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On the road . January 2008 . Nepal

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Internet Café, Kohalpur, Nepal, 07-01-08
Madam, welcome to Nepal!

Mahendranagar to Thakurdwara - Bardia National Park (2 cycle days; 154 km; 332 m)
Mahendranagar to Sukhad (88 km; 161 m)
Sukhad to Thakurdwara (66 km; 171 m)

Mahendranagar is a small but lively town with incredibly friendly people, a few excruciatingly slow internet connections, plenty of delicious chowmein eateries, samosa, pakora and peanut sellers and an ATM machine dishing out Nepali rupees with no problems at all: Nabil Bank - just off the main road on line 3 - we think, but it's not too hard to find. I wander around entering little shops asking the prices of everything while Ali battles the sluggish connection. I pull quite a crowd of youngsters in one place and when I leave a guy asks why I have asked how much things are, without buying anything. I say that it's my way of finding out what the true price of products is. He replies "We are Nepali not Indians." I thought it summed up our first impressions of Nepal very nicely.

We end up staying in this quaint little place for New Year, though I was snoozing right up until two minutes before the auspicious occasion. Ali wakes me and we sentimentally go through the "Happy New Year" motions though not one shout or firecracker or sound for that matter could be heard in the night's silence. Quite extraordinary and in retrospect, we cast our thoughts back to last year when in Olympia, Greece and everything that could possibly be open was shut. Only a couple of pathetic fireworks were lit and we toasted the New Year in, alone in our tent, teeth chattering with a grappa in one hand and a black coffee in the other.

We can't count all the 'bye bye's, namaste's and hello's' we get as we pedal along the Mahendra Highway, but there are enough to make us feel very welcome in Nepal. People are very relaxed and as we pass they smile sincerely with great big friendly waves. And then there are the overly-enthusiatic shouts from all the children on their way to school. In the mornings and afternoons they are out in their droves, lining each side of the street, either on bicycle or foot; ever so neatly dressed in uniform with identification cards around their neck and the girls carrying their pile of school books on their heads. With this sort of practice, I'm sure they all pass grooming and deportment lessons with ease.

Come as a tourist & leave as a friend
As we pass village after village of neat mud cottages, almost Shakespearean in structure with their wooden struts showing through, it is hard to believe that from 1996 up until two years ago, the West Terai was not considered safe to travel in. Maoist rebels, fed up with government corruption, declared 'Peoples' War' and set about taking over 40 percent of the more underprivileged areas of Nepal demanding better governance and conditions for its people. Unfortunately, around 13,000 lives were taken during this period and finally in 2006, parliamentary democracy was begrudgingly installed by the King and cease fire agreements soon followed. Now the golden grassy plains dotted with water buffalo, cows, goats, ducks and people going about their farming business seem so peaceful in contrast.

I see a few peacocks, remarkably with their tail feathers in tact. In India, there are many of these birds only their fashionable plumes are no longer attached to the bird. Instead you can find them down at the local market or bundled in some tout's hand as feather fans. I couldn't help thinking each time that the pea-hens in the area must be extremely frustrated to no longer be amused by this grand display of male magnificence. And if anyone thinks that the vibrant sari colours of the Rajastan countryside are amazing, then they'll love the colour red here. Blood red ruby and crimson dyed saris match the flowering boganvillea trees while contrasting intense green rice paddies and yellow mustard seed crops in a landscape far more entertaining than the flat dry farming land in the Indian dessert.

We initially thought about staying in Atariya, just 45kms from Mahendranagar and quite a decent sized town, so there is undoubtedly a place to stay in it somewhere. However, the owner of Hotel Sweet Dream said that Lamki was just 25kms further down the track; it wasn't of course and we are unable to make the distance in one day. Sukhad (88km; 161m) is 20kms before Lamki and a little further than I would have liked to have gone. The last 15 km's are quite difficult for my back. The late afternoon air is crisp as we pull up to Navaratana Restaurant and Lodge and it gets progressively colder as the night draws in. It is definitely a back to basics affair but the 'come as a tourist and leave as a friend' motto written above the restaurant arch really means what it says. The owner speaks unbelievably good English, so there is absolutely no problem communicating what we would like to eat and drink. The food for both dinner and breakfast is really good and costs us less than 2 euros for both meals. Nepal would have to be the cheapest country we have visited to date.

For 100 rupees (1.05 euros) we get a large room with a very hard bed, a share toilet and shower. The latter we opt not to use today. Decoration is definitely not its better point unless you consider walls stained with betel-spit attractive. But you can't see that when you're asleep and after removing the bed clothing and setting our mattresses and sleeping bags on top of the table-top like bed, it's reasonable enough to get a decent night's sleep on. I learn a couple of things though: it is not wise to put a restless goat on top of a tin roof and the reason Nepalese are up so early in the morning is they can no longer stand lying on the board-like surfaces they call a bed. Music is softly humming from a crackly radio as we rise the next morning and below the whole family are a hive of activity.

Into the jungle
Today, we pedal past much the same, flat landscape of greens, yellows and reds as yesterday. Much to our surprise, we find the roads particularly good in Nepal. The school children are again out in force and it's a beautiful morning's ride in the brisk fresh air: cool enough to warrant digging our jackets out of the bags for the first time since the Babusar Pass in Pakistan. Sun peaks through the tree tops as we enter a forested area, which reminds us strongly of the Veluwe Park near Arnhem, The Netherlands. Though the trees are a completely different species and some of the animals unheard of in Dutch wilderness, the freedom feel is the same. We are reminded of why we choose to go by bike and it's so great to have the sensation back again after our recent experiences in India.

Lamki is quite a large town with accommodation and plenty of opportunity to stock up on supplies. In fact there are enough villages along the way to stop and eat and drink a range of foodstuffs from dalbhat to chowmein or the usual samosas, pakoras, snacks etc. A mountain silhouette borders our view to the left right up until we hit the Karnali River, 14kms later on in the day at Chisapani; literally translated as Chisa = cold and pani = water. Dolphin Hotel and Resort is available for those wanting a stop-over in this little village, but we venture on through Bardia National Park.

Ali sees two deer: the bambi type with big antlers. I only catch the glimpse of one of the animals backside as it disappears into the forest. There are plenty of monkeys scattering the landscape but they all shoot off the side of the road when we get too close. Also present is the Nepalese military and we have passed numerous sites along the highway complete with check posts and armed bunkers. Maoist camps are also prevalent and can be told apart by the hammer and sickle iconed red flag at the gated entrance. Whichever check post it is we have been waved through every time with curious, but always friendly hello's.

The turnoff to Thakurdwara (66km; 171m) marks the end of the bitumen and we travel 14 kms on unpaved roads. It's absolutely 'off the beaten track' even though a tourist industry somehow manages to survive here. It goes without saying then that there are touts waiting for us when we arrive and we decide to check out just two of the sixteen available places of stay. We opt for Bardia Jungle Cottages. The mud cabin is perfect, though growing a small patch of white peaky-capped mushrooms near the inside entrance. Neat and tidy and very clean and at 200 rupees a night, it certainly won't break the bank balance.

Back to nature
We decide to hire a guide and take a walk in the jungle the next day. Sita Ram finishes his spiel about the park's size and how many animals it has in it by explaining that if you see an elephant charging at you, head for dense forest to hide in; a rhino is deserved of a quick dash up a tree; and a Bengal Tiger, needs staring at directly in the eyes while slowly backing off. Hiding in dense jungle I can cope with and outstaring a cat is plausible but climbing trees is not my forte and I therefore spend the rest of the trip eyeing off every trunked growth in sight for potential climbing possibilities.

Sita Ram leads us to a small river where we hear the deafening crack of a tree and we can see the large ferns bending backwards and forwards quite erratically. Elephants are close and Ali attempts the very slippery stones and he can hardly keep himself upright as he makes his way to the other side. I don't have a chance with my back the way it is and am not too perturbed about missing the sighting. Besides, while the guys are lurking in jungle undergrowth, I see the biggest snake I've ever seen in my life: in the wild that is. Even still, our guide will have nothing to do with me missing out on this event and insists on carrying me over. I'm not sure how this tiny little man managed to cart a heavy lump like myself across a very slippery river, but he did and quite expertly executed as well.

It is one thing to see an elephant from the safely erected confines of a zoo and another to lay crouched in bushes as still as mice viewing this monstrous animal in the wild. The tusks alone were about the length of a small man. We watch a couple of them absolutely destroy whatever is in their path as they slowly munch their way through the greenery and towards us. As soon as they get a little too close for comfort, we slither our way out of their territory and for an hour or so after that I contemplate the pros and cons of a job as a wildlife cameraman.

We don't have anymore large animal sightings that day, but there are plenty of Bengal tiger and Rhino footprints along the path to let us know that the animals are around somewhere in this 968 m² national park. Still it is a really pleasant afternoon and just wandering around the park is an enjoyable change. This peaceful adventure cost us 900 rupees each: 500 park entry fee plus 400 for the guide.

We stay one more day, take a bike ride around the villages much to the amusement of the kids. In the early afternoon, we also bump into Aitor, a Basque Country cyclist heading slowly back home over the next 7 months and we spend some time with him later in the day chatting about the love and hate experiences along the way. In Thakurdwara village, Ali gets his pedal repaired at a local bike shop. The ball bearings are shot and although the job is not perfect, the pedal is better than it was and should hold up until we get to Kathmandu, where our bikes will get themselves a good overhaul: new wheels, tyres, blades, cassettes, chains, saddle for me and whatever else comes to mind while browsing to buy in a well equipped bike shop.

E-mail One, Pokhara, Nepal, 17-01-08
Really and truly back to basics

(Thakurdwara - Bardia National Park to Butwal: 4 cycle days; 2 rest days; 315 km; 1492m)

Thakurdwara to Kohalpur (74 km; 119 m)
Kohalpur to Kusum (59 km; 328 m)
Kusum to Bhalubang (80 km; 520 m)
Bhalubang to Butwal (101 km; 525 m)

A cold beginning awaits the following day but pedalling soon warms us up. There are at least three hotels in Ambassa: on the highway and 7km's from the National Park turnoff, if you don't want travel the unpaved roads into Thakurdwara. But if peace and quiet in relaxing rural surroundings is what you want then the bumpy journey is definitely worth it. Just so you know, because the guide books don't mention it: there is a military camp right next to the park itself and has been for more than 30 years. Consequently, the rolls of razor wire, early morning bugle calls and army hup hup hupping does take a little away from the overall atmosphere, but of course, you don't have to stay right next to the park either as you are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation here.

Riding the Mahendra Highway is easy: flat, good surface, very little traffic and either rural life or green forest as scenic amusement. I don't think we escape the notice of too many children in the area and they run like bullet trains across land and river towards us, joyously screaming 'bye bye', 'bye bye' as we ride past. If we stop, there's an instant crowd, but unlike their Indian neighbours, the Nepalese kids are a little more wary and remain at a distance for quite a while, before getting close to us. By the end of our rest-stop, they are hanging all over the bus-shelter eyeing off everything we do.

It's an easy ride into Kohalpur (74km; 119m) if you're fit and healthy and although my back is gradually getting better it is still problematic; I have to stop regularly to stretch and rest. Kohalpur is nothing special except that it has a massive hospital and there is a place to stay right next to a couple of cyber cafes but before you get your hopes up, they are so slow it takes too long to open Google up let alone looking in your mail account. Anyway, back to the room issue: it is small, two hundred rupees with two table top beds again and a very poor excuse of a bathroom with icy cold water. The last bit does not impress me as I was really looking forward to pouring some hot water down my back. The food makes up for it though. We eat a really delicious plate of vegetable chowmein each and a couple of servings of steamed momos (like the chinese dim-sum) fill us right up. Not quite sure why travellers say that there is nothing but dalbhat available. Only once have we ordered this dish since arriving in Nepal and that was through choice.

Ali is quite sick with diarrhoea the next day and we decide to stay here for him to rest a bit. The other side of the street is lined with pharmacies, obviously in connection with the hospital, and I purchase some tinidazole for his giardia caused illness. It's common in Nepal and so the tablets are easy to purchase and they are also rather shockingly cheap at 45 rupees for 10. The day is not a particularly inspiring one, just laze about in our little hotel room while the sun tries desperately to shine but to no avail. It's an overcast, grey sky day and quite chilly.

Leaving the flats behind
We stay one extra day so that Ali fully recovers before setting off for Kusum. After breakfast I watch the father tell his son to doctor a few figures on the bill behind Ali's back just to slightly extract a few extra rupees out of us. This family is certainly not poor by Nepalese standards and I find it so sad that they are dishonest. Puts a bit of a dampener on the okay time we had here. Though the man selling massive donuts for 5 rupees each has a smile on his face that makes me forget the whole incident. Cycling out of what we thought was the town, it becomes obvious that we had made a turnoff a bit too early. Another hotel stands to the left, on the highway and a little more modern looking than our choice of accomodation.

It's flat all the way until 20km's before Kusum when the road begins to rise and fall like a yo-yo. The climbs are around 2-3 km's in length and between 3 and 9 % in gradient. The earth is red and the forest green. Makes a change from the rural mud houses with thatched roofs behind neat vegetable gardens of cabbage, onion, radish and cauliflowers and the surrounding rice paddies as far as the eye can see. Kusum (59 km; 328m) is a tiny speck of a village that has never seen the modern convenience of electricity. Life goes on though, quite basically as we sit and contemplate the simplicity of this place from outside our overnight accomodation. The mother hen and her seven chicks scratching around in the hardened mud have no idea that their cardboard box will have to be moved to a new position tonight: kicked out by a couple of cyclists.

Walking around the town we are introduced to the game of carom: small chucks flicked into corner pockets on a talc covered table. There are a couple of variations in the game but it is obvious that a few of these boys do nothing else except practice their skills. They are good! So is the dalbhat we eat by candlelight at a table set in front of a local's house. The village starts to close-up at 8pm and we retire to our 100 rupee pitch-black room. Nothing else to do but to sleep.

Early to bed... early to rise
Awoken at five am by an incessantly chattering child was not quite what we had in mind for the start of the next day but nonetheless we lazed around until a roadside breakfast might be possible. Around seven am our packing was complete and we ambled outside to see what edible wares were available in Kusum at this time of day. Never thought I'd be devouring donuts and tea outside of the US for breakfast, but here we are in the middle of rural Nepal enjoying this very simple and delicious delight.

Ryar is 33 kilometres down the road and surprisingly enough has a very neat and tidy restaurant-hotel in the middle of town. Well actually, village probably sums it up better as it is not at all big and has just a few houses with shop fronts, a market area and a well frequented Hindu shrine. Here, two samosas cost just 5 rupees. A further 21kms and you hit Lamahi with plenty of accommodation and everything else that a big township brings. Our plan is to stop further on down the track in Bhalubang (80 km; 520m). Again, there's a choice of at least 6 hotels and plenty of eateries with enough options to fill the empty stomach. We stay at Hamro Hotel and Guest House for 250 rupees including a couple of buckets of hot water: mmmm luke-warmish really!

The sun shines the warmest since we can't remember when and the clothing layers are shed as we start climbing immediately up to Saddle Point which is approximately 14kms from Bhalubang. It's like a greener version of the KKH around Karimabad in Pakistan with much better roads of course. Hardly any traffic and apart from the military boys marching up the hill and a few smiling locals, it feels as if we have the place to ourselves. Picturesque, peaceful and full of bird song and butterfly flutter. From the top it's a very satisfying 14km downhill pedal and even though the last section is nearly flat, you still can pick up quite a bit of speed on the almost unused highway.

The bigger, the dirtier, the smellier
Unfortunately, this is where all the fun stops. It is as if the hills protect this pastoral section of the West Terai from the pollution, traffic and the ignorant habits of people living in more built up areas. The rubbish on the roadside and in the towns increases and so does the amount of trucks and buses on the road. The rest of our journey in contrast is extremely unpleasant: Chanauta (35kms) and Gorusinge (53kms) have places to stay overnight but we really want to make the bigger city of Butwal (101 km; 525 m) today. Both our bodies are feeling it towards the end of the journey and we have little patience for the childish antics of some of the cyclists on the road. The speeding up to not let us overtake game wears thin after a third attempt and though Ali and I are not really sure how I managed to do it: I pull out a confrontational 25km per hour race with one offender who can do nothing else in the end but to give in and leave us alone. That was all we wanted in the first place: to cycle in peace and at our own speed.

Entering Butwal was easy enough though very congested: across the bridge, past the bus-taxi area and turn left at one of the side roads leading up to the parallel main street: Traffic Chowk. This area has a number of hotels to choose from, but it pays to shop around. Price is absolutely not indicative of what you get. Our choice is Royal Hotel which offers us a double room for 400 rupees complete with one of the stinkiest bathrooms on this planet and no hot water even though they say there is. The smell is not so detectable when Ali first agrees to taking the room but to be honest all the other places I look at have the same stench about them as well. The television with excellent reception is an added bonus as is the unbelievably great food in the restaurant upstairs. The staff are also very helpful and friendly, so for a pleasant stay in this bustling town, it is merely a matter of keeping the bathroom door closed at all times and holding the breath during any visit.

A quick wander around Butwal and you'll soon learn that this is just a small township with a lot of traffic owing to its crossroad position on the Mahendra and Siddharta Highways. Apart from the apparent poverty on the outskirts, the place has a great feel about it and if you are into purchasing fabric or glass bangles, there's plenty of opportunity for excellent bargains in the shops and market here. The fruit, vegetables, nuts and snacks are also cheap, very fresh and top quality produce. Unsure of what will be available throughout our onward journey to Pokhara, we stock up on a few of these goodies, though in hindsight it was not entirely necessary.

Food for thought
(Butwal to Pokhara: 3 cycle days; 159 km; 2614m)

Butwal to Bartung (36 km; 971 m)
Bartung to Waling (59 km; 728 m)
Waling to Pokhara (64 km; 915 m)

Again it's like a cross between the Karakoram Highway and the coastal region around El Masnou in Spain. Instead of the ocean views way below us, a river runs; not furiously, but enough to echo its noise up the sheer drop and to our ears. It's warm climbing in the sunshine and the coolness of the water trickling over the fern covered rocks welcoming, though it is absolutely necessary to put the wind stopper on when cycling in the shade. About 17kms into the trip Ali shouts "we're going down!" Sure we do, but then the road reverts back to it's former incline and we to our slow uphill push. Things level off in a freshly harvested valley where sacks and heaps of ginger lay waiting to be transported elsewhere. Young boys sit agreeably on stools outside houses listening to the radio while a group of women are trying to surface a tree stump for firewood. An old man squats over a mud covered drain with a stick in hand poking the unwanted earth away. Another shovels gravel from the bridge crossing. We pass the roadside village bathroom with its broken mirror wired to the side of the rock face near a flow of falling water.

Coming out of this plateau we must rise around 300m in 5kms. There is only one road to travel on until the turn off to Tansen and if we take this path, it means travelling back down again the next day. It is not a difficult decision to make since there would also be a further 200m to climb and we figure that we have already done enough for one day as we pedal into Bartung (36 km; 971m) at around 2pm; literally a bus-stop town with a couple of opportunities to rest and feed a weary body. Even though there are spectacular views to be seen from Tansen, the concrete apartment like buildings perched on the mountain ledge way above us don't really look interesting enough to warrant a further ascend.

Instead we chuck the chicken and her cardboard box out of the room again, easily fill the space with our bags, while our bikes become a feature decoration against the wall of the one-tabled restaurant. It's small, simple but cosy, the family bathroom clean and tidy and cheap at 150 rupees for the night. The vegetable chowmein could have had a bit more bite to it however, but after nearly 1000 metres climb anything tastes pretty good; especially if it is hot. Sitting in the restaurant, after ordering our food, I look around me; every available space including each step of the concrete staircase is occupied with sacks of grain and pulses, empty plastic tubs, oil bottles piled high, rusting tins with no apparent purpose, cone shaped baskets filled with potatoes and cauliflower, several fridges that falsely lead you to believe that the drink contents are cold, chillies spread out on flat dishes to dry and cupboards overflowing with packets of noodles, biscuits, candles, matches, tobacco and assorted plastic wrapped produce. I wonder exactly where the chicken is going to sleep tonight.

While waiting for our meal, a boy of around eight years of age comes in with a couple of rupees in his right hand. He sits on the cold floor to wait for the little dish of yellow peas that two rupees gets him. The shop owner pulls up a stool and tells him nicely to sit there instead. His right hand doesn't work properly but he manages to hold the plate firm enough while he woofs his food down. He is obviously very hungry. As soon as he is finished, he goes over to the counter again and points to the spicy potato dish. After a time of being ignored, it is obvious to us that he doesn't have enough money to pay for a plate, so we ask to buy him one. Probably with the help of local interjection but unknown to us, he understands our gesture and plonks himself back on the stool in anticipation of his second plate. Again, the meal disappears immediately, though halfway through he cries "pani, pani" with such necessity that we instantly fill him a cup from our water bottles. Even that is gulped down as well. I can't stop thinking about him all night but more to the point, the way he ate and drank: he was simply in basic instinct mode. So young to be fending for himself like that.

Our hosts at Deepak Hotel and Langhali Restaurant, which is really no more than a couple of spare rooms in a family home come-shop-come-restaurant, are definitely good entertainment value. Constantly laughing with one and other and a twelve year old son who can speak the most amazing English. His vocabulary is incredibly advanced, using words like unique, load shedding and geographical regions in perfect context. We spend a bit of time chatting with them and other curious locals before retiring early to bed and falling asleep to the monotonous sound of a stone grinding rice in the attic above us.

An up and down affair
Our breakfast explains the rhythmic noise of last night: rice flour doughnuts (sel), proudly cooked by the father and sweet milky tea. Doesn't take long to get on the road and we begin by climbing immediately with intermittent levelling off to catch the breath again. The winding mountain path with glorious views into terraced hillsides way way below is perfect cycle terrain; with or without motor. After 13kms we hit a town wedged in between two mountains, which we missed the name of and can't find on any map, but it has accomodation and is far bigger than Bartung. By the time we reach Ramdi, 27kms on in our trip we have dropped from roughly 1200m to 500m. The rest of the day is an up and down affair from golden sunlit terraces to green patchwork fields; through tiny villages with mud houses, thatched roofs and washing blowing in the cool breeze; people milling about looking busy; grandma's resting with grandchildren on grass mats; children rolling tyres along the street and keeping balls of wire in the air. It's Sunday, it's beautifully relaxing and the traffic is not bad at all.

Waling (59 km; 728m) is a friendly town with a nice feel about it. There's some sort of kid's athletics tournament on and the first two hotels are booked out. The third, New Staff Hotel and Lodge, however has a very clean room, with attached bathroom and television for 300 rupees. The sheets and bedding smell so good, it's the first time that we don't bother to pull our sleeping bags out. Food in the restaurant below is also pretty tasty and at 50 rupees for the traditional Daal Bhat Tarkari: vege curry, daal, pickle, salad and rice served on a large metal plate with the opportunity to have as many refills as you like is great value and great energy refill food.

It's overcast, very misty and icy cold the next morning; the first bad visibility day we have experienced since arriving in Nepal. Pity seeing as we shall supposedly arrive in one of the most breathtakingly scenic mountain landscapes in the world: the Annapurnas. The road doesn't disappoint us though and again, it's another mountainous adventure with numerous surprises. I suppose that's why we like cycling in this sort of territory: there is always an unexpected climb or fall and it's only when you round each bend that you discover what the next few hundred metres will bring. This is in total contrast to riding on the flats; the road is spread out in front of you and you are continually looking at where you need to go. Somehow though, it seems to take forever to get there. In the mountains, time goes fast.

The first 47kms of the ride is spent going up and down from around 850 to 1100m repeatedly, until we reach the pass (1284m) and the highest point along the Siddharta Highway. The road then nose dives for 3 kms only to rise again slightly before tumbling down into Pokhara (64 km; 860m). It is such a barren contrast to the hills and not a particularly pretty place upon entering. Concrete block buildings with ugly patterned cladding line the wide dusty streets. Lakeside is a few kilometres away but not difficult to find: turn left at the first roundabout you come to and continue straight on. Take a left and follow the lake at the next major crossroad. From here on in, more and more hotels and guesthouses will come into view on your right hand side, not to mention the souvenir shops, bakeries, cafés, trekking stores, internet points and supermarkets full of every conceivable type of western product you can think of. And this is only the beginning: if you venture even further along the lakeside strip the left hand side of the road also fills up with this sort of touristy onslaught. After the rural atmosphere of West Nepal it is all quite a visual ambush.

We stop in East Lakeside, which is quiet but still near enough to all the amenities, should we wish to use them. Basically we were approached by a hotel owner coming in and given that Giri Guesthouse is clean and spacious and only 325 rupees per night, we are happy not to go round on a room hunt. The prices on the menu though, are really over-priced but just across the road at Lama Restaurant we can eat and drink for just a fraction more than the local prices we are used to in Nepal. The people who run the place are always friendly and the food aint half bad either. The first night, however, in fine Western spirit we splurge on a couple of pizzas. It's enough to satisfy our Italian cuisine craving and for the rest of our stay, we devour our way through Lama Restaurant's delicious menu.

Radical cyber café, Kathmandu, Nepal, 01-02-08
Mind the gap!

(Pokhara to Chitwan National Park: 2 cycle days; 153 km; 1244m)

Pokhara to Mugling (96 km; 839 m)
Mugling to Sauraha (57 km; 405 m)

The road out of Pokhara is in poor condition and continues this way for at least 20 kilometres. In places a gap exists along the whole width requiring us to come to an almost stop. Only consolation is, it does get progressively better and it is literally downhill over the whole distance. As we weave our way around the craters and bulging blobs of bitumen, we pass scenery I would rate as nothing special at all. Dirty villages covered with a layer of grey dust; stacked stone homes and fences abandoned to make way for badly constructed cement block abodes; piles of unused building materials lying at the foot of each housing allotment. The Prithvi Highway takes us along the Seti River which, in this area, looks more like a giant rock quarry experiment than anything else.

Landscape soon returns to the familiar and more picturesque mud dwellings surrounded by flowering banana palms and green rice paddy terraces cascading downwards towards the valley floor. The 4km downhill plummet into Damauli is also a pleasant and exhilarating experience but the 11km climb that follows a little difficult. Still, it means another tumble down the hill follows and this time for nearly 7kms into the village of Dumre. From then on it's up and down the whole way along a cut-out path on the edge of the cliffs. Definitely takes us back to KKH times.

There's plenty of accommodation in each town of reasonable size that we pass through. We have our mind set on Mugling (96km; 839m), though the LP Guide book insists there is only one hotel worth staying in and the rest are all fronts for prostitution rackets. Where they got this information from I don't know, but there are a couple of choices of accommodation and unless the women behind mandarins carts disguised as fruit sellers are actually women of the night, we saw nothing untoward going on in this town at all. One thing to keep in mind though, is this town is on a major junction and squeaking truck brakes and honking horns can interrupt even the heaviest of snoozer's sleep pattern.

We actually choose the guidebook recommendation: Machhapuchhare Hotel and Lodge (300 rupees), where the dalbhat is exceptionally good and only costs 50 rupees per serving, but mainly because it's the only place that we look at with a hot shower. What's more, it really is hot this time and after a cold, sweaty ride, there really is nothing better. But if you don't mind the cold washing version, then you can get a very basic room for as little as 150 rupees across the road at Jomsom Guesthouse.

Next day and the weather is much the same as yesterday: cold and misty. The most I can remember about today is the really bad roads, the increased truck and bus traffic and the yo-yoing effort it takes to climb and fall the 400 odd metres up, over the first 30kms or so. Naryangath (37kms) is a large, bustling town and from here on the rest of the journey is practically flat. The turnoff to Chitwan National Park is in the town of Tandi in Ratnanagar area (50kms). It's marked by a festively painted gateway welcoming you to the 7 km dirt path leading to the town of Sauraha (57km; 405m). When you get to the bridge, cross it and take an immediate right if you want to head straight to the main village center. If you are looking for something a bit quieter then continue straight on. We are lead on the latter path by one of the boys from the family run business: Nature Safari Camp. Gets pretty confusing when it comes to names here: all being something along the lines of 'Jungle Wildlife Safari Tiger Rhino Nature Resort Lodge Hotel'.

They offer us a simple but clean room, with hot water for just 150 rupees. We are the only guests but this is the general way of doing things: cheap accommodation in the hope that you will book a "programme" with them. After the hard sell effort on the guide's behalf, we only opt for an elephant ride: 750 rupees plus an extra 500 in park entry fees each, which disappoints our hosts a little. Each day has been so misty you can hardly see in front of you and apart from not being the best conditions for jungle walking, we have already done the jungle trek thing in Bardia National Park. The elephant ride turns out to be really great. I can only describe the rolling gait as feeling like riding a very tall, oversized horse with a dodgy walking habit and it wasn't at all as uncomfortable as so many people proclaim. In fact, I got right into the movement and it cured my back problem completely for a couple of days: perfect timing for the climb to Daman and maybe a breakthrough in sciatic nerve healing methodology.

If we reckoned Pokhara had jacked up tourist prices, then Chitwan National Park must take all awards for greediness and on a much sadder note because, for the amount of accommodation there is hardly anyone here at the moment. The elephant ride that we paid 750 rupees each for, we later learned from a couple of Nepalese tourists only cost them 425 rupees each, plus they only fork out 20 rupees on park entrance fees compared to our 500 rupees. Quite a disparity in anyone's terms. There is also a stark contrast between the side by side local existence and the tourist trade. Goodness knows where all the money went when times where better. Certainly not on building better roads or conditions for the village people of this region. But, on first appearances, they seem happy enough as we wander around the side tracks and they get on with their far from modern life. Sometimes, it is really hard to believe that you are smack bang in Nepal's third biggest tourist centre.

Swerving the little black plastic bags
(Chitwan National Park to Kathmandu: 4 cycle days; 207 km; 3642m)

Sauraha to Hetauda (73 km; 459 m)
Hetauda to Daman (56 km; 2150 m)
Daman to Naubise (51 km; 391 m)
Naubise to Kathmandu (27 km; 642 m)

Pretty uninspiring ride today: poverty all around and dirty as well. Fairly simple journey though and our early departure at 8.30am means we reach Hetauda (73km; 459m) with plenty of time on our hands. Gaagri brass water carrying urns hang from shop awnings; quilted bed covers of all colours are stacked high on the sidewalks; samosa and doughnut stalls blink alluring coloured fairy lights; the town has a very friendly feel about it and it doesn't take us long before we find a local restaurant with deliciously satisfying food to fill the gap in our stomachs. The chowmein is just 25 rupees per serve and quite different from the overpriced food at Avocado Hotel, where we are staying.

Our room, clearly displaying years of neglect, is also ridiculously priced at 400 rupees and in hindsight we would recommend staying near the bus station instead. Thank goodness the bed sheets and pillow cases, languidly ignored during the last room clean, are immediately replaced by a young worker, who also agrees most apologetically that they are definitely not fit to sleep in.

Up, up and a down it comes
It is a crack of dawn departure today. The sun highlights the back of the low lying clouds and we can see the emergence of blue skies. Looks like we have a nice day ahead of us. As the earth warms up, so do we. First 11kms to Bhainse (731m) are easy enough, though the road isn't too promising. From here on in, we just climb for the best part of the journey. We arrive at the '12 loops' signpost after about 16kms and push our way around twelve switchbacks. It isn't as difficult as it had appeared from below. At the 23km point in the trip, we pass through the tiny township of Chuniya (1257m), where barn-like accommodation is available should you want to split the trip up in two and enjoy a bit of local village life.

It is around 11am and we are feeling fit enough and optimistic for the rest of the trip, so we continue along our ridged path with the other side of the mountain in full view to the front of us. The zigzag route around the valley proves pretty frustrating at times and quite daunting when it looks like you are making very little progress and yet you have been cycling for more than an hour. Gradients are steep as well, reaching 14% in parts. The views on the other hand are breathtakingly beautiful.

On a more breath-holding note, keeping your eyes on the road is paramount in Nepal due to the little black plastic bags that are strewn all over the place. They are even more prevalent in mountainous regions and just as a word of warning to any other cyclists out there, avoid them at all costs. Cycling over one of these knotted bundles could give rise to a very nasty surprise seeing as they generally contain the results of a passenger's motion sickness. And judging by the amount of discarded debris, not only here but other countries like China and India, it does appear that travel sickness is a common affliction in Asia.

The sweaty, energy zapping grind to the top continues. You first reach Lamndanda (1469m) and then Lover's Chair (1896m). We take a photograph, as you do. It is more than really hard work now and thunder is rolling around the valley with a threatening roar. We are still 6kms before Aghor (2078m) and it's a further 10kms to the Simbhanjyan Pass (2488m). Exactly five kilometres from the top the clouds completely close over us and it begins to rain. A conveniently placed bus stop protects us from the hail storm that follows but when it starts snowing and becomes obvious that it is not going to stop, we take to the slippery highway and push the bikes up the last switchbacks. We reach the top at 5.50pm, after 53 kilometres of solid ascent and with just ten minutes of light left to roll down the hill to Daman (56km; 2150m)

The road is slippery and full of snow, so it takes a bit more time than expected. At 6.15pm, freezing cold and very exhausted, we pull up next to Daman Lodge and Hotel. We do not recommend staying here. The owner tries to make as much money out of you as possible and his asking price of 300 rupees for two dorm beds in a tent like construction attached to the back of the restaurant when it is minus 2 degrees Celsius is so ludicrous that I immediately venture across the road to Gauri Shankar Hotel and Lodge. Here, they welcome you with friendly smiles and 200 rupees for the private room with concrete walls is a damned sight better than what the competition is offering. There are no washing facilities in any of the lodges here and toilets are outside too. These creature comforts can be found at the well over our budget hotel on the left at the start of the town.

When I return with the news that we will move across the road, I notice that my down gloves have disappeared from the table where we were sitting. Somehow, while I have my back turned, they miraculously end up on top of my bike. Says something about the credibility of this establishment and after eleven and a half hours on the road with eight hours of actual riding at an average of 7.1km per hour, I have no patience to barter for everything I want to eat and drink. Our new hosts are trustworthy and we pay local prices for our meals, drinks and everything we purchase from their rather meagrely stocked shelves.

Taking it easy
At 9am we get on the road today. Enough time for the ice to melt and for our bones to warm up as well. The sun is strong as we take off and begin the 9km descent into Palung (1819m). The road condition is pretty much the same as yesterday but travelling down instead of up them is a lot easier. A further 2kms down and you reach the yellow bridge just out of town. A nine kilometre climb then begins to Tistung Pass (2030m), where we are stopped just before the top by a camera crew from a local television station for a short and not so profound interview. Nonetheless, we are to be seen on tv that evening and when booking our flight to KL in the Yeti Airlines office in Kathmandu, one of the staff actually recognises us.

We dawdle our way along, stopping to take photographs of the Himalayan view around us and simply marvel at the brown cascading terraces in the vastness of this mountain-valley-scape. From the Tistung Pass, it is literally one exhilarating drop into the small town of Naubise (51km; 391m) at the junction of the Tribhuvan and Prithvi Highways. All lodges ask 200 rupees or more for really basic and pretty grotty facilities. Our choice is Heera Hotel, where the food makes up for the lack of amenities. Tomorrow, just a few days short of one and a half years on the road, we will arrive in Kathmandu. It will also mark the end of our first cycling trail and with the cold winter air persistently lingering, the thought of a beach somewhere in South East Asia is looking more and more inviting everyday.

End of the road
As if the continual din from the passing trucks is not enough to disturb our sleep, we are awoken to the whining repetitive squawks of Hindu music from across the road at 5.15am. The sun, the moon and the stars must all be in the right position again, because it is the familiar sounds of a wedding party preparing to deafen the ears of anyone within a few kilometres radius of them. By 6.40am, I've really had enough and get up, only for the music to stop completely five minutes later.

We are on our way early and climbing up the 600 odd metres to Thankot Pass (1505m). We can see the Himalayas peaking out over the top of the hillside, snow caps highlighted by the half risen sun. It takes a few hours of work to reach the top and the roads are really atrocious: especially considering this is a major highway. In parts there is no road at all and then there is the promise of repair from the cut-out sections just waiting for a bitumen filling. Only problem is, they appear to have been in this state for a number of years and are spreading across the width of the road.

From the top, we tumble down into the dirty and lacklustre outskirts of Kathmandu. After a few gridlocks and stopping to ask the way a couple of times, we find ourselves in the the heart of Kathmandu (27km; 642m) in the Paknajol area just west of Thamel. We have the recommendation to stay at the Yellow House and for 300 rupees for a large, clean room with decent sized double bed, balcony and decorated with a woman's touch, we can hardly refuse after the last few night's poor excuses for accommodation.

Kathmandu is a big city, but not quite as bad as every makes out. In fact, the pollution level in most India cities over one million is far worse than here and that's a lot of cities. The Thamel area is touristy and there are plenty of shopping opportunities but I'm not so sure about the bargain factor. Supermarkets add large surcharges to all their products and not just the toblerones or jars of peanut paste. It is a welcome change though, to feast on a baguette with cheese and salad filling and finish off with an apple custard danish.

We'll spend a few weeks here, resting, potting around and getting the bikes overhauled completely. After looking around a bit we decide to let the infamous Sonam Gurung from Dawn Till Dusk do the work. His workshop is full of cyclist's goodies and his reputation for a thorough job heralded far and wide in the cycling circuit. Our flight to Kuala Lumpur has already been booked. We fly with Yeti Airlines on the 14th of February and will probably have a whopping 26kg of excess baggage to pay. At seven US dollars a kilo, that makes the cheap flight quite a bit more expensive. There's no way around it though, unless we disguise our bikes as a set of golf clubs or ski equipment even. Then it's a flat rate of US$ 35 for the first fifteen kilos. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to lodge a sporting discrimination complaint before?

Some prices to familiarise yourself with the cost of living in Nepal:

soft drink


1 litre
1.5 litre
per piece
per piece

15 - 20 rupees
16 rupees
32 rupees
72 rupees
110-160 rupees
5 rupees
3 -6 rupees
(depending on size)



dal bhat

small measure
med measure
large measure
per kg
per person

5 rupees
10 rupees
15 rupees
12 for 10 - 15 rupees
12 for 20 - 25 rupees
25 - 40 rupees
50 - 80 rupees
(outside tourist areas)






(at time of writing 100 Nepalese rupee = 1.01 Euro)

Hip hip hooray
Today is the 31st of January and we are celebrating one and a half years on the road. In retrospect, the last eighteen months have certainly been up and down both physically and mentally, but no matter how many lows we've fallen into, there's always been enough highs for the passion to keep on cycling to remain with us. So many memories trapped inside our heads that it will possibly take another life time to recall everything. Thanks to all our readers for the constant flow of mail and comments in our guestbook. Thanks to our families for their moral support and fixed address, which is required every now and again for logistical reasons. We would also like to let everyone out there know that it is always such a pleasant comfort to know that you are following our adventures. It goes without saying that we are looking forward to sharing our next leg of the journey with you too.

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