Coming Down the Mountains

With the after-effects of that dodgy high-altitude chicken masala still haunting me as I rolled out of Kathmandu, I could have been forgiven for taking it a bit easy on the way back down to the plains.

So I did.

There’s no point in hammering yourself when you’re not 100%, and I’d lost a lot of energy.

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Nepal’s not the most difficult country if you want to slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery.  After just a few kilometres of gentle climbing on the main drag out of Kathmandu on Monday, I tipped over the pass (above), and had about 1400 metres of altitude to drop off before flattening out on the approach to the Indian border.

It’s not quite as easy as it sounds.  I was still in the Himalayas, after all.  So although there was all that height to drop, there were still quite a few climbs to deal with as the road contoured around valley sides and gorges.

And, despite being foothills, these are not exactly small.  Hopefully, you can get an idea of the scale from the size of the bike in the picture below.

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Given their proximity, and close economic ties, Nepal and India don’t seem to have a great deal in common.  Nepal loses on economic development (apparently, although it doesn’t feel any poorer than India), but wins on scenery, cleanliness, mobile internet access, traffic levels, chocolate availability, driving skills (marginally), the general level of English spoken, having bikes with gears, and having pavements to walk on in town.

But there is one area where both countries are on a par.  Unannounced, unsignposted, major roadworks.  As I headed down to Bharatpur on Tuesday, I suddenly hit a roadblock.  Loads of irate locals, trucks, buses and all, piled up at a barrier.  There’s only the one road to Bharatpur, so this was a bit of an issue.

It turns out that the highway is shut in both directions from 11 until three every day.  At three, the traffic tsunami at each end is released to smash together somewhere in the middle.  Probably right where the roadworks are.  This didn’t seem like a great idea.  Fortunately, after discussing with a few locals (and promising to carry a couple of them on the back of the bike – I think this was a joke), the fierce guardian of the gate agreed that it would be a tad dangerous to be caught up in the three o’clock stampede.

So I got to ride the valley road pretty much by myself.  This was good, because it was a rather nice valley to ride:

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After Bharatpur, it was more-or-less back to flat country.  Yesterday (Wednesday) gave me a chance to see if I’d fully recovered from the stomach bug, as I put in the first 100 km ride for a while to bring me to the border.  It went OK, although I still don’t think my energy levels are quite back to where they were.

Just one last big hill, which gave me one last Himalayan downhill to smile about as I headed onto the plain, in company with some of the many bicycle commuters of southern Nepal.

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Today is another rest, and a chance to refuel and look forward to heading back to India.  A few more decent roads and a little less dust than the eastern side of the country provided would be a good start.  And I’m going to give them one more chance to sort me out with mobile internet.

With the Taj Mahal and Delhi on the route for the next section, there should be a good chance for India Part 2 to improve significantly on Part 1.

Assuming the border presents no more problems than it did on the way into Nepal, I’ll start to find that out tomorrow…

Rocky Roads

It’s about 30 miles from Hetauda to Kathmandu.

That’s in a straight line, obviously.  Which is probably why someone invented helicopters.  Because by road, on a bike, it proved to be a bit of an ordeal.  On several levels.

A lot more than 30 miles.  A lot of climbing.  A lot of extra effort occasioned by more Google Map deficiencies.  A nice bit of food poisoning.  And a slightly scary ride in a 4×4 (I know that’s cheating, but read the circumstances before you judge me!).  All these good things were squeezed in before I finally got the chance to have a look around Kathmandu today (Saturday).

The helicopter would have done it all in a few minutes with none of the drama.  But that would be to miss all the fun, I suppose.

I’d better start at the start.  With the climbing…

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There are a few hills in Nepal, as you might be aware.  The climbing started pretty much immediately as I left Hetauda on Wednesday.  To get to Kathmandu from there, you need to clear the ‘small’ front range of the Himalayas.  Which means you just have to ride straight up the main road to the pass.

‘Up’ is the operative word here.  The pass is at nearly 2500m, and it took all day for me to crawl the 50 kms to the top.  I was taking it relatively easy, given that it’s by far the single biggest hill that I’ve tacked loaded, and also given the altitude.  I’ve not been near those heights since the Rockies.

Plus, I was heading to the most over-priced accommodation I’ve yet stayed in on the whole trip.  And it was just a mile over the top of the pass.  So getting up there at dusk was fine.  I was quite pleased with the day as a whole.

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It was dark by the time I got to my room for the night.  The temperature dropped like a stone as soon as the sun set, and there was frost all over the bike by the time I headed for dinner, wrapped up in my down jacket.

Dinner was a little disappointing (at the time I ate it – it became progressively more disappointing over the next two days), and, despite the sub-zero temperatures outside, there was no heating in the room.  I spent the rest of the evening tucked up in bed, alternating between watching TV and watching my breath condense in the air inside the room.  And wondering why I’d been stupid enough to stump up $60 for one night’s B&B in this hole.

There was a rationale to the madness, but it wouldn’t become apparent until morning.

When it did, it looked like this:

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There aren’t that many places in the world where you can get a view like that.  The high Nepalese Himalayas rolled out across the horizon.  A pretty stunning start to the day.

And, of course, starting Thursday at 2400 metres high, with my finishing point being Kathmandu at only around 1200 metres, meant that it would be pretty much all downhill from there.

It was.  Just not quite in the way I expected.

My stomach was feeling a little iffy in the morning, but that was soon forgotten in the plunge down into the valley.  There was just one decision to make on the way down the hill; which way to go over the smallish last ridge before the capital.  The eighty-odd kms and bit of climbing on the main road.  Or Google Maps’ preferred option, the sixty kms and a bit more climbing via the northern tip of Lake Markhu.

Twenty-odd extra kilometres vs 100 metres of extra climbing.  Main road or lake view?  Got to be the shorter route, hasn’t it?  Smaller road, so less traffic.  Probably nicer views.  Less distance on the highway into town at the end.  And, of course, it’s where Google advises you to drive your car, so the road must be reasonable, mustn’t it?

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One question.  What on Earth are you thinking, Google?  This is not even a road.  It’s a track.  A particularly rough track, too, I can say with the benefit of painful experience.  A rough track that reduced me to walking pace.  I should have stuck to the main road.  Google should have told me to stick to the main road; it’s clearly farcical to suggest that this goat track could be quicker than 20 extra kilometres of tarmac, whatever vehicle you’re using.

And whatever state you’re in.  My already incredibly slow progress up the goat track was shortly brought to a shuddering halt by an urgent call of nature.  My first emergency, al-fresco, number two since I was a student.  Not great given that I was already going to struggle to make Kathmandu by dark.  But at least the lake was pretty.

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I was feeling weak by three-thirty.  Roughly two-and-a-half hours of daylight left.  A three hundred metre climb on sand and rock immediately ahead.  Followed by a thousand metre decent on the same surface.  No prospect of making more than seven or eight kph either up or down.  A policeman who said that all the transport out to Kathmandu was gone for the day.  This could be a big problem.

The hill was unrideable on a loaded bike.  I began pushing, knowing it was hopeless; there was no way I was making it to town, and more importantly (I have a tent, after all), to a toilet, by nightfall.  This was going to get messy.  Literally.

Then, miraculously, I heard a diesel engine behind me.  It was a 4×4 pickup truck.  The kind that are often shared taxis hereabouts.  I waved.  He stopped.  I looked.  Two in front, three in the back seat, two in the load area already.  Was there space?  It would be touch and go.

A couple of minutes later, I was in.  I didn’t argue about the price.  It didn’t matter.  We rattled off up the hill, not a huge amount faster than I was pushing, but definitely a bit.  Me in the back seat with three others (a bit tight, to be fair), the Beastlet in the load area along with the two other guys.  I’d got the last spot.  I was happy.

I was right to be happy, but wrong to think I’d got the last spot.  By the time we reached journey’s end at the highway, we’d picked up a lad with a broken leg (he’d fallen off the road on his scooter, probably down to believing Google again), and three girl hikers who weren’t going to make it down before dark.  So as we slithered down an increasingly muddy track towards town, the pickup contained 13 people, one bike, and a couple of crates of what might have been fish.  Remarkable.

I’ll cut the rest of this (mercifully) short.  I got out of the truck, and pedalled for my life towards town.  I made it to the hotel in Kathmandu with about ten minutes to spare before intestinal armageddon.  I spent yesterday (Friday) shuttling between bedroom and bathroom so frequently that I wore a groove in the floor.

And today, I resorted to the nuclear medicine option, which seems to be holding things together for now.  So I went for a stroll around Kathmandu.  A beautiful city, which still bears a lot of the scars from the recent catastrophic earthquake.

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Sadly, while there are only a few signs of damage elsewhere, the historical centre took a proper battering.  Many of the old buildings are unsafe, and nearly all are propped up with scaffolding.  Some of the stupas have been reduced to their foundations.  It’s sad, because it’s still impressive.  And it’s hard to imagine how much more so it must have been before the quake.

Visiting the scene of an event like that certainly puts my issues into perspective.  It might have been a ‘challenging’ few days for me, but nothing genuinely awful actually happened.  Nobody died.

And, assuming that the medicine keeps working, I’ll be back on the road tomorrow.  No doubt finding something else to moan about, but actually loving riding a bike in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.

It’s safe to say that things could be a lot worse…