14 Dec Trip Diary – Nepal – Part 1
Nepal was high on my list of ‘must visit’ countries. Having developed a passion for climbing and mountaineering at a young age and spending my late teenage years and most of my twenties traveling around Europe’s crags and mountains, teaching the sport as I went, it’s probably not surprising that our planet has varied and beautiful landscapes. Mountains hold a very special place in my heart as mountain landscapes don’t come more beautiful or majestic, more impressive or vast, more awe-inspiring or captivating than those of Nepal. Or so I’d heard. As I crossed the border from India, leaving the noise and enchanting chaos of the country behind, I couldn’t wait to get my first glimpse of Nepal’s share of the mighty Himalayas.
I entered into Nepal at the Sunauli/Bhairahawa border crossing. As with the majority of country borders, not much appeared to be different from the country I’d just left. As I collected my visa stamp from the small but rather charming immigration office (complete with a flowered garden and a quaint wooden terrace), the noise, heavy traffic, pollution, and general chaos that had accompanied me throughout India persisted overwhelmingly around me. After more than three weeks of cycling in one of the world’s most populated countries on some of the most dangerous roads I’ve ever encountered, I had little appetite to hang around and wasted no time in peddling out of there and on towards my first destination, the city of Butwal.
It took me the best part of my first day in the country to reach Butwal, a bustling city that marks the boundary between the flat and intensively farmed Terai region that forms most of southern Nepal and that of the Pahad region, where the land begins to rise up, giving a gentle prelude to the Himal region beyond. The highway that had brought me into the city was almost entirely under reconstruction with long swathes of road dug up or reduced to sandy narrow corridors that forced the relentless southbound traffic to share the same few meters of dirt road with traffic heading northwards. For hour after hour, I bumped along, rarely exceeding ten kilometres an hour and constantly being forced to swerve out of the way of the construction trucks and cargo lorries that barrelled towards me, spewing up a thick cloud of dust and diesel fumes as they passed. For all the difference, I could well have still been in India. The same can be said of Butwal. With its busy and noisy streets, dense population, and a labyrinth of back alleys crammed full of hotels and hostels, gift shops, and street food vendors, it felt like the Nepal I had come to see, the one of open space, silence, and natural beauty, was still a long way off.
So it was quite a surprise when early next morning as I rode north out of the city on my way to my next destination of Pokhara, things began to improve rapidly. The landscape changes as abruptly as the city finishes, rising gently up and replacing the familiar farmland scenery with rolling pine covered hills, rocky gorges, and rivers of fast moving turquoise water. The noise was confined what was immediately around me. The deep, twisting water-formed gorge the road follows acts as a marvellous barrier against the sounds of the traffic and it wasn’t long before I was riding in silence, apart from the sounds of nature. I was surprised too, after so much time on flat roads, how easy I was finding the uphill cycling. Things were starting to look up.
Back under canvas
There was also another reason I was excited about getting to Nepal. It meant a return to how I love to spend my nights: camping. India had proved pretty impossible when it came to finding somewhere to camp and for weeks now I had longed to be back in the tent. With a much lower population than India and a wealth of outdoor space now appearing around me, camp spots became easy to find and beautiful to boot. The feeling of being back in the tent was so good, the scenery so beautiful, and the peace and tranquility so appealing that I cut most days short and started looking for a place to sleep much earlier than I normally would, just so I could enjoy all the simple pleasures that come with wild camping that I had dearly missed.
Every day on my ride to Pokhara, I passed through small towns and picturesque villages perched on the hills or clinging to the rocky outcrops. One aspect that struck me early on was the notable police and army presence there was in every town. Each town featured a fortified road block at each end and occasionally much more in the bigger settlements. It struck me as rather strange for what seemed to be a very peaceful part of the world to live until I remembered that the country was in the middle of local and national political elections and the army had been drafted in to ensure things ran smoothly in even the smallest villages. Never once was I stopped or questioned, and guards smiled and waved me through in that typically happy manner that the Nepalese possess. I’d later find out that, within hours of my crossing from India, the border closed for three days to aid the process. I’m really rather thankful I made it across. Being stuck in Sunauli would not have been fun.
Only on one of the three days it took me to reach Pokhara did I struggle to find a camping spot. On this evening, the highway (a rather inappropriate term for such a potholed dirt road no wider than a country lane back home) clung to the side of the hill with an alarmingly steep drop down to the river on my right and a sheer wall of rock on my left preventing me from finding anywhere flat to pitch the tent. As darkness fell, I was still searching without much luck. I pulled over and was passed by a middle-aged man on his moped. That in itself wasn’t all that strange and I took little notice until he screeched to a stop fifty or so meters ahead of me, made a sharp u-turn in the manner only people from this part of the world can (i.e without looking and perilously close to the crumbling edge), and pulled up alongside me. “Heading to Pokhara?” he asked in perfect English. “Yes,” I replied, now blinding the man unintentionally with my headlamp. “Well, you got a way to go and these roads aren’t fun at night so if you wanna stop for the night and camp,” he said pointing at the tent on my bike, “I know a great spot just round the corner.” Ten minutes later, and after ascending up a steep and easily missed sidetrack, I was sitting on a small bench on top of a grassy knoll under the sprawling branches of a huge ancient tree overlooking the valley below, marvelling at how lucky meeting with this guy was. I’d never have found the place without him.
A welcome morning break
The next morning, as I was packing my tent, he returned with a bag full of oranges and bananas along with an invite to visit his cafe and farm that lay just across the road. With a relatively short ride of 50km remaining until Pokhara, I readily agreed and spent the morning tasting his own farm-grown coffee along with bananas, oranges, pineapples, and grapes freshly plucked from his trees. As a parting gesture, he made the most delicious mushroom curry from ingredients we picked together from his hillside farm. It was a remarkable and unexpected start to the day. Sitting under the wooden terrace of his farmhouse, with the large and thick banana tree leafs lazily blowing in the wind around our heads and with views of the densely forested hills shrouded in mist, it became very obvious just why the Nepalese are so happy. Nepal really is beautiful and I hadn’t even glimpsed the mountains yet.
And then they were there
Later that day, I got my first sighting of what I’d come to see. In front of me, the remaining hills that barred the way to Pokhara began to recline in height and peaking over the top, like soldiers standing to attention, rose three snow-capped mountains with wisps of cloud pouring from their summits. I pulled off the road and stared at the horizon, mouth agape. There they were. After almost 11,000km of cycling, the Himalayas now began to rise up in front of me. I don’t mind admitting, I definitely got something in my eye.
Back to the city
That evening found me in Pokhara, Nepal’s largest city in terms of area and second largest in population after its capital, Kathmandu. Pokhara is a vast and sprawling city situated on the glacier Fed and very pretty Phewa Lake in central Nepal. I was heading to the lake’s eastern shore, known as the Lakeside District and likely the first place most visitors head to. The entire length of the three kilometre long road that runs along the lake here is undoubtedly touristy, with a huge array of hotels and hostels, shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and bars to suit all budgets and is known to derail many a backpacker’s plans of moving on. The vibe, I was later informed by a Canadian man in his early twenties, is “just too strong, man.”
After finding my hostel at the far end of the lake and checking in, it was already beginning to get late, so I chose an early night. Which brings me to today, sat by the lake under the early morning sunshine in a cafe with a coffee in hand, finishing up this blog and starting my plans for my Christmas escape. After India, I’m in need of some time out, for lack of a better expression. The noise, pollution, traffic, and overwhelming attention I received everywhere I went is still whirling around my head and I am desperate to get up into the mountains and find some peace and quiet in an attempt to reset my brain.
And, after a bit of research, I think I have found the perfect two-week jaunt up into the Himalayas that will do just that. For now, I’m playing my cards close to my chest as to what exactly it is, but I” share my plans when I know they’re possible. I really cannot wait to see these magnificent mountains up close.
This blog post covers trip dates from the 9th – 14th December 2017