The Karnali Express: Bumping on for 52 Hours (Jumla to Surkhet)

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.

By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal Pics by Wagle
ब्लगमान्डू : कर्णाली एक्स्प्रेस ५२ घन्टा उफ्रिदै मच्चिदै


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

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39 responses to “The Karnali Express: Bumping on for 52 Hours (Jumla to Surkhet)

  1. sad&depressed

    the state of the road represents the state of the nation.

    Like

  2. sad&depressed

    the state of the road represents the state of the nation.

    Like

  3. prks chhantyal

    Fantastic job Mr. Wagle. I appreciate you revealing the true colors of our nation. Keep up the good work…

    Like

  4. That’s reality in Northwestern region of Nepal…….it’s even worse from Simikot to Taklakot where they are waiting to be linked by road to China. This link could just be the panacea that the Humlis are looking for. It would facilitate trade and make pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash a lot easier.

    BTW, Wagle needs to work those scrawny legs.

    Like

  5. Hi wagle – i love these pics .. .keep up the good work

    Like

  6. Mahindra Had always stepped first to explore new roads. For more info on Mahindra vehicles visit: http://www.agniinc.com.np

    Like

  7. Ananta, don’t you think you should not be putting up adverts on sb else’s blogspace?

    Like

  8. great tavelogs, thanks for sharing the journey, most importantly, the pics.

    Like

  9. Excellent coverage.
    Thank u very much Wagle ji. This is the best coverage in UWB since some time.
    All the best.

    Like

  10. ???? ???? ?????? ????

    great work walge,

    amazing pics.

    Like

  11. खालि सिसि पुरानो कागज

    great work walge,

    amazing pics.

    Like

  12. I missed road journey. When I reached Jumla by Heli, it was just beautiful not dangerous. But you didnt write anything about fly? Didnt you find flies while eating?

    Like

  13. it probably wouldnt be a bad idea to call u anderson cooper of nepal, its been about 2 months now that i have been following your blogs, but never wrote a word back. But today i can say for sure you have what it takes to be a story-teller. And you are a good one. I’d love to hear more of nepal’s stories in your pictures and blogs. keep us in touch.
    The Karnali express is amazingly told, and i salute you for that. keep up the good work!

    Like

  14. Thanks Bigyan for your comment and for breaking the silence.

    A quick note: Thanks Bigyan for your comment and for breaking the silence.

    Though I occasionally watch “360″ I still remember a Fox spokesperson a few months ago branding Anderson the “Britney Spears of Television Journalism”!

    Tried to watch one of your videos but you know the connection speed here in Kathmandu. Keep up making more of those.

    Like

  15. Though I haven’t really gone through all your blogs here…and from all that I have scanned through so far this got to be one of your bests. simply loved it…and your personal touch to this whole experience from Meeting a Dezel washington-alike to student discount to tea breaks….to all those pictures literally took me back home….and my goodness that road..Absolutely crazy…Kudos to you brother..Way to go!!! ……n i was wondering how the hell those people managed to inspect the road up through the Air…is that even possible …fts above the ground..

    Its just so hard to believe that even the basic requirements are not fullfilled in a country so small…untouched by the outside world..just going through this blog itself overwhelms me so much…I wonder how would it be like to be there. Jumla is sure one of those few places that I intend to share a portion of my lifetime. and hope to share my knowledge with the people of this community,,someday…
    Good Job!

    Like

  16. Wonderful! I taught at Karnali Technical School in the early days and left in 1985. It is so good to know that the road to Surkhet is being constructed. Your story and photographs are very good indeed. Thank you very much.

    Like

  17. freedom_writer

    An excellent peice of work, Dinesh. You reminded me of my childhood travelling days. I used to be sacred of those rides as a child, now its a fun memory.

    Ah, I liked how you compared that guy with Denzel Washington. I had once met a guy like Denzel Washington my self, while travelling in a crowded jeep from Sunauli to Bhairahawa. The funniest part was that my friend shouted out loud in Nepali in front of everyone saying “her na kasto Denzel Washington jastai chha tyo manche ta” and there was a big awkward silence afterwards (she totally forgot that we were back in Nepal and everyone could understand what she was saying).

    Like

  18. Thanks to all again.

    And to your Denzel Washington experience, freedom_writer, I was like a total (full fledged) LOL!! I also remembered similar ‘jeep ride’ to Sunauli and also in Biratnagar. The driver was not seated on the seat (some passengers were there) and he was like standing and driving! (well, a bit of exaggeration but still….)

    Like

  19. After reading u r stories i remember of of my travel of achham n Bajura. Like the same. I will depict it in your blog next time returning from there.
    Narendra Raule

    Like

  20. Hemant thakur

    Hi Wagle ,
    U have done a gr8 job by putting light on the plight of roads and the drivers … in rural Nepal . I too have got a experience of such a thrilling ride .. I leave in india since childhood but often visit Nepal to experience the share magic of these roads .. i wish u all the best for your future assignments .

    Like

  21. I really miss my places

    Like

  22. It is so great to see all these pictures it is so wonderful expierience that u have shared with us I felt like iam there at that time thanks for sharing these with us.

    Like

  23. ma malaysia ma rahada pani nalai merai bajura ko yad aauchha tar mero bajura ko halat yastai chha mero halat yaha yastai chha/

    Like

  24. Thank U, Wagle jr.! When we started work at the Karnali Technical School (KTS) in 1980, we were already joking that our grandchildren would be visiting Jumla (Gautichaur) by tourist-coaches. Great story and pics!
    We just have to wait for our grandchildren to be grown up and bridges to be build so our offspring will not wash away! I wonder if KTS should add now a Auto Mechanics Trade!

    Like

  25. Mani Prasad Gautam ( Mumbai)

    I really miss my district JUMLA

    Mani Prasad Gautam ( Mumbai)

    Like

  26. You have done an incredible job Wagleji. The way you have expressed the journey is simply awesome. I have been in a similar journey from Lamjung bazaar to Bhulbhule. There were bumps and rivers you have to pass through but looks like a gist to what you have just explained. People compared you to Anderson Cooper but I would say you dared to deal with all your pride and without much of your knowledge, so stop assuming yourself as him, you are more than what he can do with limited resources. Even though this might be a last adventure to you, but I would encourage to add some more to your list. After all the thrill and rush you get during these journeys are the one every person would like to reproduce. Your expression of literature are good but polish them some more, excel !! Keep writing and keep expressing.
    Malai Nepal ko Bibhidhtama gaurav cha. Dukha nagari sukha mildaina bhanne sikshya le nai hamlai agadi badauna prerana dincha.
    Get Inspired by life in Nepal.

    Like

  27. N. K. Gautam

    Dear Wagle ji,

    U did great job through this documentary.

    I always access this website for to view the picture of my beloved District Jumla.

    Keep it up.

    Thanks,
    N. K. Gautam (Mumbai)

    Like

  28. I am proude to say jumli
    and i miss my district until my heart beat.

    Like

  29. Wish I can drive here.

    Like

  30. Hi mr. wagle…

    such a nice blog… i am going to jumla next week and u know what? i’m gonna take karnali express rather than taking flights. I just wanna experience what u have experienced and yes this blog really inspired me to become more adventurous lol…

    cheers

    Like

  31. im really worried about this road conditions.

    Like

  32. Nice job Mr.Wagle !!
    I’m 17 yo boy from Jumla..
    I’m really happy n wanna thank you for making this article which is about my place and present it on this Blog to the blog followers !!
    Well !! It is true that all districts of Karnali are lacking behind in development. I would give its main credit to the people who are running the government, who are not bothered for any development project in these places.
    Yeah !! I guess it is because of the very mountainous geographical structure which requires more and more budget for any sort of development projects.
    And I’ve seen many NGOs n INGOs ‘ websites asking for donations for Development of Karnali with few photos of wretches wearing tattered clothes. God knows what the h**k they have done till now !!

    Like

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  38. bhakta sejuwal

    this is a good news for everyone.plz add to kalika vcd photo.thank u.

    Like

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