The Nepal Motorcycle Diaries
The first five minutes spent playing chicken with traffic in Nepal bursts any romantic bubble or Long Way Round fantasies you may have about crossing the country on the back of a motorbike. Reality check: it’s scary and loud, and the only wind in your hair is the dirty black smoke being emitted from every diesel and two-stroke engine you pass.
For the next 11 days, I’ll be circumnavigating this tiny mountainous nation, taking in a range of hand-picked highlights. With an experienced local guide in the driver’s seat, and a support vehicle carrying most of our stuff, this trip gives intrepid travellers an in-your-face authentic experience of some of the globe’s most famous landmarks.
We slalom along the four-lane highway, dodging the potholes and wandering animals that litter our route out of Kathmandu. Buffalos walk blindly into the road and goats bolt from side alleys. A truck passes closely and we swerve to avoid making a fresh corpse out of a cow.
“You get fined if you hit one of those,” hollers Sunil from somewhere under his helmet, purple cap and Ray-Bans.
As we ride into a winding, narrow laneway, a vehicle ahead of us hits its brakes hard and one of my six companions, John, a guy from Sydney who’s riding solo, veers to the left to miss it, landing sideways in a ditch. Although he’s not hurt, it’s a reminder that this is not your regular out-of-town excursion. The risks of ultimate freedom are real. The excitement can come at a cost.
Back on track, we finally replace big tokes of CO2 with large lungfuls of alpine air. Emerald fields come into view, and little huts the colour of dried biscuits spread out on the hillside. Pewter-grey boulders pepper the side of a rushing river we follow all the way to our first official pit stop.
The Last Resort is exactly that – the final place to get your kicks before hitting the Tibet border. Located three hours away from Nepal’s crowded capital, it’s a stunning spot with comfortable safari-style tents set up along the water’s edge, and numerous hair-raising activities. Here you can run river rapids or go canyoning, mountain biking or hiking. Try canyon swinging, do a forest ropes course or, at 160 metres, brave one of the world’s highest bungee jumps.
As if to encourage – or deter – visitors from actually attempting the leap, the only thing connecting the road to the actual town and tents is the bungee bridge itself. Walking slowly towards the platform, my palms like ice and my guts in a mess, I pass pint-sized men and women lugging baskets of rocks, bags of cement and a variety of vegetables.
“How many times have you done this?” I ask the guy who is now shackling my feet. “You crazy?” he laughs. “Never. See how high this is?” I pray the multicoloured Tibetan flags stretched overhead in an arc are just there for decoration. Then I shuffle close to the edge, raise my arms level with my shoulders, dive forward and let the silence swallow me.
The next morning, the rush in my body has subsided to a gentle buzz, and a heavy downfall of rain has brushed the valleys with a glossy sheen. We wave goodbye to our camp and say hello again to our choice of steed – the Royal Enfield Bullet.
A symbol of British and Indian manufacturing pride, the Enfield is one of the world’s oldest motorcycle brands still in production. The Indian police and army once used them to patrol the country’s borders, considering it the most suitable bike for the job thanks to its super-cushy seat.
As we bounce along the ‘road’ – a painful 12-kilometre avalanche of rocks and pebbles (the Nepalese version of gravel) heading to the border town of Kodari – tall, leafy trees give way to glorious Himalayan mountains, leathery faces grow rounder and pink cheeks more plump.
On arrival we shuffle through hordes of sherpas and people with packages containing undetected contraband (I’m told beer hidden underneath sleeping babies is popular) to the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge, the link between Nepal and Tibet.
On the far side of the thick white line in the middle of the crossing are 20 or so stone-faced Chinese guards in perfectly pressed attire, standing in front of a penitentiary-like compound. On the Nepalese side, there are a couple of guys milling about in shabby uniforms, next to a landslide of rubbish and a truck depot.
A young man suddenly appears, waving a large umbrella at me (odd, seeing as the midday sun is cranking and there’s not a rain cloud in sight). More guys arrive, all wildly yelling, pointing their brollies at my hands and looking very unhappy. It occurs to me that it’s the camera I’m holding that is causing the ruckus. After several failed attempts to quell their excitement, and to avoid getting arrested for being a spy, we leave for Nagarkot, a one-night-stand type of town that counts Mount Everest among its nearest neighbours.
Sometimes Nagarkot boasts spectacular sunrises and glimpses of the world’s tallest peak; other times the clouds close in and you’re left to do the walk of shame back to your hotel. Unfortunately, the latter is the case for us this morning, although the iridescent sky behind the outline of the Himalayan peaks and the sight of tiny villages on the hilltops still make the trip worthwhile.
Over the next two days, we rattle along the often-hazardous roads with the rumble of the four-stroke, 500cc engine as our soundtrack. Sometimes we ride for three hours; sometimes we ride for seven. Sometimes the road is good; sometimes it’s non-existent. Often, the towering pines and burnt-orange spring hues make it easy for me to forget where I am – until a woman walks by heaving half a tree and a hamper of stones strapped to her forehead.
Every hour or so we stop to drink tea, stretch our legs, play carrom board (a table-hockey-like game) with the locals and admire the views. It’s time well spent getting to know my companions better, including Junesh, our tour leader, whose knee-length dreads make him look like a mishmash of Bob Marley and Lord Shiva, and 23-year-old Sunil, the owner of the back I’ve been hugging for the past few days.
Somewhere between wandering the cobbled streets of Bhaktapur with babas on bikes and monks in the latest Nikes, and elephant trekking and dodging horse-drawn carts in Chitwan National Park, I actually begin to believe there’s method to all the madness on the roads. I now don’t blink when we turn into oncoming traffic and I’ve perfected a new seated yoga pose.
On day six, I discover that the best place to be with heat exhaustion is anywhere but on the back of a motorcycle in Nepal. My brain rattles around in my skull, my kidneys jar every time we hit a pothole, I’ve developed a two-pack-a-day habit from all the fumes and I can no longer feel my bum. Sunil affectionately pats my leg every so often, either to check I’m OK or to check I’m still there.
Eventually I retire to the comfort of the support vehicle, where I sleep off my highway hangover much to the dismay of my driver, Arjun. “I am 54,” he says, touching his nose. “Can you believe it? I look 25. Because I drink a jug of tea to clear the head every morning and then 30 minutes jumping up and down. You could not possibly look this good!”
The peaceful, pilgrim-rich town of Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, comes at just the right time. After a little temple sightseeing, quiet reflection and rest, I’m ready to hit the highway again.
“My wife, she vomit on this road,” Arjun attempts to reassure me the next morning about the 200-kilometre drive ahead (our longest yet). “More than 100 times. Up and down, and round and round, always twisting, always vomiting.”
Though the road is, indeed, very twisty, the fresh oxygen, pretty valleys dotted with hot-pink rhododendrons, which make me think of Provence in France, and near-vertical 3000-metre slopes are plenty to keep me enthused.
Eight hours later, we ride with black faces, totally beat, into Pokhara where we are met with a queue that’s 20 motorcycles long and four bikes deep at the petrol station – the sign that a fuel strike is on the cards (a recurring crisis here). With locals forbidden to drive the following day, unless they want to risk the police confiscating their keys, we find ourselves a bit stuck.
Fortunately, Pokhara is not a bad place to hang out for couple of days. Situated next to the beautiful Phewa Lake, the town marks the finish line for the Annapurna Circuit trek and is the start of a dozen or so more hikes, rafting trips and paragliding tours.
As Asia’s answer to Queenstown, New Zealand, it is the perfect place to drink a few well-earned Everest beers and take in the spectacular 8000-metre frosty tops of Annapurna, Annapurna II and Machapuchare, or the Fish Tail, from the air. Although, as I find out, when you catch a good spin-worthy wind and mountain view during your paraglide you then land at the Feel Great Restaurant not actually feeling all that great.
With our last days on the Enfield – and in Nepal – drawing to a close, and with the strike having emptied the streets, we ride effortlessly to our final destination: Royal Beach Camp. A ‘kayak clinic’ and rafting retreat with tents and thatched huts set up on a sandy beach next to the sea-green Trisuli River, this place is outdoor living at its very best.
There’s a distinct change of pace here. Days disappear in a haze, with afternoons spent battling icy water in rafts and evenings lost while gorging on momos (steamed dumplings) and sucking back beers in the open-air beach cabana. Bonded by dust, drama and the driving experience of the past two weeks, we recap the highs and the lows.
Over 11 days, we’ve ridden more than 2000 kilometres on dirt roads, potholed roads and no roads. During this time I’ve: seen just two speed zones, one working indicator and zero street signs; suffered everything from bruises and blisters to sunstroke, exhaust poisoning and dehydration; upset a posse of umbrella-waving border guards; thrown myself off a bridge; and been paragliding in the Himalayas.
As someone who also spent his fair share of time doing things tough with a bunch of bikers once said: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: ‘Wow – what a ride!’” I’m with you, Hunter S Thompson.