Cross-country bus adventures

Until travelling to Nepal, my token bus story always involved a 17-year-old me and an overextended bathroom break at a gas station in the middle of Norway. Today I find myself with a whole slew of new stories, ones to laugh at in the moment and remember fondly once the intended destination is reached.

Please allow me to share my most recent two:

The road to Syabrubesi

It turns out my overnight bus ride from Kathmandu to Janakpur was not the most eventful, dually fearsome and exciting trip I would be having during my time in Nepal.

Syabrubesi is the start point of the Tamang Heritage Trail, that trek I did just before Christmas. When I read in Lonely Planet that the bus ride from Kathmandu to the northern town was the worst part of the Langtang region treks, I knew I was in for a treat. At just over 120 kilometres in distance, the bus ride takes a whopping seven hours (that’s just a shade over 17 km/hr, on the super deluxe speedy bus, might I add) from start to finish. But I was ready. Armed with a breakfast of rice crackers and a jar of peanut butter (guilty creature comfort), I settled into my spot in the seat behind the driver. We started off through the early morning smog, up and out of Kathmandu into the mountains. I turned my attention to admire the fading views of the valley, and twisted the lid back onto my peanut butter jar.

WHAM! SMASH!

I watched in seemingly slow motion as the driver’s door swung open as we banked around one of the first sharp turns in the road. The door shifted violently in its hinges and slammed into my windows, a set of two sliding glass panes, a thick, translucent blue.

Glass that I shook off my lap onto the floor.
Glass that I shook off my lap onto the floor.

There was a moment of shocked, unblinking silence. Then the window shattered, splaying shards of glass onto my chest, arms and lap. I stared down. A moment later, I started to laugh, shaking my head at the absurdity of the situation. Everyone was trying to figure out what had happened as I stood up and shook the glass off my pants, brushing it onto the floor as thin pieces poked at my knuckles and thighs. The driver’s second man (you’ll find out about him in a second) picked up my chair cushion and shook it out the window, a pile of fresh glass pooled onto the pavement. If Nepal has taught me anything, it’s that you kind of just need to play along with the situation at hand. This was one of those “what can you do?” moments. Anyways, I already had a story from the trek, and I hadn’t even started it yet.

image_3
Airy window breeze – thanks, missing window!

After that initial incident, the bus ride to Syabrubesi was unbelievably beautiful. The road rounded mountains and terraced fields, offering dazzling panoramic views of an agrarian Nepal and the oncoming Himalayas.

At around the five-hour mark in the bus ride, the road failed to be a road.

Ravished by landslides, the area to the right of the road was piles of smashed boulders and gravel, the mountain wiped clean in a dirty mess. On the left side of the bus, an epic cliff, one that would have sent the fuselage of our bus barrelling down hundreds of metres.

While photos cannot illustrate the quality of the road, here's an attempt. An iPhone-sticking-out-the-bus-window shot.
While photos cannot illustrate the quality of the road, here’s an attempt. An iPhone-sticking-out-the-bus-window shot.

It’s at this point that I see the value in the driver’s second man. His torso sticks out the open bus door. At this point in the journey, it is his job to inform the driver how much space he has before the bus drives off the cliff. He hits the side of the bus rhythmically, a sound that has become synonymous with the idea of “okay, good to go!” I found myself pressing my eyes shut, meditating on the idea of our bus successfully making the pass.

A few lines written in my notebook at around this time: It’s an exercise in trust. You need to work on the assumption that the driver of the bus has the same will to live as you. The road is like a bucking bull, slowly, but determinedly trying to throw us off its back.

Potholes ahead.
Potholes ahead.

Pulling into Syabrubesi, I step onto solid ground, thankful the motion sickness that afflicted my childhood has since passed. An adventure-and-a-half!

Kathmandu to Pokhara

By this point, I should have known that it’s impossible (for me? In general?) to take a bus in Nepal without incident. Still, the 206 kilometre, eight-hour journey to Pokhara started off with hopeful optimism and a breakfast of peanut butter spread on freshly baked buns, a bespeckling of crumbs accompanying Marlon and I on the journey.

Things were uneventful for the first six hours. The switchbacks out of the Kathmandu Valley seemed tame in comparison to the road to Syabrubesi (it’s amazing how base level standards adjust as you travel through a country). I managed a few hours of sleep as the bus rocked back and forth at a leisurely pace along the highway strip next to the Trisuli River. We were just rolling out of our third stop of the bus ride when the driver slammed on the brakes. Everyone fell forward in their chairs. I yanked out my headphones and sat up straight to try and see what was going on. The bus started moving again, slower than before. We pulled over once, went a few metres, and pulled over again.

Our broken down bus
Our broken down bus

Now I sit near the back of the bus as it lurches forward onto the side of the road, a dusty mechanic shack, an empty gas station.

I look up to the driver’s compartment for answers. The platform where the gear shifter is has been swung open like the hatch on a car. I watch as grey smoke fills the cabin, a fresh puff every time the engine churns to life. So the engine isn’t dead. That is good news. Now, the sound of metal on metal, someone hammering at something under the body of the bus. I sit back and take out my notebook. We could be here awhile.

We are here awhile. It has been more than an hour so far. Over the course of that time period, about four men have been fumbling with the workings of our bus. Testing the axis: left, right, left, right. A cut metal barrel is placed under the bumper as a rush of oil drips in. A man steps out of the driver’s compartment, hands slick with grease.

Another hour passes. Marlon and I see people starting to take their backpacks out of the bus. We’re told the bus is broken and that we will have to wait another hour for a replacement to come. We resign ourselves to getting tea, happy that we at least know what’s going on. But wait! Minutes later we’re told to repack our things and get on the bus. What happened to be a jammed axis on a very winding road was apparently fixed. Turns out this bus shall be our noble steed after all.

The two-hour rest stop led to artsy gas station photos...
The two-hour rest stop led to artsy gas station photos…

And it was, slowly but surely – we got to Pokhara, after 10 hours total. The bus chugged into the city, offering brilliant window views of the Annapurna Himalayan Range and golden lit fields as we went.

So, it really isn’t just about the destination, but the adventure it took to get there, too. Here’s to many more bus rides through Nepal – I still need to ride on the roof of a bus, so who knows what stories that will yield.

PS, an honourable mention bus story: On the ride from Janakpur to Ilam, a ceiling bar came loose, swinging down and almost hitting Marlon and I in the face (coincidentally, we were sitting in those same seats, right behind the driver). A young Nepalese teen looked at me and said frankly “you never know what can happen on a bus in this country!”

You never know, but that’s half the fun.

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9 thoughts on “Cross-country bus adventures

  1. The roads certainly are narrow. I would sit with my hands on my eyes! Thank you for sharing your journey in such a beautiful way; I often feel as if I am there having the experience.

  2. Hi Hilary, I am enjoying both the cultural and spiritual aspects of your journey. I look forward to each adventure, the photos are a bonus. You will return home a changed woman!!! Be safe, have fun and Happy New Year- Celia

  3. Great post! When I was traveling by bus through Costa Rica a similar incident occurred…the road was so bumpy a window pane smashed and fell all over this guy. All the locals laughed hysterically.

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