QUITE A DIFFERENT GOAT CARAVAN: An unforgettable ride from Jumla, one of the most remote parts in Nepal, to Surkhet in a highway that’s being constructed.
Vehicles pass through the dangerous Timure Bhir in Kalikot.
“Not in this lifetime,” said Hari Shankar Chaulagain as our Mahindra Bolero Jeep left Khalanga Bazaar for Surkhet. The 27-year-old man quickly surveyed the four-wheel-drive roadster and remarked: “I had never thought I would ride in one from here!” Alongside him were seated his younger brother Govinda and five others. They too had their own strange feelings. Their hands were tightly clutching the iron rod as we started motoring on the “mother of all bumpy roads”. We all looked like a monkey that was about to jump from one branch to another.
Though the purpose differed every one had the same reason for opting to travel on the road: Airplane did not land in Jumla, weather hasn’t improved yet and there is no hope of getting an air ticket. The hurry to reach the destination and the fear of being broke while waiting planes to come left no other option either. A passenger headed to Nepalgunj for further studies after clearing SLC, another rushing to Sanothimi on not finding the symbol number on newspaper, a student heading to Surkhet to sit for the second paper of I. Ed. exam after missing the first, one going to Darjeeling to meet his elder brother and a policeman back home for the holidays have all begun the unforgettable journey of their lives. A man from Dang is at the wheel while a pair (apparently lovers) sits silently to his left. [I had gone to Jumla on the invitation of a parliamentary committee (PAC) that wanted to inspect the road: Kathmandu to Nepalgunj in plane and from there to Jumla in helicoptor. The plan was to return to Kathmandu on the same day (3rd July) but I didn't want to return without staying more. I had said good bye to the MPs and overstayed in Jumla for 10 days. I had gone to Rara of Mugu, Gamgadi, the headquarters of Mugu and Sinja of Jumla. To travel on this road was one of my plans when I had challenged the parliamentarians saying that not to stay a single night in Jumla but to inspect the highway from helicopter is an injustice.]
It’s Jumla and Kalikot we are talking about. A district with a long dream to get connected to the rest of Nepal via road.
“Once I saw a live Maoist-army clash on that slope,” said Mana Bahadur Bishwokarma, 19, a fresh SLC graduate heading for Nepalgunj, as the vehicle reached Dunsera.
“During night or day?” Khil Bahadur Pariyar wanted to know.
“Day,” Man Bahadur said. “A soldier held my neck and screamed ‘You’ll die if you raise your head.’ After a while he let me go saying, ‘If you had just raised your head, you would be dead.’”
The first impression on seeing Khil Bahadur – returning to his home in Gorkha on vacation – was how come Denzel Washington was here!
No sooner I got the chance I asked, “Have you watched Training Day? The hero in the movie and you look just the same,” I said and told him how their bodies, black complexion, eyes and lips were all almost same. He said he would watch the movie.
My travel companions with Danzel Washington on far left
Dip Bahadur Shahi of Kalikot. His first ever ride over the road that he and his villagers constructed.
Shahi waits for the mini truck as people try to remove a boulder.
The Jumla-Surkhet Road, also called Karnali Highway, and inaugurated recently, is in no way travel worthy. But we are talking about Jumla and Kalikot, the two districts with a long dream of road connection. Tractors and mini trucks loaded with goods make dangerous journeys that last as long as three days. Even before road was opened up completely, 11 jeeps, airlifted to Khalanga Bazaar by helicopter, were transporting people up to Nagma, a bordering village to Kalikot, from Khalanga.
As younger passengers started bargaining for student-discounted fare, the irate Jeep owner told them to disembark. Then everyone paid Rs 1,000. If the ride continued throughout the night, the owner said, the destination would be reached by noon the next day. But the weather had an entirely different plan.
As the jeep came to a halt at 11 pm, Milan Lama’s song “Jhalko lali othako, bato khulyo, motor chalyo, Jumla Kalikot ko” booming from the old speaker too came to a stop. The driver, scared of seeing an ongoing landslide in front of him, immediately backed the vehicle. We were in the most dangerous part of the highway – Timure Bhir – and the road ahead was blocked by a boulder that had fallen down the cliff above us. The rain was pelting on the roof. We were all tired because of the continuous ride on the bumpy road. I was sleepy and my stomach was revolting hunger.
Reporting while bumping: Wagle with pen while one of the co-travelers hold his reporting notebook.
People buy food in a temporary shop under a huge rock in the middle of a jungle.
I opened my eyes just before five in the morning and got off the bus and looked around to realize the dangerous circumstances I had slept in. Two feet to the left and the vehicle would have fallen straight into the gushing Tila River. An owl peeping from its nest at the most unreachable place on a rock probably was having fun out of us. As the vehicle staffs started removing boulders, we walked fifteen minutes to reach a shanty teashop under a rock. We were alive for another day!
A woman in Kalikot looks at lens after she watched a vehicle that passed from near to her field.
Work at progress in a dangerous turning point near Pili, Kalikot.
Wagle and others on the hood of a mini truck in Kalikot.
Passengers on the hood of a mini truck that was followed by a tractor.
No sooner the jeep reached Pili in Kalikot, the problem with the wheel surfaced again. We got on the hood of a mini truck.
“The road has brought comfort to the villagers, isn’t it?” I asked an old man seated there.
“Look at the way it makes you jump,” he replied while struggling not to fall off the vehicle. “This road is for my sons and grandsons. We are old.”
Bharat Bahadur Shahi, a shop owner in Manma VDC of Kalikot: “Once the vehicles started running in front of our houses, the window of opportunities was opened for us.”
It was the first time 66-year-old Dip Bahadur Shahi from Daha village had got on a vehicle. On his way to the district headquarters at Manma (two hours’ walk), the old man looked delighted when he said that it were people like him who constructed the road, so vehicles were able to ply on it now, including the one we were on. He reached his destination in about 25 minutes.
The driver of our vehicle, Keshav Dangi from Dang, tries to fix a problem in the wheels.
Keshav Dangi, our 30-year-old driver, is originally from Dang. He came to Jumla with a friend and it has already been six months he has been driving on one of the craziest routes in Nepal. Having traveled this route (Jumla to Nepalgunj) for five times, he admitted that his salary was good despite the dangerous cliffs.
As police in Manma, Kalikot didn’t allow us to move before five, we had to wait for about three hours. Local kids join me to have some fun and pass the time. Pic by Gagan Thapa, a co-traveler and student in a college in Surkhet who said he already missed the first day of the exam.
The jeep left Manma at four, after the police cleared us, only to break down again. So we got off the vehicle and came to the shop of Bharat Bahadur Shahi. On its wall was an interesting notice issued by the Manma VDC which requested guardians and children alike not to divert water taps on the road, nor block the road, or throw stones at vehicles, or run after them.
There’s a story behind the official notice. Immediately after the road came into operation, there was a dispute among the drivers and local people when the latter argued that goods-laden tractors should transport them too. To resolve the matter, the administration, the VDC and Maoists issued such notices and also informed the locals through loudspeakers.
“Once the vehicles started running in front of our houses, the window of opportunities was opened for us,” said Bharat Bahadur with a happy face. He was willing to talk of the advantages of the road for hours. “Clothes and food are cheaper now. We will soon have electricity too. Everything is heading towards the right direction here. We have to labor hard, you can’t be idle.” However he admitted having a hard time trying to make the children behave properly on the road.
Kids in Manma VDC, Kalikot running after vehicles.
As we descended some kids started chasing our vehicle. “Don’t you dare,” an angry Denzel Washington screamed. A little boy seemed to get really mad at him as he turned his back towards us bending his body. There was a big hole on the back of his trousers and we clearly got the message he intended to send through!
Sleeping like a Child: Wagle spent second night on the vehicle itself.
It was already one in the morning when we reached Ramghat in Dailekh. Vehicles were stranded everywhere, unable to cross the swelling river that did not have a bridge over it. I spent the second night on the vehicle itself.
Vehicles pass through the Ramaghat river after the dozer (on left) put boulders on the water.
Wagle crosses the Ramaghat river.
The word “bhagya” (luck) is printed on this bus that was lucky enough to save it’s passengers from a sudden flood in the Ramaghat river below. The bus’s body is damaged and the engine is completely ruined.
Driver of the ruined bus (on the other side of the river) Kripal Singh, explained: “Once the driver’s seat was washed away I realized that it was useless to try to cross. So I jumped into the river.
Early in the morning we could notice a bus at a distance which had been swept away by the river when it attempted to cross it. Thirty-eight passengers and the driver were rescued by a dozer. “The water was clear when we got in, but all of a sudden we faced the floods,” the driver, Kripal Singh, explained. “Once the driver’s seat was washed away I realized that it was useless to try to cross. So I jumped into the river. The bus rolled four times and stuck over a rock 100meters below.” A nearby bridge has still not been completed due to the “irresponsibility of the contractor,” according to locals. Only after the stranded vehicle owners collected fifteen hundred rupees each and handed it to the dozer operator, a temporary road over the river was constructed.
The last obstruction: a landslide near Baddichaur that blocked our vehicles and we had to walk about 10 kilometers to find a vehicle.
We finally crossed the river only to be obstructed by another landslide in the afternoon. When I finally reached Surkhet after 52 hours of continuous bumpy ride I was super tired. When I finally got to lie down on the hotel bed at 10 PM, I was planning to change clothes and switch that light off in a minute. But when I woke up after what I felt like a minute, it was already five in the morning!
Nepali version of this article appeared in today’s Kosilee of Kantipur and slightly shorter version in English in today’s City Post of the Kathmandu Post.
ब्लगमान्डू : कर्णाली एक्स्प्रेस ५२ घन्टा उफ्रिदै मच्चिदै