Nepal is a strange place. Most Nepalese live centuries from the nearest vehicle-sized road, but in many places, are likely to come in contact with travelers. Looking at a map you will notice there are basically two main roads. One runs east to west on the Terai (the jungle at the base of the Himalayas), and the other splits the country in the middle from India to Lhasa in Tibet. There is a superhighway running from Kathmandu to Pokara to run air-con tourist coaches back and forth. Our initial plan was to drive to Hilo, Kathmandu, then on to Sariska, Ghorka, Pokara, and across the western Tarai to northwest India. Fred told us about some great places on the way and we were eager to see them. We wanted to get a trek in too. All this in a month’s time. We were off at dawn.
Crossing the border at Kakarbhitta was no more problem than usual in these places, even with the bike. We had to change money ($1.00 = R140.), register the bike, and pay for our visa, a trekking permit, and a permit for each day the bike was in Nepal. As you can imagine, they like tourists to come and visit. The Terai road was pretty good in that you could usually see when the pavement ended before you got there. Most of the way was paved and we made good time.
The countryside here was all farms and small villages. To our right rose the Himalayas and along the road were rice patties and jungle. Small villages provided the opportunity for a cold soda and lunch. Nepalese fare is pretty good the first 10 times. Dhal Bhaat. Basically a lentil slurry with curry and some vegetables over rice. It is always passable and the national staple. For about $0.25 you get all you can eat, just watch out for the pebbles in the rice! Cold cokes, bottled water, and other soft drinks are available in each village along the main road.
Our first destination was the town of Hile. The British put an agricultural station here to tell the locals how to do what they have been doing for a couple thousand years. One good thing they did bring is the road out there, more like a freeway, and taught the locals to grow cauliflower. We couldn’t make it to Hile from the border and decided to stay in Dharan. The Rough Guide we were carrying said there was a guesthouse run by the British with a decent hotel. This was no longer true, but with the bike we were able to ride around until we found a good place to stay.
The next morning we tanked up and were heading off. Leaving the petrol station in Dharan we had a brush with disaster. We were trying to turn right (they drive on the left side here) and there was a bus blocking our view, which was trying to turn left into the gas station. One of us had to go, so we did. As we were edging around the bus, a cyclo (tricycle pedicab) came hurling by. We clipped the back wheel sending driver and passenger head over heels. We stopped to make sure everyone was OK and they were. One of the locals who saw what happened ran up and told us “LEAVE NOW!” We did. When it’s the incredibly rich tourist vs. the impoverished local, there is no telling how it will turn out if you hang around while the story evolves.
The motorcycle wasn’t even scratched, but this was the only road out and we had to come back. Hopefully no one was going to be waiting for us. Dharan was at the base of the mountains and it was all uphill as we headed out of town. We climbed over the first ridge of the Himalayas and were treated to the sight of India stretching out behind us with mountains, rivers, and valleys ahead.
From the base, the Himalayas’ are an amazing sight. As the crow flies from southern India, it is essentially flat for a thousand miles. In the space of about 5 you go from plains over the first ridge at about 1500 meters (4500 ft)! On the way up it was getting noticeably colder and the vegetation was changing. We had lots of time to view the plant life and 2-foot long worms (in various states of being smooshed) on the road as we slooooowwwly made it up the switchbacks and over the top.
The valleys were magnificent. The flat areas were planted in rice with bananas growing everywhere else. It was strange to leave the top of the ridge where the vegetation was stunted, to the valley below full of lush tropical vegetation. It’s easy to imagine Shangri-La existing just one valley away. The roadside was lined with wildflowers and the fields filled with rice growing in every shade of green imaginable. The roads and riding were great, and the scenery grand.
We made it over the ridge and arrived at the two-horse town of Hile around lunchtime, settling into the usual accommodation. Here we met a bunch of interesting people passing through. The town of Hile is at 2000 meters and located at one of the main trailheads in the eastern part of Nepal. From here you can take a 3 week trek to Makalu (8463 m) passing over the Shipton La pass (4127 m), or for the more adventurous the trek to Kachemjunga (8586 m), the latter requiring porters to carry 2 weeks worth of supplies. It also serves as the end of the Everest (8848 m) Base Camp trek for those who don’t want to backtrack to Kathmandu.
The end of the road is a meeting place of interesting people. We met “H” a student from Norway who was studying cold climate agriculture for his master’s thesis. The plant life here is similar to Norway. He was living in Hile and making short treks into the area with a nice Nepali guide for weeks at a time collecting data. We also met two Peace Corps volunteers who had just completed the Everest Base Camp trek and were taking a bit of R&R at the hotel before heading back to their village. Every day the bus from Kathmandu would come through and drop off a few travelers and take a few back. We relaxed a bit and enjoyed the local scenery and Chang.
Market day in Hile came and went with a surge in traveler interest. The market in Hile is popular with travelers as the word is out, prices are up, and mostly there are useless trinkets for sale to the foreigners. When this happens, you need to find the real market. The market in nearby Dhankuta is a bit closer to the real thing. Here they were trading everything. The older women did most of the marketeering. The women wear their wealth rather than putting it in the bank. Gold earrings and bracelets were worn with huge nose rings hanging over the lips of colorfully dressed women. I bribed a few pictures with cigarettes, though they weren’t really necessary. They were just as interested in looking at us.
Our time in Hile well spent, we decided to head off to visit our Peace Corps friends in Rajbiraj. Fortunately no one was waiting for us in Dharan. The Peace Corps in Nepal is run out of Kathmandu. It is the usual thing where the volunteers are permitted to serve their two years doing a lot but amounting to less than that. It seems that the idea of the Peace Corps is somewhere between noble and self-serving. We send these kids out (mostly 22+ yrs old) to the remote corners of the world giving them the instruction (with little funding): “go make a difference”.
Programs last the tenure of the volunteer (about 2 years), and whither away once they leave and a new Volunteer comes with a different program. As if no one thinks that the locals aren’t smart enough to see that whatever the Volunteers come to do will soon be forgotten. Who among the locals are going to stick their neck out and get involved when they know it will end all too soon. Volunteers come and go, the village stays.
Still we had a good time, and the people we met are working hard to do something with their time. We were told a story by one of the Peace Corps workers who was walking down the road and found an old woman sprawled in the mud too weak to go any further. She was hardly discernable in the mud, just outside the door of a village store. The storekeeper pretended she wasn’t there. Shocked, he helped the old woman up, cleaned her off and gave her some water and food. The shopkeeper just watched. Finally he couldn’t take it any more and he yelled at the shopkeeper who just looked blankly at him. Maybe indifference is the way of the world.
After a good evening and night spent on a real bed, we headed out the next morning. Riding in the morning is the best time as the air and light are just magnificent. We made our way through rice paddies out to the Mahendra Highway and headed west. Driving at a top speed of 60 km/hr (36 mph) we passed houses built of mud and straw painted with colors and designs. Colorfully dressed women and young boys herding buffaloes were all out doing their thing. We passed one small town after another, leap frogging busses as they stopped, then being passed about 30 minutes later. The busses here are of the usual developing world sort. Old and rickety, filled with people, loaded with cargo. Thinking back on all the busses we had been on, we were glad we had the bike.
We made it to Hetaura, 240 kms. Maybe it really was the beautiful scenery that slowed us down. I had illusions of making it to Kathmandu!!. Two and a half hours Australian driving time, but closer to 8 hrs Nepali time. We decided to rest at the Motel Avocado, a former USAID guesthouse. A beautiful place with a wonderful array of plants and trees planted during what must have been this places heyday. Here we met the stream of folks entering Nepal from India on the “Rajpath”, one of the oldest routes into Nepal. Oddly enough, it seems to be a favorite with the bicycling crowd. They ride up to here from India, then over to Chitwan National Park, or catch a bus over the mountains to the Kathmandu valley. If you’re hard-core you pedal over the mountain.
The next day we decided to drive over the mountain to Kathmandu. I figured it would take 3 hours, more like 10. The road started out good, but got bad as soon as we started up the mountain. This was the old road; it was slow going as we negotiated potholes, switchbacks, washed out roads, and overloaded trucks sharing the 1.5 lane road. We found one of those crazy guesthouses run by foreigners at the top of the mountain and stopped for lunch. It is crazy because here you are travelling in the developing world, on a useless road, watching peasants carry loads up a mountain that are nearly as heavy as they are. Even the children carry baskets of bricks up the mountain. Around the corner you find mountain chalets at $100/night. Everything was first class. It was like being in Colorado or Switzerland. We had some tea and a light lunch (all we could afford) and enjoyed the view. Then back on the road to Kathmandu.
On the other side of the mountains we passed through picturesque valleys and small villages with mustard flowering in the fields. We rode on endlessly expecting at any moment to be there. There were people everywhere. At one point we decided to stop and do our business and found an isolated spot. No sooner than we had stopped, along came an entire school. They all smiled and said hello, hello, and hello. They liked to look at our maps, the motorcycle, and of course, us. 5 hrs later we made it into Kathmandu.
“The scene on Thamel avenue today: a very pretty pale brown cow standing on the sidewalk, between a cigarette stand and an umbrella repairman, her head lifted straight up, perpendicular with the ground, while a ten-year-old boy headed home from school stood there, reaching up and scratching the animal’s neck. Meanwhile all the tourists pointing to the fruit bats hanging in the trees. The smell of bat shit and garbage and day-old murk, literally Another Shitty Day in Paradise. Shangri-La’s getting wasted, but you can still stand on the street corner in Kathmandu and scratch her heavy velvet throat.”
Jeff Greenwald, Mister Raja’s Neighborhood
Kathmandu is one of those travelers’ crossroads. Many people fly in here for their trip to India, Tibet, and Nepal. We headed for the tourist area on Thamel Street and settled into the Hotel Horizon for I think it was Rs600 ($4.25) a night. We had heard about the legendary Everest Steak House while on the road, and breaking our 3rd world taboo of no meat eating, went there for some MEAT (or Buffalo). They served us a chateaubriand that was as big as my torso. We have a picture of me holding it up looking emaciated compared to the steak.
If you travel Asia for any length of time it will happen to you. I remember waking up one night while sleeping on my back with my hands on my chest. I was shocked to realize that it was me I was holding. I could feel my hands on my rib cage, but my head said that it couldn’t be. It felt like I was holding a child. I must have been around 160 lbs but had no way of knowing. I started the trip 1y 8 mo. ago at 210+ lbs, not anymore.
When I think of Kathmadu I think of a city up in the mountains. Actually, it is fairly tropical here as the city is in the Kathmandu valley. To the north is the snow capped Himalayas, and all around are historic towns and former kingdoms. The city itself is fairly spread out with a few modern buildings mixed in with the medieval. Fortunately there are no skyscrapers as of yet, just the Swayambhu Temple complex to the west of the city.
Reality strikes at street level. The streets are grimy and in various states of repair. Rats and rabid dogs abound. Fortunately the traffic is modest (by Asian standards anyway), and we were able to negotiate the streets pretty easily. Having the bike was a real bonus as many of the streets in the old city area were too narrow for cars. We just picked our way between the pedestrians and even managed to find a shortcut or two. The city provides a great opportunity for tourists to see what Asia is really like at the most basic levels. Direct flights bring tourists from Europe and America, and a few tourist areas in town provide respite for the queasy.
On Thamel St we found decent hotels, restaurants, and shops. There is a French bakery and bagels (shocking for the hard core long term travel purists)! There are loads of shops selling every kind of trinket imaginable, and others where you can get any logo embroidered onto hats, T-shirts and such. Since this is the embarkation point for most mountaineering expeditions, you can buy used gear at rock bottom prices. The expeditions get their gear for free (sponsorships) and pass it on to the Sherpa guides who sell it in town. It’s a great place to buy top quality gear.
Kathmandu and the nearby cities of Patan, and Bhaktapur have a lot to offer. The Durbar (Palace) Squares of both cities are amazing. Temples and palaces abound in the open squares. You know you are in another century when you get here. There are markets everywhere for such things as Ghurka knives and, after dark, you hear the muted sound: “hassseeeessshh”.
Around Kathmadu are lots of fantastic sights. Having the Bike let us see them at our leisure. The nearby town of Patan has some outstanding examples of architecture and the museum in Durbar Square is outstanding. The nearby town of Bhaktapur is the most preserved of Nepal’s medieval cities full of fine hand carved wood architecture including the famous “Peacock Window”. Bhaktapur is a great place because it is being maintained in its original style. No modern buildings allowed. The cobblestone streets snake around the town leading to all sorts of unusual sights. Here there are potters, painters, thanka sellers, and people going about their everyday lives.
Near Bhaktapur is the temple complex Changu Narayan. It amazes me that these places can be found on the web in a Mapping site, as many are literally one-horse towns with no chance of finding a computer. Changu Narayan is a pilgrimage site and home to some of the oldest statues outside the national museum. A few of them are on the Nepali currency. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset over Kathmandu with the shimmering Manohara River beneath our vantage. The place is off the tourist path (by about 1 km) and beautiful.
The next day we decided to visit the shrine at Daskin Kali. We got up early (for us anyway) and headed out of town to the sacrificial pit of Southern Kali. Here the pilgrims and locals come to pay their respects to Kali-with blood. The faithful offer chickens, goats, and anything else that bleeds. A Brahman Priest directing the faithful supervises the shrine activities. Men of a certain caste kill the animal. The whole thing takes about 2 seconds for a chicken and 5 for the goat. Once finished the family goes off for a picnic. Kali doesn’t want the animal, only the blood. The Nepalis line up by the hundreds for the event. On the way back we made it by the temple in Chobar. Here the temple is decorated with all sorts of kitchen utensils offered to ensure a happy marriage or to send off the departed in style.
After one more trip to the Everest Steak House and a viewing of Forrest Gump in one of the cafes, we were off to Ghorka. The ancestral home of the Nepali ruling family.
The roads vary from first rate to miserable, usually without warning. Driving slowly allows you to notice things like missing bridges or car-sized potholes. Along the roads are helpful hints for good driving practice. “Hurry-Burry spoils the Curry” and “Love your neighbor, but not while driving”. The roads are bad, the warning signs non-existent. Fortunately there aren’t many rules. Basically, if you are smaller, give way. Giving way means to GET OFF THE ROAD OR DIE!!!! We gave way. Sharp turns in the mountains are always interesting. Honk your horn as you enter and try to gauge the size of the return horn vehicle. Fred had this worked out. He had truck horns installed on his motorcycle so everyone stopped for him. He would smile and wave as he passed by. The other driver usually got a laugh out of it too.
Trucks in India and Nepal are plentiful. Wrecked hulks are everywhere as poignant reminders of the danger these trucks pose to themselves and others. Those not wrapped around a tree; in a ditch, run into a building, or along the road with broken axles is the real problem. The drivers are usually the last ones to fall off the turnip truck. They drive overloaded rigs for 30-40 hrs without sleep as they get paid by the mile driven. These guys you really have to watch out for. They are known to entertain themselves by running you off the road. I always slow down and look for a place to pull off as they approach. We heard a lot of bad things about them, but had no problem. Of course we stayed off most of the main roads. The Grand Trunk Road that runs from Delhi to Calcutta and beyond is loaded with trucks and very dangerous. We drove it for about 250 km and fortunately didn’t have any trouble.
Leaving Kathmandu we headed towards Chitwan National park with a side trip to Ghorka. The main road is more like a superhighway that snakes along a river. The weather was beautiful and the scenery spectacular. We were loving life when the bike seemed to run out of gas. We coasted into a roadside restaurant and tried to figure it out. Unfortunately the throttle cable had worn through (even though it is inside a steel reinforced plastic tube) and snapped. Indian quality strikes again.
6 years in the Navy were good for something. One of the truckers had an ancient pair of dykes that I used to cut through the cable. I found an old piece of wire on the roadside and spliced the ends together. We entertained the locals for while and were on the road again.
We passed groups of “White Water” rafting expeditions lazily floating down the river and turned right on the road to Gorkha. Ghorka is along one of the main trekking paths and is the ancestral home of the Nepali royal family. Named for the city are the Gurkha soldiers of the British and Indian Army regiments. After a day or two of relaxing and talking with a solo traveler of 80 some years we headed on.
Our next stop was the famous park. You can visit Royal Chitwan Park in one of two modes. Absolute luxury, or backpacking. We went to the town of Sauraha. The park is about 80 km long and 30 km wide at it’s widest. Here you find jungles with Tigers, crocs, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and a lot of other animals. The town has a bunch of lodges where you stay in earthen huts under mozzy nets. A far cry from the Tiger Tops resort in the Park. If you hadn’t done it in Kathmandu, you set up your tours here, on foot or elephant back. From the edge of the river you can see the snow capped Himalayas to the north and the jungle all around. We enjoyed the view with a few beers each night at sunset.
Foot tours involve walking around elephant grass and praying you see the rhinos before they see/trample you. A few tourists get trampled, but usually it is a Nepali cutting elephant grass that meets this fate. There are a number of villages in and around the park that result in confrontations. All around the park are rice fields with raised platforms with villagers guarding against the rhinos. I guess they just shoo them away(?). Each year the villagers are permitted to gather thatch for two weeks, all the activity keeps the game moving and heightens the chance of seeing the animals.
The park has a lot going for it. The number of rhinos has doubled over the last 30 years with a population of over 500. 100 Tigers survive too. With this success, there is more to the story. The human population has swelled from about 30K in 1950 to nearly 250K today. The people living there don’t like the fact that a lot of fertile land is unavailable to them, but reserved for tourists.
We did two tours. Our foot tour was an all day hike through the jungle. We saw a leopard and some small game, and lots of jungle. We ended the day exhausted. The next day we went over to see the elephants used for the tours. We took the bike and headed into the pens where some of the “guides” tried to get us to pay to see the elephant pens. There were signs for everything but money so we ignored them. In the back we saw a rhino across a field and a baby elephant with its mother. The baby stood waist high next to Mel and rubbed her all over with its trunk. The mother stood by and watched.
The elephant tour was pretty weird. It is easier to find rhinos on the outside of the park because all the tourists are inside the park. We got on the elephants and headed off to a private forest to see rhinos. It is a lot of fun to ride on an elephant. You walk through the jungle at treetop level. The real excitement began when we found the rhino. Rhinos have very bad vision, but they know that an elephant is bigger than them. The elephants don’t seem to like the rhinos either. We found one in a mud hole and the two elephants in our group tried to corner it. Fortunately the rhino didn’t stand and fight. We were glad to be on the back of an elephant while this close.
Or should I say not trekking. It is hard to believe we came this far and didn’t do any trekking in the trekking capital of the world. Oh well. Nepal has so much to see and do other than trekking. We also missed the eastern Tarai with its national parks. I guess we will have to come back again. We really enjoyed riding the bike from place to place and seeing different areas of this tremendously diverse country. Our visa was running out and we were hoping to meet Fred in Delhi. After 1 month in Nepal we headed back to Mother India.
Nepal is a relatively inexpensive place to travel. There are loads of historical sites, and most of the villages haven’t changed in a century. In fact, it is illegal to perform an archeological dig and hard to do any construction lest you disturb anything best left undiscovered. If you come here be sure to have a driver or some other local transport as there are loads of things to see within short drives of Kathmandu and Pokara. Other than during a trek, clean food and water are readily available. If you trek, bring a water filter with a virus guard. Kathmandu has lots of cheap, relatively nice hotels and tourist restaurants that are a welcome relief to long-term travelers, and take the edge off for the short timers. The best deals here are on camera equipment, embroidery, carpets, and Ghurka knives.
We had a great drive across the middle Terai and entered India at the town of Sunauli (near the birthplace of the Buddha) with the nearest Indian City of Gorakhpur. Our last memories were resting on the side of the road and buying some bananas from a Nepali fellow. We paid about $0.10 for them and made his day.
Nepal was a great place that we both enjoyed immensely. On the bike it was very accessible. There aren’t many roads, but most of the big attractions are along the few that exist. We really missed not going west across the Terai and entering Northern India. We just ran out of time. The people are very nice, though few speak English. It is fairly easy to communicate though and we had little problem. I can recommend coming here for a short or long stay. The trekking is supposedly best in late fall as the skies clear up for better views. If you can, get a driver or your own transportation, at least in Kathmandu.
Yours in Faithful travel,
Mel and Rob
Copyright © 2002 by Robert and Melissa Gunter. All rights reserved.