Nepalese Border, Bhimdatta. Saturday 22nd October 2022.
One of the first things I noticed when I came into the Indian border town of Bhajanpur was the number of people pushing bicycles, with large sacks strung all round. As far as I could see the contents were recyclables, such as cardboard and plastic bottles. As I rode down towards the border area the numbers increased and it seemed as if they were going to cross over. But why? I saw more of them once I reached Nepal but never did find out where they went to.
The border facilities were on the other side of a water barrage and then a bridge but the access gate was closed for lunch. That was OK because I wanted to refuel anyway. I didn’t know the fuel situation on the other side, so best to do it when I could. By the time I came back the access gate was open. The road across the barrage was only wide enough for bikes and pedestrians. But the bridge was just about wide enough for cars to pass my luggage laden bike. A very odd arrangement. This was clearly just a local border point.
On the other side I found Indian immigration and, after a few questions, got my exit stamp. I think the people here liked to have a bit of a joke among themselves. They told me that I wouldn’t be able to come back to India by this route. OK, I said, I wasn’t planning to anyway. I spoke to some cyclists later on and they’d been told that Nepal might not allow them in. None of this made sense and I didn’t react. Indian customs weren’t interested in my Indian bike so I carried on to the second half of the “border challenge”.
Nepal will issue a visa on arrival but it involves filling out an on-line form, which I hadn’t done. Immigration were used to this and linked my phone to their wi-fi so that I could complete it. They gave me their email address and I uploaded the form, along with my Covid vaccination certificate. Then they relieved me of 50USD and I was through, with a 30 day visa. It took about 45 minutes. He offered to change some Indian rupees into Nepalese rupees for me, at the standard exchange rate of 1 Indian to 1.6 Nepalese. The two currencies are tied, so that rate applies everywhere.
He must have known what was coming next because when I got to customs they charged me NPR150 per day. NPR4500 in total. That works out to £15, so nothing too onerous on the wallet. I got chatting to a local guy, who had a business in India and came through the border regularly. He made sure it happened for me as it should and showed me where the pay window was, over in another building. He also offered to put me up for the night, but he lived 60 kms away and it was getting a bit late for travelling that far. One useful thing he told me was that hotels and other big businesses will usually accept Indian rupees. I followed him to the nearest town and he helped me find a hotel for the night. What a nice guy.
The first job upon arrival in any new country is to get a SIM card. There was a phone shop opposite the hotel but the guy told me that only Nepalese citizens could buy one. He said I should speak to the hotel owner, who turned out to be something of a Mister Fixit. One of his friends sold me a card for NPR300 (£2), and then we put some credit on it. It wasn’t a lot and I knew that I really needed a data package, but it got me started. Mr Fixit also owned the restaurant next door and fixed me up with food and a beer.
Food AND a beer? Yes, and this was one of the first differences between India and Nepal that struck me. Outside of tourist areas visited by Westerners, it’s almost impossible to do that in India. You might see a sign saying “Bar and Restaurant”, but they’ll be in different parts of the building. Licensing laws in India are very restrictive and therefore very awkward, especially as each state is different. In Nepal you can buy alcohol everywhere, making it much more civilised.
Nepal is a long and narrow country. I’d entered at the western end and would re-enter India at the eastern, diverting here and there as it pleased me. Highway 01 runs all the way across – the Nepalese “Mother Road”, essentially. My first diversion was to Bardya National Park, less than a day’s ride away, and home to various large animals. On the way there, and around about coffee time, I saw some touring bicycles parked outside a café. I pulled in and found three French guys travelling together and a Dutchman, who’d temporarily joined them. I sat down with them for a chat.
I didn’t get to know the history of the French guys because they were chatting among themselves. But the Dutchman had travelled all the way across from Holland. He’d been up in Spiti Valley a few weeks earlier and had managed to get all the way round the loop. But he found some of the water crossing a bit challenging, he said. I told him about Hera, the Dutch woman I’d met in Kazakhstan, and he said he’d seen her articles in the cycle magazines. I’m full of admiration for these guys. Real hardcore travelling, as far as I’m concerned.
Some first impressions while riding along. The bicycle seems to be the vehicle du jour in this part of Nepal. Far fewer motorbikes than I’ve been used to seeing. A fair number of cars and plenty of buses, whose drivers seem to think that if they flash their lights at you as they drive straight towards you, you’ll disappear. It doesn’t work! Very few trucks, although it was a Sunday. Goods seemed to be carried more on pick up trucks than heavy goods vehicles. The villages I passed through weren’t especially busy and they all had a wide and dusty verge between the shops and the road. It reminded me of Africa. They were so much quieter than I was used to seeing in India.
The road itself was up on a causeway, with fields either side, running out towards woodland. At one point I entered a wooded section but was stopped at a checkpoint. I was told I needed to wait for at least four more bikes to arrive before I could go any further. What on earth was this all about? Well it seems that this section runs through an area shared with tigers! They seemed to think that five bikes together would be less vulnerable than only one. I suppose it at least improved the odds of getting through. I just hoped my riding gear was tiger tooth proof should Mr Tiger select me as his dinner that day.
A group of riders turned up before too long. One of them was given a pink chitty, which he handed in at the checkpoint once we’d passed through the danger zone. A sign suggested that elephants might also be a risk. I was amused by the whole thing, which might be naive of me, but also pleased that the authorities cared enough to do it. But I wondered how they’d deal with the cyclists coming along behind me?
My plan for that day was to go to a place called Jungle Base Camp, which had been recommended to me by a guy I met in Lucknow. Passing through the villages on the way there I was struck by how pretty the houses were, with their brightly coloured walls. Most of them had thatched wooden cattle sheds in their grounds, open sided and looking decidedly ramshackle. A few houses were obviously from an earlier time and looked much like the cattle sheds but with proper walls and better thatch.
When I came to the main entrance of the national park I was approached by a guy on a motorbike asking me to come to his trekking base at Riverside View. I said I was going to check out the other one first but if I didn’t like it I’d come back. When I got to Jungle Base Camp the owner wasn’t there and his wife wasn’t able to tell me the cost of the trek. So I went back to the park entrance and that’s when I saw a pole with about fifteen sign boards on it, showing the way to all the trekking bases. Now I understood why the other guy had been hanging around there, hoping for custom.
Anil was a good host and I had comfortable room among the trees and flower beds. It even had good wi-fi, always a plus. He organised my jungle trek for the next morning, with an 06:30 start. It would cost NPR3,000, plus NPR1,500 entry fee into the park. £20 in total. A pretty good price, I thought. I had some food and tried to settle in for an early night.
After an early breakfast, 06:30 found me and Drusilla, my female guide, heading up the stony track to the park entrance. My details were taken, along with my money, and we set off. Pretty soon we came to a river. It was about twenty metres wide, and moving along quite nicely. It had a stony bottom, and because we’d taken our shoes off my bare feet didn’t like it much. Fortunately she’d given me a stave to use, of which I was very glad. We carried on along a track, which gradually narrowed, until we were walking through elephant grass.
Meanwhile Drusilla was explaining to me how to escape from any of the big beasts we might come across, should we need to. For the record: if it’s a rhino, climb a tree; if it’s an elephant, run; if it’s a tiger, hit it on the nose with your stave and try to protect your neck because that’s where they like to attack. I wasn’t sure whether or not any of this reassured me, but I figured the chances of attack to be so low that it didn’t matter much anyway. She pointed out some tiger dung, which they use to mark their territory, a tiger pug, some claw marks on a tree and some elephant footprints, which are HUGE! They probably came from one of the working elephants we’d seen earlier in the day, which are used by the park rangers.
After wading a muddy stream we walked along the river bank then settled down to watch, hoping that the water would attract some wildlife. But nothing happened. We moved on to another riverbank and settled down again. This time a troop of monkeys came to visit, playing about in the water. Drusilla pointed out some interesting birds, but that was about all. Some other creatures did arrive but they were just another group out for a hike as well. It turned out to be the French cyclists that I’d met in the café. They were staying at Jungle Base Camp, which was cheap but quite basic, they said. We chatted about travelling and ate the packed lunch we’d brought, while our guides chatted together.
No more animals came our way so we headed off further along the river until we came to a viewing tower just a little way back from the river. Here we found all the other groups that were out that day so we settled down to watch the river and see what came down.
I got chatting to a young Dutch woman who was on her first solo backpacking trip. She said she preferred it to being with others and will travel for a year. Then she made me extremely jealous. A rhino came down to the river to take a drink and then cross over. I took some photos, so did she. When we compared them I had a tiny figure in the middle of the frame whereas hers was filled with rhino! She had a small Canon compact but it had a 40x zoom lens, much better than mine. And it only cost half as much. I was not best pleased! The same thing happened when some elephants arrived for a drink as well. I didn’t bother with photos of them. I just watched them through the binoculars.
It soon became time to walk back. I was very disappointed not to have seen a tiger but unfortunately they don’t operate to our schedule. The walk through the jungle had been very enjoyable and just the whole feeling of being out there was something to remember. Although local people are allowed to forage in certain parts of the national park, most of it is virgin and wild. And this time I kept my shoes on crossing back over the river.
Later on, as it got dark, some youngsters came round and performed some dance routines outside. It was the beginning of the Deepavali (Diwali) festival of Light and they go round visiting the various places to perform their dances. Part it involves putting some money on the ground for them to collect. I wasn’t surprised and was happy to join in.
I stayed there another day as it was such a pleasant place to be. I walked up to the shops in the village and got some data put onto my SIM card. Everything looked colourful and clean here, a real difference to most places in India. Before I left the next day Anil asked me to come over to the main building and enjoy being blessed. I got my forehead painted with some red dyed rice and was given a posy of flowers. They went onto the front of the bike.
As I rode out of the village I noticed that most of the houses I passed looked new, although often accompanied by obviously older buildings. Those tended to be timber framed, with walls made of clay laid over wooden slats. Drusilla had explained to me that most of the local people had new houses built once concrete blocks became available. They’d spent too many years where elephants would knock the walls down while seeking the source of a tasty smell inside the house.
Back on NH01 again, I couldn’t help but notice how green and peaceful everything seemed to be. There was agriculture on each side of the road, with forest behind that which, on the north side, then ran away towards the Himalayan foothills. Although the roads were less busy, the pace of traffic was a bit higher and pedestrians were far braver too. I had to get used to that, and also to being overtaken by youngsters on their motorbikes, who had no qualms about showing me the way home. But it was a beautiful day and I just rode along, enjoying the atmosphere.
I decided to head up into the hills a bit, just to see what there was to see. I’d been looking at the websites of the various tour companies that operate in Nepal, just to get some ideas of where to go. I had a place in mind to head to. There wasn’t anything there in particular, it just looked like a nice ride up into the hills.
While riding through the town where the my junction was to be found, I came across groups of youngsters performing dances and songs in the main street. Dressed in costumes, it was clear this was part of the festival celebrations. Of course, I parked the bike and took some photos. One of the groups had young men preforming break-dancing routines, at least, that’s how it looked. Meanwhile a group of girls performed more traditional dances, all done to a strong beat of drum based music. They were, judging by the sign, pupils of a local dance school.
After a while I found the turning I wanted but soon came to a bridge that was clearly designed for pedestrians. But I saw a couple of bikes go over it so I decided to give it a go. Oh dear. Halfway across I met two bikes coming the other way, with no room for us to pass each other. The unspoken decision was they should go backwards to let me carry on forwards. I was pleased about that. Manoeuvring my bike bike backwards did not appeal at all!
Once over the bridge I came to a track that was made of large, loose stones, very difficult to ride. I tried it for a couple of hundred metres then thought, “You know what? This is hard work and no fun, so I won’t bother.” The place I was heading to had nothing in particular there, so I tuned back. This time the bridge was clear and I turned back onto the main road until I found a hotel.
I struggled to find a hotel at first, but finally came to one in a small town. A very basic place but good enough. I got adopted by a young guy who spoke very good English. He’d recently finished a college course and wanted to study engineering. We chatted for some time. He warned me that tomorrow was the last day of Deepavali and that most places would be closed, including petrol stations. But the shop next to the hotel sold “black” petrol, so I got some before I left.
I asked my friend about schooling in Nepal. State schools cover from year one to year ten and provision is free. But further education is very patchy. Teaching suffers from lack of funding and infrastructure, leading to high pupil/teacher ratios. Third level students often leave Nepal for better education and work chances. Sadly, fifty percent of them never return. But the upside is that there are year on year increases in enrolment.
He explained to me about the Nepalese approach to Deepavali (Diwali). It’s a five day festival, the first four being dedicated to the creatures associated with the Yama, the Hindu god of death. They are the crow; the dog; the oxen and the goddess Lakshmi. The fifth day is dedicated to the love between sisters and brothers, and the family in general. Back in the mists of Hindu folklore, an important god was rescued from evil by his sister hence this particular celebration.
I got breakfast, got petrol then got going. But not before I had received a blessing, shown by the red stained rice put on my forehead, and been given a garland of yellow flowers, which went around the front of the bike. They gave me some sweets too, while I gave my young friend some money with which to buy the children some gifts.
The plan was to ride up into the hills to visit a temple, then to loop back to the main road and continue eastwards. The road was reasonably good, with the expected rough patches, as it climbed upwards. At one point I was stunned by a view that revealed itself as I came round a bend. The valley fell away below me, filled with fields and paddies, with a river wandering in-between them. Tree clad hills away in the distance completed the picture. One of those almost perfect photo opportunities, of which I took advantage.
The road then turned rough for about ten kilometres, and became quite challenging in places. “Don’t drop the bike! Don’t drop the bike!” ran the chant inside my head. I came close a couple of times, especially at one river crossing, but my remembered skills and the ability of the Himalyan pulled me through. I felt pleased with myself.
I arrived at the location of the temple but it was rather non-descript and also closed. But just close to it was a family house where the people were “doing Deepavali”, so to speak. The mother was decorating the foreheads of her sons and husband, after which they did hers. They chatted to me and were happy for me to take photos. I gave them the sweets I’d been given at the hotel and in return, they gave me some peanuts and seeds, along with some sweet paste made with honey. Very lovely.
On the way to the next big town I checked all the filling stations which were, as expected, all closed. Most of the forecourts had gates dran across but in the town I did find a forecourt that was open. The pumps were covered over locked though, and I was just about to leave when a couple of guys came out of the office and said they’d sell me some petrol. They uncovered a pump, filled up my tank, then promptly covered the pump back up again. Meanwhile a car and a scooter had also pulled in but the guys ignored them and went back into the office. How very odd. I felt very privileged.
I rejoined the main road and headed to the town of Lumbini. Once I’d found a hotel I walked to the park that contains the Maya Devi, the birthplace of the first Buddha. The park is full of temples and shrines, donated by countries from around the world. But the main event is the Maya Devi temple. Once I’d bought a ticket I had to queue for a while to get in.
The building looked very ordinary, a common enough concrete block structure. But once inside its secret was revealed. In a rather similar fashion to way that modern buildings surround Roman remains in England, this one contained the remains of a temple dating from the 2nd century BCE. Resting in a hole in the floor was a stone marking the place where the Buddha was born. I’d managed to sneak some forbidden photos of the temple interior but had no chance of getting one of the marker stone. I shuffled in with the rest of the crowd, shuffled past the stone then hung around looking at the interior and hoping to sneak a snap shot. But no hope of that.
Outside I admired the Ashoka Column, named after the ruler of the area when the temple was built. Also the sacred pond and the sacred garden. There were plenty of people around, the trees were full of prayer flags and it was a nice warm afternoon. Was this where he was actually born? It’s reckoned that the stone’s location is accurate given how important the Buddha was and that he came from a rich family. Who would I be to disagree with that anyway.
This park is 2×3 kilometres long and wide. There’s a canal that runs up to the far end, where the museum is located. I got on a little boat only to find that the museum was closed. On the way back I got chatting to some young kids, who always like to ask the usual questions: hello; how are you; where are you from; etc. We had a good laugh, their parents too. Photos were taken. I love these little interludes of random contact.
I carried on eastward and came to the town of Palpa, 1100 metres up in the hills. Very steep streets to negotiate but I found my way to Durbar Square, wherein sat the museum I was aiming for. The name, “Durbar Square”, translates as “the square in front of the royal place”. The former palace was became an administrative building, before being destroyed in the Maoist revolution. It had been rebuilt and was now a museum, so I went in for a look around.
It had plenty of information about local tribes, the way they lived and their costumes. I discovered that Nepal had become a unified country at the end of the 18th century, brought about by one of the biggest rulers by means of conquer and persuasion. I also learned that the British east India Company had tried to invade some of southern Nepal and had their backsides kicked back out again. More on that later.
I checked out a couple of small temples, before finding a hotel. Opposite it was a park where I went for a walk. I was surprised to discover a military barracks there, with manned watchtowers around it. There was also a memorial statue to the leader who’d fought and beaten the East India Company.
On to Pokhara, which is one of Nepal’s bigger cities. It’s main claim to fame is that it’s a gateway to the Himalaya, and its various trekking activities, as well as being the region’s capital. The Annapurna Range is close by so I wasn’t surprised to see countless shops selling trekking equipment and tours. No good to me though. Riding bikes is my thing, not climbing mountains. But it did explain why I saw more European faces than I had seen in a while and the presence of a plethora of restaurants selling European food.
The part of the city I was in lay next to the Phewa Lake. There’s a temple a short way off the shore and a brief boat ride got me out there. The Tal Bahari Temple, dedicated to the goddess of that name, is a neat looking, two story pagoda style building with a shrine at the bottom. The place was crowded with worshippers doing Puja, which meant plenty of fruit, coconut husks, jossticks, candles and smoke. I hung around for a while just people watching, before heading back to shore.
Pokhara is home to the famous Gurkha soldiers, who have played a large part in so many British Army activities. There’s a museum dedicated to them and their history, which I was keen to visit. I have a friend who was a Captain in one of the Gurkha regiments and that added a bit of keenness to the thought of a visit.
The Gorkha warriors (Nepalese spelling) came from the region of the same name and were engaged by the rulers to help fight off the potential invasion in 1815. In 1816 that same ruler tried to take over some areas of northern India from the British but this time it was he that was defeated. However, British authorities were so impressed with the fighting abilities of these Gorkhas that as part of the peace deal they engaged them to fight in their other campaigns, especially in India. When the British Raj came along they were an essential part of their armies in quelling rebellions and so on. Extremely fierce fighters, they earned a reputation that gave them an important place in the British army over many decades, including the world wars.
The museum proved to be very informative, with a couple of very smart Gurkha soldiers to welcome me inside. One thing often I find, when learning other histories, is that I also discover more about our own, but in this case through the lens of these fighters. I hadn’t known about some of the areas, such as Borneo, that the British army where involved in. In fact, a British Gurkha regiment is still based in Brunei. The Indian army also has Gurkha regiments and the Gurkhas are often used as United Nations peace keepers. My interest was enhanced by having a friend who used to be an officer in one of the British Gurkha regiments.
On a less warlike note, I visited the World Peace Pagoda, on the other side of the city. Once I’d negotiated the four hundred steps up to the top I found a Buddhist stupa, centred in a very peaceful plaza. The views across the city were great, but better than that was the view of the Annapurna range. The snow capped peaks seemed to float on a layer of cloud, like islands in a sky blue sea. A wonderful effect.
Further on up the same road was a Shiva statue, this demanding a challenging ride up rough track to get there, plus another really steep road up to the top. They really do like to make you work hard for your religious fix. I finished the day in a more prosaic fashion, treating myself to a tasty pizza. It’s nice to have a British (!) meal from time to time.
One of the buckles on a pannier had got broken in traffic so I tasked my self with finding a replacement. The hotel staff directed me to a market area, about an hour’s walk away. When I got there I found an area with hundreds of small shops but no market, as such. I went into all of them that looked suitable, showing the buckle I needed to replace. But no joy. Having said that, the time wasn’t wasted because these areas, and what they sell, tells you a lot about the place you’re in and how people live their lives. A kind of shop front (or hundreds) for anthropological study, in a way.
Back at the lakeside area I explored all the trekking shops looking for the same thing. In the end I found a guy who would supply with a new buckle and sew it on for me too. That was the best solution and he did both of them on that pannier. Meaning that I now have a spare.
Pokhara is a city worth visiting whether you want to go trekking or not. It is very much a base for the more extreme versions of having fun, offering all those things that attract the young and adventurous. For the not so young and not so adventurous there’s culture to enjoy and a general ambiance that helps you relax and unwind.
It’s always been a place for visitors given that it sits astride ancient trade routes between Tibet and India. It’s home to a settled community of Tibetan migrants, driven out by China’s illegal take over of their country, although most of them moved on to India. Looking at the amount of tourists, it’s strange to think that the city was only accessible by foot until 1962, when the Siddartha Highway was built. But it was discovered by hill tribes long before that with the main ethnic group, the Hill Brahman, making up only 28% of the city’s population. A real mixture of people then.The balance is made from various other hill tribes and peoples from the valley.
A fascinating city to visit then, with a chance to relax and explore. But it was time to move on and head to the big prize, Kathmandu.
That story will be told in the next post.