The Local Bus to Langtang

November 21, 2019

The local bus to Langtang is a bottomless well of surprises.

Kathmandu, Nepal
Washing the bus before it makes the return journey to Kathmandu.

The local bus to Langtang is a bottomless well of surprises, and it only gets zanier the higher we go. The Kathmandu bus stop is is at 1295 meters. I am ingloriously thrown out of the taxi cab with nothing more than an extended finger for direction. The cabby is pointing into a morass of people, and when I turn back with a look of utter confusion, he just gesticulates even more wildly–waving his hands in all directions at once. I stare at him speechless. He drives away.

It's six in the morning, and I begin looking through the web of adorned buses, vegetable stands, and piles of burlap sacks. I spot a few words in English, and luckily, I recognize one. "Dunche," my ultimate destination. I run up to the counter and begin repeating my magic word. "Dunche!" I exclaim. No response.

"Dunche. Dunche! Trekking! Trek!" I add for good measure and point to my backpack. With this, the ticket man gives solemn acknowledgement. "500" he says. This is a stunning price for an eight hour bus ride. It converts to about $4.50. Taxis charge three times as much to take a tourist across town. I'm am actually dubious he had understood me correctly.

I try some clarifying questions. "Langtang trek?" "Express bus?" "Stops? How many?" He just keeps nodding, not even looking at me. I am not convinced, but I have nothing else to go on. "When does it leave?" He finally looks up from counting my bills and points to a blue bus directly behind me. "Now."

The night before I was doing my research, trying to determine how I would make it to my Langtang trek. The park is only 80 kilometers from Kathmandu, but the roads have remained almost impassable since a devastating earthquake cut off the region in 2015. TripAdvisor recommended against the local bus to Langtang, one reviewer citing things like "congested seating, bad smelling floor, too many passengers as if they are made sheep and goats in the pen." I suppose he didn't ride one of the buses with actual sheep.

My bus is largely full when I first board (or so I thought at the time). Some one gestures me to an empty seat, the first row aisle. Little did I know this would become the best seat in the house. Langtang National Park is due north of Kathmandu. Having arrived only 36 hours previously, I didn't have my bearings in Nepal yet, but I knew this much–I am supposed to go north.

I had decided not to buy a SIM card while in Nepal, as most of my short stay would be spent either trekking in the Himalayas or secluded in a silent meditation retreat. The idea was to disconnect completely. Instead, I found myself frantically checking my phone every five minutes, trying to see where this bus was going. Again, I had no service, so I just had to pray that the tiny blue GPS dot would pop up on my horribly pixelated Google map of Kathmandu. Half an hour in, it finally appeared. We were headed due west.

I lean over to the person next to me and begin frantically repeating my magic word: "Dunche?" He just turns away. Next I turn to one of two young men who are standing in the doorway of the bus, who I am quickly realizing were the "conductors" of this whole operation, shepherding people on and off the bus, making sure people pay, etc. They are boys, really, both wearing tight jeans, fashionable sneakers, gold piercings, shaved side burns–and adorned with matching man buns on top. They both wave away my concern. I motion as if I should leave the bus. They motion for me to sit down and shut up.

At 440 meters, we make a much needed turn right. Three hours into the ride, we've finally begun heading north, and I settle into my seat a little easier. It's time to begin our ascent up the mountain. By 700 meters in elevation, the bus has actually completely filled, standing room only. But people keep filing on. I quickly realize this is not the express bus. We are stopping every 20 minutes to take on and depart with local passengers. It's a shuttle service up the mountain. Some people deposit bags of rice or other goods, and others will retrieve those goods hours later and thousands of meters higher.

Around 1100 meters, the first chicken comes on board. A few meters later, we pass a goat riding on the roof of a bus headed in the other direction. At 1200, the first family gets on board. Each stop is only a second or two. Embarking has to be one fluid motion, but the entire floor is now covered with bags of food, luggage, and even a few passengers.

Before the mother can nestle herself in, the bus lurches forward, and she nearly throws her baby into the lap of one of the conductors. He happily embraces the child, and actually rocks it for the remainder of the journey. This is just how the local bus to Langtang works. Everyone is getting up the mountain together.

The road conditions have long since deteriorated to beyond abysmal. There are no shoulders or barricades, but that doesn't deter the driver from overtaking everything in sight. Motorcycles, small children, dump trucks–it's all the same to our man at the wheel, something to be surpassed at maximum speed. When the road is too narrow to pass (keep in mind the road is always too narrow to pass by my standards) he honks at the oncoming traffic until they reverse and make room.

More than once, I look over the edge to stare down 1000 meters into oblivion. The shear scale of the range is vertigo inducing, and many passengers are suffering acutely. The conductors dole out clear plastic vomit bags with the same grace and agility that they arrange everything else. The riders puke discretely, then dispose with their parcels out the window. No one seems to think much of this.

When the stimulation is too much–the flapping of chicken wings, the blaring of Nepali pop music, the smell of sweat, dirt, and produce–I just close my eyes, have my body go limp, and let the violent rocking of the bus lull me into a perverse kind of trance state.

We stop for lunch around 1500 meters, which is indicated by the conductor shouting at me and putting his fingers to his lips, signing for "food." We fill a small restaurant hanging off the side of a cliff where an old man quickly dispenses a fixed plate meal of dal bhat (lentils and rice), marinated chicken, and vegetable curry. It's delicious, and we all begin ravenously shoveling it into our mouths with our fingers. It's a race to win each plate: can we clean it before the server arrives to re-pile yet more food.

Across from me sits a young boy, and when I'm not chewing, I introduce myself. His name is "Picas," and he's come down from his village to buy textbooks. I ask him his favorite subject, and he replies science. I press him for specifics, and he says physics. I tell him I'm impressed. As we finish, Picas insists on showing me the small town we've stopped in, and more troubling, in buying me everything within sight. He offers me water, mints, half of the fruits and vegetables in a nearby stand. I eventually relent and take a pomegranate, which I think he thinks I've never seen before.

After approximately an hour on the most dangerous road yet, we arrive in Dunche, 1995 meters, and the conductors once again spring into action–ushering me through my incompetence. They show me where to register for a hiking permit, even snatching my passport out of my hand and giving it to the police officers. When I don't have enough money to pay, the conductor hails a motorbike, which whisks me to the nearest ATM. Bit by bit, I have inched toward the beginning of my Langtang trek, yet no thanks to my own ingenuity. If it weren't on the local bus to Langtang, I'd have never made it; that much I'm sure of.

When I'm almost beginning to wish it wouldn't end, the bus halts abruptly, and the conductors gesture out the door. I peer across a cavernous river, topped by a seemingly endless row of white-capped peaks. I depart.