Travel friend updates

A travel blog and update from a fellow traveller and friend. Hope you find interesting.
Will be back on the road myself this summer. Somewhere in Europe. Tony The Traveller.

photos (Nepal, India, Thailand) are now up on my website:
I have added some maps showing the routes covered by bike (in black) and on foot in Nepal (black & yellow).

I left Ilam early morning in the middle of November, cruising down to the Mai Khola river, then beginning the long, steep climb on the other side. One of the great things about the mountain roads in eastern Nepal is the relative lack of traffic. It means that however steep the road becomes, you can reduce the steepness of the slope by zig-zagging from side to side, keeping up your momentum and not getting overly-tired. The small wheels on my folding bike were particularly suited to this, even with panniers. It took me 2 days to reach the Indian border, where I made a fast return trip to Siliguri to book rail (sleeper) tickets to Varanasi and Delhi. It was a good move as there were few berths remaining. Once you have experience of travelling overnight without
a reservation in a packed (and I mean PACKED) unreserved carriage, it takes a true masochist to want to do it again!

The last 15 kms. into and out of Siliguri were the most unpleasant I can recall on a bike – dusty, noisy, bumpy on the awful road, and probably a bit dangerous, given the quality of Indian driving. There are many pleasant places to cycle in India, but they are all well away from population centres. Once back in Nepal I had a long ride to Dharan along the flat (easy) but interesting road through the Terai (plains area). Dharan is a fairly large town, due mainly to the fact that it was one of the two (Pokhara is the remaining one) recruiting centres for Nepali soldiers to join the Gurkha regiments of the British army. After India became independent, the majority of the Gurkhas were transferred to the Indian Army, but recruitment to the British army continued. The old army camp is now a huge hospital. Another legacy of British involvement is the road to Dhankuta and Hile. By a long way it is the finest mountain road in the country – superbly engineered, well maintained (thanks to ongoing funding from the UK), wide, and safe. It probably has more sturdy concrete crash barriers than the whole of the rest of the country. All it lacks is views of snow-capped mountains, though the foothill scenery is superb.

For the next few days I had some serious climbing, with night-time temperatures at Basantapur close to freezing. Here I left the bike, as the road beyond is still being constructed, and is either very dusty, very muddy, or too bumpy to ride with a load without suspension. I walked to Chainpur, in my opinion the most beautiful village in Nepal. Due to it’s location it has changed little since Toni Hagen – a Swiss geologist who spent much of his life working in the country, and who wrote the first ‘coffee-table’ large-format book with many colour photos – visited. It produces reputedly the highest quality metal (brass and bronze) vessels in the country – all hand made, though sadly this skill is not being taken up by a younger generation that is more interested in the bright lights of Kathmandu.

Now that the road has arrived, jeeps have already begun to break up the stone slabs that have served the populace well for hundreds of years. A few motorbikes race along narrow trails, and trucks will soon bring cement, as beautiful old buildings will be torn down to be replaced by ugly concrete ones. Nepal’s current UNESCO World Heritage Sites are:
Kathmandu Valley (1979),
Lumbini, the Birthplace of the Lord Buddha (1997),
Royal Chitwan National Park (1984), and
Sagarmatha National Park (1979).
Chainpur would make a unique addition.

Having made the long and steep walk there in a single day, arriving well after dark, I took a jeep part of the way back to avoid some serious climbing. I spent a few days in Dhankuta, the capital of Nepal’s Eastern Zone (there are 5 zones), which has been fortunately by-passed by the highway and is a delightful
town, sprawling along a steep ridge.

It took 3 days to ride from Dharan back to Ilam, the second (and toughest) one particularly pleasant as there was a nationwide strike, and the road was virtually deserted. Unfortunately most of the tea-shops were closed, but I managed to find a couple where I could get a much-needed brew. I spent a few days in Ilam, including an overnight walk, then rode the bike north to Phidim & back. This offered fine views of Kangchenchunga, the world’s 3rd highest mountain, some memorable climbs, and descents that had the rims of my wheels getting so hot from braking that I had to make frequent ‘cooling’ stops.

I spent a few days at my old school in Ilam, visited old friends to say goodbye, then packed the bike into its case and travelled to Kalimpong, in the Himalayan foothills in India. After a couple of relaxing days I was able to take a bus direct to the railway station outside Siliguri for my direct overnight train
to Varanasi.

Varanasi is the centre of Hinduism in India, and is claimed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet (see
I left almost everything at the station’s ‘left-luggage’ office to be collected on my departure. Indian traffic has become so horrendously unpleasant that for me many activities are spoiled; you can’t even enjoy a roadside ‘cuppa’ with the incessant blaring of horns at near pain-threshold level. What makes Varanasi especially pleasant is that most of the ‘sights’ are along the Ganges river, i.e. no traffic noise! It is at its most atmospheric at dawn when pilgrims come to bathe in the holy (if rather dirty) water. Just after sunset the are a number of elaborate prayer ceremonies at the more important ghats, which are a visual feast. I have a number of movie clips to put together when I get the time, but I’m sure you can find others with a search on Youtube. Thanks to a decent breeze and some vehicle emission controls, Delhi was slightly less polluted than I remember – that’s if you ignore noise pollution! I didn’t do much except eat well (I was there on Xmas Day) and buy a few souvenirs.

After India, Thailand seemed so civilised. Hardly anybody uses their vehicle horn, and motorists generally gave me a wide berth when they passed. Leaving most of my things in a guesthouse in Ayutthaya (the old Thai capital a little north of Bangkok) I took a train up to Nong Khai on the Mekong River from where I began my cycling. After Nepal, it was a piece of cake, except for some occasional headwinds. Instead of slogging up huge hills and hurtling down into steep valleys, you get into a nice rhythm and just cruise along for a couple of hours at a time. It’s hard to get decent tea in Thailand, so my breaks usually consisted of ice-cream & water, with a couple of beers at the end of the day. Quite frankly, much of the scenery is uninspiring, but the riding, on the wonderfully smooth roads, is great. I always found somewhere decent to stay, even in places where I thought there might not be a guesthouse or hotel, due of lack of anything to attract tourists. The local food, as always, was superb, but it was still hard to put all those calories back on! A pleasant surprise was the unexpectedly cool weather, especially close to the Mekong where winter winds blew constantly generally from the north-east. Locals sometimes wore woollen hats & gloves in the mornings, and the riverside restaurants were deserted during the evenings.

Payback time came when I arrived back in Sydney to one of the hottest spells of summer weather for a long time. It felt like I had expected Bangkok to be. The day before I flew back, the Thai capital had a maximum of 26 degrees. On my first weekend in Sydney almost every suburb passed 40 degrees! A week later Adelaide and Melbourne were up to the mid-forties.

Having bought a van, I’ll now be heading west to Bathurst where I lived for many years, then down to southern NSW in a couple of months. Back to the UK in June.

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