The Jeep Ride From Hell is a 15 hour journey (if you're lucky) from the Nepalese town of Salleri to Kathmandu. There's a reason why it's a "jeep" and not a bus. That reason is that the "roads" are anything but; we often needed four-wheel drive to cross streams, get out of ruts, and make it through mud. All while carrying 15 people in a 9-passenger vehicle. But hey, it is the cheapest way to reach Mt Everest.
Nepal is best known for its trekking and climbing — most attempt Mt. Everest from within its borders. However, due to the country's developing state, just getting from point A to B is an adventure in itself.
Most people who trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) begin their journeys by flying into Lukla, lovingly known as "the most dangerous airport in the world." Daniel Bruce Lee and I opted to take the long way 'round and hiked from the village of Jiri instead - a beautiful and cultural, but gruelling 60 miles before most step foot on the trail.
We figured that our only way back out of the region was to either suck it up and pay for the expensive flight from Lukla to Kathmandu ($US140 apiece for a domestic flight is expensive when you can eat and sleep for $US10 a day) or to suck it up and retrace our steps back to where we started - another 60 miles, on top of the 140 we'd already done — with 60 pounds on our backs.
That is, until we learned about "The Jeep Ride From Hell."
The Jeep Ride from Hell is a 15 hour journey (if you're lucky) from the town of Salleri to Kathmandu (or the other way around, depending on where you're coming from.) There's a reason why it's a jeep and not a bus. That reason has to do with the fact that the "roads" are anything but; we often needed four-wheel drive to cross streams, get out of ruts, and make it through mud.
Why Go? From a cost perspective, the Jeep Ride from Hell is the cheapest way to travel to and from the Everest region. A one-way ticket cost us a total of $US50 each.
Here's the breakdown (each represented is one-way):
- Flight between Lukla and Kathmandu - $US140
Jeep between Salleri and Kathmandu - $US50
- Jeep ticket - $US20
- Three trekking days between Lukla and Salleri @ $US10 p/day - $US30
Bus between Jiri and Lukla - $US67.50
- Local Bus ticket - $US7.50
- Six trekking days between Lukla and Jiri @ $US10 p/day - $US60
Not only is The Jeep Ride From Hell the most cost-effective way to travel between the Everest region and Kathmandu, but it also provides a plethora of cultural experiences, both on the ride itself, and during the three day trek between Salleri and Lukla.
Asses on parade. We went to the source.
Essentially, it will give you a taste of the Jiri trek without having to go the full distance. The trail is quieter and less crowded; as such, locals were generally more friendly and welcoming. The scenery is lush and green; drastically different from that seen at higher elevations. Also, most supplies enter the region from Salleri before being transported via donkey or yak - so it was cool venturing back to the source of our food for the past three weeks.
The Ride: My alarm woke us at 4:30am. The jeep driver would be outside our lodge in half an hour. We had already packed the night before, but we dressed quickly and lugged our 40 and 60 pound packs down the steep staircase into the common room. The lodge manager and his wife woke early to see us depart and had a pot of milk tea waiting.
We closed out our tab and finished our tea, just as the roar of a diesel engine came to idle outside the door. Time to go. The driver took our packs, effortlessly tossing them up onto the roof; then he hopped up himself to tie them down. He graciously covered the roof with a tarp in an effort to provide protection from the dust, but it we'd soon find out that it did no good.
Our newly acquired Argentinian friend Mauricio wisely claimed shotgun — a place he'd hold all day. Daniel and I began to crawl into the back bench, but were abruptly stopped. "Careful!" a young Nepali man shouted. We hadn't even seen his dad — wrapped in a grey blanket — laying across the middle seat. He had a broken leg; they were transporting him to Kathmandu for medical treatment. Daniel and I continued crawling into the back, more carefully this time. There were seven of us in the three-row jeep at this point; that would be the fewest number of passengers it carried all day.
And with that, we were off.
Often, the road took us above 10,000'. Everest is somewhere there in the background. Pretty amazing to see it up close; then from so far away.
About thirty seconds into the ride, we discovered why we'd be taking a jeep back to Kathmandu and not a bus. To describe the road as "bumpy" would be a severe understatement. The drivetrain was set to 4x4 Low, and we were crawling. We hadn't even made it out of town.
The seat in front of me wouldn't latch; the back kept falling onto the old man's broken leg. I grabbed the seat belt, pulled some slack, and wrapped it around the headrest to give the man a break. This would also double as my "oh, shit!" handle; I clenched onto it for hours. At one point, I put on my climbing helmet, because my head kept smacking up against the window. I looked dumb, but at least with it on I wouldn't get a concussion.
If we had collided with one of those trucks, the truck would have won.
We hit pavement by the time the sun rose, but that only traded one hell for another. Our jeep could drive faster now, which simply meant that potential head-on collisions would occur at a much higher rate of speed. The road was plagued by constant switchbacks — it could've been a Forza track — but that didn't slow our driver down, it only encouraged him to pass slower cars around each bend. The road was beautiful though; we darted above and below the clouds, sometimes passing 10,000' elevation.
A couple of hours in and everyone had to piss. The man with the broken leg had to defecate. His son and a family friend pulled him out of the jeep and sat him on the side of the road, though that didn't help much because he was practically shitting himself. Their solution was to prop one of his arse cheeks up with a big rock; that allowed him relief with as much dignity as possible giving the circumstances. Tears of embarrassment flowed down his face. We all felt for the guy, but there wasn't much we could do to help.
Back in the jeep, we continued for hours. I put my parka between the window and my head, held onto my makeshift strap, cranked up some music, and went to sleep. My borderline narcoleptic tendencies give me a serious advantage while travelling. Daniel wasn't so lucky.
Everything crosses that bridge.
I awoke when the jeep came to a halt in a makeshift parking lot. It was only noon and this was not Kathmandu; why the hell were they unloading our luggage from the roof? "Oh. The road doesn't go over that giant river." But there was a suspension foot bridge and we could walk over that giant river. So we donned our packs, and we walked over the river.
The first half of our journey was crazy. The second half was insane.
Dozens of porters were crossing the bridge, carrying thousands of pounds of water, beer, Pringles, rice — you name it; they were carrying it. It didn't take long for me to realise that anything we ate while trekking or climbing in the Everest region was carried across this bridge on a porter's back. Radical.
Driver #2 did not seem thrilled about the situation either.
On the other side of the bridge, animals ran as rampant as people. Chickens were flapping everywhere. Pigs were on parade. We took a break from the madness to indulge in Dal Bhat, which could best be described as Nepal's national food. Basically, it's rice (bhat) and lentil soup (dal), often served with vegetables. There's a saying in Nepal: "Dal Bhat power, twenty-four hour." Every Nepali eats it, every day. Our driver ordered for us and we sat in the back of an open air dining area that overlooked the river, feasting in relative peace.
"Are you Nepali?" was Daniel's favourite question while travelling in Nepal. Daniel is not Nepali. He's "American, with Korean blood."
Back at the jeep, commotion ensued. For some reason, we were taking on four additional passengers — a single mother and her two children, and then some other dude — bringing our headcount to fourteen. In a jeep designed to carry nine. Our driver was not happy about the situation. And then for some reason, he was no longer our driver… We got a new one.
Go ahead, cop a feel.
We went from one jeep to another, then back to the first. Finally, all fourteen of us crammed into a shiny red one. Mauricio invited me up to the front, where I rode bitch with my knees in my chest. The driver felt me up everytime he had to shift. Daniel was pissed that he got stuck in the back with three too many people. I can't blame him for feeling uncomfortable, but I like to think of it as character building. At least his leg wasn't broken.
Highlights of the second half of the day were a river crossing, then some mudding, and finally reaching a legitimately paved section of road that took us all the way into Kathmandu.
We arrived back at our hotel at 9 pm, after a fifteen hour journey. We got lucky.
What You'll Need to Bring: There were multiple opportunities to stop for meals, snacks, and drinks along the way. Fresh oranges and bananas were abundantly available for purchase whenever we stopped. Make sure to carry and drink plenty of water; we also stocked up on Nepali snacks before we left Salleri.
A stuff sack full of clothes or a parka will make a good pillow.
Oh, and if you get carsick, bring a barf bag; or five.
Asses in; asses out?
How Do You Get There? If travelling from Salleri to Kathmandu, there will be several shops or stands in Salleri (once you pass the local air strip) from which you can purchase jeep tickets. We had heard that they were 3,000 Nepali Rupees ($US30) but upon arrival, were pleasantly surprised to only pay $US20. If travelling from Kathmandu to Salleri, your hotel should be able to put you in touch with a jeep driver.
I'm going to need snacks. Lots of snacks.
What Should You Do While You're There? Count the number of near-collisions throughout the day. And the number of times the jeep nearly drops off the cliffside road. Attempt to take a nap on the jeep. Have a cheap, local meal at every stop. Buy some oranges and bananas, they're fresh and delicious! If you're riding bitch in the front, feed the driver snacks, he'll appreciate it. Don't get car sick. Puke out the window if you get car sick.
Be like @Mauricio; stake out your claim!
What We'd Do Differently: Daniel would have preferred to not share his seat with five Nepalis. Get on the jeep early; stake out your claim before it gets too crowded.
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.