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excerpt from today's blog, should you be headed to Nepal anytime soon.
16 February 2008 – Katmandu
Our first day here, we were drawn from the terrace of our one star hotel by the echoing sound of woman’s pontificating voice bellowing from ancient loudspeakers a hundred yards away. Cresting the road over a small hill that led to a square, we were engulfed in a sea of red banners plastered with the archaic hammer and cycle. On the tops of a dozen buses aimlessly cruising these streets, hundreds of young members of the Maoist Party shouted slogans to the daunted pedestrians below. The rally kicked off a national strike which apparently had been brewing for sometime, but all of our standard news sources failed to pick up. The government’s flat rejection of the party’s demands have led to the near complete severing of all ground links between Nepal and India, its neighbour to the south which provides most of the goods consumed here. The primary target of the strikers has been the fuel supply lines which are via road tankers. The roads have been blockaded and fuel trucks who have attempted to cross the lines have been attacked and their drivers beaten or killed. The crisis is literally strangling Katmandu, the capital, as all but a few gas stations have consumed their stock and are closed. The ones which do remain open are scenes of chaos and misery as motorbike riders, taxis, truck drivers and everyone else dependent on fuel lines up for up to ten hours for little, and sometimes no fuel at all. Their anger seemed to have been kept in check by troops armed with automatic weapons guarding the stations, but conflicts with police in riot gear are now the norm. Nearly all households use bottled LPG to run kitchen stoves but this supply is depleted as well, so citizens are paying inflated prices for wood which enables them to cook a hot meal each day.
Nepal is one of the few countries on our route that I had never visited and I felt genuine excitement about traveling here in the days before leaving Bangkok. Now after four days in this city, I can honestly say I have never sensed such civic tension before. The papers read like a literal war between left wing supporters and the government, each spinning the situation in the way which suits them best. The left leaning paper’s headline this morning fumed about a police killing of a boy who broke the mandatory curfew. In the government’s paper, it was a small chunk of copy in which the boy was depicted as a man. It seems that everyone has an opinion but the points of view are so diametrically opposed, a flashpoint appears inevitable.
The most explosive element here right now is of course the fuel crisis. The streets which were as dense with activity as frenetic as an agitated fire ant hill a few days ago are now nearly silent. People cannot get to work or school, they cannot transport goods and they cannot cook food. The impact on us has been unnerving. After two days of negotiations with the help of the staff at our hotel, we were able to track down 20 liters of the precious liquid for about $16 per gallon. The transaction was like something out of a Bond movie: a young man whose uncle owns the gift shop at the hotel hops on the back of the bike and we begin to weave deeply into Katmandu’s narrowest old lanes battling to make a path through pedestrians, rickshaws, motorbikes and the odd taxi or two. The side cases making the bike over three feet wide, we took more than our share of taxi paint and motorcycle chrome with us as we scraped past. Amidst the incessant and deafening din of horns of all pitches and tone, we waded through the swarm like an icebreaker through the Northwest Passage. When we reached the small square which housed the motorbike rental shop and source of the black market gas, a steel door was rolled up and I drove up a narrow ramp into the store. The door was slammed shut behind and the transaction could take place. A five gallon container was brought in through the back door, we loaded up the tank, I paid my $80 and I was on my way back through the jungle of the old town to the hotel.
Adventure touring is the name given to the type of riding we are doing right now because with each switchback turn, each border crossing and each new culture, you never really know what to expect. These last few days in Katmandu have tested our ability to adapt to the most unexpected obstacles imaginable - adventure touring at its core. Our next test will be to make it to the next city, Pokhara, on a single tank of gas, arrange for another black market refill there, and then find a way to get past the Maoist strikers and on to India. These are the same people who have waged a ten year war with the government which has claimed 17,000 lives, and they currently stand in our path.
I have ridden to Pokhara twice in the last two weeks. Try the motorbike rental shops down in Jyatha to the south of Thamel they should be able to get you some petrol, and i also got petrol at two gas stations either side of Mugling.
Pokhara was much more difficult. Try the motorbike garages up the hill from the Lakeside.
If you have time and petrol go up the hill to Bandipur, just to the west of Dumre an excellent Newari town.
The people of Nepal rose up in April 2006 Jana Andolan - the peoples movement, and King Gyanendra gave the power back to the democrats. The Maoists' joined the government in the November and laid down their arms.
However, since then there has been two years of wasted opportunities where Nepal could have returned to peace and normality. The Maoists have never been committed to the peace process (due to the 13,000 people or so that have been killed they have lost support from their power base in the hills), and the government has not addressed the genuine demands raised by the ethnic minorities, who have also taken up arms (the Madeshis in the south of the country whose culture and language is more closely aligned to the Indian states of Bihar and Utter Pradesh, and resent their lack of representation in the Kathmandu-based government).
Nearly two years have passed by, but the people are yet to witness he dividends of democracy. The state has been unable to fulfill its basic duties towards its citizens: shortages of fuel, 8 hour power cuts, water supplies low, wide-spread strikes, a short of food stuffs, and school closures. Outside petrol stations I personally counted over 100 cars and over two hundred motorbikes queuing up for petrol.
Safety and security of civilians is a major concern. On Thursday night a man was murdered in Bhaktapur one of the sister cities to Kathmandu, here in the valley and the local people went on the rampage and a curfew was imposed. One man - a bus helper, was shot and killed for defying the curfew.
The Madeshis have called an indefinite strike - a bandh in the south of the country, the Terai, and a large part of the country is a no go area for the Pahadis the people from the hills. There has been widespread burning of Pahadi houses and destruction of their businesses.
The first free elections for nine years are due to be held on 10 April, however, due to the lawlessness in the country and the fear that the Maoists will not do well in the polls, the elections seem increasingly unlikely.
The elections have been cancelled twice since April 2006, and commentators are suggesting that Prime Minister Koirola of the Congress party should form a government of national unity to include representatives of all civil society organisations, religious leaders, regional/ethnic leaders, and all political parties, even those outside of the present ruling Seven Party Alliance. The SPA includes the Maoists' and the six major democratic parties.
After the new government has been formed and have fulfilled the legitimate demands of the regional parties, then free elections should be held. However, the Maoists under Prachanda have put in place a parallel government across the country and there is a worry that the Nepalese army, who are loyal to King Gyandera could carry out a coup.
Both China and India are worried about a further war happening as it could flow over into their territory and inflame there own ethnic minorities and Maoist insurgents. Due to the mountainous nature and weak infrastructure of Nepal a further Maoist insurgency or an army backed coup is only likely to succeed in the short term. Which can only lead to further turmoil and insecurity for the people of Nepal.
Joe, I've been in Kathmandu for a few days now. I think it is still pretty hard to get petrol and have been told I could be in for a long wait at a garage. So far I only got myself about 4L of bloody expensive (175Rs/L) petrol from a guy in a shop just to get my bike out the airport. I haven't been riding around here yet though, the traffic is a bit mental and it's far easier to get a cab around town.
I got confirmation that my Pakistan visa would be granted so can pick it up on Thursday, after that I'll head to Pokera and see how the fuel situation is, however if it's a pain to get any, I'm afraid I don't think I'll be hanging around Nepal and will head to India.
I waited nearly 3 hours to get petrol today. I was actually lucky as a guy from my hotel was also getting fuel and he managed to get me in near the front of the queue. Most people only got 5L but as my hotel friend convinced the garage owner to give me a full tank.
There must have been well over 100 people waiting. The place had no fuel until a small tanker finally arrived and filled a couple of the garages underground tanks.
Unfortunately I don't think i'll be hanging around too long here as I really don't fancy having to do that every time I fill up.
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