Downhill Journey to Kathmandu – Nepal, Asia
Eight days out of Lhasa, Greg, Cara, Ivone, and I finally made it to the Tibet border town of Zhangmu. We got up early to cross the border into Nepal and so began a journey that got more interesting as the day progressed. One of the first obstacles was the black market moneychangers. There were about five of them between the inn and the restaurant. In China you really don’t get a better rate on the black market, but you can avoid the hassle of using the Bank of China which is exactly what you would expect a Communist Bank to be. Simple operations like changing money involves lots of paperwork, IDs, and time. We told them we would change money to Nepali rupees after we ate breakfast and paid for the room. The group of five still came into the restaurant with us; we had to shoo them away. They randomly kept popping in to see if we had finished eating and offering us various exchange rates. Finally, I traded my remaining yuan and some US dollars to rupees.
We then hired a minivan to carry us to the Nepal border station, about eight kilometers down a switchbacking road. Unfortunately, we were soon engaged in the local pastime – traffic jam. The Chinese border office was not yet open; vehicles were already lined up to get across. Our driver informed us to go stand in line at the border, as we would have to go through separately from the vehicle anyway.
We decided to trust this man with our bags since we had hired him through our accommodation; he really couldn’t go anywhere due to the traffic snarl. After walking the 1/2 kilometer or so to the Chinese border office, we encountered a long line of people. This border crossing has become more popular in recent years, but the facilities haven’t been upgraded to handle the increase. At 9:00 a.m., the border opened. All the big trucks and SUV’s roared their engines to life, gassing everyone in the pedestrian line as we had to line up right next to these vehicles. This only lasted a short time; most of the drivers turned off their engines after realizing they were going nowhere fast.
The pedestrian line also poked along. We soon saw a man trying to sell people rides to Kathmandu. He had come up to us the night before asking if we wanted a ride to Kathmandu. We were noncommittal, he said he would be in the line in the morning. We still never agreed to anything, but he said he would wait for us on the Nepal side. He disappeared. At about 11:30, we made it through customs. For some reason my passport and Greg's required extra scrutinizing; we waited while our passports were taken to another office.
We got out to find that we were ahead of our bags. We sat down and waited for 45 minutes. When our van finally made it through the vehicle inspection point, we hopped in. The driver drove about 200 feet before stopping at yet another traffic jam. Some busses and SUVs were trying to come up the road from the Nepal border. Since one side of the road was already blocked by big trucks, no one was moving. Everyone started blowing their horns in an attempt to get the police to come. Eventually one did make an appearance. Interestingly enough, I had observed this policeman fighting with someone in a traffic jam the day before. When he didn’t resolve anything, more horn blowing commenced and more senior looking officials showed up. They finally came up with a solution. The vehicles that had driven up the narrow switchback were going to have to go down backwards. They started moving again slowly in a big caravan with the leading vehicle going down the switchback and eventually pulled on the sides as they found space. We were then able to go down the very steep, unpaved, rocky road to the Friendship Bridge.
The Friendship Bridge crosses a river that marks the Chinese/Nepali border. As soon as we were on the bridge, our “friend” reappeared and proceeded to try to help us through customs. Once again we had to show the Chinese our passports and then cross the bridge into Kodari (the Nepalese border town). What a difference a river can make. Kodari was full of dark skinned round eyed men and sari clad women. The smell of curry was in the air. We set our watches back 2.25 hours.
The town itself only consisted of a long row of old shanty buildings. We entered the immigration office and filled out the paperwork for our visas; painless and quick to get a two-month visa (very refreshing after two months of Chinese bureaucracy.) We then had to try to find a lift to Kathmandu. Our “friend” quoted us 5,000 rupees for the four of us, too expensive. Greg and I decided to try on our own. We went out and asked various people we saw sitting around in cars if they would take us to Kathmandu. We finally found a man with a truck who quoted a slightly cheaper rate. We also met a German man who wanted to come with us. We finally agreed on 5,200 rupees for five people or about $16.00 a person. Other groups were paying $20.00. I gave him 3,000 rupees up front to buy fuel. As we were about to leave, our “friend” who had been hovering around all this time asked me to pay him for his “help”. I gave him 100 rupees to make him go away.
Our driver’s name was Orjun Shasta; he spoke some English. Before we left, we had to stop at a print shop and get a "tourist only" sign made for our car in case we encountered any Maoist bandhs. The Maoist is a communist group in Nepal who recently ended a 10-year civil war with the government. They were threatening to hold strikes over the fate of the monarchy in Nepal. The Maoists had originally agreed to allow the people to vote on the issue, but changed their minds and demanded the country be declared a republic. They said they would enact a bandh to force the issue. During the bandh, no traffic could move and businesses were forced to shut down, enforced through violence, often attacking and beating people who violated the strike. The news reported a possible ban for that day. The “tourist only” sign was supposed to protect us as they generally left tourists alone.
We set off continuing down the same valley we had been following since beginning our descent off the Tibetan Plateau. The road was a mix of pavement and mud through small villages. About 10 kilometers down the road, we encountered the Maoists. They had blocked the road with a bench. They surrounded the vehicle and began speaking to our driver in Nepali. Lots of arguing commenced. They wanted us to pay them to pass. Our driver argued that he had already paid and had a receipt to show it. Yes, a receipt. The Maoists are kind enough to give you a bonafide receipt for paying their extortion demands. They only wanted 50 rupees. We gave it to them and got another receipt.
The country is pretty much lawless outside the the main cities, so you really have no choice but to pay. We drove on for a little while and were soon surrounded by middle school kids who had set up another roadblock. They started banging on the vehicle. They wanted money for their school. Our driver once again argued with them. This was nice of him. He should have run over them; their behavior was so bad. We eventually went on without paying. While this was going on, the students were having a chat with Greg who was riding in the back of the truck. We had extortion in the front and a “where are you from” conversation in the back. After passing them, we stopped for gas and had lunch.
Lunch was at what appeared to be a friend of Orjun Shasta. They set out rice, potatoes, chicken and fish. We passed on the cold meat. Our driver wanted to wait until the sun went down a little; we stayed for over two hours. We played with the children, the dog, the cat, the chickens and visited with the family. I decided to do some sewing as a button had come off my pants. I got out my sewing kit, my needle and began the arduous task of trying to thread the needle (a task at which I have no skill). After watching me struggle, the family took pity on me. One of the daughters pulled out a big needle and sewed the button on for me.
We drove towards Kathmandu. Our driver kept stopping, to take school kids he knew home and then stayed to visit their parents. He stopped to buy fruit and flirt with the saleswomen. He stopped to recharge his cell phone. He stopped at a guesthouse where the owner tried to convince us to stay by telling us that a nonexistent bandh was up ahead. We eventually had enough and told him that if he stopped again, we would start deducting money from his pay. We didn’t meet anymore resistance.
A few groups hovered around the roadside. We had to tell our driver not to stop; all everyone wanted was money. We arrived at the Kathmandu guesthouse in Thamel exhausted after the long day. I paid the driver in US dollars after a long discussion about which exchange rate to use. The guesthouse was full so they called the Buddha accommodation. Someone came to get us. It is a good thing they did as Thamel is a warren of narrow winding streets. Greg, Kera, and I went to eat after checking in. We decided on a nice rooftop restaurant. I ordered a set Nepali dinner that consisted of a platter with rice in the middle. It was surrounded by various curries, vegetables and meat. All this for 150 rupees.
It took us a total of about 6.5 hours to make the 120-kilometer trip.