Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Last Days on the Road

Adventures make one late for dinner - Bilbo Baggins 

So I'm now back in the UK. I'm home. End of trip. That's enough of adventure for me for now. 

It's tempting to write an Oscar speech thanking everyone, and gushing about how fabulous it all was. But I ain't gonna. I've thanked everyone in person, or with sweets, and, well, it wasn't all fabulous. There were amazing times, days and weeks of blissful cycling and wandering, but some days were hard. There were occasions when I just wanted to give up and go home, or at least go somewhere cooler than the baking heat of a north Indian summer. 

I was probably ready for a break, but in the end I was defeated by circumstances. 

The first thing to happen was that my sister called to tell me that dad was in hospital. If I hadn't had my emergency passport and a concomitant load of admin in order to change my travel plans, I'd have gone straight to Delhi and caught the next flight home. However, I decided to wait an extra day in Nahan, wait for a call from home and watch the England vs Italy quarter final. Dad seemed to be improving, and to no one's surprise he told me to carry on. 

I was worried about him, and my heart really wasn't in it any more. The depressing football match didn't help. I hadn't been enjoying much of the cycling as it was too damn hot and I was having to take a huge detour to get to where I wanted to be. I thought I was a week, at most, away from getting into the high Himalayas where it would be cooler, and quieter, and better. 

The next morning, I was moving slowly. It was eleven o'clock before I left the hotel, preparing to ride into the hottest part of the day, which is tough at the best of times, and I was having second thoughts about bothering. I had repaired my gear shifters only the day before, as I thought they were the source of my mechanical problem. But the bike had also felt unaccountably weird, as if it was canting to one side, leading me to think that I'd got the weight distribution wrong... I leant the bike against a wall in Nahan and gave it an experimental kick. 

The whole rear end moved. That's not good. 

I looked closer, and the right side chainstay had sheared off. It was obvious that this was the source of the gear changing problems on the ride up, and it seemed even more obvious that it was the end of my trip. 

I rolled back to my hotel and ordered tea and toast at the restaurant. I was going to strip the bike down, salvage what I could, chuck the rest in a skip and go home. There actually was a skip around the corner from the hotel. I'd just have to make sure I didn't brain any monkeys when I threw the frame in. 

While I was sulking, the hotel manager came in and looked at me. 

"Why are you still here?" he asked. 

I explained, and took him outside to show him the problem. 

He looked down at the bike, gave the rear end a shove and said "This is not a problem. We can fix this." 

We chucked my bike in his jeep and went down to his mate Vishwal's welding shop, only a five minute drive away, chatting about his drive through Kinnaur and Spiti on the way. That's where I had been planning to go next.

Vishwal welding my bike in Nahan

The welding shop was as ramshackle as you'd expect, with a dog asleep amidst a tangle of wires, and enough bits to make the halfs of six or seven vehicles, but not a complete car or auto-rickshaw in sight. Still, Vishwal clearly knew his trade, and... well, here's the video. 

Good on you, Vishwal. Half an hour later we were back at the hotel and the staff were taking my bike for test rides around Nahan's alleys. 

Nevertheless, I was on the bus back to Delhi the next day. 

I always thought that there were two things which could make me end my trip early (assuming that I avoided injury and stayed sane); an emergency at home, or a catastrophic failure to my bike, such as the frame breaking.  Both of those happened, and on the same day. I can recognise an ending when I see it. 

I stayed in a decent hotel, and though I had a couple of days negotiating with Indian officials to organise my visa, it was relatively straightforward. I was an old lag at it by then. A couple of pleasant flights over the Hindu Kush and up the English east coast and I was back, dazed, enjoying the proper skies and late nights that an English summer offers. Not to mention the food. I arrived for my sister's 40th birthday dinner, at your typical English country pub with your typical English country pub food. I had the roast dinner, of course. With a few pints of beer. 

I've now been back more than two months, which feels like no time at all. It's been fabulous to see my friends and family again, and easy too. Too easy, hence the length of time it's taken to update this. 

It might be better to have come back so suddenly, rather than having had a drawn-out countdown. But, there's so much I didn't get to see. I'm particularly disappointed to have been so close to the Indian Himalayas, and to have been turned back, first by military-controlled zones, then by events. 

Needless to say, it's now time to start planning a different trip, and a different bike. I was very pleased not to have to hoy my bike into a skip in India, and to be able to being it home. The weld's still going strong. 

Too much to say here. Which is the reason this has taken me so long to finish; I've so much left to say that I didn't know how to fit it all in.  But that's how the journey came to a premature end, and look out for the book (which I need to get around to writing). I didn't put everything into the blog, so there are a few good stories you've yet to read. I'll see you all on the road somewhere. 

Dean 

rainbow at the Fox Covert

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Access Denied Part 2

Day 317, 23/06/2012 - ???, Kalsi, u-turn, Vikasnagar, Paonta Sahib, NH7, Nahan: 53.85 miles, 5:45:04, 27.2 mph max, 9149.5 miles total

What a frustrating day. The highway to Chakrata is also closed to foreigners. I was turned away by a smiling but firm policeman, and had to bring out my map and re-route again.

I did enjoy the first bit of riding, though, breaking out of the Yamuna gorge and into light woodland alongside one of the Yamuna's tributaries. The debris from the previous day's deluge still covered the roads, which for a moment reminded me of an English autumn on country lanes, until I was struck by the heat and the lush greenness of the foliage.

Although there was a possible route along minor roads on my Eicher map, this was not supported by Google maps, and I wasn't willing to take the chance of being turned back again, either at another restricted zone or at a dead end. The Eicher maps are pretty good, except when they're not.

My new route, therefore, is up to Shimla and from there I'll retrace to my planned route along the Lahaul and Spiti valleys and up to Leh. It probably adds at least 70 miles to the journey, as well as being along busier roads, but it doesn't affect my plans that much; as long as I get to Leh I'll be content. I could ride 25 miles a day and take a week off, and still be in Leh in less than a month, which leaves plenty of time before my flight from Delhi on the fifth of August.

It was frustrating still to be in the plains and enduring the heat, though. It was an extremely dull ride, until the last five miles, where it was a bit too interesting.

As well as the 500 metres of climbing on the five miles up to Nahan (another former British hill station atop a ridge, continuing the theme which began with Mussourie and will continue with Shimla in a day or two), my gears started playing up. Literally: the lever has lost friction, and the bike won't stay in the lowest gear, which was crippling on such a steep hill.

While I was asking the internet for help, loads of cheerful Sikhs came up and demanded photos, although I tried to explain that I was busy. They didn't believe me.

I've fixed the problem well enough, for now. I've had some news from home (not too bad, thankfully) which prompted me to have a day off in Nahan, and I can think of worse places to spend a day. It's not as tacky or crowded or as expensive as Mussourie, has a few relics from the Raj, including the Lytton Memorial, commonly known as Delhi Gate. I think this is a memorial to Robert Bulwer-Lytton, former Viceroy General of India, rather than Edward of "it was a dark and stormy night" notoriety. Nahan has a relaxed air and a huge open space at the centre where people are playing cricket and football and netball. It's still bloody hot, but the maximum temperature is about 37 degrees, rather than the 40+ lower down.

I hope to get to Shimla in one day, but I doubt I'll be able to. It's nearly eighty miles, 1200 metres higher, and I'll be crossing enough hills in high temperatures to suggest that one day is a bit ambitious. However, as I have to take time off in Shimla to organise my in-line permit (which is required for foreigners who plan to travel along the road through Lahaul and Spiti, as it goes within a couple of miles of the sensitive Chinese/Tibetan border), I don't need to worry about saving my strength for the next day. I'm also hoping for it to be cooler as I get away from the plains. The roads I'm following go well over 5000 metres, where the effects of the altitude will make cycling extremely tough, but at least it'll be a different challenge to hills-n-heat, and I think I deserve a sweet spot between the cruel heat and the gasping altitude where I can sit back and enjoy the cycling.

Actually, forget that. I'll just be pleased if I can ride along all the roads without being turned back as an unwelcome foreigner.

Access Denied: No Room at the Ashram

Day 316, 22/06/2012 - Mussourie, Kemptie Falls, Yamuna Bridge, detour, Juddo, ???: 41.68 miles, 3:37:17, 33.0 mph max, 9098.6 miles total

Turns out, my hotel had only been a mile from the Mall at the centre of Mussourie, though it was quite a mile! The road up to The Mall rejoices in the name of Palpitation Slope. I stopped for breakfast halfway up.

Mussourie was busy and a bit scruffy. The other former British hill station I'd visited, Shimla, was much cleaner and better kept. I pushed on, and downwards.

My route was to take me by the most direct route available into the hills; minor roads were marked on my map going from Mussourie to Yamuna Bridge, Chakrata, Rohru and Reckong Peo (I'll put up a link when I get to a proper computer).

This started well, though on the eighteen-mile descent to Yamuna Bridge I lost nearly all the height I'd gained. I had hoped to get high and stay up in the cooler air, but I had at least this one valley to cross, and probably more, so more hard work in the heat.

Not that the descent wasn't fun. There was quite a lot of traffic down to the spectacular but overdeveloped Kemptie Falls, but I soon left the bustle behind, and got to practise my racing line on the hairpins.

The Yamuna was clean and bright at this stage of its journey, unlike the mucky sewer which you can smell from half a mile away in Delhi, and it cuts a great cleft through the hills. It was a steep climb back out of the valley.

Yamuna Bridge

I took the unmarked minor road towards Chakrata, and had to take a few breaks to escape the sun. There was a handy bus shelter. As the road went up the surface became imperceptibly worse, until I noticed I'd left the tarmac behind. I was riding so slowly, I didn't notice the change until I was riding across loose rock rather than worn tarmac, and my speed fell from about 4 mph to about 2.5 mph. Still, it was only 25 miles to Chakrata, and I'd be picking up the highway again after another ten miles. I expected to be there before dark.

There was very little other traffic, but a jeep driver waved me down and told me that I couldn't go any further as the road was restricted. Apparently it's a military area, so no foreigners. I thought about ignoring him, but I wasn't very far up the road, and there was a highway up to Chakrata which took me back down the Yamuna for only seven miles or so; it was better to turn back then, rather than in another ten miles.

A quick swoop downhill back to the highway, then. I'd only come two and a half miles up that road, and I really enjoyed Highway 507, along the Yamuna gorge. Towering hills, the rush of the river below, a smooth surface (mostly), and a friendly downhill gradient. I'd have to make up all of the height again, and there was no chance of getting to Chakrata today, but I was enjoying the moment. I stopped for a snack in Juddo and asked the locals if there was a guest house nearby; the shopkeeper told me there was one in another eight kilometres.

The road deteriorated a bit after that. Actually, there are two roads alongside the river, Highway 507 on the north bank and the minor road at the south which I was following, which had suffered from landslides and water run-off caused by the monsoons. Stretches of smooth tarmac were interrupted by rocky sections which shook my luggage and my teeth.

I didn't see any guest houses, and when it started to rain, I only stopped to put my valuables inside my panniers. I didn't bother with a rain jacket - it was still hot, there was no point.

The rain worsened. Still no guest house. Eventually the rain became so bad that I had to stop. This must be what the monsoon is like, I thought. The wind was whipping about, driving the rain into my face, and the potholes became invisible under the water. I've never experienced rain like that. Even inside the restaurant where I stopped, the rain was being driven inside, over the balcony, into the restaurant, and into the bedrooms. I looked back up the valley; the dry streambed which I'd passed five minutes earlier was now a torrent of mud.



The guys were pleased to see it, as it's been an unusually dry year, but it wasn't fitting in with my plans. I wasn't going anywhere until the rain stopped, and it was simply getting worse.

The lad at the restaurant told me that I'd already passed the guest house. In fact, it was the ashram a kilometre back, which I had noticed but ignored as it appeared to be closed. I liked the idea of spending a night at an ashram, but this lad called the caretaker, and it was already full with a pack of English and Swedish students there for a retreat.

Luckily, he said I could stay there for the night. He offered me his own bed, but I said that was daft, as I had a sleeping bag and bivvy bag, which I happily used to bed down on the balcony. It was pleasantly cool. The whole family came to talk to me, and we talked about cricket and and offers of marriage, amongst other random subjects, until they realised how tired I was and let me get some sleep.

my bed for the night

Ra Ra Rishikesh

(from now, I'm going to try to post something for each day's cycling - this is the first)

Day 315, 21/06/2012 - Rishikesh, Joli Grant, Dehra Dun, Rajpur, Mussourie: 52.44 miles, 6:37:10, 28.1 mph max, 9057.0 miles total

This was my third visit to Rishikesh, and the more I saw of it, the more I liked it. The first time I was there, I was still new to India and overwhelmed by the frenetic activity of the place, as I'd been led to expect a peaceful riverside enclave. It's as mad and tacky as ever, still full of fake sages and ear-cleaning salesmen, still awash with tourists seeking enlightenment or oblivion. But unlike a lot of Indian cities, it has individuality, an atmosphere not quite like anywhere else I've visited in India. And above all, it still has that magnificent setting, perched in the gorge where the Ganga leaves behind the mountains.

I spent a couple more days there than I'd planned to, but I did stick to my plan of starting cycling just before dawn, to avoid the midday scorching. For reasons too tedious to list, I was awake at ten pm, and spent the night packing and drinking coffee until there was enough light in the sky at about 4.30. Rishikesh centre was bustling, even then.

I like the road from Rishikesh to Joli Grant Airport, which I rode in the other direction in April. It's wide and smooth and quiet, passing through light jungle above a dry monsoon river bed. I was half-hoping to see elephants at the early morning, as the road is lined with signs such as "Beware Wild Elephants" and "Elephants Have Right of Way", but they must have been asleep in their hammocks in the tree canopy by then. There were packs of monkeys, though, which I rode through warily as they watched me pass.

The road went gently up, then gave a gentle descent towards Dehra Dun, state capital of Uttararkhand. I had no particular urge to visit it, and followed the bypass towards Mussourie, a former British hill station. It's now a popular holiday destination for Indians to escape the sweltering heat of the plains - that road was busy.

It was also very very up. Mussourie is atop a ridge at 2000 metres ASL, and Dehra Dun is about 650 metres ASL. Most of the climbing was compressed into the last 15 miles, especially once I'd passed Rajpur. A smiling, bespectacled old Indian gent in Rajpur saw me, stopped, lowered his umbrella and gave me an amused look, much more focussed than your average blank Indian stare.

I smiled back and offered a hello.

"Going to be tough," he said.

"Thanks!"

He wasn't wrong, though. I'd forgotten to eat since my second breakfast at 7.30 am (that Indian classic, butter toast), and when my legs came over all wobbly at about 1500 metres ASL, I had to stop and guzzle some Pringles. I did stop frequently at the many tea stands, but that was mainly to take on liquid. The heat smothered my appetite.

It was, however, getting cooler as I climbed higher. A breeze was coming up the Dehra Dun valley, and I carried on through the heat of the day.

I'd only planned to get to Mussourie as this was my first significant ride for nearly a month, and I wanted to ease my way back in gently. Also, with the amount of climbing in the heat I expected, I was never going to manage my usual 60-70 miles for a day.

Anyway, what with the lack of miles in my legs, the heat (it was a relatively balmy 35 degrees in Mussourie when I arrived) and lack of fuel, I was knackered. Not to mention a sharp pain down the side of my right leg when I pedalled, which I thought might be related to saddle height; I've swapped my pedals for flat pedals, so I raised my seat to compensate, which didn't help much.

I asked at a couple of hotels, but they were so expensive, as you'd expect at high season, but I balked at paying 1500 rupees just to camp. The youth hostel (I quite enjoyed having a look around this place, in many ways it was your classic British youth hostel, but also distinctly Indian in character) was full. I checked into a dingy, over-priced hotel when I couldn't be bothered to go any further, and slept away twelve hours.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

It's Not All Yak Burgers and Mountains, You Know





Or, the admin. The paperwork. The tedious side of cycle touring. Kicking around in cities, lurking around heavily-guarded embassies and shabby government offices, applying for visas while aching to get on the road again, negotiating with recalcitrant officials and curmudgeonly security staff, not to mention the waiting. The cycling is a simple freedom, but when I do fly free, it's upon wings pasted together with paperwork and application forms.

I'm hardly new to the myriad ways of foreign governments and the administrative puzzles they offer. In Erzurum, where I collected my Iranian visa, the internet offered three different addresses for the Iranian Consulate, not one of which was accurate, and when I called them to ask where they were, they ignored my question and asked me to provide information which I would only have when I had received my visa, from the embassy which I couldn't find. In Istanbul, my parcel of bits from home was impounded by customs; however, they didn't tell me that it had been impounded, not by letter, e-mail, telephone, carrier pigeon or telepathy. But in the same way that there are no hills worse than gratuitous hills, there's no admin worse than self-inflicted admin. This time, it was my own fault.

I'd already endured a week in Kathmandu to arrange my second Indian visa, which involved three trips to the embassy and two encounters with the Indian Embassy Official. I've met some miserable government employees in my time, but this guy takes the grumpy biscuit. Somewhere, there's a Finishing School for Obstructionist Government Staff, and he not only graduated with full honours, he was awarded the Surly Certificate for Outstanding Jobsworthiness, in triplicate. All I wanted was to get a second Indian visa*, and I did get it, and he was willing to listen to reason and wasn't entirely impervious to charm, but his ability to transform a simple request into an official appeal was peerless.

While on the Annapurna trek, I'd noticed that my passport was damaged. The ink on my ID photo had ran and the pages were crinkled with damp. This must have happened during my very wet run into Pokhara, and the waterproof case in which I kept my passport had proven to be only semi-waterproof: not so good at keeping water out, very useful for keeping water in. Thijs expressed surprise that the page itself wasn't waterproof, but you can't expect the Passport Agency to anticipate every idiotic eventuality. I shrugged with my usual fatalism and caught the bus to Kathmandu, hoping that the embassy could issue me a letter confirming that it was still a valid passport, and stamp the thing a few times.

The bus wasn't much fun. It was five hours to Besishahar, another three hours waiting for my bike to be sent down the valley by the hotel in Chamje**, two more hours back to Dumre, then another five hours and a massive fleecing from Dumre to Kathmandu. I should have seen the guy coming in Dumre. He probably overcharged me to start with, as we agreed a price of 1000 rupees for the minibus to Kathmandu, including the bike. I was too free with telling him about my passport woes, and he fed me a line about another strike being due, which would close the Briish Embassy in a couple of days, and another line about the local buses having finished. Still, I was keen to get to Kathmandu that night, as I'd already had an extra day off in Pokhara. Then he came and told me that only three other people were taking the minibus to Kathmandu, so I'd have to pay 2000 rupees to make it worth the driver's while. Naturally enough, when it arrived, the thing was chock-a. They were already strapping my bike to the roof, but I told them to bring it down as I was not paying 2000 rupees to be squeezed into the worst seat on a cramped minibus. He told me that these people were just going down the road, not all the way to Kathmandu, and in hindsight I should have asked the other passengers where they were all going, but the price soon came down to 1500, then 1200, when I weakened and agreed to pay, but I had a cunning plan. I only had 1000 rupees in my wallet, so I waited until I was seated and told him he'd have to take that. The bugger noticed my Indian rupees which I was trying to hide, and I did have to pay the extra 200. Public transport is one administrative burden I usually manage to avoid, but that does mean I haven't a clue about how much it's supposed to cost. And can you guess how many of my fellow passengers got off before Kathmandu?

I did get to Kathmandu that day, though, and I was at the British embassy before they opened the next morning.

Sadly, the state of my passport meant that it wouldn't be accepted. I would either have to get a replacement (and wait five to six weeks), or get an emergency passport, which would take about a week. The emergency passport, however, would tie me into a fixed itinerary with little room for manoeuvre.

The wait for a passport would be expensive, although I could go on the Everest Base Camp trek (twice!), but I'd miss the window for cycling through Ladakh and the Indian Himalayas. The emergency passport denied the possibility of changing my plans, but it does fit in with the plan I already had, which is to return to Europe when my Indian visa expires on the seventh of August, ride across the Alps and France, and return to the UK at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is the correct way to go back to England. I already had this as a plan, with only the dim possibility of being able to transit Burma as the last hope of continuing by land, rather than air. Even Tibet has become even more impossible, as the authorities now only issue visas to groups of no less than four, all of whom have to be from the same country. I did meet a couple of Scots in Kathmandu who offered to get bikes and help me shanghai another Brit...

I set out to cycle, not to take buses or trains, and certainly not to fly except where bodies of water left no alternative. This does put me at odds with the modern world, and I've had interesting times explaining this to other travellers who take flying for granted, but each time honesty compels me to tell people I had to fly into India, I know I'm already defeated, and to carry on to Australia, which would probably require another two flights, would just compound it.

So, although the embassy staff tried to discourage me, as it is very limiting, the same price as a new passport, and can create problems when crossing borders, I decided to get an emergency passport.

That was only the beginning of the paperwork. I had to check with the Indian and Nepali authorities that they would be able to transfer my visas to an emergency travel document. This was an exercise in patience, grit and determination in the face of practised opposition.

The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu is over the road from the British Embassy, so that bit was easy. Getting a straight answer to a simple question - "will I be able to transfer my visa to an emergency passport?" - was less so. The counter staff refused to say yay or nay, and referred me up to the Embassy Official.

He really is a classic. Short and wiry and bristling with outrage at being sent to this backwater post when he should be brushing shoulders with the diplomatic corps in Washington or Beijing, he takes his revenge by using what little authority he has to make everyone's lives a little more difficult. A bully. Asked any question, he'll grab the papers, peer at them over the top of his glasses, chew the corner of his salt-and-pepper moustache, and give the same answer: "No." He plays by the rules, and Rule One is to say "No" to everything.

A student from Mauritius was asking him a question when I was there, but since "No" didn't deflate the lad and he started to argue his case, the official was forced to engage Rule Two: Brook No Argument. He waved his hand at the student and said "there is no must, you will not tell me must" (this is a sub-clause of Rule Two, always throw the person's words back a them). The Mauritian student went off in tears, another supplicant was refused, then it was my turn.

I dodged Rules One and Two by continuing to talk while he examined the paperwork, and overriding his objections. This provoked him to enact Rule Three: Find A Different Problem. It turned out, nobody had countersigned my visa when I'd been given it at that embassy. I hurdled this obstacle and left with the vague impression that they might, possibly, consider transferring my visa, but that was the most I was going to get, and it had taken three hours. I planned to finagle that vague assurance into a guarantee when I returned.

I took a taxi to the Nepali Immigration Office, asked the same question of a chap at the counter, who immediately said that they would be happy to transfer my visa - I'd just need to go to the third floor admin section when I had my emergency passport. With the time spent pissing about at the Indian embassy, the British embassy had closed for the day when I returned with my forms and documents. I had to go back in the morning.

A week and a half later I was called back to the British Embassy to collect my emergency passport. A week and a half was about a week longer than I'd expected it to take, but the time had bridged a weekend and two public holidays, and all the embassy staff were busy with a missing persons case after a young lad had gone missing while on the Everest Base Camp trek. I understood the delay, and the British embassy staff were pretty good about laying out my options, telling me what to expect, and what documents they needed from me. I think an emergency passport is quite an interesting document to have, and I'd love to keep it as a souvenir, but as well as informing me that I may have some problems with border crossings where they don't meet that kind of thing, the embassy staff told me that it would be taken from me as soon as I return to the sceptr'd isle.

I dashed over the road to the Indian embassy. The same fucking arguments again. I did lose my temper this time, but some testiness was called for when the primary obstruction seemed to be that my visa hadn't been countersigned. As I was at pains to point out, this was their mistake, which I expected them to resolve. Perhaps it's just as well that I did ruin my passport, even if it cost £95 to replace - as well as the travel and accommodation costs and the 900 rupees the Indians had the gall to charge as a transfer fee, and the cost of yet more photos as the paperwork from my original Indian visa application was stored elsewhere, and I had to fill all the forms in again - as the thought of being turned back at the Indian border, 600 miles away from Kathmandu, doesn't bear considering.

The transfer took a full day, which left no time to transfer my Nepali visa. The next day, they only dealt with extensions, and I was instructed to return on the Sunday. Yet another day of waiting in Kathmandu, where I'd picked up my second grotty cold on consecutive visits to the place, and spent my days doing nothing except shopping, lying on my bed watching cricket highlights, and forgetting to eat.

Most people at the Nepali Immigration Office were friendly and helpful, except for another example of the type officialus grumpus. I went first to room 307, explained my predicament, filled out the forms, and was told to go down to room 206 for a 10-rupee stamp. There he was, marking the time until the next official tiffin break. I waited until he'd finished with a Chinese girl in front of me, and asked him for a ten-rupee stamp. He grabbed my passport and forms from me and starting pawing through them, while answering another call on his mobile. I'm not a violent person, but the raw frustration this official created was enough to have my hands clenching into fists. He didn't listen, though I must have told him ten times that I only needed a ten-rupee stamp. He told me to go to room 203 and complete the form which he already had in his hands.  He spent an age looking at my Iranian visa, which did make me raise my voice and ask if he spoke Farsi. He didn't once acknowledge my question about the stamp. The only thing that stopped me grabbing my paperwork back was the worry that I'd damage it.

Thankfully, the helpful folk at the admin section sent a henchman back down with me, a towering giant of a figure who grabbed the man in room 206 by the throat and lifted him off his feet, rattling his teeth until he apologised and agreed to become a better, more helpful person. Well, maybe not. But my companion was a tall lad, and he somehow acquired a ten-rupee stamp. With great ceremony this was affixed to my form.

Next, room 204 (immigration), room 104 (Cashier), room 105 (the Director), back to room 307, room 204 again and then the fifth trip up to room 307, where it was complete. I was free!

All of which means that I now have a timetable and an itinerary, which I've done quite well at avoiding so far. I have tickets booked from Delhi to Milan on the fifth of August, and I have to be back in the UK between the twenty-first of August and the fourth of September.

It would be easy to carry on, hop a plane to Bangkok and keep riding south, but as well as wanting this to be a cycling journey, I fear that I would start to take flying for granted. And I can do without the hassle of searching for cheap flights and wading through the various airlines' policies on carrying bikes. Riding my bike is simple. If I have changed in any way on this journey, it's that I don't think of this trip as a one-ff any more. I can come back, avoid cul-de-sacs such as India and Nepal, and just ride my bike. 

* Tedious detail #1: you have to have at least 60 days between your Indian visas. However, I'd only been gone from India a month, and the visa is valid from the date of issue, so technically they were entitled to deny me. However, I wasn't intending to return to India until the 60 days had elapsed, I simply wanted to get my visa while I was in Kathmandu to save me a return trip and to give me time to get into the mountains before the monsoons hit.

**Tedious detail #2: I couldn't simply go and collect the bike myself, as I had left the Annapurna Conservation Area, and I would have had to stump up another 2000 rupees (fifteen quid) for another permit, as well as paying the jeep fare twice.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Carry On Up Thorong La

Over-reachers and dreamers. We'd still be living in the trees without people who dared to do more. Of course, reaching too far can also lead to you falling flat on your face.

I'd read about people cycling the Annapurna Circuit, and I fancied giving it a try myself, on the same bike with which I'd ridden to Nepal. I knew that the trail would be very rough and rocky in places and I expected that I'd have to carry my bike for about a quarter of the time.

I made minimal changes to the bike. I took off my clipless pedals, fitted some flat pedals and bought some walking shoes.

I could have bought some knobbly tyres, or taken off my mudguards and racks to save weight. I could also have bought a big rucksack to let me carry my kit on my back and fangled a way of strapping my bike to it for the portage sections. I did none of these things.

I suppose the reactions of other people who'd trekked the route should have given me a hint. Non-cyclists were very enthusiastic and said I'd be fine apart from a few places, including the highest and toughest day where I'd have to carry the bike from Thorong Phedi at 4450 metres ASL to Thorong La itself, at 5416 metres ASL. They also told me there was a road a lot of the way round. Cyclists, on the other hand, tended to wince and say things like "travel as light as you can" or, less reassuringly, "I wouldn't".

In the end, my circuit involved six different forms of transport, and may yet include a seventh. But in the end, it was simply such a wonderful place to be, surrounded by jungles and towering cliffs which gave way to vast mountains where eagles swooped and yaks grazed, breathing the crisp air in remote villages which were, in some ways, remarkably unspoilt by tourism and the trappings of modernity, that it hadn't really mattered how I'd got there.

Chame

Day 1 -17/05/2012. Pokhara, Damauli, Dumre, Besisahar - 72.36 miles, 11.95 mph average, 37.5 mph max.


Bright was the day and high was my heart when I left Pokhara. I was awake early and after two breakfasts I left Pokhara with the clearest views yet of the white mountains above the lake, Macchapuchra (or, more prosaically, Fishtail for its slightly curved profile) being particularly prominent.

The strike was still ongoing. In the guest house the previous night an Indian couple had been panicking about getting to the airport the next day, to the point where the husband was screaming down the phone at some poor policeman and demanding a police escort through the baying hordes. The airport is about a half hour walk away, with luggage. If I'd have been around I'd have offered to take their luggage to the airport by bike for 1000 rupees while he and his wife walked.

I didn't see any roadblocks on the gentle downhill to Damauli, but the highway was packed with people, especially children, playing football, cricket or skipping games, rolling hoops, or just running about. It was quite charming, except for when the kids started deliberately blocking my path and demanding money, and the less said about the solitary stone-chucker, the better.

At Dumre I turned off the Pokhara-Kathmandu highway, and along the valley of the Marsyangdi river. At this point it was a wide channel surrounded by farmland, though the current was strong and the water was a rich blue, carrying sediment straight off the glaciers which were melting in the early summer heat. I'd be following this river for a long time, and see it change character from the wide farmlands which characterised its banks between Dumre and Besishahar. I had a half hour break beneath the spreading branches of a tree which marked the edge of a fallow field.

No tourists stop along here. They all take a bus to Besishahar. Everyone stared at me in the villages when I stopped for water, an experience which I have never become accustomed to, even in India. Still, I was pleased to be on a bike - even if the buses had been running, the bus journey would have taken six sweaty hours, which is only an hour quicker than my ride from Pokhara.

Day 2 - 18/05/2012. Besishahar, Bhulbhule, Ngadi, Syanje - 15.18 miles, 4.67 mph average, 15.8 mph max


That hotel in Besishahar was weird. The husband spoke good English and his wife didn't, but it was always her who took my food orders, so I got fried chicken without the promised chips instead of roast chicken, then in the morning I got toast instead of porridge. I should have ordered toast and porridge.

After breakfast, second order of the day was to have my card stamped at the TIMS office. There are police checkposts marking the route, to ensure that only tourists who've bought the permits enter, and to ensure that they stay on their route. It costs 3700 rupees for the permits to go around the Annapurna Circuit (there are two bits of paper, ACAP and TIMS: ACAP is the authority issuing permission to enter protected areas of Nepal, and TIMS is the Trekker Information Management System to keep track of tourists for their own safety and to regulate entries into the protected area). At nearly thirty quid, that is expensive, unless compared to the £300 they charge to visit Upper Mustang, a closed and mysterious place which I glimpsed later in the trail.

the "road" to Chamje

The road was rough. It's just a track blasted out of the bedrock, and there were times I had to push uphill, as I simply couldn't get any purchase on the loose rocks. The bedrock jutted out of the road in many places, and even the occasional jeeps struggled on those sections. I did nip over to the trekking route for a bit after Bhulbhule, and sat for a while next to one of the many waterfalls (in the UK these would each be tourist attractions in their own right with names like the Dragon's Breath, but in the same way that nobody would bother naming the pebbles on a beach, the waterfalls remain nameless), and rode along a gentle grassy track for a bit. I realised my mistake when I had to shoulder my bike for some rocky sections, and I gave serious thought to stopping at 9.30 am.

waterfall after Bhulbhule
the waterfall near Bhulbhule (and my mascot)

The pushy guy at the hotel where I had a pancake told me that I could cross back to the road at the other end of the village. It did involve lofting my bike up a five foot gap at either end of an unfinished bridge, and pushing up the steep road at the other side. And then falling off. I hit a loose stone on the slight descent and lost my front wheel. A couple of Nepalis dashed up to check I was OK, which I was, except for some scuffs on my right knee and a few bruises. I washed my knee clean in the waterfall and plodded on, perhaps with a little more caution. I hadn't been going quickly anyway, and with the mix of pushing uphill and careful descending, a cheery local was nearly matching my pace on foot.

I was knackered when I stopped, even though it was only 1 o'clock in the afternoon. I felt quite down - I was still in the low jungles, it was still hot, and the roughness of the trail and the road had been getting me down. I had a nap.

My hotel was an arrangement of wooden boards and a large wasp was building a nest against one wall of my room. I didn't bother him and he didn't bother me. There was nothing to do except read and watch the storm which built up in the later afternoon and roared down the gorge, but with my afternoon nap I didn't get to sleep until after one in the morning.

Day 3 - 19/05/2012. From Syanje, Jagat, Chamje - not very far at all.


my bike above Chamje

Are Spaniards naturally pessimistic, or is it just Castillians?

I'd started early and enjoyed the clean air and the way the sunlight gilded the distant peaks. I stopped for a good-but-expensive apple pie which was freshly made while I waited. This gave the herd of donkeys with which I'd been playing leapfrog all morning another opportunity to catch up. Without many roads, most things are still hauled up to Manang District by donkey or porter, which goes some way towards explaining the prices of luxury items such as beer and chocolate. The lines of porters and donkeys give a medieval feel to the remote places, but there was often a modern twist; one porter was carrying an electrical generator on his back, another a television. Another had cages full of chickens.

porter in Danakyu

I arrived in Chamje at about 11 o'clock and decided not to stop. My cycling map/guide was ten years out of date, so it hadn't mentioned the road up the valley, but this was where the road ended, and it said that the next section to Tal was 90% carrying. I shouldered the bike and was about to start descending the steep, rocky track when the Spaniards came and stole my mojo.

I stood aside for them to come up the track; one said "good luck" and the next shook his head. "Where are you going?! 70% of the trail is like that!"

I shrugged, smiled and waited for them to pass.

Then I stopped. They knew what they were talking about, right? Maybe it was impossible.

I let the donkeys overtake me, then returned to the village to catch up with the Spaniards and investigate further.

Turns out, they'd come from the Manaslu trek rather than around Annapurna, so they had only seen the next ten or twelve kilometres of my route. I had a drink and, even though my confidence, already fragile from the amount of pushing so far and the tumble the previous day, was at its lowest, I hoiked the bike back onto my shoulder and told them I was at least going to try. The miserable sod said "you'll remember me when you have to carry your bike back in three hours' time".

I always find walking downhill tougher than uphill, as the muscles are very different to those used going uphill, which are similar to the much-exercised muscles I use when cycling. I was also trying to find a comfortable position for my bike, while keeping a hand free to hold onto rocks and keep my balance.

donkeys crossing a bridge between Chamje and Tal

I walked the bike over the footbridge, which swayed alarmingly under the weight of the troop of donkeys crossing ahead of me. The trail didn't improve at the other side, and with the extra weight on my back my knees were reminding me why I'd given up a lacklustre football career. My shoulder was already bruised from the weight of the bike, I was struggling to lift it onto my back and each time I lowered the bike I came closer to dropping it. I had serious doubts that my knees would take ten more kilometres of that, or even one more. I sat on a rock and finished my juice. Even with reassurances from my guidebook and other trekkers that the route improved, it would be a weary way to Tal. Watching the donkeys wind their way between the rocks, I realised why the wheel wasn't invented in Nepal.

Back to Chamje, then, where I planned to leave my bike and walk the rest of the route. I'd had enough glimpses of the peaks to assure me that I'd enjoy it, and it didn't matter how I got up there; being there was what I wanted, with or without the bike. For the first time since I'd left Darlo, the bike felt like a burden.

An Irish lass came past while I was on my rock. I told her with a wry smile that this wasn't cycling country so I was just going to walk on. She told me that she'd seen me riding up when she was on the bus from Pokhara, and she was impressed with how far I'd come. I always did like the Irish more than the Spanish.

The lovely owner of Tibet Lhasha Hotel was quite happy for me to leave my bike and collect it from her in a week and a half. I spent the rest of the day reading, and writing, and watching the other travellers come and go. I could have started walking that day, but I preferred to mark the end of the cycling with a full stop rather than a comma.

Day 4 - 20/05/2012. Chamje, Tal, Danakyu


morning in the mountains

Big landscape today. I was walking up a high, craggy canyon. There were some fabulous views with the river and the jungle in the foreground, rocky outcrops in the middle distance and the peaks around Manaslu murky behind the clouds.

The walk along the valley and the "long hot steep climb" to Tal wasn't as tough as I'd expected. It was certainly easier without the bike, and I was chatting to a couple of Nepali girls who were walking back to their home in Lower Pisang. Typical of Nepalis, they were walking in ordinary clothes and flip flops, quite a contrast to the fully kitted-out tourist trekkers.

waterfall on the road

We all had to wait after Tal while the new road was being blasted out of the rock. The explosions echoed down the canyon and when we started walking again there was debris all over the trail - not just rubble, but huge lumps of pale rock which had been projected across the river. The new road is about a month from completion, and I commented to the Nepali girls that it would make their lives much easier, as they'd be able to travel home in half a day by jeep or motorbike, instead of having to trudge for two days along a rough trail. I imagine it will also change the nature of the Manang district, and if I ever do return I'll enjoy playing the old lag and telling everybody "Aye, 'tweren't like this back in my day, before they built that road".

I stopped in the early afternoon and spent the afternoon and evening chatting with a Sherpa who was guiding a Korean around the trail and who had some great stories of climbing the summits with groups of, erm, varying abilities. Sonam has been to the summit of seventeen of Nepal's highest peaks, so this must have been really easy for him, especially at the pace his Korean charge was making. I saw Thijs passing by, whom I'd met at breakfast in Chamje, so I waved him into the hotel and tried to get a discount off the room for bringing the owner more trade. The owner wasn't having it.

Day 5 - 21/05/2012. Danakyu, Latamarang, Chame, Upper Pisang


Peakspotting with Thijs. The map I had wasn't detailed enough to follow the trail, and the trail was so easy to follow that Thijs and I boggled at the number of people who had guides. However, the map did help us to identify the peaks which came in and out of view throughout the day. Manaslu (the eighth highest mountain in the world) was reflecting the bright sun back at us from its icy slopes first thing in the morning, and Annapurna II hoved into view as we climbed.

me in Latamarang

I was disappointed with the naming of the mountains. Come on, Annapurna I, Annapurna II, III and IV? They could at least give them names such as Annapurna Eagle's Lair, or Annapurna-Where-Death-Waits; Annapurna I is reputedly the world's most dangerous mountain, and the tenth highest in the world. Thijs agreed that the features on the trail needed more evocative names, so we started calling sections of trail the Diamond Path for its sparkly mineral deposits, or the Path of Thyme for the abundance of the herb, and Mount Doom for one dramatic, sheer escarpment at a bend in the river. When he gives up his medical studies for a career as a Dark Lord, Thijs is going to build his evil lair at the top of Mount Doom.

Mount Doom
Mount Doom

Thijs was good company, and as our pace was similar we walked the rest of the trail together. It was a big advantage of walking over cycling, that I had more of an opportunity to walk and chat with other tourists. His conversation did revolve around the state of his bowels, his month-long bout of diarrhoea, and the worsening state of his stools (he's a medical student, and capable of going into painful detail about the subject), but long bike rides with my mate Martin have inured me to this sort of thing.

The other topic of conversation was the increasing expense of food. We thought it was fair enough, for a bottle of mineral water to be seven or eight times the lowland price when it would have been brought up there by porter or donkey, even if we weren't prepared to pay it, but in Yak Kharka a single chapati was 170 rupees. For one chapati! We'd been walking amongst wheat fields less than a mile back, so it wasn't as if the ingredients were terribly exotic. In Pokhara a chapati is fifteen rupees, in the expensive places, so that's more than a 1000% mark-up. Dhal bhat (rice, lentil soup and potato curry), which I'd been eating for 70 rupees in western Nepal, was rising above 400 rupees.

scary bridge near Braga

While failing to find the cheapest thing on the menu in Yak Kharka, we met Zita and Arpi, a Hungarian couple who are honeymooning around the world on recumbent bicycles, although they weren't foolhardy enough to attempt the Annapurna Circuit on their steeds.

 We walked with them to Upper Pisang and stayed at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, or the Nepali version of Fawlty Towers. An incredibly drunk man invited us in and we agreed rates. Since Thijs and I were eating meals there, we had our room free, but since Zita and Arpi had stoves and their own food they paid for their room, with the understanding that they could cook their own meals. We sat and talked around the wood burner, with Zita and Arpi's pans bubbling on top of it, but the atmosphere was hardly comfortable, as the matriarch of the family insisted on supervising the feeding of fuel into the fire, not letting Thijs put more than a little wood in a time. It's not as though wood is a scarce resource - it's one thing they certainly don't have to have carried in. The drunk son became more drunk, developing a twitch and insisting on talking to us in pidgin German: "Scheisse! Guten tag!" The father turned up and grumped about and truly soured the atmosphere in Basil Fawlty style by telling Zita and Arpi that they couldn't stay if they weren't paying for food. "This is no way to run a business," he told them, and the irony obviously escaped him. Thijs and I said that we'd just go to a different hotel if he wanted to move the goalposts, and since we owed him money this shut him up, even if it didn't mollify him. Later on he came back in and sat watching Indian soaps on the TV, which we'd hoped to use to watch a movie, and threatened to clout his increasingly incoherent son around the lughole. We were waiting for him to start arguing about money again, which he didn't, and in the morning he seemed happy when he had his money, although he did wake us all up by marching up and down the corridor while bawling into his mobile at the top of his voice.

Day 6 - 22/05/2012. Upper Pisang, Lower Pisang, Humde, Mugje, Braga, Manang


Annapurna II from Upper Pisang
Annapurna II

The sheer white bulk of Annapurna II to the south greeted us on waking. Zita and Arpi were taking the high trekking route to Manang, but Thijs and I decided to take the low road.

We were past the section marked on the map as "peaceful forest" (other features of interest on the map were "apple orchards" and "fields of marijuana" - we missed the apple trees, but there were acres of marijuana), but the trees seemed no more warlike than previously, as we wound our way through the pines which dominated these upland slopes, and up the broadening valley. The enclosing canyon walls had opened up, high peaks now touched every horizon, and there was space for an airport at the next village, Humde. Not many flights arrive or depart here, but it's an important connection with the world outside, like the occasional helicopters which passed by.

Marijuana plant on the Annapurna trail

We also met Judy and Merv, a couple of Aussies who were here as part of their retirement to sail around the world. Obviously, Nepal is very landlocked, but the ship they've bought is named the Thorong La, and they felt they had to take a break from fitting out their vessel to come and do the trek. As they were from Sydney and Newcastle, I told them they had to visit north east England, especially Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough, as the Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed by Dorman Long, and modelled upon the Tyne Bridge. We went on to have a fine discussion about Victorian engineering. It's strange where conversations lead you.

Thijs and I arrived in Manang before 1 o'clock, and stayed at the Marsyangdi Hotel, which was the cheapest we could find, where the food was good, where the restaurant looked out to Annapurna III and Gangapurna, and where this kid came to stand next to us and stare while we were eating. Disturbingly, he only appeared at night.

prayer wheels in Manang
Manang wasn't what I'd expected. In my head it was either a medieval arrangement of temples and traditional houses clinging to its mountainside, or a tourist trap with lots of hotels and stalls selling necklaces and yak dollies and other tourist tat. It sat somewhere between the two, both bigger and smaller than I'd expected, part modern, part traditional. At the hotel the family spent much of the day tending their cottage garden, crops and herbs which they'd trade with fellow villagers in a way that's changed little for centuries. However, there are also hotels and restaurants selling international food (I didn't try the moussaka - they said they had no meat, and I don't know what they'd be using as an aubergine substitute), but most of them were converted houses spread along the winding front street, rather than purpose-built modern buildings. There was also a cinema with two screens; it wasn't one of your multiplexes, but it was one of the best cinemas I've been in. The 200 rupee entry fee including popcorn and fruit tea, the interior was dark with rows of wooden boards covered in yak fur, the walls were decorated with English football banners, and heating was provided by a wood stove in the middle of the floor. They were showing a terrifying selection of mountaineering disaster movies and tales of survival against brutal odds: 127 Hours, Touching the Void, Alive, Into Thin Air, Seven Years in Tibet. I went twice, and experienced a moment of dislocation when I came out of Seven Years in Tibet to be surrounded by mountains and lines of prayer wheels, and three guys in front of the cinema trying to shoe a pony in a scene which seemed to be translated straight from the screen.

shoeing a pony outside the cinema in Manang

Day 6 - 23/05/2012. Acclimatisation day in Manang


A lot of our fellow trekkers took time on this day to go to higher altitudes, to aid acclimatisation higher up. Manang is over 3500 metres, and the pass is 2000 metres higher, so the plan makes sense. A popular trip is up to the nearby monastery to meet the 100 Rupee Necklace Guru, but I couldn't be bothered. A lie-in until seven o'clock and a leisurely breakfast. I hadn't been experiencing any problems with the altitude so far, except for a natural shortness of breath. Things were bound to get more interesting higher up, though.

After a wander round town and to the post office, where they didn't sell postcards, otherwise I'd have sent a couple back - 25 rupees (17 pence) for a postcard with a stamp from the midst of the Himalayas seemed a pretty good deal to me, Thijs was keen to have a closer look at some cave houses which had been carved out of the rock wall at the edge of the valley. It was quite a scramble up, and the bugger took a video of me struggling to keep my footing on the loose scree and gravel. That won't be making the light of day. Going down was much more fun, a matter of sledging and surfing on the debris. I felt as though I'd taken half the hillside down with me, and we speculated that the inhabitants must have had ladders to go home.

Thijs at Gangapurna Lake

On the way back we met Arpi and Zita again, who had taken two days to walk the distance we'd covered in half a day. It's not a race, of course, and they'd spent an extra night at one of the medieval mountainside villages, coincidentally at a hotel owned by the brother-in-law of the Yak and Yeti hotel in Upper Pisang. They said he did a fine impression of His Grumpiness.

As it was Arpi's birthday, we went off to the cinema and spent the evening playing card games which I dredged from my memory. Everyone took to Knock-Out Whist, but Chase the Ace was not so much fun without a little bit of gambling being involved.

That was the evening we hit the rakshi, a rice wine brewed locally, in an old boot by the taste of it. I did most of the drinking; since Thijs refused to take more than a sip and Zita wasn't that keen either, I drank both of theirs. It didn't taste much better even after the third glass, and attempts to mix it with Sprite and Coke weren't entirely successful.

Day 7 - 24/05/2012. Manang, Gunsang, Yak Kharka, Thorung Phedi


This was the first day when things began to feel very remote. We left behind the Marsyangdi River and climbed, firstly alongside the Thorung River, then up the Kone River, which rises in the glaciers to either side of the pass itself.

The lack of oxygen at this altitude started making itself felt. I kept to a steady plod uphill, and called for regular breaks to rest my heavy legs. I had thought of stopping at Ledar (4100 metres and 60% oxygen compared to sea level), rather than ascending a full 1000 metres in a day to Thorung Base Camp, but we were there not long after ten in the morning, and in contrast to other days, the clouds weren't drawing in to cover the peaks. There were clear views in all directions, so I thought "sod it" and carried on.

The first herd of yaks came shortly afterwards. A calf approached us nervously while we were resting next to the track, came tentatively closer and then ran towards its mother just over the crest. She rumbled threateningly us when we passed the family; there are plenty of stories of aggressive yaks pushing trekkers off the trails, which made us act as circumspectly as possible. Maybe they'd heard about my yak meat craving. I'd asked three times for a yak burger, or yak curry, and each time I'd been told that it wasn't available. "No dinner here," the yaks' attitude seemed to say.

yak near Ledar

Later, an eagle came soaring up the valley, only ten metres away, tacking down the valley into the wind and totally disinterested in our presence. We saw several more that day, circling around the crags high above. Occasionally these uplands reminded me of the hills of home, as the alchemy of altitude and latitude made for a similar climate to Scotland or the Pennines, familiar buzzards and swallows and sparrows and cuckoos calling from amongst Scots pines and scrubby bushes. I suppose the yaks could pass for highland cattle at a careless glimpse, but a closer look at the unfamiliar bird species, Bonelli's Eagle especially, reminded me that I wasn't in the UK, and surrounded as I was by some of the world's tallest mountains, I was passing through a landscape unlike nothing I'd seen before.

As well as the flora and fauna, the temperature made me feel more comfortable than the heat of the plains. The sun was bright and intense, but the air was cool. I never felt especially cold, despite travelling very light. My lightweight set-up (I had a pair of trousers, two pairs of socks, two short sleeved tops, a fleece, a rainjacket, gloves, a pair each of arm and leg warmers, a couple of buffs and a sleeping bag liner crammed into a tiny bag along with my diary, maps and toiletries) drew a few comments, but I was amazed in turn by how much some people seemed to think they required, not to mention the number of people who had porters to carry... what? I would have boiled if I'd worn a downjacket, since there was very little standing around, and a sleeping bag was excess weight when every hotel could provide extra blankets. The compass I carried felt a bit unnecessary, and one soldier asked if I was Israeli army, since apparently only the Israeli army carries compasses, but I'd hate to head into the unknown without one. Apart from Zita and Arpi carrying their own food, I didn't get to the bottom of why everyone else had so much more kit. Mind you, their bags were doubtless more comfortable than mine, which is only supposed to be used for carrying light things over small distances and tended to dig into my shoulders, but it was less uncomfortable than I'd feared.

bridge on the way to Thorong phedi

A trio of Czechs and Slovaks at Thorung Phedi were amongst those who made the comments. I asked if they'd felt they'd needed extra climbing practice, as we'd watched them bypass the modern suspension bridge in favour of a rickety wooden affair at the bottom of the steep-sided valley which added a hundred metres or so of extra climbing up a stony trail. We did try waving to them, but they ignored us. Honestly, they'll let anyone on this trail. I bet they didn't have a compass.

landslide area near Thorong Phedi

Thorung Phedi was starting to feel a little cool, especially out of the sun. As night fell we were inside, supping on pasta and cheese, but not beer at those prices (450 rupees a bottle). More games of Knock-Out Whist with a Mexican and a Lincolnshire lass who said it reminded her of caravanning at Humberston Fitties with her gran. We also had an audience, a mongoose catching moths at the window.

sunset over Annapurna III from Thorong Phedi

Day 8 - 25/05/2012. Thorung Phedi, High Camp, Thorung La, Muktinath, Jomsom


the steep path to High Camp

Up at 4.15. This still wasn't as early as others, most of whom we'd caught up before we reached High Camp. I thought it'd be a bit daft to set off up a steep trail in darkness, and I felt we had the right timing, as we caught the sunrise touching Annapurna III behind us as we climbed. It was, however, a tough trail on which I set a careful pace and had to stop regularly to catch my breath. It's only about a kilometre, but the distance is less significant than the 400 metres of ascending. We were at High Camp for a proper breakfast after about an hour, and Thijs talked me into going up the nearby summit. I was pleased that he had, as it offered panoramic views of the nearby peaks and the first rays of dawn creeping over the crags.

Thorong La High Camp panorama

I started to experience the first signs of altitude sickness: a growing headache and nausea, but it was easier to go on and over than to go back. Upwards to the pass and above the snowline, into a bare landscape of snow and rocks and ice and a few stubborn tufts of grass. Nothing else grew there, and the only other sign of life was a lone moorland bird, quite like a large curlew. Only the wind and the icy stream moved, and as we approached the pass we left the water behind. Even the regular passage of locals on their way between villages ceased. Nobody comes here by accident, and few do it casually.

Thorung La itself was a blaze of coloured flags and alive with trekkers. This seemed strange, as it was the low season, and Thijs and I had both commented on how few other trekkers we'd seen. We were both pleased about that, and I can't imagine that seeing it under thick snow makes it so much more beautiful that it's worth sharing the route with a few hundred other walkers. The day we crossed the path was as clear and perfect as we could have wished for. There were about twenty other people at the top, resting and taking photos of each other at the famous sign, of which there are probably a million photos out there, but only one has me in it.

me at Thorong La

When Thijs took the photo he said "Yeah, that's a good expression - smug." As if to prove that pride really does come before a fall, almost my first step on the descent was to miss my footing on a loose stone and twist my knee. Not badly enough that I couldn't walk, thankfully, but I had to find my way very gingerly down the trail, which was a calf-crunching, knee-wrenching, foot-wrecking horror. It was steep, it was stony, then it turned even more steep and stony. The hazy view of the distant peaks behind Mustang remained an unchanging, uninspiring tableau.

descending Thorong La to Mustang

Three uncomfortable hours later we finally reached a point where we no longer descending. Those four or five steps uphill to the hotel felt like floating. When we were half an hour from the bottom - and therefore the pass was two and a half hours behind us at a downhill pace - we passed a lunatic going up the other way. He was already taking duck steps and looked as though his shoes were filled with lead. Good luck, mate.

As with many passes, there was a sharp sense of transition between the Manang and Mustang valleys, or at least lower Mustang. We arrived at Muktinath, which is connected to Pokhara by a jeepable road and is a pilgrimage site for Hindus, and it was busy, Indian tourists wandering about in jeeps, a Nepali motorbike gang hanging around the gates, souvenir stalls and hotels and the world's most preposterously expensive internet cafe: 600 rupees an hour. Quite a contrast to remote Manang, and probably a sign of things to come when they complete the road.

I wasn't keen to hang around. I had to get back to Pokhara and then go to retrieve my bike, then on to the British Consulate in Kathmandu to have a word about a problem with my passport.

Walking was going to take another week. Public transport was the fastest option, or public-ish. The jeep for tourists was a couple of hours away and rather expensive, but there was a handy truck heading for Jomsom, and we blagged a lift in the back of it, once the cement had been empties from it. It would have been much better if one of the Nepali cement shovellers hadn't spent the entire journey singing along to his mobile phone. I asked if he was a professional singer, and told him that he could make money out of that voice. I'd have paid him to shut up. With the rough road and lack of suspension, it was the bumpiest journey of my life...up to that point.

Thijs went along to the hospital in Jomsom to ask a doctor about his bowel issues. However, the doctor said it would require a rectal probe, which Thijs wasn't enthusiastic about getting in that hospital, which reminded me of the 1940s-constructed primary school I'd attended. We went off to find a hotel instead, which was easy enough in Jomsom, an even bigger town than Muktinath but with a much more pleasant atmosphere. We stayed at the marvellously-named Dancing Yak, and I finally got myself a yak burger.

yak burger in Jomsom!

Day 9 - 26/05/2012. Jomsom, Ghasa, Beni, Pokhara.


Choices, choices. Jomsom has an airport, with daily flights to Pokhara on propeller planes offering beautiful mountain views and an arrival in Pokhara within an hour or two. However, I have an objection to flying, and to paying $94 when there's a cheaper alternative. There was also the slight issue of the plane crash a week and a half previously; fifteen people had died, three are still in hospital, and the wreck of the flight was still embedded in the mountainside, in full view from the airport. It would probably be tasteless to ask if they did fly-pasts.

our ride from Jomsom

The alternative began with a bus to Ghasa. Though it didn't feel so, it was the most pleasant part of the journey. OK, we were behind the back axle and felt every bump, the bus was lined with speakers and the music of choice was a special compilation for the journey, The Worst Music in the World, with every country represented. Thijs came over all patriotic when the Venga Boys came on, but my brain had thankfully shut down by then. It was a relief to have to get out and walk when we came to a bridge which wouldn't bear the weight of the bus and passengers (there were other bridges where I would have volunteered to get out), and another crossing without a bridge, where we all forded the river with our possessions and alighted another bus. All of the Nepalis took this as a matter of course, and to us it was all part of the adventure, even when the driver departed from the road and began making up his own route along the monsoon riverbed. Seeing a few other tourists along that dusty valley, I was relieved that I hadn't walked, although sitting at the back of the bus and looking forward as the bus tackled the mountain switchbacks reminded me intensely of the last scenes of the Italian Job, and we all know how that ended.

Ghasa came sooner than I expected, and I'd held off travel sickness for the first leg. There wasn't much of a break before we climbed aboard our second form of transport of the day, the jeep to Beni. Again, we were at the back, and this proved to be the bumpiest, least comfortable journey of my life. I spent the entire journey bouncing up and smacking my arse off the seat, closing my eyes when we went particularly close to the unbarriered edge high above the torrent of the Kali Gandaki River on the wet, rocky road, and trying not to throw up (travel sickness, rather than fear). It would have been more bearable if the damn jeep hadn't broken down for three hours when the drivebelt needed replacing.

our chariot from Ghasa to Beni
got a drivebelt up there, mate?

When we eventually arrived in Beni, the last bus to Pokhara had long gone, and the taxi drivers were quoting absurd prices for the 45 miles to Pokhara. I was ready to give up and grab a hotel, but while I was waiting for my head to stop spinning and batting off the juvenile beggars, Thijs was asking some of our fellow inmates from the jeep if they were heading to Pokhara.

So we ended up, six of us in an early eighties hatchback: me, Thijs, the driver, a Nepali girl, a Nepali grandmother and a Buddhist nun. The grandmother took the front seat as the biggest of us (though I was trying to angle that for myself), and I still don't know by what contortions the rest of us managed to fit across the back seat. Thijs claimed that he'd been on less comfortable journeys in India, but the position of my face against the window made it difficult for me to frame a response.

There was a huge storm rolling through the mountains around Pokhara. Flashes of lightning came at the rate of three or four a second, and how the rain fell. The roads were inches deep with water as the drains in Pokhara couldn't cope. I still got out of the taxi early, and walked to my guest house to let the blood in my sadly abused legs re-circulate. I collected my kit, took a room, and slept.

After


Well, I failed to cycle the route, but it's a journey which is better done by foot, or at least by mountain bike, and it was something of a holiday to leave the bike behind for so long, even on the descent from Thorung La. One of the things I had come away seeking was proper mountains, and the glittering peaks of Annapurna satisfied that part of my soul, for now. But like so many other places I've visited, I've left with the urge to go back, to wander the secret valleys of Upper Mustang, roam the high passes of distant Langtang, and I never did go up to Everest Base Camp.

Part of the joy of travelling, however you travel, is to form your own impressions of places you visit, to find places which you'd love to re-visit, and to anticipate the pleasure of seeing places you haven't been able to see. Two months in Nepal simply isn't enough time. I'll be back.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Thunder Lightning Strike: Three Days from Kathmandu to Pokhara

Two hundred kilometres. That's two days, right? Unless it's extremely hilly, of course. I met a couple of Nepali cyclists while finding my way out of Kathmandu, and they assured me that it was flat, apart from a couple of big hills.

Nepali cyclist in Kathmandu

Good job I didn't believe them. I doubt there's enough flat in the whole route to make a passable cricket square. It probably is flat for Nepal.

I would have cleared it in two days, but I was still recovering from the chesty cold which plagued my time in Kathmandu. I felt increasingly spaced out as the days wound on and I found myself unable and unwilling to ride any further.

Maybe I should have had an extra day in Kathmandu, but there was a strike on, which was fabulous. The road was almost deserted, and I took advantage of that. I still saw half a dozen wagons and buses which had tipped over or come off the road. It's a notoriously dangerous run - I was pleased that I hit it when it was so quiet. The strikes are incredibly disruptive to travel as the roads are blocked and most bus services are cancelled. I'm lucky to have a bike, on which I can skirt around the roadblocks, smiling and waving at the protestors, who smile and wave back.

protest for the Nepali strikes

Not that I really appreciated it, but it was a beautiful route. After the climb over the lip of the bowl of the Kathmandu Valley, it followed the widening river, tending down through a valley surrounded by green hills and impromptu waterfalls flowing down the hillsides, fed by the overnight rains. The monsoons seem to be developing a little earlier this year - a day's weather follows a similar pattern, clear in the morning, clouds developing on the peaks through the day and heavy, thundery showers descending by four o'clock.

the Kathmandu-Pokhara Highway

I didn't fancy riding on slick roads in those conditions so I only rode forty miles on the first day and stopped when I heard the rumbles of thunder. It was a convenient excuse to stop, which I'd wanted to anyway.

I cooked some noodles in my cheap guest house, just as the rain and thunder were at their fiercest. I heard a huge crash outside, and realised that it wasn't another thunderclap. I looked outside to the highway, and there was a wagon on its side, and people were rushing out to help. I've no idea how the driver managed that, on a straight road, but it confirmed my decision to get off the road in the wet, and a few minutes later the driver was lifted out of his cab, looking shaken but unhurt. It was still there when I left in the morning.

another crash on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highwaycrash on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highwaybus in a ditch on the road from Kathmandu to Pokhahracrash off the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway

The road continued to follow the river valley down to Mugling, sweeping up the hillsides often enough to make me remember the "flat" description with a wry smile. The sun beat down. It was hot. I was quite bad tempered, especially after the second night where I stayed at the fourth guest house I checked, having rejected the others for reasons varying from horribly overpriced to death trap stairs. Shame I didn't realise the place where I did stay was mosquito hell. I hardly slept for scratching at the lumps which developed on my arms until they relented at dawn.

I didn't notice the second big hill, or it blended too much into the up-down pattern to register as a hill. There was a five-mile climb out of Dumre followed by a delicious descent. Maybe that's the one they meant.

I went on a quest for second breakfast, having started the day with coffee and porridge. I was unsuccessful. The first place I stopped, I waited twenty minutes before they had the courtesy to tell me they couldn't make two-thirds of my order, and at the second place it was thirty minutes before they brought out my alleged meal. I'd ordered a cheese and ham toastie. What they gave me was a paneer burger, which I refused to pay for. Hungry and frustrated, I left, and bought some cheese puffs and muesli bars at the next town. It was only twenty miles to Pokhara so I was happy enough to escape from the midday sun for a couple of hours and chat with a couple of Austrian cyclists heading the other way.

The clouds started to form again, and serious rain to fall. This took the edge off the heat, and I thought I may as well carry on. "Soft as shite, soft as shite, soft as shite", I sang at the motorbikers who were ducking into the bus shelters. Riding through heavy rain is a great experience. I was quickly soaked to the skin and wonderfully cool, my shorts and jersey were clinging to me and still the rain fell.

I found an optician's in Pokhara and bought some lens solution, my bottle having spilled in my bag the previous day. This coincided with me leaving my glasses in a guest house, and followed on from losing my wallet. There was a huge tear in the rear pocket on my shorts, and I was so out of it that I simply forgot, and my wallet probably ended up down the highway somewhere. It only had about a tenner and my Stockton Borough Council library card in it, but I was still annoyed at myself.

I found a guest house near the Lakeside in Pokhara, which was even more of a mozzie-infested fleapit than the previous night's place. But by the time I'd got in and checked the room, I was too cold and shivery and tired to go anywhere else. The shower was wonderfully warm.

Of course, the next morning I realised I was only a mile from the heart of the tourist district at Lakeside. I had a very welcome not-entirely-unlike-a-full-English-breakfast and found a much nicer guest house, where I slept the day away. There are times to be moving, and times to do nothing. These days in Pokhara, I've really enjoyed doing nothing.