One thing I’ve loved about going away is how ironically it’s brought me closer to people back home. Acquaintances have become good friends, sending messages of support that have really given me a boost when times are tough on the road. Katy has always been a good school friend, one I’ve done a bit of cycling with around the rolling Chilterns hills in summers gone by. Having parents who spend summers knocking over Alpine passes, from both air and road, glider and bike, it was only a matter of time until she reached the terminal stage of infection from the adventure bug. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise then to receive a message from her asking if she could ride a section with me. What was a surprise though, was that a couple of back-and-forth messages had materialised into a plan, date, and now a flight. A flight that had landed 3 hours ago, yet, there was still no sign of her or the bike in Kathmandu arrivals – I was getting worried.
Sight of a bike-less Katy walking out of the terminal clutching a bright yellow sheet piece of paper confirmed my suspicions – the bike hadn’t made it. On that note it was a rather sombre ‘hello’, followed by, ‘let’s see what we can do eh?!’ I snuck back into the terminal with her to talk through options with the ground crew before having a scout around cramped terminal. A box instantly caught my eye, hiding behind a wall side pillar, that had to be it! Sure enough, it was Dad’s bike, tucked away from peeping eyes. After two flights, ten time zones and two hours scratting to fill out a Nepalese visa on arrival, I think most people would’ve struggled to find that bike.
To say Katy was relieved would be a huge understatement. With the thought of having lost my Dads bike no longer a reality, relief flooded over us both – a emotional premonition for the required catch up beers to come that evening. We had faced the first ordeal of our ride together, hopefully it would all be downhill from here.
As I had spent the majority of my time in Kathmandu, reading, writing and hanging out on the hostel rooftop bar, I had become part of the traveller family occupying the hostel. A group of interesting people, hiking and biking the high Himalayan peaks – everyone had a story to tell. I set about introducing a slightly tired Katy to the crew before it was time to meet riders from another community myself. Two musicians (TotalBikeForever) from London were in town and had told me they would be playing a gig that night. Tim and Adam are cycling from London to Tokyo whilst putting together a collaborative album with musicians met on the road. I had been following their incredible journey online which led me to see they were in town. Excitedly I dragged poor Katy to a packed Nepalese club in search of some thunderous beats and basslines.
Tim and Adam are pretty distinctive looking guys, especially in Nepal, yet, we couldn’t find them anywhere. After giving up the hunt we got involved in the action, dancing for a few hours amongst the excitable weekend crowd. Upon returning I messaged the guys to see what had happened, it turned out they were playing in a secret side room that we hadn’t seen… I couldn’t believe it! This was to be the start of an elusive Asia-wide hunt to cross paths, which to date has seen two further ‘we’re in the same place at the same time but can’t meet’ moments across two countries.
If Katy was wanting to rest up the following day, she did a fine job of disguising so when I told her of my planned 6 am start to catch a 6-hour bus across the country. She had two weeks before flying home from Siliguri in India, which, I had worked out was 8 days ride away. I wasn’t convinced the riding would be interesting, so endeavoured to show her some sights of Nepal before we set of cycling. First stop of the ‘tour’, Pokhara. Living up to the hype of being one of my favourite places, we spent 3 days swimming in waterfalls, rowing across the lake and watching yet more movies at the open-air cinema. I began having serious thoughts about asking whether I could get a job there, managing to hold my tongue just long enough for us to leave. I knew I could easily end up staying there for good – maybe after this cycling malarkey?
We closed out our time in Pokhara with a ride on the sketchiest Ferris wheel I’ve ever seen. A diesel engine attached to an open flywheel and flapping belts powered this beast, which whipped around dangerously fast. From afar the wheel looked like it was stuck in fast forward. We sheepishly got into a pod, a small metal bar was slotted into the door for ‘security’ before the wheel got up to speed. We were pushed back and forth before the wheel had gathered enough momentum to make a complete rotation, but once it did, the thing really got going! Being the only people on the ride the wheel made half the rotation really slow before we were flung round the rest of the way. This caused our pod to rock so hard on its pivot that we were nearly upside down. We would be hanging on for dear life with our hands, whilst our legs were suspended up in line with our shoulders, not secured to anything. Without a doubt if either of us had let go we’d have fired straight out of the pod. It was terrifying but so much fun.
Eventually some local lads jumped on the opposite pod to us and smoothed out the ride a little. When it came time to leave the death trap, I stepped out onto the forecourt just as one of the lads decided it would be a good idea to drop his full litre water bottle out of their pod at the top of the wheel. It smashed into the ground 3-inches from me, making a terrifying bang as it exploded on the concrete, sending everyone around ducking for cover. Screw the Ferris wheel, that would have been lights out for me, no doubt. Me, Katy and wheel operator just looked at each other in dismay – I was unbelievably lucky.
I’m sure some people would have waited for them to come down before educating the idiots with a few cracks round the cranium for good measure. Maybe I should’ve given them a piece of my mind. In that instant I was too shaken to do anything but head straight for the comfy seats at the nearest bar. That crack as the bottle hit the ground just replaying over and over in my head.
Grateful to still be firmly in one piece, we boarded the bus back to Kathmandu in time to celebrate my self-elected ‘fake birthday’ on Diwali. Molly and Hayden were in town, as were some friends I’d met in Amritsar – it’s crazy how your paths seem to continuously cross over. We all went out to grab some munch before gathering more people with each bar visited. The streets were packed with dancers being watched by circles of eager onlookers cheering them on. Cars couldn’t get by, it was chaos. Anyone who has been to Kathmandu will understand the madness of that city, yet this was another level still. In short, it was a good day to have a fake birthday.
The plan was to begin our ride with an early start out of the city the following morning. It became quickly obvious this wasn’t going to happen. We resigned ourselves to a slow morning followed up by some Kathmandu sight-seeing. This turned out to be a great shout, watching mischievous monkeys climbing over beautiful hillside temples to exploring ornate city ruins – finally I had seen some of Kathmandu… Returning to the hostel we found the whole road was closed blocked with a parade turned rave. People dancing on trucks, huge sound systems, drums everywhere. Right in the middle of the day, it was incredible. Of course we joined the party to cap off what had been a festive week around the Nepalese capital.
Cycling down those same streets the following morning we may as well have been on another continent. A temporary morning calmness presided over the city, allowing for an easy passage beyond its limits. Kathmandu is located in a cauldron peaks, so it was no surprise that we soon started riding uphill. Thankfully the climbs were only small, yet provided some killer views of the cultivated terraced hills. Weaving our way along sunny ridgelines on near perfect tarmac, it was now easy to enjoy the miles. Bombing down the hills they soon crept by until we found ourselves on the valley floor, following a river downstream. I knew we stuck to this river for the remainder of the afternoon, meaning we were unlikely to find any big climbs ahead. It was nice therefore to just take some time out to chill besides the water, putting on some music and having a natter. With only a few miles on the clock before my map showed a guesthouse, I could almost breathe a sigh of relief that the cycling had been success.
When bringing someone out to ride with me, I’m always concerned that they’ll hate it. When I ride on my own, I ride for a bit longer than most, putting myself through some, sometimes unnecessary, gruelling days. If it’s raining I will usually cycle, if it’s far away I’ll start in the dark, if it’s really long I’ll end in the dark too, eating lunch whilst I cycle if need be. I do enjoy stopping to talk to people but there’s no denying I also thrive on a challenge, which doesn’t always fit with most people’s idea of leisurely cycling. Fortunately, Katy was a real sport, never complaining when the riding got hard whilst managing to ride further than she’d ever gone before on a heavy touring bike.
Sitting by the river right then, soaking up the last warmth from the days sun, I had a good feeling about the following weeks riding. Rolling onwards through the valley, the flowing water led us to a basic guesthouse ran by a local family. The room was clean, complete with a working shower, ready to unleash a hard jet of cold water onto whoever dared to dream of cleanliness. As far as Nepal goes, this place was as good as it gets. No cockroaches in beds for the handsome sum of £3 a night, we were golden. Then again, there were never going to be cockroaches here, a woman was running the place. This may sound horribly sexist but it’s become a hard and fast rule of guesthouse hunting in this part of the world.
These sacred rules of guesthouse hunting are the product of months of past mistakes on the road. These are the things you are never told when you go off to cycle the world. Now I feel a need to pass them on – use them wisely.
- Any establishment that contains ‘luxurious, posh or VIP’ in the name will be none of those things and will usually be run by a moron.
- If there are a number of guesthouses about, try the one which is run by a woman – in Asia, it will certainly be the cleanest.
- Check if there are multiple guesthouses in the area and scout for fall back camping spots as you ride – this knowledge will influence all other decisions!
- Always arrive before dark. After dark everything becomes more difficult: lovely families who would’ve welcomed you into their abode for free just a few hours before are now weary of a stranger in the dark, and any guesthouses will think you’re desperate and charge you more.
- If you’re entering a city, scout for accommodation online beforehand. If you’re going in blind, try places on the outskirts first as they will be cheaper and often have space to securely lock a bike. When you get into the heart of a city, things become stressful, there is less space for bikes and a greater chance of theft as you leave your bike on the street to investigate inside.
- Leave your bags on your bike when you arrive, even if you know you’re going to stay there, before asking to see the room. It makes them think you are likely to move on unless they give you a good price!
- Always check the damn shower works! It may look amazing and shiny, but does water actually come out?
- Barter! Ask for at least 30% off their price (if in India go 50%). Keep telling them why it worth that price (‘ah the shower, there’s no window…’etc) Play guesthouses against each other, say one has offered 20% lower than their offer regardless of whether they have or not and walk back to the bike if they don’t reduce the price (when you have all your bags on your bike and go to ‘leave’ they will often panic and reduce the price) If you’re planning on buying dinner that night, use it as a bartering tool, ‘I will pay this much for a room and buy dinner’ – that one often works a treat.
Writing this down has got me thinking that I should write another one for how I go about finding free accommodation – staying with families I meet on the road. It’s funny how you pick these skills up, which have almost no use in everyday life back home yet are vital on the road.
One thing however that is vital both at home and on the road is food. Outside of the cities, I had struggled to find anything other than Dahl Baht. It came as a thin liquid that you poured over bland rice and had become a monotonous staple of life on the road. In fact, I had been eating Dahl since entering Pakistan over two months ago. This, I believe, cements my status as a regional connoisseur of Dahl. I can’t say that was top of my list of dream jobs growing up, yet wittingly or unwittingly I have taken up the mantle of this spicy lentil-based dish. The best of which I’ve found to be in the Punjab region that spans across the Indo-Pakistan border. Everywhere else, you need to up your Dahl game!
That night however there was something else on the menu… fish. Well there was no choice, I had to try it. The lady over the counter took delight in pointing to the river across the road where it had supposedly been caught, not that it mattered, I would’ve bitten her arm off for frozen fish-finger at this stage. Judging by the size of the river, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of a meaty fish for dinner. What I wasn’t expecting however, was for her to take one of her sons schoolbooks and begin ripping out pages of maths homework to create wrap for the greasy fish. Me and Katy compared notes; he had been working on his quadratics at that particular time.
The air was cool the following morning down by the river, perfect for cycling. A 1000m climb was on the cards for the day and I was apprehensive about the road surface. One of the famously bad Nepalese roads would really make life difficult in the saddle and I was conscious about pushing Katy too hard this early on in the trip.
Any relationship on the road can fray when the going gets tough, to fly from the UK straight into that makes it even harder. The problem isn’t necessarily the riding, it’s the finding somewhere to stay when you’re cold and wet, finding that the only place to stay is also cold, wet and dirty. Finding that they want to charge you double the price because you’re desperate and then to start bartering – it’s not the most fun. Luckily for us, the sun burnt through the morning’s mist, illuminating a flawless tarmac road. I couldn’t believe it, this didn’t look like any Nepalese road I’d seen before, there were safety barriers, sign posts, and no canyon sized cracks in the road. The we read the sign, this road was a gift from the people of Japan, that made sense.
The Japanese had given me one hell of a birthday present. That day I turned 24, cycling up one of the best roads of the whole trip with a good friend in sunshine. All thrills no frills. It seemed somewhat fitting. We spent the afternoon climbing this smooth ‘serpentine’ up the mountainside. Plenty of switchbacks and false summits, it was an absolute joy to ride – I couldn’t believe my luck. We took some photos at the top to capture what had been an epic day before finding a room in a small guesthouse at the top. We told the owner it was my birthday and soon found ourselves in a small garage with 15 Nepalese guys drinking shots of so-called ‘wine’. It tasted dreadful and was absolutely potent, but they kept on toasting for us all to drink more. It wasn’t long before we stumbled back to the guesthouse for dinner before lights out at 9pm.
What goes up must come down, one afternoon climbing meant one morning descending. The first waking hours of my 24thyear were spent with the wind in my hair and a smile on my face. Part two of the ‘serpentine’ was just as spectacular. Hours spent flying down the mountainside, overtaking cars around switchbacks. Eventually we hit the humid jungle again, riding a beautiful riverside road to the planes where things warmed up again. This area has the same climate as neighbouring India, just a few miles away. The food, people and etiquette all become entwined.
Unfortunately for us, we ended up a whole lot closer to the border than anticipated when I made, and I stand by this, my only colossal navigational blunder of the trip so far. We were riding on the main highway (the same one I was riding on when I entered Nepal which is only a two-lane road) where there are no other roads to cycle on. There was one main turning but the road continued straight on so I followed it knowing we had to continue in the direction we had started the day. I was so confident I didn’t bother to check, after all, there was only one road right…? We carried on riding for an hour, pedalling at a great speed, I joked we’d reach the Indian border today. We nearly did, just the wrong Indian border.
After an hour’s cycling from the turning we had put down 15 miles, reaching a big settlement that I knew immediately wasn’t meant to be on route. We had arrived in the busy city of Janakpur. The streets were covered in rocks from an earthquake that struck years ago with buildings still falling apart everywhere – the place was a real mess. Almost immediately I was having flashbacks to the India I had been so happy to leave behind. Although there is always another side, the city houses one of the most sacred Hindu temples that people travel across India and Nepal to come visit. We just waltzed right in, enjoyed the atmosphere, then left. I guess the detours are the real adventures after all.
I felt guilty the next morning as we rode the 15 miles back to the junction. The temple had slightly redeemed the de tour but I was still beating myself up for being such an idiot. Katy had got sense of what cycling in India was like though and could make sense of all my rants over the past few days. We were both now glad to still be in Nepal, riding fast along the main road towards the correct Indian border. We were making great progress but the road was as boring as I had anticipated. Thinking ahead, I had been eyeing up a de tour (planned this time…) that would cut off a corner, taking us to what was meant to be a quirky, lesser-know Nepalese city of Dharan. The road was wonderfully quiet, allowing us to cycle abreast and chat the whole way round. Smooth tarmac directed us through tiny collections of wooden houses raised up on stilts, whilst locals sent us toothy smiles followed by friendly waves. This road was a paradise.
A relaxed day of cycling took us back to the mountain fringes which we followed all the way to the city. The road turned to dirt a few times towards the end but this just added to the sense of adventure you get any time you stray off the main roads in Nepal. It was as cycling was meant to be on this trip – fun.
Dharan gave us a good send off in the form of 10 miles of slightly downhill road through the jungle. It was nice to be riding fast with minimal effort; punching a hole through the dense wet mist. A good few miles on the board brought smiles to faces as we realised cycling to Siliguri, the end point for Katy’s journey, could be on the cards for the day. The ride would be 10 miles longer than her previous longest ride, which we did two days ago and was 10 miles longer than her previous longest ride on a light-weight road bike. After five days riding it was going to be a push.
The road was good to us however, allowing us to keep pace but still enjoy our time in the saddle as the border drew nearer. We crossed without drama and found ourselves riding through the famous tea fields of Darjeeling. It felt like we’d crossed the finish line already, all roads now pointed to Siliguri. All was fun until darkness fell during our city crossing. The all too familiar traffic and madness that seemingly descends on every Indian city with the sun. It wasn’t fun, but after an hour or so of crazy traffic weaving we had made it to the hotel. A cold beer was much needed, but the hotel didn’t serve any, instead we paid a man on a scooter to fetch us some from a questionable source (it turns out you can only buy beer on certain days in Siliguri and selling on other days is highly illegal). Finally we could toast to the end of a great two weeks on the road.
In terms of riding and places to see, I don’t think Katy could have picked a better two weeks to come out. It’s rare I come across places that nice filled with interesting people, then we have that Japanese road mixed in with a little Indian craziness to complete the experience. I hope this trip has a similar effect on her as my first tour did five years ago. A tour where I was taken in by four Americans who I met in a Swedish hostel. They showed me the ropes of long distance touring, culminating in three of the best weeks of my life spent cycling around Scandinavia and northern Europe. That trip sowed the seeds for the adventurous life I’m now living. No matter what I do next, getting on that one-way flight to Gothenburg equipped with a second-hand bike and no idea what I was doing will always be my most adventurous feat.
It was soon time to say our goodbye’s as she went to catch her flight home. It’s always sad to say goodbye when you’re staying put, especially when you know the next section is going to be tough. I’d promised my aunt I would meet her in Chiang Mai in three weeks’ time. Chiang Mai is 3000km away with some serious mountain riding, I would need to be knocking out many 200km+ days to be there in time. The tour had just turned into an ultra-endurance event with me competing against myself and I. It was time to see if I had the legs.