05 Feb Trip Diary -Nepal Part 2
With my Christmas adventure into the Himalayas and the overwhelming feelings I’d been carrying since India have now been replaced with the calm and serenity from being in Nepal’s mighty mountains.
I felt terrible within a day of my return to Pokhara from the Annapurna Circuit. On top of feeling exhausted, it’s fair to say I well and truly fell out with my body. I’m not sure if it was some sort of after effect from the altitude, as some people I had spoken to had suggested, or the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had. I’d been dreaming of a meal that wasn’t instant noodles or pasta ever since I started my descent from the Annapurna Circuit and wasted no time on my return to the city in getting one. I chose a restaurant I had eaten previously at-a small back alley local affair-mainly because the portions were big and cheap. Whatever it was it that turned my stomach in knots pretty much confined me to my hostel bed for five or six days. I can’t stand just lying around even when unwell; my brain says move, go explore, do something, but my body refuses to obey and it drives me crazy.
Once I felt strong enough or, more accurately, brave enough to be more than ten feet from the bathroom, I started my plans to leave the city. After it’s punishing time in the Himalayas, the bike needed a bit of love. The brakes were completely shot from the 4,000m+ descent and had worn practically down to the metal. Only a whisper of rubber remained on two of them and the cables that connect them had become stretched and almost useless. Tracking replacements down proved far harder than I’d thought given the popularity of cycling here, but I eventually found what I needed and spent almost an entire day fixing, cleaning, and inspecting the bike. By the time I finished and took a quick spin around the city, she was feeling like new. Throughout this journey, I’ve been constantly surprised and amazed at just how strong and resilient this bike is. The mountains really gave it a battering beyond anything I thought it could handle but she shrugged it off, for now at least. The next day after a quick stop off at the local supermarket for supplies, I rode out of the city on my way to my next destination, Kathmandu.
Back on the road
It took me three days to reach Nepal’s capital some 220km further east. After two weeks of bumping and bouncing my way over some of the worst trails I’ve ever been on, I was in no mood for more so choose to stick to the highway in the hope of a smoother ride. For the most part, that’s what I got, although I did encounter long sections of unpaved and potholed nastiness, especially for the first 20km. As I’ve said before, highway is a very loose term for such a road; in Nepal, it generally just means it’s likely to be asphalt but will always be narrow with little in the way of a hard shoulder and inevitably chock full of colourful trucks and fast jeeps. Nevertheless, the scenery was beautiful.
I spent both my nights camping close to the road. As I’d expected, camp spots were not easy to find. As the road carves it’s way through a steep valley, the constant roar of the river that created it was always on my left. Any natural flat spots I came across were usually snapped up for farmland or houses but with a bit of exploring I was able to hide away amongst the trees on both nights. After the Himalayas, it was nice to be back camping in temperatures the right side of freezing.
Hills, what hills!
As Kathmandu sits at an elevation of around 1,400m, I knew I’d encounter a few hill climbs before I reached the capital. The final climb to the city is a long one that zigzags up a hill covered in pine trees and seemed to last forever. However, I was surprised how easy I found it. I managed to pedal, albeit at less than 8kmph, on the last climb for over an hour without a single break, something I doubt I’d have been able to do a month ago. Cycling in the Himalayas has obviously done me some good. I’d become used to the bike having only half it’s usual weight, having ditched most for the circuit attempt, but now it was back at the full weight it and felt much heavier than I remembered. I guess after those mountains, any hill climb was bound to feel easy!
Rolling through Kathmandu itself wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. I’d been warned by many friends who had cycled in the city that it’s crazy busy and the roads super dangerous. Both statements are true, but it’s nowhere near as bad as New Delhi or, to be honest, India as a whole. After those experiences, Kathmandu felt positively calm. Although Kathmandu is the biggest city in Nepal in terms of population, it’s smaller in size than Pokhara so it didn’t take me too long to find my host’s house in the district of Bhatbhateni, not far from the city center.
Cycling 150 countries in 11 years
My host for the first few days, Pushkar, is well known in the cycle touring world having spent 11 years (yep, you read that right!) cycling around the world himself, visiting an astonishing 180 countries. He’s also summited Everest along with many other audacious achievements so as you can imagine, he’s a very interesting guy to spend an evening talking to. His house is full of plaques, awards, and memorabilia from his many adventures and I spent many an hour sifting through his documented lifetime travels.
Kathmandu had been my last known stop before I needed to sit down and work out how I was to reach my final destination, Bali, Indonesia. I always knew from my time spent planning the trip back in the UK that the next few thousand kilometres were going to be difficult logistically . The main problem I faced on leaving Nepal was the troublesome border that stood in my way that I would have to find a way across if I was to continue east by bike. That was the border of western Myanmar.
Making a plan
Two crossing points looked possible, one in India and one in Bangladesh. The one in India, from what I could tell, is either closed completely, closed to foreigners or in the words of one particular website, “maybe open – maybe not”. I also saw reports that if/when it is open, it’s only possible for foreigners to cross as part of an expensive organised tour. It seemed that up-to-date information is nigh on impossible to find and as I really couldn’t afford to become trapped, for reasons of visa length etc., or forced on an expensive tour, I quickly ruled this one out.
That left me with the one in Bangladesh. At first, it looked to be a possibility but soon I was finding multiple reports telling of frequent closures for an unpredictable amount of time and for any number of reasons. There were also two more downsides to this crossing: Bangladesh has seen over 600,000 Rohingya people arrive in the country fleeing persecution from the northern Rakhine province of Myanmar, most of whom are now being housed in camps close to the city of Chittagong or in the surrounding area to the north and very close to the border I wanted to cross into Myanmar. I soon learned that this caused the region to become unstable and I read many accounts from foreigners finding themselves in trouble in the region. The UK Government’s travel advise website, not always to be believed judging on my past experiences but a good starting point nonetheless, now advised against all travel to this area. Things at this border were now not looking very positive.
Time to commit
If I’m honest, I spent my first few nights in Kathmandu pretty restlessly, thinking over and over about how I’d cycle into Myanmar. Id tell myself I’d go for it only to wake in the morning completely unsure again. It wasn’t getting me anywhere. After three days in the city and many hours spent in cafes wrestling with dodgy WiFi connections, I was still just as unsure about cycling east as I was when I arrived here. Then I thought about Myanmar itself and why this decision was so hard in the first place and if it is a place I really want to visit right now. When I approached the question from this angle, it didn’t take long for me to make up my mind.
The United Nations described the military offensive in Rakhine, which provoked the exodus, as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and it’s been called the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. Myanmar’s military says it is fighting Rohingya militants and denies targeting civilians despite the countless harrowing stories coming out of the refugee camps telling a very different story. Whatever is happening, 600,000+ people don’t just up and leave for no good reason. This made me think whether I really wanted to give my hard earned and limited cash in the form of a visa payment to a government that has attracted widespread condemnation from around the globe in response to its approach to the Rohingya people and the unfolding crisis. I’d heard and read lots about Myanmar, a country with beautiful landscapes and awash with friendly people always ready to help, but for now, I think I’ll give it a miss.
With that decision came the realisation that if I’m not going through Myanmar then I’ve only really got one option open to me. I’m going to have pack up the bike up again and take the short flight out of Nepal over Myanmar and into Thailand. I didn’t really want to fly because the whole idea of this trip was to cycle as much as I can, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Before I began this trip, I knew it was highly likely I’d be deviating from my plan for a whole host of reasons, but this was the first time in almost 11,000kms that a political situation and ultimately, a moral one, had forced me off track.
Within 24 hours, I had my plane tickets booked and was busy searching the city for a bike box and going through the usual rigmarole of getting the bike ready for its flight in just two days time. Had I packed everything? Was I going to be under my weight limit? Had I ditched all the petrol from my stove? And then the nagging thoughts of every bicycle tourer who flies with their bike began to creep in. Will the bike make it okay? What if it gets damaged or lost in transit? How the hell am I gonna get all this stuff to the airport? I hate flying with my bike.
Time to fly
All too fast, the day of my flight, the 1st of February, came around. With the help of a few other bike tourers who had joined me at my host’s house, I dragged the big cardboard box that contained my bike and another two bags along the busy street to try and hail a taxi that was big enough to transport me and my worldly possessions. Twenty minutes later, after one last tea with friends, I stood rather helplessly watching as my bike was hauled on top of the smallest taxi I’ve ever seen and roughly tied down to the roof rack that was missing most of its fixtures. Cramming myself into the back seat and with an arm stuck out the window in a vain attempt to keep the bike from sliding off the roof, my singing driver sped off leaving my friends waving in a cloud of dust and I was on my way to the airport.
Things actually went pretty smooth once I got inside the main terminal building. After a little, how can I say, misunderstanding with my taxi driver (he wanted to charge me double the agreed price) was sorted out, I bid him farewell. As I was three hours early for my flight, I was surprised to find check-in was open. This meant I didn’t need to lug the big bike box around and I was soon left just walking around the airport carrying just my hand luggage. An hour later, I’d passed security and just before 2pm I was walking across the runway and boarding my flight. As the plane roared to life down the runway and took to the skies, I watched Nepal disappear below me; it’s mightily Himalayas were the last piece of its beautiful landscape to finally succumb to the clouds. Flying is not so bad when it goes this smoothly.
So what’s the plan?
In total, I spent just under two months in Nepal but I could have spent a whole lot longer. It’s such a beautiful country and the people are truly wonderful, especially those you encounter in the countryside and the mountains. One day I’ll return, I’m sure, but I think I’ll leave the bike at home next time.
So what about the rest of plan for Asia and getting to Bali? Well, I want to try and make up for the fact I had to fly and rejoin my original route as soon as possible. This will mean that once in Bangkok, I’ll be heading north, the complete opposite than if I’d crossed in from Myanmar. Once I reach northern Thailand, I’ll head east and ride over the border into Laos, followed by a long ride down the length of Vietnam and then into Cambodia, which will bring me back into Thailand and see me cruising past Bangkok once again where I will head south. I’ll then have just two countries remaining in Asia before I find a way across to Australia, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
As for the exact details, I’m still unsure but I don’t like to plan too much anyway. It’s much more enjoyable to just see where the road takes me and this loop through Southeast Asia looks stunningly beautiful and I’m looking forward to some sunshine. I wonder how long it’ll take before I’m wishing for the cold again?
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