In my experience border towns are usually kips. Wherever in the world. Its in their nature. On my motorcycle trip around Africa I had written that…
Border towns tend to base their existence on the flow of goods and people between two different states and usually attract an unsavoury mix of shrewd agents, wily traders, opportunist hustlers, crafty smugglers, desperate refugees, and assorted chancers making their living from trans-frontier trade. Due I suppose to the temporary status of many inhabitants, and the transience of most of the people en route, they tend to be poorly planned and maintained, untidy, disagreeable holes. Not nice places in which to spend any time.
But it was a pleasure to wake up in this bustling little town with a few hotels. I’d been given a bucket of hot water the previous night – the evenings were now cool, a bit too uncomfortable to be taking a cold shower if it could be avoided – and after a pancake and coffee breakfast, I liberated my bike from the broom cupboard and loaded up for my first days cycle in Nepal. There was an atmosphere of industry and trade in Mahendranagar with little of the usual hussle, scuzziness and absence of civic pride associated with border towns. My intended route was along the new East West Highway across the lowlands of this mountainous country at the foothills of the Himalayas, to exit into the provinces of Bengal and Assam in NE India.
It wasn’t long before the road left all signs of human habitation behind, wending its slightly undulating way through forest. Everything about the day was a contrast to the previous week. The air felt slightly cooler and fresher, the blue sky was cloudless, and it was so quiet. Where was the traffic? Certainly there were bicycles but their presence faded the further I got from town. Some motorbikes, but hardly any trucks or cars. Near the town were women walking by the side of the road, usually carrying a bundle on their head. Men were noticeable by their scarcity. I learned later that many left their families and homesteads here to earn money in jobs across the border. The exception was the regular military presence – roadblocks, the odd military vehicle carrying troops, and occasionally soldiers patrolling the roadside.
From 1996 until just a few years ago it wasn’t safe to travel through western Nepal, it wasn’t under control of the government in Kathmandu. Nepal until recently was a kingdom. An increasing dissatisfaction among the subjects with the centralised control and corruption led to Maoist rebels fighting a ‘People’s War’, claiming forty percent of the country. After a bloody campaign – Nepal’s tourist industry was seriously affected – that involved the loss of 13,000 lives, in 2006 a ceasefire was agreed and parliamentary democracy established. The reason for the increased presence of troops now was national elections were to be held in a week.
This was just magnificent cycling. A good road surface – it was new – clear skies, and glimpses of the Himalayan range in the hazy distance. Through old growth forest the road unrolled over gentle swells into the distance. A verge of some twenty metres meant it didn’t feel closed in, there was no claustrophobic effect. The odd clearing supported a few traditionally built post and beam timber houses. Stopped for a moment to take a picture, I spotted two loaded bicycles approaching. As they came closer the familiar outline of panniers became apparent. It couldn’t be, but yes they were two cycle tourers. In the remote west of Nepal, far from the tourist trail. Dave and Tim had flown from England to Tashkent to cycle through Kyrgyzstan with the intention of continuing to Kathmandu, but instead of travelling through Pakistan decided to fly to Delhi and from there do some touring in Ladakh in the Himalayas. Well, that put them immediately up there in my respect. Obviously serious cyclists to go looking for mountains! In fact they told me they weren’t very experienced. But they had the stamina. They’d crossed into Nepal the previous day like me. Unlike me however they had stayed at a resort hotel for wealthy Indians.
I had come across other cyclists just a couple of times on the whole trip so far, only once going in the same direction. (That was in Kyrgyzstan, a group of Spaniards with little luggage, just cycling for a couple of weeks. Though Emiliano’s crew were good company we only lasted a day together, they were quite a bit quicker than me.) There is an immediate sense of camaraderie. So much experience in common I suppose, not recognisable by most other travellers. Cycle tourers – the few I’d encountered anyway, principally while stopped in Bukhara and Dushanbe – are a bit out of the ordinary. By definition I suppose. But in an interesting way. Usually of singular, determined character allied with a certain humility, that perhaps comes from learning that we know so little, are dependent on the goodwill of others on our travels, and ultimately the elements rule!
Shame about the these two English chaps. Joke! They were enjoyable company. Unused as I was to cycling in company, it made quite a change. School friends now in their mid thirties, Dave, a large man, was a buyer for a chain of high street wine shops, and Tim, slight in stature and chirpy of nature but measured in manner, was a DJ and music producer in Brighton. Apparently that’s where it’s happening. He did explain the difference, how DJs were now ‘making’ or producing music. This was fascinating and I followed it to a degree (a nephew is in the same game) but ultimately my prejudice and dismissal of ‘machine produced music’ curbed my enthusiasm to discover more from Tim. I accept I’m probably missing out on what the rest of the world seems to adopt quite readily, but only beats and rhythms created by actual musicians make my hips move. I can’t give myself over to machine generated, metronomic pulses.
After Kathmandu they were flying to Thailand where Tim had been invited to host a full moon rave on some island well known for parties. Nice work if you can get it.
Dave it pretty quickly transpired was quite an energetic cyclist and led the way. Or rather, as there was only the one road, set a pace. However Tim was developing an increasingly painful knee and needed to make regular stops to rest it. This to me was not any mystery. The lads had cycled up and down Himalayan heights with just flat platform pedals. In other words all the cycling effort was going into the downwards push. Many cyclists have clipless pedals and wear special shoes with a cleat that slot in and out with a twist of the foot. I had toe clips, or cages, with a strap which allow me wear any type of shoe (in fact I hadn’t worn a shoe in months. Since the Ukraine it had been just the trusty Birkenstocks.) The whole leg movement is propelling the bike – as well as pushing down, the foot then pulls the pedal up. You are maximising the pedalling movement and balancing the muscles used. I reckon that contributed to Tim’s bad knee, some kind of repetitive strain injury.
As my practice is to plod along – I get impatient with regular stopping – I continued on. We arranged to meet in a couple of days at Bardia National Wildlife Park. The lads had done their homework. Rich in wildlife but little visited because of its remoteness to tourists, they were planning on having a little break there. I had been thinking of taking a break too, and was considering Pokhara. I had remembered the quiet lakeside town in the Himalayas with fondness, a rest spot to recharge the batteries after the heavy going in India, totally geared for what the western backpacker wanted. Sitting on the edge of a lake with snow capped Himalayas rising up behind, it is a jumping off point for the three week trek around Annapurna and many other dramatic trails. The peace and quiet, pancakes, beer, burgers, Western music, cake, dope make it a big attraction. It would mean a cycle of a few days up into the mountains… Bardia however was in the Terai, the low lying strip of jungle I was following parallel to the border with India. I decided to join them there.
At the end of the town of Chisapani a huge single tower suspension bridge spanned the Karnali river, one of the main tributaries of the river Ganges further downstream in India. It was built by the Japanese in 1993, and at the time was the longest in the world. Before that Western Nepal was cut off from the rest of the country. I recalled, while relocating a truck from Kathmandu to London, my astonishment coming across this massive structure in the forest from the other direction. Quite incongruous. After days crawling along rocky tracks through the Terai, edging around a bend there it was, looming above. Easing the truck up onto the concrete plinth and smoothly gliding across, it was back to second gear the other side.
A few hours after Chisapani through virgin forest, a cluster of huts and a sign announced the track off to the park entrance twenty kilometres away. I felt a niggling discomfort at my vulnerability on a loaded bicycle. Fine if you were in a four wheel drive, or even a motorbike. But we’re talking tigers, rhinos and elephants… After a plate of rice and dal at a roadside cafe and reassurance that it would be fine I set off into the interior. If the previous few days along the lovely smooth surface of the East West Highway through the uninhabited wilderness of the Terai was magnificent cycling, this diversion was magical. River grasslands and subtropical deciduous forest, this was off the beaten track on dirt road, pushing the bike across the odd river, deeper into the forest.
Arriving eventually at Thakudwara, the village by the park entrance, I discovered there would be no problem finding accommodation. There was a shortage of tourists, the industry still recovering from the Maoist insurgency years. More immediately due to imminent elections there was a certain nervousness about, with talk of all out national strikes, boycotts and worry about violence in the upcoming week. Tourists fly to a nearby airstrip to be picked up by a tour company vehicle. But with international flights and connections to make you’re not inclined to risk being stranded in secluded west Nepal with few options for getting out. This meant I had my pick of lodges to choose from, each keen to get my business. But also disappointingly a lack of English speaking company.
If cycling is an unhurried way to experience the environment you’re passing through, being on foot is even more slow-moving. (I had a marvellous encounter with an English woman on my travels. Not exactly an imposing physical presence, Raz had set off from her home in England and walked to Istanbul. On her own. Where, eventually looking for a change from the solo slog, she bought a bicycle and continued her travels east with a couple of fellow cyclists. Where I met her in Baku and subsequently Bukhara. In an uncanny coincidence – as seems strangely to happen to many while travelling – we discovered common friends. She had spent a year in south Kerry where my brother lives.)
The few days in the park were a lovely break from the constant motion and pedalling, and three of us took a couple of safari walks with a guide. Constantly around us was the background chirupping, chattering and screeching of birds. So much more can be appreciated walking through the jungle – the uneven ground underfoot, a gentle breath of warm air across your face, jungle sounds of birds and other fauna, the sudden rustle and crash of branches far above as a gang of monkeys scarper, the smell of the warmed earth and decaying undergrowth, a faint musky scent off rhino dung we step over… Ah yes, rhino. There are less than twenty in the Park. From the top of a wooden viewing platform high above the tall grass, the guide excitedly pointed towards a mother rhino and its young one, ambling along the very path we were on a few minutes previously. Hmmm. That would have been an interesting encounter. And other wildlife. We walked by a lounging crocodile on the Karnali river bank just ten metres of water separating us. He didn’t appear bothered but it did feel a little close for comfort! We spotted various antelope, elephant, a great selection of exotic birds including the comical hornbill… But no tiger. I’m not sure if the guide was just telling us for effect, but he was pretty convincing that he expected to see one.
It was another world those few days in Bardia. With just the odd excursion to the village for beer, there was little to remind us of the society outside. What a lovely place to relax and literally get away from it all. I could have dallied longer but felt the need to get back on track. With time restraints the two lads continued on their way to Kathmandu and the following day I threw my bike on the back of a pick-up back to the main road. Back on that East West Highway, such a pleasure to cycle. It was a late start and I wanted to make progress so knew it would be a long enough day. And, as the solstice was approaching, daylight hours were getting less.
In one of the long stretches between settlements I passed a cyclist with a passenger, a brother and sister it transpired on their way home. They had left it a bit late to start for home from the last town where he was a teacher during the week. His twenty year old sister was catching a lift on the back carrier. They were making slow progress and my offer of carrying the sister on my back carrier was bashfully declined – she was young and I didn’t insist. After chatting for some time – though just in his mid twenties he was a headmaster of the neighbouring village school – I was conscious of needing to progress to get to the next town. The light was fading. They had befriended me and I knew they would probably insist on offering me a place to sleep and dinner, but I resisted the idea. On two fronts. I still hadn’t got comfortable with putting myself into someone else’s hands and accepting hospitality. I’m not quite sure why, as there lies the road of an ‘authentic local experience’. It’s usually when there is little other option that I find myself gratefully accepting the generosity of local people. Which invariably turns out to be a hugely memorable and rich experience. But the influencing factor here was the guy’s manner. His constant chat became insufferable. Perhaps out of some sort of youthful insecurity, or delight at being able to show off his English, everything he added to the conversation seemed to big himself up. He constantly talked at me, with “Ok?” punctuating every sentence. Just like a school master! It became hard work, and I stopped answering with the expected “yes”. That’s not conversation to me. After nearly an hour I made my excuses and continued on.
Having jettisoned my tent since Delhi I was dependent on finding a guesthouse or cafe that would allow me unroll my mat on the floor. I had the chance to stop before sunset but for no particular reason decided to push on. Probably because there was no obvious sleeping option in the village just passed. But evening was falling and within half an hour it would be dark. Sometimes I ended up doing that, half suspecting or hoping for a better alternative a little further on. Perhaps it was some kind of complacency when tired towards the end of the day – or being more generous to myself, putting my trust in fate – but sometimes I tended to ignore the more obvious prudent course of action. As it was a full moon I reckoned it wouldn’t be a disaster if I had to continue, there’d be a village before too long surely. I had the feeling however I had made a reckless mistake. Why do I do that and put myself into uncomfortable situations? Was there something in my subconscious daring me go for it?
The road wound its way through tall forest over undulating hills – no traffic and no lights anywhere except the road bathed with an otherworldly wash of pale moonlight. I remembered stopping in a clearing to relieve myself, pausing to take in the silhouette of the Himalayas far in the distance, relaxing into the otherworldliness of my surroundings. It was a special moment. Fortunately the moon was high enough to clear the trees and mostly illuminated the road. Where it didn’t, the moon shadow was eerie as the contrast made the road surface invisible in the dark. A bit hairy as there was the possibility of a pothole or rock in my track. But the risk was low as the road was new I told myself. This was the situation I’d landed myself in, and it was a little bit thrilling.
Eventually – and this really was an ‘eventually’, two long hours waiting to come across the lights of a village – I arrived at Kusum, to find a lodge a few kilometres the far side of town. Very cheap and very basic. Under the full moon on the edge of the forest, smoking a hookah pipe with fruit tobacco from Kuwait from where he was on leave from his travel agency, Joli the owner was enjoying a few months break just kicking back “doing nothing”. He welcomed my company supplying me with beer as I wound down from my long day. I was a happy boy.