Shivapuri National Park, Nepal
Ride to Nowhere
I felt a stinging pain and then something wet behind my ear. I tried to reach around to confirm my suspicion but the constant bouncing and swaying of the bus made it impossible at that moment. I was currently on top of a Nepalese bus that was careening around narrow mountain bends at speeds too fast for the current conditions and was holding on with both hands for dear life. From time to time I had to duck or lay to the side in order to avoid the low hanging jungle vines and branches and at other times I had to hang on with all my strength in order to simply stay on top of the bus. Then as we reached a straight section I let go with my left hand and touched the tender area behind my left ear. Sure enough it stung and my finger came away sticky. I examined my finger and considered the implications. My hands were too dirty to distinguish the brown stains from the ground in dirt and grime. The alternative was to lick my finger and determine if it was blood. I have read many times that blood tastes coppery, but then again, what does copper taste like? As we approached another bend I forgot about the licking test and grabbed the luggage rail and hung on.
How do I end up in these predicaments I wondered? The scabs and bruises from the Thailand dirt bike ride had just healed while the new injury from the boulder at Langtang was just starting to form scabs, and over the past three days my shins had acquired a series of deep cuts and scrapes that were unwashed, open, and bloody. Now I was tumbling around on the roof of a bus, on a narrow mountain road, while the local vegetation scraped and clawed at my arms and head. I was starting to resemble a dirty battered rag doll. Perhaps pain-relieving products like CBD UK would’ve been handy.
This predicament started out as a simple query about mountain biking around the Kathmandu valley by Ale (Alessandra Radaelli) last week. I agreed in principal and asked her to buy a mountain biking map and to determine a route. I also agreed that a two or three day ride would be acceptable. I then promptly forgot about the plan while I prepared for a trek in Western Nepal later in the next week. Then on Friday morning Ali met me for breakfast on Helena’s rooftop, the highest restaurant in Kathmandu. It was an unusually clear day for the first time in a year and we could see the distant mountains of the Ganesh Range.
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Over breakfast we determined that her potential riding companions were all too busy and would probably not be able to make it. Rather than wait around for possible riders I proposed that we finish our chores and simply set out at 2pm that very afternoon. Then we could at least reach the village at the west entrance of the Shivapuri National Park before the end of the day. This plan would let us complete the hardest (in theory) part of the ride on the first half day and ensure that we had a place to spend the night. Then on the following day we could simply (in theory) traverse the width of the park to reach Chisapani, and then spend the late afternoon on a long descent to Nagarkot for the second evening.
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Then on Sunday we could have a leisurely time riding around the Dhulikel area before returning to Kathmandu. The plan was agreed to in principal and set in motion.
Precisely at 2pm Ale rode into the parking are of the Kathmandu Guest House as planned. We strapped her small day pack to her bike and then I tested my rental with a few spins around the driveway before announcing that we were set, and then off we went.
The ride out of the city, to the northeast road, was uneventful and mayhem as expected. On the outskirts of Balaju the world slowed down considerably as the paved (and potholed) road climbed steadily along the side of a preserve. This section of road serves as both the north exit to the valley and a lover’s retreat. The sides of the road have many shady rest areas with young Nepali couples sitting, hugging, and looking out over the smog filled valley below. Given the strict social rules of the society and the practice of arranged marriages, there are few places and opportunities for young people to publicly display affection, let alone sit together unchaperoned, so the area buzzes with young love and motorcycles.
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We plodded on up the road at a steady pace and ignored the snuggling youth and their scrutiny (few Nepali ride bicycles for pleasure and even fewer would volunteer to ride up the steep road and out of the valley).
As I had promised Ale, we reached the pass and cleared the valley fairly quickly and easily. We then rode downhill a short distance to have a snack at the Osho Retreat Restaurant before starting the long and difficult part of the ride. I had ridden this section on a motor bike before and my memory told me that there were some steep sections, but riding a motor bike is not the same as riding a push bike uphill for the next three hours to reach the second pass. The ride was hot when in the sun, and very warm when in the shade. We stopped to take frequent breaks, and Ale kept asking how far we were from the pass. I kept responding that it was just around the next bend, but I think she knew I was simply hoping rather than stating a fact.
Around 5:30pm we finally crested the second pass and then made a sharp right up a smaller side road that doubled back and then continued to climb up the ridgeline towards the east. After another hour of steady steep uphill progress (always in first or second gear) we reached the tiny village of Kakani where 5-6 run down guesthouses vied for our business. After a careful inspection of the views we settled on the Kakani Inn. We picked it also because it offered mountain trout on its menu. We had passed a number of fish farms along the road on our ride out of the valley and had agreed that we should try and find a place that served fresh trout for dinner. As always, the concept sounded better than the implementation.
That night we both ordered fresh trout for dinner and then waited while they fried the fish to the point of shoe leather. My trout turned out to be a number of small ones, fried to the consistency of fried sardines, and included more heads than could be accounted for. Ale’s was also fried beyond crispiness, but at least the number of fish heads matched the number of skinny fish on her plate. Oh well, at least I could now scratch fresh trout dinner off my Nepali wish list.
After dinner we settled into our dingy room and hard beds. We were only about 12km from Kathmandu and already the conditions resembled a high altitude trekking guesthouse (no hot water, one outside squat toilet, no shower, stinky bedding, and bug infested rooms).
The next morning we were up early for the outstanding views and then spent the next hour taking photos and filming while waiting for a promised breakfast of fresh strawberries that didn’t materialize. By 7am we had given up on the strawberries and set off for Shivapuri National Park. We reached the un-attended entrance by 8am and after a few phone calls by a local and our threat that we would enter the park without a permit if the attendant didn’t show up, we were led to the office and then provided with a 250rs entrance permit. We then began the long, exhausting, wonderful, and exhilarating mountain bike ride that we had anticipated. The trial wound high and to the back side of the park (the north border) for 12km of single-track forest trail that was more of a trekking trail than a riding trail. Yet with our mountain bikes and determination we humped our way to the east for the next hour and a half to reach a dirt road just above a junction that led off in five directions.
After sitting at the junction for a while and asking directions from the various locals who waited for a jeep ride, we determined the correct direction in order to cross the park by the backside (north border) road to Chisapani. We spent the next two and a half hours riding on a dirt road that would be classified as a 4WD trail only in optimistic terms, and yet two buses did grind their over-loaded chassis past us before we reached the high pass around noon. Once again the ride was spectacular, with distant views of Manaslu to the west, the Ganesh Range directly to our north, and the tip of Langtang to our east. Other than the two buses and one jeep, the trail remained deserted and the sounds of sub-tropical birds shrieked in accompaniment to our panting.
Beyond the pass the trail became extremely rocky and dropped sharply until it leveled out about half way down the mountain slopes that fell in sections until reaching the valley far below. At this stage the road became very sandy and wound sharply along the stone slopes of Shivapuri Mountain (2732m). We scrutinized the outline of the road as it cut through the green jungle canopy to the east with apprehension. The day was wearing us down, we were thirsty (we had had to fill our water bottles from a few local streams, but still remained low on water), hungry (we had no supplies beyond some dry snacks Ale had thrown into her day pack), and our distant destination of Chisapani was not intended as our night spot, it was just a third of the way to our intended destination and yet we were still many hours from it. In the best case it was going to be a very difficult day and very unlikely that we would even reach Chisapani before dark.
Then things got more complicated as we reached the army check point near Roiche. The soldiers refused to let us continue along the road and informed us that the bridge had long ago been washed away and that the road was now closed. After much arguing they agreed to let us proceed so that we could verify what was obvious to them. They also warned us that there was no other route to Chisapani and that we would have to turn around and re-trace our route back to the cross-road if we wished to cross the park. We ignored their advice and spent the next hour dragging our mountain bikes along an overgrown foot trail to a sheer cliff. Reluctantly I had to agree that there was no way to cross the chasm, nor was there any sign of a trail on the other side, so turn and back-track we did.
Once back at the check point we considered our options. It was now after 3pm and there was no way we could ride back to the cross-road and then out of the park to find a place to spend the night before dark. Plus we were both hungry and thirsty. The only option was to follow the dirt road that lead down into the valley and to the east. Then hopefully we could find a way up and out of the valley to reach Chisapani before it got dark and hopefully find a place to spend the night.
The ride down into the valley was fun, tiring, and a worry. It was a worry because the way down was so steep that I knew that the way back up and out of the valley would be unbelievably difficult. My fears proved founded when suddenly the road ended near the bottom at a small mud house.
We got off the bikes and spent the next half hour trying to converse with the locals who spoke only a few words of English at best. From what we understood, there was not main trail out of the valley to the east. There was a very steep footpath (that we could see) that wound up the steep cliffs. It was clear that it would be difficult enough to walk up that trail under normal circumstances, but carrying mountain bikes at this late stage was out of the question. We even discussed hiring two water buffalo to carry the bikes up the trail, but none were to be found.
After more hand signs and questioning stares, we determined that there was a daily bus back to Kathmandu from a village to our west, called Maidan, but to reach it we would need to retrace our route back up the dirt road to the army checkpoint and then drop down into the valley on a different track further to the west. It was now 4pm and Ale confessed that she was exhausted and doubted that she could make it that far, and certainly not before nightfall. I agreed that it would be a ball-buster, but we had no other options under the circumstances. We were so far into this dead end valley without electricity, guesthouses, homestays, or roads, that our options were nil.
I did try to recruit some of the local young men to act as porters and push-ride Ale’s bike back up the road, but they bulked at the idea. Clearly they were smarter than they looked, so off we went back the way we had come.
A short distance up the road I spied some women working in a terraced field so ditched the bike and crossed over to them via a foot path. They stared at me as though I was a celebrity or escaped circus animal. Based on their wonder I guessed that very few Westerner’s were foolish enough to end up in this remote valley. I smiled a lot, pointed along the trail to the west, and repeated the word Maidan a few times. They all agreed and confirmed my direction. I then returned to Ale and the bikes and suggested that we follow the foot path across the almost horizontal terraced fields, rather than spend the next few hours climbing to trace a long arch up and then down to the west. She agreed wearily, crossed a small steam, and followed me along the narrow footpath that headed west. The route was generally flat except at the end of the terraced sections where it rose or dropped to a different terrace. By riding the horizontal sections, and either pushing, pulling, or carrying the bikes across the junctions, we managed to reach Maidan by 5:30pm.
We entered the town from the fields to the amazement of the locals and the excited children who treated us as thought we were apparitions. And as promised, we did indeed find a bus. My inquiry of the men playing cards near the bus confirmed that it did travel to Kathmandu daily, but that the trip for that day was complete. It would leave again for another round trip the following day at 10am. While I confirmed the departure time, Ale set out to find a homestay solution (and to avoid the drunks that had congregated around me).
In time Ale returned to tell me she had secured a room above a barn and a meal of Dahl baht for the evening. I extricated myself from the drunks and then spent the rest of the evening sitting on the dirt porch, next to the barn, trying to read while one last drunk pestered me like a persistent mosquito and children buzzed around Ale and her camera. There was no electricity in the town, not even solar lights, water was limited to a single public pipe from a mountain stream, and the dirty, snot-nosed kids reflected a remote and primitive lifestyle, and yet we were no more than 25 km from the capital city of Nepal.
We woke up early the next morning determined that we should take the bus back to the cross-roads junction and then simply ride out of the park to the south, following a new dirt road that would lead to the Kathmandu Ring Road. After a breakfast of tea we grabbed our bikes and headed for the bus in a swarm of children and laughing women. Our laughing stopped when we reached the bus and discovered that all the seats had been sold. Ale was livid and refused to accept defeat. She wanted a bus ticket, even if there was no seat to be assigned. I indicated that I would be happy to sit on the roof of the bus with the bikes rather than fighting for a space on the floor or the lap of an old lady. The ticket seller reluctantly agreed to the modified terms and price (we asked for a 50rs discount each since we did not wish to ride all the way into Kathmandu). After exchanging money and smiles all around I loaded the bikes onto the roof and then we retired to a shady spot to wait for the scheduled departure.
The issue over the tickets proved to be mute, since people continued to show up until the bus finally pulled out around 10am. Even then, children gathered along the side of the road and clamored onto the sides, back and top to get a free ride as it lumbered along at a ponderous 10-15km hour. At intervals the conductor climbed out and chased the freeloading kids off with a stick. They laughed and jumped around like monkeys and enjoyed the excitement even more. I guessed that this was a daily ritual and perhaps the only entertainment in the area.
The ride up the winding dirt road was frightening at times and exhilarating at others. Yet throughout the grinding, bouncing, twisting, and leaning ride, I kept wondering if it was wise to be on the roof of an over-loaded and poorly maintained bus being driven up a winding mountain dirt road by a kamikaze driver. I kept telling myself that the bus traveled this same dirt road twice a day, and that it had to be safer now, in the dry season, than later in the wet season. Yet frightened and exhilarated I remained as I held on while the bus leaned precariously over the dirt lip of the road and out into space during its slow crawl to the horizontal stretch of road that crossed the park below the Shivapuri summit.
Yet reaching the horizontal road did not end my dilemma. It simply changed the fear of one type of bad event to another type. Now, on the horizontal section of road, I feared that I would be clawed and scratched by the overhanging vines and bushes until I resembled a scratched and clawed victim of a jungle cat or alternatively that I might simply be knocked off the roof of the bus to be left broken and senseless on the side of the road. Both possibilities were very likely at the rate that the bus was traveling and the disregard that the driver had for the sound of branched whipping the top and sides of the bus.
So there I was, with fresh scratches on my arms, blood trickling down my neck from a cut along my left ear, and thoughts of Picasso in my head. Yet releasing my hold on the luggage rails and climbing down was out of the question. The bus was full to capacity and at least I was free up here to jump off if I felt like it. At least on the roof I had options.
Around 1pm we approached the cross-road junction and I breathed a sigh of relief. The bus came to a grinding halt in a cloud of dust and disgorged sweating people to watch as I untied the bikes from the roof and handed them down.
Once on the bikes we waved farewell to the driver and sardine passengers and we began a leisurely descent out of the park and back to the comforts of Kathmandu.
By 3pm we ate our first major meal, in two days, at Momo Star and by 4pm I pulled into the Kathmandu Guesthouse where I ran into some friends who looked at my dusty, scratched, and disheveled state and asked, “Where have you been?” I smiled, and responded, “Nowhere.”
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