for READ. Lava had gone off the day before on a pilgrimage to Muktinath, the holy Hindu shrine, and had filled an empty plastic water bottle with “holy water” to bring home to Kathmandu. He was good companion, an impromptu guide, and invaluable, considering that my Nepali is pretty much limited to “Namaste” and “beer.”
But I was faced with a serious problem. There was no way to make the next day’s flight from Kathmandu to Seoul and then NYC if I had to wait another day in Jomsom. And it turns out you can wait for days in Jomsom for an aircraft to arrive. So Lava and I made a hasty decision. We would get a car and driver to take us to Pokhara, a 10 hour journey by road (it’s a 20 minute flight), a road that had been completed six months earlier.
“Completed” turned out to be wishful thinking. There was much talk of this road in Jomsom, which will eventually bisect the Himalayas and link India and Tibet. All I can say is that at this point, it’s unlikely to be heavily trafficked. On a given day, I saw a dozen vehicles, most of them local, around Jomsom.
Hearing us speak English, a laid back Englishman (an ITV cameraman on holiday from London) named Marcus Hanbury-Aggs and an elderly Dutch couple (he a double for Van Gogh, albeit with both ears) gathered around us and the five of us resolved to pool our resources and travel together.
It was after 11 when we left Jomsom, after negotiating for a four wheel drive vehicle to take us to Ghasa. From there, we would need to negotiate for another vehicle as far as Beni. At Beni, we would need to haggle for a third vehicle, to take us to Pokhara. From Pokhara, it would still be at least six hours to Kathmandu.
All of this was predicated on a best-case scenario of actually being able to drive. Flat tires and breakdowns are common in Nepal. But so are roadblocks, which can last hours, days or even a week or more. Most are political in origin, though some are because of workers gripes. These roadblocks effectively shackle the country, a country still in some considerable political turmoil. If you’re dumb enough to try to break through the roadblock or outflank them, the road blockers have been known to drag you from your vehicle and set the car on fire. So making the flight from Kathmandu the next day looked doubtful indeed.
We drove on a road that was a “road” in name only, a tooth-jarring four wheel drive trip where we forded rivers and drove a single track along a cliff side. “Road,” I was discovering, can quickly become a euphemism for body slamming in Nepali.
After two hours of this we had to stop at a checkpoint and I was made to buy a trekking permit, a bureaucratic hassle because I was now in the Annapurna conservation area. I wasn’t trekking, I was a passenger. But I was also a foreigner in a place that required a permit. That was 30 minutes of paperwork and extra money in the middle of nowhere, handed to a teenager with a uniform and a badge.
Then the real fun began. The driver took us another mile and then stopped at a shack in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of idling, scoffing teens and beat-up vehicles. This was Ghasa, and here we had to negotiate a new ride for the next leg. The dispatcher was an arrogant young man who took an instant dislike to Lava. He denied us passage on an outdoing bus. Then he demanded a small (local) fortune for the five of us to rent an entire bus.
“Ke garne?” said Lava finally. It’s a Nepalese expression that means, “What to do?” Indeed, what to do when you’re stranded in the middle of the Himalayas? It was a five day trek to Pokhara from here. We were surrounded by towering mountains that vanished into the clouds. This guy had us.
So we ended up hiring a small Indian bus — and spent the next three hours terrified on a single lane “road” that had been carved along the edge of what many claim is the world’s highest gorge, the Kali Gandaki Gorge. At it’s deepest, it’s nearly 27,000 feet from river bed to mountain top, with the waters of the Kali Gandaki River rolling over boulders the size of office buildings. To our west was Dhaulagiri (26,794) while to the east were the Annapurna mountains, dominated by Annapurna I (26,545). We’re talking rock and dirt “road,” where the speed is zero to eight miles per hour, in a shabby, beaten Indian bus that lurched and shuddered as we eased first one tire and then another over boulders embedded in the loose soil, with a carved cliff face looming over us on one side and a 2,000 to 3,000 plus foot drop on the other, with barely space for one vehicle.
Naturally, since this was Nepal, there was traffic coming the other way on blind curves, including similar buses with people on the roof, hanging on to roof racks, because too many more were jammed inside. Every vehicle was a sea of faces plastered against the windows, usually with Nepali pop music blaring. Our driver was no more than 17 (there are no older drivers in Nepal, it seems; no need to wonder why). It was the kind of experience that appears buried in back pages of the International Herald Tribune, the proverbial Asian bus doing a belly flop into a gorge. I was too stressed out to actually enjoy the staggering scenery. It was truly staggering, but mortality seemed like a more pressing issue.
We came upon work crews — men with shovels, others sitting on the ground with small hammers, painstakingly breaking larger rocks into smaller stones. In other places, large boulders sat like sentinels beside the road, ample evidence of a recent rockfall or slide. Some were larger than the bus.
My food consumption that day had consisted of a granola bar and two well chewed Immodium D. I reached out for my water bottle, which I had been sipping to ration water. I saw two bottles and grabbed the one that I thought was mine as we were thrown about the inside of the bus. I unscrewed the cap and was about to drink when Lava said, “No, no. That is mine.”
He was adamant.
“I thought it was mine,” I said, with some irritation. I was parched, dehydrated actually. What did it matter?
“No, no, it is mine, that is the holy water from Muktinath.”
I had been a milli-second from drinking Lava’s “holy water,” in a country where the favorite plumbing pastime is to build outhouses next to the riverbanks, in water in which cattle and donkeys frolic. For the rest of my days, this will be a standing definition of “good karma.”
We crawled along, tipping and lurching for hours, on the edge of this gorge. After what seemed liked days, we came to Beni, a flyblown place crawling with mules, children and battered vehicles, a market town with drivers hustling rides. Again we had to negotiate for transportation, and this time we got a taxi, a 1973 Toyota Corolla that must have had several million miles on it and had lost its’ shocks in a previous incarnation. But the driver, wearing his topi, the national hat, was cheery and welcoming, and off we went.
But in some ways, this was even scarier than the Kali Gandaki Gorge. There, everyone is crawling. Here, on a battered and bashed road, we began an aggressive cat and mouse game on blind curves with trucks and cars and motorcycles and overloaded buses. This went on for hours and hours and you reach a point where you actually become accustomed to passing on blind curves. It’s expected – why not? We made it to Pokhara by 9PM, a town filled with bars and trekkers hotels that seemed the more surreal for its jollity and devil-may-care transients sitting in cafes and bars.
We were exhausted, and made the decision to sleep at a hotel and continue to Kathmandu in the middle of the night, before the tumultuous traffic that rings the city had fired up its engines.
I drank the best beer of my life and we ate dal bhat — rice and lentils– our first meal of the day, at 9:30, barely able to speak, and slept for a few hours. We departed for Kathmandu at 3AM with yet another hired car and driver. It was pitch black, delightfully cool and still as we drove. Twenty minutes into the ride, we had only seen one other car on the road. That’s when Lava decided to tell me that bandits sometimes stalked the route in the middle of the night.
“They use guns and take everything, your mobile, your watch, your money” he said. “They stop you with their car, saying they need help, then they point guns at you.”
Now every pair of headlights coming toward us was a potential bandit. The fact that many of them appeared to be heading directly for us until the last minute didn’t help matters.
Dawn began to break and the clock was ticking. I needed to grab a stored bag in Kathmandu and leave for the airport by 10. And as I had already learned, nothing happens in a hurry or on time in this country.
We hit two Army checkpoints, each one outfitted with the requisite surly and suspicious young soldiers, who peered in the car, looking for Maoist insurgents or worse. As the sun broke through the mountain haze, we passed a fiery riverside cremation, with two dozen mourners crouched on large river stones. Not mine, at least. At least not yet.
Then we fought our way up mountains and down mountains past Indian-made (Mr. Tata has much to answer for) trucks belching huge clouds of black soot into the air, passing each other on blind turns as we crawled, wove and dodged them like bullets. By this time, I had been thrown around so many vehicles I felt like a punching bag. We dodged chickens and pedestrians and school children strung out along the road, past traffic jams of Indian trucks bringing goods to Nepal, wedging our way past lazy drivers and sleepy drivers and angry drivers, as the day grew hotter and the traffic become engulfed in a perpetual thick, rank, diesel cloud that sickened me as much as the lurching vehicle.
Finally, we crested a mountain, or hill in Nepali parlance, since anything less than 14,000 feet isn’t granted “mountain” status here, and looked down upon the hazy, chaotic city of Kathmandu. After 16 hours of hard driving, I hadn’t been that happy in ages.
We arrived in the perpetual pandemonium of Kathmandu at 9 am. An hour later I was on the way to Kathmandu airport, on time for my flight. But as I went through security, there was another roadblock. Every single item in my luggage was checked and a pair of 20-somethings with attitude and badges, this time wearing policemen’s uniforms, grilled me about something they joyfully ripped out of my luggage and held aloft.
The yak bone.
One of them took it and made a stabbing motion.
Now why hadn’t I thought of a yak bone as a potential weapon?
Because I don’t think that way. But they did. Or were they grinning because it was sport to confiscate things? But to have traveled all this way and then be held up, within sight of the aircraft, was beyond ridiculous.
The words “Korean Air flight to Seoul now boarding” had a transcendent effect. I asked for a Korean Air representative. He duly arrived and the deadly yak bone was discussed in great and heated detail. The police held tight to it. Words were exchanged. Then, with a grudging shrug, the Korean Air rep was handed the yak bone. He placed it in a special bag, sealed it, told me not to worry and took it away.
Hours later, I landed in Seoul. The bag with the bone was the very first thing spat out on the luggage carousel in Seoul, beating even the luggage tagged “First Class”. It now sits on my desk, benign, a stark white reminder of my 36 hour hejira from Nepal. Better yet, I’m sitting at my desk looking at it, not on the edge of eternity on the Kali Gandaki Gorge.