Saturday, March 23, 2013

My Transportation Adventures in Kathmandu

I've been taking too many photos to process and post every day. This post I'm just going to talk a little about transportation in Kathmandu. (You can click any of these photos to bring you to more, or view my entire Flickr photostream by clicking here.)

I'm staying with friends who have a car and a driver. Me being the independent traveler that I am, though, I like to hoof it out on my own and use the local transportation as well. At 5' 10", blond hair and blue eyes, no matter what I do, I stick out like a sore thumb. That isn't stopping me in Kathmandu this time around, though.

While the roads in DC might be cause for headaches, especially during rush hour, they cannot even begin to compare to the chaos found in the capitol of Nepal. If you find yourself on a paved road, it may have suggestive lines for traffic to follow, suggestive being the key word. Most transportation travels on the left side of the road. When he opportunity arises, they also drive on the right side of the road, if there is temporary clearance for passage. Are there two or three lanes total for traffic on the road? No problem. Five or six threads of trucks, buses, micro buses, tuk tuks, four-wheeled tractor thingies, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, rickshaws and the occasional holy cows can easily needle there way through for passage, also using the dirt on each side of the road for additional lanes when possible (all the time). I have video of the traffic chaos, but haven't yet taken any good still photos. There is still time for me to do so, and plenty of opportunity.

Going around a corner on a narrow road and concerned about possible oncoming traffic? Honk your horn. Pedestrians/bicyclists/parked cars in the road, blocking your easy travel from point A to point B? Honk your horn. Holy cow meandering down the road, blocking traffic from all directions? Don't honk your horn--not because the cow's so holy you don't want to upset it, but because the cow simply doesn't care. You'll pass a stone Vishnu soon enough. Say a quick prayer that the holy cow will soon find some weeds to munch on in a nearby field, thereby clearing the road for all.

 It is my firm belief that Nepali vehicles are the most hardy in the world, and that those who repair the vehicles are the most adept at reinforcing said vehicles when necessary. Why do I believe this to be true? I have ridden in cars, tuk tuks, micro buses and buses on some of the most non-smooth roads possible, weighted down by more passengers than clowns coming out of a circus car, in and out and around the most cavity jarring potholes imaginable, and yet these vehicles keep chugging along. Some of the vehicles look older than the orange Pinto my father used to drive (in the 1970's), and chug chug chug, honk honk honk, they still get us all from point A to point B without side panels falling off.

Yesterday in a microbus (for micro people? I am anything but micro...), a school bus was heading toward us from the right and the road expansion crew was working on the left of the very narrow road, pick axes and shovels in hand, stirring water into a pile of cement mix on the road like I would stir eggs into a pile of flour when making pasta on the counter at home. All I could think of was, "Please dear God, do not let us roll over, past the road work and into the little valley below. Today is not a good day to a microbus." I closed my eyes and we all made safe passing, most likely with a little dose of Harry Potter style magic, temporarily shrinking all of us so we could fit together on the narrow path. At least that's what I chose to believe, from behind my closed eyelids.
Road Expansion Work

We continued along on our safe journey, heading south toward Kathmandu Durbar Square. Every five or six major potholes we'd stop and pick up more passengers, and more passengers, and more passengers... Last I could count we had 25 people in the microbus! Granted, I was smashed back into the far right corner of the microbus, I couldn't tell if anyone else jumped on to ride after my last count of 25 souls aboard the bumpathon ride to anywhere. I didn't care about our destination at that point, I just looked out the window and reminded myself, "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto." I stared out the window to distract myself from the bone crunching squeeze of a ride. I tried not to panic. I am a wee bit clausterphobic, and needed sedation for an MRI years ago. This ride was quickly rising my anxiety to a much higher level than during that simple medical procedure. Ah, I could crack open the window for some fresh... carbon monoxide from the tailpipe, yeah... Visions of sardines in a can came to mind. The circus clowns getting out of tiny cars after driving around the center ring. Yes, back to Harry Potter, magically shrinking bodies or an impossibly large interior of a tent or house that otherwise looked so small from the outside! No magic here, just bodies crammed into a vehicle, and a few others hanging on for dear life from the outside (lucky ones who were breathing fresher air with lungs that could expand to hold said air...).
Kathmandu MicrobusHow big is a "microbus"? When my dad passed away in 1988 I started driving his Chevy Beauville 20 van to and from school. The microbus is about the same size as that van, possibly a foot or so longer. And for the life of me I cannot imagine stuffing our old van with 25 human beings and driving it around a bumpy non-holy-cow pasture back in Wisconsin. After much thought, that's about the closest description I can come up with re: the size and ride of a Nepali microbus.

Inside (near empty) MicrobusWe finally came to the end of our ride, extricated ourselves from the tin can, and paid our fares. What? Only 18 rupees (less than $.25), vs. 300 rupees ($3.60-ish) for a taxi? Hmmm... Yup, the cheapskate in me decided to the microbus home after our visit to Durbar Square (accompanied by Talim Shrestha, my trusty guide). I counted only 21 passengers on the microbus ride home, not so bad.

A few days earlier Talim and I went to Swayambunath, the National Museum and the National Military Museum. We road to Swayambu by taxi. Then we took a tuk tuk from Swayambu to the museums. To me, a tuk tuk is another tin can, smaller in size, and set on the frame of a very large, motorized "tricycle" frame. I counted 16 people total riding inside and hanging onto the back as we bounced along the roads.

My View from Inside Tuk Tuk
Our Tuk Tuk (continuing on after we got out)

Without Talim as my guide, I could not have so easily navigated our bus, microbus and tuk tuk rides. I might venture out on my own next week on some form of public transportation, taking enough money to hire a taxi to deliver me to the intended destination once I realize I've jumped on the wrong bus line. With taxis costing anywhere from 200-500 rupees within the city ($2.40 - $6.00), I think I can afford the transportation adventure. I will head out, armed with a good map (with most roads unnamed), Swayambunath sometimes poking out high above the smog, helping to me to reorient myself within the city, and a heavy dose of positive attitude for when all (loosely made) plans invariably go astray. Last resort, when I can't remember the name of the location where my friends live, I shall request of the taxi driver, "Please take me to the American Embassy." I think I know how to walk back to my friends' house from there. :)
View from Bus Ride (Talim on left)
Business by Bike - note the scale
Kathmandu Rickshaws - fancy tricycles
Flatbed Tricycle, on a water run
Starter Trike, the simple days. :)

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