Trying to get to the top of the world

 

Hello blog readers! Again, I have been too lazy to update the blog in time and now too many things have happened (I have left Nepal, spent a week in India and now entered Pakistan) to summarise in one blog post. So we will have to make due with this one just being about my last week or so in Nepal and then another post will follow as soon as possible about my week in India. But as always, to keep up to speed with the latest happenings – follow me on instagram @on_the_scenic_route!

My last week in Nepal was a rollercoaster of mountains and valleys, hurdles and wins. The idea when I left Pokhara (last blog post) was to try and get as far up into the Annapurna mountain range as physically possible on the bike. And that’s exactly what I did. I made it to a town called Muktinath on 3,800m above sea level (which is high for a motorable road, although nothing compared to the 8,000m+ peaks surrounding you when you are up there).

Day 83 – getting a first taste of the “road” up the mountains: My first day stint was from Pokhara to a town called Tatopani, just on the edge of the Annapurna national park. I had heard horror stories of “the road to Jomsom”, which is a 90km stretch of road from a town called Beni to Jomsom (which is near Muktinath) and also the only road up the mountain from this side, so I was expecting a rough ride. This first day included a couple of hours on a perfectly normal road from Pokhara to Beni followed by an attempt at conquering the first 20km of this infamous road to Jomsom.

The day started out with some very normal Nepali roads
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Now we had some pretty technical riding before when Lennart and Pontus were here, so I was mentally prepared for some pretty rough sections. But I really wasn’t prepared for the rough section being the entire 90km stretch from Beni to Jomsom… After turning onto this road in Beni I spent the next two hours conquering thigh deep water crossings, sandy hills and slippery mud patches I made it to Tatopani. Two hours, 20km and I was absolutely exhausted.

And then got a bit more muddy and very slippery… just pick it up and try again 🙂
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At the lodge I stayed I met a group of four American guys doing the same ride up to Muktinath on rented Royal Enfield bikes. Delighted to have some fellow bike enthusiasts to speak to we sat up for quite a while and talked about bikes, adventures and a bit of everything over a few beers.

Day 84 – a workout as good as any: After crawling up those 20km the day before I asked around a bit at the lodge what the next 70km up to Jomsom (where I had planned to spend the night) would be like compared to the stretch I had done. Everyone basically just said “Same same all the way”, which is not what I wanted to hear so I decided the language barrier was too big and they actually meant the opposite. After that little exercise in logical reasoning, concluding that the roads would be much better for the next 70km I decided to take a relaxed morning and get going around lunch time (there may also have been a slight hangover influencing that decision).

Imagine my surprise when the roads were really bad the entire way! Although the scenery became increasingly spectacular as I made it up the mountain towards Jomsom (2,600m above sea level). But practice makes perfect and after a while I felt that I had mastered most of the surfaces present (sand, mud, loose rocks, sand with hidden rocks, river crossings) and I made it to Jomsom in something like four hours – average of almost 20km/h! Although at that point my body was completely destroyed wrestling 300kg+ of bike (with luggage) across this terrain all afternoon.

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And stopping again to enjoy the scenery even more…P1010860

Day 85 – high point of the trip (literally): The day started with a quest to get fuel which up here is only sold litre-by-litre in old PET bottles which have been filled down in the valley and driven up the mountain on a jeep. Sometimes there is fuel available in every little shop, sometimes there is no fuel in the whole town. Today was one of the former and the lady in the shop next to my lodge easily dug up five bottles of petrol which would be enough to carry me to Muktinath and back.

The first step was taking the “main bridge” over the river in Jomsom
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After sorting fuel out the plan was to head up to Muktinath (3,800m above sea level), stay there for just an hour or so and then head back down to Jomsom (to manage my altitude exposure). Turns out going from 2,600m to 3,800m makes a big difference. Not only does the air get colder (around 5 degrees compared to 15+) and thinner, the vegetation also disappears and you get into a spectacular moonscape like scenery. The other nice surprise was that this stretch of 17km or so was actually the best road of the entire thing.

The ride up to Muktinath was really spectacular

And in the end I made it, to 3,800m above sea level
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Another nice surprise was that when I got back down to Jomsom in the afternoon I again found my new friends, the motorbiking Americans parked outside one of the lodges. So I parked right next to them and found them in a nearby restaurant where we again shared stories of our various motorbike achievements and occasional crashes over a few beers.

Day 86 – going down is just as hard as going up: Time to get down again, which supposedly is easier because Newton is there with his gravity helping you out. Therefore, the plan was to get all the way down to the bottom of the valley (the full 90km) in one day. Although perfectly doable (I did make it all the way down) it turned out that going down is just as painful as going up and not really much faster when the road is trying to kill you with challenging surfaces at every turn.

There is always somewhere to stop to enjoy the scenery…
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After finally making it down to the “real road” again, I stopped for the night in a town called Beni, waited for the American guys to arrive a bit later, had some dinner and passed out around 8 or 9 pm after another exhausting day.

Day 87 – some unexpected challenges: At this point I was done with the sights I wanted to see in Nepal and the plan was to begin making my way towards India. The first step was to get out of the mountains down into the lowlands of south Nepal, and for me that meant the goal for the day was getting to the city of Butwal in south central Nepal. The ride took me back through Pokhara and then south through some spectacular valleys with very good roads by Nepal standards. Everything was great and the riding was super smooth.

Then as I was stopped at a rest area for a break just 10km from Butwal, a reversing truck ran over my bike. Crash! Boom! Bang! The truck only stopped as its rear wheels tried to roll up over the front wheel of my bike. Damage assessment revealed a bent front wheel and bent front brake discs, which meant a wobbly ride and no front brakes. The rack for the rear panniers was also bent to one side so the pannier boxes were all lopsided. Luckily two really nice Nepali guys stopped to help me and after assessing that I could make it down to the hotel by myself we agreed to meet up the next morning to sort the bik e out (it was the Nepali new year’s eve so everyone was on their way to a party). Eventually I ride the remaining 10km or so at walking speed with only rear brake and get to the hotel.

Day 88 – fixing the bike: After initially being a bit upset about having my bike crushed by a truck I wake up in positive spirit and wait for the guys from the night before to call me so we can meet up and fix the bike. A bit after 9am one of the guys comes to pick me up at the hotel and we ride slowly over to his friend’s bike shop a couple of hundred metres down the street. Then it’s a quick operation of removing the front wheel and both brake discs for damage assessment (at this point I have been given an old bike saddle to sit on and a glass of coca cola). A quick look from the boss of the shop and he agrees that they are all bent but it is all fixable.

Fixing the front wheel and brakes at the local motorbike workshop
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Then one guy takes the front wheel under one arm, hops on a motorbike and heads off down the street. Another guy takes the brake discs in one hand, hops on another motorbike and heads down the street the other way – “They are going to different workshop, to do engineering”. Well, if there is one thing I am a fan of it is engineering so I relax and sit back down. At this point my friends from the night before take me along for lunch and we sit around there for an hour or so until they call from the bike shop to say the bike is done. We get back and not only is the bike all put back together, it is washed as well. I pay the bill of about $20, exchange social media profiles with a few people and roll off with my bike which now has perfectly working front brakes and an only slightly wobbly front wheel (the rim is aluminium so it cannot be straightened as much as the steel brake discs).

Because it was only lunch time when the bike was back in action, I decide to make the 300km ride west to Bardia national park to make some progress towards India. I was now on the main East-West highway where you can sometimes go as fast as 80km/h between the many villages, so it only took around 5 hours to get there. And it was a lovely place to be, so I decide to stay for a day to relax.

I stayed at this amazing little place (called Forest hideaway) in Bardia national park
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Day 89 – relaxing and just a little bit more bike fixing: After a few intense days it was nice with a day with very little moving around. Although I did decide that I wanted to fix the bent racks for my pannier boxes so the morning activity was asking at the lodge if they had some old iron rod lying around, or anything really I could use as a lever to bend some steel racks into shape. They did! So I lodged the bike up against a tree and applied some gentle but decisive violence in the right places and voila! Everything was back to (almost) straight. So now I was confident I would make it to New Delhi where there is a Triumph dealership, which means I can get actual spare parts to replace the odd broken thing on the bike.

Because the pannier boxes where hanging sideways like this
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I decided that some carefully applied violence was in good order
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Love letter to Nepal

As I am writing this I have spent some 10 days in Nepal and I am already in love. I am now in Pokhara, roughly in the centre of the country where I have spent the day getting the permits required to enter the Annapurna national park where I will spend the next 4-5 days getting as far into the park and up the mountains as roads and trails allow. Unfortunately I will not have enough time to continue on foot this time but I am confident I will be back in Nepal for some hiking in the not too distant future.

So what is it I love so much about Nepal? Well, the scenery is amazing. The people are super friendly and intensely relaxed. And the scenery, did I mention the scenery? Green valleys, rolling hills and always snow covered peaks for backdrop. And I am sure their first priority when planning the road network was practicality, but they all turned out ridiculously scenic as well.

This is what the scenery looks like pretty much wherever you go
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Anyway, another highlight of getting to Nepal was to meet up with my dad and brother (Lennart and Pontus) who flew down and rented motorbikes to join me for the first week here. After having had to rebook their trip once we actually managed to meet up almost as planned (only a day late) and had five days together exploring the eastern parts of Nepal.

Day 75 – meeting up with my dad and brother: After failing to meet up the day before (I got stuck changing tyres as per my previous blog post and Lennart and Pontus got lost for a bit exiting Kathmandu) I got up early to ride the two hours from Dharan (where I spent the night) to Lahan (where Lennart and Pontus spent the night) so we could start the journey into the mountains from there. Besides the pleasure of meeting my dad and brother for the first time in I don’t know how long, they also brought a nice bottle of whisky which was much appreciated!

Finally joined up!
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So without much research other than a quick Google maps session we headed north from the lowlands into the mountains with a rough plan to get to a town called Charikot in two days. And that first day riding together was just as sad as it was spectacular. This was the day where the effects of the 2015 earthquake were most visible, with long stretches of road washed away and bridges collapsed. For that very reason it was also the most challenging day of riding, with long stretches of sand and dust where there used to be roads and rocky river crossings where there used to be bridges. And in between stretches of perfectly paved windy mountain roads with virtually no traffic (only bikes and serious 4×4 vehicles could get past the river crossings).

Nepal is offering the most technical riding so far, by quite a margin…

 

And the scenery is still amazing
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As an extra bonus, I managed to make a very solid first impression on Lennart and Pontus by falling over no less than twice during that first day. Both times when trying to get going again from carefully selected parking spots (the things you do to get the perfect photo…). But every dent adds a bit of unique character to the bike so I am not at all unhappy about it.

Day 76 – getting to Charikot: After a really long and challenging day the day before, we had an easy ~4 hour ride from where we spent the night in a town called Bhimeshwor to Charikot. The roads were more or less all undamaged but it was another scenic ride showcasing the amazing difference in climate that can be found in Nepal. From 32 degrees and humid when going all the way down into a valley to cross a river to around 20 degrees when traversing a mountain half an hour later.

Then we got to the hotel I had checked out in Charikot, and it was amazing! So amazing I will give my first (I think) hotel recommendation of the blog. Charikot panorama resort (charikotresort.net), lodged on a mountain top with unobstructed views in all directions. And as if that wasn’t enough, they are also building a sauna! There is no easier way to get me really excited than a good sauna building project. So if you are ever passing through the area east of Kathmandu that’s an amazing place to stay.

Morning coffee in the garden of Charikot panorama resort
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Day 77 – just doing a light day trip: We decided to stay two nights in Charikot and just do a day trip to a town called Jiri. This meant a day riding without luggage which is always a nice treat after riding around with the equivalent of a dead body strapped around the back of the bike for weeks. Jiri was the most common starting point for climbing mount Everest before you could fly into Lukla, but these days is mostly just a normal Nepali mountain village. The ride there was very nice though with nice roads for the most part and a high mountain pass (2,600m) before the final descent into the Jiri valley.

Stopping to (again) admire the scenery
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Day 78 – going to Kathmandu: After a couple of relaxing days in the mountains it was time to head to Kathmandu for Lennart and Pontus to fly out the next day and for me to have a couple of working days to organise the rest of the trip. We had a pretty big thunderstorm overnight and the rain had done quite the number on the roads leading out of Charikot towards Kathmandu, so for the first couple of hours we were averaging less than 20km/h. Eventually the roads got better but as we got closer to Kathmandu traffic picked up and all-in-all it was quite an uneventful day.

More riding on narrow mountain roads with spectacular views
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Day 78, 79 & 80 – hanging out in Kathmandu: The day after arriving in Kathmandu, Lennart and Pontus flew out and I was once again on my own (pretty used to that at this point). I spent those days exploring a little bit of Kathmandu but mainly organising a few things for the remainder of the trip. Unfortunately I can’t tell you much about it now, but there will be some exciting things coming up so stay tuned.

Found some cool street art in Kathmandu
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Day 81 & 82 – going to Pokhara: The ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara was about 5 hours and not very exciting (compared to the rest of Nepal anyway) but Pokhara itself is really nice! I had to go here to get the permits to enter the Annapurna national park (where I am heading tomorrow) but I am glad I did as the town is very laid back and pretty, situated along a lake in a valley with (again) snow covered mountains as backdrop.

The street I was staying in Pokhara, always with a good mountain backdrop
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First impressions from India

It has been a while since my last update when I had just entered India. Since then I have crossed India’s north-eastern states and entered Nepal where I am currently spending a few days in Kathmandu. But for the sake of keeping my posts digestible, I will keep this post to my experiences from India and then put up a separate post about Nepal in a few days.

My route through the northeast part of IndiaNEIndia

In short, my first impression of India was very positive and nothing like what I had expected. Understanding the fact that India is a huge and exceptionally diverse country, my expectations were still that I would be faced with crowded streets, suffocating heat (even more so than before), strong smells and chaotic traffic. That wasn’t the case at all – instead I got cool mountain air, almost empty highways and laid back village life.

Traffic can be pretty slow on the Indian countryside
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Day 71 & 72 – riding through the mountains of Manipur and Nagaland: The first thing that strikes you as you enter India at the (only) border crossing from Myanmar is that it’s not exactly as organised as you would expect. The first thing you do is pass through a military checkpoint (more about these in a minute) which is actually fairly organised, they note down your passport number and time of entry and then you are free to go. Now you are in the village of Moreh, which is in India.

Nobody has checked my Visa, stamped my passport or looked at the paperwork for the bike, but I am now in India. And I’m confused. But it turns out all you need to do is ask someone for directions to the immigration office, which is not at or even near the border checkpoint. No, the immigration office is “about two kilometres down the main street, then take a left, go up the hill past the football field and it’s just there to the left”. Once I find the immigration office, the process repeats itself to find the customs office and about an hour later I am still in the geographical spot but this time quite comfortable I am not in the country illegally.

Anyhow, after the honour system immigration process the second thing you notice is the military presence. There are checkpoints every few kilometres and every other vehicle on the road is military. Turns out the Manipur state has only recently opened up for foreigners after years of instability, and they’re being serious about keeping it stable. But the soldiers are all super friendly and frequently compete in giving me tips for the smartest shortcuts to my destination, so it’s no issue for me (although I can imagine it is quite a burden on the locals).

The view from my room in Kohima
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The final thing that strikes you is the scenery. Beautiful mountains and valleys with pretty little hillside towns scattered throughout. Being up in the mountains means it’s also nice and cool for the first time in what felt like forever, around 20 degrees for the most part. Unfortunately I did dare taking many photos for the first couple of days as the was big “photography forbidden” signs around all military installations and there were military installations virtually everywhere.

Day 73 & 74 – crossing the lowlands and entering Nepal: After making it out of the mountains, I had two long days to cross the narrow corridor of India that sits between Bhutan and Bangladesh along the river Brahmaputra. And here I encountered something I hadn’t seen in over a month… rain! So much so that I had to cut one day short and retreat to a random guesthouse on the highway for the night.

Pulling up to a roadside guesthouse in India is very much a gamble. It was dark and pouring down rain when I arrived so I couldn’t make much of a judgement from the outside, but I went to check out the room before I decided to stay there (knowing of course that I had no other options given the weather). Anyway, positive surprise: the room they show me is simple but clean and very recently painted. As a result of some creative styling choices during the recent paint job it is also ridiculously pink, but I can live with that.

So I take the room, unpack all my things and get ready to go to bed. Toothbrush in mouth I open the bathroom door and notice what seems like yet another creative styling move. They seem to have chosen a polka dot design for the floor tiles, with brown cockroach-shaped polka dots – how very creative and ironic. Giggling in appreciation of their progressive sense of styling I search for the bathroom light switch, find it around the corner, flick it and after a brief rattle all the polka dots are gone. Wow, that’s probably the most high tech bathroom tiles I have ever seen or possibly possibly the most cockroach infested bathroom I have ever seen. I assume the former, do my thing and then carefully seal the bathroom door with a towel just in case. I then leave at first light and conveniently don’t feel like I have to go to the bathroom in the morning.

Otherwise, the journey is quite uneventful with perfect highways mixed in with some beautiful country roads. One fun feature of Indian highway traffic that I found though is that even though there are two lanes in each direction, usually separated with a big ditch, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t expect oncoming traffic. Because if you are stopped on one side of the road and your destination is behind you, rather than going all the way up to the next U-turn opening to turn back and then have to drive all the way to a U-turn opening that is past your destination so you can finally drive the last bit and get where you want to go, you could just get out on the road and go against traffic for a while… much faster. I’m astonished nobody has figured this out back home, it is really significantly faster.

A truck going the wrong direction on the highway, standard operating procedure in India
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My final errand in India before crossing the border into Nepal was to find somewhere to change to the new tyres I had been carrying on the back of the bike for a few weeks. So with a combination of words and creative hand gestures I start asking for a tyre shop that can help me out. After a few failed attempts (tyre shops who said they didn’t have the right tools) I found a couple of guys in a dusty shed just an hour from the border. They also didn’t have any tools, but they had a solid attitude which gets you a long way! Also, it turned out that with some creative engineering I had all the tools we needed. We spent an hour getting the wheels off the bike one by one, changing the tyres completely by hand (and feet) and putting them back on, whilst at the same time becoming the main happening in the village and building up a solid audience.

This was my tyre shop – it doesn’t have to be fancy to get the job done
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And we built up quite the audience
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