No Maoist was waving a party flag, no landmines were going off, no militants surfaced to wave assault rifles at travellers. The deserted look of the 600-km stretch of highway from Kathmandu to Kakarbitta is a sign that Maoist fear has taken its toll but highway travel is not as treacherous as it is made out to be.
Because of curfews along the way, night buses have stopped services and instead ply only in daytime. Up until the dusty eastern border town of Kakarbitta recent visitors counted hardly 20 long-range buses.
Rumours and speculations spread unnecessary fear. People from Kathmandu should be told not to believe everything they hear about how dangerous road travel is, says Hari Lama, a truck driver, as he helps right a bus that went off the road.
Many drivers and residents along the highway believe that rumours, rather than actual Maoist attacks, are responsible for the empty highway. Such fear is natural but does this mean we totally stop using the roads altogether? asks Lama.
Frustration is highest among transport workers in Kakarbitta. The impact is really bad on our livelihood, says Bhadra Lal Puri, a porter at the bus station, who earns less than Rs 50 a day for unloading luggage. Until a few years back he used to make over Rs 300. When will people realise that the roads are not always dangerous? Why get scared because of a handful of incidents?
Indeed, a 14-hour drive towards the Far East is today an adventure marked more by anticipation than incident. The roads are wide and well-maintained, flanked by greenery on both sides and because there is so little traffic the speedometer hovers at 120 km/h. Families planting paddy and children grazing buffaloes wave at the isolated cars that pass through their villages. The monsoon has not yet destroyed the main roads, Krishna Bhir has been repaired and even the landslide-ravaged Mugling stretch is now less risky.
The only real hassle on the road comes not from the Maoists but from security checkpoints, of which we passed 25 between Kathmandu and Kakarbitta. Bus passengers have to get off with their hand bags and face the same questions over and over again. Security personnel are less strict about checking private cars and one learns quickly not to get too close to a security convoy or military jeep which are the main targets of rebel landmines.
Locals say there is no fear of Maoist attacks on the road, except during bandas. Last week on Monday, three jeeps were burnt in Barne in Jhapa but no one was killed in the arson carried out by Maoists against drivers who defied the banda called in Sunsari and Morang.
Bombing of buses does not happen much these days and even if it did, passengers will not be targeted, says Maya Rai in Sitapur, two hours from Kakarbitta. Rai has closed down her eatery because of slow business and is now involved in community development work.
Fewer vehicles plying the road has crippled local economy. Many restaurants, groceries and lodges along the highway are bolted. Out here we are already used to tense situations, that prepare us for anything, explains Rai as she joins around 50 other villagers to plant trees on a swath of denuded forest.
But the terrorist bombing of a bus in Chitwan in June and the wide media coverage it got spooked even intrepid travellers. Shop-owners along the highway in Chitwan saw a marked drop in traffic after that incident. But locals have taken it in their stride, says editor of Chitwan Post, Bhaskar Aryal. People are cautious but the incident has perhaps made them more prepared.
For now, the real danger along the East-West Highway is not of a Maoist ambush but accidents caused by speeding. There are numerous carcasses of buses and trucks lying upside down along the side of the highway. In many cases, drivers had fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Taxi driver Shanker Gurung nodded off on the Mechi Highway recently and survived a high-speed collision with a roadside tree. He says: That is the only real danger around here, falling asleep at the wheel.