Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Grumpy Cycle Touring: Across the Plains and Over a Mountain to Kathmandu

"Look, it's hot. I'm sweaty and tired and thirsty, I'm going as fast as I can uphill, and now is not the time to run alongside me grinning and trying to grab my panniers. Piss off, kid."

He eventually got the message. I'm not proud of snarling at a little boy, but the heat was getting to me. Not to mention the endless chorus of hallos, bye byes (for some reason, people shout "bye bye" as I go past, which I had encountered a bit in India, but it still strikes me as odd) and weird monosyllabic grunts which greet my passing. I usually smile and wave back. Usually. It's not exactly conversation, and the constant, energy-sapping heat sweated the patience out of me. Even the coolest parts of the day saw temperatures over 30 degrees, and at noon it rose above 40 degrees.

The Terai was the problem. Nepal is best known for its mountains and green valleys, but the Terai is a hot, dry plain, and the only east-west road across Nepal crosses the middle of it. It may be just as well that there isn't a road cutting across the mountains, as I'd probably still be out there instead of stuffing myself with cake and bacon here in Kathmandu.

bridge in Nepal forest fire, Nepal

The Terai is low and hot. It's not flat, though. The Mahendra Highway goes across the country from west to east, and crosses all the rivers that cut paths down from the mountains. They're dry in this season, waiting for the monsoons, but there are still ridges to cross from valley to valley, and in the heat I wilted on the climbs. I'd stop in any shady spot I could find in the middle of the day and try to drink the water in my bottles, which warmed to the point where I could make a passable cup of coffee at noon.

As I rode further east the traffic levels and population grew. The west of Nepal was under-populated and quiet, but the centre and the plains have relatively high population densities. It's still a poor region, with hardly any private cars, so people get around by tractor, bus or bicycle.

The buses were the worst, as the drivers have no patience at all, and I lost track of the number of times I had to swerve off the road onto the dirt-packed shoulder to avoid a bus coming the other way and overtaking without any regard for me, driven by a swivel-eyed lunatic on wakey-wakey drugs. Any time I held my line and made the bus wait for a clear road behind me was a small victory.

The cyclists presented their own problems, as well. Competitive isn't in it. I'm not without a strong competitive streak myself, but I wasn't trying to race anybody, I was simply trying to keep up a rhythm I could maintain for 70 miles, in the heat. I got so sick of Nepalis overtaking me as soon as I'd passed them, even when I gave a "Namaste" and a friendly tip of my cap.

One kid saw me coming and chased off before I could pass him - fair enough, I thought. This kid was wearing a baseball cap at a gangsta angle, grey shorts of the sort I refused to wear when I was six, he was so skinny that both of his legs wouldn't have made one of my arms, and he was putting everything into it on his Indian sit-up-and-beg job. He pedalled with his heels and his toes stuck out (as nearly everyone does out here) and his saddle was so low that his knees were nearly at right angles. He was bent low over his bars with his elbows working, and overall the effect was rather like a Wallace and Gromit engine in overdrive, elbows and knees and feet flailing in every direction like broken pistons.

I wasn't trying to overhaul him, but he slowed down so much that I was overtaking within a couple of hundred yards. When I got next to him I realised that this was a bloke my age, despite the outfit. He even had a little moustache. It was like racing one of the Chuckle Brothers. I nodded as I went past, but Barry Chuckle wasn't having that. Again he started pumping his joints, leaning over his bars and grinning as he passed. The same again, further up the road.

I rolled my eyes and decided I'd had enough. I overtook and put on a little bit more speed, occasionally glancing back to make sure that he was still there, then I shifted up a gear and added a bit more acceleration, then a little bit more, until he was ten yards behind me, when I chucked it into the big ring and rolled away from him. I never saw him again.

Not that every Nepali cyclist was as irritating. I was pleased to see lots and lots of Nepali girls out on bikes. Quite a contrast to India, where (except in the cities) the women kept to themselves. I was riding along and about twelve Nepali schoolgirls called "Hellos" and "Namastes" as they rode in the other direction. I smiled and waved back, and they all squealed. Still got it.

Nepali girls on bikes

The other major irritation was the early morning wake-up I had in every cheap hotel where I stayed. Nepalis have a vile habit of clearing their throat and spitting, which is bad enough, but when it's a gross cacophony of sniffing, hacking, coughing and retching which wakes me from much-needed sleep at the crack of dawn... It didn't put me in a good humour for the day, ever.

I was glad to turn north away from the plain and into the mountains. At least there'd be clearer air and views. I took the southerly route from Bharatpur to Hetauda, as I'd be coming back the other way. A local I met told me to turn around and go back when I was twenty miles east of Bharatpur. There was no chance of me doubling back, especially when he couldn't explain why I should. "Very bad way" was all he told me.

Halfway up the mountain between Hetauda and Kathmandu, I found myself wishing he'd been able to explain himself a little better. I wouldn't have turned around, but it would have been useful to know that the road went straight up from 200 to 2500 metres in 30 miles. I had hoped to ride from Hetauda to Kathmandu in one day, but as I'd only ridden twenty miles at two in the afternoon when I stopped to cook myself some noodles and listen to the sounds of the forest (at least, until a guy on a motorbike chose that exact same spot to pull up, have an incredibly loud conversation on his mobile, then play some tinny music through it), I resigned myself to at least another day before I hit Kathmandu.

It was a beautiful road. Out of Hetauda it rolled along a wide valley, and I kidded myself that it might be a classic pass between valleys, crossing a col between the watersheds. It really wasn't. It looped up and up the hillsides, switchbacking up the slopes and curving around the valleys. Always up. I'd be grimping up a slope and see the trees open up ahead and think it was the top, but then the road would whip back on itself, leading further up the mountain.

the road from Hetauda to Kathmandu

The switchbacks were the toughest. A section called the Kalitar Twelve Loops danced up a slope which even a mountain goat would have balked at. I was riding so slowly that the schoolkids walking home could take the shortcut and stand at every second corner, grinning at me. At times I saw wagons or buses high up on the road ahead, and I could only plod on.

the road from Hetauda to Kathmandu

If I'd known how high it went, I would have found it easier, but riding up and up and, again, up, not knowing how far or high it went, made it a struggle. I even considered grabbing hold of one of the few wagons which came along to tow me up the slope, but that was too dangerous on such a narrow road, with steep drop-offs and few safety barriers. It's a measure of how tired I was that I even considered it.

I camped at 2200 metres, which I foolishly thought was over the summit. The road swooped down and around and east and north and south and west so much that I couldn't read the topography, and at my campsite I thought the road dipped down and around the mountainside.

It was a wonderful campsite, though. I fell asleep to the sound of a little owl hooting through the trees above me, and awoke to a buzzard's haunting call. A bright half moon and unfamiliar stars shone down on my meal, and the cool air was a benison after the sultry sweaty plains.

At least there were only two miles to the summit, and alleged views of Everest, hidden behind the haze. I had to force my way past a couple of wagons to take full advantage of the the first descent, into a green valley between yet more mountains. I looked around at the hills surrounding me on every side and thought "here we go again".

However, I hadn't descended very much, and when the road curved around the hillside and aimed for a gap in the mountains, I knew that there wasn't another fucking mountain in the way, and I was probably going to get to Kathmandu that day.

the road from Hetauda to Kathmandu

Over the pass, the descent proper started. It curved around the hillsides in an echo of the road from Hetauda, and only the incredibly lumpy road surface made it less than a joy. Every road in Nepal is so lumpy that I can't believe they've even seen a steamroller. I did pass a steamroller at some roadworks, but it's more likely to be a cunning ruse to hide baby elephants from poachers than a working tool.

I arrived in Naubise on the main Pokhara-Kathmandu road and realised how far I'd descended, as it was hot. I took shelter from the sun for an hour - it was only 15 miles to Kathmandu and that couldn't take more than a couple of hours, right?

The main difficulty was the traffic. An artic had somehow ended up side-on in a ditch, and there were mile-long tailbacks as the traffic manoeuvred around it, with little patience, least of all for a cyclist. I overtook the traffic when it was stationary, and even climbing up the hill over to the Kathmandu Valley I was riding quicker than the traffic was moving, but I didn't dare overtake. The van in front of me was actually trying to overtake, even though both of us could see that there was a solid line of slow-moving traffic all the way up the hill. He certainly wasn't giving me any space. I've often wondered if Nepali driving is as much better than Indian driving as it seems, or if the low traffic levels simply denied them the canvas on which they could truly express their talents. My ride into Kathmandu settled that argument in my head. I've never been cut up, pulled out on, left hooked or made to take evasive manoeuvres anywhere as often as during that run into Kathmandu.

The climb itself was fine, as once I had the sense to stop and let the angry traffic and the choking fumes from the wagons as they grunted up the steep slope get ahead of me. I had my side of the road to myself.

Thankfully, Kathmandu is much smaller and quieter than I was led to expect - people warned me that it was busy and crazy and you get hassled by taxi drivers and dope sellers, but I've been to India. Kathmandu's just an overgrown village.

I found my way to the tourist district and stayed at the first guest house I checked out. It's a lovely place, with a pleasant courtyard where other tourists were chatting and where I had a beer to celebrate my arrival. I'm not looking forward to riding back across the Terai in a couple of weeks, when it'll be even hotter.

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