Excerpt 'A Beard In Nepal 2'
The track ran round the side of a mountain, and the bus bumped and rolled along, occasionally screeching almost to a halt to avoid a landslide or boulder in its way, throwing us forward into the back of the seat in front.
We continued for about an hour and then stopped in sight of a cluster of houses. The landscape was slightly less inhospitable now, and there were several trees dotted around which, in the absence of any terraces, actually managed to grow out of the mountain side itself. They looked out of place there, rather like an odd, rogue hair on a woman’s chin.
A group of people were waiting for the bus, and when the door opened they crowded noisily on board.
There were plenty of free seats, but this group seemed, inexplicably, to want to stay at the front of the bus, and the seats there were quickly taken. We watched in amazement as three people happily crammed themselves into the two seats in front of us.
When all the seats towards the front of the bus were full, instead of moving back down the bus to the empty seats behind, everyone remained standing in the aisle, jam-packed tightly together, like books in a bookcase that was far too small for them.
We were open mouthed with wonder! How very strange. What on earth were they doing?
“Maybe they’re not going very far, and want to be first off?” I suggested. But that didn’t seem likely.
By this time the jumbled human crush was edging noisily back down the aisle, as the sheer force of numbers compelled it to expand. Tod was sitting in the window seat, and we had our empty rucksacks by our feet, so our already restricted space was even more limited.
Laughter and loud talking filled the bus. No one seemed at all put out by this unnecessary melee in the aisle. Someone passed a baby over several heads - even the baby didn’t seem put out.
The noisy throng moved further down the centre of the bus, and eventually arrived on a level with us. A rather large lady, wearing a bright blue sari, took up position next to my seat. She looked down at me and smiled. I smiled back.
More people got on the bus, and amid much laughter the melee was again forced to expand back along the aisle. The large lady fought bravely to retain her position next to me. She was standing sideways on to my seat, her back to me, and she suddenly reached out a hand and grabbed one of the handles on the back of the seat in front of me. She hung on grimly as the noisy tide swept past her, squashing her backwards onto me. I moved over towards Tod as much as I could, which wasn’t much at all, to give her some more space to expand into.
Her blue clad posterior began to inch towards my knees, and as I looked on in horror, it edged onto my left knee and began to settle there.
“Hey!” Tod called to my new friend, “There’s plenty of room at the back!”
His words were lost among the noisy jollity in the bus, so he reached out and tapped her on the shoulder,
“There are lots of seats at the back!” he tried again, mindful of the encroaching posterior.
But to no avail. The lady just glanced over her shoulder and smiled at us. It looked as though we would have to travel in this odd, unnecessarily cramped fashion until they all got off.
The bus got under way again.
We looked out the window and realised just how high we were, and how close to the edge of the track the bus was. We were looking down on the tops of trees, and way, way below us we could see a river winding through a ravine. It looked like something out of Toy Town from this distance.
The track began to descend the mountain, and the standing crowd stumbled and swayed, clutching at whatever they could to stay upright.
It made no sense to Tod and me that they were still standing at this point, given the number of empty seats in the bus.
The track became steeper, and the bus slowed to a crawl. I began to feel nervous - we were certainly very close to the edge. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that the safety barrier has not really put in an appearance yet in Nepal.
Suddenly the bus stopped, and there was a moment of hush as the roar of the engine died away. Then the door opened and the standing passengers began to pile out. The blue clad posterior was withdrawn from my knee, and the woman disappeared down the bus steps. Even those travellers who had been seated now stood up and exited the bus.
“Look!” and pointed at the sun baked ground outside the window. There were several people on the bus roof, and we could see their shadows clearly outlined on the ground by the strong sunshine, as they too stood up and climbed down to the ground.
I looked round. Apart from us, and Kalyani, we were now alone on the bus,
“So they were only going a short distance, that’s why they didn’t sit down,” I said, “There must be a village or a market round here, and that’s where they’re all going.”
Tod looked doubtful,
“How’s Kalyani?” he asked.
I struggled to turn and peer through the space between the tops of our seats, to get a view of Kalyani in the seat behind.
“Ahhhhhh,” I said, “She’s asleep. She’s got her coat over her head,” and Tod and I looked at each other and smiled.
“Noooooooo, Fiona!!” Kalyani’s voice, muffled through her coat, startled us.
“What?” I said, “What was that Kalyani?”
“I am not asleep Fiona!” she said, “I am afraid! Very afraid! I do not want to see!”
“Why?” I asked, “What’s the matter?”
But before I got an answer to my question the bus engine roared into life, and off we went in jerky fits and starts, down the increasingly steep track. I turned away from Kalyani, and braced my hands against the seat in front to stop myself slithering into it. Tod did the same.
The track descended the mountain in a series of hairpin bends which were far too tight for the bus to negotiate. So it had to stop and reverse, then pull forward again, three or four times at each turn.
I was absolutely horrified.
“How on earth will he be able to get round this corner?” I demanded, my voice several octaves higher than normal, as we saw what was up ahead.
“Don’t worry,” Tod told me calmly, grabbing my hand, “he must have done this journey a lot, so he’ll know the track.”
That really didn’t reassure me! I heard a kind of low squealing noise coming from under the coat in the seat behind, and I presumed that Kalyani wasn’t reassured either!
Picture it: A severely steep track, barely wide enough to accommodate the wheels of a local bus, descending the mountain by means of the tightest of tight hairpin bends, high in the remote Himalayas, with not a cat in hell’s chance of any help should we slide or skid off and crash down the mountain. On board, two plonkers and a faithful friend.
My stomach lurched, my hands were clammy, and I was shaking. I could not bring myself to look out the window, unlike Tod, who appeared disgustingly cool about our latest jaunt.
“That’s why they all got off!” I squeaked, “They’re not stupid!”
Those twenty minutes of hair raising, slithering, engine screaming descent that it took to reach a plateau, where the track became almost flat, were the most frightening twenty minutes of my life. We had tackled high roads before, but nothing like this.
Then the bus stopped, and the door opened. Everyone who had got off at the top of the mountain now got back on the bus, having done the sensible thing and climbed down!
Kalyani emerged from under her coat, grinning sheepishly.
This time there was no question of an unseemly scrum at the front of the bus. Everyone found a seat, no one stood. Panic over.
“Have there ever been any accidents here?” Tod asked Kalyani.
Personally I’d rather not have known the answer, but Tod does have a morbid streak.
“Ummmmm…….. Yes,” she said, nodding, “But only two.”
“How bad?” he asked. I glared at him.
Kalyani told us that both buses had slipped off the track, and plunged right down to the bottom of the mountain. There had been no survivors on either bus.
The rest of the journey back to Kathmandu went remarkably smoothly, I’m pleased to report. By the time we arrived there, some eight hours later, my heart had recaptured its usual rhythm, and my hands were no longer clammy.
We spent another couple of days in the capital city, wandering happily around sightseeing with Kalyani, and drinking tea and chatting with Karma.
Then we said our goodbyes, and promising to return again in the not too distant future, took our leave.