Pokhara - Kathmandu - Nagarkot
I had planned a very early start to my day of course. And of course, my day took its own course... regardless of my plans.
My alarm was set for 7:30am, but unfortunately it was set to “silent”. By the time I realized the alarm should have “gone off by now”, it was already 8:30. I rallied and packed quickly and was out of the room by 9:05.
I still needed to have breakfast. I decided to go to my other regular restaurant, Lemongrass. I’d seen that they have bacon on the menu yesterday while I was there having a lunch of fried Yak cheese… anyone see the pattern here? It has been chilly, I think my body feels it’s time to put on some winter weight or something.
I ordered up the American Breakfast with fried eggs, hash browns, which are homestyle potatoes with green pepper and a fire roasted tomato, bacon, muesli and curd, fresh orange juice, and organic Himalayan coffee.
It took a little while for my breakfast to come out. I chatted with a friend on Facebook while I waited. It was really good to know that someone was following, and enjoying, my journey with me. And it is always great to reconnect with friends, even if only through the electro-digital webosphere.
I ate my breakfast while watching the morning haze burn off Fewa Lake. The water was glass calm. I tried to soak that essence in, since I knew the moment I got on the bike I was going to need every bit of calm I could muster, while taking part in the 125% concentration demanding real-time rally to Kathmandu.
I had a smoke with a young French guy named Guillerme and made a new friend. He was a rock climber and whitewater guide from the Southeast of France. Super cool guy that I really enjoyed chatting with while I inhaled the last bit of Lakeside tranquility.
It had now become quite late in the morning. It was 11am now. I would be able to make Kathmandu no problem, but depending on rush hour traffic on the ring road, I would possibly be too late to make Nagarkot before dark.
I bid farewell to Guillerme, donned the helmet, bandito diesel buster neckerchief, fired up the “mighty goat” and pulled out of Lakeside heading out of the second-biggest city of Nepal heading for the Pritvi Highway and several hours of madness to Kathmandu.
Leaving Pokhara was a breeze since I already knew where I was heading. I passed hundreds of trucks and busses on the way out along with loads of also passing but slower moving motorcycles.
The landscape was covered in a thick haze of smoke and maybe mist, but I really think it is mostly agricultural burn off smoke. This made for pretty dismal sightseeing and allowed me to keep on a constant rally, untempted to stop and make many photos.
The riding was fully engaging. There are only two lanes of pavement, undivided, and the shoulders vary from nothing, to abysmal drop off, to sometimes dirt, occasionally paved and sometimes concrete drainage ditch. The center line is really just a suggestion and should, under no circumstances, be confused with a division line that defines anything other than that is the middle of the pavement. Traffic will be going in the wrong direction on the wrong side of that line at any given moment. And usually right when you need to get past a much slower moving vehicle.
That brings up a whole other condition of driving in Nepal. Absolutely every type of traffic will be found on the road, as I’ve mentioned before. And I’m starting to see that there is a very loose organization to this traffic. Generally the slower you are going the more left you are on the road. Walkers, yes pedestrians, usually barefoot, will be close to what would be considered the shoulder yet still out on the pavement, appearing to be indifferent to the giant trucks and busses passing literally inches from them. Sometimes pedestrians are just cruising along, other times they are carrying anything from a small alms bowl, to a stack of hay 3x their body size, to several kids, to a prodding stick… which brings us to animals… Animals walk wherever they feel like it. And I’m stunned that they don’t seem to get hit. I think it is the Buddhist and Hindu belief systems that are prevalent in the culture that somehow these animals stay alive as they wander about freely on the roadway, especially cows. Cows are holy and they literally do whatever they want, including posting up and laying in the middle of the highway to chew their cud. Vehicles just slow down and go around them… even if it means blocking one whole lane of the highway.
So that covers animals… Now the next slowest moving vehicles to be found on the roads are the bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, bicycle utility vehicles, bicycle pushers and then come the tractors, tractor carts, then probably the giant lumbering dump trucks, then the lorries, then the busses, then microbuses, then automobiles, then scooters, then motorcycles and then me… on the “mighty goat.” No joke. The Royal Enfield 500cc EFI Classic is the largest and pretty much the fastest vehicle on the road. It has loads of torque, nearly twice the torque than it has horsepower, and can pass very well. I’m really learning to love the bike, for all its faults and shortcoming on the unpaved roads, it really shines through during the constant aggressive-defensive undertaking that is highway riding in Nepal.
So with all these vehicles on the road, moving at grossly different speeds, any journey is filled with constant overtaking. Otherwise what takes me 4 hours on the Enfield, takes 7-10 hours in a bus… it just isn’t possible to not pass. Here is why: the slow moving vehicles that you get stuck behind are the trucks and busses, who are stuck behind the bicycles and the animals. They lumber along at literally walking speed, and then when they think they have an opening to pass, they jam on the gas sending out a deep black cloud of diesel exhaust the size of a small mushroom cloud. This is obviously very caustic and it is the most miserable thing to be caught in on the road. So the key is to make my pass just before they think they can, which requires riding very defensively and aggressively right on the centerline. It takes a certain amount of strength, perseverance and blind faith to do this but after having sucked a lifetimes worth of diesel fumes, one starts to get a boldness for chance that may be an effect of the huffing itself.
The passing often takes place in places where passing is a very bad idea. Namely tight blind corners, uphills, areas of high congestion… you get the idea. It is not safe. But I will say that somehow in all of this total chaos you cannot be timid. And the drivers for the most part are all paying attention. If you are closing in on a very unfortunate situation, like staring at the front bumper of an on-coming dump truck, you need to stay committed and focused on that narrowing gap that gets you to freedom. And god-willing, the oncoming vehicle will swerve away just enough to keep from sending you immediately to that god.
The incredible thing about all this is that it somehow creates a deep meditation for me. My focus is so defined and constant… like 125% concentration, 110% of the time... that I somehow find myself in a zone. There is no gazing off into the landscape, there is no time for pondering thoughts and absolutely expecting the unexpected every moment. The only given is that nothing is out of the question. Literally nothing. A monkey could fly off the top of a truck holding a statue of buddha and land running right in front of your wheel and seconds later the bus in front of you is slamming on its brakes so a woman and her child can hop on without the buss even fully making a stop. So the constant alertness has to be ever present. And I think the only reason that it is not constant carnage on the road is because every driver is in this same zone of concentration. It is just not possible to make it even a single kilometer without being fully committed to the rally race going on all around. There is no room for lack of concentration because if and when it occurs an accident is the only possible outcome. There just is never a time where something is not happening. The idea of just picking a speed and following at a safe distance isn’t even a possibility, really.
Then the shoulders… So I already mentioned that the shoulder is a constantly varying existence in the first place. The shoulder is also a place where just about anything can be going on. It is not considered part of the road. It is a no-man’s land, more appropriately it is an everyman’s land. It is often where clothes will be drying, people will be vending (everything from fresh fish to cigarettes to pillows and blankets… if you can think it up… it is likely for sale on the shoulder of the road somewhere between Pokhara and Kathmandu), the shoulder is also used for cleaning baby’s bottoms, monkeys scratching nuts (only seen once so far), fixing your transmission, changing your oil, putting in a new ball joint on a dump truck, cooking lunch over a burning fire of trash, making tea, having tea, washing dishes, washing clothes, washing bodies, washing… I think you get the point. So only occasionally is the shoulder a good place to pass on the wrong side of the traffic. But if you want to keep moving along and be successful on the road on a motorcycle you need to be open to the possibility that your best option for forward progress is to pass on the outside running the gauntlet of the ever-changing shoulder.
So by now I’m climbing the big pass to Kathmandu. I’ve been through two big junction towns, and been riding non-stop for about 3.5 hours. Actually, I pee’d along the river and took two pictures while I was stopped for a total of less than two minutes.
So after a solid 3.5 hours, I decided that I’d stop at the top of the pass for a Coke before descending into the madness that would be rush hour traffic on Kathmandu’s ring road. I soaked in the sunshine, tried to eat as little dust and dirt as possible and sucked down the semi-cold Coca-Cola. It was already 4pm though, so there was no real lingering to be done.
I got into the malay and continued the constant passing frenzy into the thick of Kathmandu rush hour. I was thinking about how I was right at the tipping point of not making it to Nagarkot by sundown. The traffic was bad but I was making progress by running the gauntlet with all the other two-wheeled traffic just barley missing rubbing handlebars with the bikes going in the opposite direction.
I was really getting into the groove and reveling in the meditation of “anything can happen”... when it did. This traffic negotiation requires a constant clutching, braking, accelerating, swerving, dodging, honking, waving, signaling, flashing, revving… and mostly constant clutching. Which explains why my heart sunk, when in the middle of 3 “lanes” of traffic going each direction, YES MY HEART SUNK… WHEN MY CLUTCH CABLE SNAPPED AND THE CLUTCH LEVER WAS PINNED TO THE HANDLEBARS BUT I WAS NOT SLOWING!!!
That’s ok. No need for panic. We’ve already decided that anything can happen, right? What the F. do I do now? I’m still moving forward under the chugging power of the single 500cc motor… I’m picking a line, unable to go slower than the chugging. I revved the motor and tried to slip the gearbox into Neutral… no luck but I did get it to drop into first, which meant that the bike was now lurching instead of chugging… I saw my gap and made a punch for the dirt shoulder coming to a stop in front of a paused school bus but not overshooting off the three foot edge where they are attempting to add another lane to the ring road. That would have been very bad as there was concrete and rebar and all kinds of other terrible shit down there.
Shocked that I managed this with very little panic, I hit the emergency kill switch (OH Yeah that’s what that is for…) and brought the bike to a stop. My tunes played on in my headphones and I hopped off the bike. There wasn’t even a second of question of what to do now… Amar had given me a spare clutch cable. Looking for help, calling someone, even him, since I was only a few miles from the shop, none of this would result in anything but waiting for a very long time. I pulled the new clutch cable from my dry bag, compared it in length with the existing one, looked at the fittings to assure that it would work and then employed a bit of genius I picked up somewhere along my journeys… I used a little bit of duct tape that was covering a hole on my dry bag to tape together the new cable to the broken end of the old cable so I could easily pull it through the maze of cables and wires without removing the headlight cover to do so. Within two minutes I had the new cable fished through and put into place. Now keep in mind there are literally hundreds of vehicles lugging by within feet. All the rush of Kathmandu right here and somehow I’m in a total zen moment repairing a bike that I know nothing about on the side of the ring road on a dirt and rock shoulder all while a Nepali man silently looks over my shoulder. (That part was almost enough to knock me off my zafu.) I pulled out my Lil-Guppie wrench out of my Carhart pouch on my belt and quickly removed the locking nuts on the old broken cable freeing it, removed the duct tape, fed the new cable into place and loosely replaced the lock nuts. I then slipped the new stopper into the clutch lever at the handlebars, like I’d done it a hundred times, tried not to let the hovering Nepali man ruin my zen some more as I needed to nudge him out of the way to gain access to the other end of the cable, also keeping my third eye on my belongings as this would be a great time to thieve something, if this guy was the thieving sort, which turns out he wasn’t. I now removed my SOG multitool pliers out of its sheath on the other side of my belt, I held the cable with the pliers and pried the clutch thingy over and on the third try managed to hook the cable in place.
I adjusted the lock nuts, put away my tools on my belt, rolled up the old cable, stowed it away, lashed down my gear and fired the bike up in Neutral. I pulled in the clutch (bike on center stand, rear wheel free) dropped it into first and the rear wheel only moved slowly. I pushed my foot against it and it stopped without issue. Now I slowly let out the clutch lever and the wheel engaged. YES!
I did a final check for anything loose on my kit, open pockets, etc., put on my shades and off I went. But there was still a problem… When the clutch lever was all the way out I was only getting part of the bite of the clutch. The new cable was too tight. I pulled over again, and just as I finished making the adjustments, Amar, the guy I rented the bike from, pulled up alongside of me. I proudly told him that all was well and I’d just finished repairing the bike. I asked him if there was enough time to make Nagarkot. He looked at his watch and said that it would be after sunset but probably not dark yet. He told me the way and bid me farewell saying he’d see me on Friday.
I jumped back into traffic pleased that my roadside repair was working perfectly and struggled through traffic for the next 20 minutes until I was soon free motoring towards Bhaktapur and then off into the hills of Nagarkot.
I didn’t know where I was going to stay but didn’t care. I was now on a tiny one lane road switchbacking through terraces and pine trees and the sweaty mess of Kathmandu roadside repairs was far behind me. I knew I could only be bound for greatness at this point. It was getting dark fast. But a three-quarter moon hung high in the sky offering new light as the twilight became night.
I rode past all the hotels and up to the observation tower 3 km’s away. I didn’t know why but I just felt that I wasn’t ready to try to sort out a hotel unprepared. When I got to the observation tower, the kiosk owners were packing up for the day. I parked the bike and asked one of them to sell me a single cigarette. He lit it for me and commented on how cold it must be on the bike. I hadn’t noticed, except for my hands… I was so happy and proud that I’d repaired the bike so swiftly and still made it to Nagarkot. We chatted, he apologized for his English, I told him it was great. I asked about a place to stay and he told me that I should avoid any guides or helpers to find me a place as they would take a big commission. He suggested that I head to Stupa Resort, which would normally be 3000 Rupees but if I was good, I could likely get it for 1500.
I found the place easily, even in the dark, Gurun’s directions were perfect. I started at 1000 and ended up at 1500. Thanks for the advice Gurun. Gas heated shower but not enough pressure to make it work, I ended up filling a big plastic bucket that was there, seemingly for this purpose, with hot water and washed away the day’s grime with a satisfied and accomplished smile on my face. What an adventure 200 kilometers in Nepal can be.