London to Sydney Overland
Day One Hundred-Seventeen
I watch the goings-on with a wide grin on my face.
Ed leans over so I can hear his lowered voice over the chaos in front of us. “If I was in charge of this project back home… I’d be in prison,” he informs me. I start laughing.
Ed is an engineer. He project manages engineer-y type stuff in his other non-overlanding life. He’s from Manchester, England. The UK, like the US, has safety regulations (thank you unions). I have no idea what the safety regulations are like here near the border between China and Nepal but I do know I would never get this close to a landslide in a tunnel back home. And while I appreciate the safety standards we have at home I am fascinated, practically standing beside the workers, watching them dig us out.
I feel safe enough. This is cool.
It’s important to remember exactly how large Alice is, our overlanding beast. Today we’re driving the last miles through China and the Tibetan plateau and crossing the border in to Nepal. It’s a beautiful crisp mountain cliff drive made even more so by the knowledge as we travel down we’re heading to warmer temperatures. Our cold camping is almost over. I’ve already got plans to ship my boots and other cold weather gear home when we get to Delhi. I miss my flip-flops.
Anyway, back to Alice.
She’s big. And we’re traveling on back mountain roads. There aren’t a lot of options. There aren’t off-ramps or roundabouts. We go forward. We are committed. After the trouble actually getting over the mountain pass and to the Tibetan plateau we all know – if we can’t go forward, we’re screwed.
Which brings us to our current predicament.
We’re stuck in a tunnel.
We’ve been blissfully driving along, enjoying the view, waving to the friendly locals when we run in to some construction. This isn’t anything that causes any immediate alarm. We’ve seen a lot of construction on this trip, including random (probably, hopefully, not random to the workers setting it) dynamite blasts on the Afghanistan side of the Pamir Highway. We are now seasoned overlanders. Construction doesn’t phase us.
Until we stop in the tunnel. At first we have no idea why or that there is a problem. I’m assuming one of the workers just stopped us while they move materials or vehicles or something. I’m picturing someone in an orange vest with a hand-held STOP sign like back home. But that is not what we find. That is not the situation here.
Alice doesn’t fit through the other side of the tunnel. The road is too high.
I say the road is too high and not the tunnel too low because that is the most accurate explanation. A few days earlier there had been a rockslide, the extra rocks and dirt were partially pushed off the road down the cliff. Partially. But they were also flattened down by heavy machinery – raising the road. There are mangled bits of metal beams on the side of the tunnel entrance, evidence of the damage the previous rockslide had caused.
We’re told they’ll bring some equipment and dig out the road.
When it becomes obvious this may take a while we start to disembark. Some of us to stretch our legs, some to find a bathroom spot, some to grab a smoke. Brenda asks Gayle if we can open our ‘kitchen’ and put on a kettle. Gayle shrugs, “Fine with me.” So we take out a burner and make some tea.
Since it’s open… it is almost lunch time. I grab a bowl of cereal. Drink my mug of tea. In a tunnel.
An hour later an orange and glass construction vehicle comes motoring through the tunnel. We cheer. He’s here to dig us out.
It begins. Back and forth. Back and forth. He pushes forward, then backs up and takes another run. And then it happens. There’s a rumble. Some shouting. A large cloud of dust briefly fills the opening of the tunnel.
It’s fine. We’re all fine. Apparently there is still loose rock from the previous landslide and our situation is going to get worse before it gets better.
Despite the delay everyone is in good spirits. This is fun. We gather around the entrance, cell phones in hand. “You know those disaster clips you see on TV that people filmed on their phones and you think, what the hell were those people doing? Why didn’t they take shelter? That’s us right now,” I laugh.
There’s another rumble and this time the rocks and dirt and dust really come down. And doesn’t immediately stop. For a moment I’m a little worried this time we really are going to get buried in. It’s nearly a full 30 seconds before it finally settles. Two-thirds of the entrance is now blocked by giant boulders.
Surprisingly it only takes them a couple of hours to clear the path and we’re on our way. The incline on the other side of the tunnel is full of loose gravel and rock. I have no idea what is from the other day and what we just caused but I breath a sigh of relief when we move passed it.
Towards the border and Nepal.