I had a good feeling about the bus that was to take up from Tatopani to Beni, where we would catch a bus back to Pokhara. The good feeling could well have been because the bus waved a knitted dashboard pretty at me that beamed “Happy Jerni to Pasanjar” in woolly letters.
We’d said our farewells to our fellow Brits, over the edge of a clifflike staircase which seemed only fitting really, made our way down to the bus area (where horses and mountain views saw us off), and wedged ourselves and our packs into seat on what we hoped was the right bus.
My good feeling was not going to last. But I didn’t know that. The knitting had told me my ‘jerni’ would be happy. Knitting has never lied to me before.
The twitchy mid-teen bus conductor, with a gap between his teeth and unruly hair, banged his fist against the side of the bus, in the traditional make-bus-go-faster Nepali way, and off we rolled. On four wheels instead of two feet at last. Now I could relax. Yes, there I was relaxing. Enter disaster, stage right.
It wasn’t so much the constant rollercoaster of road bumps. I have learned to roll with those. It wasn’t the way our wheels were inches from the rockslidey edge of the river ravine below. I was well practiced in the art of ‘if I can’t see oncoming bus rolling into ravine and bursting into flames death then it won’t happen’. It wasn’t even the fact that the overhanging rocks on the inside of the road looked so very ready to play avalanche. No all that was just run of the mill.
What was not run of the mill was the bus continually puttering to a stop every five minutes or so. The way the driving team (for there were many many woolly-hatted men expertly peering into the engine) got this well and truly sorted was to crack open the box where the engine lay (right around the gearstick, filling the bus with sweet petroleum fumes whenever they opened it), stick in a hand or two, and crank some kind of handle for an indeterminate time, all the while loudly gunning the engine.
The engine roared and died, died and roared. I eyed avalanchey stones the size of houses above us. Eventually the roar went on without the cranking, and thus we rolled on. Only to stop again five minutes later for the whole performance to begin again. The bus journey was due to take four or five hours. At this rate that may stretch to years.
Things were further complicated when we rolled to a stop before a delightfully dodgy looking bridge. A bus lurked on the other side of the bridge doing a no-you-go-first face at us. The engine-cranking woolly hat wearers all filed out of our bus and stood around the bridge peering at in much the same manner as they had peered at the engine. We had seen them ‘fix’ the engine. M thought it best to get out and let the bus brave the ‘fixed’ bridge on it’s own. I agreed.
Safely over the bridge and still intact the bus races on to Beni. And stops again for more engine cranking about three minutes later. Where oh where is my ‘happy jerni’? The driver puts his foot down to coax the engine back to life. The engine roars back like a grumpy teenager. The sound bounces about the valley walls around us, just as a train of heavily burdened donkeys come clattering around the bend in the road.
Donkey panic ensues. Dust is rising in great fear-flavoured clouds, occasionally parting to allow a view of donkey rears vanishing back up the track. At the front of the train the donkey driver is holding the lead donkey quite painfully by the lips and nostrils to try to keep him still. He’s is not a happy beast, he’s all rolly eyes and jumpy hooves.
All the while the donkey driver yells at the bus driver to stop the engine, the bus driver continues to gun the engine for all he is worth as it is the only way the bus will keep going, the twitchy conductor shouts at the donkey driver, the donkey driver shouts back, no one can hear anyone. Things are not looking good.
Our twitchy bus driver decides actions speak louder than words and goes after the donkey driver with a metal board from the bus doorway. The donkey driver picks up a rock the size of his head. The Nepali equivalent of ‘leave it, it ain’t worth it’ ensues. We get the hell off the bus and start walking.
I am still seeking my ‘happy jerni’.
Lucky for us the bus gods are smiling. We catch up with the bus in front which has stopped for a nice cup of chai. Stowing our stuff safely on the roof (where M perfects his bus surfing Teen Wolf pose),
we climb inside to find the ‘happy jerni’ we were looking for. The bus is packed with thrice-wrapped urchins, chattering ladies, cardiganed old men, and the smell of just-peeled oranges, the evidence of which flies out the windows as the bus pulls away in a Hansel and Gretels-style trail behind us.
At Beni we jumped into a taxi, driven by a calmly happy man who drives both calmly and happily all the way to Pokhara, via Baglung (a village that sounds like a Bond villian). All along the river are gatherings of locals, chatting in the shade, running up and down in the sunshine, balancing great silver cooking pots over smoking fires, and chowing down on all manner of local tastiness. It’s saturday and, according to our taxi man, it’s the day when everyone goes down to the river to picnic. He pats two bottles he has just brought back from a roadside hut, now filled to the top with yellowish clear liquid. “Nepali wine” he tells us, with a smile that assures us he’ll be drinking it later.
Dinner in Pokhara is a kick-ass spicy curry (I order it ‘Indian spicy’ and for once they actually believe me, must be the tan) and a glass of red wine to celebrate being back from the mountains. Everything is back to travelling normal at last. As I stutter down the stairs on the way out the waiter stops me, “Oh, you do some harm to your legs on trek.” he says knowingly. Hee hee.
So one night of recovery and we’re off again. In search of a Shere Kahn. Beasts. Yay!