With the road to Kathmandu washed out, Wander Woman Marie Javins accepts an unusual offer to get to the other side
Something was wrong.
I'd walked across the bridge fromTibet to Nepal – in the rain – and no one cared.
Where were the money changers? The taxi drivers? Where was Immigration? Didn't anyone want to stamp my passport?
I asked a guard at the end of the bridge for directions to Nepalese Immigration. She casually, even lethargically, waved me on.
Maybe no on is around because it's Sunday morning and I was first one through from Tibet today, I thought. And all of China is on one time zone. Which might make sense in Beijing but doesn't make a lot of sense out west in Tibet. So by crossing to Nepal, I'd gone back to 7:45 am.
Oddly, Nepal is two hours and 15 minutes behind China.
I saw no open doors, no signs for Immigration. Every business was shut. I walked down a hill and suddenly realised I'd paced the entire one-strip border town. I turned around and walked back, cursing the hill, the drizzle, and the altitude. Immigration had opened while I'd been on my rainy stroll and was now easy to find. The officers cheerfully greeted me, sold me a $25 visa, and waved me down the block to a coffee shop to change some money. I was running low on cash, and changed just enough for bus fare and food. Soon I'd be back in the land of ATMs.
Now. Where was the bus to Kathmandu?
Nowhere, it seemed. I stood baffled, watching people mill about the town, but everyone seemed puzzled like me.
A taxi driver finally approached me.
"Yes, but share. Not solo."I was willing to pay for a seat in a shared taxi to Kathmandu since I didn't see the bus stop. The driver shook his head and sat down.
He left me alone for a bit.
But no one else showed up, so I asked him the cost.
"How much to Kathmandu?"
Oh. Hmmm. It's all a mystery on the road.
"I drive to (garbled), there you go to Kathmandu."
I considered this for a moment as Nepalese walked by me bearing luggage for the Indian-American tourists I'd met yesterday near Everest Base Camp – so they'd made it out on their group visa. The porters bore the brunt of the weight with bands around their heads. One woman had her baby slung from her front and a suitcase on her back, slung from her forehead.
I tried to get to the bottom of what the taxi driver was saying. "We drive here..." I motioned forward then stopped. "I change taxis..." a little hand-jump, "then to Kathmandu?" A forward motion.
"Road has problem."
Okay. Let's go.
He motioned me into the passenger seat of his Land Cruiser and rattled off along the mountain road.
We didn't drive far before the driver pulled over to pick up three school girls. We delivered them to school before continuing. Now I decided I could trust the driver – how can you not trust a man who stops to deliver children to school? I concluded there must indeed be something wrong with the road up ahead, and I should just not worry about it, as all would become clear soon enough.
We wound along the gorge, the Zhangmu hairpin turns I'd been on yesterday visible just over the river. We were enroute to... I didn't know what.
After about 20 minutes, the driver slowed and stopped at a pile of mud and dirt.
Now I understood. The road had washed out. There was no way for a bus or car to cross. This must be the part where I changed taxis, I reasoned, but there was the small matter of a couple of kilometres of mud in between me and any onward transport.
My Tevas were at the bottom of my backpack. I was wearing trainers – Tibet had been chilly. I never have those mud-and-water sandals on when I need them, unfortunately.
A young high-school-age lad approached me. He motioned for me to go piggyback.
"I'll carry you," he declared confidently. He motioned for me to climb onto his back.
That was ridiculous. I laughed. He laughed along with me.
"No, you won't." I was his size, and probably weighed more, as this is a part of the world where people are shorter than at home.
I got out of the Toyota, picked up my bag, and surveyed the situation.
Today was supposed to be an easy day in my ten-month journey around the world. Cross border. Board bus. Arrive in Kathmandu in time for lunch and check in at the newish hotel, Ganesh Himal, which got good reviews on TripAdvisor.
And now this. The sealed road to Kathmandu was somewhere off in the distance, past this muddy landslide.
No way out but through it.
I took off my shoes, laced them together, put my socks into them, and looped them over my arm. I rolled my jeans up to my knees.
I took a tentative step forward and tested out the mud with my bare feet.
"I'll carry your bag," announced my helper. "And I'll guide you through the mud to a taxi on the other side."
That seemed like a reasonable plan, aside from one problem.
"But I only changed my leftover Chinese yuan and have just enough money to get to Kathmandu. I don't have money for a tip. Only a hundred rupees."
He considered this.
"Well, whatever you have, I guess."
I eyeballed the muddy pit lined with stalled trucks that lay ahead of us and knew 100 wouldn't be enough. He was hoping I had more money stashed away. I'd have to pay him what I had, and negotiate with whatever taxi driver we found to take my money at the end when we reached an ATM in Kathmandu.
My helper put on my backpack and stepped across the rushing stream in the middle of the road. I gingerly followed him, carefully avoiding the rocks. On the other side, I sank in inch-deep mud and hit a rock.
"You can wear my shoes." My helper offered me his plastic sandals.
"No. Then what will you wear?"
He had to acknowledge I had a point,and settled for holding me by the elbow so that when I jumped from stepping on a rock, I didn't jump far.
I'd hoped we'd find a 4WD on the other side of the stream.
We didn't. We found a muddy path, which used to be a road. We followed it for a kilometre, the mud squishing between my toes.
I was laughing the whole time, even when I stepped on rocks. This was such an unexpected twist of fate, me squishing through the mud when I'd planned on being on a bus. My helper could see the humour in it and soon he was also laughing.
In the end, we didn't have to hike both kilometres. After a bit more than one, we came to a crowd of stalled vehicles that could go no further until something was done to the road. One of them turned out to be a share-taxi that had just delivered a group from Kathmandu.
He was looking for fares for the return trip.
I paid my guide with four crisp US dollar bills – he was right that I had been hoarding more – and got into the 4WD via a door over a puddle where I could wash my feet.
"You're first, you get the front seat,” said the driver.
"I'll move. I just need my feet to dry first."
I rolled over into the front seat and put on my shoes. The driver started up the 4WD and got us out of there, doing about a hundred-point turn to get around all the trucks and pedestrians. The truckers sat bored. They weren't getting to China anytime soon. How many days, I wondered, would they sit there with their cargo?
The Indian-American family of Tibet tourists walked by, looking unhappy about the mud.
My driver – a cheerful beer-bellied Nepalese man in a striped shirt – hawked his taxi, and soon we filled up. Way up. Two Indian guys (one in the front next to me), one Nepalese woman, and soon four college-age Chinese backpackers approached.
"Come with us," I called to them. "We're going to Kathmandu."
They jumped in and we started up, slowly driving through the mud for 20 kilometres, then finally hitting regular road. We covered 50 kilometres in an hour and a half, which was pretty good given the mountains we were travelling through.
"Where are you staying?" asked the Chinese backpacker in hipster horn-rimmed glasses.
"I think I'm going to Ganesh Himal tonight," I said. "Tomorrow I'll look for something cheaper."
He nodded and looked it up in his guidebook, which was from a Chinese publisher.
"Are you guys from China? Why do you all sound American?" I already thought I knew the answer from the other Chinese backpackers I'd met, but couldn't be sure until he answered.
"Our teachers are American. They teach us English and all about the world."
We were a team now, me and the Chinese backpackers. Because we were similar in our world views and our goals for today. These kids stay in Nepalese budget lodgings side-by-side with European, Japanese, and American backpackers, where people will speak to them freely without worrying about punishment from some higher authority. They aren't on canned bus tours and they have access to everything the wider world has access to. China is undoubtedly in for some changes on the censorship and information fronts.
Our driver didn't go into Thamel, Kathmandu's backpacker's ghetto. The roads there are tiny. He dropped us off on the outskirts.
Not surprisingly, he'd called ahead to his friends who owned a guesthouse. These men tried – and managed – to separate me from the Chinese backpackers by leading us through crowded back-alleys of Thamel. They went to work on both of us to get us to stay in their lodge.
"I know a place," said the tout who had adopted me, calling back from the single file we'd had to take to get through a tiny path that cut across the middle of a block.
"I'm sure you do," I said, laughing.
"Just look at it," he asked. I was obviously onto him. "It's cheap."
"Fair enough. Let's go look."
One look and I was out of there. Cheap, yes. Simple, yes. But I wanted a bit of comfort, something less rundown. I walked to an ATM, got some money, realised I had no bearings or idea where I was, and hailed a taxi.
"Ganesh Himal, please."
Which turned out to be a lovely place with new rooms.
But they only had room for me for a single night. I'd have to move tomorrow.
No problem, I thought. Plenty of time to check rooms tomorrow. I rinsed out my laundry in the sink and sat down to go on the Internet to my heart's desire. No one blocked me or crashed my browser as they had in China and Tibet. Twitter, Facebook, my office servers, search engines, news sites, all were open to me here in Nepal.
“Information wants to be free,” I thought, laughing at myself for quoting the iconic tech phrase about information being liberating.
I signed on to my paid proxy service that I’d been using to circumvent Chinese firewalls – I wouldn’t be needing this anymore – and liberated my account.