Saturday, December 6, 2014

Day 12 & 13... Pokhara to Lumbini to Tansen to Pokhara... Siddhartha Highway

Pokhara to Tansen to Pokhara

I set out with the plan to head to Lumbini, birthplace of Siddhartha Guatama, or more famously known as Buddha.  The ride would take me down the aptly named Siddhartha Highway to the Terai, or flat jungle land of Nepal and then it continues into India.

The terai doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me.  I’m a lot less of a jungle person than a mountain person.  To me Nepal is about mountains.  Being home of the largest mountains in the world, it seems silly to spend my short time in this country in the terai, when I can be in the Himalaya instead.

The common motorcycle tour would be to go from Pokhara to Lumbini and then to Chitwan National Park, where one can ride on the back of an elephant searching the terai grasses and jungle for tigers, and rhinos.  And while this sounds exotic and exciting, I feel like these opportunities will exist as well in Thailand, where I intend on spending the next couple months of my journey.  I’m not certain that I will sit on an elephant in Thailand either, but for some reason, I’m not really feeling called to Chitwan on this trip to Nepal.

However the Siddhartha Highway is acclaimed as one of the premier motorcycling roads in Nepal in the Lonely Planet guidebook.  My National Geographic map of Nepal is in agreement as the highway is highlighted in green, which identifies it as being a highly scenic route.

I packed up my things… the daily ritual that accompanies motorcycle travel and one that has become much more rote each go round.  I lashed my three bags to the bike, bid farewell to Placid Guest housekeeper and her lovely daughters, Aanshu and Divya, and rode the “mighty goat” through the now familiar steel gates and down the narrow concrete path to the dirt and rock road leading into Central Lakeside.  I stopped at my now regular coffee stop, The Third Eye Cafe & Restaurant, for a cup of real java, then peeled out of town for the “highway”.

“Highway” deserves to be in quotes.  It was a simple paved road wide enough for two lanes but not a single stripe to identify lanes.  The pavement was some of the best I’ve seen in Nepal so far and it immediately started switchbacking up into the hills that surround Fewa Lake.

Only a few minutes into the ride I was already high up above the city of Pokhara and the sun was trying to break through the haze that has moved into the area.  As I neared the turnoff for the World Peace Stupa, a monkey scampered across the road, jumped up on the concrete guardrail and proceeded to scratch it nuts proudly.  I laughed inside my helmet.  Moments later a giant raptor, likely an Egyptian Vulture, soared over me, feeling only feet above my head.  I could see individual feathers fluttering on its breast as it soared over.  The bird was massive.  I’d seen several of these incredible birds soaring in the distance but this proximity really brought home the incredible size.

I switchbacked over and over in the fresh cool morning air.  Fresh is a bit of a stretch. There was the omnipresent diesel and now the smokey haze, likely a combination of air pollution from burning firewood and probably loads of burning off of farming terraces and probably an uncertain amount of burning trash as well.

Riding with a handkerchief tied over my face bandito style is my new norm.  While this likely doesn’t keep me from inhaling pollutants, it at least keeps some of the dust out of my lungs.  And it makes me feel better about the amount of crap that I’m inhaling as I get stuck behind busses and trucks belching out thick black exhaust.

Luckily the amount of traffic on the Siddhartha was a fraction of that on the Pritvi between Kathmandu and Pokhara.  This road was definitely scenic.  The first couple hours were constant curves through somewhat of a cloud forest.  Thick green vegetation grew everywhere and in every inside corner a stone staircase seemed to climb up out of sight to some abode tucked away in the trees.  After a while I broke out of the green and rounded a corner giving amazing views of an incredible canyon.  The road clung to the cliffside and the canyon plunged down deep to my right.  I stopped to take it all in and get a view down to the river below.

I crossed numerous bridges, each with a white sign bordered in yellow with black letters giving the name in Roman alphabet as well as Nepali.  And the common denominator each time was the word Khola, which I’m assuming means bridge.

There were usually stalls set up selling everything that we’d get at a gas station or convenience store… Coke, potato chips, cigarettes, etc.  I passed through a half dozen little towns as well.

Soon I found the road to be descending rapidly into the dusty, flat, hot and busy city of Butwal.  It was early afternoon and hot.  The smokey haze was thick.  I knew I had better than an hour to get to Lumbini.  I pulled over to the side of the road and consulted my Googlemaps app on my phone and even pulled up some pictures of Lumbini on Google Images.


I decided that was good enough for me.  World Heritage Site or not, the photo ops in this haze would be marginal at best and I simply was not feeling like being down here in the oppressive haze, heat and bugs that invariably come with heat and humidity of lowland jungle.  I decided that I’d let Lumbini be one of those places that I got within a stones throw of and not visit.

I turned tail, heading back for Tansen.  This Newari town is situated on a steep ridge, manages to barely hit the Lonely Planet, getting just a paragraph or two.  Amar, my bike rental guy at suggested that this is a better place to stay than down in Lumbini.  And Lonely Planet suggested that rather than pay high prices for a mediocre hotel, that visiting a gentleman at City View homestays would be a better budget option.

Riding around on the super steep narrow roads of Tansen was a trip.  I eventually found City View and the old man who answered my buzzing of his doorbell, told me he could arrange a homestay next door and that I could park the bike in the entryway to the home.

The room was spartan, but clean enough.  The bathroom was downstairs in an open courtyard’ish area below my room.  The shower was clean enough, though I knew I wouldn’t use it since I had a shower before leaving Pokhara in my nice private bathroom with hot water.  And the toilet, well, it was the squat down kind.  In all of my travels in Egypt, Morocco, and now Nepal, I’ve yet to pop a squat in the “other” kind of toilet.  I’ve somehow managed to “hold it” until a western sit down toilet appears.  My plan was no different for Tansen.

I wandered about on the street looking for dinner and saw a “white” woman walking down the way.  I stopped and asked her about food.  Turns out she is doing her dissertation studies for university here.  She sounded Dutch, but I didn’t ask.  She told me to go try Royal Inn, which also happened to be in the Lonely Planet.

I did.  I had some tasty momos and tried Thukpa, noodle soup, for the first time along with my go to, lemon and soda water.

They had wifi in the restaurant so I also hacked out another blog post.

The restaurant, as well as the rest of town, closed up at 8 pm.  So I went and crashed out in my little rented room.  I slept well in my sleeping bag and liner only to be woken up by everyone using the toilet below, starting at about 5 am.  Turns out this big Newari style house housed more than one family and all shared the same toilet.  And clearing ones nose and throat and then loudly spitting out the produce was the morning routine.  Could be worse… Like the lady who spent an hour vomiting as I was falling asleep.  Win some… lose some.  At least it wasn’t me.

I got up around 7 and went for a hike up in the hills above town, where there was a little park with odd statues to different hindu god and a modern Buddha that on a clear day would overlook the great Kali Gandaki valley with massive snowcapped peaks in the distance.  Unfortunately the haze was omnipresent today as well and the peaks were left only to my imagination.

After a couple hours of wandering around in the forest, I went back and loaded up, had a breakfast of creme filled doughnuts at the bakery and rode the same epic highway back.

Pokhara is a dirty little gem.  It has everything the tourist could need and tons and tons of restaurants.  I got an email from a French-Canadian girl I met in Tatopani, Audrey, who was trekking the Annapurna Circuit, saying she’d arrived in Pokhara and invited me to join her for dinner at a Japanese restaurant she’d heard of.  Nice.  So other than the epic curves of the Siddhartha Highway, I had that to look forward to.  Gotta love technology for making friends and plans while on the road in foreign places so easy.  Having someone to talk to after so many hours spent alone is a real treat.

Divia’s sister was surprised to see me pull back into to Placid Guest House for my third visit now.  But I think she was pretty happy, as the place was empty.  The guidebook said high season comes to an end when November comes to an end, and today being the 1st of December, it is actually noticeable how many less tourists are in Pokhara.

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