I had set off to Bhaktapur a few days ago, with my little satchel, a toothbrush, and absolutely no plan. Congressman Poudel has died in hospital overnight, having been beaten up in prison. There was a growing military presence in the village, and I wanted to get home to Kathmandu.
‘No madam, you cannot take the bus, there is no bus now’
‘No madam, no taxis are allowed: Banda (strike). You are safer in Bhaktapur’
A gutsy taxi driver assures me he can get me back to the capital, despite the road-blocks, for an exorbitant 1000 rupees ($11). Ok then, off we go. The only proper road in Nepal links Bhaktapur to Kathmandu, paid for by Japanese aid, is now filled with piles of burning tires. We make a little progress, moving between abandoned vehicles and mobs of young men with sticks. The car is stopped by a group of about 30 men, and the strong suggestion is made that we both get out of the car.
Deep breath: here we go.
The driver abandons his car. I set out towards Kathmandu – I’m very quiet, the crowd lets me pass. The smell of burning tires makes me tense. The smoke is dark grey, and mixed with the dust, makes me cough. As I walk, I see groups of men with sticks pulling people off bicycles and motorbikes, lopping branches off trees to add to the burning tires. I keep walking.
I’ve been walking for a while now. Fifty meters ahead the crowd totally blocks the highway. Lots of sticks, smoke, and yelling.
I sit down in the dirt and light a cigarette. I’m smoking a cigarette in a haze of burning tire fumes, collecting my thoughts. Ok then. My little satchel is strapped on, my hair is tied back, my hands in my pockets, and auto-pilot switched on. I walk into the crowd; avoid the sticks, anything on fire and eye contact. I’m the only woman on the road. The smoke is hurting my eyes.
Don’t stop again.
Here is the military – is that a good sign? Rows and rows of men in dark blue: full riot gear, body armour, shields, helmets, weapons. Trucks bristling with men with large guns. I keep walking. I don’t look around much. I’m doing my best to avoid the burning tires. It smells like chaos and violence. I don’t know how long I have been walking for. I must be over half way when I see the turn off to the airport. I press on.
Here comes a convoy: two military trucks filled with men and weapons, a bus, and two more military trucks behind it. Tourists must be evacuating to the airport from Kathmandu. The look of horror on the faces on the bus as they turn towards me – out in the middle of nowhere, there I am, walking down a highway filled with rioters, and littered with burning debris and tires. The tourists on the bus looked scared for me, and they looked scared for themselves. I’ll try and get a lift with the convoy if it comes back from the airport. Except that it doesn’t.
I walk. I look calm. I’m wearing sensible shoes. I’ve been out in this smoke for a long time.
‘One thousand, five hundred’ (a truly outrageous amount)
I was amazed to see any type of vehicle let passed by the mob; it seemed so out of place. Initially, riding in the rickshaw felt riskier than walking, I am more of a target now. But oh god, please let us pass into Kathmandu. Kathmandu is in strike mode, no electricity, no water, the mobile phone towers switched off, roller doors protecting anything facing the streets. Burning tires.
I’ve been away from the guest house for a few days now – it is completely barricaded with roller-doors down and piles of furniture. I climb in.
‘Madam! You are back! Tourists have been beaten up. Where were you?’
‘You have walked from how far?!’
Back in my room, I try to clean myself up in the dark and change my clothes. I need company and I really want a drink. Time to try to bust into Sam’s Bar.
I can hear the former Ghurka Soldier standing guard behind the roller door to the stairs that lead to Sam’s Bar. He remembers me, and I promise to be very quiet. On the roof, I can see the city in darkness. Sam’s Bar is very quiet, and pretending to be closed. Some hardened expats sit around, drinking.
‘So, how was your day?’
‘I had a bit of a walk. At least people don’t get shot in the street for protesting any more.’
‘Cheers to that, then.’