Taking off from Pokhara, I easily found the Siddhartha Highway. This road was constructed in the 1960s, providing some much-needed employment for the two thousand Tibetans that ended up in Pokhara, having been relocated there from refugee camps near the Tibetan border. (After the Chinese invasion in Tibet in 1950, the peasants and nomads in the border area initially weren’t too bothered by the political events in faraway Lhasa, but after the occupation turned violent and the Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959, thousands of them fled south. The camps soon got too full, so the Swiss Red Cross moved them to transit camps around Pokhara, where only much later the situation picked up because of work opportunities on the Pardi Dam and the construction of roads.)
The road was beautiful and quiet, probably a result of the newer road that takes a detour, but doesn’t go through the hills. Less curves and less potholes make it attractive for trucks and buses, but on a motorcycle you need a road surface of no more than a metre wide, and curves are actually considered an advantage. The road winds through the hills to reach its highest point at Tansen after crossing the Kali Gandaka river, then descends to Butwal and on into the Terai, the plains that border on India. When I left Pokhara, I was hoping to reach Lumbini in the Terai – the Buddha’s birthplace. Seemed a fitting place to stay after a day’s riding on the highway named after his “worldly” name.
However, when the shadows grew long and the light turned grey, my map told me that my present location, the village Waling, was only about halfway to Tansen – which, I’d been told, would be the first place with accomodation. Not very keen on letting go of one of my good resolutions on the very first day – no riding in the dark if at all avoidable – I found myself lucky: there were a couple of hotels just a few metres from where I pulled over. I picked the cheapest one of the two very similar options. Apart from the swallows nesting in its restaurant, it was nothing special and not exactly clean, but it provided a place to sleep and they served me an excellent plate of dal bhat, lentils and rice.
Early the next morning I told the cockroach in my tankbag it was time to go, pushed my bike out of the shop where it had spent the night, and accelerated onto the foggy road. Riding through the clouds, between the lush green hills, I felt a little stiff, cruising in second gear at 30 kilometres an hour. A few hours later I found myself leaning through curves at 40 in third gear, apparently relaxing into the ride. Had another fantastic Nepali breakfast in hotel Nanglo West in Tansen – these people really know how to fry their potatoes.
The friendly Canadian (that may be a pleonasm) I shared a table with had just returned from a walk up to the top of Srinagar Hill and claimed he saw snow peaks! Not wanting to miss the opportunity to finally verify the existence of those legendary and elusive mountains, I trudged up in the hot late morning sun, and was stupefied as soon as I got up there.
They exist! They actually exist! It’s not a digital-photography trick! So big… Very far away and still towering over everything, though towering isn’t actually the right word – nothing intimidating about them at all, they just sit there being high and white and rugged and majestic. A half finished concrete tower provided an excellent viewpoint. (As well as a breeding ground for a colony of enormous insects, a bizarre cross between wasps and giant ants, in a very skinny, stretched out way. If you know what I mean.)
Got back to my bike and was mildly relieved though not at all surprised that all my luggage and helmet were still there, and rolled down to Butwal. Ate my Nanglo chocolate roll (after dropping it onto the dirt, thank goodness for the three second rule) somewhere on the way in a spot with a beautiful view on the river (and full exposure to the now really baking sun – where were you in Pokhara?). I’m afraid a full month in Nepal didn’t get me any closer to understanding Gordon May’s love of Nepali cakes. I guess I just didn’t find the right bakeries.
Got to the Sonauli border without any further adventures. Sonauli is basically a bustling South Asian village with lots of people running in all directions, lots of truck honking as much as they can, and lots of dust. You have to really want to visit the border posts, actually make an effort to get stamped out of Nepal and into India. At customs the Nepali plates on a bike (“vee-HYE-kll”) ridden by a Dutchman with a carnet issued in England caused some confusion, but after a good one and a half hours I was wished a happy journey and advised to ride on to the next village, about 6 kilometres away, where they would actually have cash machines. This information discouraged all the money changing touts that were waiting for me outside, and I rode off optimistically.
In Nautanwah, the two first cash machines were hidden behind discouraging-looking shutters. The third one was located behind a large crowd of shouting and dancing Sikhs. I parked the bike and was invited into the police booth for tea and a chat and a great view of a Punjabi police marching band, the maitre leading his men into an elegant and sensual dance with his big fanfare cane. If the Dutch police force would have only the smalles measure of the swing of these guys, Holland would be a different country. Finally made it to an ATM, then, after filling my practically empty tank, I realised I would not get to the next village as it was already dark. finally, after a lot of getting lost, I arrived at a dirt cheap but somewhat dubious lodge very near the ATM I visited hours before.