Kathmandu to Bhulbule; Bus roofs and low-hanging power-lines

Today’s the big day - the start of our Himalayan trek. We were supposed to leave early in the morning. The flesh was willing, but the spirit was weak, I’m afraid, and we didn’t get to Kathmandu’s bus stand until a couple of hours after we’d meant to. Even after we’d got tickets and found the right bus, it didn’t leave for another half-hour. It was the usual Nepali rattletrap death-machine and the atmosphere was definitely enhanced by the old man asking wordlessly for money to fix his missing front teeth. When the bus finally left it took forever to negotiate Kathmandu’s demented traffic and make its way out to the highway.

The trip was six hours long and immensely boring. I hadn’t packed a book or my iPod so I had nothing to do except stare vacantly out the window and pray that the bus wouldn’t plunge off the steep corkscrewing road to the valley floor. It didn’t help that for the first three or four hours we were retracing the very same route we’d taken to get to Kathmandu in the first place a week earlier - there are only two highways in Nepal. One leads from the western border to the eastern along the southern lowlands and the other splits off from that one in the middle of the country and heads northeast to Kathmandu. So heading away from Kathmandu again all the scenery was familiar until we got to the highway junction at Narayangarh and split off to the northwest for Besisahar. Mountains make travelling very difficult. The only entertainment I had was the occasional chat with a local, most of whom were intrigued by the idea of someone willingly torturing themselves by walking 300 kilometres with a heavy pack and wanted to see the route map.

There were two Frenchmen on the bus as well - Christian and Ben - who were doing the trek as well. They were really nice guys and we ended up doing the first half of the trek with them. Ben was tormented by a garrulous drunk who boarded the bus and wouldn’t stop talking to him. Sheryl thought it was funny until the drunk moved his attention to her. He asked the usual questions, including asking how many children we had, and when she said we didn’t have any, he decided that she was doing it wrong and started asking very personal questions and explaining in great detail how you go about making a baby. Ben, who is more of a gentleman than I am, rescued her by capturing the drunk’s attention again, and was rewarded with an even more detailed sexual interrogation. I think it was at this point that both he and Sheryl began to feign death.

At Narayangarh the bus stopped for nearly an hour in the middle of a huge snarl of traffic. Buses were jammed together like dominoes and a crazed swirl of people, dogs and chickens eddied around them. Every moment the bus was stopped more and more people crammed onto it. Each time I swore that every cubic centimeter of space was occupied by sweating human flesh, but each time that one more person somehow managed to tunnel their way in. The misery didn’t abate when the bus finally extracted itself from the tangle, because the road began to head up into the mountains again and became twistier and bumpier with every passing kilometer.

After two or three consecutive lifetimes of torment the bus reached Besisahar, its destination. The four of us stumbled out and tried to shake off our stupor. Besisahar is a medium-sized town built along one main road. We had to take a second bus or a jeep to the trailhead and the border of the Annapurna Conservation Area at the village of Bhulbule, about ten kilometres away. The original plan had been to start walking today, cover about three hours before dark, and stop in Bahundanda. But both us the Frenchmen had made too late a start in the morning and there was no choice but to stop in Bhulbule instead.

The first step was to pay a visit to the ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) checkpost. In a process that was to become very familiar over the next weeks, we had our permits and trekking cards checked and were entered into the logbook. It’s a bit of a pain, but I don’t mind - I’d rather someone had a record of where we were last seen, if we happen to disappear somewhere along the trail. It only takes five minutes anyway. The ACAP warden told us that there were only about ten trekkers checked in that day, including us. We met two of the others almost immediately - a British couple named Bryn and Fiona who had been waiting on the bus for Besisara for an hour, thinking it would leave any second. Nepali buses don’t leave until they’re overfull, though.

Ben and I decided that when in Nepal, do as the Nepalis do, and climbed up the ladder to the roof of the bus to sit on the luggage rack. Why sit inside, we reckoned? We’ve had enough of sweaty people on buses! Thirty seconds after we got under way we realized why there were no Nepalis on the roof of this bus, though. The road was a rough dirt-and-rock track, and the bus groaned, grated and ground up and over each boulder in the way, pitching us wildly forward, back and from side to side. It was all we could do to hold on and avoid being thrown off the bus. And that was before the low-hanging power lines came rushing toward us. Ben narrowly escaped having his head electrocuted by throwing himself flat at the last second. After an hour of this every muscle was aching and bruised.

The scenery was stunning, though. A narrow river valley fell away to our right, the white water rushing around great boulders, and terraced fields and bright green rice paddies stepped up the slopes on our left. The rock faces were magnificent - each look revealed a new amazing pattern of strata or erosion. Ben was more interested in the vegetation and didn’t quite understand my raving about rocks. His loss, I say. Sheryl and I did eventually bring him to acknowledge the intricate beauty of rocks in general, but it took a week.

Bhulbule is a tiny village straddling the river. A few lodges and houses are linked by a steel suspension bridge high above the river. We checked in at the ACAP post marking the edge of the Annapurna Conservation Area and crossed the bridge. Our first experience of a Himalayan trekking lodge was surprising to all of us - we’d expected something much worse. The rooms were basic and bare-bones, but clean and cheap. It was only after we dropped our bags that Sheryl and I looked at each other and suddenly realized how quiet and lovely and green everything was. We felt something tight and unacknowledged loosen in our guts as we awoke to the beauty of the place. At the head of the valley, far in the distance to the northwest, a gigantic snow-capped mountain reared, glowing pink and white with the sunset. By the map, it was Mt. Manaslu, which at 8,156m, is the eighth-highest mountain in the world.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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