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…

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading that

    brought back fond recent memories of the places

    I got a jeep to Darjeeling and the bumpy road was just annoying - wouldn't even like to think what it was like on a bike!

    As for the railway - I went on it! Once you're on the rails rather than driving over them it's lovely. Saying that we were derailed by a dog...


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