Reading time: 21mins
Word Count: 4152
It’s with a heightened sense of excitement, expectation and fear that I finally leave Kathmandu. Later than I had ‘planned’ has become the norm and I should therefore be adding on VAT (value added time) to any decisions I make. Logistical issues surrounding finance and posting packages to the UK create tensions I don’t need and finally I’m away, heavily loaded and sure that bike and kit was never this wide or cumbersome before.
I initially follow the hectic main road out of the city complete with cars, buses, lorries and motorbikes all whizzing past, spewing fumes and (once past the city limits) chucking up clouds of yellow dust which finds its way into every pore. I chew road grit, spit wet dust and am doubting my capacity to endure as the first climb rises up before me. Its a baby climb but I’m out of shape and puffing and blowing all the way to the top.
This becomes the norm for the duration of Nepal. My previous, sickly, hazy memories of the country were of nausea, sweat, rain and humidity. These are being overlayed with sensations of dust, fumes and an out of shape body and mind. My worst fears of having become too used to the sedentary life are realised. I have become lazy and want an easy life. However cresting the hill at Dhulikhel and seeing the road wind down before me, through varying shades of green vegetation and yellow earth I remember the joys of cycling and am back in the moment, content to have the (not too smelly) local rubbish tip as the team reunion campsite. I confess to internally wailing about the damage humanity is wreaking on the planet but I settle down to a good sleep only briefly disturbed by a truck pulling into my lay-by for their few hours sleep.
The initial route plan is swiftly reassessed as I realise I took a wrong turn the night before and am in no mind to cycle back up the hill I just started coming down. So I press on, winding down past houses and through small villages of wood and corrugated iron homes. Past tiny local stores selling a million different types of chewing tobacco but nothing that I might need, past the dhabas (local cafes) of varying size and apparent cleanliness. Stopping at one I am treated to cups of tea first by a local who whoops with joy and laughter at me riding in on a bicycle and who I have no doubt will be regaling his friends and family with stories of a crazy woman who he bought tea for and second by a couple of Italian’s who have been out in the hills doing social work with one of the specific ethnic groups located in the region. We talk briefly about the social situation here in Nepal and they tell me about the issues particularly with alcohol abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking.
Sitting, drinking tea, in the midst of this beautiful sunny scenery the content of the conversation seems even more harsh with the dichotomy of the moment. Human trafficking was and still is a huge issue, specifically since the earthquake in April 2015 and the fuel blockade by India later in the same year . Rural life for Nepali people is already tough. Confronted with the aftermath of an environmental disaster and then the additional economic and social strain of massive fuel shortages, rural communities were preyed upon by opportunistic gangs of smugglers and human traffickers who have decimated vast numbers of communities. People of all ages and genders sold into and enduring forced labour and/or sexual exploitation. Families either complicit in the ‘transaction’ or ‘coerced’ into situations they don’t want to consider. I am reminded that for all the beauty I see there is a raw edge and again I feel gratitude for the life I have.
The morning is spent on glorious down hill curves and the traffic on this more minor road has diminished from the roaring I experienced on the previous day. Reaching the river at Dolalghat where the Indrawati and Sunkoshi rivers meet I am initially pointed across the bridge and fervent hands gesture that is the only direction go. Checking the solar powered up map I spot the road (track) I want is before the bridge and have to make fake pack adjustments until my helpful friends have departed so I can got the way I want to go … oh why did I not listen!!
The road (track) I take is along side the river and is narrow, steep in places and deep in yellow dust. Huge dumper trucks speed past, enveloping me in clouds of black fumes and dry dust, forcing me to keep a weather eye open and to hold my breath as they pass. The track eventually leads past several rock plants, processing the river bed for building materials and ends abruptly at a junction in the river which meanders off right and then rejoins the main flow. The river is fast but not too much so. The main issue is that I’m out of practise with getting the job done and a bit mentally weak. So I set up camp, cook up some rice and veg, walk the goat track which everyone else is using to get past the evident landslide up to the village and wait for the morning. Decision making can wait.
It’s a stunning place to camp. River views, water rushing past, high cliff behind me and solitude. As the light in the sky dims the apparently empty river valley spills its secret store of houses and villages. Like watching the lights of a thousand fireflies, the terrain comes alive with lights going on and the number of people living on each side of the river staggers me. In daylight it’s impossible to see anything, the houses blending seamlessly with the landscape.
In the morning I walk the goat track again, walk the first part of the river crossing and assess the probable depth of the second from the waves at the crossing. Decision made. River crossing – Go. Goat track – No. Its far too steep and precarious to carry a bike over so I hike the bags up and start the river crossing with Tilly.
I have wildly underestimated the second part of the journey and as I wade, knee deep, across slippery stones I realise carrying the bike will not be easy. I have also been spotted by men working on the river bank. As I get part way across the river and wobble one of them does the full body, evident at 50 paces, equivalent of rolling his eyes; drops the rock he is moving and splashes over, yanking the bike off me. As we both reach the other side he hands it back, laughs and runs off to get dry clothes (probably). His crew are in fits of good natured laughter which follows me as I head up the track to collect the bags and head on towards Lubughat.
The track bumps and winds alongside the river giving me lovely views of the water and the agriculture that it feeds. It’s December and I can see grain being sifted in the fields, which frankly upsets my inner concepts of time and season. After a night camping outside a shop and a dinner of delicious millet and greens being consumed I do ‘the comedy side swipe’, randomly and abruptly changing direction to face up hill. Its a big hill!
The day is foggy and thankfully I cannot see the breadth of the mission I have just set out on. As I make my way up the rocky, dusty ‘road’ I can hear women walking down a footpath not far from me. Disembodied voices which laugh and chat, passing relatively close and then going down, beyond me. Further up the mist starts to clear and what was a wall of grey nothing is revealed as a village, then a large school. Bells start ringing, dogs bark and the ethos carry across the valley to the other side of the Sun Koshi. When I set off in the morning I had not anticipated 2 days of pushing, sweating and swearing the bike up such steep tracks. Lorries and scooters pass me occasionally and the passengers are always craning their necks to get a better view of the under powered idiot with the large baggage.
The rocks get bigger and the track steeper so at Cauld Wel village I stop. Meeting a giggling group of maybe 11year old girls who shout at me and tell me I’m lazy I temporarily loose my temper and tell them they are rude. I hate this part of me. Being called lazy or being laughed at are like red rags to the Taurean in me. Ashamed, I push Tilly up the next bit and follow them to their school as requested and throw the place into chaos. Children hanging out of windows, round door frames, teachers herding students as if they were cats. One of the teachers, very sweetly, tells me to go and camp by the shop (and potentially let them get on with their classes). I do so, ending the day with dhal/rice thali and watch various villagers get wrecked on home made raksi, a situation I am to become very familiar with.
Alcoholism and the consumption of homemade raksi is an ever increasing problem in the rural areas of Nepal and India. In local shops I have seen people start on their ‘daily dose’ at 8am, opening time, and continue from there. I’m rarely in the same place long enough to see the aftermath but on occasion see what it potentially looks like. Women with black eyes. Truck rolled over in road. All possibly raksi related. I’m often offered, sometimes pressured and always decline. It’s not something I want or can physically/mentally/socially cope with. Its another of the coping strategies which the Italian’s I met previously are starting community dialogues about in their rural projects.
Night falls and the stars come out. The Nepali night sky is vast and incredible. No light pollution and I can see galaxies ranged around me. Everyone in the village is worrying about the cold and I haven’t managed to convey that it’s closer to English autumn rather than winter for me and is therefore not a problem.
When I leave the village in the morning it’s to the sounds of Nepali pop/folk songs playing on a roof-top loud speaker across the valley and the local dogs are lending their voices in accompaniment. The road continues to be difficult and I’m still pushing rather than riding up. After passing a local Buddhist ceremony in one village and stopping for tea and biscuits in the next I finally reached the top of the hill. Its a glorious sight (not just because I am convinced its down hill from now on) and I can see the river sinuously winding down through the valley from where I came and past me to where I am heading.
I was wrong … it wasn’t the top of where I was going but for a moment it felt good!
For the next 30mins I actually manage to ride my bike. Its bliss and I’m smiling broadly at nothing and no one before I reach the next village. Its a hot day and the pushing was tough so I stop at one shop then another before I find the possibility of a yellow water container to fill my water bottles from. A salty snack later and I’m back up the track searching for a spot to rest in the shade My spot emerges in the form of an unoccupied house with shady porch just off the road. As I sit eating the remainder of my snack I see a young boy of about 9 or 10 walking up the road and past me carrying the same yellow water canister, in the commonly used head/back rope/sling set up, as I have just emptied in the shop back down the road. I’m totally mortified. He passes me 2 more times before I meet him further down the road at the local spring. His water trek is about 20mins walk each way and I have no idea how many times each day he does this multi trip chore. A chore which I have just added to. It reminds me of the impact I have often unknowingly and unintentionally.
This nights stay was a generous hosting from a shop keeper in the town of Yangbel. Initially asking if I can camp beside the school I am immediately pulled into the family, given chai from their abundant thermos (of course) and then mountains of rice, roti and dhal. The food is delicious and after an evening of listening to Nepali music on their shop radio whilst numerous neighbours came over for raksi I am tucked up in a double bed, blankets smelling comfortingly of moth balls, and flicking through my photos with the young teen granddaughter of the shop keeper with whom I am sharing the nights sleep. I’m not used to sharing a bed but sleep soundly inspite of her warming her cold feet on mine!
We are all woken before dawn with the sounds of grandfather doing his daily puja. The smell of candle grease, the sounds of the infamous Om Mani Padme Hum at high volume, grandfather padding around the corrugated structure which forms their home. It reverberates to every movement and bangs worryingly as you cross a patch in the floor. This square iron box, divided into 4 rooms and housing at least 11 people sits directly above the grocery store, sewing establishment and barber/pharmacy/raksi seller. The babies (Prince (20 months) and Princess (3)) are swaddled up in warm clothes and Princess runs around demanding sweets and attention from anyone staying still long enough. Youtube videos have a lot to answer for as a song comes on the radio and she starts dancing and posing outrageously.
I often struggle internally with the adoption of seemingly ‘adult’ behaviours by young children as they mimic people they have seen or videos watched. I also wonder if I’m just attributing a meaning and an anxious context to something which has no reality for the children themselves. A dance is a dance. Movement is just movement. I can ascribe meaning to gesture as a person well developed in social context but the reality is that it’s not real not mandated. The biggest driver for Princess’ dance is the clapping and laughing from the family which fuels her frantic dance and almost tips her over, to everyones amusement. Just as the night before as we all huddle around a fire outside the shop everyone is smiling broadly at her antics and clapping in time with her fist pumping and hip swaying in almost time to the music!
I leave stuffed full of breakfast roti and dhal. After a brief stop at a tiny monastery I have a morning of slow speed downhill on inches of dust over a surface of gravel. Its hideous and not the sweeping curves on a solid surface I like. It feels like riding unstably on ballbearings and at one point Tilly tips me off at slow speed in an embarrassing skid which thankfully no-one else witnesses. The road is relatively busy with army personnel trucks, buses, cars and scooters kicking up the obligatory amount of dust and covering me as I make my slow way down.
I sometimes feel that cycling up is easier then down as I have greater control of the bike. My hands and wrists are quickly sore from the braking and once back down on the flat I am grateful to see the sinuous black tarmac ribbon stretch out in front of me!
The Tamil district hillside through which I have just ridden is stunningly beautiful for all its steepness. Wildflowers everywhere. Houses in startlingly bright yellows, acid pinks and electric blues. At this time of year multitudes of people out on terraced areas, working the fields and stacking bundles of maize and straw or sything tall grass for their animals to feed on. The work to feed the family is never done and people start at daybreak and don’t stop until dark. Children are included in this level of work and I saw little ones fetching and carrying for their elder siblings or the adults. Watching these time honoured tasks in the midst of such sweeping dramatic landscapes it can be difficult not to romanticise the life but make no mistake, its tough and relentless. Another reason why the escapism of alcohol has a draw.
The remainder of the day is following the main road alongside the Rosi Khola (Khola = river in Nepali) and I end up chatting with a man who’s impeccable English (and ability to swear in said tongue) is down to his job as a cook in the army bases in Iraq. He sorted me out with a sensibly priced hotel and I cleaned all my kit and myself of the “too many dust” that had accumulated. Next stop – more Sun Koshi!
After another day riding the tarmac ribbon I reach the next part of the Sun Koshi valley and find a stunning secluded campspot complete with ready made fire pit. Its just as well because on starting up the primus stove I am treated to no fuel and no flame. Taking it apart I notice that the tiny O ring on the connector has degraded and as I try to reseat whats left break it entirely. Several minutes of cursing and pondering I have a plan. Problem 1 – no O ring in correct size. Not an insurmountable problem thankfully but that has to wait for good light in the morning. The fire pit is utilised for tea making and I’m grateful I have back up banana in the bag. Always carry some ‘no cooking required’ food’!
Dawn breaks and I’m up watching the waders in the shallows. Pretty but timid birds which disappear every time I try to get a photo. Back to stove problem. Carefully cutting the only other O ring I have I remove a tiny portion and then seat it in the correct place. After a couple of adjustments and a worrying amount of fuel spraying me and the tent I have working stove again. Not perfect but working safely!
3 days of following the valley. It’s as stunning as the hillsides which continue to be steep sided and very much in evidence. The road is wide, traffic not to hectic and I cycle along merrily, passing some villages where I stop for samosa wrapped in musty, old, school text book pages and camping in others before a puncture halts me late evening outside one such village and I camp on the equivalent of the village green opposite and well set back from a very excited dhaba owner and his young wife. He is intent on speaking all the english he knows as fast, as frequently and as loudly as possible. Its a common misconception that a lack of language implies a lack of hearing! His wife takes charge of my phone as I set up my tent and repair the puncture. This is not the first and won’t be the last time my phone disappears into the hands of one person without my permission and knowledge and returns to me with a memory card full of selfies and videos! There is no ‘mine’, there is no privacy in Asia! Community is all! Tent setting, cooking, bike fixing. All done to an audience. As usual people want to taste my food! It’s sadly the same ingredients and a poor comparison to what they are used to. I have the suspicion that they think I can magic a hamburger and fries from a bag of rice, dhal and veggies!
The following morning is mostly spent with young men zooming up and down the mostly empty road on Tilly and me with my hands to my face pleading “Bistari, Bistari” (slowly, slowly) to their amusement and dismissal. Leaving the village I have several climbs ahead and these pass, as all do, slowly and with regular stops for photos.
Eventually I reach the town of Ghurmi where the road splits and rather than heading closer to Everest I opt for what turns out to be another hard and dusty but unexpectedly short climb. Short comes about in the form of transport. After a few hours of chatting to goat-herding grannies and wincing every time another cloud of dust envelopes me, I spy a truck stopped on the opposite side of a large hill-hugging S bend. It turns out to be waiting for me, so 20minutes later as I draw level with them and they offer me a lift it feels rude to say no! From the high seat of the empty cargo lorry I see the sheer cliff descents more clearly and the lack of barrier to avert disaster feels more apparent. On one occasion we stop and the driver does a quick bodge job on the gear and throttle cables which had apparently stopped functioning. I try not to squeak in fear but one rapid spin around the outside of the curve causes me to grab the drivers mate by the arm in an involuntary response. He laughs at my fear and I’m suitably embarrassed. Images of mini vans halo’d by a beautifully back lit cloud of dust contribute to my wish I was still on terra firm, camera in hand and still cycling.
Finally in the midst of one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen I decide that I really must camp and not be driven down the hill to Katari … in the dark … on those bends. Best decision because after a quick goodbye and scouting out a place to camp I have a solid nights sleep and wake before dawn to a slightly cloudy but none the less stunning view back across to the Everest region. Later in the morning as the clouds clear I finally get my view of the peak … and then it is gone! I turn downhill again and have another day of battling my brakes before arriving in Katari town just in time for a couple of days of public marriage ceremonies to take place.
After a day of watching Nepali women float around the town in bright saris, see horse and carriage parade up and down the main street several times and listen to Nepali pop blaring out over a set of speakers balanced on the back of a truck with men fist pumping and gyrating along side it rather than attempting to hold it down (all whilst eating far too many samosas and drinking chai) I move out on a less hilly and more jungle orientated road. It’s fine for cycles I’m told! Now if there is one thing that I should have learnt by now is not to assume that people understand what it means to cycle on a bicycle with loaded panniers. The road is not fine! It is an atrocious mess of gravel base with thick dust topping and filled with heavy, earth moving machinery to boot!
Mostly there is dust, sometimes there is a sudden fjord of liquid mud to wade through. There are short bursts of steep and then more down as the road undulates through what was, until recently, pristine jungle complete with beautiful villages and homes utilising every type of natural and manufactured material at their disposal. It’s sad to see the destruction of this place but when I consider the greater ease of movement and the increase in possibilities which might make peoples lives easier I cannot be too sentimental. Balance is key in everything and here the road is very necessary.
The only certainty is change and as with all things this eventually happens. After some lovely moments shared with 2 young men walking between villages (1/2 a day walk) who help me push Tilly up a steep section, a dinner audience and a near miss with having to ‘perform’ my approximation of Nepali dancing in one village I reach the final push out of Nepal, the Mahendra Highway.
It heads over the Koshi river at Bhardaha and the accompanying dam where fishing rather than agriculture is the main focus. I ,of course, stop to see the flat bottomed, wooden boats in the weed tangled inlets and the mist rising off the river in the early morning.
From here its a straight run to Kakarbhitta town at the border and whilst there is much to see on every side the jungle does not hold my attention for long and my focus does not stay more than a moment on the houses, interesting graveyards, markets and people who dot the roadside. Even the sudden sight of a tea plantation only briefly halts me. My eyes, like those of the Kakarbitta rickshaw drivers doing the bridge border run, are now firmly fixed on my re-entry into India.