Apr 13, 2015

And so the journey begins... Kathmandu, Nepal - Zheng-Mu, Tibet

After months of planning it’s finally go time as the bus pulls up to the hotel. The bus will take us from Kathmandu to Zheng Mu, the Chinese border town separating Nepal and China. 

We are now well and truly on our way.

Looking left out of the bus window I see rusty blue motorcycle with the exhaust cleverly secured onto the frame with oily twine and strategically placed electrical tape. From the handlebars of the motorcycle hangs a series of brightly coloured streamers - blue, red, yellow - filthy from years of pollution and urban dust. Sat in the drivers seat of this powerful machine is a thin Nepali man dressed in a North Face down jacket (even though it’s a festering 28 degrees) ripped blue jeans and Adidas flip flops. Sitting proudly behind him are what I assume to be his 3 year old son, 6 year old daughter and 12 year old nephew - all barefoot and smiling as the motorcycle zig-zags its way through the chaotic maze of buses, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrian traffic, oblivious to the health and safety laws which they would have been breaking had this been Canada or the UK! This sight is not at all uncommon in Kathmandu - give or take a child or two in the passenger seat.

The smells of Kathmandu do much to awaken the senses - the rich fumes of gasoline and a milky sweet smell hang thick in the humid air. Wires are strung haphazardly between buildings and random poles, some electrical power cables are so heavy they hang to the ground like giant black skipping ropes. In the middle of all of this urban confusion stands a formally dressed traffic warden in smart blue trousers and matching shirt -his uniform - and a pair of bright white gloves and facemask to protect him from the pollution. With his shrill whistles, flurry of hand signals and confident stares he brings a ‘seeming’ order to the traffic rocketing down and through the streets.

As the bus leaves the chaos of Kathmandu we move to a more rural setting where dusty urban structures are replaced by houses made of stone and sun-baked clay. Traffic is limited to chickens, cows, and random dogs roaming the pot-holed roads which wind through some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world… steep rocky hills covered in scree and masses of bright pink flowers, dull green shrubs, waterfalls around every bend.

As we drive through the small rural villages, a child can be seen running barefoot over the road with bright red cheeks, gigantic smiles and eyes sparkling with curiosity and adventure. The child’s mother doesn’t even bat an eyelid as the child darts along a cliff with a 100m vertical drop mere centimeters away.

Nearing the boarder to China one immediately senses a shift to a more industrial way of life. Roadside stands move from selling eggs and vegetables to giant woolen blankets, giant 5litre thermoses, and an array of brightly colored plastic ‘tat’ which can be found in Dollar Stores/ Pound Shops around the world.

With this shift to a more industrial economy comes an unbelievable amount of garbage scattered along the roadside. Plastic bags, old clothing, children’s toys, household waste…

Formalities are followed as we reach the curious but imposing border between Nepal and China. Separating the two countries is an imposing concrete bridge stretching over a river of white-water littered with garbage. The architectural differences between the two countries could not be more dramatic. On the Nepal side the shops and restaurants of the border town are made of old tin and wood with hand painted signs in basic lettering, faded with age and dust. Dogs roam the streets and women wait impatiently at the parking lot so that they can meet the busses as they arrive and carry the heavy bags over the boarder to earn an income (busses are not permitted to cross the bridge without extensive security clearance and permits). The Chinese Immigration hall is a solid, modern and imposing structure which is as regimented as it is chaotic. Our luggage is checked on industrial sized tables by Security and passports are checked and double checked. Eye contact is avoided.

We’re whisked into China by vans and unloaded in the Chinese border town of Zheng Mu. Zheng Mu is a fairly large town built into a hill so that the town is spread over a series of about 8 switchbacks. It’s used primarily as a stopping point for trucks entering / leaving China. The stores and services lining the streets are primarily of the ’dollar store’ variety, the occasional telecom shop, nightclubs and brothels advertising all sorts of services not limited to the ever popular “foot bottom massage”. 

We pile into the jeep morning happy to leave dreary Zheng Mu. The road leading up from Zheng Mu to Nylam is a feat of road-building engineering genius and can easily put many of the roads we find in the ‘western world’ to shame. Not a pothole in sight over the 15kms of switchbacks that are cut into the steep rock face. The last time I was on this road in 2011 it was far from complete with water, cement mixers, pic-axes, and people spread chaotically along a muddy dirt track. Today, I’m astounded to se a fully completed road of engineering craftsmanship. A journey that once took 5 hours by car now takes 45 minutes… 


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