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Cruising the Japanese Built Koirala Highway

Zabir Rahman | April 8, 2021
Cruising the Japanese Built Koirala Highway

In a former role, I co-owned an automotive workshop. The bulk of our clientele was from North Bengal, Sikkim, and Bihar. There were also a few from eastern Nepal and Bhutan, but none from as far away as Kathmandu.

Therefore, when a prospect reached out for major modifications to be done to his Mahindra Thar, I was elated. However, he stopped short of confirming his decision of choosing our services. Mr Gurung then proceeded to throw in a caveat; that we’d have to deliver the vehicle back to him in Kathmandu. He probably thought we may show reluctance but the wanderer in me was only too happy to fulfill this criterion. And therefore, in early March of 2018, I set out for Kathmandu with the freshly reworked vehicle. It would also be a test of whether all that we’d put together on his vehicle, would hold up or not.

The highway beckoned

The border crossing into Nepal does not require a visa for Indian citizens. It only requires a vehicle permit, chargeable at INR350 per day. Since I was already driving a Nepal registered vehicle, no additional permits were needed.

I even took along a cousin and my parents for the ride. It was perfect opportunity for them to also see Kathmandu since they’d not visited Nepal’s capital city earlier. Mum doesn’t mind long road journeys and my father is as much fond of driving as I am. As for my cousin, he’s my go to person for all car transfers, which often entail long drives.

We left from Siliguri in the evening and stayed the night at Birtamode. This is the first major town in Nepal’s terai region. Now, aside from the drive, my second biggest draw are the local culinary delights. And I am particularly fond of Nepal’s eateries that offer sekuwa and beer. Sekuwa is barbecued meat, with its own distinct spices.

Early next morning, we set out for Kathmandu. The larger urban centres we crossed were Damak, Itahari and by lunch time, we reached Bardibas.

This is a common stop for most travelers along this route. We were recommended a place called Gautam’s. The food and service didn’t disappoint. Bardibas is also the junction where one highway continues onward to Hetauda and then to Kathmandu via Mugling. This was the route that most large vehicles took.

We were, however, going to take the Japanese built BP Koirala highway. And this was one scenic drive after the long stretch of driving along the monotonous plains. As we exited the urban areas of Bardibas, the concrete quickly gave way to forests. Not too long after, the Rato river came into view. We’d drive along this river for the next couple of hours.

Easy inclines with superb views

The road wasn’t a steep uphill stretch. Instead, the inclines were gentle and the turns were less sharp than the ones in Darjeeling and Sikkim. Even the retaining walls along the sides of the road wore a finished look than the hurriedly and untidily built ones that are the norm in eastern India.

The Koirala Highway was first initiated by former Prime Minister BP Koirala decades ago. It ran into hurdles until construction began with Japanese assistance in 1996. The road began being built in phases and these were opened for public use as each section came ready. Construction was fully completed only in 2015.

Now Nepal police had a most interesting technique for regulating vehicle speed. This one didn’t involve using speed radars. Instead, drivers were handed a time card at the start of the road with an entry for start time. On the other end of the highway, a traffic constable would check this card to determine the time taken. Should the time taken be less than their prescribed time duration, the driver would be charged with a speeding offence. In our case, we were much slower than the prescribed time. And this was because we stopped all too often to take pictures and even explore a wayside trail.

The car held up successfully

The Koirala highway does not involve a continuous ascent. It is actually a series of ascents and descents. As we drove on, I spotted a hanging bridge spanning across the river, a fair distance in the valley below. The highway also seemed to pass close to it. Needless to say, it required a stop and even better was the fact that there was a little tea shop nearby. A cup of sweet milk tea is the perfect complement to any long drive. Even truckers will vouch for this one.

On a previous visit to Kathmandu, I’d taken the very steep Dakhsin Kali highway from Hetauda. Besides keeping a close watch on its tight hairpin bends, there were also maniac taxi drivers to be wary of. The Koirala highway, in comparison, was a more relaxed drive. The only bit that eludes me is most travelers of this route maintain that Birtamode to Kathmandu only takes them about eight to nine hours. I did make a few extra stops but even then, it took me well over 11 hours! Fortunately, both parents enjoyed the drive as much as I did. Mr Gurung, meanwhile, was happy to have his car delivered to him as promised.

Zabir Rahman

Zabir drives research writing at Stonebench, Singapore. His core interest was automobiles, although with time, he thinks he is growing more fond of writing and teaching. Zabir is now keenly interested in the technology space and is part of the Elbyte editorial team.

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Abhishek Chettri
Abhishek Chettri
2 years ago

I wanna go to KTM on this highway after reading this. A good read for travelers.

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