A road trip in foreign parts? Not possible now, but maybe some time in the future. The recent Macfilos articles on Kathmandu by Jean Perenet and editor Mike’s road trip out of Covid isolation prompted me to go back into the archives to remember a one-day journey just a year ago. It also took place in Nepal as a small group of travellers departed China Tibet and travelled to Kathmandu by road.
Much of the photography that day was through dusty vehicle windows with tiny cameras. Certainly nowhere near optimum for image quality, but it was a day to remember. And sometimes the situation doesn’t present itself for careful, considered top-shelf photography.
Early in the morning, the border crossing from China-Tibet into Nepal was an eye opener. On the Chinese side we progressed through passport security and customs X-ray screening in their grand building. Clean, efficient and rigorously controlled. After that it was a crossing on foot of the “Freedom Bridge” into Nepal, walking our bags with us.
The contrast was marked. Immigration formalities into Nepal were carried out in an open shed structure. Crowded, bustling, somewhat organised chaos, handled well by our guide. Our bags were opened and hurriedly checked, passports were briefly examined and it was then off to our vehicles for the 170km trip to Kathmandu: Ten adult trekkers, plus two drivers, two small-medium 4WD vehicles, people sardined inside, our bags roped down on the roof top carriers. Little did we know what was in store for us that day.
The first twenty or so kilometres into Nepal rapidly jolted us into the reality of the day ahead. Every few kilometres we stopped at a police or army checkpoint where our passports and travel documents were again carefully examined. The road was gravel, not in good condition, and often no more than a one lane track. The dust of an oncoming truck meant that our driver had to sense the situation early, then stop and pull off to the side wherever he could. We had been informed that the trip would take about eight hours to cover the short distance on the map. Averaging 20kph or less, we soon realised why.
Through the earthquake zone
As Jean indicated in his Kathmandu article, much of Nepal is still in recovery mode from the 2015 earthquake. The road system bears witness to this. In fact, we were on the secondary “highway” from China into Kathmandu. The primary road, about 40km to the east, was still closed following the earthquake damage, and the road that we were on had reopened only in the previous year.
At one point everything changed in an instant. We soon became seriously worried for our safety. As we veered off the secondary road onto a very rudimentary “new” road, one of our party fearfully shrieked, “Oh God” from the rear of our vehicle. He was an experienced US Coastguard helicopter pilot, and at that moment he and some others in our vehicle thought we were over the edge and heading down into a ravine.
Our trip was a wild ride through a mountainous Himalayan region. Cliffs up and precipices down. “Don’t look down”, was the mantra running through all our heads.
We had to stop a number of times for varying reasons. A few times to allow oncoming trucks and other vehicles through, once to pick up one of our conspicuous red duffel bags that had come adrift from the roof our partner vehicle about a kilometre in front of us, and once when an oncoming vehicle beached itself on large rocks in the middle of the road.
That incident was solved by the driver being removed from the vehicle and replaced by someone with more testosterone, who reversed off the rocks then took a longer run up to launch the vehicle over the obstacles. Evidence of rock falls and avalanches could be seen along the way. Landslides were carefully traversed or driven around. At times, this road itself became impassable, requiring a further diversion.
Mid-afternoon we reached the sealed highway which links Kathmandu and Pokhara. But the traffic flow sped up only marginally due to the heavy volume of traffic and the fact that it is mountainous and shared with heavily loaded transport and logging trucks.
Our driver was an expert at the mental calculus of seeing the gaps in oncoming traffic and accurately passing larger, slow vehicles when he could see just just enough daylight in front. It was late afternoon that we reached the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. A quick shower, then off to a rooftop bar to celebrate the end of a great two weeks, and more immediately, the hair-raising road trip of that day.
With luck, very soon, our Covid restrictions will end, and we will all be able to enjoy road trips once again. For a group of us, this was a special journey to remember. Only a year ago – different times. But we are fortunate that we will return to some semblance of normality in the next year. For Nepal, it takes a lot longer to recover from a disaster.
Most of these images were the product of my little Leica C camera, many of them taken on the move through the dirty window of the vehicle. The suspension was so soft that it was like having whole-body image stabilization – a new approach to IBIS. The first image is from trek-mate David Allen’s APS-C-sensor Sony NEX-5N and the last image from trek colleague Graeme Ebsary’s Lumix SZ1. There are three others from David’s iPhone.
All cameras have small sensors by today’s full-frame and larger standards, but they are ideal jacket pocket kit for a day on the road in a remote area. They are all quite capable of catching memories, even if not with top image quality because of the difficult circumstances. Sometimes we have no choice.