Saturday, 21 April 2012

Another Fine Mess

I spent an evening re-packing my bike so that I could travel light on the road to Darchula. Everything I needed (including warm clothes for the higher altitudes I hoped to reach) went into two front panniers and a dry bag on the front, with my tent on the back.

Distant mountains greeted me at the other side of Dadeldhura, the peaks vanishing amongst the clouds. Naturally I paused to take a few photos, drawing much amusement from the locals.


A quick descent to a small village, then the climb started. I was in the granny ring almost from the first, and relieved that I had left my three biggest bags at the guest house.

The road was getting rougher after Dadeldhura, but it's still an astonishing feat of engineering. It rises as high as 2300 metres, cut into the sides of the valleys and switchbacking up the Shiwaliks. There are two feet-deep ditches along the side of the road, and drainage channels dug into the hillside to divert the monsoon rains. The traffic was light and usually well-behaved, apart from a bus driver who wasn't going to give me any room on a right-hander on a quick descent. I braked to let him pass - likely as not, his brakes weren't up to the job.

But mostly I was on my own. Huge black eagles soared above the trees, and a few goats trotted across the road.

touring the Shiwaliks, western Nepal

After an eight or nine mile climb over the top to Anarkholi Bazaar (all the villages are suffixed "bazaar"), the road turned to shite. I looked at the surface, and how deep and steep into the valley the road went, and decided to turn back. If it had been a through road, I would probably have carried on, but I would have had to come back the same way, and I didn't fancy riding over that lot twice.

I had a distant view of the high Himalayas, but they were obscured by clouds, and I waited around, snacking on bourbon biscuits, to see if the cloud would lift. A local teacher came along for a chat, and invited me back to his house further up the valley, but his report of the state of the road didn't inspire me to go on, even though he did say that the views were much better after another 50 kilometres. It would have taken me another day just to ride that!

A few other locals passed, navvies with hand tools, donkey herders and one young lad who was transporting a huge roll of wire down the road like a kid with a hoop. This thing was six feet in diameter, and he was struggling to control it. Ever seen the Laurel and Hardy movie where they're trying to shift a piano up that hill in San Francisco? It ran away from him and into the ditch, and when he had manhandled it out, the loops started to unwind. I chased him down and helped him wrap it together with a few cable ties from my toolbag.

to you, to me...

The clouds weren't shifting. In fact they were thickening and it was overcast for the rest of the day. I gave it up and rode back to Dadeldhura - and what a ride! Nine and a half of the twelve miles were downhill. My bike was much more manoeuvrable without all the weight on it, and despite the rough surface I was easily the fastest thing on the road. I did draw the line at overtaking other vehicles on such a narrow track, and I couldn't let it go owing to the surface and the bends, but still.

The guest house owner was surprised to see me back, as he'd expected me to be gone for four or five days. He seemed to think I'd given up as it was too hilly, and I don't think he believed me when I said I was riding on to Kathmandu. I shrugged and ordered some chips. I'm sick of dhal bat, which is one of the staples here and in north India. One day in India, I had dhal bat three times. Later on, I cooked myself some macaroni and cheese, to celebrate getting my appetite back.

There was no 6 am wake up for chai the next morning, thankfully, and I had a lie-in until 8.30. I hadn't bothered re-packing the night before - I know where everything belongs on my bike by now. Porridge and coffee, then I was off.

Astonishingly, the clouds had completely lifted overnight, and for the first time I had clear views of the Api range on the horizon. I hadn't realised how much the clouds had been covering the peaks, which were much closer than I had realised, and the expanse of jagged white stabbing at the sky was in my left eye until I crossed over into the valley where Budar nestled.

Dadeldhura and the Api range

The ride back to the plains from Dadeldhura took me a day and a half, which is a day less than it took on the way up. I could have covered the distance in a day, but I liked the little guest house in Budar, so I broke the route up there, and had a chat with the other guests, who were a mixed bunch of Nepali tourists and UN aid workers. The food there was good as well, and cheap - an all you can eat platter for about 50p.

I didn't get a 6 am wake up there, either. It was 4.40 am. The people in the flat below had to get moving at that time, which is fair enough, but I did lose my rag a bit when the same phone alarm went off four times, and when they had very loud conversations while stomping up and down the stairs. I got back to sleep after another hour.

Then came the 6 am wake up. I decided to get up.

I haven't really adapted to local breakfasts, which are usually paratha (flat bread stuffed with spicy potato, peas or whatever) or spicy omelettes. The staff were good enough to bring me some hot water which I could use to make coffee and porridge. I've tried and failed to get milk here in Nepal, and eventually I gave up and bought some dried milk, which is better than nothing, and at least doesn't go off in the heat, as fresh milk tends to do.

The sunlit ride along the pine valley felt very different to the ride in the other direction, when low mists curled between the branches and it reminded me of cycling in Scotland. The landscape of the Shiwaliks is like nowhere else I've ridden. It's steep, and rich, and green, unlike barren Turkey or rocky, dry Iran, and the treeline goes further up than I would have believed. I paused to look up at the slopes, and tried to imagine the route the road was going to take up there. It seemed impossible.

It swept up somehow, and again the descent at the other side was a very different experience to the cloudy, moody landscape I'd ridden up. I stopped for provisions at a little village store and sat there for about an hour, chatting with the locals, one of whom insisted on buying me a beer. I refused at first, as it was only 11 in the morning and the climbing wasn't done yet. It went down well, though.

The massive descent down to the plains was tough. Not that I had to pedal, but it was getting hot in the midday sun, even at 30 mph I could feel the heat, and the tarmac was melting on the sharp corners. Again I thought how lucky I'd been that it was overcast and cool when I'd been going up.

Back at Ataria and on the Mahendra Highway (the main east-west road in Nepal) again, I took a break for a couple of hours to escape the heat. A succession of Nepali cyclists stopped to chat, and to drink my water. I didn't mind at first, but none of them were carrying even water bottles; if you're out in temperatures of 30+ degrees, why can't you carry your own water?

A westerly wind was picking up while I scoffed some biscuits and cheese puffs (actual crisps are quite hard to come by out here, except in nasty flavours like tomato and masala). A teenage girl and her sister had stopped to beg for some water, and they gave me a little race as I set off, the younger sitting sidesaddle on the rear rack. This sort of thing has happened all the time in Nepal and India, which annoyed me a lot when I was trying to ride 100 mile days on the plains, and wanted to find a rhythm that I could maintain all day. I'd overtake a cyclist, he'd (it's usually a he) take umbrage and race to overtake, then slow down immediately. It was easy enough to overhaul them, especially in India, and when I had the energy I'd play a cruel game by setting a pace which they struggled to maintain, then just as they were thinking they had the legs on me, I'd wave bye-bye, click it into the big ring and scarper over the horizon at 23 mph.

Nepali cyclists seem to have a bit more stamina than their Indian counterparts, though. I stayed behind these two lasses until I decided that I should make the most of the tailwind, and overtook them to admiring whoops from them, and with a quick wave from me.

I quickly rode twenty five miles, and stopped in a village for provisions for camping. Plenty of water, some beer and some snacks. I did ask about a guesthouse, which the guys at the beer shop assured me was just up the road, but I couldn't see it. I rode on until I'd cleared the village and the outlying houses, nipped down a footpath into the jungle, and pitched my tent. Only my second night of camping in Nepal.

No comments:

Post a Comment