The story so far: Nepal welcomed us with open arms but bad roads, and we made it through Kakarbhitta – Chaubis – Janakpuri – Kathmandu without much incident. It was quite an adventure, hanging on to life as we scaled 45-degree mountain inclines and rode down just as bad descents, with scenic views for company. This post covers the rest of the ride, and the crazy situations I found myself in. To read part one of the Nepal trip, click here.
The road to Kathmandu was a preview of the routes we were yet to cover across Nepal. My tail bone refused to cooperate with my urge to sit down on a soft surface after the ride to the China border; a duck kept me company as I walked in the rain to stretch my legs before getting on the bike again – it waddled alongside making cutesy noises and pecking at unsuspecting people; in Pokhara, we were so bushed with all our previous days that none of us managed to indulge in adventure sports – not even hang gliding; Tatopani was the dream destination with a nightmarish ride to reach it; and Lumbini was sort of alright. When I wasn’t hanging onto dear life or bending over to stretch my back, I was shooting pictures such as these:
The Waddling Duck. Some day, when the duck dies and goes to Domestic Bird Heaven and meets the rooster that chased me in the Trongsa Dzong, they’re going to have such a good laugh about the woman who was a total sucker.
1 Indian Rupee = 1.6 Nepali Rupee. Which means that you’ll feel richer in Nepal. Possibly also one of the reasons why a lot of Indian families holiday there. Unlike Bhutan, people here don’t go crazy behind the Indian rupee. Oh, and 500 and 1000 rupee notes are not accepted in most places because of fraud.
Sekuwa – smoked meat – is widely available and is apparently pretty delicious. It’s an acquired taste for some. Vegetarian food is widely available – the Thakali thali, especially, is available everywhere. Chicken and beef are most common. You’ll find a lot of Chinese and Indian cuisine everywhere, but places that serve authentic Nepali food are a little hard to find.
Varies from basic to luxurious. Water and electricity are a problem, so carry a torch with you. Most rooms are well-maintained, with western bathrooms and water heaters, toilet rolls and towels.
It was pretty hot when we rode into Nepal, but after that it was raining throughout. The weather is mostly pleasant, and bearably cold in the higher regions. I carried six pairs of jeans and plenty of tees. I used floaters for local sightseeing, but for treks and the ride itself, I wore hiking shoes. Carry rain covers for your luggage.
Sparse. Most of it is cultivated land, with a decent amount of greenery on the mountains. The historical monuments are note-worthy, with quite a few world heritage sites in the country.
Not sure, really, because I spotted nothing – no birds, no animals, and definitely no yetis.
Getting there: Delhi is the most conveniently connected metro to direct flights to Pokhara and Kathmandu. You can also fly to Bagdogra and ride from there.
Go if: You want to indulge in plenty of adventure sports.
Nepal… Hmm, I’m really not sure where to begin. I can never separate the journey from the place on any of my travels. Nepal, however, broke the monotony. I am able to clearly distinguish between the journey through Nepal and the country itself – bizarre as it may sound. The reason’s quite simple – my 2000-plus kilometre ride delivered on the promise of adventure and adrenalin rush more than the place itself did.
Don’t get me wrong – the land of Gurkhas is stunningly picturesque in bits and pieces, but the first and most recurrent word on my holiday was not ‘stunning’, or ‘picturesque’, ‘beautiful’ or other similar adjectives. It was ‘impoverished’. It was the first thing I noticed on crossing the border at Kakarbhitta, and continued to notice throughout the ride – throngs of disabled people, an average quality of life, scarcity of water, power shortage, almost non-existent infrastructure… the works. If the country has any riches, I didn’t see any evidence of it. Not even in Kathmandu or Pokhara. I guess that’s the downside of riding through a country or visiting parts of it that do not have the ‘Tourist’ tag attached to them – you discover the reality behind the image portrayed to the world.
So that’s that about the place. Now about the ride… well, I have one word for it too: crazy. 80% of our journey was an off-road one, riding up steep hills, through parched river beds dotted with parched lands, surfaces covered with inches and inches of mud, slush and boulders. I am happy to say that my spine is fine and my butt isn’t in a rut. It was my first off-roading experience, but enough to last a lifetime – I have sworn off off-roading (for the time being at least). And this time, I didn’t fall off the bike even once or get chased by formidable roosters.
That’s about all I have to say about Nepal. I’ll let the pictures and videos work the rest of the magic. Since a lot of the riding was tricky, I shot a lot with my Moto G phone as well. You’ll know the difference. (Or not, because my phone camera is pretty good too.)
A wandering minstrel, Chaubis. The instrument is a type of Sarangi, but what I find most fascinating is the way the sound box is shaped – like a shoe. Imagine this music playing to the thunder and lightning show that the weather at Chaubis put up for us that evening.
How to lose weight while riding. En route Kathmandu. I wasn’t kidding when I said that Nepal doesn’t really have too many tarred roads.
We spent a couple of days in Kathmandu and rode on to the highest point in Nepal, the Chinese border and a hotel at the end of the universe. I had a duck for company (what is it with me and birds??) and two snow-capped days in the lap of the Annapurna range. That, however, is for another post. This should whet your appetite enough for you to look forward to Part Two!
I could say that I was going through an I-hate-the-Internet phase, was wallowing in self-pity after being dumped by an actor whose name I cannot reveal, was working so hard over the last month that I couldn’t recognize my own face in the mirror, or was cryogenically frozen in an experiment to immortalize the city’s most creative people; but only one of them would be true. I’ll leave it to you guys to guess which one, while I give you the news that this post is about – after months of waiting, I’m off on another epic biking trip to Nepal tomorrow. And while I’m there, I’ll be posting live feeds on Instagram under a series I am creating exclusively for the trip. It will be called (*drum roll*)…
… Helmet Girl in Nepal!
There will be tons of pictures and videos under #HelmetGirlinNepal. If you’re on Instagram and not following me, please do, so that Helmet Girl can head-butt her way into your Insta-feed. If you’re not on Instagram, you can click on the feed link on the right of this blog and be a part of everything I see. The only drawback? You won’t be able to like or comment on any of the posts.
There is another alternative too – you could wait for three weeks to catch the post on Nepal on this blog. (I know which option I’d choose, if I were you. Just saying!)
So wish me luck, and let’s pray together that I don’t fall off the bike or get chased by roosters. I’ll see you in two weeks’ time. Bidā’ī Bidā’ī!
Remember my posts on Bhutan, in which I lamented my decision to trek to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery? Despite my earnest desire to go trekking more often since, my loathing for any activity that combines walking with breathlessness and increased heart rate overcame the enthusiasm.
And like all other times when life has made me eat my own words – especially when they involve ‘hate’, ‘don’t’ or ‘exercise’ – this time too, I had to down my loathing with a generous helping of humble sauce. Kemmanagundi is to be blamed for it. This popular-with-government-officials hill station of sorts in Chikkamangalur district cast its spell on a non-trekker like me as well. And my, what a spell it was – lush green hills as far as the eye can see, grassy pathways formed naturally over the hills, flowers in brilliant reds, pinks and blues, and a freshwater spring or two.
The trek isn’t for very long – at least, not if you take your vehicle up to the most accessible point. One can finish it in a couple of hours both ways. I ventured halfway out, and then decided against going any further because the path involved scaling down slippery patches of mountain and I had a big camera bag with me. (Let this be a lesson to everyone.) I am told, though, that the sun setting over the Arabian Sea makes for a magnificent sight.
The trek’s not the only attraction at Kemmanagundi – there are view points, water bodies, temples and more around the place. The most pleasurable bit, though, is the greenery and serenity that comes with it – winding mountain roads with an overarching canopy of giant trees swaying in the wind.
And that sums up everything I have to say about the place – there wasn’t enough time to explore it more extensively, considering it was weekend trip with more time spent biking than exploring. I do say this, though – if a quiet getaway to connect with nature is your thing, Kemmanagundi is definitely a destination to consider.
Getting there: Drive down or bike it – it takes about 6 hours, with stops. The road closer to Kemmanagundi is quite bad, so that takes a chunk of time to get through. There are also overnight buses available. The nearest train station is Chikkamangalur and there are several trains that run every day.
Go if: You enjoy trekking, need some quiet time and want to feel one with nature.
P.S: There are plenty more pictures on my Instagram feed. Check them out to get a bigger picture of what the place is like.
The story so far: Our ride across Bhutan started from Siliguri on the India side. We rode through Phuent Sholing, Paro, Thimpu and Punakha, gathering many fascinating experiences and seeing many remarkable sights. This journey begins at the ride from Punakha to Trongsa. For Part One, click here.
Day 5: Trongsa, 140 km
Saying goodbye to Punakha wasn’t easy, because we had the most fun there. But the ride to Trongsa was one of the most picturesque. It highlighted the different terrains that one comes across in Bhutan. From high cypresses to spindly deodars, pink flowering trees and creepers with snow-white flowers, the mountains had them all. As we moved higher up, the air got thinner and the wind, nippier. Every cell was firing away double-time.
Trongsa is a compact hill town, with one of the oldest and biggest monasteries in the country. The town also has a museum, which I am told is fantastic.
The monastery was walking distance from the place we stayed at – 300 stairs away, to be precise. After Paro, I just didn’t have the desire to exert myself again. Fortunately, others felt the same way too, so we ended up taking bikes to it. The monastery looks pretty intimidating from the outside, almost like it’s touching the sky. All white and oxidised red on the outside, the colour tones inside are mostly blues.
The monastery is home to a couple of cats, the calmest of their kind I have ever seen. As I crouched to take a picture of them sunbathing, I noticed a fiery red flutter from the corner of my eye. It was the rooster.
Thoroughly fascinated by it, I crept as close as I could to take a picture of it as well. It walked around warily, always keeping an eye on me as I went clickety click. A few seconds later, it moved away in the opposite direction while I continued taking pictures of it. Next thing I knew, the sly fox came straight at me like a homing device, clucking loudly and flapping its wings. The cats were watching the whole thing from their place under the sun and everyone else was too busy trying to figure out what was happening: a rooster chasing a fully-grown woman around the monastery courtyard? Really? I ran for a full 30 seconds before someone decided to intervene and chase the rooster away. And believe me, 30 seconds is a long time when you have a more-than-healthy rooster with a razor-sharp beak desperately wanting a bite of your ankle or any other body part it can get a grip on. And boy, could the damn thing run.
Day 6: Bumthang, 90 km
Bumthang was a series of greys, greens and blues all the way. Sunshine was busy playing hide and seek with the houses in the valley, and the people were busy being content.
We visited the local brewery, where they use recycled Kingfisher bottles for their beer. The most prominent feature of the brewery, though, was the seven-leaf cannabis growing in abundance. Mary Jane’s like a weed (pun unintended) in Bhutan; you can spot it everywhere. The law forbids people from plucking/growing it. The fines are pretty hefty – 50,000 Ngultrum and over five years in jail. There’s also a cheese factory, a fruit pressing unit and a burning lake close by in Bumthang town, but we were too late to visit any of those.
Day 7: Mongar, 180 km
Bumthang had given me a glimpse of Bhutanese bird species. While I spotted a few pretty ones, I was clueless about their names. It didn’t help that they were constantly moving, making it really hard to shoot them. That changed on the way to Mongar, though. When we stopped for Maggi (read breakfast), we realised that one of the bikes had a puncture. About an hour and a half was spent trying to fix it, during which time some very colourful birds got comfortable with our presence and went about their flying without worrying about us.
We transitioned from plateaus to mountains again, going all the way up to Tumsi La pass – one of the highest motorable roads in Bhutan. Of course we stopped at the pass for a break. Of course I got off the bike. Of course I took pictures. What didn’t go according to plan was my getting back on the bike again. Because I’m short, getting onto the 500 cc Enfield is like climbing a mountain. I try to appear as cool as possible doing it, but sometimes it’s a serious struggle. On Tumsi La, I almost made it into full sitting position, but my camera bag had other plans. Let’s topple her over by getting snagged on the back seat rod, it thought.
Like a puppet, I proceeded to role play my camera’s wicked intentions. I can see it all in slow-mo now: the leg on the other side of the bike slowly moving up as gravity pulled my other leg – by now suspended mid-air – and with it, my body, to the ground. Before I knew it, I had landed hard on my side. No broken bones, just bruises and a throbbing knee, thanks to my backpack. My elbow suffered a very painful scrape, despite my jacket being on. So, yes, there were cloud-covered trees, the chirping of birds, absolute stillness… And in the middle of the picture perfect setting was me, sprawled on my back awkwardly, wondering what the hell just happened.
The rest of the ride was uneventful.
As one moves along Bhutan, one notices the facial differences among the people. This was most apparent in Mongar, where facial features appeared flatter than everywhere else.
Day 8: Trashigang, 120 km
Pine forests line the route to Trashigang. We stopped for tea on the way and happened to meet a group of medical administrative officers. I got talking to them, wanting to know more about the country from the locals. I was told that education and healthcare are absolutely free in Bhutan. No matter how serious the illness and where you have to be treated for it, the government will sponsor it. It’s the same with education as well, but there’s a glitch to this – you have to score above a certain percentage to be sponsored by the government for further studies. My next question was an obvious one: how does the country manage to sustain itself if these were free?
The answer was hydroelectricity. Bhutan supplies power to India’s border areas and other countries. The water was fast depleting, though, a gynaecologist said. Bhutan was beautiful, but global warming and the democratisation of the country were fast changing that. The king was the head of state, but the new round of elections had new candidates with political interests and a hint of dirty games. This was upsetting news, because by then I had fully made up my mind that I would pack my bags and make Bhutan my retirement home when I was done with the ways of the world. I bade the locals farewell with reluctance, wanting to stay and pick their brains about everything remotely Bhutanese. We continued onwards, stopping on the way near the river Manas for pictures while some of us tried our hand at archery along with the locals.
Trashigang is more Indian in nature and dialect than any of the other towns across Bhutan because it’s closer to the border. It is also the best place to shop for local things. Home to the royal guest house, the hill town offers great views of the valleys and mountains all the way to the horizon, with roads snaking their way around terrains. It rained that evening, and all of Bhutan was a mass of blurry grey, with pitter-patter sounds everywhere.
Day 9: Samdrup Jongkar, 160 km
The border town adjacent to Darranga on the India side, Samdrup Jongkar is mostly a place for traders and businessmen to stop for the night. The vegetation is different from most of Bhutan and resembles the Indian kind more.
Although the mountain views are stunning, the road to Samdrup is the worst of the lot. No surprise that BRO was doing the construction, and we had at least 15 kilometres of really tricky road to navigate.
For reasons that I cannot understand, everybody was on a mission to ride their bikes into each other’s backsides that day. Consequently, the bike ahead of us crossed a speed bump at one point of the journey and stopped, so that we had to hit the brakes really hard. The bike skid and toppled over, taking my rider and me with it. My ankle was trapped under at an awkward angle, but fortunately, the bike was lifted off it before any damage could be done. I was holding the camera, so it fell with me, but that too suffered nothing more than a few scratches. Again, had it not been for my backpack, I would have been pretty badly hurt.
More than anything else, the fall was unexpected. The rest of the journey went smoothly, though, and the view of the mountains against the seven-leafers growing on the roadside more than made up for the mishap.
Day 10: Darranga, 60 seconds
The day we were supposed to cross the border, I visited the Samdrup post office to buy stamps for my dad. Bhutanese stamps are pretty and very colourful, and you must buy some for yourself.
On the walk back, I thought about Leh. About how I was angry to leave because I didn’t want to go back. I evaluated my feelings to see if there was anything remotely similar to it again, but no. The time I had spent in Bhutan was fulfilling and enriching. Most importantly, it was calming. I learnt so much, saw and experienced so much. It didn’t feel alien, and I wasn’t afraid that I would never see it again. Bhutan felt like home. It felt like I would be back. And as I looked back on the mountains, their stillness reassured me of that feeling. I may not go back this year or the next, or maybe even a few years after. But I will go back, and maybe the country will be different in many ways, but still mean the same to me. It will be my retreat to heal and gather myself together.
One sees signs across Bhutan that say Tashi Delek. The meaning of the words is fluid, ranging from ‘welcome’ to ‘best wishes’ to ‘thank you’ to ‘may good things come your way’. When I crossed the border to India, that’s what I said to Bhutan. Tashi Delek, beautiful country, for helping me re-discover myself. And Tashi Delek, so that you may continue to be as content and free and untouched as you are.
Mostly beef, pork, chicken and fish. As you move deeper into Bhutan, fish is difficult to find and replaced by Yak meat. Eggs are available everywhere. Vegetarian options include cheese momos, Maggi, local greens, dal, rice, puris with potato curry and Ema Datshi – the national dish of Bhutan with base ingredients of cheese and chillies.
More or less standard across the country. The rooms are well-maintained, with western bathrooms with water heaters, toilet rolls and towels.
Pleasant. Cold higher up in the mountains. I carried five pairs of jeans and plenty of tees. I used floaters for local sightseeing, but for treks and the ride itself, I wore hiking shoes. Carry rain covers for your luggage.
Beautiful. Many times, you’ll come across breath-taking views as you take a turn on the road. You can also go trekking into the forests. I’ll probably try it next time.
Bhutan is 70% forest and protected wildlife areas. A variety of cats, birds and monkeys can be found here. No yeti spotted to date, unfortunately.
I received a copy of ‘The History of Bhutan’ by Karma Phuntsho for review from Random House India during my trip. It’s a brilliant book with A-Z of everything about the country. I’m reading it right now, and I would definitely recommend that you get your hands on it.
Getting there: There are flights to Bhutan from most metros, but I’m not sure if these are direct or stopovers. Alternatively, you can fly to Bagdogra and ride from there.