On his extended visit to Nepal,Neil Cottam starts by heading into the trickier to reach Rara National Park.
A familiar cacophony of sounds greeted me as I exited Tribuvhan International Airport in Kathmandu. People shouting, dogs barking, horns honking. An acrid mix of post-monsoon humidity, engine fumes, and dust permeated my lungs as I squinted through the haze at the maelstrom of taxis and microbuses. I drew a deep breath, smiled, and plunged in. Kathmandu has a very unique atmosphere. I love it.
Thirty-six hours later I am back again. This time it is Domestic departures, the scene is the same; seemingly disorganised chaos, but one that seems to work, just. Five cyclists, with five mountainbikes, adding to the confusion. After a much protracted discussion, and the passing of a couple of hundred rupees to ensure safe delivery, we handed our bikes over to the dastardly baggage handlers. Fingers well and truly crossed.
A smooth and uneventful flight delivered us to the southern plains city of Nepalgunj. The stunning views, during the flight, of the Himalaya on one side and the directly opposing vastness of The Terai Plain on the other seemed in particularly sharp contrast to the crippling humidity and bloodthirsty swarms of mosquitoes that greeted us on the ground. A couple of rickshaws laden with bicycles wobbled the short journey to a nearby hotel as we strolled alongside. A couple of beers and a plateful of delicious Dhal Bhat (the Nepali staple consisting of rice, lentil soup, various overcooked vegetables, and a few scraps of meat if its available) filled our empty bellies. The warmth of the Nepali people and the thoughts of adventure filled our hearts and our minds.
A cancelled flight kept us in Nepalgunj for two nights. An airport staff unused to handling mountainbikes caused familiar confusion but we eventually boarded the last flight out of Dodge City and swooped towards Jumla in the foothills of the west at 2500m above sea level. It was an experience I have no wish to repeat.
Meat and egg noodles. before we even left i started to get a bit of stomach ache assumed the worst. whizzed down up dusty jeep road all way sinja.
You could tell that we had left the National Park because the place was pretty dirty. After a bit of toing & froing we settled on a place to stay. Choices were at a premium so we opted for the lesser of two evils. Bishnu butchered a chicken and, along with Santosh, commandeered the kitchen. My stomach had settled a bit but I knew something was brewing. Sure enough as we headed to bed I got the dreaded rumbling and had to make a dash for the less than salubrious squat toilet twice in ten minutes. Toilet paper is a rare commodity in rural Nepal and I had to try and master the local technique of splashing water onto the affected area. It is a skill that sadly alludes me. I'll leave it at that.
Our journey from Sinja to Chhala Chaur was a whopping twelve kilometres, virtually all up hill, and hard. Everyone seemed slower today, it seemed that I wasn't the only one suffering from tummy troubles. I definitely had no power in my legs, maybe it was the effects of Delhi belly, or maybe accumulated fatigue; probably a bit of both but I suffered quietly all the way up. I was happy to see the back of Sinja. Bishnu seemed very excited about leaving and yelled out " woo-hoo let go before attempting to bunny hop a small rock. thankfully he failed spectacularly and flew over the handlebars into slightly blooded very embarrassed heap in middle of road. i laughed like drain. certain admiring townsfolk were suitably impressed.
Following classic Nepali directions Bishnu lead us confidently the wrong way. He was having a good day. Santosh and Chandra, who were slightly behind, went the correct way and we all met up at a teahouse somewhere up the trail (after we spent an hour going the hard way up some very steep hills). Nepal is like an everlasting episode of Keystone Cops. Apart from a short but very nice downhill blast we pedalled (occasionally), pushed, or carried, the whole way.
The remoteness and beauty of the valley was scant distraction from the misery I was feeling in my legs. We crossed over many small bridges as we zig-zagged our way up. The bridges were fantastic, each one hand carved and different, and built to last. They were something I hadn't seen anywhere else in Nepal.
Local chicken is one of them it the chewiest non-chicken like in world. mind you eating dhal bhat had been a novelty at start trip but after every day for nine days sheen worn off that too.
Our lodge was a simple affair, surrounded by majestic pine, real rural Nepal, and with the light misty rain that was falling it could easily have been mistaken for bothy in a Scottish glen. It was truly beautiful. In the middle of the night I was woken abruptly by a disturbing rumble. My toilet terrors should perhaps be left for another time, you might be eating. It didn't end well.
Our final day began with a baptism of fire. The hillside climbed upwards at a gradient well in excess of 50 degrees and we huffed and puffed our way up until it eased to a more rideable standard. An abandoned jeep road gave us the option to avoid further carrying and for once we took the easier choice, gliding slowly to our final summit. At the top we pooled our snacks and congratulated ourselves on a job well done; then mounting the bikes and selecting the big ring we stomped our way down to Jumla like Steve Peat on steroids (In our minds at least).
It had been a great adventure. The trails, the scenery, the divine splendour of Rara Lake, and of the course the company of good friends.
I'm now back in choatic Kathmandu enjoying the hedonistic pleasures of city living; coffee, beer, perfectly delicious Blueberry Cheesecake, and riding with friends.
My plans for a recce trip in The Upper Mustang before Yak attack have been scuppered by bureaucracy. It all seemed so simple - buy a permit and bugger off; not so. Two international permits ($500 each) and an official trekking guide are required, so that little adventure will have to be enjoyed during the race instead. My alternative plan to embark on a training and acclimatisation trip to Manang, high up on the Annapurna Circuit, has also seemingly sunk in the waves - an over-the-bars incident on an innocent social ride means my bruised and very sore back needs time to recover before the masochistic pleasure of tackling the worlds highest mountainbike race.