If you’ve never enjoyed a long-distance bus ride in a third-world country, let me just start by saying congratulations. You truly have not missed a thing – other than nauseating mountain switchbacks, death-defying driving techniques, truly repulsive roadside food, and smelly seatmates. If, however, you enjoy Bollywood music blared full volume from bus speakers, or you just need your kidneys bounced around a bit, then no other form of transport compares.
Actually, the choice is most often one of economy. At ten dollars, the bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara is a fraction of the cost of a plane ticket, and much easier to book on short notice. When you’re doing extended travel, keeping your daily costs to $30 means you’re spending less than $1000 a month. A $200 plane ticket blows a big hole in that budget.
The trip starts off as well as you might expect on a street that looks like the one above. There are maybe twenty buses lined up on the one-way lane, all leaving at 7 am, maybe half of them bound for Pokhara. I’m there early, as usual, and after finding my bus and loading my bag, there’s time for a coffee and something that looks like a donut, but isn’t. But all in less than a dollar, from a street vendor. Although I’m taking a tourist bus, there are few other Westerners around – mostly locals and a few Chinese package tourists.
It doesn’t bode well that there are half a dozen empty seats still at 7 o’clock. In this part of the world, nothing moves until it’s crammed to capacity or beyond – no exceptions. I’m pretty sure that any un-ticketed passengers the driver can squeeze in at the last minute or along the way are just money in his pocket, giving him every incentive to fill the bus by either hook or crook. So we wait while he while he makes his pitch to a half dozen stragglers. He manages to convince a couple of them, and we’re off at a quarter past.
It’s actually the first day of the Buddhist New Year in Nepal, so it’s a festive group on the bus, talkative, happy, loud. Except for the guy sitting next to me. He’s a 30-something Chinese guy, kinda pudgy, somber. He smells exactly like a bag of cheese puffs, oddly enough. He gets a phone call as he settles in, and his end of the conversation consists of only affirmative grunts. He falls asleep before we get underway. This is what I’d consider to be a pretty good seatmate.
We leave Thamel and I learn that there are indeed at least a few proper roads in Kathmandu – paved, few potholes, the real thing. However, this doesn’t last for very long. Half an hour in, we’re bouncing violently along in heavy traffic along a completely unsurfaced two-lane road. I suspect the driver has taken an ill-advised detour – perhaps looking for bodies to fill those last remaining seats. Surely the main road between Nepal’s two largest cities is not a dirt road. But the sheer number of trucks and long-distance coaches moving in both directions convinces me otherwise.
After about an hour, the road improves, and we stop for a much-needed bathroom break. A stall is selling small bowls of chili potatoes, a local specialty and one of my personal favorites. My fromage-smelling friend eats one there and takes one to go. But I’m feeling queasy from the bumpy ride and decide the faux-donut I had for breakfast will last me to lunch.
It was a good decision, as the real roller coaster ride has just begun. Kathmandu has an elevation roughly 2000 feet higher than Pokhara, and most of that descent is made on this second section of the journey. Here the narrow road clings precariously to the mountainsides, with nary a guardrail to keep us from plunging into the thousand-foot deep ravines should our driver mis-judge one of the hairpin turns.
You’d think slow and careful would be the approach here – and you’d be wrong. Because there’s a semblance of pavement on this stretch, here is where everyone wants to make up the time they lost back on the moon crater section. So motorbikes and minivans pass us around every blind curve, playing chicken with on-coming traffic. Our driver’s strategy is to apply the brakes only when absolutely necessary, and at the very last minute, while he too passes the slower trucks, ducking back into our lane with often only inches separating us from on-coming traffic. Even with this kamikaze strategy, we’re smelling burning brake pads most of the way down.
There’s remarkably little to see. I’m headed for the Himalayas, but thus far I haven’t seen anything much different from the more dramatic parts of the Appalachians. The rugged hills, miserable roads, tumble-down shacks and depressing little towns – replace the handsome Nepalis in their colorful silks and cottons with rednecks wearing camo and MAGA caps, and you’d be in West Virginia.
One does not travel halfway ’round the world to see West Virginia.
The bus itself actually isn’t half bad. There are airplane style seats that could probably be comfortable in most other circumstances. And the food stops – two of them – are far better than average. Both are clean and offer a plateful of curries with rice for a couple bucks. For me, sampling the local food is one of the best parts of any journey, but, if you’re not much of a foodie, there are the ubiquitous cans of Pringles to get you through any trip. Kudos to the Pringles sales and distribution team. I don’t know how they do it, but you can buy the infamous chips in a can from every roadside snack shack from here to kingdom come, Nepal included.
Twice, accidents jam us up, maybe fifteen minutes the first time, an hour or a bit more the second. You always wonder what horror awaits ahead when you finally get moving again. But whatever the cause, the scene of the crime has been cleaned up by the time we get there. I see ambulances coming out, but no tow trucks. Do they just push the wrecks off the side of the mountain?
There are a dozen other unremarkable villages, at least as many unpaved stretches of road, and we finally arrive in Pokhara around 4 pm – a six-hour trip that takes nine hours. I’m guessing nine hours isn’t bad – I’ll bet getting stuck behind only two accidents per day is fortunate on this stretch of road.
For some reason the tourist bus terminal is further out of town than the regular bus terminal is – probably a deal made with the local taxi mafia so that a tout or driver can make a day’s wages off of one unsuspecting tourist. But that’s why I’m carrying a backpack instead of a suitcase – I can hike far enough away from the terminal to catch a local cab, at the local price, at the very least.
As it turns out, no taxi required. I see a few hotel signs atop buildings in the distance, maybe a 20-minute walk. After a long, grueling bus ride, I’m happy to be on my own two feet anyway.
I pass a slow moving cow meandering down the middle of the street. A few minutes later, a small family of black yaks, in a much bigger hurry, pass by, all of us headed in the same direction.
I hope we’re not all going to the same place – I don’t have any reservations.
Subscribers – if you’re thinking about travel to Asia, feel free to post any questions you might have in the comments section below. I’ll answer within 24 hours in most cases.