Nepal: The unpaved road to Nirvana

By Derek Cheng

On a gruelling 20-hour drive through Himalayan valleys Derek Cheng surrenders to the rhythm of the road.
Travelling by Jeep in Nepal. Photo / Jean-Marie Hullot
Travelling by Jeep in Nepal. Photo / Jean-Marie Hullot

The road gripped the jeep in a fierce hold and threw it in all directions in a violent tantrum. My head crashed into the window pane, into the ceiling, into the chin of the guy sitting next to me, as we slowly inched our way through the lower Himalayan valleys to Kathmandu, Nepal's capital.

Sometimes, so extreme was the tantrum, all 13 of us crammed into this 4WD jeep headbutted the ceiling in glorious unison.

After a couple of hours of having my shoulder repeatedly pummeled into the window, I wrapped my jacket into a cushion and stuffed it into my sleeve. This was going to be a war of attrition. A 20-hour drive, and it had only just begun. I predicted bruises.

The road starts in Salleri, a rural village in the Khumbu valley, a good five days' walk from Everest Base Camp (5364m) and some 3000m lower in altitude, and winds its way through steep gorges, streams and rockfall zones. It is scarred with potholes the size of craters, ruts that swallow entire vehicles, and is cluttered with giant boulders claiming the middle of the road.

And as the war began, the heavens opened, turning the road into a mudslide. The only way to avoid plummeting over the precarious edge was to crawl along at a speed usually reserved for petrified glaciers.

I had left Lukla - the world's most terrifying airport and the usual exit port for Khumbu explorers - in favour of two days' extra hiking through a valley that offers fewer tourists and a glimpse at more authentic rural life. The path took me over three mountain passes, through golden fields of barley and maize, passed children playing shoeless in the cobbled streets with chickens and goats.

In Salleri, I nabbed the last spot in the only jeep in town, and piled in with the locals, many who had spent the past two months working at Everest Base Camp as chefs or porters.

My right hand held the seat in front, while the other braced against the window pane. My knees pressed hard into the seat in front as we sat butt cheek to butt cheek, shoulder to shoulder. To compound matters, I had a bruised tail-bone from the previous days, when I inexplicably fell off a stone wall, landing on my butt with all the grace of a boneless chicken.

Within seconds of driving off, my head destructively met the window pane. No respite for hours and hours. Flailing like emaciated trees in an endless storm. At one point, utterly exhausted from lack of sleep, my head started to droop, only to have the jeep side-step and my forehead swing into the head of the guy sitting next to me like a wrecking ball. He didn't mind. He did the same to me earlier.

By now I had surrendered. There was no point worrying whether the road would worsen in the continuing rain, whether the rocks above us would fall and crush us to a pancake of flesh and metal. I sank into my headphones. Music, my saviour.

By early evening we finally arrived at the main river. We crossed the footbridge to a jeep waiting on the other side.

Our new driver considered himself the world's best rally racer. He floored the accelerator as he flew through streams and up slippery banks.

We found accommodation at 9pm and I crawled into a bed made of a bug-infested rug on a thin piece of plywood. We left at 5am and, within seconds, my head was reacquainted with the ceiling. But after three more hours of battling, the war finally ended. We reached nirvana: a paved road.

A couple of hours later, we rumbled into Kathmandu.

Never have I felt such relief at the familiar traffic horns, chaotic streets.

I spilled out of the jeep, my body aching, and hopped into a cab to take me to my first stop - a bakery.

A whole taxi to myself. Such luxury, such comfort. I made a point of sprawling myself across the entire back seat.



Cathay Pacific and sister airline Dragonair have Economy Class airfares between Auckland to Kathmandu on sale from $2039 and Premium Economy from $3489.


The jeep ride from Salleri to Kathmandu costs about $40, and takes about 20 hours. Alternatively you can fly from Lukla to Kathmandu for about $176. World Expeditions runs treks throughout the Everest region using permanent tented campsites to make travel more sustainable.

- NZ Herald

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