Foothills of the Himalaya

Nepal part 1 | Kathmandu to Besi Sahar | day 124

When dreaming of Nepal, my mind conjured up snow covered peaks, long suspension bridges over massive rivers, and barren desert landscapes. To my surprise, much of the country is a hot humid jungle complete with palm trees, dusty vertical roads, and endless valleys of cascading rice fields. Small villages speckle the steep walled valleys, most only reachable by foot. It quickly becomes apparent, nothing is easy in Nepal.


Passports are stamped, we have officially entered the land of mountains. Sixteen hours into our bus ride from Varanasi, with seven more to go. The bus breaks down on Nepal’s dusty highway. But with a scrappy bus crew of five Indians, we’re not too worried. Olivia continues to shoot death glares at our driver as we unload, still bitter about being charged a ridiculous and unwarranted fee to load our bikes. The crew starts pulling tools out, unscrewing pieces and moving parts. An hour of tinkering and, voila, problem solved. After borrowing some gas from a passing bus we are back on our way to Kathmandu!

A mere twenty-three hours since Varanasi and we’ve finally arrived in the largest city in Nepal. Exiting the bus we mentally prepare for an onslaught of taxi drivers pestering us. We step off, a single driver politely asks if we would like a ride with respect to my personal bubble, we look at each other stunned and shake our heads no. Wow, what a difference! The streets are relatively clean of piles of trash, cows and their feces are missing, people are speaking at a regular volume, and honking is at a minimum. A welcomed breath of calm air.

  


Wanting to avoid Nepal’s only highway to get from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar, the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit, we opt for the jeep-track back road. A route we have very little information on, but are certain will bring us though small villages nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya. The route begins with a nicely paved climb out of the Kathmandu valley, eventually wind our way up to Arughat, and pass through Gorkha, the old capital of Nepal.

Reaching the top of the pass, we peer into the misty cloud-covered hills below. Each valley is carved out like steps, with green and yellow terraced rice fields extending from the valley floor to the clouds. The villages are similar to those we saw in the rural plains of India: straw roofs, rickety wooden buildings, and colorfully painted homes. Palm trees are popping up as we submerge into the jungle and things are really starting to heat up. Plummeting down the valley, the dirt road runs along side the tempting Likhu river. The road is dusty, and the air thick. With few words, we divert to the rocky beach below for a mid afternoon dip. 

  


“I can’t believe any vehicle can actually make it up these roads,” I think to myself with sweat pouring over my face as I push my bike up the zillionth hill for the day. At one point our GPS reads 18% grade, Nepal = steep as shit. Nepalese roads go straight up, no switchbacks, 4x4’s can barely scramble up these roads. The monsoon season leaves the roads in deep despair, rooted, rocky, and narrow with little government funding to maintain them. Our knees desperately miss the expertly graded roads of India.  

"Each valley is carved out like steps, with green and yellow terraced rice fields extending from the valley floor to the clouds."


Large swings made of bamboo and rope nearly catapult children into the clouds. Dashain celebrates the victory over the goddess Parvati and is the longest and most auspicious festival for Nepali. Every village has constructed a large bamboo swing right in the center of town at least twenty feet tall. Swinging during Dashian is meant to take away ill feelings replacing them with rejuvenation. In the evenings we see silhouettes swinging back and forth, higher and higher as we ride by.  

"Large swings made of bamboo and rope nearly catapult children into the clouds."


We sit underneath an awning after finding a cold drink in a tiny village. A couple of locals join us as they inspect our bikes, pushing our tires with their thumbs. An elderly man with good English asks, “Where are you from?” He is the local teacher of all ages and all subjects. While wearing his brightly colored traditional Nepalese hat, he tells us about the epicenter of the earthquake just across the valley from where we sit. Pointing at the different metal shacks and temporary homes that surround us, he briefly explains the difficulties since the disaster and how the village is rebuilding itself. 

Since the start of our ride from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar we have heard about the Nepalese government and the handling of the earthquake relief. Most people claim they are not getting the relief money they were promised, and view the government as corrupt. We do see many fancy SUVs labeled “UN” or “UNICEF” with people dressed in suits riding by. Every village we ride through is full of temporary shacks made of corrugated aluminum and homes under construction. Crumbling mud and brick homes and piles of bricks are a common sight. Large signs depicting collapsed buildings note the removal of the rubble just one month earlier, I have a feeling things looked very different just this past October.  



Day three: we pass through many villages with huge lines of parents with their children. Once a year the government gives 4,000 rupees, $36, to each parent with a child under five years old. People hiked from the hills and surrounding villages, young child in tow,  to collect their $36; enough to help feed their child for the entire year. Harry, a father who has just gone through the line, sits with us for our mid day noodles. He explains how lucky he is his child is still five. Hearing this sheds some light on the difficulty and poverty of living in rural Nepal.  



Scribbles of trails, footpaths, and small unmarked jeep tracks wander from village to village. Gazing into the golden sunset with hills cascading upon hills, it is hard to comprehend how each valley is full of people. A large contrast from the sparsely populated Himalayas of Ladakh, with few roads and three people per square kilometer.  

"Scribbles of trails, footpaths, and small unmarked jeep tracks wander from village to village."


Navigating in Nepal can be confusing. For example: there are districts that encompass many villages, and individual villages named after districts.  

“Where is Katunje?” 

“Yes, you are here.” with a smile. 

True, we are indeed in Katunje district, however Katunje village is over the next big ass climb, five to ten miles up the road. 

The sun is setting and we are slowly deducing we have taken the wrong unmarked side road. Unfortunately, we left our camping equipment in Kathmandu to lighten our load for the upcoming Annapurna Circuit and require accommodation this time around. A group of men on the hilltop work to rebuild a monastery that was destroyed during the earthquake. Disakey, one of the older men, tells us there is a guest house in his village and motions for a younger man to escort us. We walk to the back of a quaint village and the boy points to an unassuming shack, “Guest House,” he says. This was all the assurance we were given before he left and we went to knock on this random door in a random village in Katunje District, Nepal. A young girl, who speaks impressive English, takes us in and makes us dinner. She is the computer teacher at a near by boarding school and barely 21.  



Into the heavy morning fog we start climbing a gravel road, that turns into a grassy path, that becomes double track, that transforms into a dirt trail. “Is this really the right way?”

“… there are no other options, into the void!”

The void turned out to be a fantastic ride; sometimes a grassy trail in someone's backyard, sometimes a four foot wide cobbled pathway on the side of a field and by the end we were hoisting our bikes over a handful of stairs leading to a suspension bridge amidst the blazing jungle. 



Bhotewodar is a congested village seemingly a bus hub, but full of fruit vendors and MoMo stalls. We walk into a restaurant and poorly signed guesthouse at the end of town. The walls of the dining room are covered in photos of honey hunters, people who climb cliff-sides to gather gigantic honeycombs. Dipak, the owner of the guesthouse, is a honey hunter and tells us of the Gurung tribespeople who climb long ropes at the nearby Cliffside. He selects a jar of “Magic Honey,” from the refrigerator and places it in front of us. 

 “Just one small spoonful, this is special honey. Fresh honey. More than a spoonful, you will feel drunk. Too much, you will hallucinate.”

Magic indeed! We only had small spoonfuls each since we had bike riding in our future. 

"Fresh honey. More than a spoonful, you will feel drunk. Too much, you will hallucinate.”
 


Here is a short Documentary about the Gurung tribespeople by Raphael Treza:


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