Monday, October 25, 2010

The Road to Dunche: An Accident Waiting to Happen

I'm back from another great trip to the Langtang region, and I'll be talking about some of that trip in the following posts. Before I get to that though, I need to address something that is a very clear problem; the road to Dunche might be one of the most dangerous in the world. I do not say this in hyperbole and am not trying to be sensationalist, this road is downright dangerous, and it is only a matter of time before a number of people are killed on it. Being the only access to a major tourist area in this country makes this road even more absurd; in its precarious state it provides the lifeblood of money that sustains that region. Although the region is accessible by helicopter or very rarely by single prop planes, the cost is prohibitive and almost everyone takes the bus or 4WD into Dunche or Syrabru.

Trisuli- A typical Nepali bus scene

Anyone who has taken a bus ride in Nepal has a story, they are always eventful and health and safety are not the top priority. Now Nepal isn't America, and it would be unfair to judge it as such. I understand Nepal has different approaches to transportation, limited resources, and apparently a lack of good engineers. All this said, the road to Dunche is far worse than any other road in Nepal that I have traveled. Going to the Tibet border the Arnico highway is pleasant by comparison, the "highway" to Pokhara is also quite normal for this region, and even the route to Jiri is acceptable for the most part. Even this road to Dunche as far as Kalikasthan isn't anything too insane. But that last ridge line traversed for about ten miles south of Dunche can hardly be recognized as a road and it is testament to the bus drivers skill that a bus can even get over this kind of "road".

Looking Down, roughly 1000' to the Trisuli River

So as the above photo shows it's a long way down, and the edge of the road is never too far away. With the upcoming photography it is important to keep in mind that the consequences of this horrible road are not a brief fall of ten feet or so, but instead a one thousand foot plummet to river far below. I bring this up because it's easy looking at some of the other pictures to forget that the drop is sheer and quite far down. This photo also shows how there is nothing at the edge of the road to prevent going off of it, no bollards, guard rails, and no shoring to keep the earth from simply giving way should it become saturated or loose for any number of reasons.

No this isn't a hiking trail; it's the road.

Where the road really tends to get bad is where it crosses large sections of land slides. In the above picture you can see the very narrow road snaking its way across a section of the mountain that has already given way. Nothing is done to make this section more solid, nor do they bother cut deeper into the earth in order to at least widen the road a bit so that the drivers do not have to hug the edge of an unreliable slope.

Crossing Landslides- Not Fun

The above photo does not do this section of the road justice for how horrible it is. Back in July when I went up to Dunche this part was completely washed out, and we walked the next seven miles to Dunche (we decided not to get on the bus that picks you up on the other side). Now this section is "fixed", as in you can drive over it. When we arrived on the way up a group of Nepal Army were at the site warning passing buses that a small chunk of the road had given way, so you had even less space then normal to inch past. We got out of the bus as it squeaked within a foot of the collapsed part of the road. At one point while talking as we walked to the far side a boulder the size of a melon came bouncing down the hill, forcing one of the Nepali REI expedition crew we were with to run for cover toward the bus. The assortment of rocks in this shot attests that this is probably not a rare incident. Also note the pooling water caused by a complete lack of any drainage.

Loose Gravel & Stones with no Support

Here we get a good look at what is under the road....nothing. It's not even on bedrock, just loose rock, dirt and gravel that has already given way as it tumbled down the mountain as part of a slide in the past. There is absolutely minimal engineering done here to ensure that this road will maintain its stability. Also notice the hard curves and minimal width. I don't want to be too condescending but you would need to have brain damage to design this road and think this was a good solution.

Loose rocks piled at the edge of the road do not inspire confidence.

Here we see a section of the road that has failed, and the solution seems to be to pile up rocks at the edge of the road. There is no under pinning, and no caging. This is most commonly done where water is flowing across the road, which surprisingly is quite common. Instead of using correctly sized culverts or reinforcing the material that makes up the road where the water crosses it, they have piled up some rocks. 

My advice to anyone who travels up this way is to avoid this road if you can. The walk over the Gosainkund pass is well worth it, and if you don't mind carrying tents and supplies or brining porters also look into crossing the Ganja La. If you absolutely have to take this road up or back, I'd recommend looking into hiring a 4WD vehicle, which seems much more sensible than the large overcrowded and less maneuverable buses. Another option would to get out and walk the last section to Dunche if you do take the bus up. While plenty of buses make this trip every day, as someone who's worked on plenty of road design and engineering projects, I can tell you very bluntly that at some point a bus is going to go over the side of this road.

The worst part of it is that this doesn't need to be the case. Very minimal sensible things could be done to increase the roads integrity and reduce any chance of the earth slipping from underneath it. These solutions would be at least as cheap as the constant patching that has to be done due to its current state. A lesson could certainly be learned from the Chinese who have built some really amazing roads through their section of the Himalaya. Also the fact that this is a tourist route should justify spending some of the revenue that tourists generate in coming to Nepal. The government siphons off plenty of money from non-service fees such as TIMS cards and the hefty visa fees. Aside from the human cost of an inevitable accident is the damage it does to the regions reputation as a destination that is safe to visit, something that seems to be slipping one bad event at a time recently.


  1. those hair raising drive to dhunche is printed in my memory!! pheww!!!

  2. Where would you climb off to walk the last distance to Dhunche?

  3. The last town before the road gets ridiculous is Kalikasthan, but it's a long walk from here and the bus doesn't pull through this point until 1PM or so if you take the early bus. Nepali buses can let you off just about anywhere if you ask, so really you could just stay on until you see what lies up ahead and then ask to get off when you feel uncomfortable. Be aware that this will most likely mean a 7-10 mile walk. When we walked the last seven miles to Dunche on my July trip we got into Dunche just before dark, so be aware of when the sun sets, roughly the distance to your destination and how fast you can cover it. The best spot to get off is roughly a mile or two north of Kalikasthan, again just be aware of the time and that you are comfortable walking the required distance to Dunche.

    If it is at all possible I would highly recommend avoiding the bus and shelling out the extra money for 4WD. I'm really cheap and always stick to low budgets, and though I take local buses throughout Nepal, I'd advise against it here. While the 4WD is still a hair raising ride, it's much safer and can take you all the way to Syrabru or Dunche.

  4. Thank you so very much for the info. It is a great help.

  5. Im planning a visit to the Tibetan village near Dunche hopefully around April. I've looked at various organised treking groups which visit dunche, though all of them seem to use either bus or 4wd to/from Kathmandu. Do you know if it's possible to trek from Kathmandu to Dunche?

  6. Yes you can trek to Dunche. There are two options, either a series of trails that shadow the road up along the Trishuli river or take the route out of Shivapuri (just north of Kathmandu) and over the Gosainkund pass. The trails that shadow the road are on maps, but I'm not sure how often they are trekked by westerners and I have no idea what accommodation would be like. The trail over Gosainkund is a well established route, and the one that I would recommend to get to Dunche and the Langtang region.

  7. Technically speaking I agree with you to also use the trail over Gosainkund (by the Laurebin La pass) but physically speaking it might be another experience to take it in february (I should be there) with snow, also because Lonely Planet guide warned about the quick acclimatization it supposes in that side (From KTM to Dhunche)

    ..perso I still rely on that 4WD option if available and not too expensive (received recently from someone: My friend has land crushers, it cost 15000 rupees)!
    thank you again for your post

  8. Yeah the comment I was replying to mentioned April which is a time of year that this would be much easier to cross. In February you can bet anything over 3,500 meters, and lower on north facing slopes, will have snow and ice.

    As for acclimatization, it's different for each person, but I find that the Lonely planet guides err very conservatively on the side of caution, to the point where it's almost silly in some cases. While some people might encounter some difficulty in crossing from the south to north it would be more bad luck than anything else. You barely get to an altitude where altitude should be a concern, and with a day half a day spent at Theropati before crossing the pass you really should be fine.

    As for 4WD, if you hook up with other people it should be cheap, as I stated we got 4WD on the way back for I think around 1,500 to 2,000 RS. 15,000 RS (over $200) seems a little high to me unless they are bringing you up and back on your own schedule.

  9. That is so scary! I hope they improve these roads to avoid any accident.

  10. Hi, we are a bunch of guys trying to motorcycle from the capital to Dunche. What would you recommend? Is it safer with the bikes.

  11. Much safer with bikes. The danger comes from just how narrow the road is and the complete lack of structural support on the side with a drop, the lack of any effective routing of water coming down the hills to mitigate erosion and so on. Bikes being smaller and more maneuverable would be much better on these roads...your only real concern would be the other drivers- especially the buses and trucks! Nepali roads in the countryside are always an adventure.


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