Tag Archives: Nepal

Driving in Nepal: The Ultimate in Adventure Tourism

I used to believe that driving the Dan Ryan or FDR at rush hour would be the most stressful activities you could undertake. Fuggedaboutit!  Nepalese drivers make New York cabbies look like models of decorum. The primary rule of road behavior in Kathmandu is “Blink and die!”  Passing on curves and driving on the sidewalk don’t rate a second mention in the litany of traffic sins, while a cow sleeping in the road is not unusual.  Turning, passing, stopping, and merging are indicated via honking so you can only imagine the cacophony ringing around you as you drive.  As for traffic “infrastructure,” ha.  Lane markers—you gotta be kidding me; stop signs—in your dreams; traffic lights—when the messiah comes. The most important infrastructure available to the Nepalese driver is a good bumper and firm seat belts.


Our Lovely Four Bedroom Home in Kathmandu

While my wife and I were on a three month working vacation in Nepal I had to travel 30 km (18 miles) to work from our lovely home in Kathmandu (see the photo–and, yes, that was really our home) to the university campus in Dhulikhel high in the foothills of the Himalayas.   I had a rental car at my disposal and thought it would be a quick trip since the two cities are connected by the Arneko Highway, the main East-West road link for the entire nation.  Unfortunately, this lifeline of commerce and transportation is not quite as wide as the side street in front of my home and nowhere near as well maintained!  The craziness I saw every morning and evening was made even worse by the range of vehicles using the road.  The Arneko Highway contains an equal mix of cars, overloaded trucks straining to reach 10 mph, buses spewing coal black exhaust, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, and (yes) lawnmowers. This last one confused me, since I didn’t think lawn maintenance was a major concern of the Nepalese. It turns out used riding lawnmowers are less expensive than mopeds and, as long as you don’t mind the leisurely 4-5 mph, a cheap form of motorized transport!

Even worse, the local highway police assume that all foreign visitors are rich and able to pay the full cost of an accident. So, instead of a “No fault” model of auto insurance, they use a “Your fault” model.  Even if a cow walks directly into your fender, you will be held liable.  So far I have not had to test this theory but I cannot imagine, what with the carnage I see every day, that my turn is not just around the next bend.  I am deeply committed to my Jewish heritage, but I am seriously thinking of placing a St. Francis on my dashboard as I need everyone on my side.   For now, wish me well.  Work is over and I am heading out on the road to go home …

(Note:  About 3 days after writing this article, I gave my rental car back to the agency and relied on a local bus to get to work.  I was far happier and a lot less stressed!)  

Road Trip of a Lifetime

In summer, 2004, my wife and I were living in Nepal where I was teaching at the University of Kathmandu under the auspices of a Fulbright Grant, i.e., on the other guy’s dime!  When classes were finished I still had a few weeks before returning to Minnesota and still had a few thousand dollars remaining in my travel account.

The Zhangmu Bridge from Nepal to Tibet

We decided to spend our remaining time and money traveling to Tibet. However, rather than the traditional round trip flight and packaged tour, we decided to rent a car and drive to Lhasa via the 900 km Friendship Highway–the second highest automobile road in the world and surely one of the most breathtakingly beautiful drives on the planet.  We took a local bus from Kathmandu to the border, walked across the Zhangmu Bridge into Tibet, and picked up our vehicle, an old Toyota Land Cruiser, along with a Chinese driver who spoke no English except for “OK, no problem,” usually uttered just after the tires came within inches of a sheer mountain precipice.

The Old Jeep and Old Me on the Tibetan Plateau

However, a running narration was not really necessary as the scenery outside the car window spoke for itself.  During our four days on the road we stopped in traditional villages, met some locals, shopped for meals in Tibetan fruit and vegetable markets, shared those meals with yak herders, and visited Buddhist monasteries allowed by Chinese officials to remain open.  Our drive to the Tibetan capital was certainly the highlight of our stay in Tibet, especially after arriving in Lhasa and discovering that it looked much more like an ordinary Chinese regional capital than the mysterious “Forbidden City” of classical literature.

My Son-in-Law in Front of Cho Oyu (Photo: By Rebecca Schneider)

After leaving the lush green Nepalese countryside the Friendship Highway climbs steeply to reach the 12,000 foot Tibetan plateau.  It passes glaciers, some reaching to the shoulder of the road, as well as five of the world’s highest peaks, clearly visible in the clear, dry Tibetan sky:  #1: Everest (29,029), #4: Lhotse (27,940), #5: Makalu (27,838), #6: Cho Oyu (26,864), and #14: Shishapangma (26,335).  The road reaches its highest point at the Gyatsola Pass, 5220 meters, or about 17, 130 feet, the second highest automobile pass in the world.

Ruthie at the Gyatsola Pass at an Elevation of 17,130 ft.

Although we never experienced altitude sickness, it is hard to describe how difficult it is to function at that extreme elevation, only 400 feet lower than the Everest base camp!  You would walk a couple of steps and then need to rest.  The process of bending down to pick up something you dropped would send your heart racing and require a significant pause.  The mountain scenery at Gyatsola is truly spectacular, but sometimes you can be so short of breath that it can be difficult to tell your traveling companions how much fun you are having!

Traditional Tibetan Nomadic Village Along The Highway

After Gyatsola, the road, unpaved and without guard rails or other safety features, passes through farms and small villages where residents still follow a traditional nomadic life style–herding yaks and goats, living in yurts, and moving with the seasons.  The road also passes the two historically important cities of Gyantse, site of the massive Gyantse Fortress built in 1390, and Shigatse, home of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking religious leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.

The Ancient Fortress Overlooking the City of Gyantse, Tibet

Finally, after four exhausting but exhilarating days, we arrived in Lhasa.  And while there are certainly wonderful things to see and do there–the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple–our minds kept returning to those extraordinary days along the Friendship Highway and the time we spent seeing, enjoying, and sharing the “real” Tibet.  If you will be traveling to Nepal in the near future and have the time for a truly unique side trip, the four-day drive to Lhasa along the Friendship Highway is something that, I guarantee, you will not soon forget.

(To read more about our no-cost adventures in Nepal and Tibet you can pick up a copy of my travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.)