On Sunday 2 May, Nepal went on nationwide strike. Maoists blocked roads, shut shops, and forced all vehicles off the roads. They wanted the government to resign. The government refused. So the Maoists called over 150,000 of their members into the capital from the provinces to reiterate their request.
Sunday 2 May was also the day I needed to go to the airport to pick up a friend. But with no taxis allowed to run that day, I wasn’t sure how I was going to go collect him.
“Cycle to the airport”, I was told by my neighbour. “Then tie the luggage on the back of the bike and wheel it all back to the house”. It was an idea but I knew that, with my friend arriving with 50 kilograms of luggage, the bike suggestion was not that feasible.
“I’m walking to the airport”, another friend told me who was catching a flight to Bangkok. But then he only had a back-pack to carry so was purposefully travelling light.
Eventually I met a fellow native from Belfast who’d lived in Nepal for a few years. He told me how, even though the country may be in total lock-down, tourist activities were still permitted to go on. “They’ll put on special coaches to allow tourists to reach their hotels”, he said. He then proceeded to give me the hotline to the tourist police, who confirmed that the tourist buses were running on Sunday.
The kind Nepali policeman also informed that, even though the buses would be going every hour, there was no precise schedule as to their departure times. And though I was happy enough to wait at the airport for the next available bus, I didn’t want to arrive late and leave my friend momentarily stranded at the airport.
“I know”, I said. “I’ll run to the airport”. I figured it was only around 8 kilometres, the airport lying just on the outskirts to the east of Kathmandu. If I left at 11am, I’d definitely be there by midday. It would also probably the only opportunity I would ever have to run along that route. Normally it is chock-a-block with traffic spewing out black and carcinogenic fumes. With the strike, there would be none of this congestion. There’d only be me and the Maoists going about our respective tasks.
As I stepped out my front door for my airport run, I noticed straight away that the strike had taken hold. The taxi rank at the bottom of my street had not one vehicle in sight. Further on, I found full-on cricket and badminton matches taking place in the middle of the deserted road as children made the most of the conveniently freed-up tarmac sites.
It wasn’t until I reached Kupondol Bridge that I saw the serious side of the strike. Hundreds of people were sitting in the middle of the road, some wearing red t-shirts or sporting red bandanas to show their undying allegiance to Mao. And though the atmosphere was calm, with the protestors sitting and chatting as if there was nothing going on, the fully clad Nepali armed police that watched on from close proximity was evidence of the political stand-off that had now spilled out into the streets.
I ran on up Putalisadak, and then right on to Maitignar. This road, which is normally jam packed with trucks and cars in abiding deadlock had nothing but walkers and cyclists calmly journeying from A to B. That was, until I reached the Parliament. The police watched on as thousands of Maoists plonked themselves down in the middle of the road and quietly made their point. Fortunately there was someone with a microphone that seemed to entertain the Maoists masses, as it was definitely laughter I heard as I fought my way through this crowd.
Eventually, after 6.5 kilometres of midday running, I reached the airport. It had taken me 45 minutes to get there, a time that included the mandatory ‘I mean no harm’ walk past Maoist human check-points. Funnily enough, it would normally take around 45 minutes to reach the airport in a normal car in these permanently congested streets.
As I reached the airport, recent arrivals were walking out of the carpark with luggage in both hands. Only buses specifically for tourists and UN vehicles were allowed to pass the protests. Fortunately, we managed to find one of the special tourist policed coaches laid on especially for the event.
No one knows when the strike will be called off and when all political parties will agree. But up until the time they shake hands, running the streets (as long as they’re peaceful) is quite a unique experience, if not to see the unique traffic free phenomenon, but for a first hand view of how the Maoists with such ease forced a capital city to grind to such a decisive and indefinite halt.