You may recall a reference that I made a short time ago regarding Nepal’s turbulent recent history involving the fall of the monarchy, the rise of the Republic, and the persistent problem with those rebellious and violent communists, the Maoists. You may also recall my mentioning that the country is still plagued by periodic Maoist assaults. It should come as no surprise then, that as a function of Murphy’s Law, no sooner had our friends Nathan and Claire booked their plane tickets to visit us in Nepal for a ten day vacation, that the Maoist rebel leaders announced that the entire country would be completely shut down for a period of—get this—ten days, by force if necessary, coinciding perfectly with our friends’ visit.
My eyes searched the ceiling for reasons as our Nepali brother Pesal informed me of this impending calamity, and suddenly my mind became clear as an epiphany befell me explaining why so few people have gone out of their way to visit us on this trip. It is probably because they fear getting caught up in the unexpected and sometimes perilous, life-threatening, and/or dim-witted situations that we continually end up in.
“Don’t you think you should at least tell them about this?” It was Sheena again, trying to override the cool and collected way in which I try to conduct my business.
“Why? And risk them canceling their trip? I don’t see any good that could come of it.”
“You do understand that you’re knowingly misleading our friends into going on vacation to a place that has been overtaken by violent rebels, right?”
She’s always flipping things around and looking at them backwards. “Sheena, I’m not misleading anybody, I’m simply withholding information. There’s a difference.”
She showed me the whites of her eyes and the discussion was over, myself clearly having emerged the victor. Somewhere deep down my conscience was trying to tell me something, but I was lost in the pleasure that comes with winning petty arguments. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, right around the time that Nathan and Claire’s plane touched down in Kathmandu, that my conscience finally convinced me that I was a bad person. It was their smiles as they emerged from the airport that did it. I was leading these nice people to their deaths.
“Wow, that was a long flight. Do you realize we’ve been sitting in a metal tube for two days? They had free booze though, and I’d be lying if I told you that sitting in a metal tube drinking free booze was all that unbearable.” Nathan’s handlebar mustache conducted a symphony orchestra as he cheerfully rehashed his flight while I drove us back to our temporary base in Bhaktapur.
“There’s something I have to tell you…”
“Did you just say something? Wow, I’m so glad we’re finally here. I haven’t sat that long since–”
“I said there’s something I have to tell you!” He stared at me, mustache frozen in suspended animation. “There’s been a rebel uprising.”
“A rebel uprising. You won’t look so nervous after I explain. You see, Nepal is coming up on elections and there’s a somewhat nefarious group of unsavory hooligans, called Maoists, who won’t rest until Nepal becomes a communist utopia.” His mustache tips lightly quivered like divining rods honing in on water. He still looked just as nervous as before.
“The Maoists had several demands to be met before the elections, but you know, one thing led to another and they weren’t met. They were pretty pissed, naturally, and decided to prohibit the election from happening altogether by shutting down the whole country for ten days.”
“What exactly does that mean?” He still hadn’t moved his head or blinked, which was unnerving.
“It means that no businesses will be allowed to open, and nobody can drive anywhere… for ten days.”
“When does it start?”
“In two days.”
“And when are we supposed to start our drive?”
“Um … also in two days.”
The following morning we convened in Nathan and Claire’s room. Sheena’s mom had sent a box of cookies in the shapes of letters, so we avoided our impending last stand against the rebels by spelling things with the cookies and taking corny pictures of ourselves. After the fun in that wore off we ate most of the cookies and went out on the town.
I had parked Nacho in the central square the night before, and when we emerged in the morning we found the Communist Party preparing to stage a rally in the square, Nacho being the centerpiece by virtue of our parking place. Some men were trying to hide Nacho behind a communist banner, but couldn’t find a place to hang it. Knowing that their little party would soon be the cause of much duress, we opted to leave Nacho there as the rally backdrop. I kept this small victory in my back pocket throughout the day, and every time I recalled it I felt a little warmth in my heart.
Our day of doom came alas, and we had but one objective: to disobey rebel orders. We had to get from Bhaktapur to downtown Kathmandu to obtain trekking permits, and then drive several hours into the Himalayas to embark on the Langtang Valley trek. The rebel-imposed ban on driving had been in effect all of eight hours when we loaded our bags into Nacho.
A couple of police officers lingered nearby, so we approached them. While we had hoped that the Maoists would have simply changed their minds at the last minute, the officers shook their heads and verified that the strike had indeed begun. No businesses would be open, nor would any cars be allowed on the roads anywhere in the country. The good news was that the business closures had been shortened to only one day, though the transport ban would remain unchanged.
“Well, do you think the rebels would mind if we drove today?”
The officers looked at each other, and then shrugged. “Maybe if you have a tourist sign they will let you pass.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I don’t know. What do they want from you? You are tourists.”
My mind raced back to a period about ten years ago when the Maoists had blocked roads, pulled people from buses and cars, and set their vehicles on fire. Journalists had been kidnapped or killed. Tourists didn’t factor much in the equation, because tourists weren’t stupid enough to get in the middle of it.
We put our heads together and faster than you can say “Navy Seals” we had conceived and executed a plan to save our lives involving our windshield and a bar of soap. If our ugly van and white faces weren’t enough to convince people that we were harmless, then surely this would. Barring a rainstorm or accidental activation of the windshield wipers, pretty much nothing could go wrong!
With that we set off and soon joined the Kathmandu Ring Road. On a street usually packed with hectic bumper to bumper traffic, it was absolutely dead empty. We traveled for miles as the only car on the road, and as we got closer to town the highway became thick with scores of people walking. It was eerily silent and everyone stared at us as we passed. As we neared downtown we passed a few Maoists standing on the back of bicycle carts waving their flags with megaphones held to their mouths. We passed without eye contact, hoping that somehow they wouldn’t notice us. Before long we arrived at the trekking permit office.
After buying our permits it was game time. The plan was to drive six or seven hours into the mountains where we would leave Nacho at a small village while we went trekking. We snaked our way out of Kathmandu through carless streets and finally climbed out of the valley and into the Himalayas.
The road skirted the valley wall, winding ever higher into the mountains, our progress periodically interrupted by ad-hoc military checkpoints. We made it through the first two checkpoints without incident, having only to stop and register our passage in notebooks. These notebooks, of course, would be used to report our last known whereabouts to international news outlets upon our inevitable disappearance.
The situation took a turn when we reached the third checkpoint. We stopped and were surprised to see a small bus and a couple of work trucks there as well. I got out and registered our presence in the notebook, and then got back in the car, but nobody removed the barrier across the roadway. Soon an officer approached.
“Namaste. I have registered, may we go?”
“Maybe soon. One hour.”
“What do you mean,” I asked, somewhat astonished. “We’re just tourists. We’ve already passed two checkpoints, we’ll be fine.” He asked me to wait a minute, and then retired to his hut. A few minutes passed without word, so I got out and walked into the hut.
“Hi, we’ve already signed in, so can we go?” I spoke as though I knew what I was talking about in hopes that they would simply wave us on. They kindly, and in rudimentary English, tried to tell me that it wouldn’t be long. One hour, they said. I moped back to the van feeling sorry for myself and our guests. We had hoped to arrive before nightfall, but by now daylight was already waning.
As I walked back to the van I noticed a group of men from the bus congregating in the road, so I joined in. I introduced myself and tried to impress them with my Nepali language skills, by now about as advanced as those of a two year old. After a while we settled on English, as always happens when people tire of my faltering infant blabbering.
“The officer has told me that we have to wait an hour. Any idea why?” They all nodded, clearly not upset in the slightest.
“The Maoists have blocked the road with trees. The military has gone in to open the road, and once they return we will continue from here in a military convoy.”
“Oh. Of course they did.” My haste and self-pity evaporated in an instant and suddenly the time of our arrival was no longer of any consequence. I excused myself and went back to Nacho to explain to our guests that they were indeed in grave danger, but that everything was fine since we’d have a military convoy. Nathan’s handlebar moustache quivered and his unblinking eyes stared straight through my face. We all came to a silent understanding that I was a bad person.
The group of men from the bus eventually came over and we spent the next hour chatting and laughing. Nepalis have such a positive air about them that even the gravest of rebel standoffs can be made to seem inconsequential.
Just as darkness fell a military truck raced around a bend up the canyon and into the checkpoint. Suddenly the place was a whir with commotion as people loaded their vehicles and fired up the engines. Before we knew it we were racing in a snake of six or seven vehicles along a dark, winding mountain track. Military trucks filled with a half dozen machine gun-toting men in camouflage formed the head and tail of our road snake, and I pushed Nacho as fast as I dared so as not to create a gap in our convoy. Periodically we crossed sections of road covered in twigs and leaves, very recently having been cleared of felled trees that the Maoists had used as roadblocks. I imagined the gunslinging rebels watching us from the trees as we flashed past in the darkness.
Several times in the night the convoy passed through tiny mountain villages, and each time we stopped and the military men fanned out of their trucks. We presumed that they were gathering word about conditions on the road ahead, and without a moment’s notice the soldiers would jump back into their trucks and we would race back onto the cliffhanging road.
After more than an hour we reached a village and the soldiers walked more slowly from their trucks. The group from the bus emerged and came over to our vehicle. It seemed we’d have a longer rest here, so we all got out and chatted with our Nepali friends. After some small talk they invited us into a dimly lit concrete building for a cup of tea. They really do have a way of downplaying the seriousness of these things.
With half of our tea finished we heard the call of the soldiers and everyone jumped up and made for the door. We ran out of the shack, jumped in Nacho, and sped out of town and into the mountains.
As the night wore on fatigue started to set in, and by eight o’clock I began wondering where we would draw the line. Despite driving at speeds barely feasible for the tiny mountain roads, we weren’t making good time on account of all of the stops. We were only halfway to our destination and we were getting tired. It was like a sign, then, when the convoy suddenly stopped and the soldiers barked a few orders to the bus driver and the couple of other drivers who’d made it this far. The bus started to turn around, so I got out and ran up to the soldier in charge.
“Excuse me, but what’s happening?”
“You stay here. Follow the bus, he is going to hotel.”
“Will the convoy go any farther?”
“No, after this it is too dangerous. You follow the bus and stay in the hotel.”
“And what time does the convoy leave in the morning?”
“No more convoy. We go back to Kathmandu.”
This sounded to me a lot like a death sentence, so I tried to come up with something more soothing to placate our visiting friends and maintain a façade of bravery and levelheadedness for Sheena.
“What’s the word,” Claire asked, looking sweet and innocent.
“Well, the soldiers think it’s too dangerous beyond this point so they’re going back to Kathmandu. We’re following that bus to a hotel, and then we’re on our own.”
My soothing and euphemistic explanation had failed to placate the group, and the hopeful mood in Nacho evaporated and in its place grew a chilly desperation. Nathan and Claire are both engineers, very smart people, and upon hearing my explanation it was clear that at that moment they considered me, also an engineer, not to be a very smart person. I had tricked them into flying across the globe, loaded them into my van, and used military force to get us a half day’s drive into the middle of a fiery poo storm. And now the troops were retreating, leaving us with no more than an ugly van with a message written with a bar of soap on the windshield.
After unloading our things into the hotel room I went out to lock up the van when I noticed some commotion aboard the bus. Its sole passengers, a family of Ukrainians, were arguing with the driver, who tried in vain to get them to get off of the bus. I walked over to see what was going on.
“Hi, ” I said, poking my head into the open door, “is everything all right?” The driver, who didn’t speak English, looked relieved and the Ukrainian matriarch explained the situation.
“We paid this man to take us to Syabrubesi so that we can go trekking, but he stopped here and is telling us to stay at this hotel. Why should we stay here? It’s probably his friend’s hotel! We paid to go to Syabrubesi, and we won’t get off of this bus until we get there!”
I stared back at her a little dumbfounded. It was as if we were speaking to each other from distant planets without a common basis for communication. The fact that we had ended up here was for me the culmination of two weeks of worry, education, and weighing odds. What was she talking about? We were going to have to start at the beginning.
“Well … it’s because of the bandh.”
“The what?” She upheld her indignant tone, but for a moment it might have occurred to her that she had missed something.
“The bandh. It’s like a strike.” Blank stare. “Look, when you left Kathmandu, did you notice that there weren’t any cars on the road?”
“No, I didn’t notice.” Her crossed arms relaxed a little and her resentfulness began to be replaced by unease.
“Hmm, okay. Well, did you notice that for the last couple of hours we’ve been driving in a military convoy?” This news gave her a great shock, and the fact that she was shocked in turn gave me a great shock. How could a whole family have endured an entire day of this without even the slightest inkling that something were amiss? They had started the day as the only vehicle on the road in one of the world’s craziest driving cities, they had been stopped for over an hour at a military checkpoint while we waited for roadblocks to be cleared, and they would have seen armed soldiers running all around their parked bus every time we entered a village. I decided to start at the beginning, going back to Nepal’s Maoist problems ten years prior, and slowly worked up to the elections at hand and the situation that we currently found ourselves in.
When I finished, she was completely horrified. She turned to her family, who didn’t understand English, and brought them up to speed while their faces transformed from angry to terrified. When she finished she looked at me again and complained, as though there were something that I could do about it, “I can’t believe this! And here we have brought an eight-year-old girl into this!”
For a change I didn’t feel like the most negligent person in the convoy, and walked toward the hotel with my head held high. As I passed the bus driver he thanked me and looked relieved. I retired to my room whereupon I informed Sheena that I was not as careless and harmful as previously thought, though my explanation did nothing to change her mind.
In the morning we hoped that a new convoy would form, but one never did. We were truly on our own, so we loaded up and set out once more into the mountains. While we failed to see any Maoists at first, it quickly became evident that in fact the road itself might be more of a danger than the rebels. The paved switchbacks soon gave way to a crumbling dirt path that skirted several landslide paths as it threaded into the mountains, clinging perilously to an impossibly steep mountainside.
We slowly crept into the first slide path, kicking small pebbles off into a scary abyss with our tires and rocking violently as Nacho rolled over giant rocks. Claire, small and usually brave, was the first to lose her wits.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god … We’re going to die. Nacho can’t handle this. Can Nacho handle this? This is too steep. We’re all going to die! I need to get out!” Almost before I could come to a stop the sliding door was open and Claire was free of the death trap. “I’m running from here,” she said, and then bounded off down the road.
The three of us looked at each other and then started crawling over the rocks again, one wrong move away from tumbling to our deaths.
“I’m out too!” Sheena squealed. Her seatbelt clicked, the door slid open, and she was out. That left Nathan and me.
“You’re not going to leave too, are you?” I asked.
“No way man, I used to be in the Boy Scouts. I’ll keep an eye on this side and you do what you can to keep us from falling off the cliff.” Sheena and Claire were perfect for each other. It was about time I had some quality Bro Time.
Nathan carefully instructed me where to put my right tire while I held my head out the window and watched pebbles fall off the edge on my side. At every opportunity to smash our oil pan with great force we did so, and frequently got out to inspect for damage. Through it all my hastily fabricated oil pan shield thanklessly did its duty.
Suddenly the road pitched upward and curved around a jutting mound of earth. The track was deep with dust and studded with embedded rocks. Our first attempt saw us spinning our tires halfway up, and then Nacho violently jumped the rear tires toward the cliff edge. I carefully slid Nacho back down the hill, weary of the exposure to my left. Nathan and I conferred, and decided that the best option moving forward was to gun it and do our best not to fall off the cliff. I breathed deeply, put it in gear and stepped on it. We sailed and bounced up the hill, jumping from groove to groove, repeatedly smashing the oil pan. A waterfall of dust flowed off of the edge as we drifted around the off-camber corner, and we made it. Sheena watched with clenched teeth, certain we were about to meet our early demise.
At long last we reached the other side of the slides and the pavement resumed, and a short while later we reached the penultimate village of the drive. As we neared the village we were stopped repeatedly by one military checkpoint after another, only a few hundred meters apart. Within fifteen kilometers of our destination we were stopped by the final military checkpoint. The officer approached my window and informed me that it was too dangerous to drive the final section alone, and we would have to wait for another vehicle to come along so we could drive together for safety. After ten minutes a Landcruiser arrived, and we set off.
The road was in good condition, interspersed with short sections wiped out by landslides. Over the first five kilometers we had put a considerable distance between us and our travel buddy, so I pulled over to wait for them.
“At least he’s in the back,” I noted to the rest of the group, “so they’ll be the sacrificial lambs in any kind of chase situation that should arrive.” A few minutes later the Landcruiser came up like a bat out of hell and flew by us, and then disappeared down the road. I cursed myself for having waited and rumbled slowly back onto the road, now in sacrificial lamb position, proving that no good deed goes unpunished.
Twenty minutes later, still alive and in one piece, we rolled into the small mountain village of Syabrubesi. As we arrived villagers and trekkers alike came out of their hovels to see us. A half dozen tour guides and stir-crazy trekkers stopped us on the road and asked in rapid fire succession a stream of questions.
“How did you get here!?”
“Are there any others?”
“Are there any buses coming?”
“Can you take me back? I have a plane to catch!”
The shutdown had caused mountain villages to fill up with stranded trekkers. We made our way through the village and parked outside of an old hotel and got ready to start our own trek into the Langtang Valley, away from civilization.
We later found out that vehicles driving to Syabrubesi had been showered by Maoist bricks as late as the day prior to our arrival. Elsewhere in the country buses and trucks that failed to observe the bandh had been attacked by Maoists who threw petrol bombs through their windshields, killing several people. Tourist vehicles were left alone. In the end the elections went on as planned. Despite not having vehicles, a record setting 78% of Nepal’s eligible voters found their way to the polls and cast their vote.