Home Features Perilous times on the road from Tibet to Kathmandu

Perilous times on the road from Tibet to Kathmandu

1186
23

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.

Border contrasts

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.

Journey begins

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.

Into Kathmandu

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.


Photo notes

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.

Read more from Wayne Gerlach

23 COMMENTS

  1. The pictures certainly make one feel “there”! You revealed that you used a Leica C, a camera for which I have a great deal of respect. I should like to ask whether you used the “through window” scene mode? Every camera should have one! And I’ve been sorry to see Leica leave it out on other compacts.

    • Hello John.
      I didn’t use Scene mode, finding that Program mode worked just fine finding focus through the window. To be honest, I didn’t think of using Scene mode.
      And yes, the little lightweight Leica C is a great shirt pocket camera. Always there and ready.

  2. I feel I have ‘done it’ thanks to your narrative and pictures. Very hairy in places. Well documented. Thank you.

    • Cheers David. Glad that it gave you an idea of that day.
      We all know that time is relative. On that day in late May 2019 it stretched, a long time to get to Kathmandu.

  3. Thanks for this Wayne. Nicely descriptive images. It took me back to driving in Oman and Qatar especially in the Omani mountains. Getting a 4WD’s rear end to fly up is usually a sure way of making the passengers scream. Further details on request. Hopefully one day I’ll make it to Nepal.

  4. I always knew there were more archives from that wonderful trip, just showing us Everest up close was only ever the climax to what must have been an arduous journey to get there and back.

    Now we know, and the images are as you would expect, full of life, the perils of travelling on gravel built road (says the ex-engineer who used to build them), and bursting with colour and interest.

    The top image makes me think of Area 51, somewhere that is almost a million miles from where you were.

    And who would have dreamt covid up at this time – none of us would have ever considered it that such an issue would arise.

    The world is a strange place, and full of unusual events. Fingers crossed we all get back out with our camera’s and have some fun.

    Keep safe folks, and Wayne – dont get to close to JS at your coffee mornings – you never know where the next covid event will come from. 🙂 JS (I am joking, honest).

    • Hi Dave. I had coffee with John this morning. He was in good form. Discussion topi;cs were Photography, Macfilos, more Photography, Politics, Motoring, the state of the World, and more Photography. All good fun, and safe distance maintained.

      • My macfilosophian ears begin to burn in the middle of the night, early every Tuesday as I can imagine the Terrigal editorial sub-committee dissecting every post and comment. Constructive observations always welcome….

      • That sounds like a fun topical coffee morning, I am jealous having been locked up in covid central for twelve weeks now.

  5. Thanks Wayne for this “live” article that brings fond memories of Himalayan roads. It did remind me and my wife the roads in Bhutan which are in many ways similar to the Nepalese ones. Travelling these roads you always fear that some rocks coming from above might land on the roof of the vehicle you’re in. However considering the state of their roads their drivers are really excellent. Thanks for sharing and stay safe

    • Yes Jean, the drivers are very good. I do wonder whether it is Darwinian evolution in action i.e. they are good drivers because they are the ones who survive selection processes and go on to make a career of it.
      Our drivers were impressive. They left Kathmandu at 2am to drive to meet us at the border, met us there and strapped us inside and our gear on the roof racks, then drove all the way back to Kathmandu. A very long day for them, but they were very capable and competent at all times.

  6. Great story, Wayne. Either today or tomorrow (8th or 9th June) is the estimated anniversary of the death of Mallory and Irvine in 1924. The mystery still remains as to whether they were actually the first to reach the summit of Everest. They had with them a Vest Pocket Kodak, which was not found with Mallory’s body. It may be with Irvine’s body, but that may never be found. Even then how do you handle film that has been in extreme cold for almost 100 years and that might shatter at the first touch? I was looking the other day at a photo of the ‘traffic jams’ near the summit of Everest last year and I wondered whether we will ever see their like again. There was not even a hint of ‘social distance’.

    You are lucky to have seen that part of the ‘roof of the world’. The Nepalese are lovely people. One of my staff in Doha was Nepalese. He told me that he could see 7 Himalayan peaks from the front door of his house in Pokhara. Imagine waking up to see that every morning. Still, he had to go to the Middle East to find work.

    William

    • This reminds me that we have carried articles in the Mallory and Irvine expedition and the mystery of the missing VP Kodak. I should have linked the story to them.

    • Hello again William. Yes, it would be wonderful, if also tragic, if the vest pocket Kodak is ever found. Is it with Irvine? In the Rongbuk Glacier somewhere? It was special to look out at the North West face and think that somewhere out there is a camera that might answer a riddle now nearly a century old.
      The Nepalese people are resilient. we were aware that they often go abroad to work and get money to send back to their families, and that the middle east is one such destination. It must be very tough at home this year for those Nepalese at home who work in the tourist, trekking and climbing industry. Numbers of visitors are way down.

      • I tend to go with the theory when you read the story of Mallory and Irving that they did reach the top. On the basis that Mallory had the camera when they set off, and as it wasn’t found with him that he handed it to Irvine to take a photo of him on the summit of the world. And thus the camera should we ever find it, should be on Irvine and prove they did it – admittedly if the film is in any condition to process now.

        Its a fascinating conundrum I suspect we will never work out the true answer too.

        I do hate the commercialised mess that Everest has become. Only man could thing it was acceptable to effectively dump, several tonnes of rubbish, metal, plastic and human remains.

        • Interesting thoughts Dave.
          My understanding is that the Everest climbing regions are progressively being cleaned up. Climbing parties are expected and required to bring back all waste and rubbish, and then more, from their base camps. And also from the climbing routes, although not always so easy from up very high.

          It appears that the cleanup policy is being quite strongly enacted on the China-Tibet side. Certainly it was very clean and tidy at the monastery base camp area that we visited (just needs a bit more oxygen in the air).

          Harder to do on the southern Nepalese side. In contrast to the restricted access on the China side, the Nepalese economy really needs and encourages the tourists, trekkers and climbers. But I have a glass half full view, thinking that improvements will continue – those improvements just take a bit longer to happen in some parts of the world, I guess.

  7. Terrific journey, hope you get to repeat, and I hope they get the aid to rebuild their country. I have a cousin who had what I thought was a great job, he worked for a company called OUTWARD BOUND, they arranged trips to distant parts from the states, and my cousin job was ground support, different base camp heights. He had wonderful pics but were destroyed in a house fire, this was. BC before computers, now he has his memories. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks John. An unexpected outcome for the article.
      Outward Bound is an admirable not-for-profit. Credit to you cousin for participating.

  8. Wow. Very well narrated. Nothing to beat a road trip in the mountains specially when it’s in these parts of the world. One always feels thankful for coming out alive and safe. Did you sit up front with the driver? That’s my preferred place, for two reasons one, I can spot a photo chance better and get him to find a parking place, and two, I can be the second pair of eyes on the road! It was nice to see the good ol’ Scorpio – even here that’s the favorite 4WD in the mountains it seems. I also like to get a video or two on my phone of the road when travelling. Now with GPS that’s a good way I found to get an idea of the remote location on a map even without a network signal.

  9. Glad that you enjoyed it Farhiz.
    The Mahendra Scorpio is actually impressive kit. Built for purpose, and handling that purpose really well. I did wonder whether it was deliberately engineered with a very soft suspension, or whether the suspensions on our vehicles were getting a bit tired. Whichever, it didn’t matter because the vehicles and our drivers were most capable that day in May last year, getting us back to Kathmandu through tough terrain.
    And yes, I was fortunate to be the tallest in our vehicle, so I got assigned to the front seat next to the driver. Lucky for a day of catching unexpected images with the Leica C.

  10. Excellent article and images, Wayne. I love the ones of death defying mountain roads and crazy local vehicles. The first image with the road which converges to a true point is also powerful – a limitless horizon.
    Thank you for a window on the top of the world from my little restricted home environment.

    David

  11. Cheers David. I agree that the first image by trek mate David is special. It makes me look into it, rather than at it. The poured bitumen on the cracks in the road adds to the look. Important to hold the highway together up there with extreme temperature variations.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.