A memorable journey on the last leg of the Friendship Highway from the Himalayan Tong La Pass, nose diving to Zhangmu (the small city at the Nepal-China border), then continuing the “odyssey” across the Friendship Bridge over Sun Kosi River to Kathmandu on an old, partially “non-existing” Arniko Highway…..
Misty-land of Sun Kosi
From the Tong La pass the highway literally nose dives some 10,000 ft (3000+ meters) to cross the China-Nepal border in Zhangmu and then another 5,000 ft (1500+ meters) to reach the Kathmandu Valley. But this mind-blowing descent is just a “prelude” to what waits ahead.
The Sun Kosi (in Tibet called Matsang Tsangpo) is the largest of seven rivers making the Sapt Kosi system in Nepal.
In local language the word “Sun” (Sona) means “gold” and Kosi – means “river” and that may be the shortest yet full description of the Sun Kosi river.
The S318 recently upgraded from the dangerously narrow bumpy road to the paved one cleverly cuts into steep cliffs.
Due to the extremely difficult terrain, the previous “superhighway” became here slim and narrow, but it is safe, provided you drive carefully. Frankly - this road is not for faint-hearted!
Dense layers of fog cover the deep abyss, certainly preventing many travelers from fainting. Although the fog limits clear shooting opportunities, dressing the gorge in white satin makes it truly a mystical place.
Entering the misty Sun-Kosi Gorge
Water is almost everywhere, be it tiny droplets of mist suspended in the air, web of narrow streams gently licking canyon’s walls, roaring cascades and waterfalls pouring down the cliffs.
Some crush at the edge of the road providing continuous free car-wash service and making muddy cars coming out clean.
The climate and the whole ecosystem changes as abruptly as the altitude. The barren rocky ridges of the Tibetan plateau just left behind transform into walls of dense lush vegetation. It is a sign of friendly invasion of the subtropical climate from the Nepalese lowlands.
Friendship Highway (much narrower here compared to its sections across the Tibetan Plateau) clings to the steep cliffs
The road passes through Zhangmu – the last Tibetan town before the border and usually the place of choice (well - like you really have the choice here) for an overnight stay. Frankly it is a well deserved stop to tune down emotions, “lick the wounds” (if any) and re-gain the strength necessary before entering the last section of the Lhasa-Kathmandu overland road – the Arniko Rajmarg Highway.
This is the most common picture of what you see when driving along the cliffs of the Sun-Kosi Gorge towards Nepal.
Zhangmu does not have any Tibetan character – it’s clearly a border town with shady hotels, bars and frankly, the last place you want to be. The main (and only) street is packed with trucks and cars as the town is built into hillside along the narrow deep Sun Kosi gorge. While at first Zhangmu seems to be a damp place, surrounding settings are spectacular.
The good news is that the Friendship Highway winds down for another mile or so before reaching customs at the Friendship Bridge at an elevation of 5,750 ft (1750m). So the next morning, when the previous day vertigo and dizziness are only bad memory you have the fresh opportunity to stand on the firm ground and fully appreciate the nature.
Friendship Bridge over the Sun Kosi river marks the border between Tibet and Nepal..
The bridge seems to be more than just the river crossing and the border line between China and Nepal. It is also the line between two quite different words.
Dense jungle covering the hills, wet subtropical climate and hey, almost normal atmospheric pressure to start with are in sharp contrast with left behind Tibetan plateau. But that is only the beginning of the story and soon we started to learn that these two worlds are different in almost every aspect of life.
Although the history of China (Tibet) and Nepal is marked by frequent Nepalese invasions, these two cultures did not blend together. The Himalayan barrier forced these two nations to develop independently. As someone cleverly pointed out:
Chinese are all about rules and order; Nepalese are all about breaking them.
It is truly stunning to see such deep differences of cultures in so short period of time and the distance of mere few hundred feet.
After crossing the bridge and border the whole new experience on Arniko Highway....:-(
Indeed the queues at the customs on the Chinese side of the Friendship Bridge seem to be the last sign of the orderly behaviour.
Just few hundred feet away on the Nepalese side of the border, the chaos takes over with crowds squeezing towards the desks of custom officers. But the differences are much deeper; it is not only that Chinese eat with chopsticks and as we quickly learned down the road – Nepalese use bare hands.
Probably roads with the vibrant traffic and apparently no rules offer the best example of Nepalese lifestyle. The fact that Kathmandu for long was the center of the Universe for hippies tells it all.
Playing the "Russian Roulette" is part of everyday life for truck drivers on Arniko Highway.
But the biggest shock is the Arniko Rajmarg Highway (abbreviated ARM). It was named after the 13th century Nepalese master of Buddhist art and architecture – Arniko (“rajmarg” in Nepalese means highway).
The road follows the ancient and legendary Trans-Himalayan caravan route. It was opened in 1966 with big fanfares reflecting the great political and economical importance of the only overland route to Tibet. But the success was short-living. Frequent floods and landslides badly damaged the road that now in its upper part, half-collapsed and half buried resembles rather the muddy (and bloody) ancient tract dangerous even for yaks..
This section of the "highway" seems to remember ancient times when caravans of yaks were crossing Himalayas...
What makes it worst is the long line of heavy trucks (Tata and Mahindra-likes) making their way up and down.
Chugging, squeaking, exhaling black clouds of exhaust fumes, they seem to play the Russian Roulette navigating around narrow bends.
In some sections they have to slide along the cliffs to pass the half collapsed sections of the road where even 4WD jeeps will note venture. Do not be mistaken – this is the most dangerous road in Nepal (if not in the whole world). Vehicle plunges and not uncommon and usually deadly given the steep slopes and depth of the gorge. During the wet season the road is frequently closed, sometimes for days trapping everybody literally in the middle of nowhere.
Kodari (the border town on the Nepalese side) is mostly collection of shacks alongside the “so-called” road. With little room inside, people spend day working in front of the houses making the already packed with trucks road, even more crammed place.
In some places the bottom of this abyss cannot be even seen from the road (which is actually not that bad thing :-))
Countless waterfalls in the gorge Sun-Kosi....
Town of Zhangmu "attached" to the slopes of the Sun-Kosi gorge.
Close to the Nepalese border the Friendship Highway is narrower and winding, but still the road is in a very good shape ....
.... so it is hard to anticipate that here you will say "Goodbye" to the safe, paved Friendship Highway. About a mile down the road you enter a different word....
Crossing the bridge: Sun Kosi river at the Tibet-Nepal border.
China Nepal Overland Trip: You are now in Nepal
Boulders like this one can erase half of the village (and it happens during the wet season)....
The border town Kodari is a busy place tightly packed with big trucks....
Colorful Tata and Mahindra trucks add a lot of vibrancy into otherwise "life in slow motion" in villages along the Arniko "Highway"....
Arniko Highway - the pictures speak for themselves :-(
Monsoons traditionally "wash-away" some parts of the Arniko Highway
Arniko Highway for long follows the Sun Kosi River
Live in all forms flourish along the narrow "habitable" zone along the road.
.... but then "things" start to change - initially very narrow Sun Kosi gorge widens.....
...... waterfalls and violent waters as seen on these two pictures transform to "peaceful" river.....
The gorge opens into valley with rice fields, pastures....
After few tens of miles down the road, things get better. Although the Arniko Highway still does not meet any standards expected for the contemporary road, at least the Sun-Kosi gorge (actually here already Sapt Kosi) gradually transformed into the shallow valley.
Steep slopes gave way to lush terraced fields. Wild mountains rivers clearly lost their strength and flow wide spilling over flat swaths of land.
Small villages surface along, here and there water buffalos claim pools of water; life is visibly taking deep roots.
The beautiful Panchkhal Valley actually marks the lowest point on our journey from Lhasa to Kathmandu.
Dolaghat – a thriving town at the confluence of Indravati and Sapt Kosi rivers (and the departure point for whitewater rafting) lies just at about 2,300 ft (700 m) above the sea level.
ARM then gradually climbs towards Dhulikhel – the last major town before entering the capital of Nepal – Kathmandu some 19 miles (30 km) later. That is also the end of the spectacular journey that started 8 days earlier in the capital of Tibet – Lhasa. The good news is – every “End” gives roots to the new beginning and that’s what happens on the vibrant streets of Kathmandu, but it will be a different story.
Now once you arrived safely to the capital of Nepal - Kathmandu, you may want to watch this video - Trip on the bike along the Arniko Highway :-)
Note: I realized that some may feel offended by authors' comments. I agree that it is just too simplistic and may be even arrogant to come from the wealthy country and offer left and right advices and statements that frankly for some may sound disrespectful.
After my trip to Nepal I realized that people there are very warm, friendly, tolerant and cheerful despite really harsh living conditions. This friendliness and typical for eastern Asia "happiness-for-no-reason" (in our "western" opinion) is an immense richness of the country and should not be underestimated.
While the beauty of Himalayas, landscapes, rivers etc... is "given" by the Mother Nature and/or Providence, the human part of the "landscape" comes from inside-out, from souls, from hearts....And believe me, there is a lot we can learn from Nepalese....
I decided to provide the link to this video reportage from Nepalese roads to show you the Arniko Highway as it is now. I've been there, I traveled down the road, I saw it with my own eyes, I survived the trip and now can share with you my experience :-).
But there is also the good news - recently the Nepalese government started construction works to upgrade Arniko Highway to the standard of paved road all along to the border town Kodari (71.5 miles /115 km).
It will be still a narrow and dangerous road to drive due to "major natural forces" (very difficult terrain and frequent landslides). But hopefully it will be much safer than it currently is, especially that in its upper part in some places it is existing only on the map.
If you would like to go back on the road to the Mt. Everest Base Camp, then please select the link: Himalaya Everest Base Camp Adventure - previous (page 4)
However if you would like to start the journey across the Tibetan Plateau from the beginning, then please select the link: Lhasa-Kathmandu by Friendship Highway
You can also take advantage of being already in Nepal, for example saying hello to Annapurna, by selecting the link: Free Annapurna Pictures
Lhasa-Kathmandu by Friendship Highway (5 pages)
Kathmandu Garden of Dreams (2 pages)
Nagarkot (3 pages)
Annapurna (2 pages)