Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Road to Jiri

Road in Nepal, north of Kathmandu
Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture
Alli is off for a couple of weeks, so we’re running another Nepalese adventure by Tracy Tyson, an occasional guest on the blog. Tracy is an American educator living in Nepal, where she trains teachers and helps schools set up Montessori programs. In a two-part travelogue, she describes a trip to Jiri, a village in the northeastern part of the country.

In early May, we had a two-day holiday and I was feeling a bit stir-crazy in Suspa, the village where I lived, so I decided to go to the town of Jiri. Once a popular departure point for climbing Mount Everest, Juri fell somewhat out of favor during the Maoist insurgency (1996—2006), and even though the insurgency is over, it still hasn't regained its former popularity. During the insurgency, trekkers hiking from Jiri to Lukla (the next large town on the way to Everest) would often run into groups of Maoists (or even non-Maoists taking advantage of the political instability) who insisted on a “donation” and often threatened to take it by force if it wasn't given freely. Needless to say, the trekkers rapidly began avoiding Jiri and environs.

I set off early in the morning to walk up to Charikot. It had been getting hot pretty early in the day as we headed into the Nepali summer, and I wasn’t relishing the idea of sitting on top of the bus in the sweltering heat. An hour and a half later, as I approached Charikot, it occurred to me that the bus hadn't passed me on the road yet. In fact, I hadn't seen any vehicles at all so far. At first I considered the possibility that road construction was holding up the traffic, but the closer I got to Charikot, the more I started to think that there was probably some kind of transportation bandh, or strike.

Bandhs of various kinds frequently occur in Nepal. Sometimes the strike only shuts down transportation or closes the schools. Other times, it brings absolutely everything to a standstill.

Strikes can occur in just one area or they can affect the whole country. Someone told me that the idea for these strikes came from the Maoists, who used them to shut down the country in order to put pressure on the government during the insurgency. Later, the situation got out of control, with people calling for strikes on a whim for no discernible reason. However, that might just be a nasty rumor started by someone who supported the monarchy. Who knows? When a group has a grievance that they don't feel is being properly addressed by the government, they usually call for a strike, but at times no one knows why the strike is being held.

Sure enough, when I arrived in Charikot there wasn't a bus in sight. I waited for 15 minutes to see if the lack of buses was some kind of temporary fluke, but all I saw on the road were a few trucks and motorcycles. Eventually I decided to ask the policeman at the traffic checkpoint if I was actually at the correct spot in the road to catch the bus. He told me that I was but that none of them were running that day. Although he explained why, my Nepali wasn't good enough to understand the reason. Then he asked the driver of a truck that had stopped at the checkpoint where he was going.

“Jiri,” the driver replied, and the policeman asked me if I wanted to ride along. I had no desire to walk back to Suspa and sit in my room for the next two days, so I accepted the offer.

Upon climbing into the truck’s cab, I noticed it already held a few people who’d been waiting at the bus stop earlier. Apparently, hitching a ride under such circumstances is fairly common. It was a tight squeeze in the cab but a lot more comfortable than the bus would have been, with padded seats and a great view out the window. At one point, a huge peacock flew across the road right in front of the truck and landed in a tree on the opposite side. It was gorgeous!

Gaurishankar, viewed from near Jiri
Photo by Sundar1
A couple of the passengers were teachers going to a conference in a town on the way to Jiri. We chatted for a bit in English, and when they got out, they were replaced by a family—mom, dad and a toddler. Nature particularly abhors a vacuum in Nepal!

With the truck loaded down and a very curvy road, we made top speeds of no more than 30 or 35 miles per hour—usually far less. At that pace, it took us four hours to reach Jiri.

Fifty years ago, Swiss contractors built the road leading to Jiri, and the town is often dubbed “Little Switzerland.” But whoever christened it with that moniker has apparently never been to Switzerland! The style of architecture is typically Nepali, although the town’s layout has a bit more order and organization to it than you usually find in small Nepali villages. Maybe that's what qualifies it as Swiss.

A single road runs through the town with lots of hotels and guesthouses on either side—tourism plays a major role in the local economy. One of Jiri’s claims to fame is a cheese factory, which sounds very Swiss, but the cheese is made from yak milk, which doesn't sound Swiss at all.

After arriving in Jiri, the truck parked on the main road and everyone got out of the cab. I set out to explore the town, get acquainted with the terrain, and scout out a good place to stay for the night.

Check back next week for the second half of Tracy’s adventures in Jiri.

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