Out of China!

We are all in Nepal! Camped in the compound of Janashakti Auto Workshop, Opposite the SAF Swimming Pool Complex, on the Sat Dobato Ring Road, to the south of Lalitpur (Patan), Kathmandu (N27.66229 E85.32797). Contact Irwin Bikram Chaudri or Phone: +977 1 5540715. The garage and its boss (Irwin) are highly recommended.

Although at first sight the garage compound does not look attractive it seems secure and has water, electricity and a toilet dump, as well as friendly helpful staff. It is also a only a short walk (10 minutes) from Patan's Durbar Square with its highly recommended museum. Not a bad place to spend a couple of nights, especially if you need a lot of work done on your vehicle.

But how did we get here?

2002-10-25. Having been detained by the police in Xigaze following the discovery of our expired "road tax", vehicle registration and driving licences we spend the night in a hotel car park waiting for the police to investigate our case.

It proves impossible to get solid information out of our remaining guide "Simon". The French telephone and e-mail their Embassy in Beijing, we e-mail ours to ask them to apply pressure on China Swan to help us. (We later discover that the French Embassy telephone Yang of China Swan immediately, the British only several days after we have left China because of problems with their e-mail service!)

At 09:30 "Simon" goes to the police with 500Yuan ($62USA) per van, our estimate of the unpaid road-tax. At 12:15 he returns to say we are free to leave. Unfortunately the extended road-tax documents "Simon" has obtained from the police are only for five of the seven vehicles, the remaining two documents relate to the one French and one Anglophone vehicle that already left China via Hong Kong (don't ask us, ask China Swan it was their mistake when we entered China three month ago!). This raises the possibility we will be stopped again.

We are also told via the French that "Simon" has been told by the police that the border between Tibet and Nepal will be closed at 12:00 on 2002-10-27, in two days time! We leave Xigaze in a hurry with the French leading at great speed and do not stop until 19:45 just over a 5250 metre pass (it would have been better to stop before the pass at a lower altitude, but the French were so far ahead as to be out of CB radio contact.)

2002-10-26. Our coldest night yet with temperatures of -7.7° Celsius. Sleeping at 5000 Metres proves very difficult for many of us. We aim to start at daybreak (07:45) but Roger's van refuses to start. Only after adding 10 liters of petrol to his diesel tank and towing him for three kilometers does his engine finally start. During this time Kon-Tiki discovers that he has lost most of his brake fluid and his brakes are only "about 20% efficient". Because Kon-Tiki's re-wound alternator had already failed the brake warning system is inoperative.

We cross two more passes over 5000 meters. The scenery is overwhelming, Mount. Everest is clearly visible, but with the 27th deadline in mind we press on. Not surprisingly Kon-Tiki drives very slowly on the mountain roads.

Coming the other way we meet three Kiwi's (on bicycles) who have been on the road from England for 27 months! They're riding home to New Zealand and expect to be on the road for another 18 months. See www.kiwisonbikes.com.

Later in the day it emerges that it is our permission to drive the road to the border that may expire at midnight on the 27th, not that the border closes at mid-day on the 27th. Jean-Claude apologizes for the "misunderstanding".

At the end of the day, with Kon-Tiki with poor brakes and dim lights, we search for a suitable place to stop, but are unable to find one before we enter the last town in Tibet before the border (Nyalam). This "town" almost makes Bamda look attractive! We hope to camp in the parking lot of the "hotel" but on inspection we decide to drive on and park a few kilometers further on by the road side.

2002-10-27. This should be border day! But Kon-Tiki won't start. Les is forced to try and bump start Kon-Tiki on a steep mountain road with poor brakes and no power steering (is this wise asks Margaret several times). He also discovers that even when Kon-Tiki does eventually start the engine idle rate is so slow that he can only keep the engine going by keeping his foot on the throttle all the time!

The last 30km to the border are through a spectacular green ravine, there is bamboo, rhododendron, and many beautiful high narrow waterfalls. At 10:15 we arrive at the "border" or more specifically at a compulsory car wash (10 Yuan) before we can enter the dirty crowded, disorganized town that surrounds the border. The road down from the car wash to the border post is a switch-back hill of about 25% and is exactly 1.9 trucks wide between dismal, dirty shops. There are trucks parked at random on both sides of the road and occasionally in the middle. Progress is slow.

Half way down the hill to the border we pass many Nepalese trucks that appear to be inside Tibet, this is odd because we have never seen one before and there is nowhere else to go except the the road we have just come on.

After blocking the road for 15 minutes whilst we try to spend our remaining few Yuan we finally reach the Tibetan (Chinese) border. Compared to the confusion of the surrounding town the Chinese side of the border is relatively organised. We present our passports and three of them are duly stamped and returned, the remaining four have a "problem". We must wait an hour. During the two hours wait we discover the cause of the problem. When we entered China the passports of the "driver" of each vehicle were stamped in black, those of the "passenger" in red. Now we are leaving China this same colour code must be used, however we are told that because no foreign vehicles have crossed this border for 18 months the black stamp has been returned to the office and must be fetched by Jeep. When it arrives the four remaining passports are stamped.

Next comes customs inspection. The senior customs inspector asks if we have bought anything in China. We admit to a few souvenirs. This is the wrong answer! He coaches us to the right answer, "only food and fuel". We are now free to go to the real border, a red line across the Friendship Bridge five kilometers further down the hill. But...

Womble in her eliment!We are now told to wait whilst an army guard is assembled to escort us to the bridge. We are also asked to pay $40USA for the privilege. Each of us gets one unarmed and very young soldier in the cab. (Maureen wants to adopt her's). The dirt road to the bridge is very bad, right on the limit for Kon-Tiki and K-Nine. The last 200 metres to the bridge is again 1.9 trucks wide with two solid lines of trucks, most, but not all, facing Nepal. There is no sign of movement. Some trucks look as though they have not moved for months. We stop at the end of the line. Serge discovers he has a flat tyre.

One solder takes control of the situation and part of one line of trucks is forced to reverse up the hill. Slowly we are directed to move forward, truck by truck down to the bridge (it is reminiscent of those plastic solitaire games with 15 letters and one hole). There are only millimeters of clearance between Mog's roof and the flimsy shops that line the road. Mog eventually reaches the Chinese side of the bridge and is instructed to stop nearly, but not quite, on the bridge. Passports are checked again, phone calls are made (about the strange black stamps?). Eventually Mog is permitted to drive onto the bridge, but not yet across it. After several more minutes wait we are told we can cross the bridge. Just as Mog crosses the red line a CB radio message comes that Jean-Claude is immobile amid the two lines of trucks and would like Mog to tow him across the bridge. Too late, Mog is in Nepal, Jean-Claude is still in China (eventually Jean-Claud manages to re-start his van, and Serge's tyre is changed and all seven vans make it onto the bridge.).

We arrive at the Nepalese side of the bridge where we wait behind a single truck. After 10 minutes this truck moves off the bridge through a large gate and into the chaos of Nepalese customs inspection. We watch as every sack is unloaded and examined. After 15 minutes we are escorted through the gates on foot to the "customs" office. Here we are politely asked to wait and offered tea (we accept but it never comes). Each of us is invited to sit in a dirty one armed collapsing wooden chair whilst the details of our Carnet is slowly transcribed into a dusty book. Eventually the three sacrosanct Carnet stamps are produced, each one is cleaned, inked, tested and then very slowly applied (twice) to our Carnets (only later do we discover that we have been stamped out of, rather than into, Nepal!).

After having our Nepalese visas checked we are waved through immigration only to be stopped 200 metres latter at a barrier where the name of our tour group and tour leader is required. Our assertion that we have no leader is met with disbelief, and each van is asked the same question in turn.

After another ten minutes we emerge, free, into Nepal. We keep reminding each other to drive on the left. This turns out to be hard work particularly for the French and Roger has to be shouted at over the CB when he pulls in to the wrong side of the road to let a truck pass.

Having put our watches back by 2 hours and 15 minutes at the border (Yes 2:15) we have to get used to it getting dark at 18:00. The English decide enough is enough and chose to camp by the roadside, the French decide to continue to Kathmandu (they actually camp only 20km later).

2002-10-28. The road from the border to Kathmandu gradually improves until by the time we are at the outskirts of the town it is good two lane tarmac. It gradually dawns on us that apart from lots of army and police vehicles we are the only moving vehicles on the road. There are armed soldiers on every street corner and sand bag emplacements in front of many buildings, all the shops are shut. We have arrived in the midst of a Maoist inspired general strike. We creep into our garage relieved to find the French already there.

Kal Bhairhb (Shiva, 1660?) Kathmandu Durbar Square.During the next few days we apply for our Indian and Pakistan visas and go sight-seeing in Kathmandu and Patan whilst most of the vehicles are serviced or repaired.

Although we never actually stay there we inspect the Verge Inn Leisure Park (Honest) (N27.69873 E85.29008) as an alternative place to camp, it looks reasonable with a shady car park and charges 150Rs ($2.00USA) per van per night. They say that a few years ago they had lots of campervans staying there, but because of the troubles they have had none for a year.

From Kathmandu the seven Silkroute vehicles will split up for the last time. The three French vans aim to drive very quickly through India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey and be home by the beginning of December 2002. Mog intends to drive from Kathmandu to Mumbai (Bombay) India and ship back to the UK arriving in mid December 2002. The remaining three English vans (Womble, K-Nine and Kon-Tiki) intend to follow the French route but considerably more slowly arriving in the UK in January 2003.

Stephen Stewart.

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