There is a loud bang followed by an even louder klang just under our window. The bus swirves first left, tilting heavily, then swirves in the opposite direction like a large and heavy pendulum before the driver regains control of the vehicle. A worrying clank and stutter has appeared while we’re in motion, and it feels as if the bus is pulling to the left. “I think it’s an exploded tire” I say to Franzi. “What do you think?”. “I don’t know, could be a tire?”. The driver parks the bus on the shoulder of the road, and all the passengers but us stream out of the vehicle to get a glimpse of the cause and the damage. Franzi tries to see what’s going on but our window doesn’t open. I don’t really want to see what we hit. For all I know it’s a person or animal and there are blood splatters everywhere. I’m not particularly squimish when it comes to blood, but the type of fascination for victims in traffic accidents that we’ve seen in India is not really for me – I prefer people in one piece!
After a few minutes everyone comes back in again, and we continue our journey with some additional noises from under the bus. “I guess the tires are fine then”, which makes me a bit concerned about what exactly we have hit. The road we were on was pitch black, and people in India and Nepal have the habit of either driving with full floodlights on (which blind drivers temporarily to oncoming traffic) or having no lights at all. It’s hardly a stretch of the imagination that we could have hit someone on a bicycle at full speed, but surely we would not drive on if that was actually the case? Furthermore, the other passengers seem pretty relaxed about it all, and they’ve actually looked more closely.
During the journey I see one of the passengers excitedly talking and gesturing to others around him. It’s all in Nepali so I have no idea what’s being said, but his gestures seem to indicate something was quite bent out of shape. I don’t really want to know more, and turn back to my book until we pull in what appears to be a police station a few kilometres further.
The driver parks the bus and he and his staff walk into the police station. It’s obvious we’re not going anywhere soon and the passengers once again exit the bus. A lot of excited talking in Nepali ensues. The police appears to be interrogating the driver and some witnesses. People then all walk back to the bus, and more excited talking follows as passengers get involved in the conversation. We can’t understand a word of it and the few people we speak to barely speak a word of English, nor are they inclined to patiently explain what’s going on, but we follow each movement of the group to make sure we are at least to some extent aware what’s going on.
After an hour we stumble on someone who speaks decent English. He explains that the bus can’t drive on because of the damage. A new bus could arrive in about 8 hours, since it’s late in the evening and it might be impossible to reach anyone. To Franzi’s and mine horror we also learn that we did indeed appear to have hit a person on a bicycle. The police couldn’t be less interested though, as a solid 3 hours after we pulled up on their driveway they haven’t bothered to go to the scene of the accident.
The other passengers are more concerned with continuing their journey. The police manages to halt a few buses passing by and some people get on. The majority however stays put, as it seems after frantic telephone conversations someone managed to arrange a replacement bus which may arrive in 3-4 hours. The police is happy for people to sleep in the bus, which is now parked inside their gates. Kathmandu is a lot further away than it was when we left the border town of Kakarbhitta earlier today.
Sleeping in the bus is difficult due to the constant mosquito assaults, snoring or talking locals, the bus chair and the heat in the bus so I decide to spend the night in a little concrete resting area on the police station grounds with some of the other passengers. It’s still surrounded by mosquitos, but at least there is a refreshing breeze. On a positive note, there are some fireflies in the bush next to me, a first in my life.
While I slowly fall asleep on the concrete bench I can’t help but wonder what happened. Was the person crossing the street? Was the driver under the influence or alcohol or drugs? What will come of his or hers family, if any? One thing is for sure, their lives will have changed forever whilst all we take home from this is a poor night’s sleep and a delay in getting to Kathmandu. Sometimes the world can be an unfair place.
Our journey continues at 4.30AM when the replacement bus arrives. The world slowly wakes up and a desolate and surprisingly dry landscape reveals itself. I always imagined Nepal to be a hilly country with mountains not too far away, but reality on our bus journey to Kathmandu is very different. The landscape in the lower plains is dry, with long bridges crossing nothing but vast expanses of rock and stone.
Small villages and larger towns offer a sporadic change of scenery but even here nothing changes. The houses are merely hovels made of corrugated iron, wood and plastic. Even the produce offered on the local markets seems less abundant than in India. Dusty roads connect the settlements, the potholes making any activity requiring the use of a book or screen pointless, as it is impossible to stabilise your medium. Talking and sleeping are the only two feasible activities, and the Nepalis engage in both with enthusiasm.
Exhausted from last night’s events I attempt to sleep while we’re driving, but at the speeds the bus driver goes over the potholes all passengers are frequently launched from their seats, which makes sleeping a no-go. By noon we have covered about 150km, and again faith works against us. First we learn that the bus does not take the direct route Kathmandu, which is a winding road through the hills, but goes all the way around through Barathpur, a 150km detour. Second the road from Barathpur to Kathmandu is closed to 4pm due to road works. Our lunch stop is in one of the nameless villages just before the road closure and will take about 4 hours. The temperature rises as the afternoon progresses and other than the flies nothing moves.
Franzi and I try to sleep in the sweltering hot bus. We surprisingly succeed and when we wake up we excitedly look on our watch to see the time, hoping it’s close to 4 PM. We slept for only 20 minutes. At this point we are almost 24 hours underway, tired to the bone and in desperate need of a cold shower. We drag ourselves out of the bus hoping the shade outside with a little breeze gives a little respite of the tropical heat. We play a lacklustre game of Uno, neither of us really playing for enjoyment but just to kill as much time as we can. Some of our fellow passengers look on for a bit, but they too are lathargic due to the heat and lack of sleep and give up soon.
At 3PM there is excitement on the road. Somewhere someone started moving causing a scramble to all vehicles in the queue, which now spans well over a mile. We are a bit slower than other vehicles as our staff think now is the right time to wash the front window, inspect tire pressure and add water coolant to the engine. Other buses overtake us left and right, until at 3.05 everything grinds to a halt again. Perhaps this was just a drill?
Ten minutes later we depart at last, beginning the final 130km to Kathmandu. A long story short: those last kilometres took us 7 hours to complete. We arrived at our hotel at just past 10, which means that we covered the 640 kilometres from Kakarbhitta to Kathmandu in just under 30 hours. We’ve barely slept and are supertired, so good night all!