Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In the shade of the Banyan Tree.

In the shade of the Banyan tree.
An unmitigated disaster? Or a mini-adventure!

The start of a mini-adventure. The teashop at Mudkhu.

If you have no real grasp of irony, satire, or downright sarcasm this piece may not be worth continuing with. If however you are blessed with a certain sense of humour then feel free to enjoy.

Much of it was written "on the fly" and some of it was written post-ride each day so I apologise in advance for the mix of past and present tense. I've cleaned it up as best I can. And also for the mix of imperial (miles) and metric (kilometres) here and there, in Nepal they use kilometres but my Garmin GPS is set to record miles and I haven't bothered to change it over.

Day 1 - Monday 3rd February.

I left Kathmandu at 11.30am, bound ultimately for Manang, a beautiful town in the shadow of The Annapurna's.
The four mile ride to Mudkhu was harder than the usual easy spin carrying an extra 14 or 15kgs of backpack! I stopped for tea at Mudkhu knowing I had some big climbs ahead. It was going to be good strength training for the old legs.

The climb to Kakani was long but actually pretty steady as it turned out (on mostly sealed road). I was starting to enjoy the extra power I've developed over the last few weeks of long rides and huge hills. Faster would be even better!

The view from Kakani.

It was the descent, however, which proved to be really exhilarating. It went on and on for who knows how many miles. The leg to Trishuli is about 70kms along the sealed road and I'd guess that the descent was a good 25 of those. Noodling switchbacks one after the other, absolutely fantastic. I had some company after a while. A young couple travelling on a motorbike traded the lead with me. Probably 10km in to the descent he (the rider) gestured to me to stop in a small village and we chatted for a while, drinking a refreshing cup of tea and munching on delicious Chana, egg, and spiced potatoes.

My bike proved to be centre of attention for the local kids as they swarmed around it likes bee's to honey! I had to keep one eye on it before any of them took it for a test ride! (A purely innocent test-ride I might add, not the type that might happen in a major city!)
Rajen and his wife shadowed me for the rest of my ride, courteously honking the motorbikes horn before the blind left-hand hairpins to warn possible oncoming vehicles of our speedy presence.
At the bottom a bridge spanned the river and the road kicked up again for a while, Rajen suggested a rest but I laughed and shouted out "training!". I didn't need a break, in fact I was glad of the pedalling again. The last 15km or so undulated fairly easily across the valley side and I selected the big chain ring and pounded along time-trial style before easing off to an easy spin for the final cruise in to town. In Trishuli I telephoned Aayman (In Kathmandu) and he arranged for Rajkumar to meet me and guide me up to their hotel about a kilometer back up the road. (Rajkumar Shrestha and Roan Tamang were on a training recce for Yak Attack and heading out to Dhading Besi for a mountain bike marathon at the same time). I sat and drank some tea with Rajen, his wife (who's name escapes me now) and his father who had now joined us from his bus journey from Kathmandu. As Rajkumar and I were leaving the teashop and I pushed my bike out on to the road a sleeping dog suddenly jumped and promptly sunk it's teeth through my rear tyre! Ragging it like a rubber toy.
I was dumbstruck! And furious. Of course no one stepped forward to claim ownership of the unruly mutt and my £40 tyre was as deflated as me.
I run the tyres tubeless and fortunately the damage was manageable. Rajkumar whipped off the wheel and we put in my spare inner-tube. I was hopeful that it would last out the duration of my trip, until I could replace it with my spare back in Kathmandu.
The Trishuli Hotel was a nice enough place at $7 a night and we cleaned the bikes in the garden whilst waiting for a spicy portion of Fried Chicken Noodles to replenish our reserves.
Then I relaxed for a while enjoying the warm sunshine and sub-tropical mountain views.

View from Trishuli Hotel.

Roan cleaning his bike after his ride to Trishuli.

In the evening we got together to eat Dhal Bhat before heading off to bed for an early night (Dhal Bhat is the Nepali staple, eaten twice a day, and consists of a lentil soup, rice, a mixture of vegetables (usually spinach, cauliflower, and potatoes), and occasionally curried meat if you can afford the luxury). My ride to Gorkha the following day was going to brutal, 80kms on trail with some huge, relentless climbs; and it would be hot too.

Day 2 - Tuesday 2nd February.

I slept fitfully during the night, the hotel was noisy with chatter until late, and the usual barking dogs were at it all night.
We had Omelette and toast for breakfast and the portion was a little small, I knew that it wouldn't power me for long and that I would need to eat again once we were into the ride.
The first 10kms of the stage were hot, very rough and dusty. Many of the dirt roads in Nepal are armoured with rock to prevent erosion and it makes for difficult and uncomfortable riding; it is hard to maintain a smooth and steady cadence, and it quickly saps your energy. I stopped at a village water tap to refill my bottles.  This year I am carrying an Aquapure Traveller water bottle with a built in filter. Firstly so that I can replenish my bottles at any convenient water source and secondly to reduce both my costs and my environmental impact. Disposable plastic water bottles are having a serious impact in Nepal (and other countries) and I want to be as responsible a traveller as I can.

My water stop on the climb to Samari Bhanjyang.

The 831m climb to Samari Bhanjyang was tougher than expected and it took me a couple of hours to reach there. Raj and Roan had been there for an hour before I arrived. We drank tea and ate Chana (a mixture of spicy beans & peas), whilst I cooled down a little.

Rajkumar and Roan at Samari Bhanjyang.

From here it was a rough descent to the bottom of the valley. Roan suffered a snakebite on the way down (a double puncture caused the the tyre pinching between the rim of the wheel and a rock), Rajkumar stayed with him to assist and I carried on to the bottom knowing that they would catch me up quickly once sorted. I waited at bottom on the edge of a small village. Here, there is a junction in the trail where one way heads down the valley before climbing towards Dhading Besi and the other goes up in the general direction of Gorkha. This is where we were splitting up. (Looking at the race profiles afterwards this could have been my first mistake).

The view from Semjong.

My climb up was massive and I ran out of energy completely. At the top I stopped in a small village called Semjong and bought 8 bananas from a roadside shop, I ate 6 of them straight away! An old villager befriended me and lead me to an adjacent teashop (that also doubled as the village tailors, a woman was working a sewing machine in the corner) where I had some chow mein and a couple of refreshing cups of sweet milky tea. The cockerel sat at the next table didn't seem to mind.
I felt much better after having some lunch, I had my legs back and I had learnt my lesson, I normally eat constantly, about every thirty minutes when racing, but today I had neglected that; thinking that I could stop here and there along the way.

The Teashop/Tailors at Semjong complete with resident Cockerel!
My new found friend at Semjong.
The village store from which I purchased 8 Banana's and ate 6 of them straight away!

I passed out of the village and traversed the ridge for a short while before beginning a seemingly endless descent to a river in the valley floor. And only one crash too, in which I ejected headlong from the bike in to thick dust, missing all of the potentially disastrous rocks. The dust cloud impressed the local children. I dusted myself down and with only a small graze to my leg I remounted and surged off again. The worst part of it was losing my last banana somewhere along the way.

Looking down towards the river.

At the bottom of the valley I reached a confusing junction, the GPS was inconclusive (or, more accurately, my ability to use it was inconclusive!). For a while I had been concerned about the route direction. I managed to get route confirmation from a passing Jeep, which, it later transpired, turned out to be hopelessly wrong! I traded the lead with the Jeep for a good few miles. The Jeep was quicker up the steep climbs but the bike is much faster descending. Eventually the Jeep caught me up on a long, loose, and rocky climb, and I reasserted the direction to Gorkha again. It seemed that they thought I had said Darkha! I was miles out of my way. Fortuitously one of the occupants turned out to be a trekking guide and spoke a little English; his name was Ramchandra Sapkota and he kindly offered for me to stay at his home, so with both the bike and I perched on the roof of the Jeep I hitched a lift up to his village, about half an hour up the trail.

Perched on top of the Jeep.

The barn where dinner was cooked.

Sunset view from Ram's house in Darkha.

At the village school which Ram has helped to build.

The morning view from Darkha.

It was going to be a long ride back to the junction in the morning, when hopefully I could get to Gorkha or maybe even Besi Sahar with any luck.
I spent the evening staring at the stars, spectacular in the clean mountain air. Conversation was minimal due to most of the extended family having no English and my Nepali being no better. We ate Dhal Bhat outside, Ram's wife and sister cooked it over a wood fire in the open barn, next to the goats.
That night I slept Al Fresco on the veranda in my sleeping bag. Not the best nights sleep I've ever had but it is always a simple pleasure to sleep under the stars, something I have done many times.

Day 3 - Wednesday 5th February.

Gorkha today?
Fat chance of that happening! I followed Ram's confident directions back down the valley and then followed the "highway" up a steep dusty climb almost to the top before some guys in a passing truck turned me around; all the way back to the bottom! I picked up the correct road, which didn't look much like a road at all and with ever flagging confidence I pressed on. In the next village three different enquiries revealed three conflicting answers; there was a theme developing here! At the next village I got slightly more encouraging directions from a well dressed guy who spoke reasonable English. It did seem that everyone I asked had a different perspective on time and distance. The next major town, Arughat, was anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours away! It turned out to be somewhere in between.

En-route to Arughat, I think!

It seemed that Gorkha was also getting further away! It was also getting very hot too; so my arrival in Arughat signalled an early finish to the day and I got myself an hotel room for 500nr ($5). I washed my clothes, cleaned the bike, and went for a wander around town. My hotel was pleasant enough but I spotted what looked like a much nicer one across the river in the old part of town. Ho-hum.

High Street, Arughat.

Arughat nestles either side of the river.

After a bit of mental debating I asked the hotel owner if it was possible to take the bus to Gorkha and he offered to arrange a ticket for me. I asked for two, meaning that I should be able to keep my pack with me, instead of it being hoisted up on to the roof of the bus, and hopefully I would have a bit more space.
I really wasn't fancying another disastrous day following wild directions so a bouncy trip on the bus would at least get me there. (I was firmly in the mood to go back to Kathmandu at that moment, if only I knew where I was and how far away it really was!). And besides this the heavy pack was feeling heavier each day and was making my back ache and my bum sore!
Salvation for the day came in the shape of a lovely bunch of golden bananas, I ate a couple and saved the others for tomorrow's journey. I like bananas and they brightened my mood. (It turns out that bananas do actually have this effect! By a strange coincidence I read an article on the benefits of bananas when I got back to Kathmandu).
In the evening the hotelier delighted in serving me traditional Nepali Dhal Bhat, he was so pleased that I didn't mention that I had had it for dinner three days on the trot!
I hit the sack straight after dinner hoping to catch up on some much needed sleep, I was absolutely shattered.

Day 4 - Thursday 6th February.

My bus to Gorkha. Go-anywhere AWD behemoths!

I had a good nights sleep, getting off a little after 8.30pm, I dozed on an off for a couple of hours before getting up about 06.30am.
I had Omelette  and bread again for breakfast, there aren't too many choices out in rural Nepal, before spinning the short distance to the bus pick-up.
The total cost for my accommodation, three meals, and two bus tickets was 1600nr (£10/$16).
I always have a certain dread when seeing my beautiful bike loaded on to the roof of a bus! Especially with the thought of it bouncing around to the tune of every bump in the road, and there are a lot of bumps on the "road" to Gorkha!!
I stuck my earphones in, put on some banging/soothing Trance beats, and turned the volume up to block out my worries.
The 08.00 bus set off in typically prompt "Nepali time" at precisely 08.19am, that's actually not too bad!
The decision to buy two seats was a good one, it was packed. Typically within ten minutes some dude decided to try his luck and move my pack. Not today sunshine! Call me selfish if you will but I'd paid for two seats and I wasn't about to give up the privilege to some chancer with a standing only ticket! Tourists also pay a lot more than nationals in a two-tier ticketing system.
Within an hour came a not unexpected tap-tap-tap on the shoulder. "Sorry dude, two seats" I gestured. "Yes Sir, but..."
I politely gestured "Two seats" again and put my earphones back in quickly, trying not to make further eye contact. Why did I feel so guilty?
10 minutes later tap-tap-tap and a gap-toothed grin looked hopeful.
Yet again I managed to politely fend off another would be pursuer of my comfort zone. Cue more guilty feelings.
The bus rumbled on, picking up and dropping off passengers & goods along the way.
These old buses might look like they've seen better days as they list & loll from side to side but you can't help but admire them, and their remarkable pilots. These all-wheel drive heavyweights can, and do, get anywhere!
Armin van Buuren's "This is what it feels like" came pouring through the earphones blocking out the slightly less pleasurable Nepali pop music the driver had playing on full volume. I replayed it three times and my mind drifted back to a night in November, "The Armin Only - Intense" gig, that I had spent with my dear friends Wilco & Sylvia, Karen, Linda, Marianne, and Diana in Amsterdam's Ziggo Dome. It made me feel wistful, for the company of my old friend.
It also took me back to that first bus journey we took together in Nepal, two years ago; Dave, Wilco, and I. Now I've had some interesting bus journeys on my travels through Asia but nothing comes close to matching that experience, today's trip was a walk in the park compared to that cake-walk! We had set off from Kathmandu in the early morning light heading for Jiri, and the start of our trek to Everest Base Camp. Our $5 bus was less than impressive, a death-trap on wheels with precisely zero tread on any of it's slick tyres. On the way we were delayed in a small town called Khandichour by a local bandha (a strike or blockade) for about six hours. It's all part of the journey though and we hung out in the sunshine drinking tea. Nothing much else we could do.
It was the second part of the journey that got interesting! The driver, clearly wishing to make up for lost time, drove like he was in a James Bond movie and barrelled headlong along precipitous, and dangerous, mountain dirt roads at suicidal speeds; overtaking on the outside, or inside, of bends whenever the chance arose. To make matters worse, for me at least, the spring suspension on the right rear wheel was worn out; right below my seat! My glee from having two seats to myself soon disappeared as every time we careened over a pothole I was shot in to the air, banging my head on the overhead storage shelf and clattering back down onto an increasingly sore posterior. Almost sixteen hours after leaving Kathmandu I was never more pleased to arrive somewhere.
(Back to the present) Gradually I got squeezed in; someone, somehow, managed to prise a bag between my pack and the armrest without me noticing, and an old women slowly wiggled into the space in front of my pack and used it as a seat. I didn't object seeing as I figured we were well in to the journey anyway. And I'm not so mean as to deny an old woman a bit of comfort. She was unfortunately quite pungent however and so I spent the rest of the journey preferring to breath in the dust coming in through the window rather than the acrid aroma wafting from her armpits.
It wasn't too long before I spotted a large town perched on a hilltop in the distance; surely it couldn't be Gorkha already? It was pretty much confirmed when I saw a slither of sealed road winding away down the hillside. The first sealed road since I left Trishuli.

A trifling three and a half hours to Gorkha? It was a miracle!
I had only listened to two and a half albums from The Ministry of Sound - Trance Anthems and I hadn't even got to The Swedish House Mafia!
I left the bus and pedalled up the familiar, steep, main street through Gorkha, looking for another familiar spot; The Gurkha Inn. I've stayed here twice before with The Yak Attack, and although expensive, it is a nice place; with a lovely sun terrace overlooking the valley below.

The Gurkha Inn at Gorkha. Home of the perfect Banana Lassi.

I drank down a delicious Banana Lassi whilst waiting for my lunch to be prepared. It was thick and yoghurty with big chunks of banana in it. I suppose that's the advantage of having them growing in the garden. After lunch I had another!
It was supposed to be my planned rest-day in Besi Sahar today and so I took it anyway. I was pleased that I had taken the bus, it was hot, and would have been a hellish day to have pedalled the thirty or so miles all the way from Arughat. In a few weeks time it will be hotter still. This stage, of Yak Attack, to Gorkha is one of the hardest and I had arrived here on both previous occasions completely wasted. This year will be harder still; the stage has been doubled in length; I genuinely don't know if I have what it takes, in the searing heat, to make the cut-off time.
I now had all day to consider my prospects; should I continue on to Manang or cut my losses and head back to the comforts of Kathmandu?
I was concerned about my rear tyre and the fact that I now had no spare inner-tube. And would I really benefit all that greatly from a few days of altitude acclimation in the freezing cold? In reality you need to spend several weeks up high to see a difference.
I got a little bewitched by Gorkha. It was the first time I had actually had some time to enjoy it. So I did what I like to do best; I wandered. Once away from the gaudy centre of town and the bustling bus park it is a serene place. Ancestral home of The British Gurkha Regiment and a former Royal stronghold. The distant views were obscured by a heavy haze but as I wandered and wound further up the hillside it was still a joy to sit under the shade of a tree, with a gentle breeze fanning my face, and look out at the magnificence of Nepal.
I had only two goats for company, happily munching away at the sun parched grass among the plastic bags and litter that blight this beautiful country.
I also saw a tree that looked like a Brontosaurus! :D

Can you tell what it is yet? The dinosaur tree! :D
My goat companion.

At the very top of my climb sat a small outcrop of rock on which there was placed a semi-circle of upright wooden logs; seats for the weary walker or meditating monk to take in the view.
I perched myself upon one, legs crossed, eyes closed, face into the warming sun; and relaxed. It was quiet up here and as corny is it may sound all I could hear was the sound of excited children, singing and laughing, being carried on the breeze from a nearby school, the tip-tapping of an industrious Nepali working the rock, and the slow rhythm of my breathing. It's doesn't take much to calm the spirit and reset the balance.
As I slowly wound my way back down the hill my decision had been made.

On the way up to the rocky hill-top, and a moment of serenity.

The greatest thing I have learnt about travel, and it has been said many times before, is that is all the more joyous when spent with friends. I am content and happy in my own company but I'm happier still surround by the company of friends, and better still the company of my son Daniel. It was a shame he wasn't here, I think he'd like Nepal.
A little further down I had a new experience. I don't recall ever seeing a goat pissing before; today I saw two! It made me laugh out load. It squirts out of the back end in a long streak.
There are few things more life affirming than a sweet "Namaste" from a small child, I was Namaste'd all the way back into town. Perhaps it was my slight smile, gentle strolling, or calm assuredness who know's?
I've had worse days at work.
Kathmandu it was to be.

The sun setting over the "Banana Garden" at Gorkha.

Day 5 - Friday 7th February.

My 08.30am minibus for Kathmandu rocked up right on time.
My spider senses were tingling when the driver placed a rock under the front tyre to stop the bus rolling away.
Even more so as we rolled fairly gently in a low gear down the hill out of town. He was either scouting for more bums on seats to fill up the bus, was possibly (but unlikely) the only careful driver in Nepal, or we had defective brakes!
We left promptly, once again, at 09.05am Nepali time.
Oh yeah, it was foggy too; with visibility down to about 50m!
Best of all I had the hot-seat, right up the front next to the driver.
I generally prefer mid-row obscurity. At the back you get bounced around a lot more, and at the front you can see what's coming. It's better not to know.
Reassuringly the driver seemed adept at driving one-handed, lucky really considering he spent most of the time with a mobile phone glued to his ear.
Further down the hill we had to stop sharply and I was relieved to find out that the brakes did actually work.
I put my earphones in again, partly for a distraction and partly to drown out the dreadful wailing emanating from the radio. The driver had it so loud that even with my music turned right up I could still hear it! It could prove to be a long day.
My highlights of the excursion to oblivion included the microscopic avoidance of a head on collision with another bus. The old man crossing the road to dump his rubbish in the river whose bag split open depositing his crap all over his shoes and the road, and temporarily halting his fluid progress; he doesn't know how close he came to eluding certain death as we looped an impressive swerve around him.
But my personal favourite, and clearly our drivers particular speciality, was the one-handed, mobile phone conversation, blind-bend, overtaking manoeuvre! Classic.
Amusingly we overtook the same truck four times, due to several short stops, proving wholly that no matter how fast you drive you really don't get there any quicker. The only place your likely to arrive at any earlier, if you believe in that sort of thing, is the afterlife. And I for one aren't quite ready for that yet!
Our man behind the wheel probably fancies himself as a Formula 1 driver. Sadly for him they even have to adhere to rules of the road on a racetrack and so he'd likely never make it from the parking lot. Perhaps he could consider Demolition Derby as a viable alternative?
I elected to evacuate from the bus at the first stop in Kathmandu, preferring to run the gauntlet of city traffic than run the risk of further mental damage at the hands of Ayrton Senna!
And so I cycled gently through the dust choked streets and back in to the welcoming familiarity of Thamel.
And to Friends, Pizza, & Coffee! :)

Going up to Kakani.

Samari Bhanjyang.

The elder in Semjong.

Me with Ram and his son in Darkha.
My hotel in Arughat, nice enough for the price.

Another view of Arughat.

Stairway to Heaven. Gorkha.

An old woman carrying firewood. Gorkha.

A beautiful view of  Gorkha from high up the hillside.

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