NEPAL: PART 1 - HIGHWAY TO THE HIMALAYAS
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY OLIVIER DE VAULX
With all the fuss about Mount Everest, the tallest summit in the world, Nepal could easily be reduced as being merely a base camp for avid climbers. Yet, this small country stuck between India and China has a lot more to offer. Sport is big in every form here, from hiking to mountain biking to para gliding, but it’s mostly the culture and the peacefulness of its inhabitants that makes it a world class destination. Better yet, there are still parts of the country that escaped mass tourism. The Upper Mustang, at the extreme end of the valley that bears its name, just next to the border with China, is one of these little gems. Only accessible with a special permit, this hidden valley will be our quest in Nepal and our excuse for a deep motorcycle exploration of the foothills of the Himalayas.
Christophe Noel, owner of the travel company FarXplorer and our guide for this adventure, saw the potential of the country many years ago. He then moved from the richest country in the world to one of the poorest ones, leaving the Rocky Mountains of his native Colorado for Kathmandu. A bold move that was easier to understand after our 10-day motorcycle trip in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Landing in Kathmandu after an uneventful 25-hour flight from California, it’s time to stretch our legs and get a glimpse of the local culture. Walking through the many historical neighborhoods of the metropolis, the rich history of the kingdoms of Nepal is hard to ignore. With 80% of the population being Hindu and the rest mostly Buddhist, temples are everywhere. Westerners like ourselves are welcomed to admire the wooden ornaments, the massive sculptures and the delicate architecture. But it would be silly to reduce the spiritual life of Nepal to the shape of these buildings, as beautiful as they are. The Nepalis live their religion on a daily basis, and it takes very surprising forms for those who are curious enough to look behind the scenes.
Suzan, an official guide and the first woman to achieve this position in the city, explains to us that behind the door of this modest building, stands one of the holiest individuals in Nepal: we’re about to meet a Kumari, a living goddess! It’s an honor that very few tourists ever experience. In a small room painted in red, a 10-year old girl is sitting on a throne. Worshiped by both Hindus and Buddhists as the incarnation of the goddess Durga, she’s waiting for us to kneel before her to receive her blessing. It’s a surreal encounter, one that was only possible thanks to the many contacts, like Suzan, that Christophe knows in his adopted country. More common, but no less intriguing, a visit to the Pahupatinath temple makes us witness to the most incredible scene: families who lost a loved one are gathering here to say a last farewell to the body before cremation, which takes hours. On the stairs, tourists and Nepalis are watching in silence. Then, they disperse in silence and go for a walk in the park, home of thousands of impertinent monkeys and a few old and colorful Shadus.
In the streets going back to the hotel, there are more colorful scenes than we have room to describe here: women in beautiful saris sifting rice, old men playing cards, vendors selling veggies and dry fish… we even admire the incredible skills of the last potter to use a manual pottery wheel in town. He’s 78 and has been at this job since his 16th birthday, he says with a ton of pride in his sparkling eyes.
Visiting Kathmandu could suffice to fill the need for exoticism of most travelers, but we’re motorcycle riders and that makes us different. The next day, we fly to the next big city of Pokhara and discover with satisfaction Christophe’s fleet of Royal Enfield Himalayans.
The perfect bike
Sitting on the famous Indian adventure motorcycle for the first time, you notice the low seat height, which is definitely a positive point, the nice dashboard, the easy-to-use center stand. Starting the engine and jumping into the traffic, where people drive on the left of the road, doesn’t give a lot of time to get accustomed to the bike. Luckily, the smooth power and the long first gear makes sneaking into the crazy Nepali traffic a breeze. There are thousands of motorcycles, with a ratio of at least 10 bikes per car. The speed is slow but the flow is almost constant, with no red lights or stop signs. Truth is, there are basically no rules to follow here, and every driver and rider tries to keep moving forward, honking to make their presence known to the others, pedestrians and cows included. This may sound apocalyptic but it works surprisingly well, especially once you know that it is considered normal to cross any intersection without slowing down, or to pass slower vehicles in blind corners. Since everybody is doing their best to avoid others, the dense traffic doesn’t seem to cause any accidents on our way out of the city. After all, it’s not really different than the four way stop signs we have in the US, where drivers are supposed to be courteous and let others pass by order of appearance. The pavement itself has the expected potholes and patches of gravel, but also people stop in corners to have a chat, and animals cross with no warnings. The meager power delivery of the air cooled 411cc Indian mono-cylinder is plenty enough here, since riding at any speed above 40 miles/hour in these unpredictable conditions would really mean looking for trouble.
Fields and jungle
Riding slowly is not only safer but also gives us time to enjoy the scenery. Since we have to ride through a rural area of fields and jungle forest before reaching the Mustang, we might as well enjoy it. On the mountain side of the road, a luxuriant tropical vegetation takes up most of the place, almost hiding the colorful houses behind their impressive leaves. However, on the left side, we have a perfect vantage view of the thousands of terraces used by Nepali farmers in this region. Our first stop for the night will also be our first night of camping. Christophe’s crew is already here, and the tents are set, next to a portable toilet and shower. That looks like luxury camping, especially when we are served a ton of delicious food by the cooks. The Dal Bhat, a traditional meal that we will get everyday, consists of a portion of rice in the center of the plate, surrounded by small bowls filled with chicken curry, veggies, soup and various spices. This is tasty, and since Nepalis love when we ask for more, we forget any idea of diet and stock-pile calories like our lives depend on it. With our super-cold-rated sleeping bags reaching their limits in the frozen temperatures of Nepal nights, we wake up early in the morning, shivering and already starving for breakfast. Quick advice for food lovers: you should consider living in Nepal, where even doing nothing can burn calories faster than you can eat!
The Nepali highway
Getting closer to the Lower Mustang, the pavement disappears and is replaced by a rough dirt road. Despite the ground clearance of a street bike and suspensions that are too soft up front and too firm at the rear, our Himalayans handle the gnarly terrain quite well. Between tight corners, rocks, holes, whoops, mud holes, incoming traffic, and narrower paths near the cliffs, there’s never enough room to go fast, which suits us perfectly: better safe than sorry here, and nobody wants to visit the nearest hospital. We end up riding most of the time in second or even first gear, at speeds that would feel ridiculously slow in the US but are definitely fast enough here. It feels weird to use the word « speed » to evoke riding at about 25 miles an hour, but coming from a developed country where dual sport bikes are used for recreation, we have to adapt to a new reality. Here, dirt doesn’t mean fun, but just slow and rough travel. This is true for us as well as for the hundreds of Nepalis that are using their small motorcycles or mopeds to travel daily on these trails, often with a pillion. With our Royal Enfield bikes, built in India, we’re blending in with the flow of local motorcycles, happy to ride vintage machines and not flashy motocross weapons. We are used to honking now, either to signal an overtaking or to say thank you when a truck waves us to pass. Gaining elevation, the cliffs become steeper and the drops get deeper. The ride, even at this slow pace, can be scary and technical at times. Good thing we can easily put two feet on the ground!
Traffic jam on a cliff
At the top of the toughest climb, we witness the most surreal scene: buses are stuck in a huge traffic jam, vehicles coming from both directions facing each other in what looks like an inextricable stalemate. Using our torquey engines and our low center of gravity, we manage to move our bikes around the first vehicles, to reach the epicenter of the disaster: two buses are face to face, their wheels almost on the edge of the cliff, with little hope to move any further. Judging the situation desperate, the drivers don’t even seem to attempt anything more. Having a different perspective, meaning selfishly trying to pass through this mess without waiting, I am able to talk them into moving a few inches in each direction, which unlocks the situation… at least for us, motorcycle riders, who can now make our way around the heavy vehicles. Down the hill, we’re not out of our misery as we find ourselves stuck behind other buses going at a turtle pace on the rocky trail. It looks more and more like the Nepali version of rush hour on a California highway, and we have no choice than to follow the flow. The young locals, who are visiting their own country with small street bikes, are showing incredible patience and record everything with their phones. TikTok stickers are everywhere. When the traffic finally eases, it’s just a matter of time before we reach our next camp for the night, in the backyard of a tea house. These buildings are the blessing of travelers and are found everywhere in Nepal. Part grocery store, part restaurant, and part hotel, they offer most of what you need after a long day of riding - except any kind of heater, wood and gas being scarce here and electricity relying solely on solar power. But the hot Dal Bhat of the day is here to help survive the cold night, while the bottles of hot water that we will later take with us inside our sleeping bags are being prepared. Tomorrow is the day we enter the heart of the Lower Mustang, and we will be ready!
TRAVELING IN NEPAL
Visiting Nepal requires a simple tourist visa for Americans and Europeans alike. This document can be obtained online nepaliport.immigration.gov.np/online but you’ll need to pay a $30 fee at your arrival. The flight itself will probably be one of the longest you ever experienced, like our 25 hour flight from LAX, with one stop in Qatar. It’s not a deal breaker though, as it gives ample time to sleep and get ahead of the jet-lag.
Once in Kathmandu, you can start enjoying the welcoming attitude of the Nepali people. You’ll like the favorable change - one dollar buying 130 rupees. Aside from the tap water, that you’ll avoid drinking and replace by sealed bottles or filtered water, there are no specific health issues. Check if you’re up to date with your vaccines, see www.nc.cdc.gov for recommendations.
Riding in Nepal is probably doable on your own, if you remember to ride on the left side of the road, and avoid the monsoon season during June through August. However, even if almost everybody speaks English, renting a bike, finding insurance, and getting a proper itinerary will probably take a while. Then, there’s the question of where to refill, where to sleep. There are no signs on the road, no good maps, so things can get tricky real quick. It seems easier to travel with people who have a true knowledge of the country, like Christophe Noel, the boss of FarXplorer www.farxplorer.com. He can organize everything from an individual trip to a custom group tour and his crew, from the cooks to the mechanics, is the best it can be.
On the tourist side of things, he can literally open doors you didn’t even know existed. Overall, it might cost a bit more, but you’ll get what you paid for, which is a more in-depth experience.
For Nepal: Part 2 - Wandering the Lower Mustangs: CLICK HERE