We were lucky enough to travel to this beautiful country before the devastating earthquake occurred. Sadly many of areas we cycled through were very remote and very close to the epicenter; therefore our thoughts are often with all the people of Nepal but especially the people we met along our way.
Crossing into Nepal was like entering an oasis. Calm, green, with friendly people, far less traffic and most importantly it was quiet. Cycling in India from Delhi to the border with Nepal was utter chaos. Neither I nor Claire had really realized the strain it had been putting on us until we crossed the border. Both of us felt as if a weight had been lifted from our shoulders as we cycled through the forested lowlands of Nepal. I think we both knew cycling in Nepal was going to be a treat.
The border crossing was one of the more memorable land borders we have come across on our trip so far. The border was to put it mildly, very lax. Traffic was mostly horse-carts, bicycles and pedestrians across the long metal dam across one of the many large rivers flowing out of the Himalayas. Finding the border agent for both Nepal and India took some looking as each was in a pretty nondescript building, which you can easily cycle past.
The first leg of our trip in Nepal was in the lowlands to the south of the country at the foot of the Himalayas. Life in the lowlands seemed simple. Homes were often mud walled huts with tin roofs. There was some agriculture, but we also saw numerous men and women collecting wood and foliage from the jungle and forests. Rock breaking seemed to be a big industry, all being done by hand no less.
The lowlands are also home to a great deal of wildlife. Two of the major National Parks are in the south. We happened to pass through one of them (Bardia National Park), and decided to stop in to go on a walking safari. Hoping to see tigers on foot in the jungle might sound crazy, and looking back it sounds a bit more crazy now. Armed with a wooden stick each and two young Nepali guides, we sadly missed seeing any big cats. However, we did see some wild elephants, loads of deer, crocodiles and monkeys. The most spectacular looking birds are everywhere in Nepal, if you look up for a few minutes you will see a variety of brightly-coloured birds of all different species.
Back in the Tent
Being in Nepal meant that we could get back into the tent! Which was really exciting for us, as it had been a long break from our home away from home on the road. As we headed away from the flatlands of the south and into the Himalayas we got to camp in some picturesque locations. Rural Nepal was truly rural. Hearty, hard working folk, the Nepalis of the hills toil some of the most challenging lands there are to cultivate. All work is done manually, by hand or by water buffalo plows. The terraced fields – which cover so much of the hills in Nepal – are truly a marvel when you consider how many generations it has taken to produce the fields we passed on our bikes.
As we headed into the mountains the roads were naturally challenging as they curve back and forth climbing up and down towards the monstrous Himalayas. This challenge was increased with the terrible road conditions, where paved sections would abruptly stop, followed by rough gravel road or muddy tracks. Coupled with the trucks, 4x4s, motorcycles and other traffic we were always on our toes, and always got a good day’s workout with the hills.
Finding food to cook was challenging. Once out of the large towns nearly all shops would sell instant noodles, but that’s about it in terms of food for dinner. Nepali cuisine was also not the most exciting we have come across so far on our journey. Nearly all roadside stalls would sell one or more of three main dishes; Momos (dumplings), chow-main or Dal Bhat. I grew to have a love hate relationship with dal bhat on this journey. I hate it because id’ just had enough of the same thing, but I love it because it is all you can eat. What is it? Rice, served with lentils and a vegetable curry and occasionally another vegetable.
What the country lacked in cuisine, it made up for in scenery. The hills and mountains of Nepal are simply sublime.
Pokhara to Kathmandu
After a short stay in Pokhara where we indulged in all the treats and treasures which the city offers travellers, trekkers and ex-pats alike, we headed on the road towards Kathmandu. In an attempt to avoid the truck heavy traffic of the highway, we planned a route on the smaller roads into the mountains of the countryside. This turned out to be an interesting experience, filled with beautiful landscapes, and quaint villages but all and all a bad idea. Our first day was spent turning off the main road climbing up some steep roads, which soon turned from paved, to gravel, then to dirt. After the first hour or so of rain, the dirt road turned to a mud road. We hid from the rain in an old cattle shed that seemed to be abandoned where we ended up setting up our tent inside and sleeping for the first night. Day two was no better, the rain which fell throughout the night had made the roads much worse, the mud was extremely thick, soft and difficult to ride in. This coupled with some in-saddle vomiting from dodgy roadside food the previous day made for the shortest day of the trip; whopping ten kilometres! On the bright side, we met some kind people along the way. Nepalis are all smiles everywhere, but especially in the countryside.
Reaching asphalt the next day was as uplifting as you could ever imagine. After days of the toughest cycling of the trip, while barely making any progress, it was a joyous occasion.
Cycling on the main highway again was as we had expected it to be. There was a lot of traffic and the road constantly rose and fell as it gradually climbed towards Kathmandu. The final ascent to the capitol was epic, and a full day struggle. We navigated switchback after switchback while dodging the rickety Tata trucks belching out black smoke as they flew up and down the road. One thousand meters gained, we reached the ridge of the valley of Kathmandu.
Kathmandu has been a hot spot for adventurers and backpackers for years. It’s the kick off point for trekkers and the last stop to refuel before heading out into the wilderness. For Nepalis it’s where everything is happening. Many villagers told us that family members had left to go to Kathmandu to go to school or to find work. It’s more developed than the rest of the country, but is also over populated, dirty and disorganized.
For us entering Kathmandu was a big milestone, but also very welcome as it gave us a chance to fill our stomachs with more than noodles and rice. Since the city largely caters to travellers, expats and all classes of society you can get whatever you want from pizza to pasta, Indian to Nepali and nearly everything in between.
We were lucky enough to be hosted in a lovely little flat by an American ex-pat Vince (and his pal Ross), who we felt at home with immediately. It was like coming back to visit an old friend and because we felt so at home we ended up staying a little longer than expected.
We took the chance to take in the sights of the city visiting two Durbar Squares; Patan and Kathmandu (which are the palaces of the old Hindu Kings) and also the grand Bodhnath stupa.
We also checked out the tourist district Thamel, where nearly all the hostels, gift shops and knock off shops are.
We made an unplanned journey into the Himalayas to trek in Langtang National park which is just south of the border with Tibet. Although the distance between Kathmandu to Syaburubesi (which is the town where you set off for the Langtang trek in the National Park) is only 117km the drive takes about 9 hours. I can easily say the bus ride was one of the least enjoyable parts of the entire trip to date, and easily the worst bus ride I have ever taken. Nine hours of bumpy unpaved roads with frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers, their goods and livestock. Watching goats being shoved onto the roof whilst sitting on a hard wooden seat where my legs could not fit between my seat and the one in front – words can’t describe what a hellish journey it was.
Our trek began early the next day and lasted for a total of six days of hiking, three up plus one day at the trail end to rest and take in the scenery, and two days down. The trek saw us passing through picturesque landscapes, which changed dramatically as the elevation increased. Starting off in dense forest with large raging rivers, followed by bamboo forests where the rivers changed to a beautiful light murky blue, followed by pine forests which thinned out to reveal the raw rugged Himalayas in every direction. The trail changed from flat to rolling to steep and muddy and was just the right amount of challenging. When the trek felt difficult we were often put to shame by the porters on the trail which were navigating the tricky paths carrying sheets of ply wood, timber beams, bags of concrete, westerner’s luggage or any other number of cumbersome and heavy baggage; all while in flip flops!
Tea shops were every few kilometers, and touted cheap or free rooms (think 1 dollar), however the expensively (by Nepal standards) priced food and drink which increased in price with the elevation, made up for the room price.
The trek gave us a real appreciation for the beauty of the young Himalayas and we were even treated with an unseasonal dusting of snow at the trail end, which was a treat. At the top we both managed to contract a small bout of altitude sickness. Despite that we hiked up to get a view of the glaciers, the valley and the 7000m giants all around. What a place.
Make for the border!
After our trek it was back to Kathmandu for a few days rest and then a dash for the border. At this point we had already extended our visa by 15 days and were running out of days fast. Some bad weather and some other circumstances kept us back for a day or two; we headed out of in a hurry. The road south to the plains of the country was a tough ride, but beautiful with big climbs and brake pad-melting descents. We loved and hated the road it brought beauty and pain.
Our return to the plains was a welcome one, but with it came heat, monotony and mosquitoes. We dashed for the border and managed to escape a hefty fine leaving one day past our visa expiry. Turns out one day over is okay in Nepal.
Nepal was an amazing country to visit and experience with beautiful landscapes and amazing people, it’s worth the pain and the strain to get up those hills!
Next up, we reluctantly head back into India, where we are surprised at what a change from the East to the West makes…
For more photos from Nepal click HERE