Two wheels and a silly road
“The often dramatic Siddartha Highway winds through a series of landslide-scarred valleys between Butwal and Pokhara with spectacular Himalayan views. ... it is also regarded as one of the finest and most scenic motorcycle journeys in Nepal.”
The lonely planet guide for Nepal is, unlike its new Indian counterpart, completely useless and inaccurate, except for the above statement.
My erstwhile travelling companions, the three Dutchies as they have become affectionately known, and I, decided that while the weather was none too inviting in Pokhara, we would take the opportunity to ride this famed highway to the south of Nepal in search of sun and spirituality at the birthplace of Buddha at Lumbini.
What the Lonely Planet fails to acknowledge about this motorcyclists paradise is the inability to rent a bike with anything above a 150cc engine, so, with suitably inappropriate bikes for mountain switchbacks rented, we set off early on the first day headed south, bound for the charming town of Tansen, ninety kilometres down the highway.
Exiting touristy Pokhara we immediately began to climb and descend down, up, and around the mountains and valleys that make up central and northern Nepal. I had done the route in reverse on a bus twelve days before but being on a motorbike, albeit one without much desire to propel two people up any kind of incline, was a completely different experience. Swinging around tight bends, beeping for the oncoming buses and reckless trucks brought stunning new views around every corner. These breathtaking views were brought about by the fact the road hugs the side of the mountains, meaning to one side you have sheer rock, and on the other a sheer drop off to the valley below. A mistake here would prove why this road is ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world for motorists.
Stopping early in a tiny roadside settlement we made ourselves understood and received hot tea and omelettes for breakfast. This would become our regular breakfast routine over the coming four days, sometimes we got Chapatti, others not, depending on whether we could communicate or not!
It was a Sunday so we were lucky to avoid heavy traffic for most of the day, stopping regularly for Rober’s eager camera trigger finger, and my addiction to Massala Tea. Although our road was classed as a Highway, as with my bike trip through India previously, you never quite knew what was around the corner. Often riding was bliss, swinging around well tarmaced smooth mountain roads we were often lured into believing we were riding the Alps, only to round a bend and find the road had changed into a single track gravel pot holed trail for a hundred meters. But these things just heightened the sense of adventure. We really began to feel we were experiencing some of real Nepal, away from the comfort of Pokhara and its touristy lakeside.
That night we stopped in Tansen, which is a delightful hill town halfway down the highway. It is neglected by tourism and is all the better for it. We spent the evening wondering the steep cobbled streets and eating Chaat from street vendors. Chaat is a delicious little handful made up of a spiced potato cake, some chick-pea dahl, curd, black pepper, spiced onion water, and crispy bits on top. For 15NPR (10p) a pop, it was absolutely delicious.
The following day the highway took us through Butwal and down onto the flat plains that make up the border lands with northern India. Turning right we followed the signs to the hallowed village of Lumbini and the World Heritage Site that marks the birthplace of the chubby guy with a big smile they call Buddha.
Lumbini is tiny but has three very separate parts to its whole. First is the Lumbini Development Zone, a rather industrial name for the peaceful gardens set aside for the celebration of Buddha. Within this garden-like sanctum of 4km by 2.5km lies the Maya Devi Temple, the birthplace of the enlightened one, and a large number of Buddhist Temples built by governments worldwide to honour the sacred location and meaning to Buddhism Worldwide. Next to the main gate leading into the gardens is Lumbini Bazaar – the one street stopping point for visiting tourists. It was here we stayed as it is the location for all of the four budget hotels existing in the vicinity. The street is home to ever present craft traders, local eat houses, and due to its proximity to spiritualism, a higher than average number of dazed hippies, wandering aimlessly in their flowing multi-coloured garments and dreadlocks.
The third part of Lumbini, and my personal favourite, starts where Lumbini Bazaar ends. Where the tarmac of tourism parade finishes is an almost invisible line, and once crossed a subtle step back in time takes place. Down a short open dirt track exists Nepali Lumbini. Clay walled hovels sit side by side with livestock sheds, men in Nepali hats sit drinking Chai, and women in vivid colour saris chase children and clean their pots at the entrance to their homes.
One of the three Dutchies, Iris, decided to say on a couple of days to explore the peace of the place. The rest of us felt a real sense of disappointment with this revered domain. The LDZ is beautiful, but it’s a money making enterprise and it’s all a bit wishy washy, right down to the fact that the sacred pool next to the temple built to honour Buddha, is empty and green and unloved.
Inspired by the Lumbini of the locals, the three of us set off at 6am the next morning. Heading back to the main road, instead of turning right for the Siddartha Highway, we carried straight on, on a dirt track and into rural Nepal for the first time.
For the next three hours we puttered slowly along dirt tracks watching the fields of this rarely visited area come to life. Men in loincloths yolked old white Oxen to their ploughs and set to work on the mustard fields. Pink and Yellow dressed women carried huge bundles of rice and mustard on their heads between field and home. Young boys watched over the prized family Buffalo as they drank in streams, and old men and women sat in their doorways and watched as we slowly took it all in.
Stopping around 8am we were welcomed into a small tea hut made of mud. Given tea and a pastry dunker we became the focus of village life for half an hour. This was a Nepal we had all wanted to see and as a hot sun rose over the fields we had got our wish – it was a truly special morning.
Sadly, the track ended and we turned right back towards the Siddartha Highway, bound once again for the snowy peaks in the distance. For lunch we rode out the other side of Tansen and were treated to Dhal Baat with a view. Perched at the top of the hill, the welcome clear blue skies afforded views 150km North to the Annapurna range. So far in Nepal my views had been restricted due to changeable weather, finally it seemed, this was about to change.
Fuelled by our love of the days sights we headed ever North stopping in the less than notable Walling for our final night.
The next day we woke freezing and headed into the mist. For two hours we shivered round the final few twists and turns before finally, with an hour to go, the clouds parted, then cleared, and Machapuchare appeared clearly in front of us, goading us on, and welcoming us back into a Pokhara bathed in hot sunshine.
With half a day left on the bike hire we dumped our heavy bags at our beloved Century Guest House and rode the steep 6km up to the tiny village of Sarangkot. From here we sat on a roof top in hot sun looking out over an uninterrupted view of the whole Annapurna range, east to west. It was a magnificent end to a magnificent motorbike trip. I had loved having some riding time on my own for the last two days, all of which had been great fun and, as the lonely planet promised, one of the best biking roads I have experienced. It was however the morning of the third day that will linger in all of our hearts.
Much of rural Nepal is hard to explore, and where routes have opened up, so have the tourists followed. And this is not necessarily a negative, Pokhara’s tourism is comforting and a real haven after adventure and exertion, but for one morning we were welcomed into a world that was just going about its business in the countryside, and that will remember us as much as we remember them.