The first time I woke up in the middle of the night in Kathmandu was to a gunshot that was a bit too close for comfort. I rolled out of bed, careful not to step on Thomas who had been relegated to sleeping on the fourth mattress that the guesthouse staff had to drag into our room to accommodate our request to all sleep in the same place. I peered out the window cautiously, but the alleys were deserted. It was 3:00am after all. I went back to bed, hoping to catch a couple more hours of sleep before our alarms went off.
A combination of jet lag and uncertainty about the journey ahead barred me from drifting off for more than a few minutes at a time for the rest of the night. For every positive online review of the bus ride out of Kathmandu I had read (one), I had seen ten negative ones. A typical review describes the “6 hour direct bus” (as is advertised) turning into an 8 to 12 hour local bus route, taking an indirect course through Kathmandu and the countryside to eventually arrive at Besisahar, the start of the Annapurna Circuit.
While the potential duration of the ride gave me some serious qualms, I was far more worried about losing our bags or having something stolen. After seeing how anarchic the Gongabu bus station was and how sketchy the actual busses looked, it was easy imagine losing something that could ruin the trip for us. It’s easy to imagine a lot of worst-case scenarios when you’re lying awake in a hotel room at 3:00am in the middle of a crazy city in a developing country.
By 4:00am everyone else was awake and jet-laggedly packing bags and purifying water for the road. Oh yeah. You can’t trust any of the water in Nepal, so you have to purify it (not just filter it). Our chosen method was chloride drops that came in two small bottles. You have to mix seven drops of each bottle (for every litre) in a small cap, let it sit for five minutes, and then mix it in with the water. Fifteen minutes later, you’re ready to drink. If that sounds annoying, it’s because it is. Especially when you are trying to drink three or more litres of water per day, but don’t necessarily want to carry it all for the whole day. I guess it’s still better than dying of dysentery, but alas. We left our room with nervous spirits.
The previous night, we had arranged for boxed breakfasts to be prepared for us and a taxi to pick us up from Kathmandu Guest House in the morning. We munched on the bread and hardboiled eggs while crawling through the predawn streets of Kathmandu to the bus stop. The scene was tame compared to the day before, and we located our bus quickly.
Although it had a “Free Wifi” sticker plastered to the siding, it looked anything but state-of-the-art (and most definitely did NOT have Wifi). One by one we handed our bags and blind trust to a small child (who claimed to be 16 but couldn’t have been older than 9) on top of the bus whom arranged them in a way that he was convinced would prevent any from flying off at the first sharp turn. We and the conglomerate of other backpackers looked on with slightly less conviction than our valet.
Despite our woes, we boarded the bus, chose our seats (back row was bad choice) and were soon off on our journey. We were making amazing time… and then we left the bus station… Gridlock that would make a Chicagoan cry (and did);Traffic as far as the eye could see…which was about 20 yards due to the fog, smog, and smoke. We spent the next two hours with bandanas over our mouths and noses in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Like literally bumpers touching bumpers. We got more exposed to the two national languages of Nepal, Nepalese and car horn, as drivers jockeyed for any open inch of road they could find and street merchants milled about on, off, and around the bus, offering us food and drink. We kindly responded “hoina” (no) and “naf garnus” (sorry) to any offers, as we didn’t trust the sanitation standards of the most literal “street food” you can get, short of eating off actual asphalt.
We stared out the windows at butchers chopping up what we hoped were goats (but we did see at least one headless dog…), cows chewing on cardboard, piles of garbage burning on lots, and the devastated remains of buildings that had not been cleared since the earthquakes of 2015. But we also saw the people going about their business as usual, conversing outside of shops, taking their kids to school, and getting a start on the workday.. An earthquake of that magnitude is not easy to recover from- even Christchurch, New Zealand, a country with a GDP/capita 54 times that of Nepal, looked terrible two years after its latest quake- but they are making progress.
It wasn’t until we reached the outskirts of the city that we started to pick up a little speed. Unfortunately, this is also where the road narrowed and the shoulder gave way to steep drop-offs of hundreds of feet. Though the driver looked no older than 16, it was obvious this wasn’t his first rodeo (the bucking of the back seats made it feel like a rodeo). He maneuvered deftly around traffic, passing heavy trucks with reckless abandon and copious horn honkings, while all we could do was talk amongst ourselves and marvel at the mountains that kept getting bigger and bigger as we went.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that must have had a deal with the bus company (company = a few kids with a bus), because they had an immense amount of freshly made dhal bat ready for us. We scraped up our food greedily without giving thought to price or sanitation. One was negligible, while the other we would come to regret. We watched as others paid before us, and decided to offer what seemed to be the going rate of 200-250 rupees per person. We weren’t about to complain about being charged $2.50 for a quality meal when our breakfast from the morning was a far distant memory.
The rest of the trip went smoothly, which was a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. We ambled off the bus, rubbed the soreness out of our butts, and retrieved our bags. Although we were eager to get on our feet and on our way, the first portion of the trail looked to be nothing more than a gravel road passing through town and industry: not exactly the scenery that we had come to see. After brief deliberation and the help of a friendly Nepali who helped us barter, we decided to take another bus nine kilometers further up the road before starting the Circuit in Bhulbhule.
The half hour bus ride saved us three hours of walking that we could then put towards jumping a full day ahead of schedule (which we would end up needing dearly). We clambered off at the last stop and felt our spirits rising rapidly.
Time to get hikin’!