KTM - Thursday 30.10.08
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. "