This morning the weather in both Jomsom and Pokhara has turned overcast, foggy, and damp, so no planes are flying. The town is swarming with folks who wanted to fly and are now seeking wheels. We fall back on Alternative Transport to cover the ~ 90 miles. Flying would take less than 60 minutes. Alternative Transport? In Nepal that means
Stage 1 – Jomsom to Ghaza - Bina, our guide, manages to secure a jeep – one of the standard white made-in-India models, with blue tarp duct-taped over the space where the rear window used to be, clear packaging tape overlying the spider-web of cracks in the windshield, and a roll of duct tape for emergencies hung on the gearshift lever. The Nepalese standard usage is a minimum of 14 people plus baggage. Happily, our resourceful guide hired the jeep for the seven of us, paying for the extra phantom 7 people at the Nepalese rate – 140 NR/person, or an extravagant $12.50 extra. We got puzzled and disappointed looks all up the road from folk who wanted to flag down the jeep and fill the empty spaces.
We departed at about 8 AM. Just out of town we stop to top off the gas tank. No gas pump – just a five-gallon plastic jug full of gasoline and a siphon. It’s primitive but it works.
About 5 Km into the journey, we make an unscheduled stop: the driver hops out and greets an elderly woman carrying a plastic bag full of garlic. He examines the garlic, shakes his head, discards some of the more dubious roots, then slings the bag into the back of the jeep on top of our packs.
Another 5 KM – a very unusual sound comes from underneath the floor of the jeep, and the engine stops. Within 5 minutes there are two buses headed the other way which have been forced to stop, their two drivers are standing around our jeep offering advice to our driver, who is underneath the jeep with a monkey wrench. After about 15 minutes he emerges, wipes his hands on the grubby towel he had been lying on, and we proceed with cheering from our group.
Stage 2 – We arrive at Ghansa about noon. The driver refuses to drive any further, as the bridge has washed out at the Rutche falls and there is no turnaround. So we resume our packs and hike for two hours, plus a lunch stop just after making our way over the washed -out bridge, until we get to Tithze (?) where we hope to hire another jeep. The walk is actually very pleasant – cool, bypassing the road, and it feels good after the hard seats and bouncy suspension of the jeep. But yet to come was
Stage 3 – at Tithze, no jeep is available – all have been booked by folks who walked faster than we did. Bina books us on the next available bus, which was third in line to leave – again, the earlier buses had already filled with an eclectic collection of Tibetan refugee women in their colorful woven aprons, young Nepalese men in blue jeans, and a swarm of trekkers from Germany, France, Australia, the US, and many other points, in various stages of grunginess and grumpiness.
Bina got us onto the bus as early as possible before its 3PM departure to make sure everyone had a seat – that was fine, until the additional folks started filling in the cracks. DM and DB and two Nepalese and two Frenchmen sat in the area in front of the partition that was designed to separate the driver from the passengers; I was packed into my seat unable to move my legs as they were wedged in between the spare tire, four back packs, and a violin case, plus assorted legs of fellow passengers. Fortunately, I had made an offering to Ganesha, the god of travellers, at the temple in Mulktinath, so we survived the trip, although DB had to exchange seats with Bina since she couldn’t stop herself from shrieking at every upcoming hairpin turn. We thought that the bus was crammed full, but that didn’t stop additional passengers from hopping aboard through the always-open side door – we accumulated three in the course of the ride, all of whom ended up sitting on the packs on top of the spare tire next to me.
The trip was eerily like living the previous week in reverse, as if the tape of my life were being rewound. We went through all the small towns – “Ah, there’s the Dutch Bakery in Tubuche where we had that great carrot soup and brown bread!” “Look, there’s where you lost your hat!” We plunged down the gravel track traveling from barren scrub brush to pine forest to cherries in bloom to apple orchards laden with fruit to banana trees.
Three hours later, we made it to Bema, and
Stage 4 – the SUV from 3 Sisters arrived to carry us the rest of the way – three more hours in the dark and rain (of course it would rain!) on roads not much better than the “drivable gravel roads” we had been on. We keep ourselves awake and alert by trading songs with the Nepalese guides: DB, DM and I harmonize on “You Are My Sunshine”, and the girls in the back respond with a Nepalese folk tune that involves a considerable amount of finger-snapping and tongue-clicking. We come back with a round of “White Coral Bells.” We get through our entire repertoire of 1960’s Girl Scout Camp songs before finally in the last hour we hit blacktop!
At 10PM we reached the 3 sisters guest house, where they insisted on serving us our Farewell Dinner – dal bhat, of course. Then we thankfully hit the cozy beds. Tomorrow we will enjoy hot showers and full-size towels, then DM and I will hit the road back to Kathmandu. Next stop – Thailand!