[This story appeared in today's Kathmandu Post. Nepali version of the same appeared in today's Koseli, Kantipur. Here is a journal from Dinesh Wagle's previous journey in Karnali Highway: The Karnali Express: Bumping on for 52 Hours (Jumla to Surkhet)]
The boys of Manma village, Kalikot (also in the three photos below) with their toy-vehicles
On the bumpy Kalikot road, a tractor is moving to Jumla. The tractor, full of goods, is followed by four ‘mini trucks’ and ‘tractors’. Among the drivers, playing with a toy vehicle with a long steering is Prabal Bam, 13, and an eighth grader.
“I want to be a driver!” Prabal replied to a one of my humorous questions.
“A driver?” I’m perplexed.
“This country doesn’t lack scientists,” Prabal answered as if he was responding to a question from the teacher in the class that would earn him marks in the examination.
“Do you want to drive or design vehicles?”
“If I study, I’ll become an engineer,” said the kid who was wearing a high-neck covered with a shirt and sweater that appeared to be the uniform of his school. “If not, I’ll be a driver.”
Nabin Shahi, sporting a T-shirt with a portrait of Britney Spears on the chest, a loose jacket and the pant embroidered ‘DKNY Jeans’ on the thigh, was listening to Prabal. With his left hand fixed on the steering wheel, the boy lifted his right foot slightly, twisted his waist and with widened fingers of his right hand covered his face like a hip-hop singer every time I took a snap.
“I was born in a poor place,” the 12-year-old studying in grade eight said as if he was speaking the words from the script after the director’s signal. “The roads have just reached our place. Vehicles are coming,” said Nabin,12, and an eighth grader. If I study, I’ll drive my own vehicle. If not, I’ll certainly not lose hope and commit suicide. I’ll survive by driving others’ vehicles.”
Just like Tilak Nepali. It won’t be unusual if the image of the Formula One racer Michael Schumacher comes to your mind while looking at Tilak from behind. But in reality, the boy from Jumla and the world famous German driver are as different as their respective cars: a Mahendra Bolero and a Ferrari.
Tilak Nepal (also in the photo below) with his Mahendra Bolero
Tilak Nepali (and his friends in the photo below) removing boulders on the road.
The young man sporting FC Barcelona cap has Yamaha, Castrol, Realm and Champion and Nascar Winston Cup embroidered on his murky jacket. The lad who left government school after studying up to Grade 9 may not know about Nascar but he truly is a champion: to drive a vehicle safely from Jumla to Surkhet and back to Jumla is no less than winning the Formula One Grand Prix. The 19-year-old Jumli who started driving a year ago achieved the success run this February.
Different roads, different challenges but the problem is same. Schumacher races in smooth black topped roads which appear as if even humans would slide on it. If Tilak tries to race his vehicle on the dusty road considered to be ‘the mother of all bumpy roads’ it’s sure to stumble meters down into Tila or Karnali rivers.
“Matokne! [sob] My heart comes out as if it’s a chicken,” Tilak had told the helper of his four-wheel-drive vehicle after crossing a difficult point near Pili, just above a suspension bridge. ‘Helper’ is the new term for the conventional ‘Khalasi’ that is now out of use because of the changes in the political situation of the country: everyone needs politically correct respect. Tilak uses ‘boy’ to address his helper: ‘My boy is strong.’ ‘Did my boy eat?’ And ‘I will send my boy.’
A few months ago, a little ahead of the difficult point, a tractor had fallen whose remains could still be seen on the slope of the hill. “Ah…, he threw the vehicle on such an easy path,” helper Muskan Shahi said.
“Drive, and then you’ll know,” Tilak responded. “What hard work is needed in this line of work!” After keeping quiet for sometime, he added, “It must’ve happened due to berek fayail [break failure].”
On a terrible road like this, anything can happen. Tires go flat, the bumper breaks and what not. Half an hour after leaving Jumla, a tire of Tilak’s vehicle went flat. In the evening, while crossing a river, stone hit the gear oil talk and it started leaking. The next morning, another tire went flat and the vehicle got stuck for the whole day in the middle of the road.
After decades of assurance and wait, the Karnali Highway was officially inaugurated 11 months ago. It has provided food rations at comparatively lower prices. But twenty have lost their lives in 40 road accidents. The other day, at a dangerous turning point near Khitki Jyula of Dailekh, Tilak had encountered a truck that was carrying the dead body of a helper who was killed in an accident two days ago. The retaining wall supporting the road collapsed as the ill-fated truck passing by. There were eight people; four were injured, four died.
“I felt bad that a helper died,” Tilak replied to my question. “I felt as if someone close to my heart had died. But what can be done? The profession is like this. You can’t be afraid, you must work.”
After a couple of hours, he saw a few people on the banks of the Tila River, gathered to perform the last rites of a little girl killed in the same accident. “Every driver who comes to this road needs to perform his death rites at home,” Tilak said. “You never know what will happen to you.”
As Tilak says, there’s no room for fear in a journey. When he removes the FC Barcelona cap, Tilak covers his head with a scarf that has a picture of Kate Winslet and Leonardo De Caprio posing on the Titanic. And he hums Nepali tunes:
Do you love me or not?
Maybe not golden bangles
But I’ll give you silver ones
Happiness or sorrow, whatever
I’ll give you hearty company.
[Mero maya lagchha lagdaina?
Sun ko bala nabhaye ni
Chandi bala diunla haatai ma
sukha dukkha je bhaye ni
hasi hasi diunla saathai ma]
Songs and nighttime driving are the inseparable friends of drivers on this highway. Saying that he doesn’t feel like driving if he’s not listening to songs, Tilak added, “It’s easier driving in the night than day. I was surprised.
“In broad daylight, the eyes get distracted. It’s frightening to look below from the edge,” he explained. “You can’t see anything in the night except the road in front of you under the light. When you are listening to the loud music, you don’t know when that difficult point had passed.” Many drivers I met on the way agreed with Tilaks analysis. But one night at around nine as Tilak was driving with the loud music, his car almost took a dip into Karnali. Somehow the wheels slid on the sloppy road and it was hard for Tilak to bring the car under control. He pressed the brakes and the car finally came to halt. There was not even two inches space ahead.
“Thank god, we survived,” Tilak said. “Our fate was strong.” That instant our hearts surely turned into chickens and came out!
Tilak’s big and thick fingers, the forefinger of left hand sports a metal ring, dirt filled nails and shoulders with swelling veins reflect the perspiration required to turn a steering wheel in that difficult road. This vehicle has a stubborn four wheel gear and you need fight with it every now and then. If the vehicle gets damaged in some way or he fears of some problem, Tilak needs to lie unhesitant on the dusty road, slip inside and inspect the vehicle parts endless times.
Tilak’s dream was to study and become an affluent person. But he said, “It’s a hill area, you need to work more than read,” and for that reason, he left the Chandannath Higher Secondary School in Jumla and went for the roads. “After leaving school, I chose a vehicle to become a Khalasi [School-line chadera gadi-line ma aaye],” he recalled his circumstances four years ago. “After that, I became a mechanic in a garage for eight months. I started driving the same year. Let’s see what happens in the future.”
Tilak is a driver not a futurist that’s why it was useless to ask him a question like ‘where do you find yourself in a few years?’ But how can reporters stop themselves from asking questions?
“Who knows about the future?” Tilak had said on a bumpy hill path. “Now I am here, I don’t know what will happen beyond that corner. I have no idea what’s written in my fate.” Whatever may be written in fate but his plan which haven’t still come inside a frame/picture is something like this: “Drive for six-seven years, after that if I can earn money do some small business and sustain myself.”
“I’m unmarried,” he said. “You don’t know what happens after marriage.” He parted his dry and cracked lips heavily affected by the dust and wind. The wrinkles covered the scar on his cheek near his right eye.
“It’s alright now, it’s good to have an occupation, it’s for the livelihood,” he answered to another of my question. He has just started driving in this highway and his salary is not decided yet. But ‘driving in a dangerous road’ like this, he hopes, will earn him more than ‘forty five hundreds’, that is paid to the drivers in easy roads in Terai.
Tilak doesn’t drink but he doesn’t hesitate to light a cigarette. He gives his salary to his fifty-three-year-old father Dhan Bahadur Nepali who lives with his forty-three-year-old wife Biju at Micha of Mahat village. You reach the place after climbing for twenty-five minutes uphill from the road. “I’m worried,” Biju says after being asked about her son’s driving job on the dangerous road. “When I hear that a vehicle has crashed, I shiver. But it’s a job.”
Yes, it’s the job. That’s why the day after reaching Jumla, Tilak must drive to Surkhet. This is the second time this month.
The evening after I flew to Kathmandu via Nepalgunj, I heard from another driver that Tilak’s vehicle, which was off to Surkhet, was trapped in the same place where a mini truck was stuck a few days ago, forcing us to wait for four hours.
I received a phone call after a week. Tilak was on the other side. “Dai, I made it to Jumla again,” he said. I felt champion Tilak had just won the Australian Grand Prix that was going on at that time.
A boy, assigned to look after a minitruck that fell down from the road and reached on the bank of Tila river. The retaining wall supporting the road collapsed as the ill-fated truck passing by. Four were injured, four died.
A Dutch doctor (in the middle) associated with the international NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) talks to a woman (via a nurse on the right) who was injured in a road accident three months ago. The woman from a village near Manma, the district headquarters of Kalikot, was walking with her mother towards the Manma Bazaar when the trolley of a tractor that was passing by fell over them. Her mother instantly died in the accident while the lady suffered multiple injuries including permanent damage of the hip. MSF has a team of doctors and other staffs who work in the government-run district hospital and operate outreach programs in the surrounding villages.
A man points to the Karnali Highway that goes through a difficult rock near Manma. At the time of the construction of the road, he said, the boulders and the mixture of soil and rocks fell down and covered his home and land. He was forced out of the home and the home hasn’t been in use since then. In the photo below, he is seen with his elder brother who also complained that the rocks and soil covered his fertile land. Both men said they haven’t received any compensation from the road department or Nepali Army who built the road.
As we were approaching Manma, headquarters of Kalikot district, in the evening we saw a group of kids and teenagers riding on the hood of a tractor. We left the car and jumped over the hood to experience the super duper bumpy ride.
The girl in the middle (in the photo above), Kokila Nepali, later jumped off the tractor and finally managed to convince Tilak Nepali, our driver, to provide her space in the car. During the half-an-hour journey up to the hotel in Manma Tilak flirted with the girl and, after she got off his car, said: “That was a nice ride! She made my evening.”
A girl tries to jump over the hood of a tractor in Manma, Kalikot
Girls get off the tractor as the driver (in the photo below) who was pissed off by their adventure orders them to get off
Dinesh Wagle makes the noodles soup near Bali, on way to Jumla. The hotels that are recently opened to serve the highway travelers are improvised and the food is unhygienic. The photo below depicts an improvised hotel in a place called Bali where we spent a night. The sound from river Tila, about 50 meters away, was enjoyable but the condition in the room was anything but enjoyable!
The five star hotel in Bali!!
DW inside a hotel room in Pili where we spent a night. The sound of jackal screaming somewhere down the hills made it quite difficult to sleep but I (seen in the photo below taken in the morning) was so much tired after a day of traveling the bumpy road that the army of jackal couldn’t stop me from snoring. I must mention the screaming of the jackals again. It felt like they were just outside the room. I think a few were actually there. Thank god, the jackals didn’t come inside the room!
A boy who works at the White House hotel in Manma with chickens that were finely cooked by Manolo!
Near the Tila Bridge, on the Kalikot side, a truck was stranded for four days because of some problem with the engine. The driver, his helper and others had to sleep below the truck.
Karnali highway passes through the village of Manma, Kalikot (in the photo above) and crosses Tila to go through Dailekh (left in the photo below).
Karnali Highway, Kalikot (right) and Dailekh
Tilak’s car passes through the infamous Timure Bhir, considered one of the most difficult part of the highway.
Corssing the Timure Bhir
Tilak’s car in another difficult part of the road.
Nepali Army soldiers preparing for the blasting in Timure Bhir
A man shows me the tractor that fell from the road and reached into the Tila river killing a driver
A construction worker smokes during a break. She was part of one of the several teams that was working on the highway to fix the broken parts or to make new retaining walls. A tractor fell off from the edge where they were working at the time of taking this photo. Two persons, including the driver, were injured. Some laborers were working to fix the sidewall.
A construction worker smokes during the break
Another construction worker stands at the same place (also in the photo below) from where a tractor fell. A student travelling on the trolley was killed.