One of the tantalising things about living in Nepal is that much of the work happens in Kathmandu yet, these days, the capital is a congested conglomeration of concrete, traffic jams, dust and pollution. The city nestles amidst the Himalayas but often the tainted air obscures the eternal snows. Escaping into rural areas is the way to enjoy Nepal but Simon’s visa, which has allowed us to be here for the last four years, wasn’t arranged for our enjoyment.
Offices were closed for the Dasai holidays though so we hired a chap called Raj and his hefty 4-wheel-drive Hilux so we could head for Manang. Friends suggested we employ a local driver once we reached Manang district but Raj claimed local knowledge; he’d worked on the local hydropower project for 48 days but should we have accepted his credentials? Many Nepalis are masters of story-telling and content is considered unimportant as long as the story is entertaining.
| Landslide chaos in Lamjung
We planned to set out from Kathmandu at 7 but our departure was Nepali-time just an hour late. Raj said something about needing to wash the car; I didn’t believe nor was I entertained by that story. The drive went smoothly despite quite challenging dirt roads and as we bounced along approaching the village of Ngadi, Raj was obviously enjoying himself and let out the occasional whoop. That was until we encountered yet another landslide and notorious black mud grabbed hold of the wheels. Raj revved forward and back in vain and the vehicle was soon axel deep in material as sticky as porridge. The first local to walk by said, ‘why did you try to drive along here?’ It was a rhetorical question.
More people gathered. There was a lot of discussion about what to do next. Raj walked back south where there was said to be a tractor. Simon walked a little way north to the next village where there were several inviting tourist lodges. The lodge-owner said they’d help and soon she returned to the car with two very slight daughters. We regrouped for more discussions. Raj had found the tractor but no-one knew where the owner was. It began to feel like it would be some time before the Hilux would be out of the mud so we shouldered our packs and decamped to the lodge. It was 4.30pm. From the lodge garden we could enjoy the spectacle of the thundering Marsyangdi river and see people gather at the vehicle, offer advice, wander on, others gather, motor bikes bounce past and yet others arrive to watch. Daylight softened into gathering gloom and the tractor appeared. It had no lights and no means of towing anything. Raj walked to the lodge to scrounge some wire. Assorted lights swung around in the dark and around 7pm we saw the Hilux jerk backwards. Another jerk and another and it was out of the mire even if it was on the wrong side of the impediment. Eventually Raj walked around the boggy bit of road and rejoined us as we enjoyed a tasty daal bhat.
The plan for the morning was to walk on while he drove back and around on a different road. Walking north would take us a leisurely 40 minutes and driving round would take a similar time. Knowing things often take longer than planned in Nepal, our walk was pleasant and unhurried and we paused often to admire sapphire-blue dragonflies and gorgeous butterflies and shiny multi-coloured beetles.
We waited at the rendezvous point, wondering, until Raj called us saying that a mechanic would be with him within an hour. The breaks were faulty, he said. Time can be stretchy in Nepal and we wondered how long Raj’s hour would prove to be. We wandered on, now back on the main ‘road’ to Manang, found a tea shop and were entertained by the owners’ youngsters.
Raj finally caught up with us at midday and we bounced and weaved on until we hit another glitch: a steering problem.
The monsoon had hit the region very hard indeed and we hadn’t expected to be able to drive all the way to Manang and, as the next village wasn’t far ahead and was beyond another big landslide, we hoisted our packs onto our backs again and headed on – to Dharapani.
Some time after dark, Raj arrived having fixed the steering himself, enthusing about driving us the rest of the way. Raj’s optimism proved unfounded though so next morning we walked on. Various vehicles brought livestock for the immanent Dasai feasting, including a couple of guys on a Bajaj 125cc motorbike with an adult billy goat sandwiched between them. We flagged down one of the jeeps plying the road. I was pleased that the only livestock in our jeep was in human form. The back of the vehicle was full of mattresses and plywood sheets and the front seat, intended for one bottom accommodated four, plus bags of garlic which were being delivered to various houses. Folks flagged down the driver, he gave someone their keys, accepted packets, someone’s child was fed in through the window and people hung off the outside of the vehicle.
After a short time, we encountered another couple of ‘foreigners’ and the garlic-sellers and mattresses were left behind with a promise from the jeep-driver that he’d be back. I wondered how accurate that story would prove to be.
Our journey in that jeep came to an abrupt stop and we piled out wondering why they’d take us no further but around the next bend was a JCB pushing rocks and landslide rubble down the mountainside. The driver paused his work to let us scramble over the edge and we rock-climbed down to solid ground and headed on through pine forest and down to the river. Although it shouldn’t be difficult to get lost in a narrow valley, some ways on were scarily precipitous or obstructed by the river but in less than an hour we regained the jeepable road and were assured that another jeep would arrive in 10 minutes to take us the rest of the way to Manang. Our transport arrived two hours later and so it had taken us the best part of three days to reach our destination at 3500 metres above sea level.
There is more on this trip into the mountains here: Wildlife and Wild Weather