“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it’s all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizz ing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime…”
Having read and re-read Robert Pysrig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, the (non-existent) romantic in me had no greater aspiration than to pack my stuff into a bag, strap it onto a motorcycle and ride into the sunset. And what better place to do this than the home of arguably the World’s best motorcycleable roads, hidden between the slopes of the mighty Himalayas – Nepal.
Teaching someone to ride a motorbike in Kathmandu would be as futile as teaching a monkey to juggle eggs. Once you’re out of Kathmandu, normalcy returns and you no longer need to fear for your life at every bend. The Kathmandu-Pokhara highway is one of busiest in the country but still makes for a pleasant ride. With the roads being quite windy and steep, the average speed is barely 30kmph. But then a motorbike trip is never about the destination.
A tiny nondescript road leaves the highway towards Bandipur. The air clears up and civilization makes way for the trees, valleys and mountains. You’ve now entered the surreal world of Bandipur, far removed from the chaos of modern day living. Old Newari buildings line the paved streets and the Himalayas serve as a backdrop betweent adjacent buildings. The town centre is off limits to all traffic (probably because of the steps on the streets) and so peace reigns supreme.
Leaving the perfect little town of Bandipur is difficult. But the fact that Pokhara is the next destination eases the pain. The bike ride to Pokhara is relatively easy provided you don’t puncture your tire in the middle of nowhere. Fixing a punctured tire in Nepal is a bigger ordeal than it should be but that’s all part of the game. Powerful gusts of wind over the last 5kms welcome you to Pokhara.
Pokhara’s location on the banks of a green lake with the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas in the background probably accounts for its popularity but nothing will prepare you for how picturesque this town is. If you’ve got your hiking boots, then this is the last chance to indulge in the little comforts of life before roughing it out in the mountains. If you don’t, then buy some wine, rent a tiny little boat, row to the middle of the lake and drink in this spectacular mountain town.
It’s all downhill from here. Literally. This stretch of road is virtually unused and the riding is easy. If a road trip around Nepal had to be compressed into a couple of hours, then this is the section you would use. Riding a motorcycle never felt this good.
After Pokhara and Bandipur, Tansen is a small let down. It’s caught in the grasp of a familiar and inevitable phenomenon called development. Since it’s in the process of growing beyond tiny, you’re surrounded by chaos with remnants of the old Newari culture still visible. The best thing to do is to run for the hills and search for the abandoned Palace of Ranighat. Why anyone would build a palace here, is still a mystery to me. Hiking to Ranghat takes 4 hours and biking there takes 2 hours (sounds fishy?…I thought so too). But this is no ordinary bike ride. Every turn is more hazardous than the next with steep precipices waiting for the tiniest error. If you survive this, then you definitely earn another serving of momos (delicious dumplings).
The roads out of Tansen are as hilly as ever and then you make a turn and the mountains just disappear and the landscape gives no clue of the mountains ever having existed in the first place. The mercury rises and the air gets warm and heavy with humidity. It doesn’t take long to realize that this could very well be India.
Lumbini sits on the border and is definitely more India than Nepal. One of the most sacred sites in the World for Buddhists, Lumbini is the birthplace of the Buddha. The actual spot is marked by a carved stone showing Queen Maya Devi giving birth to the Buddha while holding the branch of a Sal tree. A monstrous building has been constructed around the ruins of older temples that date back at least 2000 years. The entire compound is a World Heritage site and religious institutions from all over the World have built monasteries surrounding the Maya Devi Temple. If you’re not big on the Buddha (how unfashionable!), monastery hopping under the blazing sun gets very old, very soon.
There comes a time when you just need to put your head down and get on with the job (twss). The ride from Lumbini to Chitwan feels that way. Straight flat roads flanked by dried brown fields on either side while the road reflects heat and the sun incessantly burns from above. Not so easy. The greenery of Chitwan is a well earned reprieve from the heat.
Sauraha is a tiny tourist town on the border of Chitwan National Park. This is now a world heritage site that was a popular hunting ground for the British Monarchy. On one memorable rampage in 1911, King George killed 39 tigers and 18 rhinos. There’s little to do here other than sit in the shade with a beer or man up and head into the wilderness. There’s a buffet of options when it comes to exploring the park – elephant, jeep, canoe or foot. Due to the Maoist insurgency tourism plummeted and that probably has done wonders for the animals. The park is well maintained, and although we didn’t see any, our guide claimed that tigers and rhinos were not uncommon, before reenacting an episode he had with a grumpy rhino.
The never ending cable car at Manakamana is a great break from the motorcycle monotony on this final and possibly most difficult leg of the trip. Traffic into Kathmandu is stressful and dangerous, especially once the sun has set. 8 hours on a (by now) rickety motorbike is no joke. Kathmandu feels like a different place at the end of a 1000km trip around Nepal.
If you think of hopping on a 5$ peer day motorcycle and hitting up the slopes of Nepal (or anywhere else in the World), keep this simple fact in mind – your bike WILL break down. It’s just a question of when. All you need to do is take it in your stride and get the bike fixed. Nothing to it. Without the uncertainty, there wouldn’t be any adventure.
You’ll see new highs, experience a few lows, learn to strap a bag onto the guard rail with your eyes closed, and at the end of it all, you’ll walk away with some amazing memories.
So…what are you waiting for?
Although famous for its mountains (especially the big one), Nepal often lives in the shadow of India when it comes to culture. However, driving through the narrow roads of Kathmandu, its clear that this place is as different from India as chocolate cake is from cheese cake. People look different and talk different (though the food tastes the same). Kathmandu is a boiling pot of cultures and this Country, less than 1/20th the size of India, boasts of 120 native languages.
Kathmandu Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its beautiful and historically significant temples. Since the Buddha was born in Southern Nepal, many temples are Buddhist, even though 80% of the population is Hindu.
Located bang in the centre of Kathmandu, this temple complex sneaks up on you as you wander through Kathmandu’s narrow crowded streets. Tiny cramped Newari buildings make way for majestic temples and palaces. Most of the locals take these magnificent buildings for the most normal thing possible and are understandably more interested in maneuvering through the crowd.
The oldest temple in Nepal and one of the most important Hindu temples in the World, Pashupatinath stands on the banks of a tiny river and dates back from 400 A.D. Since only Hindus are allowed to enter the temple, visitors must content themselves with attempting to snatch a glimpse of the temple from across the banks of the river. However, in case that sounds a bit too mild for your taste, then the cremation of the dead along the banks of the river should give you something to write home about.
Although the stupa of this temple complex stands tall on a hill, looming over all of Kathmandu, this temple is not about the temple. Its about the monkeys. Which is why it’s commonly known as the Monkey Temple. Monkeys reign supreme here and are always on the alert for an easy meal. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself on the losing end. The monkey temple is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and is second only to Boudhanath. Stunning views of Kathmandu are to be had at the top of the intimidating flight of stairs and if you’re lucky, the Himalayas might grace the background of your panoramic shot by peeking out from behind the clouds.
Despite the thousands that flock to Boudhanath, the most sacred pilgrimage site for Buddhists, a sense of zen overpowers all the noise and chaos surrounding this temple. The stupa is one of the largest in the World and sitting at a cafe on the terrace of on the the adjoining buildings gives you a birds eye view of the entire canvas. Numerous monasteries have been constructed by refugee Tibetans all around the temple complex creating a maze of tiny lanes with the stupa towering over all the neighbourhood buildings.
Pathan Durbar is a small city a few kilometers south of Kathmandu. The Durbar Square here used to be a palace for the Kings of a bygone era and has now been converted to a museum dedicated to presenting Hindu Gods by displaying artifacts found in Nepal. More impressive than the collection is the ancient building that has been beautifully restored and gives you a glimpse into the past. It also overlooks the entire Durbar Square.
If you’ve had enough of temples to last a lifetime, I wouldn’t blame you. Here’s what you could do to drown the pain.
Thamel is Kathmandu’s tourist central. White people gather here by the truckload as if intimidated by the rest of Kathmandu. Jokes apart, Thamel is undoubtedly the best place to get a drink and take in some great live music. A hot Newari meal must be sampled before you leave Nepal and what better place than Thamel House. Be warned that if you do stray into any of the shops, you’re more likely than no to walk out a North Face billboard because everything is THAT cheap.
This is no normal museum. Its a strange strange place somehow overlooked by tourists. Located right next to the Monkey Temple, this nondescript building houses an extensive collection of dead animals preserved in bottles of formaldehyde. The museum is worth a visit for its collection of snakes alone.
Step out of the chaos of the streets and into a secret enclave that could even be in another Country or another era. The Garden of Dreams lives up to the high expectations its name sets. Relax under a tree with a book or pay an arm for a meal at the cafe – its upto you.