A Jimi Hendrix Experience, two bears on strings, a puncture and a fall

Our main reason for being in Nepal was the beautiful, wonderful, amazing tarmac road, a much better version of any found in Northern India.  So predictably Nepal went by in a bit of a blur- we’d been there before, and we didn’t feel the need to be touristy…

In Kathmandu we sat smoking shishas, watching a trendy band play Jimi Hendrix covers to a packed bar.  Everyone sang along and clapped.  Some lads from Yorkshire turned up, and a shy German kid, and we sat and chatted rubbish about crocodiles and stampeding elephants in Zimbabwe.  I got steaming drunk on Romanov vodka, and woke up the next morning wondering where in the hell I was. 

Thamel’s streets were still packed with up market trekking tourists, glittery souvenir shops and beggar-boys sniffing glue out of paper bags.  The restaurants were still too expensive for us.  But the salads now contained tofu and walnut, and there was a shiny new North Face branch on the main road.

We left, recovered. 

As we rode out of town, the exit road was choked with lines of wheezing trucks trying to get supplies into the city.  It was completely impassable, and we squeezed between the cliff edge and the huge truck wheels to get through.


The bike tried to topple dangerously on the edge, and it all got a bit panicky.  I had to jump off and push the bike back up to stop it taking Adam off down the cliff. 

We knocked a trucker‘s indicator light off when we scraped past.  He didn’t seem to mind though.


The road cleared, and we wound through hills with amazing views and little shack houses perched on ridges.  We stopped for lunch at a tiny dhaba with a tribal Nepali woman.  It was quiet, and looked like no tourist had ever been there before. 

Suddenly, two European bikers rocked up on a little rented Bajaj bike and stopped to say hello and eat Dal Bhat with us.  It was a nice moment of oddness. 

The road wound on and down onto the plains.  Everyone used it for everything.  It was a convenient meeting point for morning chats, or a nice flat buffalo-walking path, or somewhere for excercising.

We carried on into the backwaters.  There were no obvious places to stay, we translated the Hindi script for ‘Hotel’ and spent the night in god-knows-where, avoiding mosquitoes.  We ate more Dal Bhat with a harem of college girls giggling at us. 


The next day saw us ride on to the border across the Eastern plains.  East Nepal is incredibly rural, with little farms with houses on stilts.  Everyone made big eyes at us as we passed- tourists round these parts are rare, especially super-scruffy ones on a giant beast-bike. 


We got great VIP treatment when we stopped for tea.  A big crowd formed, and got more interested when they found out the bizarre circus act spoke some bad Hindi.  We were bombarded with questions.  I even managed to answer a couple of them…


We tried a road-side ‘hotel and bar’ for lunch.  The family behind the strange net curtains laughed hysterically when they saw us, and promptly tried to charge us over five times the right price.  There were three very made-up young girls in short skirts.  The bar had a strange screened off area behind it.  A large matriarchal madam appeared to examine us.  We realized it was very probably a whore-house, where the occupants were understandably confused when we asked for actual food.

We rode on, feeling culturally uncomprehending.

I saw two enormous bears pulling their ruffian owners along on strings across a bridge.  
A young guy, grinning broadly, proudly displayed his wild-boar-on-a-string to us.  

I watched a old farmer bathing his buffalo, still on its string. 

If I were of an entrepreneurial nature in Nepal, I would go into the string market.  It appears to be booming.

We rode past a goat market, where the buying and selling of the poor creatures almost drowned out the bleating. 

  The women worked in the rice paddies.  The men ploughed the fields with bullocks.  No party looked very pleased about it.  

There were lots of busy market towns, with tribal hawkers selling their wares from baskets.  


All day there were a lot of people wandering the road, carrying things on their heads.  I decided it must be a large part of daily routine in Eastern Nepal.  If it wasn’t, then I must have arrived on National Carrying Things Day.  What was everyone doing?  When they arrived at their destination with whatever it was, did they just turn round again and go back?  If not, why were there so many of them just as I was passing?


We crossed the border, where disinterested-seeming conmen tried to tell us we would never make it to Darjeeling because of landslides.  Luckily our polite cynicism means we never listen to anyone about anything, as it was a total scam. 


The next morning we tried to leave early.  We found a four inch nail embedded in our back tyre.  Oh.

We decided that the best way to go was to yank the as-yet-undisclosed length of nail out.  Then we changed our minds when we saw the size of the damn thing… oh well, bit late now, by this time we had well and truly fecked it.

Got the wheel off with a bit of grunting and a borrowed wrench, and Adam took it to a tubeless-tyre repair man the hotel-man incredibly knew of. 

I waited with the luggage and a group of cheerful Bangladeshi tourists who had appeared to watch us.  (They were very friendly and interested, and invited us to stay with them in Dhaka when we get down there, which we definitely will.)


The puncture repair man took a long hard look at the tyre and fell about laughing.  He explained to onlookers that this tourist boy was stupid and it wasn’t tubeless.  Adam somehow persuaded him to just try and bung the hole up anyway, just to see if maybe it was tubeless after all…  and what do you know, it was.

So they just stuck some goo into the hole in the end, which we could have done ourselves without taking the wheel off.  I think we were both hoping for more of a permanent fix to the problem, but as it goes it will do for now, I hope.  Two or three hours after our intended departure time, we were away, with a giant cheerful wave-off at the gate.

We rode off on our makeshift tyre, up some frankly ridiculous roads.  Darjeeling, being a hill station, is about 2300m above sea level.  There was a lot of hill to climb. 
The road was tiny, steep, wet, and mostly hole. But this time it also had the added challenge of a narrow-gauge railway track cutting diagonally across it every 15 metres.  It made for a slow and slippery ride.   Somewhere a sadistic little Victorian railway-designer punk is sniggering in his coffin…

The road condition at least gave me enough time to really enjoy myself, and I gazed about at the jungliness.  The leaves were bigger than my head.  The drops over the edges made you want to squeal.  The houses on the side of the road were miniscule wooden Victorian affairs, with rickety balconies with flowers overflowing in old oil pots. 



For me it was sickeningly scenic.  For Adam it was just sickening.  On a lighter bike it might have been a great ride, but wrenching 350kgs of bike over wet railway tracks raised above the road surface is just not that much fun. 


We did ok until one of the last crossings, when we hit it at just the wrong angle (straight on!).  The bike slid sideways and we came off onto the tracks, on a steepish hill. 

Luckily we are getting quite adept at falling off the stupid thing, and we just yanked it upright, hauled ourselves off the rails and hoped nothing had broken. 

Arriving into Darjeeling was a similar sort of affair- the roads here are so steep that no one bothers to own a bike- there isn’t anywhere to ride it.  Our poor Manfred lost power (possibly with a combination of the altitude and the rubbish Nepali fuel), and we were stuck, near stationary, on a steep vertical incline, barely inching upwards.  Riding back down is going to be fun, let’s hope the brakes hold out.

In Darjeeling everyone was celebrating the Something Puja.  (I asked what it was, but didn’t understand the answer.)

There were makeshift temples constructed out of streamers and bamboo outside every shop in the area.  The centre-pieces were plaster cast deities with bright pink skin, scary expressions and fluffy black wigs.  The shop workers blessed crowds of onlookers with big red rice-and-powder tikkas on their foreheads.  It made it look oddly like everyone had horrendous head injuries that they were perversely proud of. 

There was a DJ playing devotional tunes over a loudspeaker.  A small crowd bobbed their heads.  Encouraged, the DJ picked a Bollywood anthem and pumped up the volume.   The crowd went wild.  A big gang of boys started dancing in the street, waving their hands around and executing some really great moves.  Another crowd bunched round them to watch.  I couldn’t stop grinning, and a happy kid bounced up to us to persuade us to join in with the impromptu silliness.  Luckily just at that moment he heard an anthem start he just couldn’t resist, and took centre stage with dancing Michael Jackson would have been proud of. “Jai Ho-ooo!!” 


Darjeeling was built as another Raj-era hill resort, and judging by the old buildings was very picturesque.  The air is still chilly, and makes a nice change from the heat on the plains at the moment, but the town is now congested with throngs of people, and the rubbish piles up outside people’s doorways.  The fog makes it all look medieval and dark, and the stray dogs look like they once tried to be Old English Sheepdogs but they fell on hard times.  It’s a strange place that has a lot of atmosphere, but it seems to have run out of room. 

We leave tomorrow for India’s North Eastern states, where back in the 70s the local tribes used to headhunt outsiders, and proudly display their conquests on spikes outside the towns.  I am not sure about now, but I do know there is at least one part of Tripura where we will be traveling in escort again.  I assume it is nothing to do with head-hunting, and more to do with local insurgencies…

Cruising to Kathmandu

We rode for miles towards Nepal, straight north.

We ended up in Gorakhpur. If anyone ever offers you a free trip to Gorakhpur, decline. Even if you live in Slough. I’d been there before. I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I didn’t like it much.

Lost, we found a bridge where the traffic was stationary, and crossed it, swearing. Then we crossed it again, just to see if we had missed anything the first time.

Eventually, we made it out of Gorakhpur, and found our way to Sonauli, the little border town. We spent a bug-eaten night of it, and made a border dash at 6am the next morning.

‘The border is a 24 hour border‘, but at times ‘you may have to go hunting for the officials’ the Lonely Planet explains. Adam was taken to hunt for the customs chief.

The customs chief was in his apartment, taking a bath.

Adam sat outside the bathroom while he sat in the bathtub, singing to the radio.

He got the carnet signed by a chirpy man in a bath towel, and we were off.

Nepal seemed very refreshing, especially after a large egg-based breakfast, and we set off on an enormous trek to Kathmandu, on one of Nepal’s three roads.

The road was made of real tarmac, and our steed was humming along happily. There were little houses and farms by the side of the road, and villagers collected grass in enormous conical baskets that they strapped over their heads.

There were thatched cottages along the edge of the road.

Women wore sarong-style wraps with little choli blouses, or ballooning maxi dresses.
Men wore waistcoats again, and a new style of cap. Some people had tribal-looking, chiseled faces and big chunky home-carved tattoos up their arms. Some people looked completely normal, in jeans and rock T-shirts.

We speeded all the way up to the hills.

Then the lovely tarmac developed blood-curdling lumps and bumps. There were deep ridges either side of a narrow strip on our side of the road. The trucks wheels fit the bizarre natural rails perfectly, but our wheel-base was of a different nature. It got a bit tougher.

Then we were on the main road from Pokhara to Kathmandu, and it got very busy with buses and jeeps. The road did a very good job of looking like a riverbed. Adam did some very funky driving and we almost died, but never quite.

We stopped and ate Dhal-bhat on steel platters at a long bench. The restaurant owners entire family sat near us, watching a very dramatic Nepalese soap about a young woman’s apparently appalling choice of lover. The screen mostly cut to outraged facial expressions.

We rode into Kathmandu, down an enormous hill. People got very trendy. There were kids on trail-bikes in Sex Pistols T-shirts and skinny black jeans. The haircuts were more Toni & Guy than Tribal Homecut. Someone wandered past with a guitar slung over his shoulder. I felt scruffy.

Thamel proved a navigational nightmare. We’d spent two weeks here too, and still couldn’t work out where the hell we were. An hour later we found the hotel, and hopped off to be merrily greeted by the manager, who remembered us and mocked the filth all over the bike.

Varanasi and too many corpses

We spent a day in Lucknow, which gave us just long enough to visit ‘The Residency’, the scene of the Indian Mutiny in 1875. All 3000 of Lucknow’s British occupants and anyone else opposed to the Indian independence movement fled there and sheltered in the basements. 2000 of them perished. So many people died at once that they dug mass graves around the church. Then the church was blown to smithereens by cannons.

There wasn’t as much left of the buildings as I had imagined- I had pictured a great Victorian house with a few bullet holes in it, dust covers over Victorian chaise longues like at Miss Haversham‘s. In fact it was less intact than many roman ruins I’ve seen. There were a lot of bullet holes though, so I got that bit right.

The most interesting feature was the chipmunks. They had the run of the place, and peered at the tourists with distaste.

Our ride to Varanasi was very wet. The rain started by ‘blattering‘, and quickly moved on to ‘bucketing‘, with ‘sheeting’ straight afterwards. My saddle-sores had their own personal saddle-sores on their behinds.

The ride into Varanasi centre could neatly have been packaged for tourists as an exciting suicide mission. There was certainly no room for boredom. We span around and around trying to find the right ghat. I tried hard not to panic. Billions of tourists, village mourners, pilgrims and Saddhus filed past us, trying to avoid the enormous cows blocking the galis. (‘Galis’ is the name given to Varanasi’s alleyways. Fittingly, it is quite similar to the word for ‘bollocks’.)
We parked up, and were instantly surrounded.


Varanasi is the spiritual centre of India. The Ganges flow past 80 separate ghats (steps down to the river). The ghats are mostly used by pilgrims to bathe in its purifying water. Some of them, however, are used for cremations. Certain pre-purified bodies have no need for cremation and are tipped directly into the river, upstream from many bathing ghats. Along the river, over 30 sewage works pump straight into the gurgling stew.

The water apparently contains 1.5 million faecal bacteria per 100ml. In water safe for bathing the number needs to be less than 500.

After we arrived, we wandered down to the ghats for an evening stroll. We watched a corpse engulfed in flames, his skull clearly visible. Later I dreamt about him.

We chanced upon a Ganga Puja ceremony, when temple priests offer fire sacrifices to the Ganga in a highly ritualized ceremony. There were entire villages of people in town for cremations, watching from the sidelines. Inbetween them, beggars, Saddhus, and beggars imitating Saddhus, wandered about looking for alms. A priest provided haunting Hindu chanting and tabla music.
We chartered a rowing boat and slowly swam past the ghats in the early morning the next day.

The bathers were plentiful and varied. I wanted to distribute hygiene leaflets, but didn’t think it would go down too well.

The ballooning, skinless corpse of a buffalo floated past us. (Adam said it smelt like his old fish tank. This worried me.)

A dead dog was having its back pecked off by a crow. It bobbed in a relaxed fashion.

Some small boys leapt off the top of the steps.

People use the water for every conceivable purpose.  Saddhus perform Pujas next to it, women wash saris, children leap about, and every generation splashes about in it.
The water of the Ganga purifies and heals. Many ill people travel enormous distances to heal themselves here. We watched a very old ill-looking lady with a shaved head submerse herself in the grime. She had a drip attachment on her hand, and submerged that as well.

There is a more sober side to Varanasi. It is believed that to be brought here at the time of death guarantees a certain entrance to Nirvana. 
There are three burning ghats along the river. 

Cremations are public and not very ceremonious. There are often three or more cremations happening simultaneously, as the bodies must be cremated within 24 hours in India, and there is enormous call for the burning ghats here.

As we wandered past, a priest raked through the ashes of one cremation whilst family members looked on. He found a charred hand in the ashes, and picked it up with sticks to drop in the river. There was no visible reaction from any on-lookers.

We saw a man’s face emerging from one end of another pyre. He looked serene. At the other end his foot fell off, charred. It dropped to the ground and someone pushed it back into the flames.

A crowd had gathered by a small ghat. A body, covered with ceremonial pink silks, was lowered into a rowing boat and weighed down with sandbags. Three men rowed out to the centre of the Ganges. Suddenly, quite without warning, one of the men stood up and tipped the body into the water. They rowed back to the shore.

The cremation ghats, despite being macabre and strange, were peaceful places. There was a still atmosphere. There was no outward, dramatic display of grief. It was part of life.

Walking past extended families bathing gave me an unnerving sense of mortality. All the young kids, splashing about, would wrinkle and age, and become the old generation of quiet, unflappable bathers. Then in turn they would be the bodies on the pyres.

I tried to think of an equivalent cultural experience in England.  I failed.  Adam suggested tea and crumpets, but somehow I don’t think that quite cuts it.

Before we left, as we strolled back in the evening, we watched a group of young trainee monks play cricket on the ghat-side. The ball often ended up in the water.

We left Varanasi the next day.  I wanted to stay.