The 7 am start was delayed by close to an hour. I had detailed route instructions from Prashanth Raunial who had come over last evening to wish us luck on our way. The young man had piloted us to the flat when we came into the city on the 22nd. He had been to Kodari, the border post, about two months earlier with the hope that he would be able to get across to the Chinese city, Zhangmu, with his passport. That was not to be; his residence permit is what the Chinese wanted. Prior to discussing with him we had variable estimates of time to reach the border town from Kathmandu ranging from 7 to 5 hours. Prashanth, with his first hand experience put it down to 4 hours. I informed Mirus that I would get to the border between 11 am and noon. The Chinese guide was to be available accordingly. As it turned out we took less than 4 hours despite many stoppages for police verification and check and bad road on the last 20 kilometer stretch. I also logged the first fine outside India – 200 NPR for driving at 68 kmph instead of the permitted 60; there was no indication of the speed limit anywhere on the way. Within an hour of leaving Kathmandu we stopped for breakfast which consisted of chow mein with chana. It was incredibly tasty and stayed with us till we reached Zhangmu. At the border post on the Nepal side there was a huge pile up of trucks going to China. But the queue moved reasonably fast. While waiting in the queue I was approached by a couple of young guys who agreed to facilitate us through the two borders for USD 50. They did a remarkably good job with a smile. The carnet was filled up and the passport stamped. Man Bahadur Gurung and his friends helped us through customs and immigration on the Chinese side too.
We were told clearly that photography is totally banned once we roll out of the Nepal side gate on to the Friendship Bridge. We were asked to wait on the Nepal side of the bridge – a red line in the centre of the bridge demarcates the territory of the two countries. Yingchu, our Chinese guide deputed by Navo Tours, was busy completing paperwork on the Chinese side. Once that was done we drove to the Chinese immigration and Customs. It was my first experience driving on the right side of the road. Though I was a bit apprehensive I am sure I will gain in confidence with more mileage under my belt. We had to unload all bags and produce them for scan at the Immigration and Customs post. That did not take very long as all the paperwork was in order. Then I was asked to drive the car into the fumigation cum examination point, where the car was sprayed with water. Then the Customs guys got into the act. Every piece in the car was examined and cleared. The only thing they took away were promotional CDs given by the Kerala Tourism department for distribution along the way. To a query I mentioned that we are travelling for tourism purposes; pat came another question: if you are, why do you carry so many CDs? I showed him the God’s Own Country sticker and told him that we were sponsored by them and the CDs were part of their publicity material. I thought I had seen the last of the CDs; with the final clearance to leave the Customs station the CDs were returned! The examination had been thorough and efficient. Each and every material was gone through – books were fipped through and gift material opened to satisfy themselves. The toughest part was to put the luggage back into the car. Moreover, we had to accommodate the guide and her kit too. Somehow we managed.
When I informed the agent that we would get to the border by noon I had forgotten to factor in the Chinese local time, which is +8 GMT; a clear 2 hours and 15 minutes ahead of the Nepal time. Yingchu had informed me that the Chinese Customs would be closed for lunch between 1 and 2.30 pm. However, by the time we got to the Chinese side it was already 3 pm local time. All the formalities were done by 5 pm. Yingchu took us to Zhang Mu town where we checked into the comfortable Zhang Mu Hotel. The hotel also provided the guide with a free room. After checking in we went to a restaurant next door for lunch cum dinner. The fare consisted of chicken mushroom bamboo shoot rice, yak momo, chappati, chilli chicken, omlette and jasmine tea. The food was quite tasty. During the meal we told Yingchu that we would like to taste local cuisine wherever we went in China. She promised us a Hot Pot meal in Lhasa as her gift. We took a short tour of the town after the meal. The food items on display in the stores took my breath away. Price of items is mentioned in Yuan while the currency is referred to as Reminbi (RMB).
When we got back to the Hotel, Yingchu presented us with a set of chopsticks, which she promised to teach us how to use, brochures of the Company and Postcards. Before retiring for the night we decided to meet for breakfast at 7 am and hit the road a half hour later. Yingchu also got paperwork done for visiting Mt. Everest Base Camp.
As I was driving from Kathmandu I went through my observations and impressions of Nepal. While the country sides are quaint and beautiful Kathmandu, the capital city is a dust bowl. Most people masked their faces in some manner to avoid bronchial and ocular problems. The city roads are being widened and buildings renovated. The people are, by and and large simple folks, as exemplified by Chatur, who drove us to Thamel and Sunil Chhetri who guided us to the Indian Embassy. Both confessed that making ends meet was a Herculean task in view of the fewer jobs on offer. The proliferation of taxis cut into their earnings. Sunil felt that it did not matter who is in power; all of them were busy making fun and enjoying life – the betterment of society and its people were farthest from their interest. Sunil was on the verge of leaving for Qatar to ‘bring home some food’, as he put it. Hopelessness among the young does not augur well for the country. Bhaktapur has been declared as ‘Open Defecation Free’ District. Mobile toilets and public use latrines can be seen everywhere. In Pokhara I read a new item that crimes against women were on the rise due to non-availability of private toilets; women are attacked when they go out at night to relieve themselves in the open. Nepal has started in right earnest to address this issue. Power supply is the single most important reason why industries have not flourished in Nepal despite the availability of employable manpower and a low wage regime. The shortage leads to absence of power supply for almost half the day. It is understood that hydel project shave been planned; they are way too behind in developing power projects. In the meanwhile a generation of young hopefuls turns hopeless.