Wed 9th Jun 2004

Bad Bus

Traveling on a Nepali bus is a 'real' experience. It's the sort of thing that Travel Bores (whose ranks I shall shortly be joining) always tell you 'you really have to experience for yourself'. In this case they are wrong. Dead wrong. Nepali bus trips are deeply unpleasant. You don't need to find this out for yourself - just take my word for it. And to save you the price of an airfare, and between 6 and 36 hours of extreme discomfort, I'll take you through an average trip.

Let's say that you want to travel from Kathmandu to Butwal, a large city in the mid-western terai region. And let's say that the bus is due to leave at 8am. By 7.30, as you arrive on the area of mud and rubble known as the bus park a large block of rusting metal will be waiting for you.

Nepali buses are all of indeterminate age. Most of them are probably less than ten years old, but all look as though they were built in the 1950s and should have been scrapped around 1965. It's quite possible to mistake the bus park for some kind of bus graveyard. It's only when one of the battered hulks starts up an engine that creates pollution like a medium-sized coal-powered power station that you realise where you are. Nepali buses are made in India, for midgets, using the same kind of technology used to manufacture primary school furniture: that is a frame of hand welded steel poles around which thin plates of steel (rather than mdf) are wrapped. Quite a lot of time is spent on painting the outside of the bus, often with helpful slogans such as "Slow drive, long life!" or, more pertinently, "Good luck!". On the inside, there is often padding or carpeting on the roof, which is handy considering how often your head will be coming into contact with it. Leg-room is acceptable only if you are from Nepal, a country where a height over 5'6'' qualifies you for an automatic place on the national volleyball team. On the dashboard is a small shrine, usually to Durga, or Ganesh the-elephant headed god of travelling, in which incense will be burning. Often these shrines have cool green and red leds as well. It's comforting to know that the driver will be praying too.

A traveller getting on the bus at, say, 7.45, will be pleasantly surprised to find that not only does he or she have a reserved seat, but that the bus is largely empty. Pleasant surprises end here. By 8am the driver will be on the bus, the engine will be being revved, and the bus will be about half full. Most people with sacks, or barrels, or beds, or goats will have had them manhandled onto the roof, but there will be one old lady sat on a large and heavy sack placed in the aisle, directly in front of the door. It is possible that this sack will be filled with that special kind of fertiliser that has something to do with chickenshit and infuses the entire bus with a smell indistinguishable from vomit.

At 8.15 the bus will lurch, and the conductor - a young guy with sheaves of vertically folded rupee notes between his fingers - will be leaning out of the door shouting the destination (in this case "Butwalbutwalbutwalbutwal!"). Twenty people who have for some reason decided to wait until the bus has started moving before getting on will now climb over the old woman on the sack of chickenshit fertiliser stuff. Now the bus seems full, and there are about ten people crowding the aisle. But it doesn't matter, because we're off! Bumping across the bus park, belching huge clouds of black smoke, the bus turns onto the highway and stops.

More shouting ensues. At this point the twenty people who felt that it was too much trouble to walk a hundred yards across the bus park to get onto the bus whilst it was parked there for 45 minutes now board. The bus is no longer half-empty. In fact, the bus will almost never be half empty. Because most Nepali buses are individually owned they leave when they feel like it, or more usually, when the bus is so ridiculously full that the driver and conductors can con the owner out of a couple of hundred rupees without him noticing. For this reason also, as a foreign visitor you will often be asked to pay whatever amount the conductor thinks he can get away with. If you argue, he will explain that it is an 'express bus', or it's the 'last bus' or he will point out that you have luggage. At this point you will need to point out that he is a 'dacoit' (a Nepali word meaning 'bandit') and continue negotiations from there.

And then we're off! With a near continuous burst of air horn the bus accelerates to a heady twenty or twenty five kmph until the outskirts of the town are reached, and here, with the open road beckoning provocatively, we stop. Clearly the driver and conductor need a break. They buy some cigarettes, have a cup of tea, chat with the owners of the tea shack, and then, after 15 minutes they get back on the bus, along with another ten new passengers.

And then we're off! But two minutes later, the reason behind the fifteen-minute stop becomes clear. It was so the driver and conductor could prepare mentally for the first security check. The bus stops. Everyone gets off, except for married women, foreigners and those too recalcitrant to be bothered. It goes without saying that the old woman on the sack of chickenshit fertilizer stuff by the door will remain where she is at all times.

A couple of soldiers or APF (Armed Police) will now get on. At this point woe betide any Maoist who has sought to conceal guns or socket bombs in the top of his or her handluggage! Armed security personnel, who may or may not look extremely bored, will poke one or two bags and unzip the odd one to see what's lying on the top. They may ask incisive questions designed to confuse and expose would-be terrorists, such as "What's in that bag?" or "Where are you going Grandma?". During the course of these investigations, whilst one of the security men is leaning over to poke a bag the barrel of his rickety AK-47, slung across his back, may poke into the face of a woman sat in the aisle, or even into your own thigh. At this point the man will grin sheepishly, move the gun away from you, and then put the safety catch on. Once he's left, any Maoists who thought to hide weapons under, say, a couple of t-shirts, or put them in a bag on the roof, are now safe. Until the next security check, in roughly 45 minutes time.

The bus moves on another couple of hundred yards and then stops, All the other passengers, who've had their bags checked get back on. Included among them are another fifteen new passengers. As the inside of the bus is now officially full, some of them may decide to get on the roof, joining the goats that have recently appeared there, looking decidedly upset.

And then we're off! After two or three hours, a pattern begins to emerge. The side of the road is one huge bus stop, and the bus lurches to a halt every five or ten minutes, at which point a couple of people get off, and considerably more get on. Someone clearly once told Nepali bus drivers not to overtake if you can see something coming the other way. As a result, they only ever overtake on blind corners. Looking out of the side windows only makes things worse: 400m drops over the jagged edge of landslide-damaged tarmac reveal the barely recognisable carcasses of unluckier buses (you hope) than yours. And so the bus ride can offer something unique: boredom and terror at the same time.

At times this accretion of jagged strips of rusting metal can approach fifty kmph. That may not sound fast, but any speed over 40kmph in Nepal is terrifying. The suspension (bendy pieces of steel in a kind of rounded diamond shape) gets close to the surface of the road at speed and doesn't like it. The bus bucks and weaves like something on a speedway track. Soon you will become acutely aware of the wooden plank that forms the bulk of the seat, beneath the flimsy piece of cloth that passes for upholstery, as well as the sharp pieces of rusty metal that jut out from the loosely welded frame of the seat in front. If you are in a 'luxury' long distance bus, with fancy reclining seats, then the back of your seat, and everyone else's, will begin swinging rythmically up and down making a loud squeaking noise, like a group of rats being whipped. It's about this time that the seat in front of you is likely to break and become fully reclined, breaking both your kneecaps in the process.

If the seat in front of you reclines, but hasn't yet broken and crushed your kneecaps, then the person in that seat will usually choose this moment to fully recline, thus crushing your kneecaps. Otherwise you are a prime target for a seat invasion. If you're travelling with a Western companion - two people crammed into a space the size of a suitcase - then you are particularly at risk.

The seat invasion phenomenon happens only to foreign visitors. There is no culture of giving up seats on Nepali buses, a tradition you will heartily agree with after you have spent several hours standing in the aisle whilst developing severe spinal injuries. Prolonged periods spent with your head at 90 degrees to the rest of your body as your ear acquires carpet burn from violent contact with the roof is a highly effective way of clearing your head of crazy Western notions: such as giving up a perfectly good seat to elderly, one-legged, pregnant women. But remaining impassive and stone-faced is not enough. Your lack of confidence with Nepali language and customs, which so often acts in your favour, can here be disastrous. In a single swift surgical movement a seatless woman has caught your eye, gestured at your seat and wedged her bony backside into the 3cm gap between the seat rest and you. She knows if she tried this on any of the Nepali passengers, they would swiftly tell her exactly where to get off. But you are foreign. And you are weak. Now all three of you have to sit wedged at a 45 degree angle to the seat back - a situation that the seat thief will seem to regard as your fault as she repeatedly digs her elbow into your overfed Western body to try and winnow out another couple of millimetres.

You might think things can get no worse. But they can. The seat invader will extract from somewhere a Small Plastic Bag. Nepalis are notoriously bad travelers - unsurprising when you consider what they have to travel in. It's rare for no one to vomit on a bus journey. Often dozens will, adding an authentic tinge to the vomit-smell coming from the sacks of chickenshit fertiliser stuff. It's even possible to be sprayed by someone else's vomit leaving the bus through their window and re-entering through yours. Your seat invader will now vomit inches from your face. She will then proceed to hawk and spit continuously for at least half an hour, possibly implying through dirty looks that she has only been sick because you've been taking up so much of the seat, before leaning over and throwing the bag from the window.

One way to get through a long bus journey is to dose yourself with the kind of sedative banned in the rest of the world, but happily available over the counter in any Nepali pharmacy, and then to try and get some sleep. This is made more difficult by the tape machine. Tape players on Nepali buses are not only the height of luxury: they also share some unique features. There are only two volume settings - 'off' and 'deafeningly loud', and the players will only play atrocious Nepali folk music at continually varying speeds. Without exception, only the driver is allowed to touch the tape player. He will usually wait to change a tape until the bus is overtaking on a blind corner or careering round a hairpin bend.

But what about the roof? It's true that if the journey is more than usually tortuous, and it's not raining, you can often travel on the roof of the bus. Theoretically it's a little safer in a crash too - as you can hurl yourself of the bus before it plunges 500m down a ravine into a raging torrent. Often the conductor is only too keen to get westerners up there, as it means he can squeeze a couple more people in. After the hell on wheels inside this can be a wonderfully refreshing and liberating experience, for about fifteen minutes. After nine hours the excitement will have worn off. When the bus finally lurches to a halt you may need to wipe away the crust of dirt and dead insects from your eyes to discover where you are, but not to realise that you are in extreme pain.

Even though Nepal is a small country, to travel from one end to the other on the fastest bus, a distance of around 600km, will take around three days (Maoist guerillas can apparently walk it in eight). The fact that buses are not allowed by the Army to drive at night doesn't help. Anyone foolish enough to take what is clearly advertised as a 'nightbus' will find that the 'tea break' at around 9pm will in fact last for seven hours. Obviously, sleep on the bus will be hard to come by. It's possible to take a sleeping bag up to the roof and stretch full length, and you may even get some sleep before 3.30am - at which time the driver will wake up, spit, and then drive off again, whether you're back in the bus or not. On a good trip the bus will average around 25kmph. but it's possible for this figure to drop as low as 9kmph.

It seems hard to believe at these speeds, but travelling on a Nepali bus is one of the most dangerous things you could do. Nepal's roads are narrow, badly maintained and traverse some of the world's most ridiculously precipitous terrain. Every year hundreds of people die in various gruesome accidents. After each monsoon large sections of road are washed away and the highways closed for weeks. In some of the worst affected sections, resurfacing the road is regarded as pointless: they are just patched up with sand and rubble until the next monsoon. Last October, I took a bus to Pokhara from Kathmandu (140km, 13 hours). The next day a full passenger bus plunged from that same main Kathmandu to Pokhara highway. A newspaper report confirmed two survivors and eight dead. Fifty-six people were reported missing. So was the bus.