Cycling In Nepal

I left Kathmandu and cycled through the smokey diesel traffic of the suburbs up out of the valley. I was not used to the mountains but glad to be back on a gradient and off the flat.

It felt like the beginning of another adventure and with the bare trees and grey weather it reminded me a little of cycling on the Black Sea coast in Turkey. That was until I passed the last of the industrial quarry works at the top of the valley. At the summit I was greeted by steep sided hills, and a windy road making its cautious way by the limited route available slowly progressing 'as the crow flies' distance. 30km distance in a straight line on the plains can be a lot longer in the mountains as the roads have to thread their way cleverly by the available route.

The road planning and construction of the Pritvi Highway must have been a considerably feat as for the other of Nepal's mountain highways - the Tribhuvan Highway and the Siddharta Highway. Hugging river valleys, and cutting a way along landslide prone hillsides. Hillsides which the locals ingeniously and beautifully farm with the terracing of the land.

A short and quick freewheel in the afternoon sunlight glow brought a smile to my face and my bike to a settlement called Naubise. Located on the junction of the turn off to the Daman pass or Pokhara (along the Prithi Highway). Naubise is small a village, with terraced farmland, a few Dhabas, guesthouses and wooden shacks lining the road (stocked with meagre supplies of biscuits, pan masala, and other unpredictably chosen supplies (like they'd fallen off the back of a lorry directly into the shop). I

asked about accommodation from a group of old men hanging around drinking chay and was directed to a guest house. I ate a plate of plain rice and salt to give sustenance and avoid riling my bacteria infested stomach (from polluted water and street food on the plains of Uttar Pradesh), and provide needed energy for the 2400m pass tomorrow.

After watching some of a typical Nepali film, storyline to the tune of: hero-gets-in-a-fight-drives-motorbike-gets-girl-loses-girls-gets-drunk, I retired to my drafty, plywood walled, room backing onto the road outside. With my earplugs I got a good night sleep and awoke with energy and a feeling that I had kicked the stomach illness.

The climb to Daman was slow and meditative, green terraced hills, banana palms, villagers cutting, collecting and transporting huge bags of wood and leaves strapped around their head (in the Sherpa style). I enjoyed the climb and being in the mountains. It was slow but the road was quiet and I spent a lot of time gazing at the beautiful surroundings. The hills there are a idyllic picture of natural beauty and - in a traditional village way of life at least - people dressing and maintaining the land in a sustainable, resourceful and non-exploiting way.

It's quite poor up there though. I met a man who was playing a type of table top hockey, who asked me to go and visit his school. The school was a project of 'Room to Read', the local community and the Nepali government. Architecturally the building looked good and presentably painted from the outside. The children were in their lessons. The teacher took me onto the roof and said 'we don't have equipment for our school - no tables, books, and no money to buy them'. I replied 'it's not a school without materials, it's just a concrete shell'. 'A foreigner, a German came last year and donated 50,000 rupees and we were able to build the roof' he told me. I got the impression that they were relying on another beneficiary to turn up out of the blue and make a considerable donation.

I had a small amount of money and spent 150 rupees to buy 33 pens. A pitiful donation in comparison, but I was only carrying 650 rupees. I was left feeling frustrated that - perhaps they were being complacent and not being proactive enough to generate funds, why did the organisation 'Room to Read' (I saw the HQ next to the UN HQ in Patan side of Kathmandu) leave the school so underequipped? Having met an American guy in Varanasi who had to come to India to volunteer and had devoted three monthes to help in a 'microfinance' company in Tamil Nadu - couldn't this school do more to make contact with people who wanted to volunteer?

A foreigner who wanted an experience from his travel would be gladly accepted and taken in. A native English speaker or person with high school or graduate qualification I felt would probably be better placed than the teachers there to teach English or any subject. The English teacher couldn't really speak English. I took the address and if anyone wanted to make a trip to Nepal to volunteer in the school there, I can provide the contact.

Onward I went up through the mountains, through little villages, and clay shacks by the roadside. I decided to continue to cycle in the moonlight and arrived in the town of Daman at 2330 m at around 7 o'clock. I went into a Dhaba- a building made of branches with a thatch roof, a small clay oven and two ladies, one crunched up smoking deeply, cooking by pans there. A voice spoke in good English, 'yes there is food, sit down here' 'do you like mutton?'. Laxman was the head of the botanical garden in Daman and after making our introductions over dinner and a glass of Roxy (the locally brewed rice wine), and sitting warming ourselves by the fire, he invited me to sleep in one of his rooms in the green house at the garden.

I slept wonderfully in the cosy room, in my warm sleeping bag on a bed, surrounded by thick whitewashed brick walls, and dozing off to the smell of wood smoke from the clay oven in the next room. The quiet was wonderful compared to the din of diesel trucks and traffic on the highway- they normally took the other route down to the plains which missed out the mountain pass. It gave me the opportunity to soak up the sounds of the night - crickets, bird calls, and monkeys 'whooping' out in the forest.

The next morning I got some breakfast, a Nepali Thali (similar to Indian but more sour tasting pickled vegetables, and a different type of chutney). Not quite as tasty as the Indian version but very healthy and sustaining. Laxman took me for a tour of the garden showing me different plants and their uses including one which is exported to America and used in a drug for cancer. I filmed his tour and tasted some different herbs he handed me included one, often used in toothpaste, with started off sour and fruity and ended up fizzing on my tastebuds.

He told of how during the Maoist insurgency, when the village was evacuated, the Maoists used to take refuge during the night in a lodge down in the garden and during the day would roam in the forest, being tracked by the government's army. That was 5 months ago and now the peaceful Nepali people are very happy that things are back to normal. Especially because the trouble was causing tourists to be weary of visiting Nepal. From Daman on clear day, you can see 18 Himalayan peaks, unforunately visibility wasn't good, but the peaks of Ganesh Himal, Annapurna and Machappuchre were still a mystical sight floating atop the whispy clouds and haze.

I passed the 2400m high point feeling spiritually rested from being in the quiet mountain area surrounded by glorious wild nature. The downhill was long and ponderous. I regularly stopped to take photos, film travelling shots, and otherwise record my thoughts into mp3 as they occurred via dictaphone. I stopped briefly in a house where a large crinkly face old woman sat with her young grandson propped against her knee.

The daughter make me cups of chay and I shared my biscuits with them. The girl's face was very beautiful but her hands and feet were weathered and hard-skinned from arduous daily work. She was about my age and it made me think what she would be doing had she been from a rich family - maybe a student. It appeared that it was her responsibility to look after her aging grandmother and brother. I took some photos, donated a few more rupees than required for the chays and was on my way. The road continued down into more lush jungle and relatively larger settlements.

I was then following a large river through a valley. I noticed a couple of temples  as I passed and thought that given the choice between becoming a holy man (although you can't have a wife) or living a regular village life, you can see (a rather convoluted reason) why the holy men might take that path - a beautiful temple to live in next a huge river, respect and money from the locals, taking adventurous pilgrimages, hosting saddhus on pilgrimages and a general freedom from authority.

I met 5 saddhus doing a pilgrimage to Parvati in Kathmandu. They asked me for a donation to their cause and offered me to smoke some cannabis. I refused both and instead set up the camera and went about cooking them dinner and coffee. Eventually they declined the dinner, but we drank coffee then all slept at the temple we had passed earlier. They seemed to gradually leave me to my own devices- and stopped treating me as if I'd been a gulible tourist like at first. I'm a wild foreigner on a bicycle from distance lands, with no glint of awe of these ascetic traveller as 'holy' but instead a respect and excitement about their pilgrimage walking adventure. I thought walking barefoot for a month was a great adventure. They seemed to expect me to feel sorry for them, but I said 'what a great adventure' 'you have the really hard task walking, I've got it easy with a bicycle'.

I asked them questions 'are you happy?' to which their spokesman said 'no, we are not, we can't take a wife, we have nothing', I said' but you have friends', he said 'no, not friends'. 'But you have company' I insisted, 'these are just other Saddhus' he replied. They were clearly friends and got on well. They had the basic ingredients of a successful mission in a group - common interests,  a shared goal, a  plan to walk to Kathmandu.  They had guaranteed food  and money donations from people along the way and temples to stay in. 

They are very lucky to be able to make a journey like that and have experiences which regular people cannot -which I guess adds to their 'holiness'. Although, all this said, one of them produced an ID card, and I got the impression that they had day jobs as policemen and had taken time off for the pilgrimage.  That's great, I thought. Imagine if that happened in England- people taking extra time off work for a mind-expanding adventure, instead of relying on getting pissed every weekend for escapism. Perhaps the Santiago-de-Compostella pilgrimage route in Europe could be a candidate. Indeed many holy men and holy works seem to come out of journeys or pilgrimages.

For example the journey made by Siddhartha or that of Tulsidas (the poet who translated the Ramayana into the local language of the people -so they could read it- from Sanskit). Google or Amazon these for more info. The next days were spent on the Terai. The plains of Nepal where 80% of the population lives. These are mainly flat and intensively cultivated. Very similar in appearance to Uttar Pradesh being the southern adjoining Indian state I cycled through to get to Nepal. A couple of days of boredom, dusty hot roads, and the having to contend with seeing a dead body smeared with blood lying at the side of the road who had been hit by a wayward truck. It felt nice to cycle with my bizarre bike through the morbid crowd that has descended upon the seen, I felt like a glimmer of light amidst the chaos and self-destruction.

On leaving the Plains I pedalled hard into the dusk along a dusty valley road aside a wide emerald river. I watched children diving down huge white dunes in the sandy beaches created by the meandering erosion of the river. The sights there were from a fantasy world. Smokey shacks on terraced hillsides, steep mountains and bare black trees, a temple perched on a steep cliff at the river tributary junction amidst thick autumnal forest. That evening I camped with the Police in the town of Mugling.

On arrival I had bought some vegetable and some diesel for the stove (unfortunately petrol wasn't available - much less black residue). The police were friendly and interested (as usual) in my stove and tent. In the morning I left the station and went to buy breakfast, sitting with some school children who were do their English homework. I went to get money from my wallet to pay, and all but 5 rupees out of 3000 was gone.  This was a strange situation because I thought it unlikely that a pick pocket would take my money then replace the wallet in my pocket and the only time my wallet had been away from me was for 20 mins inside the police station campus in my bar bag whilst I prepared my dinner. I told the police about the situation in the morning. I said I wasn't accusing them but explained the above. The chief policemen looked almost in tears and ordered me to leave saying 'we are all policeman here, you cannot accuse us'.

The occurence made the morning a bit miserable as I had to rid my mind of the negative thoughts . It was also raining which didn't help. I was listening to 'Tales of night - Air' and 'the John Peel Festive Fifty 1984 - Cat's Caravan'. By the afternoon the sun came out, and I put the 'lost money' down to an unavoidable law of averages with travelling. It was a hard day of climbing on a fairly busy road and the last section which I cycled an hour into the darkness was along a straight road through sprawling suburban housing which made me think of an American style of housing(co-incidence or cultural transfer?).

I reached Pokhara around 8 and slept on the roof of a petrol station. The next morning I found a guesthouse and spent 2 days resting, washing clothes, visiting the buddhist world peace pagoda, doing some mountain biking in the surrounding dense ancient forest and eating food. I was glad to leave the tourist bubble of Pokhara, and decided to leave a mountain trekking adventure to another time. I was making a beeline for Delhi now on my way back to my girlfriend in Georgia. However, you can't rush in the mountains and I always try to focus on the moment. 

In pleasant sunny breezy weather I pedalled up and own twisting mountain roads with the Himalaya in the distance. My only quibble was that my knee seems to have changed since I spent 3 weeks off the bike walking at Christmas and now I can't pedal with a right cleat. I've spent many frustrating moments removing my boots, rotating the cleat 2 degrees left or 5 mm forward and such like, then putting it back on, lacing up the trekking style laces, only to still not be happy and feel like my knee was being twisted.  I've now given up on them and I pedalled the last 200 km to Delhi without cleats.

From the Siddharta highway, I was back down on the Terai heading East. There was a mountain section to cross near Lamahi and after that a couple of days of fun riding in undulating wild lands of forests, wide dry riverbeds and little villages. I was able to wild camp on a couple of occasions and this freed me from the reliance on other people which was a nice feeling, but I also like to make contact with people as I'm travelling alone so either way doesn't bother me in terms of finding somewhere to sleep.

I watched monkeys playing in the road and passed long sections of quiet road through Bardia National Park and the Royal Sukla Fhanta National Park. A few days ago I passed back into India and it's been pretty spirit crushing pounding the tarmac just to do the km's on the highway back to Delhi. But as always it's an experience and it's been interesting to see India again after leaving and returning with refreshed eyes (it's been good food for philosophising).

I'm now in Delhi staying with a CouchSurf host.  I have one month left on my Indian visa and my plan is to get my Iran and Pakistan visa here hopefully and head overland by train back to Turkey, maybe with a bit of cycling in between trains back to my girlfriend who in a week I will have only seen for 3 weeks in 6 months for a stint of domestic life, working, and loving! Before hatching the next adventure.

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