There has been an explosion of road building. Roads are springing up everywhere. Not only are they reaching villages that were only connected by rough and narrow trails, but for the past few years, the road from China that ended ten years ago at Lo Manthang, in Upper Mustang, now goes all the way to Pokhara.
Purists and trekking companies throw up their hands in horror at the idea of so many roads. Making trekking trails in some places dusty and no longer the quiet, scenic routes that they used to be, certainly you might tend to agree. However, much has been done to find alternative routes and to preserve rural byways for trekkers. Especially in the Annapurnas, much work has been done by ACAP to mark out new trails and there is a useful map now that shows these routes.
Most important however, the new roads have revolutionized life for local people. Cutting down the time it takes to get to markets, making transportation of produce easier and cheaper, all these things have made what is otherwise a very hard existence that little bit easier.
It’s still early days, and many of the ‘roads’ are little more than dirt tracks. In the mountain areas, especially during the monsoon months, they are susceptible to be buried in landslides, or vehicles sink axle-deep in soft mud. However, they make a world of difference for the people who have long lived almost cut off from the outside world, scraping an existence with subsistence farming.
Road to Solukhumbu
For some years, while trekking in the lower Solukhumbu area, it was possible to see short stretches of road being gouged out from the hillsides. Until very recently, Salleri, the district headquarters of Solukhumbu, was only connected to the outside by a trekking trails to Jiri and down through Okaldhunga. The former approach route to the Everest area before Lukla Airport was built in the early 1970s, it took about four days to reach Jiri, or about two days to walk up to Lukla. The small airport at Phaplu has flights that mainly come in the morning, before the wind gets up. Especially in the rainy season, these are often cancelled for days at a time.
Reporting time for the jeep that was to leave Chabhil on the outskirts of Kathmandu was at 4am. Nepali time (which is rather elastic) meant that it wasn’t until 4am that our taxi rolled up in front of the hotel in Thamel where I was waiting with a volunteer nurse, Dougie, who was coming along with me to visit a village near to Salleri. However, driving through the deserted streets of Kathmandu at that time in the morning took no time at all, and soon we were waiting at an obscure ticket counter by the Ring Road for another hour or so.
Worries about being late were unnecessary. It wasn’t until well past 6am that we really got going. Getting out of Kathmandu in a circuitous route around the narrow backstreets of Boudha, skirting the airport, to come out onto the main road out of Kathmandu, we then waited by the roadside somewhere a few miles out of the city for another half an hour to pick up another passenger.
At Dhulhikhel, we suddenly dived down a narrow road that was our cross-country route to Solukhumbu. In parts it was a fine blacktopped road, with short stretches that could almost be called a dual carriage-way. Mostly however, it was a narrow, winding dirt road, hugging the hillsides. Happily there was very little traffic other than a few other jeeps and a few trucks and pickups.
At around lunchtime we stopped at a wide, fast-flowing river, the Sun Kosi River. Everyone got off from the jeep. Hungry and spotting a small restaurant advertising momos, we sat down and had started tucking into a plate of these delicious steamed dumplings, when I espied from the window, one of our fellow passengers carrying his bag over the river on the long, narrow suspension bridge. “That’s one of the passengers from our jeep. I wonder if we’re supposed to go across the bridge too…”
Returning to the jeep, we found it empty except for our bags and one of the passengers who had kindly stayed behind to watch over our things, worried about where we’d disappeared to!
Crossing the swing bridge, we were directed to another jeep which was to take us the rest of the way to Solukhumbu. During the dry season, there is a bridge but during the monsoon, the water is too high and it is necessary to change jeeps here.
Another inevitable wait. As we’d only been five passengers in the jeep coming from Kathmandu, this time we had to wait until the jeep was full. Another hour and a half went by. It was about three o’clock and we weren’t even half way. Eventually, packed like sardines, we set off, lurching along an uneven rocky track along the side of the river and then started to climb into the hills.
Bruised and tired, we reached a small village by 7pm where we were to spend the night. Too late to continue the last and hardest part of the journey, we were told to be ready at 6am. We had to swap our jeep for a so-called superior 4WD vehicle (I’d thought we were already in one of these). Surprisingly, we left only ten minutes ‘late,’ only to lurch to a halt a few minutes later, when the jeep developed a problem with its front axle. Another hour was spent when various people came, tinkered around a bit and then suddenly, horn honking, we were off again.
The last part of the road was narrow and six inclines deep in soft mud. We progressed sideways up the inclines, holding our breath that we wouldn’t get stuck in the sticky mire. The ‘one hour’ journey took three and as we unfolded ourselves from the jeep with relief at a friendly lodge, we were grateful for the warm welcoming faces of the Rai girls who served us with tea and breakfast.
Refreshed, we piled into yet another jeep for the shorter ride to Nele Bazaar. A walk that normally would take about four or five hours, by jeep should take only an hour or so. But again the inevitable delay as we were all dumped to wait while we saw the jeep head off for ‘five minutes’ to pick up some baggage. Half an hour later we eventually left, arriving in Nele in time for lunch. We then walked the last five hours to Deusa, where the road still hasn’t reached.