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Travels in Nepal’s Nepal

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

First posted on on 18 May, 2009

Now that it looks like we are going to have a government again, it is only a question of time that the current climate of normalcy along the highways of Nepal will soon come to an end.

Sure enough, even as Madhav Kumar Nepal went to the chairman of the house to present 347 signatures and stake his claim to form the next government, truckers here in Butwal decided to go on strike over a dispute over the new regulation to only allow sealed containers to cross the border. The reason was clear: it will be more difficult to smuggle stuff if there are containers and this would wreck the local economy. Smuggling contributes to the Tarai economy much more than legit trade. And now they are threatening a Nepal banda, and various other groups with their myriad demands are poised to go on warpath in Nepal’s Nepal.

Travelling east to west along the Tarai highways and moving north-south along the intersecting road to the hills and the border towns you realise how this country is being transformed by transportation. We have not fully taken stock of how Nepal’s largely static population has suddenly become mobile.

Areas of the country that used to take days of treks to get to are now just a few hours away. Pokhara to Jomsom used to take four days to walk, soon it will be only eight hours away. Kalikot, Jumla and Dhorpatan are soon going to be connected to the highway grid. The bus may be rickety and it may take 10 hours, but you can get a ride from Mangalsen to Surkhet and cross the Karnali in a ferry. Terathum is only three hours from Dhankuta.

Along the highways you see buses on strange new routes like Baglung-Surkhet, Malangwa-Palpa, Taplejung-Pokhara. There is a daily roundtrip microbus service from Sandikharka of Argakhanchi to Delhi. We are now being crisscrossed by bus routes, and it won’t take long before there will be a Jomsom-Janakpur bus for pilgrims going from Janaki Mandir and Muktinath, or Lumbini-Namo Boudha.

It is now also possible to travel from Dadeldhura to Jiri without even touching the Tarai. The east-west mountain highway is soon going to be reality. During the recent Tharu banda, bus passengers from Dhankuta were finding their way to Kathmandu via Gaighat, Katari, up the Sindhuli Highway to Nepalthok and on to Dhulikhel.

The paradox about all this of course is that despite all the alternative highways that are being built there is still no quicker way to get from Kathmandu to Hetauda. The Bhimphedi road is still only for jeeps and everyone else has to take the wasteful 100km detour via Mugling. As the roads get to new places, airfields like Rajbiraj, Ramechhap, Mahendranagar, Jiri, Gorkha, Baglung lie abandoned.

Which brings us to air travel, and why Nepal’s private airlines don’t follow the example of the bus companies and start new routes like Dhangadi-Chandragadi, Nepalganj-Biratnagar, or even Bhairawa-Jomsom to cash in on Indian pilgrims going to Muktinath. There is a perfectly good airfield in Mahendranagar which if activated could take direct daily flights to Bhadrapur, from one end of Nepal to another. Why do all flights have to be routed via Kathmandu, anyway?

One offshoot of all this is the rise in highway accidents. Travelling across Nepal, aside from the wrecks of arson attacks during bandas, there are wrecks of head-on collisions, glass of shattered windshields littering the road, overturned buses and even a LPG tanker that hit a cliff, caught fire and yet didn’t explode. Night bus drivers are always falling asleep at the wheel, which is the main reason for most accidents in Dhading. Most drivers drink, and male passengers are usually drunk. Riding a bus on the roof is regarded as travelling business class, and people are falling off all the time.

No one has the statistics yet, but in terms of passenger miles, Nepal probably has the highest rate of highway fatalities in the world. And the only reason it’s not higher is that many roads are so bad that vehicle velocity isn’t very significant.

Which means that on any stretch of highway there is a 70-30 chance that it will be blocked on any particular day because someone has run over something. Even when a hen is killed, a road can be blocked by the farmer who demands compensation of Rs 10,000 because he is counting the income from five generations of eggs and chicks.

And there are now “professional jammers”, these are local goondas who approach the relative of a victim killed or injured in a highway accident to block the highway to extort money from the bus owner and give ten percent to the family and pocket the rest. The bus driver usually never pays for a road kill, the Bus Byabasayi Sangh coughs up the money from an internal insurance system under which every truck owner pays Rs 100 per trip to a central kitty for payoffs. According to the law, Rs 68,000 is the fine for running over someone but victims families can now extract up to Rs 600,000.

Things become a lot easier if one regards highways in Nepal not as a route for going from one place to another in the the fastest, safest way possible but a ribbon of asphalt on which the entire village life revolves: drying the wheat, sitting for a game of cards, playing badminton, herding livestock to pasture and staging blockades.

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2 Responses to “Travels in Nepal’s Nepal”

  1. kundeyfan on Says:

    brilliant fresh stuff.. lovely to read. more pics please…

  2. East West | Travel Blog by Kunda Dixit | Nepali Times … | Today Headlines on Says:

    […] road, overturned buses and even a LPG tanker that hit a cliff, … Read the rest here:¬† East West | Travel Blog by Kunda Dixit | Nepali Times … Share […]

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