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 0

I’m writing from the city of Taipei where I’m staying at Cecilia’s place. Cecilia is a young Taiwanese writer/artist David met a couple of years ago while trekking through Kyrgyzstan. It truly is a small world indeed. Thank you Cecilia for the generosity/inspiration and David for the referral.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be heading out for my own version of “Le Tour de Taiwan”. After some final preparations today (buying a tent and picking up Cecilia’s bike), I’m all set for this new little adventure. My estimation is to be on the road for the next 3 weeks, covering around 1.500 km (distance/time will greatly depend on how many times I get lost and whether or not I’ll attempt to climb Mt. Hehuan). I’ll try to regularly post updates about my (cycling) experiences in the time to come. Now, however, I urgently need to “hit the sack”.

Testing the Bike in New Taipei City

“Testing” the Bike in New Taipei City

Indonesian Island Adventures

It has been exactly one month since I started with the third and final part of my little trip around the globe, so time for another update.

Before heading to Indonesia I stayed a week at travel buddy Tom’s brand new house in Melbourne. Finally “the golden duo” TomTom reunited again and a perfect opportunity to recharge my batteries. Luckily this time (for a change) it was Ozzie Tom that had to face my smelly feet and give comments about my bewildered hair and the belief that using shampoo would damage the natural equilibrium by reducing the power of the natural oils keeping my golden locks in shape.

Indonesian Introduction

Before I had set foot on Indonesian soil I knew absolutely nothing about the country. If you would have asked me the capital I’d have guessed Indonesia city. Strange thing, because it is an important nation:

– The population of the country is around 230 million (depending on the source used), making it the 4th most populous nation in the world preceded only by China, India and the US. At the same time, it has the world’s largest Muslim population.

– Indonesia is composed out of no less than 17508 different islands, a record.

– Some (older) people on the island of Flores speak Dutch due to the colonial past of the island. I attempted to find a Dutch speaker, but unfortunately without success.

Enough facts and figures . Time for some travel experiences!

Balinese Bargaining

The minute I arrived in Kuta (not to be confused with Kuta in Lombok, a town I’ll be describing later on) I felt like getting the hell out of there again. The place gets very close to my description of hell on earth. I was in search for peace of mind, genuine Asian travel experiences and tranquility but got immediately hassled by all sorts of dodgy looking “salespeople” using the most horrible sales-approach:

Mister mister, accommodation? – I’m sorry, I already have something. But hotel is very nice! – No, I already have a booking. Special price for you! NO, NON, NEIN, NOPES, NEEN! (×15)

Mister, you from America? (the insult! I am European, don’t I look sophisticated?)

Mister, for you special offer (well, maybe first explain WHAT you are trying to sell me the next time).

You like massage? (of course I like a massage, you idiot)

Hello, you taxi? (You taxi? me Jane!)

Transport, yes? Massage, yes? (Transport NO! Massage NO! Annoying YES!)

Another annoyance is the fact that prices are nowhere near fixed. Needless to say that all of them crooked vendors try to sell you their goods or services for 5 to 10 times the real value. In the very beginning I felt helpless and stupid for being ripped off a couple of times. But pretty soon I developed a waterproof bargaining methodology I like to refer to as the “I have blue eyes and blond hair but I am not a stupid tourist” technique (probably resulting in still paying 20% too much).

Long story short: I directly got moving again. The next day I went straight to Padangbai and jumped on the slow ferry to Lombok.

The End(e)

On the ferry I met up with Made and his daughter Sarah. As we were heading in the same direction we teamed up, forming a quite remarkable trio. Well, I was sort of invading a family thing. But we turned out to have good times. Sarah soon became my little sister, with Made I had long discussions about international politics, economics and the role (pun intended) of toilet paper in establishing peace in the middle east.

Sarah and Made

Sarah and Made

We set ourselves the goal to get to Moni on the island of Flores to explore the three colored volcanic lakes. The journey entailed hours and hours on slow ferry’s and bumpy buses (I think we were more on the road than we were actually visiting things). Travelling across the islands of Sumbawa and Flores means that transportation is not frequent, never on schedule and from time to time one is forced to spend the night in a place like Sape with nothing but one small hotel without shower but with bugs on the wall. Yet, at the same time that’s the charm of it all. Slow travel at its best!

Highlights of the trip:

Forgetting about time and other modern life disturbances…

On the ferry:

Posing with Ozzie Marc en Patrick on the Ferry to Flores

Or on a bus:

Indonesian smiles on the bus

Spotting Komodo dragons in Komodo National Park

The Komodo dragon is the world’s biggest lizard (these sweeties grow up to 2-3 meter and weigh 70 kg) that can only be found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores and Gili Motang.

The dragons are huge and it is an absurd view to spot these savage animals that remained unchanged by evolution since 15 million years. Even though they mainly feed themselves with the carcasses of dead animals, the Komodo’s also hunt birds and mammals. Interesting (and gruesome) fact is that the dragon’s saliva contains numerous bacteria. A bite of the large lizard means wounds get severely infected. Yummy.

Komodo dragon on Rinca

Driving from Ende to Moni (on the island of Flores) on a scooter

Probably one of the best experiences during my Indonesian travels. Every single local is waving or tries to stop you in order to have a chat (even though proper communication is impossible). Wonderful and absolutely mind-blowing to see the disarming smile on the faces of these people.

Indonesian smiles on Flores

Disarming Indonesian smiles

The ride on the scooter itself is pretty challenging as the roads are not in the best shape and the Indonesian traffic has its very own rules. Most important one: the biggest or most persistent vehicle gets to go first.

Indonesian motorcycle madness

The Kelimutu volcano and its three colored lakes

A volcano with three crater lakes with varying colors. We actually got up at 3.30 am to go and witness sunrise only to find a cloud covered sky followed by a serious downpour (yep, it is rain season). Nevertheless a dazzling view and wonderful experience.

Kelimutu volcano and its colored lakes

The airport in Ende

The coolest and probably the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. Mainly because of the unique location: right in town next to a wonderful stretch of beach. Upon entering the airport you pass through the metal detectors without emptying your pockets or taking off your belt. Beep-Beep-Beep. Whatever. Nobody bothers while you proceed, holding a 1.5 liter bottle of water in your left, a 1 liter bottle of Arak in your right hand.

Ende International Airport 🙂

And of course a rock star picture had to be made:

Belgian celebrity arriving at Ngurah Rai International Airport

Lombok Laziness

The Gili Islands

After all the stress I have been through lately I was in desperate need of a break. Perfect spot: the Gili islands (Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan). I met up with Californian Grace and pretty soon we were lying (or jumping) on a wonderful beach sipping cocktails, taking a plunge for some snorkeling or having a wonderful deep diving experience on Gili T, spotting white tip reef sharks, white trevallies and chevron barracudas

Snorkeling jumping Belgian on Gili Air

Even though Indonesian law on drugs is very strict -death penalty for drug trafficking, one to five years imprisonment for simple possesion- The Gili’s have something with Magic Mushrooms and most likely some other illegal substances. Instead of the regular “Mister! Massage, yes”, “Transportation, yes” you’d rather hear “Mister! Mushroomshake, yes” or “Fly to the moon, yes”.

Kuta Lombok

Comparing Kuta in Bali with Kuta in Lombok is a bit like matching up Belgium with a well-governed country. Kuta can easily be defined as heaven on earth for those who love beautiful deserted beaches, surfing and cheap Indonesian food.

Food with a view

The best vegetarian restaurant I have ever set foot in is called Ashtari. British Helen and her Australian husband serve amazing food -wonderful coconut-chocolate shakes, a lentil curry or noodles with tempe, tofu and a wonderful spiced up vegetable mix- and their food temple is located on a hilltop with stunning views over the wonderful nearby beaches.

Jumping Belgian at Ashtari restaurant

Surfers paradise

Around Kuta there are several superb surfing breaks. Without the crowds and in sublime surroundings I was able to tilt my skills to yet another level. Though I must admit I still got to drink a lot of seawater and I managed to gather a collection of very nasty little wounds on my feet after surfing on a reef break. But as usual, catching that one good wave gives you the energy to get going again, forgetting about all suffering and pain.

Surfing at Seger Reef

Delightful deserted beaches

Images speak louder than words!

Coconut-girl Grace

Stunning Seger Reef sunset

Sunbathing beach cow

Monkey Business

Following our 10 days of total chilaxation in Kuta, we headed to Ubud in Bali. Close to the airport for Grace’s return flight to San Francisco and a good starting point for my further Indonesian explorations (Java). And oh no, there we go again (hello mister, hello miss, taxi yes, hotel yes, massage yes, GRMBL). Especially after the low key and relaxed travels, it was very difficult for me not to lose my cool (and mind) while constantly being approached in this “eat-pray-love”-settlement. However, that was before we got to the…

Monkey forest! A forest with heaps of tourist, temples and (surprise) monkeys. While playing around with these intelligent and nasty little macaque monkeys, I forgot about all the hassle straight away. There is a spot on planet earth where I can fully be myself after all.

Monkey Madness

One would get hungry after playing around with them crazy monkeys. On top of that, this report would not be complete without mentioning some of the great Indonesian dishes. What I like the most about Indo food is the fact that a piece of meat isn’t the cornerstone of every meal. Consequently I have been eating more or less vegetarian for the last month (I gladly made an exception while tasting some of the fresh seafood). Three amazing local meals we prepared ourselves during a half-day vegetarian cooking course:

– Bergedel (corncake): Tasty egg-corncake, very ease to prepare.
– Sayur Urab (Vegetables mixed with your hands): an amazing combination of fried green vegetables with grated coconut and a mix of several spices.
– Opor Sayur: vegetable curry, prepared with a basic spices paste, vegetables, coconut milk and lemongrass.

Preparing Sayur Urab

While traveling slow and spending time at the beach I got to read some of the books I have been dragging along in my way too heavy backpack. Inspiring trip, inspiring books, inspiring people (thank you May Jean, Grace and David):

– Three cups of tea – David Oliver Relin : Climber Greg Mortenson and his mission to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan after he ends up in a small Pakistani village following a failed attempt to ascend K2.
– Mountains beyond Mountains – Tracy Kidder: The story of Doctor Paul Farmer and his medical aid for the poorest of the poorest in Haiti.
– Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer: Detailed account of reporter Jon Krakauer’s dramatic ascent of Mount Everest.

Another goodbye later (bye bye Grace!) and with a severely messed up stomach, hurting feet and a badly infected mosquito bite on my knee I headed to the Denpasar migration office in order to extend my stay in Indonesia for my Java travels. The grumpy customs officer explained me in broken English it would take up to 7 working days to extend my visa. Upon arrival I was told that extension was a piece of cake (Tidah apa apa – No problem mister!). With only 2 days left on my visa, staying in Indonesia would have cost me quite a bit of money (20 $ per day overtime). Moreover, I didn’t really feel like hanging around in Denpasar to recollect my new visa (I would rather die).

After 15 seconds of shameful angry sobbing I checked out Air Asia’s sweetest deals. And that’s how I am currently writing from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Allright, time to get going again. I’d like to finish this post with the lyrics of the song that has been stuck in my head the whole day: Don’t think about all those things you fear, just be glad to be here!

The best to all of you!


Day 285: Nepal by foot

A long hike, an irritable period of sickness and a broken keyboard have prevented me from updating this blog for a while. However I felt like I could not leave you without a short Christmas post.

After my rafting adventure I headed to Pokhara, the trekking starting point for whoever wants to hike around, through or over the Annapurnas. After a long doubt about which trek to do – the costly Nar-Phu trek or the Annapurna Circuit for which I came to Nepal – I decided to go for the latter. A short shopping spree later, I collected my gear and was ready to set off.

The circuit

Altitude profile

On the bus to Besishahar I met Travis, this avid outdoors American who worked for a national park before leaving on this trip would be my hiking buddy for the trip. Not only had we planned a similar itinerary, he had just finished the treks to Everest and Annapurna Base Camp and thus had all the experience I might have lacked. You can read how he experienced the trek here.

Travis and Eva

On day two I ran in to Eva. It turned out that she had studied at Olomouc University where I had done my Erasmus studies. Since she was one of the few other people who was trekking without a guide as well, she decided to team up with us as well. This resulted in a great triple who would stick together for the rest of the trek. We were like-minded enough to get along, but our backgrounds were diversified enough to guarantee interesting conversations.

The Annapurna Circuit is the mother of all teahouse trekkings. This makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable compared to the camping trekkings I had done before. During the day we would pass through little villages every two hours or so where we had the possibility to drink some tea or have lunch. At night we would stop at one of the villages and look for accommodation for that night. If lucky we could take a hot shower, before gathering in the dining area where dal bhat would be the best option for calorie per rupee intake. Once we got higher up there would be a stove burning wood or yak dung where everybody would gather around to warm themselves. At night we would ask for an extra blanket to keep us warm while we drifted away for a night of vivid dreaming. This meant that we could do all this walking without need for tent or cooking gear, a welcome saving for our loaded backs.

During the following 14 days of trekking we would settle in a slightly fixed regime. We would meet up early in the morning for breakfast, which mainly consisted out of big pots of tea and steaming hot porridge to get us going. When the first beams of sunlight would be shining on the mountain tops, we would pack our bags, settle our bills and start of in a dispersed order. Everybody would be going at his own pace through the glorious scenery that the Himalayas provided. We might meet up along the way to chat or have lunch together, but most of the time we would spent alone letting our thoughts wander alongside us. At night we would meet up in the little village we had planned for that morning and would spent the evening chatting away or reading a book.

I had picked up ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance‘ in one of the teahouses along the way and spent several nights struggling through this iconic book. The night before tackling the high pass, I read the following passage that I found to be extremely truthful and would’t want to withhold from you:

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow. –ROBERT PIRSIG, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

I could stop with this remarkable quote but there are some highlights of the trek that I would still like to mention:

The abundance of animals along the trek. From water buffaloes and langur monkeys in the tropical valleys to yaks and blue sheep high in the mountains.

Gliding away on Ice Lake at 4600 metres while some yaks were looking weary at us acting foolishly.

Our superb sidetrip to Tilicho Lake, one of the highest in the world at 4919 metres. It's here that I decided to go for a swim while it was minus 10 degrees outside. My towel froze up the second I was finished using it.

The medieval villages along the way that surprised you every time you stumbled upon one.

The endless rows of prayer walls, prayer rolls and prayer flags along the way. I was humming 'Om mani padme hum' every time I passed one of them.

The satisfaction of making it to and across Thorung La pass, at 5416 metres one of the highest trekking passes in the world.

More pictures you can find here and here.

Wish you all a very merry Christmas and a festive New Year.

It’s at time like these that I miss being home the most, but luckily I’m very much looking forward at traveling with my sister in the coming two weeks.


Day 259: Nepal by raft

My time in Kathmandu was limited in between two adventure trips (as it is now as well). After coming back from my bike trip, I was a little bit unsettled by the big mess that Kathmandu is. However my “To do” list was long and I only had one full day before setting off on the rafting trip. Most of the time was spent at the Indian embassy, starting the application process for my visum. The rest of the time was dedicated to good food, shopping and preparing for the rafting trip.

Early next morning I met up with the crew in Thamel. A jolly bunch of 13 foreigners and 5 Nepali guides who all had decided to dedicate ten days of their lives to raft the Karnali river. We had a 24 hour bus ride ahead of us to get to the drop off point, which gave us ample opportunity to get to know each other. The foreigners could easily be classified in three different groups: first of all there were five Australian guys who were working on a United Nations project in Bangladesh and were spending their time off in Nepal; secondly there were five people who were avid rafters/kayakers and had been following a raft guide course or working as a guide upon some of the easier rivers in Central Nepal; and final there was a threesome of individual travelers: a 66-year old adventurous Italian, an American lady on R&R from working in Iraq and myself.

On the road

Although the busride to the start was long and not very comfortable, I ended up enjoying it. People on the trip were pretty interesting and once the conversation died out a bit, we decided to sit on the roof of the bus. I can not think of a better way of traveling through Nepal. You’re sitting high on top of the bus, which offers you a superb view of the landscape you’re riding through and the combination of shining sun and a light breeze make it all very enjoyable.

Three meals of daal bhat, 520 kilometres and a night in a dodgy hotel later, we finally arrived at the drop off point. Road works had caused us some delay, so we would only start rafting the following day. It would be the start of a routine that we would repeat for the following seven nights:

– Everybody got busy unloading the bus, on the river this would mean unloading the boats. Food, cooking gear, dry bags, …
– As you might have noticed in the previous bullet point, I’m not mentioning tents here. Our sleeping location would be the second thing we would have to take care of. This meant dragging the rafts up to a flat location, flipping them over, supporting them with two paddles, putting a tarp on the floor and on the top as protection and securing everything with ropes. And so we slept every night in the open air, a great system.

Sleeping under a raft

– While the guides were setting up the kitchen and working on dinner, we would have to finish some minor tasks such as building the toilet and collecting driftwood for the bonfire.
– In the meanwhile all the kids from the surrounding villages would have crept closer and have thoroughly inspected us, our gear and our food. Some days we’d pass through little villages that were multiple days of walking away from civilization, so the sight of 13 white people was pretty rare for them.
– The rest of the night was spent with feasting on the good food we were served; reading books; playing football, volleyball or frisbee; sitting around the campfire; … until it started getting too cold and dark, after which we went to bed.

Our campsite

In the morning the whole procedure would be the other way around.

– Waking up between 6 and 7 am, luckily enough with a cup of hot tea to get you going and some nice breakfast to follow.
– Breaking down the campsite and pulling the rafts back to the river, where all our stuff was loaded back on again
– Leaving for another day of rafting on the Karnali river.

Some words about the Karnali river and why I’ve decided to raft this river.
– It’s the longest river in Nepal and is one of the important religious rivers for Hindu people.
– The succession of class four and five rapids make it one of the most exciting but also dangerous rivers to run
– Due to it’s remoteness we did not get a single sign of civilization during six days (no sounds of cars, no television or internet)
– You spend most the time cruising through a beautiful valley with good opportunity to spend wildlife (langur monkeys, gharial crocodiles and cormorant birds; (un)fortunately no sign of the Bengali tiger)
– The Nepalese government has planned to dam this river in the coming years, which will mean the end of rafting on the Karnali river.

Gathering of local kids

The rafting trip itself consisted of one warm-up day, two intense days with class four and five rapids (I still tremble when thinking about God’s House), two days of mellow paddling and two final days of drifting towards our end point. After all that paddling I was happy to be back on shore on the last day, with another long busride ahead of me.

Right now I’m in Pokhara and packing up to trek the infamous Annapurna Circuit, depending on how I feel I might add the Tilicho Lake and Annapurna Base Camp trek to my schedule as well. Could be a while before I write another update here 🙂

In the meantime I leave you with a quote a dear friend once sent to me:

Clamence often speaks of his love for high, open places — everything from mountain peaks to the top decks of boats. “I have never felt comfortable,” he explains, “except in lofty surroundings. Even in the details of daily life, I need to feel above (Camus, The Fall)

More pictures of my Nepali adventures you can find here.

Day 246: Nepal by bike

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.

The lunch for champions

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.

Himalayas in the background

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.

Having tea with the local monk

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.

Devghat confluence

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.

Manakamana temple

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).

The bull Nandi at Gorkha Durbar

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.

Riding the ferris wheel

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.

Ashlee, Evan, Flavio and me in front of our guest house

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)