From Pokhara to Rara in a Tata / by Thomas-Xavier Christiane

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All of this nonsense started on a terrace in Kathmandu during a fresh evening of November. I was drinking with two young men. One was the owner of a concrete shop. The other had just come back from studying in the USA. « America’s boring man » Both of them were Nepalese. At some point, one of them said: « You should go to Rara Lake » So I did.

There were two ways to go to Rara Lake. The first one was by plane. From Kathmandu, it took less than a day. This cost around 100$ for Nepalese nationals and 400 for foreigners. It was considered a safe way to travel. The second option costed only 50$ including transport, food, lodging, cigarettes, biscuits and beers. It was the bus. It was supposed to take five days. It was not a safe way to travel.

The bus was a Tata 1512c. To produce them, the bus company had to buy a chassis with a driver seat. Then, they asked to a custom shop to make it look like a bus. Once done, the result is was box of metal with 4 wheels that can go everywhere. It was only designed with the concern of crossing mountains. Customer experience and comfort had never been researched or developed for those beasts. I should add that most of them were equipped with powerful speakers.

I got there by bus.

The first bus: Pokhara - Nepalgunj

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I left from Pokhara on a sunday afternoon. I had just spent a weekend enjoying the sun and the lake after a very busy month. There I had asked to a travel agency how to go to Rara Lake by bus. The woman at the counter had kindly informed me that there was one leaving everyday to Nepalgunj « between 1pm and 1:30 ». When I asked her to provide me a ticket, she couldn’t help me. « I don’t sell tickets for local bus. » She actually looked offended that I asked that. From her memory, the bus trip was « around 17h ».

Because I had spent all my change money in the fancy restaurants of Pokhara, I only had a few rupees left. I wanted to withdraw money but the ATMs were down. Bad luck. So, I told to myself that I could withdraw later. I had no idea at this moment of what was in front of me. A taxi dropped me at the « local bus » station. This was about a big chaos of buses driving around on a big avenue. The place was crowded by random people yelling around in Nepali. One of them came to me. « Where you go? - Nepalgunj - Follow me! » We crossed the street and he showed me a bus. « This bus… Nepalgunj » I went inside and took a seat that was designated to me.

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At first, I was the only one inside. Nevertheless it only took a few minutes for the bus to be overcrowded. So much that some people had no seats. We left Pokhara and the bus guy asked me twelve hundreds rupees for the ticket. I found myself with only 20 rupees left. I used them to buy peanuts. Peanuts were a very good stuff to keep the mind busy at least fourthy-five minutes. The first roads were normal. Only a few holes and some corners to shake the bus… Nothing big. Inside, the driver was entertaining the passengers with loud and good South Asian music. Some people were sleeping, others were just watching by the window. We stopped once for tea before dawn. « No tea? - No money… »

At sunset, the bus crossed a big white bridge and took a mountain road with traffic jams. For about two hours, it drove slowly on a dirt road. Seeing that I had no more money for food, I decided to put my stuff on sale. This is why I sold my sunglasses to the man sitting next to me. Only two dollars for sunglasses I had payed five… Nepalese were good for negotiations. « I give you 2000 - No, 300. - No, 2000 - Ok 200 - Ok » That was enough to provide me the basic necessities when the bus stopped. A little of food, a bottle of Coke (One coke a day keeps the diarrhea away) and water… So, I had 50 rupees left for tea.

I felt asleep around 1am. From the night, I only remember being awakened by a soldier at a checkpoint so he could check my bag. « What is this? - My camera » Around five, the bus stopped and I embarked into a minivan driving to the city centre of Nepalgunj. The guy from this bus was a young-obese-rude child who thought it’d be funny to have fun of the foreigner all the way. This bus costed me five rupees and a cigarette. At six, the bus dropped me in Nepalgunj. I was feeling good considering I thought I was not far from Rara Lake anymore. I was wrong.

After some private time in an ATM, a street guy showed me the way to « bus park ». There, I was about to take the second bus.

The second bus: Nepalgunj - Jumla

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I arrived at the bus station around six. In front of a teashop, there was a group of men. One of them was selling bus tickets. Since I had to wait for approximately one hour, I fell asleep in the teashop. After a few minutes, someone woke me up and designed me a seat in the bus that was going to drive me. I woke up with the loudness of the bus leaving. It was seven-forty, the sun was rising. 

I was starting what I thought would be an only twelve hours ride to Jumla. I was looking forward to be soon enjoying Rara Lake because I thought it was in Jumla. But it wasn’t meant to be like that at all. After one hour driving, the bus stopped. I asked for informations to the others: « Problem? - Small problem » We stayed there for an hour. During this time I took pictures of the bus. It was an old and used machine. 

When the problem was solved, we left. We had lost an hour and I was feeling confident that we would arrive early In order so I could have a shower before diner. After two kilometers, the bus stopped. I thought it was a bathroom stop… But an old man from the bus made me a sign. « Big problem » The bus driver had to walk to the nearest village to get some help. I had some sleep again and when I woke up the bus was leaving. This time, it had stopped for 2 hours. At this moment I was getting hungry and I was looking forward for the food stop. « 20 minutes »

Around thirty minutes later, the bus stopped again. This time no technical problem, there was an accident on the road. A huge crowd was helping people to get out of a bus that had just crashed. The people around were taking pictures or fighting. I felt asleep one more time. When I woke up, we were leaving…

After a quick dal bath stop, we drove for the rest of the day. We only stopped for toilets. At dawn, the bus stopped in a village. « Sleeping! » We had to spend the night in a lodge. All together in the same room.  The bed were made of wood planks with no sleeping mat. The rooms were in the basement. But first, we shared the dal bath together. The driver was very proud of driving a foreigner so he was taking care of every details. « You want beer? You want fish? Another Tea? »

We had a long night of sleep and we were awaken at five by hard knocks on the door and shoutings. « उठो, उठो!! » No time for tea, we had to go. When I asked how long it would take to go to Jumla someone said « 5-6 hours ». He was lying. This morning, it was raining. We only stopped once in a village for a tea and samosas. The next stop was for lunch.

After this stop, we were definitely in the mountains. So I took pictures of them. 

During the afternoon, three incidents happened. First, we stopped because there was a truck upside down and its crowd on the road. A small man showed me the truck with proud. « This is Nepal. » Another one asked me: « How long you in Nepal? ». The second incident was nothing big. Two men entered the bus. They had no money so they got expelled. « Problem? - No rupees! » And finally, we stopped in a village to deliver rice. Everybody got angry because of price negotiation. Around 7pm, we arrived in Jumla. « Tomorrow, you go Rara Lake » I asked for a room in the only hotel that had a wifi and electricity. « This is Star Hotel » The hotel had no electricity before ten pm and only dal bath for food. Meanwhile, there was a very luxurious facility… A shower.

The third bus: Jumla - Nagma

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The next day, I woke up at seven. I needed to take some time to organize my return from Rara Lake after visiting it. So I headed to the airport. Inside, there was a man hanging out. He called a friend. The friend sayed that the next plane was the week after. « But nothing sure. Sometimes plane not coming. » Because of this detour, I missed my bus. However I was the witness of a beautiful sunrise.

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After a breakfast, I headed to the bus station. One of them was going to Nagma. « First you go Nagma and then Gothijiula. After Rara Lake tonight 7pm » « To Nagma 2-3 hours then 1 hour. Approximately 9 hours. » It was crowded and the driver was going very fast. Which was good fun for everybody. Although I was scared. Which was good fun as well for the others. This bus ride was only one hour time. In Nagma, I had to wait for the next bus at a police checkpoint… « One hour waiting » someone told me. I waited four hours with the police. « How long you stay in Nepal? You have girlfriend? »

The fourth bus: Nagma - Ghotijiula

In the time of waiting, I got hungry and I ordered a dal bath. When it got ready, the bus arrived. So the police asked the driver no to leave until I had finished my lunch. In remote areas, it’s important to be friend with the good people…

After this, we left for Ghotijiula. « One hour? - Yes! - Two hours? - Yes! – Six hours? – Yes! » This time no more tarmac roads. Only stones, dirt and grounds. For the next four hours, I was going to be balanced from the left to the right and back. The bus could not go faster than twenty kilometers an hour in straight lines. The deep ravine was only one meter away. Occasionally less than thirty centimeter. 

From Nepalese standard there were two kinds of remote areas. « Remotes. » and « Very remotes! » I had just entered a very remote one. This kind of place where, except for dal baths, there was literally nothing. In those areas, most of the villages had no electricity and there was phone network in very few places. « In Ghotijiula wifi? - No wifi. Sometimes phone network » I enjoyed this experience by sitting in the back with my new friend. « I’m police from Kathmandu. I come home for five days to my family then I go back. You have cigarette? » The bus arrived around six. It was already nighttime and the temperature was less than 0°. « Now, I walk my home. 15 kilometers only. Tomorrow, you go Rara. » said the cop.

I spent the night in the homestay of a very welcoming family: « RICE EATING COME! - I don’t want rice. I want to sleep! - RICE EATING! »

The fifth bus that was actually a truck: Ghotijiula - Rara

I woke up at sunrise the fifth day. The first thing I had to do was to go to « bus park » to ask at what time I could leave for Rara Lake. « 10 o’clock » said someone. « 3pm » said another one. « Just wait here » was the clearest answer I got. It was 8 and a bus was going to come at a moment or another.

I used this time to do some inner philosophy while smoking some shilum with the mother of my homestay. I was curious to know what was the life of those people made of in such remote areas with no connections to the outside world. The existence of the people living here had to be very hard. A cold winter. A raining sum… Suddenly a truck arrived!

« You go Rara Lake? - Yes! » I took a seat inside the cabin with the driver and another guy. The truck was a Tata with no equipment but very good Bluetooth speakers. We started to drive on roads that were way more dangerous than the day before. Not only there was ground and stones… from time to time; we were driving on the snow. I got scared. Good fun for my traveling companions. 

After every turn on the road, they would tell me: « Next, Rara Lake ». And so for three hours. Then we arrived at a military checkpoint where I had to give my passeport number. « After that, Rara Lake! You have best time Rara Lake! » I saw in the register that I was the first foreigner coming there for a month. The last ones were a French couple. Rara was one hour of drive away. When we arrived, they dropped me on a road. « You go this way 2 hours and then Rara » They left and I started walking with 20kg on my back. This was an improvised trek at sunset.

Finally, after three hours of walking, it was there. Rara Lake.

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Afterword

To go back to Kathmandu, I went by plane from Nepalgunj. The bus that drove me there was supposed to be only two days. It took us four days because of « technical problems » and a wheel that felt of the bus while driving. « Luckily we’re alive. »

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