Bandh

Prithivi Highway, Nepal -- 02 September 2011 | Permalink
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"So what do you think it is?" said M. Ahead of us, a line of stopped vehicles - trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles - stretched from a little above the bridge to the crest of the hill and possibly beyond. Drivers and passengers milled around in the road.

"Landslide, accident ..." I speculated. I wondered how long it would take to clear the road, and whether there was any way around. It didn't seem likely. The Prithivi Highway - two narrow lanes of mostly decent blacktop - is the only major route connecting Pokhara to the Kathmandu Valley. Any other roads in the area were likely to be packed dirt at best, and the terrain was rugged enough that I doubted there was much redundancy in the road network. The chances of finding a back way that would conveniently bypass the unknown obstruction looked slim indeed.

Our driver came back.

"Some people are blocking the road." he said. That sounded ominous. Nepal has a fondness for wildcat transport strikes - bandhs - that can stop everything on the road for anything from hours to weeks.

"Not a problem." the driver said. "They don't stop tourist vehicle."

"Only Nepalis?" asked M.

"Only Nepalis." he confirmed.

He started the engine, and we climbed slowly past the line of trucks and buses.

At the top of the hill we found ourselves in a small village, the road almost completely blocked by a crowd of men. We edged forward, and for a moment it seemed as if we might make it, but the last part of the crowd was either unwilling or unable to move aside. The driver sighed and turned the engine off again. Someone parked a motorcycle across the road in front of us.

"So close." muttered M.

The driver got out again, and began talking to a middle-aged man carrying a large red flag with a hammer and sickle crudely daubed on it in white. I heard him say the word 'America' several times, as if it were a magic password. Under normal circumstances, I'd think that telling a band of disgruntled Maoists that you have a vehicle full of Americans might constitute a tactical error, but even Nepal's Maoists (now the party of government, incidentally) recognize that the tourist industry is critical to the economy.

It didn't seem to cut a lot of ice with the man with the flag, though. I couldn't tell what he was saying, but he shrugged dismissively and turned back towards the speaker.  It looked as if the response had been something along the lines of "Just settle down and wait for him to finish."

With the exception of a man who wanted to sell me a hand-carved wooden fiddle, no one in the crowd was paying us any attention. There was no sense of menace, but neither was there any question of going anywhere. We were politely, unthreateningly and comprehensively boxed in. I put my camera out of sight and looked for possible lines of retreat in case the mood of the crowd did change.

After a few more minutes, the speaker reached what was clearly his conclusion and wrapped up his speech. There was a spatter of polite applause, and then the crowd began to disperse with surprising speed. The owner of the motorcycle reappeared and rolled it out of our path. In moments, we were free to move again.

As we eased forward through the thinning crowd, I caught sight of two squads of police in pale blue camouflage, unarmored but with lathis held at the ready. I wondered if Nepalese custom required that they too wait politely until the speaker had finished - and whether their presence had encouraged him not to linger too long over his closing remarks. The whole affair now felt like a familiar and well-understood ritual: a little disruption to make a point, and then a graceful withdrawal before tempers started to fray and heads were cracked.

"So what was happening there?" I asked the driver as we left the village behind us. He glanced in the mirror.

"No." he said. "Now - " He made a hand gesture to indicate that it was over and done with, and that we would not speak of the matter any more.