The massive general strike preventing any road traffic (including private) and forcing stores closed in Nepal is getting worse. At first the people seemed to think it was a lark, an excuse to have some time off, but by now the resentment is definitely simmering below the surface. It’s strange to talk to the local people about it, they look around carefully before commenting as if to see if someone is listening in case their comments come back to them.
In Pokhara, life is getting confusing. There are a number of tourists here trying to make ends meet and wait out the strike, with road traffic halted the only way out of the country is back to Kathmandu via air and apparently the planes are constantly booked full of tourists escaping. During the day the town feels almost like a ghost town with very few people walking the streets (nothing to do) and only a few children enjoying activities. At 6PM the town comes alive as all the shops and restaurants open and everyone in town comes out to explore, shop, and eat – it’s a short insight into the vibrancy and life Pokhara must normally have, but is sadly lacking now.
The original plan was to stay in Pokhara for two nights before heading out tomorrow to Besi Sahar and starting the Annapurna Circuit trek for the next 20+ days. Unfortunately overland traffic to Besi is non-existent, and while I heard from one person it may be possible to hire someone willing to risk it if we left very late at night in the dark, I heard from others that this is a Bad Idea. A plane to Jomson then trekking the AC clockwise appears to be the only viable option right now if I want to do most of the AC, but there are negatives in that (and I don’t know if I can get the ticket) – the worst of which is that if the strike isn’t over when I finish that trek, I will be left stranded in Besi Sahar (though I suppose theoretically I could walk the road to Kathmandu, that’s not the adventure I’m looking for).
Worst of all, I’m running into a completely unexpected problem – money. You have to take quite a bit of cash on you to start the AC trek because you won’t be anywhere that has ATM’s for weeks. I had expected to withdraw enough rupees today and tomorrow to last, except that banks have been closed due to the strike. The ATM’s open at 6PM but there are huge lines of people trying to use them, I waited in three lines this evening and each time after waiting about fifteen minutes and getting halfway to the front, the ATM ran out of cash. I barely have enough money to buy food for the next couple days, let alone go trekking (spent most of my cash on gear). Effectively I’m stuck here until I can get to an ATM and my next shot is tomorrow evening – I’ll definitely be there getting in line early.
I’m not the only one with this problem as many of the tourists have no spending money and I saw a lot of people trying to pay in USD and Euros because that was all they had. Additionally the grocery stores are getting noticeably lower on their stocks and selling out of things like snacks, soaps, etc. – it’s only a matter of time before they start increasing prices.
I grabbed enough snacks to get me through the day tomorrow (breakfast at the guesthouse then nothing except snacks and maybe some fruit until restaurants open for dinner today) and picked up some passport photos to get my TIMS/ACAP cards. By this time (with waiting for the ATM’s) it was closing on 8PM so I ran into a small restaurant to have some momos (small dumplings) which were excellent.
Just after dinner I watched the huge group of people that had been down in the main square march through town yelling things in a typical “What do we want? BLAH! When do we want it? BLAH!” manner in Nepalese and noticed a couple somewhat chilling things – matching the news reports I had heard the Maoists leading this march were all very young, clearly in their early 20’s if not younger. It’s scary what brainwashed idealistic youth can do… The most chilling thing, however, was that almost every person in the crowd carried a big stick or club of some kind.
Now, you tell me, what kind of peaceful protestors carry weapons? I’m sure they would say they need them “just in case” (there was a truckload each of riot police leading and following them), but the threat is clear – the capability for violence is there.
I really hope I can get some money, get my licenses, and figure something out to get up into the hills as soon as possible. The EU has apparently bullied the Prime Minister with a weekend deadline for resolution of this crisis, so I’m going to stick around and see what happens. If it doesn’t look to be sorted by the 10th I may just end up joining the throngs of tourists trying to escape Nepal.
PLEASE NOTE: If you hear/read in the news about tourists being evacuated, it’s true and it is happening – however this is happening from areas where they are stranded due to lack of ground transportation (such as Besi Sahar) NOT due to violence/risk/etc. The airports remain open so people can fly in and out of Nepal with no problem and air traffic between major cities (Kathmandu, Jomson, Pokhara) is not impacted currently.