“Never drive in Nepal at night” is what your Embassy and Lonely Planet will tell you. We’d like to heartily agree.
Well, we’d planned to leave Pokhara for Kathmandu early enough to stick to this advice. But some early-morning-late-monsoon rain followed by a little mechanical issue on the new bike set us back a few hours. Our way out of town was then quickly blocked by a band of flag-waving, drum-beating marchers, promoting their party for the upcoming elections. A bumpy detour down a couple of muddy side streets led us, with my infallible sense of good direction, right into the path of another band – different party, same purpose. The third time this happened we decided to give up and accept that there were far more important things going on in Pokhara than us getting on the road to the capital. With the planned Constitution now delayed by four years and the Constituent Assembly currently dissolved, the November elections are set to be a crucial test of whether the country really can complete a successful transition from monarchy to democracy. The tussle over federalism – favoured by those traditionally excluded from power, opposed by those enjoying it – will be key, and one which Myanmar sets to parallel in 2015 in its own elections, also set to be marked by the issue of devolution of power.
After finally leaving the marchers behind, we found ourselves meandering up a nearly empty highway, cutting through lush green hills sliced by rice terraces. During a tea stop we got a call from the guys we had been booked to do an ultra-light flight with into the mountains this morning bearing some tragic news – one of their aircraft had crashed a couple of hours ago, killing the pilot and the tourist who was on board. Our own flight had been cancelled just prior to that due to bad weather. Somewhat shaken and sobered by this news, we returned a little more cautiously to the highway.
The road had in fact recently featured in the BBC series “The World’s Most Dangerous Roads”. But we couldn’t really see why. That is until darkness fell. It turns out that most sensible people set out from Pokhara to Kathmandu or vice versa in the early morning. By mid afternoon they’ve nearly reached their destination so the middle stretch of the road is pretty quiet at this time. But then, at around sunset, the night buses and trucks set out on the route, and these are a bit of a different breed. High speeds, huge potholes and overtaking on blind corners all take on a different level of seriousness on an unlit road at night.
It was the last 50km up to Kathmandu that was in front of us as darkness fell. And it’s at this point that the road also becomes more interesting, twisting up through the hills, a precipitous drop to a raging river on one side and a sheer cliff rising up on the other, with a surface that’s more pothole than tarmac. It seemed rather ironic that the deserted roads we’d ridden a few days back in the far west were just about perfect while this, the main route into the capital, was left in such dire straits.
Buses and trucks came careering downhill, horns blaring and with either full beam headlights on or none at all, throwing up choking clouds of dust as they swept past, their drivers apparently often keeping themselves awake with a variety of legal and less legal stimulants. This rather inevitably leads to the occasional involuntary bout of off-roading.
I struggled to control the bike through the multitude of potholes, some of them veritable gullies leading either into the upcoming traffic or of the side of the ravine, constantly threatening to trap the front wheel and guide us into one or other of these sticky ends. The mental strain of maintaining an acute level of alertness combined with the physical toll of keeping a fully loaded bike upright made it truly the hardest couple of hours I’ve ever ridden.
“It’s Better to Die than to be a Coward” is the Ghurkas’ motto and apparently also adhered to by a fair few of the night bus and truck drivers of Nepal. As for us, well we’re all for staying alive with just occasional small doses of bravery. But we’re thinking no more night riding.