I had finally arrived in the traveller’s Shangri-La: Nepal. For ages this place has had an irresistible attraction power on traders and travellers. At times it has closed it doors for them, most recently during the Maoist insurgency in the middle of the noughties. But right now it is welcoming me with open arms.
The main reason I’ve overthrown my travel plans and headed towards Asia, is the infamous 16 day long trek around the Annapurna mountains: the Annapurna Circuit. After all my trekking experiences in South-America, I wanted to tackle what has been considered the best trek in the world. All the other plans (in Nepal, Japan, Borneo, India and Thailand) have been programmed around this.
My first stop was Kathmandu, an utterly hectic place full of Hindu and Buddhist temples, in a struggle for continuous expansion, filled with old hippies and trekking yuppies, an abundance of international restaurants and tons of street vendors trying. It reminded me very strongly of La Paz in Bolivia and I instantly liked the place.
Upon arrival I set off to plan a big rafting trip on the Karnali river, after this was done I had eight spare days to be filled. Not enough for all the hiking that I wanted to do, instead I decided to rent a mountainbike. Throwing together some information out of Lonely Planet on biking and trekking routes as well as my own inspiration, I set prepared myself for a seven-day trip through central Nepal
Day one: Kathmandu – Daman
After a delay at the local trekking organization, I set off for my first day of biking. Pretty ambitiously I had planned to cover 90 kilometres today, of which 57 were steeply uphill. The goal was to reach the little town of Daman, high upon a ridge in the central massif that has one of the best viewing points of the Himalayas.
The first and probably hardest part was getting out of Kathmandu Valley. After a ridiculous law was passed around 2002, Nepal has had the cheapest car loans of the whole continent. Since cars – as in so many other places – are regarded as status symbols, this has resulted in a sudden surge of the amount of cars. Combine this with low-quality fuel, old motors, non-existing particulate filters and you have a city in constant gridlock that is covered in fumes and smog. Though I was doing my best to find my way through traffic as fast as possible, these first 15 kilometres uphill had covered my lungs with a thick layer of filth.
Hardly being able to breathe, I was extremely happy when the road all of a sudden plunged down into the next valley towards the town of Naubise. Making my way along the continuous hairpin curves and overtaking the much slower trucks proved to be a first exhilarating experience. A 20 euro cent lunch later, I started on the second part uphill. A long 35 kilometres climbing brought me along numerous tiny villages where the inhabitants looked surprised to a foreigner struggling to make his way up on bike.
Dusk was already settling in when I made it to the 2030 metres high pass and by the time I had descended into the next village, it was dark and cold. I dreaded the idea of completing the last nine kilometres uphill to Daman in these conditions, but unfortunately that was where the only hotels were supposed to be. The buses, that had been overtaking me during the previous climb, had stopped to run so that was no option either. Eventually I got lucky when I could convince a truck driver going in the right direction to put my bike on top of his load of cauliflower. I soon checked in to a guesthouse and after a filling meal of Daal Bhat, I put my tired legs to sleep.
Day two: Daman to Hetauda
I woke up with one of the best views one could dream of. On the top of the building I could overlook the whole Himalayas: from Dhaulagiri in the West to Mount Everest in the East.
After admiring these views for a while, I biked up to Hindu Shree Mandashir Mahadev temple and the next doors Buddhist gompa, located just below the pass. The monk who was taking care of the gompa invited me for tea or chiya as they call it here.
After this intermezzo, I had a glorious 60 kilometres long descent ahead of me. I went up from the pass at 2488m towards the plain and hot Terai region some 2300 metres lower. Along the road I met some local students who invited me for some more Chiya and together we spoke about the differences in our customs, societies and lives.
Day three: Hetauda to Narayangadh
After two days of up and down hill action, this day was about as flat as Nepal gets. Driving through the plains of Terai I passed along little adobe houses, smiling people and some almost medieval harvesting techniques. By now I had gotten firmly used to shouting out Namaste to all passers-by, which was always friendly replied if they hadn’t greeted me in this way first. As in all the other days of this trip, I had to resists getting of my bike every second pedal stroke to take pictures of all the beautiful views. However I had to keep going to cover the 90km to Narayangadh. I stayed in a worn-out hotel in this rather dull trading city, but luckily was brave enough to add another 12km to my itinerary to go and visit Devghat.
In a stunning contrast to the city bustle, Devghat is hidden away in the nearby forests. It marks the confluence of two important Hindu rivers, Kali Gandaki and Trisuli river. The point where these meet is regarded as sacred and rich, older Hindu men come here to live their final years and eventually die. Nevertheless this place has a very positive atmosphere and it’s a lovely scene to calm down after a hectic day.
Day four: Narayangadh to Manakamana
Considering my own aching body and the description in Lonely Planet of the extremely busy road between Narayangadh and Mugling, I decide to take a more comfortable option. I peddle to the local bus station and put my bike on top of a little minivan that takes both of us to Mugling. From here it’s only 3 more kilometers to Cheres, from where a highly modern cable car leaves to the pilgrimage site of Manakamana temple.
This is one of the most important temples for the Hindus in Nepal and thus a long line of them is waiting to be taken up hill. Being one of the very few foreigners as well as taking my bike along, I stand out in the crowd. This turns out in my advantage when I get escorted to the front of the line, because my bike has to be put in the special goat transportation cart. The main goal the Hindus come here is to ask goddess Bhagwati to grant them their wishes, for which they will offer goats, chickens or pigeons in return.
Day five: Manakamana to Gorkha
My guidebook describes a walking path that connects these two important sites and I decide to take my bike along the same path. It turns out to be a great decision, because the track provides great off-road fun and brings me along tiny hamlets as well as different groups of monkeys (langurs and macaques).
Gorkha is the place from where Prithvi Narayan Shah together with his unstoppable army of Gurkha soldiers conquered and unified the different tiny kingdoms of Nepal in the eighteenth century. A local worshipper compared him to with Otto von Bismarck had done for Germany. The Gorka Durbar, a combined Hindu temple, palace and fort, is still a magnificent building that looks over the city and the valleys beyond. While the Gurkha soldiers up until now still are selected for the elite forces of the Brittish and Indian army, the Singapore police force and the bodyguards of the sulten of Brunei
Day six: Gorkha to Bandipur
On my way to Bandipur, an old traders’ centre that has faded out once the new road passed on its far South side, I pass a little village that has built an amazing wooden ferris wheel on which the local kids are playing. After looking in astonishment for a while, I gently go closer to take some pictures. These kids speak barely any English, so a big language barrier definitely exists. We manage to overcome it however and soon I’m joining in on the fun.
Afterwards I climb the ultimate steep bit up to the ridge where Bandipur is located. This amazingly peaceful little town combines beautifully preserved old traders’ houses with great views. Although it’s slowly being discovered by tourists, I can still find a nice room in an old building for 3,5 euros. The only thing is that I have to survive the cold water coming out of the shower.
Here I meet up with Flavio, a great Swiss guy I met in Manakamana two days earlier, as well as Ashlee and Evan who are Canadians teaching English in Saudi Arabia. We start off on a tasting experience of local Nepali dishes combined with Everest beer. When the power suddenly gets cut off, we decide to not to be disturbed and under an old gas light we continue our conversation and consumption
Day seven: Bandipur to Kathmandu
In the morning I try to take the old traders route, which is described as a nice walking track in my guidebook, back to the main road. It turns out to be a wrong decision, since I’m confronted with a long row of very steep stairs. When I’m finally down at the highway, I’ve walked most of the way down. From here I stop a bus that’s passing by on his way to Kathmandu. The final part of this trip I’ll do by bus again to avoid the dangerous and polluting traffic.
Then all of a sudden when I enter Kathmandu, something weird happens. The city I had liked so much before I left almost seems repulsive to me. The traffic seems to be more polluting than ever, the ever friendly people I have encountered on the road are replaced by the hassle of avoiding pushy street vendors and the amazingly happy kids I had ridden the ferris wheel with have transformed into begging, glow sniffing, homeless stalkers.
I guess that’s what traveling is all about. Going out to see places and meet people, let them transform you and come back with a new perception. It makes me wonder how I will handle my final return to Belgium.
On the road during this trip, I worked my way through “The Snow Leopard” a magnificent book by Peter Matthiesen on an adventurous and spiritual trip through the Dolpo area of Nepal. And I would like to finish with a beautiful quote I found in this book:
“Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere – in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of te greater life that … leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight”
(Lama Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds)