Interesting travels

This is from a friend named Jeff, a seasoned traveller. Enjoy

Greetings All !!

I have finally found the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in front of a computer and report on the trip so far.

First problem came at Heathrow when I found that my flight with Thai Airways to Bangkok had been cancelled. They transferred me to a Qantas flight, but they wouldn’t honour the extra 10 kgs. baggage allowance that my Thai ‘silver card’ status gives me an I had to pay the extra baggage charges. Everything had to go with me as the bike plus essential parts & tools made up the bulk of my luggage. Other items like clothes were at a bare minimum.

I arrived at Delhi still tense after a spate of terror bombings just days before, though security was on such a high alert level that it was almost certainly far safer than normal. I was able to get a night train the same day to Gorakhpur near the Nepal border, which I crossed the following afternoon, and decided to take a night bus to Kathmandu, arriving early the following morning. My old friend Rajesh picked me up at the bus station and I was soon relaxing at his home – once I had cleaned up my bags, which were filthy from the bus’s storage compartment.

I had a few days in Kathmandu making sure that the bike was ready to go, then headed east on the back-roads out of the city – very muddy with the monsoon tailing off, but mercifully free of Kathmandu’s smoke-belching, horn-honking, crazily-driven vehicles. First stop was Dhulikhel, a fascinating old Newari town which still retains much of the charm and character it had on my first visit aeons ago, due mainly to the fact that much of the older part is too steep and/or narrow for traffic. I also caught up with the family who run one of my favourite lodges in Nepal – going since 1973 – though they had some sad news since my last visit over 5 years ago. One daughter had committed suicide and a son had been taken by the army some years back, presumably assumed to be a Maoist sympathiser, and not seen again. It’s a story I’ve read on many occasions in the local press over recent years, thanks to the internet. Now the Maoists are the major party in an elected government in the process of formulating a new constitution, the king now having lost all power.

Next day the serious cycling started. I knew what was in store as the road I was following into the hills now covers what was once the first 4 days of the trek to Everest. Basically that means climbing 2200 metres traversing 25 kms of road, descending almost as far, then climbing again. I can only describe the first day as ‘brutal’, particularly as I’d hardly done any cycling in the previous 4-5 months. I suspect that my advancing years may have had a bit to do with it as well! It was the toughest day I can ever remember doing any activity. I arrived at the village of Thulopakha in near-darkness having been assured that there was accommodation available only to be told there was none. Of course in Nepal there is never ‘nowhere to stay’ and a friendly shopkeeper gave me a bed in an out-house, which proved to be very comfortable.

From then on I gradually regained some of my fitness, not only reaching Jiri, but riding all the way back, something I would have considered impossible on the second day, when I had decided on the bus. Of course, tiredness is soon forgotten when you are travelling in a country when even second-rated scenery would be described as ‘stunning’. I stayed in one lodge where the kids (aged between 4 and 13) were quite delightful, calling in on the way back for a long afternoon tea-break. Descending has its own problems, as the roads can have big potholes hidden around the next bend. The big 25 km. descent was so steep that I had to stop frequently to cool my wheel rims, which very quickly became almost too hot to touch!

At Jiri there were some trekkers beginning the Everest trek, all exhibiting the same sense of excitement and impatience to get there that I recall back in 1980. I took a day off riding to do a circular walk taking in the first section, and part of the trail now rarely followed by westerners. Amazingly, a ‘Way to Everest’ sign that is in an old photo of mine is still there, hanging from a building in a now near-deserted village. All over the country roads are now being bulldozed into the hills to open up new areas. Initially drainage is poor or non-existent and the first monsoon causes havoc. Many of these are abandoned, but others are consolidated and improved over the years. Old market towns shrivel and die while new centres spring up near the transport
infrastructure. It means that goods can be moved to or from rural areas and farm surpluses can be transported and sold in the major centres. Electricity arrives, and then everyone is watching TV during the evening just like home. I had the novelty of watching the BBC news channel on the way back, before a movie on Star, at one of the lodges.

The day I returned to Dhulikhel the road was particularly busy as Dassain, the most important festival in the Nepali calendar was close to beginning. Every bus in the country seemed to be taking people from Kathmandu back to their towns and villages, and these had almost as many on the roof as inside. Normally this isn’t allowed on the main highways, but is relaxed for major festivals. The buses don’t return empty; many had sheep inside (brought from Tibet in large numbers before the festival, a feature of which is the huge amount of meat eaten, even by those who rarely consume it) with goats on the roof! On a few occasions I had to get off the road quickly with an overtaking bus bearing down on me.

I decided to take a back-road to Kathmandu to avoid the worst of the traffic – a route I had done on a rented bike in 2001. My memory must have been a bit hazy as it turned out to be rather tougher than I remembered. That was partly due to the fact that I had to take shelter, as the heaviest rain I can remember since 1998 fell for almost 2 hours, as I took shelter in a welcoming tea-shop, watching (and filming) numerous shoes floating past, almost certainly never to be seen again by their owners. When I finally reached the top of the pass I was heading for, the easy run down the other side was impossible – a sea of sticky & slippery mud, where neither wheel had any grip, and even pushing the bike was difficult. I passed a couple of taxis that had been abandoned on the ascent, the occupants having to walk. I finally reached the long Kathmandu ring-road in the dark with rain falling again, but managed to make it back to Rajesh’s. The whole family was about to head off to a neighbour’s for a meal, so I had to take a quick shower and clean up the bike & panniers (both covered in mud) the following day.

One of the features of Dassain is the slaughter of many animals to be eaten, and the following morning (the first of the most important three days) I was at another neighbour’s place to see 2 goats beheaded (quick and painless, unlike the middle-eastern throat-slitting), shaved, gutted, and cut up. By lunchtime we were enjoying the first ‘snacks’, before a big feast at another neighbour’s in the evening, washed down with ‘rakshi’ (fiery local spirit) and beer.

The final day of Dassain happened to coincide with my birthday, so we had a cake for breakfast – just one candle as it wasn’t big enough for 57! Rajesh gave everyone at the house including me and George, an American guest, ‘tikka’ – a special blessing that includes marking the forehead with a large red mark. Following a delicious lunch, then more food at a relative’s place later we were all too full to eat a full meal on our return. Cheese and biscuits washed down with a bottle of excellent Australian red wine proved to be just a perfect way to end the day.

Crashing sharemarkets and an Australian Dollar sliding like soap on a glacier seemed a world away as I took a comfortable new minibus (that’s how better-off locals now travel – faster, safer, more comfortable, and with less stops) to Pokhara. I had new brake-pads to replace the others badly worn on the big descents. In 1976, Pokhara was a quiet bazaar town with a serene lake on which the only development was the king’s summer (or was it winter?) palace, fantastic Himalayan views, a wonderful rural ambience in the small villages around. There were a few lodges and rustic restaurants not far from the lake, and the whole area seemed like paradise (as I described it in a postcard home at the time). Three of us rented a tiny house on a trail and a man next door opened up a tea-shop next day. I can still vividly remember sipping tea in the mornings watching the sun on the mountain snows change from white to pink, then orange. Small children barely old enough to walk would be leading water buffalo many times their size to water. The closest thing to a vehicle would be the occasional bicycle. Pokhara is now a sprawling town of over 100,000 people and a major tourist centre. ‘Lakeside’ consists of masses of hotels, restaurants, trekking and souvenir shops, an area where white faces dominate. Fortunately the nearby ‘Damside’, once a rival, is now the area for Nepali & Indian tourists, has a much more authentic feel, and better mountain views, despite the many overhead wires. After a thorough search I think I managed to find the house I stayed in 32 years ago – now on a lightly trafficked road.

After one night I was on the road, heading generally north-west along a new highway (relatively quiet) that will one day reach the Tibetan border. The once pristine Annapurna trek will then have been replaced by a road; already almost nobody walks the first few days of the original route. It was a memorable trek partly due to the scenery, and much of this can still be appreciated from the saddle, with fine views of first the Annapurna, then the Dhaulagiri range. Apart from the awful section before the town of Beni, the road is pretty smooth and great for riding, with relatively light traffic, accommodation basic but comfortable and friendly. On the return to Pokhara I followed the old walking trail from Naudanda to Sarangkot. It’s now a bumpy, dusty jeep trail but the mountain views from both places are superb, especially during early mornings. Sarangkot is now a major paragliding centre, though I prefer to keep me feet on either ground or pedals.

From Pokhara I rode the original but now little-used (except for local traffic) highway south to Butwal, stopping for what turned out to be 5 nights at the old and generally unspoiled town of Tansen, a few kms. off the main road. The accommodation situation looked rather uninspiring, with most of the
uninviting-looking lodges near the noisy bus-park at the lower and newer part of the town. By chance I came across a small office set up by a few locals trying to promote tourism in the area. The friendly ‘main man’, who also teaches tourism management at the local college was there, and when I pointed
out that it was a shame that there was nowhere to stay in the most interesting part of town, asked if I’d be interested in a homestay with a local family. Within an hour I was settling into a little ‘penthouse’ on the roof of his fairly large house, with nice views over the town and surrounding area. His two delightful daughters, both home from college, treated me like a long-lost uncle, bringing me cups of tea early in the morning and whenever I came in. I had a great few days, doing some interesting and scenic walks, and a couple of bike rides. The town itself had some very interesting parts, being both a traditional weaving and metalworking centre. There are numerous temples and mountain views are near and very impressive. As General McArthur said when he left the Phillippines in 1942, “I shall return.”

After an afternoon ride down to Butwal, I took a night bus to Naubise, near Kathmandu, then set off on the big climb to Daman (about 2300 mts. above sea-level) on the original road to Kathmandu, built in the early 1950’s but little used now. Daman has without doubt the best and most extensive view of the Himalayas without actually being in an aircraft. Dhaulagiri, Annapurna I, Manaslu, Shisha Pangma, Everest, and Lhotse (6 of the highest 14 mountains on earth) can all be seen. I’m not sure about Cho Oyu, Makalu and Kangchenchunga, but they would bring the total up to 9. Either way, you can see about 500 kms of mountains, which is pretty awesome as the sun rises – or at any time before the clouds build up. The return to Naubise was for the most part an exhilirating downhill freewheel, where I only had to use the brakes sparingly as the slope wasn’t so steep.

I reached Kathmandu on the roof of a bus during the second day of Tihar (Diwali in India), Nepal’s second most important festival. Two days later, the bike packed away, I tried to take a bus back to Dhulikhel for a few days of hiking. Because of the festival there were few buses running so I had to settle for a crowded one taking a bumpy and sometimes steep back-road. Virtually everyone had to get off to make the final pass as the driver couldn’t get bottom gear, and we struggled over, engine screaming and with a strong smell of overheating clutch plates. A couple of hundred metres down the other side, the driver swerved to avoid a motorbike and we went into a bank, fortunately at low speed. Everyone was OK but the bus was going nowhere, so I has to walk the remaining distance – a further 2 hours.

Following a relaxing few days I returned to the capital without incident in time to see the US election results on the BBC and CNN. Even on local TV it was a major news event; Obama is already a big celebrity here.

I knew that the trip to Ilam in the far east of the country would be a long, long bus journey. It used to take 19-20 hours, but severe flood damage from the last monsoon had destroyed sections of road on the plains near the Indian border. An overnight bus dropped me off in the middle of nowhere as dawn was breaking. I had to take a rickshaw about 12 kms on a very bumpy track, a boat carrying bags of cement across a river, a tractor 2 kms. to the highway, then two more buses, the second one the last of the day to Ilam from the plains. I made it as the sun was disappearing behind the hills, but was fortunate that I was dropped off close to my destination – the school where I worked as a volunteer teacher in 1998 and 2001. They were expecting me and I was given a very warm welcome.

Since I’ve been here I’ve been catching up on old friends and getting news of many of my old students. A couple have managed to get into the British army as Gurkhas and are now in the UK, many are studying at college, some are working as teachers, quite a few are now married. I’ve met a couple of them, one now teaching computing at the school. I’m going to use Ilam as a base for some bike trips into the eastern hills, and will also pop over the border to India to book some trains back to Delhi.

I’ve met a few European cyclists while I’ve been here, some who have flown from Turkey to avoid Iran, Pakistan & Afghanistan. A couple have come through central Asia, taken public transport to Lhasa (not allowed to ride into Tibet) then ridden to Nepal. I also met a Dutch lady walking from Holland to Tibet!

Since my last visit here there have been many changes, mostly for the better. Though there is still a big military & police presence, they are not cowering behind sandbags awaiting a possible Maoist attack. Everything on the surface appears very much back to normal. Mobile phones have taken the country by storm, and almost everyone seems to have them – great for a country that could never afford the infrastructure of land lines. An increasing number of Nepalis are working overseas, especially in the Middle East. I know people who have wives/sisters working in Israel as nurses or husbands in Iraq as security guards. I met one man recently returned from the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad after 4 and 1/2 years, another back on holiday from his job with KFC in the United
Arab Emirates.

Though I’ve taken plenty of photos, lack of access to something approaching broadband speed means that I probably won’t be able to add anything to my photo website for some time.



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