Nepal by bike
Seven weeks and 601 km in Nepal, we have beaten our record with an average 11.13 km per day! No, we didnít pass the time pushing our bikes. Itís not our laziness we have to blame, but the endless administrative red tape we had to fight simply in order to obtain permission to enter Tibet and cross the country on our own. Our stream of appointments kept us stuck in Katmandu.
Finally, with the additional aggravation of threatened strikes, we enter Nepal through Darjeeling, without the slightest difficulty. The road to Katmandu stretches east to west through the alluvial plains with high mountains to the right and the Indian border to the left. It's a very poor area in spite of the alluvial plains and swamps with fertile sedimentary deposits.
In the foreground, a stock of drying dung, used as fuel for making fires A village in the plains
The numerous police checkpoints in the plains donít bother with us, in spite of the fact that there is a the latent smell of revolt in the air. When night falls at 6PM, we watch from our candlelit window as groups of soldiers and armed policemen march around the village. Come morning, everything seems back to normal and we climb back on our bikes, cheered by the playful monkeys. Little food stalls facilitate our snacking.
One morning, not far from the customs checkpoint, we see a group of Indian women and children running around a field with scythes in hand, chopping the sugar cane in a totally random manner. Then, they tear across the road in front and behind us, paying no attention to us, and disappear, leaving the destroyed field in their wake, a bizarre pillaging that is confirmed in the next morningís papers. Beyond the Nepalese border, the Indian state of Bihar is very corrupt, as well as having the distinction of being the poorest region in India. Itís citizens no longer know how they are going to feed their families. Gangs of bandits roam the countryside; they jump on trains and buses and terrorize the passengers, attacking them and stealing the little money or jewelry they have.
At the little town of Hetuada, we turn off onto an old, almost abandoned road to go through the mountains to arrive in Katmandu. After the noisy Indian crowds, we are struck by the contrast with the quiet of the terraced agriculture and lush nature we see here...
We arrive in Katmandu at noon on April 1st, a fact we celebrate that night with some red wine and a nice piece of beef. Itís a grand day as itís Ericís birthday (Eric, Aprilís Fool!) The meter shows 26,820 km. We finish the evening with a beer in the "Freak Street" neighborhood, where customers smoke joints and a man fondles his girlfriendsí breasts in public. Again, we have suddenly entered another world. A few weeks earlier, Renaud had invited us for a drink in a little Indian village. A long staircase had led us to a poorly-lit basement that smelled of damp soil, alcohol, and male sweat. The bar was empty and the waiters stared shamelessly at Christine. We were led down one of two (even darker) parallel hallways facing the bar. On each side were little 2x2 meter boxes closed in by a curtain, with a small table and two benches under a feeble light, boxed in by decrepit walls. The idea was to drink, and if possible, quickly. Just about every minute the curtain would part and the waiter would offer us another drink. Though we refused, he kept returning, incapable of understanding that we hadnít come here to get drunk, but just wanted a drink and a chat.
The next morning, April 2nd, our French friend Catherine, and her daughter Ariane arrive by plane to visit with us. They have over packed for the journey and we go off hiking for about 10 days in the Langtang region.
The backpack is heavy, isnít it Catherine?
You can't judge a book by it's cover, Ariane, who looks very serious in this picture, is a cheery little sprite who kept us in stitches...
We hiked up to the Langtang village at 3,500 meters. It snowed during the night and in the freezing morning, Christine and I found the surrounding mountains so beautiful that we couldnít resist climbing up to Cherko Ri at 5,000 m. The snow was not very deep and other hikers had already left tracks. The climb is a bit dangerous amid the rock slides of big, frozen boulders, but we attain the summit soon after a Swiss couple, Christine and Markus from Berne, with whom we had chatted the night before at the hotel/shelter. The view is sublime. The sun is blinding, blazing, and I canít find my sunglasses, though I could have sworn I had put them in my bag...
Sunrise At the summit, Cherko Ri (at 4,960 m)
The climb and return without sunglasses was not a smart move and it's no surprise that my nice hazel eyes have turned pink, then pale red, then bright red. Markus, who is a doctor, had already seen what was happening and had made his diagnosis; now he had to intervene. Soon, I couldn't even open my eyes, which cried all night long. The pain was unbearable and it was so intense, I felt like I was going to be sick. We had to pull on my lashes in order to allow my swollen eyelids to release the tears. We only realize how invaluable doctors are when we need them and I will be forever grateful to Markus for interrupting his vacation to tend to me with kindness and professionalism. Luckily, he was also equipped to cure me, for which I am also grateful. Two days later, I was back to normal and I found the elusive sunglasses in the bottom of my bag, right where I remembered putting them.
Christine (Markusí Christine) and Markus decided to give a great present to Christine (Ericís Christine) to improve our equipment and they even went so far as to send us a list of must-have bicycle equipment, which they sent us upon their return to Switzerland.
They are a lovely athletic couple, not to mention incredibly kind people, whom we thank from the bottom of our hearts.
Christine and Markus
On the way down, we met several Sherpa.
At Katmandu, Catherine and Ariane grudgingly get on their plane home, while Ericís young mother (76 years old) arrives the next day to spend 3 weeks with us.
Our only concern is to cross Tibet, but all the administrative red tape has keep us rooted to the spot. We donít bike for 6 weeks, so I re-vamp our transmissions : pinions, transmission chains, the works. We loaf around Katmandu and the surrounding countryside. There isnít a single piece of rough wood in this part of the world ; everything has been finely carved: from beams, roofs, and doors to window frames. This woodwork reminds us of the work of our sculptor friend and brilliant artist Jean-Marc Tournois (www.tournois-sculpteur.com)
Patan neighborhood Patan neighborhood Patan neighborhood
My mother has barely set foot on Nepalese soil before we give her a complete makeover. Once dressed in local garb, she takes out her camera and starts shooting ; she won't stop until she leaves.
My mother films stunning sadhus without a hint of embarrassment. The sadhus then, obviously, hit her up for money. Good for her -- she knows how to refuse (but when you look at her closely, you can see she doesnít feel totally at ease !)...
Granny attacked by a sadhu businessman...
I take advantage of the fact that we arenít on the road to enlarge our front luggage racks, so that we might be able to raise the racks at river crossings. Gilles Berthoud would hit the roof if he saw this electric soldering...I had always promised to only do gas soldering !
The Rato Machhendranath festival is an annual event in Patan. The Nepalese parade their god down the street on an enormous processional chariot. They believe he is the god of good monsoons, which bring rich crops.
The wheels are taller than Christine
Several hundred people pull on huge cords led by a ringleader who stands at the prow of the chariot keeping the pace like a sort of festival coxswain. Thereís a lot of effort and a lot of laughing going on. Before thousands of spectators, thereís a sandy blond head sticking out well above those of the Nepalese. Far too tall to be from these parts, he stands head and shoulders above the adolescent crowd. He puts all his energy into helping move the god...and his girlfriend is laughing hysterically !
Claude Marthaler in the crowd Nathalie Pellegrinelli Spectators
A very bad omen: the overly-tall chariot and the god atop it tip over (luckily, no one is hurt) and seconds later, a torrential downpour begins ! Without a doubt, itís a manifestation of the anger of the insulted god...
Up to our ankles in overflowing sewage mixed with the rain...
My mother is sad to go, but happy to have spent 3 beautiful weeks in Nepal. The following days are consumed by organizing our passage to Tibet.
On the Nepalese Side: Different stories arrive several times a day. Are we going to be able to cycle up the mountains with Claude and Nathalie as we had planned ? With each passing day, our doubts increase. Tibet has become a thinly veiled excuse for businessmen to rip off mountain-loving tourists. Itís a disgrace! They act as if they owned this part of the world. They would rather pollute with their overloaded jeeps than allow a few hikers or four cyclists to quietly pass through.
On the Chinese Side : If you go by road, you have to be part of a group and your passport wonít be stamped ! Should you be so unfortunate as to ask for a stamp, they'll cancel your Chinese visa to (perhaps) replace it with a 21-day visa (making it impossible to cross by bike). So you are stuck traveling with a group. If you fly over Lhassa, itís 320 dollars, plus an obligatory 150 dollars for a guide, whose sole occupation is to show you the clearly visible road between the airport and the city center, as if you could miss it ! Once in the city, you are officially prohibited from leaving. Claude and Nathalie finally decided on this option, with the firm intention of eluding police checks.
After having changed our minds several times, we finally have finally chosen to fly over Tibet and land in the Chinese city nearest Tibet. That city is Chengdu in Sichuan. We will go counter-clockwise in and around China, finally entering Tibet through the Chinese border next spring.
So the Nepal leg of the journey did not end up being much of a cyclistís road trip, but it was full of good times with friends, family, and fellow travelers.
Weíll write soon from China !
Christine in Swayambhunath Climb up to Cherko Ri Swayambhunath Temple Ginette with her camera always at the ready... Bastien with a touching child Bauble seller
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(Text translated by Maia Demorest)