Pokhara, Nepal. Thursday, 3rd November 2022.
When I left Pokhara, Kathmandu was the target but Bandipur got in the way. This small town, up in the hills at about 1,000 metres, is home to members of the Newari tribe of hill people. Its unique selling point is its architecture and pedestrianised main streets. An easy journey to get there and as I rode to where the main street lies I was waved at by a woman, who was inviting me to park in her building. That building turned out to be a hotel, with empty rooms, so I booked in.
The main street is full of houses built by Newari merchants. The town used to be on the trade route from Tibet and was clearly a well off place once upon a time. The street is a mix of 18th century houses, with a few small temples here and there. They’re mostly now used as boutique hotels, cafés and restaurants. The lack of traffic lends a quiet charm to this place, turning a coffee and cake break into a peaceful experience.
I walked around admiring the buildings, many of them with bougainvillea flowers spilling off their balconies. A couple of small, stylish temples, clearly quite old, added to the sense of timelessness. It was a good place to be and well worth the detour.
When you enter a destination into Google Maps, and find that the distance is short but the ETA is long, you know it’s going to be a challenging riding day. Roads in Nepal always have plenty of rough sections, even on the way into the capital. There were plenty of buses around, whose drivers seem to think that if they flash their headlights as they drive straight towards you, you’ll somehow disappear. If only. I was constantly surprised and impressed by how the young local guys, often two up on their small bikes, would come hammering past me on the rough sections of road. I’d invariably go past them on the smooth sections though. Talking of buses, it was very obvious, from the crowds at bus stops, that most people use buses for getting around. Fairly typical of poor countries really.
I wanted to stay in a particular part of Kathmandu (hereinafter referred to as KTM) called Thamel, because it was close to the sights. The hotel I’d selected off Google Maps turned out to be too dear. Parking in that street wasn’t allowed and bike parking was in a public car park around the side, with a daily fee. Fortunately another hotel, just across the road, was at the right price. Even better, I was told to put the bike in the passageway, along with a couple of scooters. A bit ambitious I thought, given how wide my bike is, but removing one of the panniers gave enough walking past room.
The Thamel area is a place of small shops and interesting little places to visit, and not far from the main tourist sites. I found the first of these, called The Garden of Dreams. It has a strange history. At the beginning of the 20th century a local Nepali won a lot of money through gambling with his father, who was an important figure and well off. Equivalent to $1,000. A lot of money at that time. He created a garden, which includes a statue of Greek goddess Nike, goddess of victory. He adapted it and dedicated it to Hindu goddess Laxmi, goddess of good fortune. Very apt, given the circumstances.
The garden is beautifully laid out, withs a pond as its centrepiece. A couple of matching pavilions sit at opposite sides. There are flower beds all around, some decorative features here and there and some quiet nooks and crannies, with benches in. In the middle of a raised section they had just finished creating a Hindu Circle of Life, or Mandala, with its eight sections, completely made out of flowers. It looked very lovely.
Another visitor had collared one of the gardeners and was getting it all explained to him, so I joined them. He took us across to the statue and told us its history. A fascinating story and a lovely place to visit.
On the way back I looked in on a small area with three temples in it, all alike. By the entrance I saw an information panel with a QR code on it. I downloaded it and was provided with a map and a list of places to visit in Thamel. Handy for my next walk round there.
Further down into Thamel I spotted a small bakery that also sold coffee. I can never resist a cake and coffee so I went in. I got chatting to a young Czech guy named Petr while I enjoyed my coffee and Danish. He now lives in Canada and was in Thamel to meet an old friend before going off to explore the mountains. He was very excited to be in Asia, his first visit. He’s a metallurgical engineer although, typically, he works in Vancouver serving coffee. Having just arrived he needed a SIM card so we walked down the street and quickly found a phone shop. He was sold one against his passport, negating the comment I’d received that only Nepalese citizens could obtain one. With that task completed he offered to buy me a beer.
We found a bar and enjoyed a couple of cold ones. He’s hoping to get Canadian citizenship, hence his willingness to work at whatever is there to be done, for now. We chatted about travel and places we’d visited, despite having to talk over a group of noisy Russians sitting nearby. It was one of those chance meetings that I enjoy so much.
Kathmandu is full of places to visit and the first of those was the Swayambhunaath Mahadachaitya Temple – the Monkey Temple. There were 437 steps up to the top. I was quite pleased to only need two brief rests, after 215 and 325 steps. A monkey tried to snatch the water bottle I’d just bought but I was holding it too tightly for it to succeed. Later on, as I was sitting eating an ice lolly, another one was eyeing up his chances until I chased it away. They’re thieving little so-and-so’s.
The area at the top was a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu temples, dating back to the 6th century. Some lovely buildings to admire, some ceremonies going on too. It suffered damage in the 2015 earthquake but has been rebuilt now. There’s lots of souvenir shops, cafés, people and monkeys. I enjoyed a coffee up on the balcony of one of the cafés, from where I had a good view across the square below and out to the mountains beyond. It was worth the climb up all those steps.
My next visit was to Durbar Square, the one in front of the main palace of KTM. It’s a very confusing area, with lots of different buildings across it. They’re mostly small temples of various shapes, sizes and denominations and it all seems to be very unplanned. The old palace is a huge building with nine separate floors in it. It’s now a museum, of course, but I didn’t discover that it was closed for refurbishment until I’d paid my £6.50 entrance fee. All I could do was wander round the inner square, admiring small buildings and some statues.
I visited the Gaddi Baithak, a newer palace built in 1908. It has a large assembly hall, with beautiful decorations, and in the basement, a museum that told Nepal’s political history. But at the end of it all I couldn’t help feeling a bit cheated, albeit better informed.
Next morning a long walk took me out to Lalitpur, the second of the three cities within the Kathmandu Valley, to visit Patan Durbar. The third city is Bhaktapur, which I didn’t visit just then. Patan Durbar was a much better experience than Durbar Square, especially having paid the same entry fee. There were three palaces, all of which had gardens and exhibitions.
The first one focused on Newari architecture, in particular the windows and doors they used. As is common in eastern cultures, their artistry has special meaning, usually reflecting Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. The symbols repeat figures and items, such as dragons, parasols etc. that are used within the religion. The carving applied to them is extremely detailed and fine. Two key features are the highly decorated and extended wooden lintel, above which is a semi circular and highly decorated panel. The style of the opening will vary depending on whereabouts it is in the building.
The second exhibition is about research into the buildings themselves and, in particular, the rebuilding and strengthening work carried out after the 2015 earthquake. Many ancient buildings in the valley were damaged or destroyed and have been rebuilt, often with financial and technical assistance from other , such as Japan. The technical improvements made to increase their resistance to future earthquakes I found very interesting. These palaces were first built in the 4th century, although they’ve been amended and extended many times since then.
The third palace was about the many Hindu gods, with sculptures and carvings to admire. Outside in the square were a variety of other buildings – stupas and small temples, mostly. All looking great, some of them also rebuilt following the earthquake.
The hour long walk back completed that particular day out. I well and truly deserved the coffee and cake I had when I got back, although the three Chinese smoking at the next table was less of a pleasure. Later on I asked one of the staff if smoking was allowed in restaurants. She said it was up to the owner.
It was time to make use of the app I’d downloaded when I first arrived, and explore Thamel. It’s an area of diverse shops, cafés and houses. It’s been the centre of KTM’s tourist industry for many years, going back to the days of Hippies. Part of its focus is on those who go into the mountains so, as with Pokhara, there’s a healthy trade in trekking gear. It’s also a night life centre, with the bars and cafés often playing live music.
Dotted in among these is a series of small temples and other curios of the area. Some Hindu shrines, a Buddhist temple, a water tank for bathing and washing, plus some notable streets. Best of these was the Museum Of Nepali Art (MONA). Inside were some lovely brass sculptures and some quite remarkable paintings. The colours of these were often very lurid and the subject matter sometimes very graphic. Maybe those Hippies have been around longer than I thought. The ticket price included a coffee in the Kathmandu Guest House, in whose grounds the museum is located, which had a very nicely laid out garden to sit in.
It was time to leave KTM so I mapped out a ride that would pass through some villages which were supposed to have some temples to visit. I’d copied the route from a website that offers guided bike tours but it didn’t quite work out because although I had place names, I didn’t have the names of the temples. The first place was called Ranikat, at the end of a rough old road, but the only temple I could find there was closed. The next place was Nagarkot but there wasn’t much to see there either. Lastly was Panauti, where I finally struck gold, Well, brass really. I came to a river, crossed the bridge over it, then found my way to an area with some temples buildings in it. I took some photos, mostly for the sake of it.
As I was about to head back I saw a guy filling up a container with river water. Back across the bridge I saw a group of men surrounding something on the ground which was having water put on it. I quickly realised it was a corpse, lying on a stretcher and covered with robes. It was obviously a cremation ceremony, hence the ritualistic pouring on of river water. I couldn’t see where the cremation might be taking place and didn’t hang around to find out. I thought I might have been surplus to requirements on this occasion.
The final visit was to Namo Buddha, up in the hills along another rough track. Guess what? There was nothing there that I could find. Clearly, trying to leech off somebody else’s tour route just isn’t the way to do it. But in the local village there was a very smart Buddhist Stupa, which may well have been what I was looking for anyway, so at least I saw something. There were lots of flags and symbols out too, so I guessed there was some kind of festival under way. Nothing left to do now other than to find a hotel, where I haggled the price down, as has become my habit these days.
Next morning I back tracked a bit and went to Bhaktapur, KTM Valley’s third city. I’d bypassed it by going up in the hills but it was worth going back to. The Durbar Square contained a whole variety of different temples which, at first, I took to be Buddhist but were actually Hindu but with Buddhist influences. I wasn’t able to go into the main palace building because it’s for Hindus only, but I was happy to walk around and enjoy all the others, while fighting off all the guides touting for business. I really enjoyed the art museum too. There was some very detailed and colourful paintings in there, all reflecting cultural themes.
Over my coffee and cake I contemplated where to go next. I decided to visit Kuri Village. There wasn’t really much there to see but I just fancied the ride up into the hills. The highway was in good condition and the side road that led up to the village was pretty good too. But about twenty five kilometres from Kuri the road turned really bad. By now I was up at 2,800 metres and it was getting very cold. Once again I asked myself the question, “Why am I doing this?”. I couldn’t find a good answer so I turned round and rode down to 700 metres where I felt rather warmer and found a nice guest house for the night.
After breakfast I headed to China. More accurately, towards the Chinese border. Again, it was something I just fancied doing. The road was good until it turned into a track. But one that was mostly quite easy to ride, with asphalt in some places. I stopped at a new river bridge, just for a look. Further up the track was a dam under construction. I could see China flags on the structure and also saw trucks parked up with Chinese number plates on them. Conclusion? Chinese contractors were building this dam (probably a hydro-electric plant) as part of China’s Belt and Roads programme. There’s a lot of this taking place in the world’s poorer countries, especially those that are close to China. Laos is another case in point. It helps those countries improve their infrastructure but there’s always a price to be paid. China is having second thoughts about the scheme because they very often don’t get the expected return on their investment.
Further up the now much improved track I came to a police checkpoint where I was photographed and had to leave my passport until I returned. A bit further on I came to a viewpoint that looked across the river at a pretty waterfall. It was strange to think that the water pouring down the cliff was coming from Chinese Occupied Tibet. Before long I came to the closed gates of the border point where I guessed that the only traffic crossing would be those Chinese trucks I saw parked up by the dam.
That’s as close as I’m likely to get to China on my bike and I was pleased that I’d made the trip up there. I rode back down to the main road and went back to the same guest house as I’d used a couple of days before.
An amusing thing occurred there. I used the toilet for a pee and when I flushed it the bowl filled up with water which slowly drained away. I put my hand down as far as it would go and fished out the peel from the mandarin I’d eaten two days before. Whoever cleaned out the room had simply emptied the rubbish bin into the toilet and flushed it. Naughty, naughty! I explained it to the owner and later I heard him giving somebody a telling off. Quite right.
When I set off I headed back up into the hills. The guest house was at 1,500 metres and the road went down to 350 metres. Then it climbed up again to about 1,400 metres. This highway went up and down all the time but, as is typical with Nepal, it didn’t go through any towns. Villages yes, but that’s all. After it had gone through a place called Mulkot Bazar it began to climb quite steeply. I had to be careful as there was rarely more than 100 metres between bends, many of them quite sharp. The road was busy too.
Partway up the hill I saw what appeared to be mobile phones and tablets attached to the wall. Intrigued? Well yes, of course. I was able to stop. Along with some other bikes. There was just about room on this narrow road. On closer examination I discovered that they were mirrors attached to the retaining wall of the cliff. I asked someone what it was all about and he said it was called a Mirror Temple. There was even some of them laid out in the shape of a temple door. When I Googled it later I found it was called the Mulkot Mirror Wall. Attaching a mirror, often purchased from the stall nearby, is an offering to the goddess Sati Deva Mata. It’s to ask her to prevent accidents and keep people safe. Very apt on this steep and narrow road. I didn’t attach a mirror but instead reflected on the strange things that people do.
The road was designed and built by the Japanese as part of their foreign aid support. It took nineteen years to build, apparently, and twists and winds through the hills, following the river in the valley below. This kind of terrain suits the Himalayan really well. It seems to thrive on hills, bends and the constant gear changing, giving excellent fuel consumption while doing so.
Along the road a bit I came to the Single Tree, standing alone and overlooking the valley, surrounded by a low stone wall. Judging by the number of stalls there it’s a popular stopping place for a break after taking on the challenge of the hill. But not for me. Once I’d taken a photograph I carried on and found a coffee stop just before I rejoined the main highway.
I got chatting to some young guys, all civil engineering students. They asked me what advice I would give to people who wanted to be able to travel later in life. I said what I always say if asked that question, which is to look after your health. Good health makes everything easier. They rather liked that idea.
I stopped for the night a bit earlier than normal, looking forward to getting clean. But there was no hot water. They gave me a kettle to heat my own with, which I was able to do once the power cut finished. This lack of hot water has become a bit of a theme. The hotel from last night claimed to have hot water. I don’t know where it went to because none came out of the tap. The other annoying and, in my opinion, daft situation is when hotels only supply water in the morning. Now, I don’t know about you but after a hot, sweaty and, in my case, dusty journey I want a shower when I get there! Surely it’s better for their bedsheets too.
I was now back on the main east/west highway and making good speed, despite the fact that there were badly filled in trenches every three or four hundred metres. They’d been installing drainage pipes and had only backfilled them with rubble. They acted as speed humps but with added aggro. I later discovered that the road was being upgraded, explaining why they’d been left, as they’d get finished properly during that process.
I came to the Koshi Barrage, an 1,150 metre long hydro electric dam. It’s an impressive piece of engineering, with fifty six gates across its width. It was built as a joint project between India and Nepal, with India controlling the flow of water through it. This creates problems for Nepal because India was supposed to upgrade its flood defences downstream but haven’t done enough of it. So they slow down the flow of water during heavy rain to protect their land. But guess what that causes? Yes, as you’ve worked out, the flooding takes place in Nepal, upstream of the barrier. Sometimes its very severe. To coin a phrase, “Discussions are ongoing.”
I rode much further upstream, to have a look at the Koshi Bridge, for no reason other than that I like big engineering projects. I enjoy linking together their existence with the progress of countries like Nepal. It was built in 2015 because the Koshi Barrage was damaged by monsoon floods in 2008 and so provided an alternative route for east/west traffic should a similar event happen again. Obviously it benefits local development as well.
That night I arrived in the busy town of Dharan. As I rode through the crowded central area I was amazed at the amount of buses, auto rickshaws and people waiting to use them. It was very different to what I’d seen in the rest of Nepal, although I had noted long queues for buses before. Once I’d found a hotel I walked back up there to see what it was all about.
In the central square a stage had been set up, with people sitting in chairs listening to speeches. It was election time here so those speeches were by politicians looking for votes. Across the road from there was a garden with a tower in it, which I climbed up for a better view. The tower and garden are dedicated to the victims of the devastating earthquake of 1998. I took a walk around by the stage, just to get a feel for things, before getting some food.
I decided to stay another night in Dharan as there were some places worth visiting. The first was the Dantakali Temple. A long walk from the hotel, most of it up a very steep hill. A nice little Hindu temple where I got told off for taking photos. Too late by then, the pictures were in the camera! It’s strange that some places don’t care at all and others don’t like photos being taken one little bit.
The next place was Buddhasubba temple, with plenty of interesting features to take photos of, with no objections this time. There’s a massive bamboo tree in the grounds which has been fenced off. Youngsters used to carve their initials in the trunks but that was affecting the health of the tree. But at least the fence provided yet another place on which to hang prayer flags.
In the main square of this area was a very lovely garden, albeit with no entry allowed. There was a statue in the middle with, from the angle I was looking at it, a mobile phone mask behind it. Oddly, they looked remarkably similar to me. More electioneering taking place in the square, from a guy with a microphone addressing a small crowd. I chatted to one of his helpers who told me he was from the Nationalist Party, who wanted to reinstall the King and make Nepal a Hindu nation once more. Dangerous! Hindu nationalism is bad enough in India without it spreading across the border. Nepal’s constitution declares it to be a secular country, and so it should remain.
There was a Buddhist temple on the same hillside, somewhere near to my route back down. I wandered up a brick paved path, but couldn’t find it. Then I went a different way across the hillside and eventually came across it. But it wasn’t a temple, it was a monastery. I went up to the entrance, in my ignorance, and when I was met by three female monks, all with shaven heads, was when I realised my mistake. But they made me welcome and even gave me a simple lunch. Then I met a senior, male, monk with whom I chatted for a while. He showed me their shrine and was happy for me to take photos. I enjoyed this random discovery very much.
That evening I walked up to the main square again. The politicians were still politicking, with me having no clue as to what their message was. I assumed it was the usual “Vote for Me!”. I found a food stall that sold some tasty chicken chow mein and some momo. For afters I had a brief and flirty “love affair” with the woman who ran the stall. Thirty two and unmarried, she was keen to throw in her boring life and come away with me on my adventures. It was fun to speculate on that possibility but good sense prevailed and we agreed it probably wouldn’t work.
After breakfast I left Dharan. While I was eating I realised that most of the hotel staff were deaf mute. So I wasn’t too surprised when I didn’t quite get the coffee I ordered. Communication must be difficult for non standard items. But well done to the hotel for doing this.
OK, a bit about Nepalese politics, given that it was election time. Nepal was a Kingdom until after WW2. Democratic movements came to the fore, especially around the time of India gaining independence. Now it’s a Parliamentary Republic, with three main parties, including the Communist Party of Nepal. It has a federal government, with state governments for each of its seven regions. The monarchy was abolished in 2008 and a new constitution was established. The government has been Communist/Social Democrat up to now and they won the recent election too. More info on this, and everything about Nepal can be found here.
When I left Dharan I hadn’t realised that the election was going to directly affect me. But as I was riding up to another hillside destination a guy on a bike flagged me down. He’d spotted my Indian number plate and advised me that the border crossing was going to be closed because of the election, which was on Sunday.It would re-open on Monday, which was the expiry date of my visa – or so I thought. So I carried on up into the hills, towards the town of Ilam, planning now to spend a few days there. I stopped for coffee and had a great laugh with two young guys as we taught each other our favourite swearwords. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they were!
I found a nice hotel at Ilam, where I could kill time for a few days. It had a south west facing terrace, where I could catch the warm sun. I went for some walks and did some writing and bike maintenance. The food was nice too. I had pork with one meal and I remember thinking that it will be quite some time before I get to eat any more of that. A pleasant little sojourn up in the hills to ready me for the return to busy India.
Ilam is only three hours from the border and I enjoyed the ride back down through the hills to the main road. Once at the border I found the immigration office, which was where a good day turned sour. Firstly, I’d miscalculated the expiry date of the visa by forgetting that October had thirty one days. But the immigration officer was prepared to let that go given that they’d closed the border. The real problem was that India wouldn’t allow foreigners to cross at this border. It had been closed during Covid but had been re-opened for locals only. Now that comment that the Indian immigration officer had made when I left India a month ago, about not being able to come back this way, made sense. I’d thought he was just being a bit snarky. Not so. What was the solution? To ride back to the main border crossing at Birganj, south of KTM, 400kms away. No choice in the matter. Then I’d have to ride 400kms back again to get where I wanted to be in India.
Google maps told me it was would take eight and a half hours to cover the distance so I fortified myself with coffee and biscuits and got on with it. One good thing about Nepal is that, unlike India, they don’t allow cattle to wander the streets. Even so it’s always a bit chancy to ride at night but I saw little choice in the matter. My fear was that if I delayed by a day immigration would demand I buy a full month’s visa. Another 50USD, so I settled in to the ride and got on with it. And I got there in the end. One stop for fuel and to eat a banana. Once I’d got past the rough repairs the road was good and traffic was light.
At the border somebody had to ring up the immigration officer to come and sort me out. He wasn’t as kind as the other guy and charged me 8USD for the one day overstay. When I protested he said he’d have been happy to let me off but his computer programme wouldn’t allow it. Fair enough. He told me the French cyclists had been through earlier in the day. On the Indian side the immigration office was open and I got stamped in OK.
Then things took an unfortunate turn. The immigration officer told me there were three hotels in his town but only one of them could accept foreigners. He’d already called the owner who was waiting outside. OK, so far. He led me to the hotel where I discovered there was a special charge because I was in a border town. Now this didn’t sound right at all but he pointed to a printed notice, written in English, confirming it. Genuine? I couldn’t tell.It was now 22.30 and I didn’t know how far the next town was. And riding in India at night is definitely not to be done. So I swallowed hard and accepted it. The room was Rs800 and the ‘special fee’ was Rs850. I was shown to a bare, shabby little room, with just a bed and a chair. Grubby and horrible. I was not at all pleased. In the morning the owner had the cheek to give me a couple of his cards to share with other people. No chance of that happening matey. On the plus side he took my Nepalese money off me and had a garage where I could store the bike. Welcome back to India.
I was delighted with my month in Nepal and very interested in the differences between the two countries. Nepal is far less busy than India, and generally cleaner too. Not so many trucks and noticeably less personal transport. It’s still a very poor place, but with a stable political situation the government is slowly improving access to education and improving the important metrics, such as infant and child mortality. But there’s still much to be done and they rely on foreign aid quite a lot to help them achieve their objectives. It would be wrong to lump them in with India though. They take a neutral stance in regional affairs, sensible given the proximity of the worlds two most populous countries, who are currently rubbing each other up the wrong way. They always supported the British Raj, from the time of the fights I mentioned earlier and, of course, gave Britain the fantastic Gurkha soldiers. I was only sorry that I didn’t get high up into the mountains this time. Maybe I’ll go back again for another try.