A motorcycle trip to the birthplace of Buddha

A motorcycle trip to the birthplace of Buddha

After spending a couple of days relaxing in the backpackers luxury of Pokhara, I started becoming antsy again. I felt like going on one more little adventure before starting off on the Great Himalaya Trail. Based on the information of my travelguide I found out that Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, is about 220 kilometres away from Pokhara. The Prithvi Highway that takes you there is supposedly one of the nicest roads in Nepal to ride.

Not daunted by having a complete lack of motorcycle experience I walked into the office of Hearts & Tears. I signed up for a one day introduction class hoping this would give me enough driving skills to take on the trip the following days. In true Nepali fashion I got taught how to start, switch gears and brake in the middle of a public park surrounded by a troupe of local kids. After a morning of trial, error and increasing success, my teacher felt it was time to take me out on the road. After a short stretch through the slightly hectic traffic we made it out on a mountain road to work on my corner work. When we get back in the office I get the approval of my instructor signs to rent a bike for the next three days.
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The following morning I wake up early to beat the morning traffic and slowly make my way towards Lumbini. The Prithvi Highway turns out to a succession of beautifully carved turns, but I slowly make my way up and enjoy the freedom of riding on a motorcycle. Even if it’s just a measly Yamaha RX-135, it doesn’t stop me from dreaming of a longer Royal Enfield Bullet trip somewhere in the future.

After a long day I arrive into the small town of Lumbini Bazaar, on the edge of the Buddhist pilgrimage site. I check in to a hotel and walk in to the park just after sunset. The Maya Devi temple, the actual birthplace of Buddha, is already closed but I can convince the guards to let me sneak in to take some pictures. After quickly looking at the foundations of the original temple, I walk outside to find a group of pilgrims congregated around the pond chanting.
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Back at the hotel I begin to realize how different the climate is on the Terai. At only 150 metres above sea-level the temperatures don’t drop down at night. Combined with a killer force of mosquitoes I barely get some sleep at night. Long before sunrise I pack up my bags and get on my motorbike to explore the rest of this Unesco heritage site. I get to see a brightly orange sun rise over the World Peace Pagoda, where I’m joined by two Japanese monks who are hitting melodic cymbals while circumnavigating the pagoda.

Sunrise at the World Peace Pagoda

Sunrise at the World Peace Pagoda


From there on I ride along the various temples and pagodas that have been built here by the different countries. Some of them are small and humble, others huge and covered in gold. It’s an interesting experience to see how each temple has a different style (and also budget).
Young Nepali apprentices cleaning up their temple in the morning.

Young Nepali apprentices cleaning up their temple in the morning.


In the afternoon I drive up to the ruins of the palace in Tilaurakot where the young Buddha grew up and eventually left behind his royal life of comfort. Although not as impressive, the solitude here away from the typical tourist trail, sheds a different life on the experience. As I drive back towards Tansen where I’ll spend the night, I feel myself cutting through the thick warm air of the Terai. With a big smile on my face I can only conclude that my first motorcycle trip has turned out to be a great success.

As always you can find more pictures here.

From tomorrow on I’ll be together with Remy doing our final preparations for the Great Himalaya Trail. From here on I’ll have little internet access, but I hope to put up some posts after we have successfully finished that adventure.

David

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My mere presence must not have pleased the goddess …

At least that’s what I think on the fourth day of my mountain biking adventure in remote Eastern Nepal. Only 24 hours before I had climbed up to the temple of Pathibara Devi. At 3794 metres high it isn’t just an amazing viewpoint of Kachenjunga and Makalu (three of the five highest peaks in the world), it’s also an important Hindu pilgrimage were thousands of devotees congregate to make offerings to the goddess in return for some godly intervention. I decided to ask the her to make my upcoming bike trip a safe one without any major inconveniences. I hadn’t taken up a goat with me for slaughtering, but left a 10 rupees note hoping that it would be sufficient for a first-time requester like me.

Pathibara Devi

Pathibara Devi


But now I was regretting not leaving a more valuable offering behind. Over the last 24 hours I had crushed twice on a downhill section, my chain who at the beginning of my ride sounded like a purring kitten had started to rattle like the last grasping of a dying chain-smoker, the chain would regularly jam on the steep up-hill, a while back I had lost my map of the region and now all of the sudden it started raining. Big, lush, tropical rain drops were slowly transforming the orange dusty dirt road I was riding on into a brightly red quicksand that heavily stuck to my tires. As I stopped along the road, I suddenly realised that it came to an end not even 50 metres further. So here I was in the middle of nowhere, miles away from a hotel or shop, slowly getting wet at the end of a road I was supposed to follow into the next village. On the edge of despair I sit down and watch small Nepali man walk towards me with a little smile on his face. He only speaks basic English and that’s a lot better than my basic Nepali, but he understands my predicament and invites me over to stay at his family’s house for the night. It would be a recurring team for this trip: me pushing on along a remote track and the warm Nepali hospitality and generosity saving my ass. Or as Paul Theroux says it so much better: “Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”
Fixing my chain problem at my kind guest's house.

Fixing my chain problem at my kind guest’s house.


How exactly did I get here you might ask. After returning from my Langtang hike I received some bad news. Two leaders of the JVF NGO I was supposed to work with had been involved in a horrific bus crash and as a consequence my project was postponed indefinitely. Off course I regretted this fact a lot, but I could easily understand that this small community had bigger worries right now than accommodating a volunteer. I hope that I might come back in the future to this great project.
One of many footbridges to cross along the way.

One of many footbridges to cross along the way.


The following day I woke up with the plan to rent a bike, jump on a bus and get as far East as possible before returning back by bicycle connecting small villages, dusty roads and hundreds of friendly people along the way. At times it definitely was rough and challenging, but most of the time it turned out to be an amazing experience. It’s hard to capture everything but these are just some of the great encounters I have experienced along the way:
– When I bicycle into Thembe and ask around for a place to have lunch, a teenager tells me he works in a hotel and shows me the way. Instead he takes me to a wedding and promptly I get turned into the guest of honour.
– Some of the stretches are too step to ride up, so I have to carry my bike on my shoulders for hours at times. During an afternoon like this I stumble upon a group of boys who show me the way to their swimming hole where I have an amazingly refreshing swim.
– Everywhere I pass local kids would scream “bicycle” at the top of their lungs and then run along with me for miles. But nowhere it was so overwhelming as riding along the school of Chepte in the middle of their break. All of the sudden I’ve got hundreds of students running along with me. I’ve got the biggest smile ever on my face and don’t even realise I’m missing a turn-off where I’ll have to return back to two hours later.
– One night I’m riding/climbing up a road that’s still under construction. At 17.30 the sun has already disappeared behind the ridge and I haven’t seen a house for the last hour. Starting to wonder where I’ll sleep/eat that night, I stumble upon a road construction crew. Once they hear my sad story they invite me to stay at their basic camp and share their food with me.
– When two mornings later I bike through a small town, I see several kids with bloody red hands and an old lady with a broom chasing them away. I can only figure out what it means once I stop in the next village and I get assaulted by kids with red powder, it’s Holi. The festival of colour and I’m gladly invited to participate.
Holi Festival

Holi Festival


In the end I’ve ended up bicycling 18 days in some of the remotest sections of Nepal. Starting from Ilam I went to Phiddim, Taplejung, Dobhan, Deurali, Chainpur, Bhojpur, Diktel, Okhaldunga, Rampur, Khiji to Dhare. I’ve run into only three other foreigners during this trip. But the hundreds of friendly Nepali people along the way make sure I never feel lonely along the way.
Along the way

Along the way


So what’s ahead for me now? Well, I’m currenlty in Pokhara to relax and try to put on some extra weight. In a week my friend Remy arrives here. We hiked together for a stretch on the PCT last year and we’ve decided to hike the Great Himalaya Trail together. What has been a dream I’ve hoped to realise in a couple of years from now all of the sudden has become a very big reality right now. It will probably be the most challenging undertaking I have ever done. Around 1500 kilometres of hiking along the crest of the might Himalaya range, crossing Nepal from East to West. I look forward to it as much as I’m afraid of it. It will be the pinnacle of all my hiking adventures till now.
Great Himalaya Trail

Great Himalaya Trail


You can find more pictures of my MTB trip here.

Le Tour De Taiwan – Day 29

28 days later… and I’m getting close to the end of my bicycle trip around Taiwan. Fortunately I saved the best for last!

View From Hehuan Mountain Main Peak

Sunny View From Hehuanshan Main Peak

Fugang – Hualien

After an overdose of relaxation on Orchid Island, the ferryboat took me back to the picturesque little harbor of Fugang. The time I jumped on my bike, darkness was falling. But I didn’t mind getting a dusky ride. Around 11 PM and 100 km further north I pitched my tent on a campsite with the well–sounding name “Shihtiping” in the small town of Fengbing.

A perfect spot, if it wasn’t for the grumpy man brusquely waking me up the next morning around 6 AM. The angry gentleman turned out to be the owner, requesting me to pay 8ooTWD. An absurd amount for my ridiculously small one-person tent sadly placed in the grass (for comparison: a hostel dorm usually costs around 500 TWD). After a long and difficult negotiation involving my hands, feet and a site named “google translate” I paid 400 TWD and continued my journey. A campsite named “Shihtiping”? I should’ve known…

Fengbin Harbor Early in the Morning

Fengbin Harbor Early in the Morning

The remaining stretch from Fengbin to Hualien city was short. And as the nightly biking the previous day went well, I was all set for an easy day of relaxed cycling. On arrival in Hualien I realized that it was short, but definitely not as effortless as expected. To make my point:

Elevation profile Fengbin - Hualien City

View Along the Coastal Road to Hualien

View Along the Coastal Road to Hualien

Hualien – Taroko – Hehuanshan

Since I left on the bike, I had been thinking about climbing one of the many mountains in Taiwan. And after all, what would “Le Tour De Taiwan” be without a decent “queen stage”? Back in Taipei, Cecilia had shown me footage of her heroic climb of Mt. Hehuan (aka Hehuanshan aka “Joy Mountain”) during wintertime. Great inspiration! The climb is extra interesting because of its accessibility. The main peak can be climbed from Wuling (at 3,275 m the highest  pass in Taiwan). Moreover, the road to the climb from Hualien crosses the magnificent Taroko National Park.

The profile of the climb (more here – Taiwan Kom Challenge):

Elevation Profile Hualien - Hehuan Mountain

Elevation profile Hualien – Hehuanshan Mountain

I decided to pitch up my tent around Heliu in the Taroko gorge (altitude 400 m) Sunday late afternoon. The next morning I woke up at 5AM to tackle around 60 km of climbing towards the town of Guanyuan (altitude 2.374 m).

Taroko Gorge Valley View

Taroko Gorge Valley View

The climb was physically challenging with the MTB and the extra weight wasn’t helping to get up faster either. Luckily more than enough reasons to forget the physical strain: a beautiful sunrise, my very first encounter with (shy) Taiwanese monkeys and the majestic natural surroundings all along the way. Sometimes though, the road got dangerously close. Luckily warning signs were provided 🙂

Road close

Beware: Road Close

After a short night sleep in the Youth hostel in Guanyuan (there’s only one just in case you were wondering) I got started for the most beautiful part: the actual ascent towards Hehuanshan Mountain. Only 17 km between Guanyuan and the final climb but no doubt the hardest bit on the journey so far. Several parts have an elevation percentage above 12%. However, every bit of the journey was worth it. The view at 3.416 m above sea level on the main peak of Hehuanshan is stunning!

Hehuan Mountain Main Peak

Hehuan Mountain – 3.416 m

Le Tour De Taiwan – Day 18

I’m writing from Lanyu (Orchid Island), a small volcanic island off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. The plan was to spend 4 days on this little piece of paradise. However, because of the rough sea, yesterday’s boat was canceled. The perfect moment to write a short report about the last 9 days of cycling and traveling through the “Ilha Formosa”.

Heading From South to East

Heading From South to East

After having spent a day of exploring around Kenting, I got back on the road towards the east coast of Taiwan. Because of the strong wind, I was moving slow. Not that much of a problem considering the breathtaking scenery around me.

Breathtaking View Cycling Towards the East

Breathtaking View Cycling Towards the East

I decided to give my legs some rest and my upper body some work in the relaxed surfer town Jialeshui where I crashed at Winson’s house. Two days later, after a late afternoon surf session I bumped into another (crazy) Belgian! Koen is a fellow Prince Albert Fund alumni that spent one year working in Taipei. As we were moving in the same direction, we decided to bike together the next morning.

Surfing is So Happy

Surfing is So Happy…

Sunset in Jialeshui

Jialeshui Sunset

We took off early for one of the toughest but most beautiful “stages” of Le Tour de Taiwan until now: Jialeshui to Taimali (to see the route click here).  It was great to have a companion during the 115 km long ride in the sweltering heat on a hilly route (1551 m of incline). For those wondering where I get the stats from: Koen is an electrical engineer interested in technology registering our every move with one of his many useful apps.

Jialeshui - Taimali

Jialeshui – Taimali

Quite remarkable are the many “police stations” along the road. The criminality must be close to zero in most of the east as the stations function as “bicycle service areas”, invariably staffed with policemen keen on providing food, water, a place to sleep or information about Taiwan.

Police Station or Service Station for Cyclists?

Police Station or Service Station for Cyclists?

Sleeping Spot in Taimali

Sleeping Spot in Taimali

After a short and rainy night, we got up at 4.30 am and drove 30 km towards the pretty harbor town of Fugang. We arrived around 7 only to find out that the ferry wasn’t leaving until 9.30. Luckily we found shelter in one of the nearly five thousand (!)  7-ELEVEN stores in Taiwan.

Fugang Port

Fugang Port

The last few days on Orchid Island were spent snorkeling, diving and hiking. In short: enjoying life. However, the desire to head towards the mountains is growing. Hopefully the sea will be quiet enough to catch the scheduled ferry on Tuesday so I can continue my journey!

Port of Lanyu

Port of Lanyu

Diving

Two Crazy Belgians and One Crazy Fish

Lanyu View

Lanyu View

Sunset over Lanyu

Lanyu sunset

Le Tour De Taiwan – Day 9

After a good night sleep I got on the road together with Hom Yian, Cecilia’s dad. Hom Yian is (besides friendly and generous) a worried Asian father and wanted to make sure I’d safely make my way out of Taipei. So he decided to join me for the first day.  At times it must have been hilarious to witness us  communicating, in a language we both don’t speak. A remarkable duo to say the least 🙂

Ready to go!

The first three days on the bike were quite challenging. After having spent a wonderful time enjoying city-life in Taipei, it was hard to get adapted to the cycling rhythm. A burning sun with temperatures well above 30 and the realization that I should have packed lighter were not making it any easier. Next to that, along the west coast of the island there’s a lot of heavy industry. Understandably this does not make it the most beautiful area to be cycling through. Finding sleeping space or a spot to pitch my tent was hard as well. So I had to turn to the Almighty Buddha again. The first night I slept in a small Buddhist “chapel”. The second night, the Buddha’s smile turned even brighter and I enjoyed a (free) stay in a full-blown temple (with bedding, hot showers and stunning sunset).

Sleeping Spot First Night

Sleeping Spot Second Night: Fangyuan Temple

Sleeping Spot Second Night: Fangyuan Temple

Sunset Near Fangyuan Temple

Meanwhile, some friends had notified me about typhoon Usagi moving closer to Taiwan slowly but steadily. I decided to bike to Tainan where I met up with the local mermaid-girl Trista (thanks for the referral Joanne!). Once again I found myself amazed by the genuine hospitality of Taiwanese people as I was celebrating the Moon festival together with Trista and her lovely family. Thanks for the wonderful time we spent together and the tasty Taiwanese food you made me try!

With another 5 extra kilos I made my way further south (to the city of Kenting). The scenery has changed and I am now experiencing the true (natural) beauty of Taiwan. Some shots along the way and during a trip I made today:

Entering Pingtung County

Namwan Beach Tractor

Nanwan Beach Tractor

Houbihou Port. No Fishing

Baisha Beach

Baisha Beach

Sunset Near Guanshan

Guanshan Sunset

Tomorrow I’m planning to continue my journey towards the east side of Taiwan. Looking forward after what I’ve seen last few days!

P.s. Sometimes I miss Belgium.

Belgian Beer. Available in Taiwan as Well!

Sometimes I Miss Belgium 🙂