Out of Aprica (And How to Cross Switzerland in 90 minutes)

Up into the big hills.  Turn left.  Keep going until you hit the lakes.

That’s pretty much it for the last few days.  After another rain-enforced rest day on Sunday, of course.

Naturally, there’s a bit more to it than that.  These are big hills, after all.  So there’s been over 3000 vertical metres of climbing (around 10,000 ft) in three days.  And a comparable amount of decending.  And boy, is northern Italy beautiful.

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The first and biggest pass was the Passo Tonale, which topped out at 1884 metres.  It’s used fairly regularly by the Giro d’Italia bike race.  The pass itself is ‘only’ 15 kms (9 miles) of fairly hard (6-7%) climbing when coming from the east.

But this ignores the fact that you have to climb nearly a thousand metres just to get to the ‘official’ bottom.  The picture above looks nice an unthreatening, doesn’t it?  But it’s all gently uphill, and the climbing doesn’t stop until you hit those snow-capped peaks at the back of the picture.

Here they are again, a couple of hours later, and a little bit closer:

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Stunning, but ever so hard.  Thankfully, there’s the payback of a nice (but all-too-short) downhill to come.  Once again illustrating that, while headwinds and hills are both hard, hills do, at least, give you something in return for your efforts.  Though I have to say that this would have been more comfortable with working brakes (fixed now!):

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A dip, and another climb to another pass at Aprica. The climb to Aprica is rated (by none other than the arch-villain of cycling, Lance Armstrong) as one of the hardest in Italy.  It certainly looked it, from the sweating faces of the recreational cyclists I flashed past in the other direction.  It’s certainly another contender for ‘downhill of the trip’ as far as I’m concerned.  The brakes were heating up, and the insects dying in droves against the crash helmet once again.

I could feel the temperature increasing as I plunged down.  And, I was dropping quick enough for my ears to ‘pop’ twice before I got to the bottom.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone (though you may want to get the cable car up to the top!).

From the bottom of the Aprica downhill, it was a long, flat valley road to Lake Como.  Quite a different landscape, but still with those big mountains lurking in the background.  There’s nothing like lakes and mountains, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve been cruising around staring at picture-perfect views for a day-and-a-half now.  It makes me very happy.

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And from Como, I’ve managed to cross a country today (Wednesday).  It only took and hour-and-a-half, and some of that was due to traffic problems.  A massive tunnel, a city, and a few kilometres of road near the airport.  And that was it.  There’s a slightly odd-shaped wedge of Switzerland jutting down into Italy around the town and lake of Lugano.  And a gentle ride today, including plenty of coffee stops and chats with other cyclists, took me straight across it.

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I’m now back in Italy (literally by fifty yards).  But don’t worry, I will be giving Switzerland a bit more time on the way home.  I just have to nip across and have a look at the French Alps first…


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…