Saturday, November 29, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Cleaning the bike down for the aeroplane ride back home is always an issue, as Australian customs are especially rigourous if you've cycled through rural areas, and sometimes a good option is to hire a local kid to do the job. However, my room at the hotel has, in the bathroom, a very high-pressured hose next to the loo, with which I was able to blast away every speck of dried mud & grime from the bike frame & tyres. Wow! All hotels should have these as mandatory equipment! (it's so high pressured that I'd not be game to use it for its designated purpose .... you'd end up being hospitalised with internal injuries I'm sure). And yes, the bathroom floor was a little muddy by the time I'd finished.
So while my bike was drying off today I decided to try walking ... doing a loop from here to the massive Red Fort & the Jama Masjid ( a mosque). The route took me along Shardanand/ Shradhanand Road (also known as GB Road) - the red light district. There was little of this in evidence, although one fellow did follow me for a time offering to procure certain services for me. His English was a little hard to follow, but whatever was on offer seemed remarkably cheap. A few women could be seen peering out from the windows above, and there were extremely dubious looking characters hanging around, but otherwise the street seems to specialise in selling pumps & plumbing supplies! Other streets specialise in other products eg paper & stationery supplies in one of the streets I walked back along.
I also note that there's a new sign above the computer here, indicating that they're changing the system to become a "self help Cyber Cafe" just "drop your payment in the box". Before usage, complete your entry in the blue book and "provide photo copy of your passport"! Confusing messages about trust & security here.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
[this place! the guy in the internet room at the hotel here in Delhi just asked to see my passport!! (I told him to nick off...) ... the paperwork to just use the internet here is more extensive than what I was required to complete at Banbasa to enter the country. India!! Gotta love it!]
Day 14 cycling: MAHENDRANAGAR to Bareilly
DST= 120.54km; RTM = 7hrs 15 min; AVS = 16.6km/hr; MAX = 49.6km/hr; cadence = 59rpm
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 1094
How sweet - there's a mouse in my room scuttling across the room from time to time. Oh well, I suppose it can't do me any harm; I'll just have to make sure my last few Parle-G biscuits are well hidden away. Crikey though, it's dark around here when the lights go out. I was coming back from the internet place without my headtorch when the lights went - walking back was quite hazardous as of course the blackout didn't deter any drivers, cyclists or livestock. The headtorch I have is a bit dorky; I'd not really come across them before, but my aunt Jocelyn gave it to me a year or so back for a birthday & I did wonder what the hell I'd do with it, but it's been extremely useful on this trip as it's turned out. It was amusing one evening in Bandipur when the lights went out; all of the half-dozen or so tourists sitting in the guest house restaurant had them on. It was a bit like being at an undergound miners' convention, but you had to be mindful about not stickybeaking at anyone because it'd be obvious, and you'd end up blinding them.
The border was about 16 or so kilometres from Mahendranagar, and after an easy ride I arrived at the Nepalese Immigration Office, a small squat nondescript office at the side of the road where a portly fellow pottered around, pasted a stamp in my passport & then rubber-stamped it, all in a pretty low key way. The road to the next office - Indian Immigration - was a shocking stretch of mainly rock & dirt, a bit like the road to Bardia. But the procedure here was a breeze. No customs check; I helped the bloke complete the necessary paperwork, which didn't take long at all, after which he said "welcome to India" and gestured me on. I tried to take a photo of the dam wall that greets you after leaving the office but someone official-sounding shouted at me "no photo!" so I complied (well, I did sneak one a bit later on). The track headed across the dam wall and then I was out & in India! "Where the hell am I? Which way to Delhi?" were my first thoughts. I rode ahead, along a riverbank, past a stand of eucalyptus trees .... a few kilometres further I cycled through a vast troop of monkeys that swarmed across the road & roadside. The road itself, except for a section that had clearly been washed away some months earlier & replaced by a makeshift stony track, was nice & flat & I made good speed. Except I wasn't exactly sure where I was heading, not having any map other than a printout of the map of Uttar Pradesh from Lonely Planet's guide to India ... and I unfortunately didn't have the wherewithal to consult this early on. Before long I found myself on Highway 4, heading to Pilibhit (29km) ... ?! It was a little concerning when I started to ask some locals "Delhi ... Delhi??" & they looked blankly at me, clearly not grasping my pronunciation at all. In fact, I think this is how I found myself heading to Bareilly, which does sound vaguely like "Delhi" if said in a desperate enough tone. This wrong turning - going to Bareilly instead of more directly to Rampur - probably added about 60km to the journey; no big deal in the scheme of things I suppose. It all became clear to me when I finally did recall I had the Uttar Pradesh printout & was able to locate Bareilly & Pilibhit. The ride itself was pleasant enough - heaps of sugar cane, monkeys & brick factories (there seem to be brick factories everywhere I cycle in India... ?). I finally reached Bareilly & then had a devil of job finding somewhere to stay, cycling in what seemed like circles for an eternity. I eventually located the JK Hotel, a dive of a place for which they wanted to charge me 300 INR. Amusingly, the paperwork to stay here was more extensive than what I had needed to fill out to get into the country. First a form, enquiring about all sorts of things relevant to accommodation such as 'father's name', followed by an entry across two pages of an enormous ledger book. Dinner was in the room; for a sum of money I received a rather oily looking mutter paneer, cold rice, 4 chapati wrapped in old newspaper & a Pepsi that the food guy was able to arrange. Not a very appetising meal, but better than breakfast which comprised a cup of plain milk tea & 4 pieces of soggy buttered warm bread (like buttered toast that's been reheated in a microwave, which they most certainly wouldn't have had) wrapped again in old newspaper that looked as if it had been recycled from someone else's earlier meal. Being able to access breakfast was a change however, as most places in Nepal, except for perhaps the classier ones, tended to not provide any breakfast.
So, as is apparent, I've elected to cycle to Delhi rather than up north to Pithoragarh & Almora & to then bus or train from there to Delhi as had been suggested earlier. My reasoning was largely that I wanted to see Nepal & Delhi & I rather like the idea of the completeness of cycling all the way. A bit of hard core cyclist's reasoning I guess.
Day 15 cycling: Bareilly to Moradabad
DST= 96.03km; RTM = 6hrs 32 min; AVS = 14.6km/hr; MAX = ?
ODO =1190 km
Ahh! Nothing beats an early Sunday morning ride under the gum trees, I thought, as I headed out of town - easier than I'd thought; I really didn't have a clue where I was when I ended up at the JK Hotel, but it was a reasonably straightforward ride out to the main road to Rampur, after being given directions by people at the hotel. Mind you, things are NEVER straightforward when cycling in India - you'll be given instructions to cycle straight ahead, all the way to wherever you want to get to, only to invariably find yourself at an unmarked T-intersection. Sometimes I'll take a punt, based on the compass, and sometimes I'll ask. Usually someone will know, and so you find yourself negotiating your way across or out of town in fits & starts. Overall, it was a hard stretch of road to cycle, except toward the end where it became a divided highway, elevated from the surroundings, and with a nice cycling surface.
Surprising how many animal carcasses there are on the road - dead cattle, dogs, a cat, some racoon-like critters ... often being devoured by dogs or pecked at by crows. Enough to convert you to vegetarianism.
The roads in India are tough to cycle, tougher than Nepal, and you're given little or no quarter by the bus & truck drivers (although you'll sometimes get the positive thumbs up from truck drivers if they see you've cycled up a difficult hill or if they've seen you before on the road). I've referred before to the main hazard being from oncoming traffic, which, if it spots a break in the traffic, will swarm out all over the road, filling up both lanes in a mass attempt to overtake each other and pushing you off the road (that is, if you care to not join the aforementioned roadkill). So a concerning sight is if you see a slightly slow vehicle (eg a slow truck, or a horse & cart, or bullock & cart) coming towards you with a convoy of other vehicles banked up behind, all itching to pass - you know that within seconds of there being a gap in the traffic headed toward them there'll be a mass breakout, at which point you have to be prepared to hit the dirt at the side of the road (hoping of course that there is a space at the side). Often cars will be zooming past with only inches to spare, almost brushing the bike in their frenzied dash for liberation.
Some while later, I encountered a major road blockage, caused, in a sweet irony, by a gum tree that had fallen across the road. Traffic was banked up in both directions for maybe a kilometre and I quietly pedalled past scores of the cars, trucks & buses that had hurtled past me an hour or so earlier. A team of men with axes & handsaws were working valiantly to clear the road, and I was able to sneak through a small gap they'd created. But the mindlessness of the traffic - impatient drivers, not content to wait in line, were rushing ahead in the other lane hoping perhaps to get to the front, and in so doing were thus blocking both sides of the road, in both directions, from the site of the blockage. The resulting chaos when the tree was finally removed would've been an ignoble spectacle. As I pedalled off, enjoying the freedom from traffic behind me for a time, I realised with horror that a likely tsunami of traffic would soon follow when the tree had been finally removed.
I eventually made it to Moradabad, my goal for the day. Now to find somewhere to stay ... I stopped to ask a couple of likely looking chaps, and before long a crowd of 20, maybe 30, had gathered around me! Hotel Raj Mahal seemed to be the consensus, and some rather complicated directions were given & a map drawn for me. Needless to say, it wasn't too long before I again had no clue where I was. However, at the instigation of someone who spoke a little English, a bicycle rickshaw man was hired to lead me there. Next door to the Raj Mahal, which was a little more expensive than I preferred to pay, was the Hotel New Castle, which had a room for 500 INR - a good deal more comfortable than anywhere I'd stayed at since KTM. They were hosting a wedding reception there that night, which I figured was a bad omen, but in the event, the repetitious drumbeat music, which lasted all night, was curiously relaxing. The place looked like a disaster zone in morning, with all sorts of food & other detritus outside my room when I opened the door, leading me to feel some concern about how the kitchen might be looking & whether or not to brave breakfast. It wasn't too bad though.
There's this odd phenomenon I've noticed while cycling in India: you'll often hear "Hey!" being yelled out - in an insistent, authoritarian tone. It'll either be a farmer, yelling instructions to his bullock, or some bloke, usually sitting in a plastic chair, waving, and who, on seeing you cycle past is expecting that you'll suddenly stop cycling & immediately head over to him. Rarely will they stir from their chair, even if you do stop & look in their direction.
I've been thinking I really should learn some Hindi words, such as "hotel" or "guest house?", "which way to ...", and perhaps even "Delhi"!
Day 16 cycling: Moradabad to Ghaziabad
DST= 136.11km; RTM = 8hrs 17 min; AVS = 16.3km/hr; MAX = 38.5km/hr; cadence = 67rpm
ODO = 1358km
At first, the road out of Moradabad was looking good - a divided highway (so much safer, as there's (generally) no oncoming traffic). I'd stocked up with 2 litres of water, an orange, 600ml of Pepsi & some chocolate biscuits for the journey, anticipating that the divided highway might continue & that maybe it'd be hard to buy stuff on the way. I was dreaming of course, and the road alternated between divided highway, partially completed divided highway & yet-to-be constructed divided highway - the plan seems to be to eventually make Highway 24 a divided highway into Delhi. Often though I was able to cycle in the unopened sections of the partially completed divided highway, which was quite nice. Again, another massive traffic jam was encountered, this time due to a diversion & a vehicle breakdown. Again, a deal of smugness & schaudenfreude on my part as I squeezed through the blockage.
I'm not quite sure what possessed me to cycle so far today - I think the idea was to get as close to Delhi as possible today so I'd have just a short distance to cycle into Delhi the next day. I figured that it might take me quite some time to do this, having only the LP map to guide me, and factoring in my experience of becoming hopelessly lost & disoriented in relatively small towns. I thought maybe Hapur, about 54km from Delhi, might be the go, but as I reached there no obvious accommodation revealed itself to me so I plugged on, and on. It started to become quite dark, and if you think cycling in India during the daylight is tough, it's insane in the dark. So here I am in Ghaziabad, in the pitch dark, not having the faintest idea of the layout of the town or where accommodation might be found. Eventually, after stopping & asking a couple of blokes, one of whom had some English, I was given directions to the Hotel Mela Plaza, which, happily was where he said it would be. Not so happily did I receive the news that it was a 3 star hotel & they wanted nearly $100 USD for a room. Some haggling brought this down to $60 USD (and I was really in no position to argue much, having no other options up my sleeve ... and it was very dark outside.) It was certainly over-rated as 3 star, and even the $60 was excessive ... but it was cosy, and fantastic to have hot water that was actually HOT, toilet paper, 2 sheets on the bed & both of them clean (I don't think I've encountered this on this trip until now) ....
Day 17 cycling: Ghaziabad to DELHI = 30.74km; RTM = 2hrs 10 min; AVS = 14.0km/hr; MAX = 32.7km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 1389km
After a leisurely start to the day, including a non-complimentary breakfast in the hotel restaurant (although what was the story with the powdered coffee out of a sachet that the waiter somewhat ostentatiously opened & slowly poured into my cup, followed by the powdered dairy creamer - that's not 3 star, surely?) And there was no bacon as per the American breakfast I'd ordered ... and HEY! I've just remembered ... whatever happened to the cornflakes that were meant to be part of the deal?
It was nice to know I only had a relatively short distance to cycle today as I headed off into the smog ... again, the road occasionally branched into two & it was often a guess, corroborated by the occasional motorcyclist I questioned, that kept me on the right track. I had a vague route in my mind I'd that I'd mapped out during a chat with the helpful Harvinder ("Harry") Singh I'd met at Bardia. This was derailled after being given some bum directions by a couple of blokes standing on a corner, but luckily I had a more complicated route B also mapped out, and so eventually I got to the Paharganj area where all the tourists hang out (because it's near New Delhi Railway Station & also pretty central to all the tourist attractions. ). I've decided to stay midrange rather than budget, as I've stayed at enough budget & below-budget places this trip. My first choice - Hotel Grand Godwin - gulp, was booked out, but I managed to find a room at the Hotel Ajanta, a relatively flash joint down the road in Arakashan Road, Ram Nagar. They tell me however that I can only have it for 2 nights as they're then all booked out. Ouch, I didn't figure things'd be this busy. It's about 1420 INR a night, plus tax - about half the price of the reduced price at Mela Plaza, and a lot better feel to it.
I've not ventured outside at all since arriving, as I reckon I've seen enough of the outdoors here to last me for a time. Lunch and then some internetting I reckoned was the thing to do, and so had a large thali, a Limca & a Merinda, and a coffee.
You've gotta love this place though (otherwise you'd go insane) ... the hotel has internet access, but to use it I had to fill out a ledger with all sorts of personal details (eg Full name, Date, Address in Australia, Address in India, Purpose in India, Time started, etc, etc ... again, more detailed than I needed to actually get into the country), and after I'd been online for a bit another attendant entered the room and WANTED TO CHECK MY PASSPORT DETAILS!
After about 3 or 4 weeks here, I reckon I've just begun to acclimatise to the sub-continent - it always takes some time to get used to ... the roads, food, hygiene, noise, the way people go about doing things ... & .... the INCESSANT FUCKING DRILLING & HAMMERING that seems to be going on in every hotel you ever stay at ... what ARE they doing? ... OK, maybe I still haven't quite ...
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Day 10 cycling: Lamahi to KOHALPUR
DST = 111.12km; RTM = 6hrs 24 min; AVS = 17.3km/hr; MAX = 45.6km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 748km
The Mahendra highway is pretty good but in parts is a quite stony bitumen with high resistance making the cycling seem much harder at times than it should. Sometimes you even have to pedal hard downhill, as the bike won't easily roll on this stuff. In fact, it sometimes seems I'm in one of those anomalous gravitational areas you hear of, where cars allegedly roll uphill. Here, some roads seem to be going uphill, but you find yourself rolling along without need for pedalling; others seem downhill but stop pedalling and you rapidly come to a halt. Spooky!
I'm not sure about the Nelles map of Nepal that I'm using, given the almost consistent discrepancy in the English names given to towns. On the map, so-called Bhaluwang is written everywhere on roads signs and in the town itself as Bhalubang. So with Kusum which is written as Kusuri on the map. It's as if a bespectacled German cartographer has whizzed through towns on a bus with dirty windows quickly scribbling down the English name as the bus hurtles along.
The road here mostly passes through rural & forested areas - not much traffic, but plenty of cattle, goats, sheep, and even monkeys. I ended up cycling the 111km to Kohalpur but would've preferred not to. I had thought of doing this stretch in 2 stages, stopping at Kusum, but I could see nothing there other than a few huts - it hardly deserves its dot on the map, compared to many other obviously bigger places that don't feature at all (I later discovered that staying at Kusum was possible .... ). A Dutch motorcyclist stopped for a chat when he saw I was "European" - he was travelling overland from Holland to Bhutan in 5 weeks & seemed quite keen to talk. He explained that he'd been escorted through Pakistan for 15 hours by the police who were concerned he might be kidnapped.
I stopped at pretty much the first guest house you come across as you enter Kohalpur - the DHAULAGIRI Hotel & Lodge - after the owner, seeing me hesitate out the front, offered me a room - basic & a bit smelly but cheap at 200NRP. I figured that I'd probably light a mossie coil - not so much for the mossies as for the pong. However this would rate as one of the worst places I've ever stayed at. The room he showed me was very dark, and when I commented on this he changed the light globe for me by swapping it with the one in the restaurant, and then kindly gave me the towel from the restaurant when I asked if he had one. It appeared later that it was some sort of an all-night bar & truck stop. My room was out the back, right opposite the toilet, which was in use ALL night by patrons & family members, & you could hear everything. A rat scuttled by as I was waiting for my food, and there were cockroaches in my room (as well as a million mossies, but that's par for the course - I give profound thanks to the makers of RID). The family's young kids also seemed to be up all night, making the sorts of racket that young kids make. At 4am, a truck-driver out the front of the place began either testing or showing off his horn - blaring & trumpeting out some ghastly mobile-phone-like tune, over & over & over again.Get me out of here! However, they did make surprisingly good coffee. I did give the owner some feedback in the morning but I suspect it was pointless really. .
Day 11 cycling: KOHALPUR to Thakurdwara (Bardia National Park)
DST = 74.59km; RTM = 4hrs 38 min; AVS = 16.0km/hr; MAX = 31.8km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 822km
My plan today was to cycle into the (Royal) Bardia National Park - I'm assuming that none of its estimated "22 Royal Bengal tigers & 100 one-horned rhinos" frequent the road in ... The ride out of Kohalpur was pleasant - good flat road surface, little traffic - and I hit a nice steady 20km/hr pace. The road went across numerous bridges over streams & rivers, most of which were largely dry and also passed a number of both military & armed police checkpoints & bases. It was a bone-jarring, buttock-battering 13 km ride on the rocky dirt road from Ambassa, on the main highway, into the town of Thakurdwara, where the actual entry to Bardia & most of the accommodation is. For the first 8km or so, it was all part of the charm of the place - for the last 6km, it was "why don't they fix the fuckin' road".... I chose to stay at the Bardia Jungle Cottage (although they did have more than one.) Again, pretty basic accommodation, but in the local Tharu style - grass-rooved huts with mud-coated walls. While there, I went on a day-long jungle walk with guide (cheap at 650 NPR, plus 500 NPR admission to the park)- we saw deer, monkeys, 2 adult rhino & one baby, dolphin (in the river) and plenty of wild elephant & tiger tracks. The next day, before leaving, I went on an elephant ride into the park. This was relatively expensive (1100 NPR for the ride plus 500 NPR admission to the park) & actually not all that interesting after the initial delight of getting so close to such a behemoth & watching the 2 baby elephants that followed along, especially because it largely retraced some of where I'd walked the day before.
I do wonder if some of the folk you come across here are at times overly literal or perhaps obtusely aggressive in reponse to westerners. I asked the owner if I could get some of my clothes washed before I headed off the next day. He assured me this could be done .... the next morning when I retrieved them they were still wet, and the day had been perfect clothes-drying weather - should I have also requested that they be dried? And today (in Mahendranagar), I was sitting in my room doing stuff on the laptop when one of the hotel workers flung the unlocked room door open & marched in to write down some numbers from the back of the TV set. He apologised profusely when I expostulated, but I'm not sure he grasped what my issue was ...
Day 12 cycling: Thakurdwara (Bardia National Park) to LAMKI
DST = 44.24km; RTM = 3hrs 3 min; AVS = 14.5km/hr; MAX = 33.7km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 866km
I was advised that accommodation was to be found at Lamki (not on my Nelles map), about 45 km away, which seemed a nice distance to cycle after a few days rest from cycling. I again endured the 13km ride back to Ambassa, and from there headed to Lamki. On the right hand side and at times directly ahead was a mountain range (the Churia Range, according to the map) but it was shrouded in smoke/mist so the mountains could barely be seen. Deer & monkeys were seen alongside the road (they often hang out together, apparently) but would bolt when seen, and yet another Army checkpoint was encountered just before Chisopani. Overall, an easy & pleasant ride to Lamki, and apprently it's a further 73km to Ataria where there's also accommodation.
There's some sort of organised demonstration heading into town as I arrive - hundreds & hundreds of people filing in, two abreast; first a contingent of women, then women wheeling bicycles, then men, then men wheeling bicycles ... I cycled past with no trouble. I assume it's about unhappiness at the new Marxist government & its inaction on certain matters.
I check into a guest house - the owner wants 150 NPR for the room, the cheapest yet. When I see the room, it's apparent why so cheap. A dingy, squalid room - what I imagine a Mexican police cell might look like (no offence meant to Mexicans here, it's just that I've been reading Greene's The Power & the Glory). The bed felt like sleeping on a pool table or a door, and the loo & washing area defy my description. However, due to my late start today (elephant ride), it seemed sensible to stop here. BUT the daal baht was excellent here: I had it hot off the stove; piping hot rice, lentils, spinach, veg, a papadam, with a cup of delicious hot sweet black tea - very tasty, and plenty of refills. After this, I watched an 1967 episode of "The Champions" on the laptop. What a treat (quite amusing also: it was set in Australia, but the actor playing the outback aussie used an American accent throughout). After the sun went down, the whole town became quiet - hardly any dogs or vehicles, and I had an OK night's sleep.
Day 13 cycling: Lamki to MAHENDRANAGAR
DST = 106.9km; RTM = 6hrs 24 min; AVS = 16.6km/hr; MAX = 29.0km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 973km
For some time now, there have been no road signs in English & even the towns remain nameless to me. All I really have to guide me is my Nelles map & what people tell me. My plan was to head for Ataria & spend the night there before pressing on to Mahendranagar & thence the border - a further 16km away. People's estimates in & around Lamki ranged from 45 to 73km to Ataria, although it did seem further on my Nelles map. Road signs were little help but gradually I figured out that something's seriously wrong with the map, which indicates that it's 202km between Chisopani & Mahendranagar. As it turns out, the actual distance is about 122km (!) & so I arrive at Mahendranagar after quite a long day's ride (107km) but without needing to stop at Ataria. Mahendranagar, although being quite near to the border, is a surprisingly pleasant & relaxed place and not at all like the dusty & chaotic border town I'd expected (well, that's partly true - there're a hell of a lot trucks & buses & associated horn-tooting going on). I've gone to the bank & changed all my NPR to INR at no cost (it's a direct 1.6 swap), done some internetting now that the power is back on (yesterday after I arrived a power line was being repaired, resulting in no electricity for some time - people were up ladders & trees trying to sort the problem out) & then had lunch - delicious veg fried rice, a Pepsi & a coffee - at the "Vegetarian Restaurant & Sweet House" at the Hotel Gangotri Plaza while watching half a dozen blokes remove an electricity pole by hand, using a few ropes & a crowbar. There seemed to be worryingly few safety precautions, but the job got done after a time. Back here where I'm staying - at the Hotel Sweet Dream, which isn't particularly - they're painting the outside of the building. It's 3 stories high, so the painter is standing on a wooden ladder that's almost vertical, and which is in turn standing on a large wooden cabinet.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
why I prefer cycling to travelling by bus!
Day 7 cycling: LUMBINI to Bhairawa to Lumbini to Jeetpur
DST = 96.7km; RTM = 6hrs 8 min; AVS = 15.7km/hr; MAX = 37.0km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 543 km
Not the greatest of days. As I prepared to leave Lumbini, my arithmetic suggested maybe I didn't have enough rupees to make it all the way into India & then head north, as apparently the only money changing at the border & beyond is between NPR and INR. So I started the day by cycling the round trip to Bhairawa & back, and only later thought it might have been smarter to have caught the bus. I then decided it might be nice to cycle via Taulihawa & Tilaurakot - the latter being the historical site of Kapilavastu where Guatama Siddharta reputedly spent the first 29 years of his life. The site is meant to "sit in a peaceful meadow" but unfortunately this was not the case today. Cycling toward the site, I found the road was packed with people, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and the occasional bus - the whole damn town & surrounding villages it seemed - all heading toward the same place. The peaceful meadow had become seething maelstrom of Nepalese, as well as stalls selling food, sideshows, various amusements ... all the fun of the fair. Except it wasn't fun for me & the bike - pressed in from all sides, I soon lost track of what had once been a road, and indeed of just where the hell I was - I had no idea of which way to head, and could see no obvious way out. I confess to becoming a little freaked out at this point - it was worse than Moomba! Eventually, after what seemed forever, I found an area where the crowd began to thin out & a possible escape route ... back to Taulihawa & then taking the road to Jitpur (as per my map) or Jeetpur (as per local signs). Yet another trial lay ahead - the nice bitumen I'd set out on transformed into a dusty, stony, bumpy carriageway for the next 10 km, until agreeably returning to a bitumen road, although not in the best condition. After a neverendingly bumpy, dusty ride I eventually reached Jeetpur having cycled (& walked a little) 97km & feeling exhausted. Initially it apeared there was no accommodation in town, but then I discovered a hotel/restaurant down a laneway. I had a room next to the kitchen & dining area but by this stage I wasn't complaining - at least there was somewhere to wash ... [power failure ... computer crash... fuck!]
Back at Jeetpur: I think I've ordered some fried rice & chai ... Jesus! ... there are frogs hopping around on the restaurant floor - & we're on the first floor!
Day 8 cycling: Jeetpur to Bhalubang
DST = 68.65km; RTM = 4hrs 26 min; AVS = 15.4km/hr; MAX = 46.9km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 611 km
Flashing, coloured lights surrounding the Hotel's neon sign just outside my room led to a disturbed sleep last night, as did the hammering on the door at 7am .."uh oh ...what's happening....". It was an unrequested wake up call, with a cup of chai. The whole stay, with room, food, chai, water was only 495 NPR. I again breakfasted on a banana & some coconut biscuits & headed off towards .....!? On the way, a Mr Bharat Kumar Shrestha stopped on his motorbike to introduce himself - a Civil Engineer trained in KTM, he explained, and he requested that we meet down the road later in the day for a cup of tea. I met up with him about 30 minutes later as he whizzed past, this time in the opposite direction. He explained that he no longer had time to stop for tea, but gave me 4 juices in cartons as a gift - what a kind fellow, and I can tell you, they were a very welcome drink later in the day. The road suprised me by being quite hilly, making it a little harder going than expected - I'd thought it would be flat, but inspection of the map showed that I was crossing the Dundwa Range. Some hours later ... Hallelujah - the Hamro Hotel at Bhalubang greeted me on the left as I rode into town. The room was on the 3rd floor, and cleanish. Strike activity was happening in town, blocking traffic right outside the Hamro, naturally - hard to know quite what it was about, but vehicles were banked up in both directions, and tooted exuberantly when they were finally allowed to move on.
Hotel sounds, from 5am onwards, as my foggy brain was woken from sleep: water running, doors crashing, talking, shouting, the growling & hawking & gobbing that sounds so much like people are being strangled to death somewhere in the building (but are in fact folk cleaning out their throat & other passageways), music, TV, heavy footsteps up & down the stairs ... and from outside, roosters crowing, the crash of metal roller doors as shops open for the day's business, and of course, the noise of trucks & buses. Throughout the night, in addition to the howling of dogs, the trucks & buses were trumpeting their horns, grinding their gears & noisily braking. At around 7am, various strains of Hindi music can be heard from the street, but within the hotel, things begin to quieten down ...... It had seemed like such a quiet hotel when I first checked in. At 8am, all is relatively quiet again.
After a number of days of hearing no English spoken, you find yourself going a little batty & 'hear' snippets of conversation in English ... eg "I've just spent nine days in Thailand..." one man said to another in the grungy cafe below the hotel (I'm sure he said no such thing) and "I'm having a dinner party" said another. And after many hours of cycling, visual illusions start to occur ... as you near a village, you're sure that's a fine looking guest house ahead, and wait, is that some other western cyclists I see coming towards me?! No, unfortunately. In fact, on a trip like this, on your own, you become acutely aware of how much the mind projects eg.. "omigod, what if that thing thundering in the undergrowth is a tiger ...."; "this looks too steep ..." "I don't think I can go on .." " that food's bound to make me ill..." etc etc ... and how utterly useless it all is. And the associated emotions generated ... Can't stop it, but it pays to just let it go, not buy into it. I like the email analogy: largely, you can't stop what emails arrive in your Inbox but after looking at the headers you have the choice whether to read them or not. Much of our thinking (well, mine anyway) is like junk mail.
Day 9 cycling: Bhalubang to Lamahi
DST = 25.1km; RTM = 1hrs 26min; AVS = 17.2km/hr; MAX = 33.6km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 637 km
The scenery here is pleasant - you can just see the nearby hills through the smoky haze. It's a rural area, and there are few buses & trucks on the road. As noted, the Nepalese don't tend to have breakfast and so I've had to make do with a cup of tea or chai, supplemented by a banana and a Parle-G milkwheat biscuit - "Worlds Largest Selling Biscuit". They're sold in India so its probably true.
As I'm cycling along, I see a dozen or more European cars, some vintage or veteran, with earnest-looking Europeans at the wheel, boring ahead on the other side of the road. No eye contact is made - they're all too intent on driving - the "Himalaya Trial" I think it was. It highlights my impression of how people in cars & buses tootle along, enclosed in metal bubbles, largely insulated against the outside world. After a short haul today I elected to stop at Lamahi, with the intention of reaching Kohalpur tomorrow. I stayed at the Bhusal Guest House. The owner indicated he had hot water, to which I thought "yeah... sure" - but indeed there was, and so I washed some clothes, myself, my hair and had a shave, and eventually ran out of things I could think to do with hot water. It seemed like well over a week since I encountered hot water anywhere (well, it was warm water really, but I wasn't complaining & it sure was a delight). I was even able to use the internet briefly - until a power cut turned the computer off & I lost much of what I'd written... see above). How pleasant it was to have a lazy day however, off the bike, just sitting around, in some utterly obscure town ...
The electricity supply throughout Nepal is fairly unreliable, although reliable in that it seems to go off most evenings between about 6:30 & 8:30, and intermittently throughout the day. I was watching a ?Fantastic Four movie in one of the few places I've stayed in that had TV - I'll now never know how they sorted it all out with that rogue planet determined to do Earth in.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
A slightly annoying occurrence has been that my laptop, USB drive & even camera card have picked up a virus/trojan/ worm that I just can't get rid of - it's started to gum up the laptop & has even locked me out of various components such as task manager & has changed some of my preferences. The computer is still functional thankfully but I'm not sure how many of my photos I'll be able to save at the end of the trip - one of the camera cards seems inaccessible ....
Monday, November 10, 2008
Day 6 cycling: TANSEN to LUMBINI
DST = 80.9km; RTM = 3hrs 58 min; AVS = 20.3km/hr; MAX = 47.2km/hr
ODO (i.e overall odometer reading) = 438 km
After another hearty 'continental breakfast', I headed out of town - 3.8km back down the hill to the main highway to Butwal. This was an excellent ride - the road surface, except for a few shocking patches, was pretty good, and the ride was mostly downhill or on the flat, and the scenery was surprisingly dramatic - I somehow had expected it to be a bit of an anticlimax after the really mountainous areas I'd cycled through. But no - there were some really stunning, precipitous sections that left me feeling a little nervous, and drawn toward the centre of the road. Cycling too near the edge left me feeling edgy. I also began to remind myself to take it easy - no need to be quite so 'nose down, bum up' about the riding as I can tend toward - the whole point about riding the bike is to take things in, take one's time, stop & sit down & just soak things up ... Butwal was 'bike city' - people on bikes everywhere, a bike lane through the main part of town, and most of the public transport seemed to be 3-wheeler bicycles. The next stretch - Butwal to Bhairawa - was not so pleasant - heaps of traffic & fumes, and I was shocked to realise how flat it had all become - no mountains ahead or to the sides of me. Buddha may have been born in the area but there was little sense of much compassion, tolerance or patience having permeated into this stretch of road. Finally, Lumbini, and the Lumbini Village Lodge, a cheap but pleasant place (except for the mosquitoes) ...
Saturday, November 08, 2008
DST = 79km; AVS = 16.2km/hr (estimated)
A minor hassle as I set out from Pokhara - the bike computer battery was flat; I managed to buy a new one on the outskirts of Pokhara, [... this is a Nepali/English keyboard - the comma took ages to find] ... hence had to estimate distances on day 4 riding, although fairly accurate I think. This was a fantastic day's cycling, with the snow-capped peaks of the Annupurna Range to the side for much of the first half of the ride, only to reappear much later as I rode higher & higher. The scenery could be described as stunning, striking, gob-smacking ... every time you rounded a corner a new and surprising panorama opened up. Ahh! This is why cycling is the way to go, although at times the drop to the side was so deep, so profound, and there was so much to take in visually that I could feel myself wobble on the bike as if almost magnetically drawn to just plunge over the edge. Today comprised steady uphill climbs, followed by some very satisfying downhill runs. A quite achievable ride, and nowhere near as tough a day's ride as I'd envisaged. Galyang seemed a good enough place to stop, given the time of day, distance covered, and the fact that the town had a small Hotel & Lodge. The room, at 300 NPR, was adequate, as was the associated restaurant across the road, where I had a dal baht for dinner (rice, lentils, green vege & some pickle & yoghurt, all of which I ate with gusto).
Day 5 cycling: Galyang to TANSEN
DST = 46.09km; RTM = 3hrs 53 min; AVS = 11.8km/hr; MAX = 39.8km/hr
I made an early start from Galygang, thinking that I'd knock off the last 40 or so km in no time, and be in Tansen for morning tea. It was lovely -no vehicles on the road, although the drop was precipitous on my left hand side. I found myself stopping continuously to take photos of the scenery, while aware that they lack the 3rd dimension that gives this ride such impact. The Nepalese don't seem to do breakfast, so I left just having had a cup of chai & 3 sweet biscuits I had in my bag.
As it turned out, this was a really hard ride pretty much all the way, perhaps exacerbated by my inadequate breakfast, and I found myself struggling to make the last stretch up the hill to Tansen at about 1:30 in the afternoon. I was buggered, and the maze of streets made it a torturous end to the day trying to find suitable accommodation. I eventually checked in to the Hotel The White Lake, quite overpriced at $12 USD per night, but I had little strength to argue the toss with much vigour or to look elsewhere. Their restaurant & the excellent view from the rooftop perhaps compensated a little. My first impression of Tansen hasn't been all that overwhelming but perhaps more delights await me as I explore the town a little more (mind you, I think I saw much of it yesterday as I stumbled about trying to find accommodation.)
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
DST = 75.4km; RTM = 4hrs 29 min; AVS = 16.7km/hr; MAX = 51.1km/hr
(NB. Bandipur to Pokhara is a little further than this; the bike & I were obliged to travel several km in a van; see below)
Bandipur is a very pleasant place, with one especially great feature - there is no vehicular access to the main bazaar area, allowing you to amble about without having to always keep part of your mind alert to the possibility of being run over (as per KTM). I had expected the 8km ride back down the hill from Bandipur to rejoin the main Prithvi Highway to be a joy, which initially it was. It was a foggy morning however, making it quite hard to see what was ahead, and the brakes seemed to be slipping due to the dampness. And as the road largely comprised hair-pin bends I found myself braking constantly, to the extent that the rims became red hot from the friction of the brakes on the wheels. Could they become so hot that the tubes could melt, I wondered nervously? Will I wear the brake pads away entirely (I don't have any spares)? Am I worrying excessively? In the event, I descended gingerly, only averaging about 22km/hr & hitting a maximum of 44km/hr. Damauli, the next town, might have "little to recommend it" as the Lonely planet guide seems to unfairly suggest, but the ride into it was certainly sweet. The initial ride from the turnoff was a slow, steady, uphill slog for maybe 8km, but the next 8km was a blissful downhill ride (hitting a maximum of 51km/hr). After some while I began to notice a small problem with my chain, which eventually snapped as I started to pedal uphill about 20km from Pokhara. I rolled back into the town I'd just passed but was met with a shake of the head on enquiring if there were any bike shops around. Happily for me, the fellow I'd asked elected to arrange a lift for me & the bike in a delivery van a few kilometres to the next town, which, fortunately had a bike shop, someone who knew how to fix chains & the requisite equipment - a big metal hammer. Before long it was fixed & I was back on the road. The van driver & the fellow who assisted wouldn't accept payment for their help, but suggested I give the bike shop bloke 25 Rp (about 50 cents) for his work. Their kindness negated the actions of some dickheads a few hours earlier who'd thought it amusing to douse me with water from the roof of a bus as they passed. (The chain doesn't sound quite right anymore as I pedal & I'm not sure why. I'll take some time today to have a good look at it before pushing off south towards Tansen.)
Mysteriously, nearing Pokhara, the road surface began to degenerate and the vehicle fumes seemed to become blacker, whereas the children's English seemd to improve. Now, instead of asking "one rupee" they demanded "give me money" or even simpler: "money!". It was rather horrible.
Despite its problematic aspects, the ride from Mugling to Pokhara was nowhere near as forbidding or steep as I'd for some reason imagined - the road, except for the last stretch into Pokhara, was in pretty good condition, fairly flat in many places, and there were quite a few good downhill runs.
Surprisingly, Pokhara is very full of tourists and I had some trouble finding a room as the first few places I tried were full. I eventually found a room at a place called Hotel Bien Venue, a new & very characterless place. As I tried to take a rest in my room, I was assaulted by the sounds of kids yelling & screaming & people talking loudly, and for some reason sitting outside my room doing this. After boiling inside for a while, I finally lost the plot & stormed outside, giving everyone a rather unpleasant piece of my mind. I'm thinking I must have been feeling a bit tense. For a short while I felt a bit embarrassed about it all ... "well, "Mr Anger Management"... what do you have to say about that!?" ... " This morning I moved to the Hotel Nirvana & am feeling a lot more relaxed. Must be time for some lunch & then a look at that bike chain.
Hmm. Inspection of the bike chain revealed it had been threaded incorrectly through the derailleur. Thinking to find a local bikeshop that might be able to do it for me, I headed off into the depths of Pokhara only to be advised that there weren't any decent bikeshops in town. But suddenly, 4 Spanish cyclists came cycling toward me, and trusting in the fellowship of cyclists I hailed them & they were able to assist me in effecting the required adjustment.
Sunday, November 02, 2008
I've been doing a little cycling over the past 2 days. Yesterday I rode out to Swayambhunath, a Buddhist temple about 2 kms to the west of Kathmandu. This place is also known as the Monkey Temple due to the many monkeys there, some of them extremely unpleasant & aggressive, exemplified by one who tried, in a sudden startling swoop, to try & snatch my water bottle. I'm sure it was only due to my years of martial arts training that the attack was unsuccessful. Otherwise, it was an interesting enough place to visit, seemingly comprising of both Buddhist & Hindu imagery & architecture.
My plans for today were to cycle to a place called Pashupatinath and then onwards to Bodhnath (or Boudha). The streets in Thamel, the area where I'm staying, are all unnamed; roads further afield are poorly signposted and there are no signs to the obvious tourist sites around the KTM valley. So, despite having both a map & a compass I became hopelessly lost quite soon after leaving Thamel. I eventually reached where I was heading by asking directions of passerbys (the utterly blank stares I encountered at times suggested that my pronunciation skills are perhaps on a par with my navigational skills). But it was when I hit the open roads, away from the traffic & pesky touts & tourists, that I was reminded of the joys of cycling & why I've come on holidays with my bicycle. Ahh, such liberation! ... the open space, the fresh air, the scenery ... (well, for a few minutes, until realising I didn't have the faintest clue where I was...)
Pashupatinath, to paraphrase the Lonely Planet guide, is Nepal's most important Hindu temple & is also a very important Shiva temple which draws in devotees and sadhus from all over India. I am sure that a good number of the flamboyant & extraordinarily decorated 'sadhus' lining up to be photographed by tourists are really just very entrepreneurial beggars.
I eventually found my way to Pashupatinath by trailing behind a slow moving convoy of cars & motorbikes that, I was told when I enquired, was apparently heading there. Some while later I realised that it was actually a funeral procession on its way to a cremation on the banks of the Bagmati River at Pashupatinath. It also turned out that the deceased was a member of the recently-defunct royal family (the new government here abolished the monarchy shortly after coming to power) and so the cremation was a pretty big deal. There are two main cremation areas at Pashupatinath - one section for the common people and another for royalty (who still apparently retain high status despite the fact of their apparent abolition). After a few hours there, wandering about & watching the various stages of the cremation, I managed with some difficulty, and via an unusually long, convoluted & rather bumpy route, to then cycle to Bodhnath (aka Boudha), the site of a huge Buddhist stupa. It was reasonably interesting, with scores of Tibetans circumambulating (clockwise) the stupa while counting beads & mumbling to themselves. The return route to KTM was rather more complicated than I'd have preferred, but I did get to see some parts of the city that I hadn't planned to.
The big thing in KTM at present is the Tihar (or Diwala) festival. It's supposedly the Festival of Lights but could be more aptly named the Festival of Interminable Explosions. The last 3 evenings here have been punctuated by incessant explosions, and during the day there have been sporadic blasts, much like I imagine a war zone would sound like. People are setting off these firecrackers presumably to mark the fact that it's Tihar. Not fireworks (eg skyrockets, colourful displays, etc) but just bangs - sounding like machine gun fire, mortar rounds or hand grenades. Unbelievable!
In stark contrast however, it is astonishingly quiet after midnight until about 6am when a hotel generator starts up, followed by the occasional dog bark, then the birds, and finally people & traffic noise. I've been sleeping extremely soundly.
Day 1 cycling: KTM to Mugling
DST = 113km; RTM = 6hrs 7 min; AVS = 18.4 km/hr; MAX = 54.7km/hr
I wasn't feeling all that great this morning as I headed out of Thamel. The sore throat was presaging a cold, which has now arrived, albeit a fairly light one. I cycled NW to hit the ring road, then west, then south for about 6 km all up before connecting with the Prithvi Highway - the 206km road to Pokhara. Somewhat to my dismay, I found myself huffing & puffing as I encountered a few slightly steeper parts of the road, which was mostly uphill for the first 15km. Omigod, what will the big hills be like? After this however it was downhill for well over 20km; a tempered exhilaration however and I had my hands on the brakes for most of the way as there were occasional potholes and, the worst hazard of all: not knowing was coming around the corner. As in India, trucks, buses & minivans just love to overtake on blind corners. And when they do, both lanes of the road are taken up, giving you nowhere to go. My maximum speed of nearly 55 km/hr was probably foolhardy, given this, but it did feel fantastic. The road surface was generally very good, and I tended to ride on the shoulder which was much smoother than the main road surface - on my left side, for much of the way, was a ditch, and I kept thinking of that female Chinese cyclist who tumbled into one during the recent olympics. The weather was perfect for cycling - mid-20's, and the scenery was lovely, mostly following alongside various rivers with the occasional snow-topped mountain in the distance. Overall though it was a fairly tough day's cycling, although thankfully Nepali drivers seem to use the horn less than do those in India. I only saw the remnants of two road accidents - the second was a bus lying on its side with a few perplexed blokes standing around with a long piece of cable wondering how they were going to upturn it. A young boy, after asking my name, thoughtfully pointed to a patch on the road, indicating "blood", presumably belonging to one of the victims.
I eventually reached Mugling, at the junction of the Prithvi Highway & the road south to Narayanghat & beyond. It's not a very attractive place & the Machhapuchhare Hotel & Lodge was pretty basic, but cheap at NPR 250. I asked to put my bike in my room (some places in India are very against allowing this) ... which turned out to be on the second floor! No electricity until about 7:30 pm, no hot water & no towel provided, although I got one after asking. It was a noisy place - trucks & buses at first, and then I nearly fell off the bed when some incredibly loud Bollywood-type music started up. Thinking it was coming from the neighbouring room I stormed out to express my displeasure ... to discover it was coming from the street outside. Right out the front of the Machhapuchhare Hotel & Lodge, and onto the highway was a crowd of a hundred or so locals watching what was apparently a sort of disco-dancing competition - first prize: a wrist-watch. Groups of young lads, and then of girls, and then some mixed couples, were dancing between huge loudspeakers as a compere appeared to be trying to keep the crowd interested while awaiting the next group of contestants. I figured that perhaps the reason for the lack of electricity earlier was that they'd been saving it up for this. My dinner that night was some rice and lentils in a local cafe; I thought it wiseer to not eat the cold spinach that had been spooned out from a huge uncovered tub under the counter, as well as a few other cold pre-cooked vegetables that accompanied the hot food.
Day 2 cycling: Mugling to Bandipur
DST = 33.07km; RTM = 2hrs 48 min; AVS = 11.7 km/hr; MAX = 46.4km/hr. Temp: mid to high 20's
Breakfast was a cup of chai at another cafe, and a few bananas and some coconut-flavoured sweet biscuits. My plan for the day was to cycle to Pokhara, around 100km or so. After maybe an hour's cycling, to my surprise, I saw a couple of cyclists ahead labouring up the hill, one seemingly helping the other along a bit by pushing on their shoulder. It was surprising because I've found it's not often that one encounters other touring cyclists on the road. Even more suprising was the fact that they were towing their young daughter along in a baby trailer. We stopped & had a chat & a coke - they were a French couple on their way to Bandipur, then Pokhara & beyond (they'd not quite decided where). I headed off after a short break only to bump into 2 female Dutch cyclists headed the other way. They also sang the praises of Bandipur, having just come from there, although pointed out that it was a pretty steep 8km road up. Lonely Planet describes Bandipur as ".. a national treasure ... a living museum of Newari culture ... hard to believe that somewhere so delightful has managed to escape the ravages of tourist development." Pretty positive stuff, I thought, so I elected to make the detour. Phew, it was a hot & gruelling ride to the top - at one point, I was cycling at 5km/hr, and just "hit the wall" - dreadful, as a cyclist, to confess that I had to get off the bike a few times & walk (stagger?) - at 4km/hr, this wasn't much different to my cycling speed. (The old tune "I think I can, I think I can .." started to roll about in my thoughts ... followed by: "I don't think I can ..." and finally "fuck it, I just can't") And it's shameful to admit that the one thing that spurred me along, that stayed me from just collapsing on the side of the road, was the thought of the humiliation of being overtaken by the Frenchman lugging his baby trailer along behind him. Such relief, even disbelief, at finally reaching Bandipur! The thing with hills is that you often just can't tell how far you are from the top. I checked into the Bandipur Guest House - a very basic accommodation, but with very good food. The bathroom & toilet is shared, and is little bigger than a telephone box containing a sit-down toilet, with a tap & bucket alongside & a shower head poking out of the wall. Cold water of course, and a good example of why having a pair of thongs to wear (which I don't) is a good idea. There are a few walks about town, and the town itself is low key & pleasant to hang out in.
My initial plan was to plug along to Pokhara today (tempted by the thought of that glorious 8km of road to roll back down) but then thought "bugger it ... there's no rush, and three days of cycling in a row is a bit much, and might as well just take it easy ... I'll leave tomorrow. "