Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Taking the High Roads

Oli took a little longer to come back with the Enfield than I had predicted, but was pretty sure the delay would just have been down to him chatting with the owner. How wrong I was. It turned out that the bike had been handed over on the last vapours of petrol, a few measly fumes in the reserve tank. They gave Oli directions to the nearest petrol station, but alas it did not make it. He ended up pushing the thing along the road and up a hill, before eventually arriving at the pump as a sweaty mess. To add insult to injury, the petrol attendant managed to overfill the tank, soaking Oli's crotch with fuel (this is not the first such incident, as he also experienced multiple dousings in Armenia). Poor Oli returned back to the guest house in a dishevelled state and absolutely stinking of petrol. He was sent straight to the shower.

Feeling better after his wash, we completed our packing and got everything sorted for the next day. Our guest house had kindly offered to keep our surplus luggage there, so we could travel into the mountains with minimal weight. We wandered down to the main backpacker strip of Pokhara, and loaded up on excellent food. We would need our strength for tomorrow's ride.

We set off in the morning full of enthusiasm and feeling ready for anything. It is currently the festival season in Nepal, and this day was the one dedicated to dogs. People had placed garlands of colourful flowers around the necks of their pets, and also on many of the street dogs. Seeing big, tough looking mountain canines happily going about their business whilst covered in decorations was both a comical and lovely sight.

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Getting out of Pokhara went fairly smoothly. It is coming up to election time in Nepal, and the country is in a flurry of political activity. We got caught up with a few marches whilst escaping the town, and were granted passage past them. Despite our lack of a decent map, people were always more than willing to help, and happily pointed us the way to Tatopani whenever we asked for directions.

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Once out of Pokhara, the road quickly became rough and ready, a thin snake of asphalt running down the middle, evidently the only part not ravaged by trucks. We wound our way through beautiful countryside, watching the rice harvest in full swing. The quality of the road declined further as we progressed, and eventually seemed to end, becoming a grassy and rocky track. We were pretty sure we hadn't missed any turn-offs, but managed to find somebody to ask for directions. We were dismayed to see that he was pointing us back the way we had come, but hoped we had not missed the road by too much.

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Imagine our horror when he stopped a little way down the road and pointed to a footbridge, happily announcing that this was Tatopani. After a short exchange limited by our language barrier we got news that nobody would want to hear. There is more than one Tatopani, and to get to the one we needed it was necessary to go back to Pokhara. Brilliant. We arrived back to town three hours after our initial departure, and were firmly back at square one.

There was now no way we were going to make it to Tatopani in the light, but we decided to push on anyway, as apparently there should be places to stay along the road. We made good progress up to the town of Beni, but after here the road became far more difficult. As we neared the town, we saw a group of children, who hurriedly blocked the road in a chain as we approached. The oldest looked around 10, the youngest cannot have been older than four. They excitedly told us that we needed to pay them to continue. It was as adorable as banditry can possibly be, and they were happy when Oli gave them 5 rupees (around three pence). As we drove off, Oli saw them stopping a bus in the mirror.

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After Beni, the road worsened further. Potholes were now the least of our worries, and we soldiered over rocky terrain, crossing numerous watercourses that flowed over the road. Off-roading on an Enfield is a lot more fun for the driver than the pillion, and I was caught between admiring the scenery, being in pain, and being terrified as we rode along.

At one point, we came to a fork in the road, the correct way not immediately obvious. Pausing for a while, we spotted a very faded sign proudly pointing to the left hand road. This looked more minor, but as we pondered a jeep appeared, and without hesitation took the left hand route. Decision made, we ploughed up the very steep hill, struggling up hairpin bends over loose rock. I was not enjoying myself at all. We were starting to be very unconvinced that this was the correct route, and managed to find somebody walking along the road to check with. Of course, we were not on the right road, and should have taken the other fork. Bugger.

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After a few more painful kilometres, we did not have much light left in the sky. We drove through a tiny village, and noticed that a few of the houses were advertising rooms. The room we ended up with was basic by anyone's standards;  Forget en-suite, the toilet here was an outhouse and the only running water was the tap on the street. However, the owners were kind, welcoming and friendly, with the extra incentive of the room costing only £1.50 for the night. It was quite a deal, and we also agreed to eat at their restaurant. We went for a walk as the food was being prepared, and then passed a lovely evening chatting with the owner whilst the power cut out periodically. He had very good English, and enlightened us on a lot of aspects of life in Nepal. We ended up being very glad we had stayed there.

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We set off the next day hoping for slightly better roads, but knowing that this was futile. We slowly progressed along the rough track, the road tyres of the Enfield slipping in the mud. Eventually, we reached Tatopani, to find that our permits did not cover this part of the conservation area. Whilst purchasing the relevant documents, we were warned that the road ahead was far worse than where we had come from. Thinking 'how bad could it be?', we carried on our way, riding through pretty villages. The dogs' day was over, and this part of the festival was dedicated to the cows. As we rode through small hamlets, we saw plenty of these animals decorated with flowers. Some of them did not seem to get it, and were merrily eating the garlands from the necks of their comrades.

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Whilst the scenery remained spectacular, the road did indeed become worse. Imagine how bad it can be, and then imagine again. This was not just off-road, in places it was bare rock, with jagged boulders sticking up randomly, ready to rip holes in any passing chassis. On top of this, in many parts the road doubled as a water course, adding to the excitement. Some parts were just not physically possible two up, so I had to walk some sections, doing motorbiking and trekking in one. The Enfield is not exactly an off-road bike, which meant the task was not easy, although a plus point of its low stature is that it is easy to get a foot hold on the floor. The road continued like this for twenty kilometres, and was the only point so far on our trip that I felt like I couldn't handle the conditions. The most utterly demoralising part was knowing that we would have to come back the same way.

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Despite the extreme road, we are not quitters and eventually the conditions eased. What would have counted as a terrible road for us two days ago now seemed like a treat (see first photo below), and we started to make some actual progress. The scenery was breathtaking, and we trundled along up and down steep slopes, through water courses and over rickety wooden bridges. We stopped for plenty of photos, as it was a good excuse for me to stretch out my aching muscles.

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After an intense day, we finally rolled into the Himalayan town of Jomsom, set high in the mountains. We had ridden only 65km, and it had taken us just under seven hours. I had thought my stamina had been tested on the Indian roads, but I could honestly barely move by the time we arrived. The first guest-house we asked at was very cheap, with the added bonus of an en-suite bathroom. We didn't even bother to ask anywhere else.

Despite feeling near to collapse, I managed to persuade Oli that we should go for a little walk before the light faded. Jomsom sits in a windy valley, with stunning mountain views in every direction. The Annapurna range dominates the skyline with peaks of over 20,000 ft., and their pristine snow-capped tops were mesmerising. We braved the cold and strolled through the village, taking a short detour across a high suspension bridge, tattered prayer flags flying in the wind. It was unlike anywhere we had ever seen before, and I immediately felt glad that we had pushed on. We finished our evening off with ridiculously long, hot showers followed by a hearty curry, before tucking into bed and watching a film on the laptop.

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Our original plan had been to ride to Muktinath the next day, but decided we were happy with what we had achieved. A rest day was definitely in order, and had been thoroughly earned.

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