Just Another Traveler's Terror Tale, 1987
Darjeeling to Kathmandu on the Bus Ride from Hell
As we continue our one year round-the-world honeymoon adventure, our trip take a nasty turn when all foreigners are forced to evacuate Darjeeling India en masse due to the Ghorka insurgency.
It was always going to be struggle travelling overland by bus to Kathmandu, capital of Nepal. But whenever so many travellers are forced out at the same time, it strains the over-burdened public transportation system. It took two special buses to shuttle all the farangs and locals who needed to get off the mountain back to the Bengali Plains.
The ride down was hair-raising, courtesy of a young driver who thought he was running a hot rod Lincoln. We held our breath as we wheeled around curves, horn blaring, no guard rails against drops of several hundred feet, on a one lane road.
We'd often have to back up a hill to a siding as huge trucks lumbered up the steep route, which added to the excitement. Returning to the sweaty plain took half the time compared to our climb up; there weren't many happier people on the planet that day when we finally made it to the flat tea terraces at the edge of the Himalayan foothills!
Our tickets, purchased in Darjeeling, were meant to provide passage through to Kathmandu. We had grave reservations about the efficacy of purchasing long-distance tickets in the Third World, but once again we had let our guard let down coming from Thailand, where everything was so efficient and the transportation network simply worked the way it should (ie-get one from a to b as promised!).
Our itinerary at Siliguri was to catch a hired jeep to the border, where we would catch the on overnight bus to Kathmandu. The other option was to take the train in India around the foothill region of Nepal, a journey which was supposed to be much longer than the route we chose.
But due as so many travellers arrived in Siliguri at the same time, the two jeeps were filled to the max to get everyone to the border. Thus began the first in a series of shouting matches between farangs and local transport operators. The first group to get on the jeep had a big hassle departing. Our small group held back, as we'd formed an alliance between friends from Calcutta, Steve, Ian and Susan, and Michelle and Sandra. Fortunately, some travellers moved on to India, so our group was able to board the second jeep.
While we waited for the jeep to arrive, we watched a legless man roll up on a skateboard. Steve immediately starting talking to this ever-smiling man, offering him a cigarette. It seems our new friend suffered from a severe case of leprosy, had lost his legs and most of his fingers. But you'd never know it by the man's winning smile and charming disposition.
"The whole village take care of me, I have many friends, I meet people from all over the world here," he said. "I have friends in Australia, London, New York, every place!"
He was an inspiration.
The seven of us and two Indian men attempted to load our gear onto the jeep, and then ourselves. Of course, the Indian men tried to make the women hang off the rear and grabbed two of the seats, with their large bags leaving little room for anyone; thus began another argument.
Steve yelled: "Listen you bastard, give the seats to the ladies."
"No sir, we are taking these seats for we have reservations," was the reply, an interesting insight into how the Indian mind works.
Steve glared at one of the men, and grabbed his case out of his hand and threw it on the ground. "Well, I guess you're going to have to get out and pick up you bag," he sneered.
"This is outrageous, I will call the authorities," said the enraged Bengali.
"Good, go ahead, because by that time we'll be gone," Steve laughed in their face.
Finally, the two Indians sheepishly extracted themselves from the seats so the women could have a modicum of comfort, and we were off, with farangs hanging off every part of the jeep, our bags piled to the rafters.
Unfortunately, the jeep died about two miles out of town. So, we were stuck by the side of the road, and had until six o'clock to clear customs and catch the bus to Nepal.
Steve, now the official group leader, decided not give up the ghost just yet.
"Why don't we wave the next bus that comes along and see if it'll get us to the border?" he optimistically enquired to the group.
The group, however, remained skeptical.
Yet in less than five minutes, a rickety old reject from the first world war bus came chugging down the highway. It was packed to the gunwales with Indians, but the driver said we could board, as it passed very near the border. We took one look at the crowded bus, and most of decided to climb up on the roof rack with our bags. Elaine and Sandra stayed below, however, and eventually found seats.
The journey across the fertile lands below the Himalayas was a marvel. We passed green tea plantations, Indians tending their patches with water buffalos, yelling waving children delighting in the sight of farangs on top of the bus, a fantastic scene in the peaceful glow of the late afternoon light.
Near the Nepal border, we were dropped off and greeted by rickshaw drivers, who deposited us at the rickety Indian outpost.
Surprisingly, we'd arrived at the border at the same time as the first group who'd come by jeep. In all, over twenty farangs congregated on the border at the same time, which reduced the pace through the Indian post to a crawl.
I said to Elaine: "We better clear customs in a hurry if we want to get a seat on the bus, because it looks like there's too many farangs for the amount of seats."
We had to go through the customs once again at the Nepali border. We had to purchase visas, as we hadn't organized in advance in Calcutta; that city was too hot to make the effort. While Elaine was filling out forms, I converted money from the Indian to Nepali rupee. This was a wise move, as most of the other travellers only queued up for this task after clearing Nepal immigrations.
Our spirits sank sighting our bus. It looked like a cousin to the old banger that had recently hauled us to the border, a beat up monster that looked like it should have been retired forty years ago. Despite the fact there were two buses headed to Kathmandu, we were able to grab the last two seats available, despite being assured in Darjeeling everyone would have "reserved" seating.
Two English girls, and friends Ian and Susan were unable to find a seat, as the bus was getting ready to leave. The ticket taker, who turned out to be the devil in disguise, told them to get off the bus, as it was getting ready to pull out.
Now it was Ian's turn to lose his cool: "I paid for a bloody ticket, and I'm not getting off the bus until I get a seat." The ticket taker, a young Nepali lout, asked to see his ticket. Then, he laboriously checked every travellers seat reservation for a second time, and said: "No reservation. Get off bus."
Ian, Susan and the two girls sat down in the aisles, and Ian shouted: "This is my seat, I'll sit here if you don't mind." The ticket taker asked to see his ticket again, then shook his head, as we pulled out.
"No bloody way were we going to stay in that hell hole border town overnight, mate," Ian winked.
The bus was designed for five foot nothing Nepalis; we should've been grateful for having a seat at all, it was hard to feel thankful with one's knees perched about one's chin. We had been informed by the ticket seller in Darjeeling the total travel time would take no more than 18 hours, so we figured we'd arrive in Nepal before dawn.
Another traveller lost his cool just before dark when the ticket taker started harassing the two British girls on the floor to yet again see their tickets.
"Leave them alone," he screamed, as the co-pilot scrambled over bags to hassle them.
"Can't you see there having a hard enough time as it is?"
To no avail.
Small wonder our collective nerves were frazzled. We'd been forced to evacuate Darjeeling, in the midst of a revolution, come down a treacherous mountain road at a hair-raising speed, returned from cool mountain air to the pre-monsoon torrid heat of the plain, raced like fools to the border, endured the hardship of Indian and Nepal customs, even as we were lumbered across the Nepali plains. Somehow, I didn't think Robin Leach was going to send a camera crew from Runaway With the Rich and Famous to film our trip thus far.
That was the good news. The bad news was things were about to get much worse.
Elaine pulled out a packet of "sleep anywhere" Valium tablets we'd purchased legally in Thailand. We hadn't eaten much this day, except for a hearty breakfast at our hostel in Darjeeling, under the watchful gaze of Kanchenjunga at 6 am, splus ome fruit and a plate of dubious noodles at the border. We were bone tired, and by popping a Valium each, we slept fitfully through the night.
At sunrise, we expected to be close to the fabled Kathmandu valley. We passed a small town and turned into a canyon, spotting a sign that said Kathmandu: 145 km. We'd already been on the bus twelve hours, on the road for about twenty one, and were fried.
The canyon was spectacular, huge walls against a fast flowing river. We could see white water rafters screaming downstream, propelled by a vicious current of foam fed from high up in the Himalayas.
Later, we read a traveller's terror tale in the local paper about three westerners who were killed in this canyon when some fresh-cut logs rolling down off a mountain swept them off a perch atop a bus where into the canyon below, instantly killing them.
We eventually emerged from the canyon into a fertile valley filled with rice paddies, then followed the course of another river. Our ticket taker did an early morning round to check everyone's ticket to ensure no farangs had magically teleported aboard during the night.
When we finally stopped at a shack on the side of the road for a cup of sweet tea, it was motley looking crew of westerners standing by the side of the road, intermingled with bedraggled Nepalis on their way to the capital.
Then came the fun part.
We had to climb up a sheer vertical cliff along a series of switchback roads to reach the Kathmandu Valley. This road was in appalling condition, with much of it reduced to little more than a goat track from landslides. Work crews attempted to repair the mess, without any type of power tools. When we came face-to-face with a vehicle descending the rock face, it was nip and tuck along the edge, and several times I thought for sure this was the end of our journey.
It felt as if we repelling up the side of the cliff face- on a bus!
As the saying goes, there ain't no atheists on a Nepali bus; I felt like leading a prayer session right then and there, channeling the Catholic patron saint of travellers and namesake, St. Christopher.
Susan suffered more than anyone else, as she had a terrible case of agoraphobia, heightened during a recent one year trip through the South American Andes.
"I hate climbing through mountain passes more than anything else on earth," she later confessed at a quiet garden dinner in Kathmandu. "I begged Ian to buy two return tickets on a flight to Delhi, because I simply cannot travel down that pass again!"
Somehow, we made it up to the top into the fertile Kathmandu Valley; our the journey levelled out. We were told it was less than an hour to reach the capital, as the over subscribed bus wheezed its way along the narrow highway.
Just when we thought we'd survived another brutal overnight expedition, the bus came to a stop, and about fifteen touts climbed aboard, paid by hotel proprietors in Kathmandu to hand out accommodation flyers to every bus passenger travelling up the valley.
This was the last straw for our large western contingent. Touts were steeping all over Ian, Susan and the two British girls who'd suffered the indignity of travelling overnight on the bus floor through most of the Journey (many of us offered them our seats for brief periods to break up their boredom).
The touts continued to pester us, even though we told them we would discuss accommodation upon our arrival in the city, that we were too tired now. Then, our ticket taker decided it was time to check everyone's tickets one more time; he tried to take away the tickets from the four travellers who sat on the floor, hoping to make them pay another full fare in the city!
He forced the driver to stop until they gave up their tickets; this was indeed the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.
I totally lost it at this point, and yelled: "Get this fucking bus moving; we've had enough of your bullshit."
Well, this seemed to get us going again, but the ticket taker turned his attention from the four on the floor to me.
"Ticket, ticket," he said to me, with a sneer on his lip.
"You want my fucking ticket," I hollered, completely irrational from lack of sleep and the harrowing journey, "I've shown you my fucking ticket five times." With that, I threw my ticket out the window, which was, in retrospect, a bad move.
When we eventually pulled into a huge park, which served as the bus depot in Kathmandu, we all got off, a sad sack of travellers if ever I'd seen one. The ticket taker immediately came up to me with a big thug, ordering me to give him a ticket. He then demanded payment for two seats because I couldn't produce my reservation.
"Listen asshole," I screamed into his face, "you know I paid my fare, you saw my ticket five times, get out of my face right now."
Our gear was being unloaded from the top of the bus, but the big thug was between me and my pack. I told Elaine to grab the gear, while I tried to straighten out the situation. Soon, I was surrounded by thirty Nepali, the big thug put up his dukes like he wanted to have a fist fight with me!
The odds were not good, as I was outflanked and outmanned.
I knew the situation was becoming dangerous, so backed off. I said in a quiet voice: "I paid my fare, you saw my ticket."
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Elaine rushed in and tried to give the big thug a Kung Fu style kick, which only missed his ear by about an inch. You have to picture my wife, who is about about 5 foot ten and very athletic, flying through the air yelling at the top of her lungs: "Leave us alooooone."
This shocked the onlookers, which had devolved a mob of over 100 people, with many more running toward us from all directions (young people come out of the woodwork in the Third World); with this distraction, we were able to make a quick escape.
Every westerners made tracks when they saw what was happening, except for our friends Ian, Susan, Steve, Sandra and Michelle. Steve was holding our bags and quietly said: "Put on your packs and let's get the hell out here right now!"
I whispered to Michelle: "Quick, give me your ticket, and make sure they can't see you doing it." She pulled this out of her bag; now I had two tickets again.
When the mob surrounded me again, everyone else was making their exit. I smiled and said to the ticket taker:
"Here, I found my tickets. See you later, mate." They were dumbstruck, and the group gathered around their fearless leader to examine the stubs.
With that, we started walking as fast as possible without breaking into a full run, which was what our minds wanted to do.
What a madhouse behind us!
While we were making our getaway, someone kicked me in the ass, and a rock hit one of the packs. We thought for sure they were going to follow us to find out where we were staying, but after about a block, we had the courage to turn around and see no one behind us.
Little did we know that Ian and Susan were still surrounded by the mob, as we thought they'd jumped into a waiting bemo.
The crowd wouldn't let them go for over fifteen minutes, but eventually, Ian convinced them he didn't have any money, and they got away unharmed.
This was certainly not the best way to arrive in a new and exotic city such as Kathmandu, and for the next two days we felt so paranoid and shaky that we just wanted to go home.
Next Stop: I Think I'm Going to Kathmandu