Archive for November, 2010

Bangkok culture shock!

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

(Emily) From the moment we stepped off the plane and entered the airport terminal in Bangkok, it was like being on a different planet. Suvarnabhumi International is a huge new construction, with arty geometric windows and endless travelators , the luxury and modernity of such like we hadn’t seen for months! Arriving by plane did nothing but enhance the feeling of being dropped in an alien environ; normally, as we ride through countries from one dusty border to the next, we witness the gradual and subtle changes of the people and our surroundings. Here, the newness of it all was so sudden and abrupt. It was a really strange feeling and we were sad not to have arrived in country number 21 on our bikes, but we were also feeling a childish excitement at bizarreness of it all!

We shuffled along with the rest of the herd through to immigration and were promptly stamped in for 30 days at no charge as expected (we read previously that no visa was necessary under a recent visa exemption rule). This may seem like a boring and unnecessary fact but pay attention, boys and girls, it was to come back to haunt us…  Anyway, having collected our luggage (another impossibly slick process) we followed the clear and informative signs down to the shuttle bus terminal and were helped by friendly members of staff to buy a ticket to the correct part of the city for our hostel. Everything was so efficient, there may as well have been a sign saying ‘welcome to civilisation’ on arrival!! On the ride into Bangkok, we both just stared out of the window open-mouthed at the shiny new cars zooming along on the huge, smooth, multi-laned highways. We’d thought Kathmandu had brought us back into the modern world but by comparison it seemed now like we’d arrived in the future!! On entering the outskirts of the city, our sense of wonder only grew – so many lights everywhere and towering skyscrapers looming on the horizon. There were no dusty side roads, no piles of rubble strewn about, no animals sleeping and foraging in the streets,  none of the sights that we’d come to see as the norm. That such simple things caused us to marvel prompted a realisation of how far we’d come: with the exception of Istanbul, we’d been slowly riding ‘back in time’ since Macedonia. Now it was like instantly coming full circle and the impact of being in such a developed environment after so long left us utterly gobsmacked.

Our hostel was another revelation – it was awesome!! Unprepossessing from the front, we entered to discover a vast super-modern lobby with a real Tokyo vibe going on. The place was done up to resemble a refurbished factory, all steel girders and unfinished wood, but with enough special touches and home comforts to make it welcoming and warm. Our dorm room was the very picture of minimalist functionality and, like everything else in the hostel, utterly clean. (Our standards had clearly dropped in recent months and I think we’d forgotten how clean ‘clean’ can be!) Either way, it was a big thumbs up for Bangkok so far! The next day was going to be a biggie – picking the bikes up from customs – so we didn’t go crazy on our first evening in the city (er, when do we ever go crazy?!) and just wandered down to the Patpong night market round the corner. I was a little taken aback by all the touts approaching with offers of a ‘sexy show’ (think girls performing weird and wonderful feats of biology involving ping-pong balls and other paraphernalia…), not so much for what they were touting as I’d been prepared for that, but that fact that they were shoving flyers in James’ face when we were clearly walking along as a couple. (Amazing how you quickly desensitise though, and the next evening it was already par for the course! They were even approaching me as the potential customer!) We found some fantastic street food – green curry, yum – and had a beer before bed. It was all a bit surreal, almost like being on holiday!….

In the morning, Fabian came to meet us at our hostel and the three of us made our way back to the airport to retrieve our bikes. We travelled by the skytrain (a slightly pricier option that the standard metro but at £1.50 for a thirty minute journey, still bargainous) on Fabs’ recommendation that we experience its sheer immaculate efficiency (he, too, was finding the whole transformation a revelation!) and, still in our wide-eyed state, we were suitably impressed. I particularly loved the sign indicating that you should give up your seat for not only pregnant women and the elderly but monks too! Brilliant! Once at customs (far enough away from the main airport terminal that we’d needed a taxi) we were approached by a couple of guys offering to help us through the process. We knew that Carl and Bene had paid a fixer to help them for the day, and that they had considered the help they’d received as invaluable considering the language barrier, but we decided that between the three of us we should be able to muddle through without assistance. However, the first office we went to gave us a map of the customs depot and, circling various locations on the map as he spoke, the ultra camp clerk effectively said something along the lines of, ‘First go here to get x papers, then go here to get them signed, then return them to us here, then go here for y papers, then take them here and get them stamped, then go here to pay, then go back to this place…’  We began to wonder if we’d made right decision in refusing a fixer, particularly once we’d looked at the first set of papers and discovered that everything was in Thai, but as it turned out, everyone we went to see was so unbelievably helpful that we needn’t have worried; despite turning into a very long day due to the sheer number of different offices to visit and forms to fill in, the whole process was completely bearable, near pleasurable in fact, so friendly and eager to assist were all the staff at customs. Another big thumbs up for Thailand!

The longest we had to wait in one place was an hour but that was only because everything shut down for lunch between 1 and 2 pm, and anyway, it wasn’t a problem as we just went for lunch too – the customs complex had its own cafeteria, café, and even a Seven-Eleven!! (That had certainly not been the case at customs in Kathmandu, or at any of the border crossing posts we’d spent time at.) James was particularly impressed with his huge plate of curry for about 40p, though I don’t think the Fabster’s espresso made the grade! After lunch, we eventually completed all the relevant temporary import paperwork but I spotted that a deadline for export had been recorded (usually the bike papers don’t specify a date) and that failure to get the bikes out of the country within 30 days would result in a fine of several thousand pounds per bike. Crap! This was a bit of a problem – the bikes needed to be in Thailand for longer than 30 days as we would be leaving them in the country while we went to Vietnam (where they don’t permit foreign big engine bikes.) We hadn’t realised that they would match the bike paperwork to the visa stamp in our passport (one month from our date of entry). We explained the situation to one of the senior guys at the customs office who was very understanding – he said that unfortunately he couldn’t give us longer on the bike papers than we had in our passport, but that we could go to immigration in Bangkok and get a visa extension quite easily. Once this had been obtained, customs would be happy to extend the import papers too. A bit of an unanticipated hassle but again, he was so nice about it that it didn’t seem like too much of a stress (oh, how little we knew then…)

It was about four in the afternoon by the time we picked our way carefully between piles of boxes at the warehouse, dodging zooming forklifts along the way, and finally got to see our bikes, or at least the crates that (hopefully still) held our bikes. The warehouse was a hive of activity and we weren’t exactly inconspicuous so we got a lot of a friendly hellos and there were quite a few people gathered to see what cargo we might be here to collect. We were directed to a ‘quiet’ corner (or at least a small space which didn’t have a constant stream of boxes being carried through it) and one by one our crates were brought over by a forklift.  One of the carpenters took it upon himself to come and help get the boxes open with his hammer – good thing he did as we’d have been a bit stuffed otherwise – and, upon prising the lids open, we were happy to find everything present and correct. Phew! It just remained to dismantle the rest of each crate and put everything on the bikes back together again. This was no mean feat, particularly working within the limited space and sweltering in Bangkok’s 30 degree humid heat, and it took several hours (why is it always easier to take things apart than to reassemble them?!) There was consternation on Fabian’s part when it seemed his front wheel didn’t want to go back on (James, having come over to help, eventually spotted that it was the wrong way round!), and then another panic when he thought he’d left the keys to his bike back at his hotel! However, by about 8pm – with any hopes of riding in the city centre while it was still light long since quashed – we were ready to roll. We used the trusty baby wipes to remove what we could of the grease and muck from our hands and changed into our bike gear – thankfully James was wearing his own underpants this time…! (James: Er, can we all just move on from this?!) We then manoeuvred our bikes down one of the loading ramps to the road (luckily it was much clearer by this time as work at the warehouse had finished for the day).

The whole experience of getting the bikes back had been far less difficult, boring or frustrating than we’d anticipated and as I’ve already said, we really were struck by how unbelievably friendly everyone was towards us. Even as we left the compound, the officers who checked our papers  ushered us in to their portacabin to share some of their dinner – so nice! I needn’t have been anxious about riding into Bangkok in the dark either. True, the traffic was incredibly busy and it was a bit alarming to be riding at pace on a four lane motorway for the first time since Istanbul, but the lane discipline and driving in general was so disciplined there was nothing to worry about. We followed Fabian using his gps (James: Uh-oh!…) half way in but once he’d branched off to return to his own hotel in the north of the city, it fell to James’ bloodhound instincts to return us to our district, Silom. He came up trumps as usual, somehow remembering the roads and landmarks from our bus journey from the airport a few days before. He never ceases to amaze me! The guys at the hostel had arranged parking at a nearby hotel so we tucked the bikes in and went off for some late night street food. Job done!

Kicking back in Kathmandu

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

(Emily) So, here we were in Kathmandu with our bikes all packed up and ready to fly. The combination of  having reached ‘the end of the road’ land-wise and being in such an exotic sounding place filled us with both a sense of achievement and a sort of nostalgia for everything we’d come through so far, and we had a bit of ‘we’ve made it!’ moment when we first arrived (conveniently forgetting that we were technically still just over half way through our journey!) Our passenger flight to Bangkok wasn’t for several days and we’d arranged for Suraj to get the bikes on a flight 24 hours before ours (it’s always advisable to make sure your bikes are shipped before you depart yourself so if there’s a problem you’re still around to sort it and not sitting helplessly in another country, but we also wanted to avoid hefty storage charges at the cargo centre in Thailand) so, after spending time with the Esther Benjamins Trust, we still had plenty of time to take in the sights of Kathmandu. It was a shame, really, that we’d crated up the bikes a few days in advance (it was easier to do ours and Fabian’s at the same time and he was leaving before us) as, by all accounts, the Kathmandu Valley offers some fantastic riding opportunities but at least we’d already experienced some amazing roads and scenery in Nepal, some of the best we’d had on the whole trip in fact.

Now, however, we were reduced to being ‘ordinary tourists’ for a while and behaved accordingly by going on a walking tour of the city; although it didn’t quite work out that way when the city map we bought for the purpose turned out not to have most of the key sights, or their corresponding roads, marked on! Even James – navigator extraordinaire – admitted that it was as good as useless so in the end we just went for a wander, hoping to come across some of the main attractions through sheer serendipity. We found Kathmandu to be a bustling, colourful place, perfect for getting lost and going where the mood takes you. Making our way out of Thamel, we enjoyed browsing the craft shops and street stalls for trinkets and knick-knacks with half a mind to Christmas presents, and then, as we strayed further away from the tourist hub, we negotiated our way down narrow lanes where street vendors, bicycles and  mopeds all competed furiously to maintain their own little of tarmac. Every so often an opening would reveal a glimpse of a temple or shrine, complete with offerings of fruit and flowers and incense burning: Nepal is officially a Hindu state (the only one, in fact) but in practice, it seems that most people follow a kind of hybrid of Hinduism with Buddhism. Statues of Buddha can often be found alongside Hindu deities in temples, restaurants and people’s homes and it certainly all seems very harmonious. In one of the backstreets, we found a ‘Gentleman’s Parlour’ where James could get a shave; outside of Europe, it’s the equivalent of about 50p for a open blade shave, and they often throw in a head massage for good measure, so James has taken to getting one every so often when he’s left it too long and his stubble starts to take on a beard-like quality (besides, our current hotel had no bathroom mirror so it was a necessity in this instance!) We ended up waiting for quite some time for one of the three barbers to become available as, to our amusement, their current customers were pouting and preening like a bunch of peacocks, asking for just a little more off here and a little there. We were really surprised by the level of male vanity in the parlour, something we had only really seen in India – perhaps a little cultural contamination there?!…

By late afternoon, we started to head back; we’d arranged to meet Suraj at the Eagle Export office so he could take us to his home for dinner. I hadn’t been feeling one hundred per cent all day but we didn’t want to cry off, having already changed the date once when we went to visit the EBT, so I had a little power nap before went out. We’d been speculating about how we might get to Suraj’s house from his office (he always came to work on his bike) and soon all was revealed – he’d arranged for a friend to come at closing time so that we could ride pillion with the two of them!! I was a little apprehensive; I’d only ever gone on the back of the bikes of people I knew very well (James, Dad and Jackson) plus it was dark, we had no helmets and the backstreets of Kathmandu are narrow, bumy rock strewn lanes that weave this way and that like a rabbit warren… It was, of course, a comedy experience, if a little nerve-wracking, as the little 125cc bikes sped along, fluidly dodging the other traffic! I think they found it quite funny too, having to give it some extra beans due to the hefty westerners weighing them down (‘My wife only weighs 40kg…’ Really? Good for her!!) We finally arrived at Suraj’s place, a little dusty and chilly, and were given a lovely warm welcome by Saru, Saraj’s mother, and his cuter-than-cute daughter. All sorts of delicious smells were wafting from the kitchen and, once we’d sat down cross-legged at a table cloth on the floor, tasty vegetable and chicken dishes were placed in front of us. The seating arrangement was relaxed and intimate and we chatted freely about many things with Suraj and his friend (the women tended to stay in the kitchen!) – the Ghurkas, Nepal’s social structure, the nature of arranged marriages, the caste system, the government etc – gaining a valuable insight into life in Nepal. I was enjoying the conversation, and trying to enjoy the delicious food, but I still wasn’t feeling quite right. In the end, I excused myself to go outside for some air…. and promptly threw up in the flower bed! Oh dear, so embarrassing!! They were all lovely about it, of course, and offered me a room so I could lie down for a while but when you’re feeling sick, all you want to do is curl up in your own bed in the dark so, once James had eaten his dessert (James: I couldn’t just leave mid-meal, particularly after Em had just barfed so spectacularly on their prize flower bed!), it was back on the bikes to return us to Thamel. We’d had such a lovely evening (apart from the obvious!) and were humbled by the warmth and hospitality offered to us by Suraj and his family which went above and beyond. Thank you, Suraj!

On our last day in Kathmandu we made a day trip out to the small but traditional town of Bhaktapur, in the Kathmandu Valley. Without the bikes, we had to settle for a taxi but, pulling up into the visitor’s carpark (no vehicles allowed in the old town), we spied an overlander BMW GS (just like Carl & Bene’s) with British plates parked up in the corner. It didn’t take long to glean from the locals that the bike had only turned up a few minutes ago and that the owner was currently having a cup of tea in the café on the corner (just goes to show that when you turn up on a big foreign bike in this part of the world, you’re pretty much put under surveillance!) so we went to say hi. The rider was Andrew, and it turns out he’s been travelling with his bike for the last three years, stopping off here and there to work; he’s currently got a twelve month contract in Kathmandu, helping hospitals upgrade their IT systems in return for food and board. He had ridden to Bhaktapur with Caty, currently in Kathmandu after organizing a charity expedition in the mountains, and the four of us had a lovely few hours walking around the cobblestone streets of the timeless town together. It’s a beautiful place, made up of several squares which house endless temples, courtyards and monuments whilst the surrounding streets offer glimpses of traditions that are centuries old. We saw rice and fruits from the recent harvest laid out to dry in the sun, on roofs or simply in the middle of the road, and women collecting water from communal taps and wells. To be honest, we were too busy chatting away with Andrew and Caty to really take it in (it turns out Andrew shared our views on India so you can imagine the ranting once we’d got started on that subject!) but it was well worth the trip.

On the morning of our departure, we went to say goodbye Suraj who was able to tell us that our bikes had flown safely and were waiting for us in Bangkok – phew! It seemed strange to be going to an airport, rather than packing the bikes up and heading for the border, but James at least, five year old boy that he is, had the excitement of going on an aeroplane to make up for it (I meanwhile, still wasn’t feeling right and was more than a tad anxious that I might have another impromptu spewing episode mid-flight…) After tending to dedicate a whole day to border crossings when we were on our bikes, checking in and going through security at the terminal had never been so quick and simple and before we knew it we were in the air, viewing the breathtaking sight of endless mountain peaks of the Himalayas and the Everest range through the window. Goodbye Nepal, southeast Asia here we come…

Nepal’s forgotten children

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

(James) Prior to leaving the UK we’d spoken with a friend of the family who happened to be a patron of a small charity in Nepal (one we’d admittedly never heard of) called the Esther Benjamins Trust (EBT) that did work of some sort with Nepali children. As we’d neared Nepal, we’d decided that if we could, we’d pop in and say hello and so initial contact had been made with the Chief Executive, Philip Holmes. Once we arrived in Kathmandu he invited us to meet for a coffee so he could explain what it was exactly that the EBT does (Fabian came along too, always keen to get human interest stories from the countries he visits), and the following day we went to visit the beneficiaries of EBT’s work. It was an utterly inspiring experience, particularly for me who, having worked in the NGO sector, might have been slightly more de-sensitised to such things.

Philip’s story is extremely inspiring. Following the tragic death of his wife, he founded the Esther Benjamins Trust in her memory. Philip had been a dentist in the British Army so had no experience of the charity sector but, regardless, went off to Nepal to try and help the country’s under privileged children. He invested his own Army pension (working for the first three years without any funding or income) into what quickly became his one man mission. Looking to find a niche area that wasn’t being addressed by others, he focused on helping Nepal’s forgotten circus children. These children (80% of which are girls) are sold by poor families in Nepal when they are about five years old to agents and other middle men for just a few dollars. They are then trafficked across the border into India and the middle east where some go on to become sex slaves. The majority, however, end up working in Indian circuses where they are trained as performers, live in very poor conditions and are constantly abused, either physically or sexually, by their owners. Once they reach an age where they are no longer of any use, they are released on to the streets where they are left to fend for themselves. Initially the EBT looked to try to simply help these children to get out of the circuses but quickly recognised the scale of the problem and so rapidly expanded their mission objectives (more through the utter dedication of their staff than any increase in funding).

Nowadays, they launch regular ‘raids’ on circuses in India which they do with the help of the local police, doctors, psychologists, lawyers etc, rescuing dozens of children at a time. Having undergone medical and psychological evaluations and given statements to the police (all with legal representation), they are taken back to Nepal – no simple task as those arrested often have ties to local gangsters who vow revenge and make very real threats. Once in Nepal, they are taken to care homes run solely by EBT where they are given a safe place to live, the choice of a school education or vocational training (most choose to go to school), and a chance to enjoy the childhood that they’ve been denied. The earliest rescued children are now approaching eighteen years old and, despite entering the education several years late, have completely their high school education and are about the leave the confines of Esther Benjamins to make their own way in the world. A few of them have shown such promise and potential that (following more focused tutoring provided by Philip) they have been approved to go into further specialist higher education with a view to becoming doctors and engineers.

The EBT’s work, however, doesn’t end there. Philip was determined not to just spend his time picking up the broken pieces of this trade in children so, having completed each raid, they gather intelligence, through statements from the children and the circus owners, to build a better picture of the various networks and systems operating within the trade. Once collated, this information not only provides insight into the other circuses for future raids, but also allows the EBT to target those agents and middlemen who ‘bought’ the children in the first place. Once arrested, the EBT ensures that they are prosecuted. To date, fifteen agents in Nepal have been arrested and sentences handed down of up to 20 years.

EBT has to date rescued 687 children directly and indirectly and meets the needs of 130 children in full time residential care. What is more amazing are the staggeringly small resources that all this has been accomplished with. Most funding comes from private donors (like you and me) who make monthly donations or do fundraising events, and a little bit comes from the odd charitable trust. Rather depressingly, nothing comes from the big international donors such as the British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), the European Union or any of the United Nations’ myriad of aid organisations – UNICEF included. To the vast majority of charities in the UK, these donors give hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but it would seem that the valiant efforts of EBT don’t qualify for any funding at all despite their incredible ability to achieve so much with so few resources. Having worked in the charity sector and dealt with some of the donor organisations, I can only assume that so small is EBT and its operation on the scale of things that it simply doesn’t warrant or justify the time and resources of some nameless desk officer in the regional grant giving departments of these institutions. If that it is the case (and I’m not saying it necessarily is), it’s pretty depressing to say the least as, despite all the budgetary cuts made to government departments during this recession, DFID has actually had its budget increased, has lots of money and, in my experience, always had money available for the ‘right’ (or the most politically beneficial) causes.

Following our meeting with Philip we agreed  that we would come to visit the charity so we could see the EBT’s work first hand, so the next day we met one of the charity’s current crop of volunteers, Esther Raubold , who had kindly agreed to show us around. Given the lack of any real funding, EBT relies heavily on volunteers, having had 49 pass through Nepal in 2010. It does this by approaching various industry magazines and newspapers and asks if anyone would be interested in taking a sabbatical. Anyone can apply regardless of whether they have any specialist skills (there’s ever a shortage of things to be done), but certain skills are of particular interest. At our first stop we visited a work shop where girls were under the tutelage of a Scottish lady called Nicola Turnbull. Back in the UK, Nicola works as a self employed high end jeweller, but having seen EBT mentioned in a trade magazine, was now passing on some of her considerable skills to some of the older girls, most of whom were deaf. At the time of our visit, the girls also had amassed a considerable number of handmade Christmas cards in various designs, which they hoped would be sold to raise further funds for the EBT.

Next, we were taken to visit one of EBT’s homes  just to the south of Kathmandu. In his particular village there were two homes, one for boys, the other for the girls. With time getting a bit tight, we decided that we’d visit the girls’ home. The house itself was a large detached building with four floors. As we approached we were greeted by some of the girls playing volleyball who stopped their game to take us inside their home. We were then shown around the house, popping our heads through some doors and being invited in to others. The girls live in 10 bed dormitories which looked for all the world like they would in any western girl’s room. It was heartening to see that despite all the abuse and suffering they must have endured (and all the corresponding issues one might expect), their walls were filled with posters of Nepali and Indian pop stars and their favourite TV stars. I had braced myself for a slightly cooler and more guarded reception in the girls home, (after all, one could hardly blame them for viewing any man with a certain amount of suspicion or even outright hostility) and had stepped back to allow Em to lead but all either of us felt was utter warmth and friendliness. It’s a credit to both the sheer mental resilience of the children and the work of the Esther Benjamins trust that any of the children are able to reintegrate themselves into society. That’s not to say some of the children don’t come back with real problems, but the EBT ensures that each child receives bespoke treatment they require to meet their needs. The result of this monumental effort is that, thanks to the frankly herculean efforts of Philip and his team, the Esther Benjamins Trust has rescued and housed  so many children that would otherwise be living in appalling conditions and being subjected to, on a daily basis, shocking levels of abuse, and with a future that held little but the prospect of being abandoned onto the streets on India when they were no longer of any value to their owners. Instead they live happily in a secure and loving environment where each one will get the chance to recapture a lost childhood, develop and have the chance to reach their full potential. 

It’s fair to say that Em and I felt privileged to have been given an insight into such a worthy cause. We were genuinely humbled by what we found, and utterly inspired by what one man, along with a small, but dedicated team has managed to achieve. If you were thinking about setting up some sort of regular charitable donation or doing some sort of fundraising event like a sponsored run, walk etc this year, all we can say is you’d be hard pressed to find a more worthy cause. If you are interested in finding out more about the Esther Benjamins Trust or doing a fundraising event or even volunteering with them you can click here to visit their website (it’s about to be given an overhaul). Alternatively you can find a link to them on our links page.

Bye-bye bikes…

Friday, November 19th, 2010

(James) Having made it to Kathmandu, our number one job the following morning was to head to the office of our shipping agent to start the process for freighting the bikes. Once we’d met with Suraj, who runs the company Eagle Exports (see our links page for his details should you need them), we went down to measure up the bikes in the underground garage across the road where they were parked (a tape measure in the dark with no measurements  being recorded hinted at possible problems down the line but we let them get on with it!) This whole process only took about fifteen minutes and then we went back to the office to get all the paperwork sorted which wasn’t half as painful as we’d envisaged (or maybe our standards and expectations have dropped after having become accustomed to such bureaucracy in Central Asia!) Within a couple of hours (most of which was taken up with chatting to Suraj), we’d completed all the required forms, promised to come to Suraj’s house for dinner (all part of the service!) and  agreed on a price based on the expected volume of our crates – no easy matter. Airlines charge either by volume (there’s some complicated formula for this) or, once the cargo goes over a certain volumetric size, by actual weight.  It’s a lot cheaper if you can pay by the volume formula so the onus is on you to make your crate as small as possible, i.e. taking front wheels and handle bars off etc. However, that was something we’d worry about at the airport tomorrow and for now we had the rest of the day to ourselves.

We’d agreed to meet Fabian for brunch as he’d found a café that he claimed served an amazing Eggs Hollandaise – not something we’d normally think of looking out for but Fabian really had been waxing lyrical and insisted we try it. We had to admit it was really very good, especially as our taste buds hadn’t experienced anything like it for months! The rest of our first day was spent wandering around the streets of Thamel, sitting in cafes reading and catching up on our diary. It felt nice just not having anything to do or anywhere to go and the three of us enjoyed every moment. Thamel was without doubt the most tourist filled place we’d been too since Istanbul and really came alive in the evening when the shop sellers and restaurant staff went into overdrive trying to get you into their establishments. Bars  (and of course the odd Irish themed pub!)started blaring out western music and it was much more how we’d imagine Bangkok might be. Of course, given such a concentration of tourists (mostly fresh off the plane) in one small area, the night-time brought out the seedier side of the city and hustlers and the like were out in force. Despite the large police presence in the area, there was also a shockingly large number of very young local kids in the streets sniffing glue quite openly. They certainly weren’t afraid of being hassled by the police who presumably were only there to prevent crime against valuable western tourists and obviously felt that they weren’t  paid enough deal with any problems that fell outside this primary concern. All rather depressing.

The following morning, having done some laundry (of pretty much everything we own!) in the shower and rigged up a washing line that criss-crossed several times back and forth across our room (ah, the glamour of international travel!) we put on our riding gear, gathered all of our documentation and headed down to get our bikes from the garage. We’d just popped into the office to confirm our meeting time and place when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to see Juan! Small world! After agreeing to meet up with him later we got the bikes, joined Fabian and Suraj on theirs and headed off into the morning rush hour towards the airport. This didn’t exactly prove to be easy as Suraj, on his little 125cc, went shooting off into the traffic and quickly disappeared through gaps that we were never going to get through (and Fabian certainly wasn’t!) Fortunately we managed to find Suraj after a few minutes and continued on our way. Having made it out of the worst of the traffic, we arrived at the airport and turned into the cargo warehouse, parking up outside a bustling cargo dock. Within a minute or so we were ushered inside so, each in turn, we mounted the large step and rode carefully inside the warehouse, picking our way through a maze of crates, boxes and packages and over to a less busy corner where, hopefully, we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. There we waited, slightly nervously, for the carpenter to arrive with the wood for our crates. Twenty minutes later he appeared and we helped him unload two dozen wooden frames and the corresponding sheets of ply.  Having established which bits were for each bike – so tight were the margins of error when measuring the bikes up to ensure every available cubic centimetre of space was used, that even Em’s and my bike (mine is a few centimetres wider at the rear due to my pannier frame) were different sizes – we laid out all the pieces in front of a gathering crowd.

With that, we began to prepare the bikes, one at a time (Em: mine first!) First we rolled the bike onto the base section and, after removing the front mudguard and the front wheel, gently lowered the forks down to a wooden block. Once in place, we strapped the bike down extra tightly (to squeeze the suspension at the rear and save us valuable centimetres) so it was free standing, and repeated the trick at the front, also removing the front screen and the handlebars (this would help to reduce the width of the crate). Now that the bike was firmly in place, the rear of the crate was shortened by the carpenter to fit the bike exactly, leaving perhaps a centimetre to spare, and the end walls were fitted. Meanwhile, we set about strapping down all those parts that had been removed, plus the panniers and other luggage that we wouldn’t be needing for the flight, pushing them flush up against the bike or into any remaining gaps. Then, with everything secured (the bottom of the crate is just a wooden trellis  so anything loose could easily fall down and out through the gaps), we set about fitting the sides. Finally, with all four sides now attached it only remained for us to stuff our riding gear in on top so Em popped off to the toilets to change whilst I finished packing her gear, and at last, with everything snugly fitted, the top was nailed down and a relieved Emily watched her crate being pushed to the side by some of the two dozen spectators we’d had since our arrival in the morning (three large motorcycles being ridden into the warehouse before being broken down obviously not an everyday occurrence).  We repeated the process with my bike and had a little scare when, despite our warnings to take the pannier widths into account when they were measuring up the previous day, once all four sides of my crate had been fixed in place, it appeared that the carpenter hadn’t actually allowed sufficient space to fit the panniers in. (Em: It was very stressful! I was panicking that they’d have to make a whole new crate but James didn’t seem too worried and sure enough the carpenter set about making some adaptations and soon all was well again!) I started to take my riding boots off, and then my trousers, next to the crate, reasoning that the workers wouldn’t be too bothered about me and, of course, they weren’t. But I had forgotten that I was wearing a pair of Em’s turquoise pants (plain lycra-type shorts not frilly girly ones!)  and although they were fairly unisex to glance at, the girly colour left little doubt  to anyone watching! (Em: I can’t believe James is admitting this to the world…) In my defence, I’d been forced to occasionally borrow from Em ever since some of my own had been stolen off the line in India reducing me to just two pairs (a lack of space means that anything more than 3 pairs of pants, socks or t-shirts is just self-indulgent!)  I mean, seriously, who nicks second hand underwear??!!!!….  Either way, it  caused great hilarity for Em and Fabian, and probably for anyone else who noticed – not my finest hour!…… But more importantly, all three bikes  were boxed up and all that remained, we hoped, was to weigh the crates, finalise any remaining paperwork and, of course, get our exportation documents signed and stamped.

One at a time each of the crates were slid over to a large set of scales and manhandled up on top to be weighed before being ‘gently lowered’ (dropped) off the other side. Emily’s crate weighed in at a dainty 270kg, mine was a slightly more portly 280kg while Fabian’s tipped the scales at a quite frankly lardy 380kg! (He does carry way too much crap on his bike, a source of constant piss-taking!!) We said a last goodbye as our surprisingly small ‘packages’ were pushed away (hoping it wouldn’t be the last time we saw them…) then went to pick up our now stamped papers where we were surprised to be told by Suraj that we were done. However, as we walked off across  the car park, we were called back. Upon re-entering the warehouse, we were told that another, more senior, customs official seemed to have a problem and that one crate (mine as it happened) had been selected to be re-opened  for an inspection! We could see all of the crates on the other side of a fenced off secure area which I was told I wouldn’t be allowed to enter. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t happy with that and we made it clear that if they wanted to open my crate, they’d have to let me watch (who knows what things can disappear from or find their way into your crate when you’re not looking?!) which eventually they did. Given that the crate had been not only nailed shut but also sealed with metal strapping, and given that throughout the afternoon  we’d had custom officials standing over us to ensure we crated according to their rules, such as disconnecting the bike’s battery and draining the tanks of fuel, I wasn’t exactly thrilled but, as we’ve learnt, customs officials are the one group of people that you have to keep sweet as they really can make things awkward for you if you get on the wrong side of them. I was also a tad concerned as we’d managed to make a sneaky agreement with a more junior official which had seen him turn  blind eye to us keeping our remaining fuel in our tanks (enough to make it to a petrol station in Bangkok) in return for us ‘donating’ a couple of empty water bottles filled with some of the petrol Fabian still had in his jerry can.

Eventually the man in question turned up and I asked very politely asked why customs needed to look inside my box  when they’d sat watching me dismantle the bike and then pack the crate not 10 metres away from where we were standing for the last five hours. He explained that his junior staff and the other officials hadn’t  followed the correct protocols for shipping this type of cargo, protocols that he was trying to implement as standard operating procedure within the warehouse. (Em: I, meanwhile, was on the other side of the fence getting a bit mad – it was hardly our fault they hadn’t done their job properly. It didn’t help that I was really hungry by this point which makes me moody at the best of times! Good thing James was keeping his head.) Clearly being agreeable was going to be the most productive approach here so I did all I could to say I totally understood, and that in a secure environment a rigid adherence to procedure was essential and how clearly both of us had been inconvenienced by these slackers. It seemed to do the trick as, despite my constant urging that we’d better go and open the crate, he eventually decided that inconveniencing the two of us, ‘the victims in all this’, further wouldn’t benefit anybody, and so set about giving a good old fashioned bollocking to those who’d been deemed at fault for wasting his time and that of a clearly law-abiding foreigner (ahem!). With that we were done; the bikes were packed and ready to go and we were able to head back into town, bikeless (and feeling slightly incomplete) for the first time in over 20,000 kilometres.

The road to Kathmandu

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

(James) On paper, the ride to Kathmandu didn’t look too taxing so there wasn’t exactly a huge sense of urgency in Team Motoventurers as we dawdled down to have a leisurely breakfast in Sauraha. Our plan, such as it was, was to back track some of the route we’d ridden on our way to Chitwan in order to get ourselves over the mountain ridge that runs west to east across the country and into the Kathmandu valley – the idea being we would then be able to ride the Pokhara-Kathmandu road in from the west. However, as we rode along the dirt road out of the village, I kept glancing down at my map at what was possibly a more direct route, and one that would bring us into Kathmandu from the south via some steep mountain valleys. The question was, although it looked shorter, how much slower might it be? When we reached the main road we asked a couple of locals on bikes and they indicated that we should turn right and head for the more direct route so off we went . The first 80km heading east towards the town of Hetauda  was easy as the roads were fairly empty, but our proximity to India bizarrely meant that the driving was a little more dangerous than we’d being enjoying in recent days (perhaps Indian driving is a condition spread via some sort of miasma?!…) Nevertheless, our progress was good and by just after midday we had reached Hetauda  and began to climb into the mountain valleys to the north which would, along the way, take us over two mountain passes.

Our only worry for the day concerned fuel. There were unlikely to be any petrol stations in the mountains but we were loathed to fill up before entering the valley as we were purposefully trying to run our tanks as close to empty as we dared for our arrival in Kathmandu. Although we’d have loved to have ridden the entire way around the world (oceans aside), and we’ve given it a good go thus far, we faced a problem getting from the sub-continent to Southeast Asia. The problem being Burma. Whilst it is possible (although difficult) to get bikes into Burma, it’s nigh on impossible to actually cross the country. Of course, we also weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of visiting a such a vehemently totalitarian country, and although we’ve had to travel through some other countries with questionable or downright sinister regimes, Burma persecutes all of its people to such a degree that it arguably can only be compared with North Korea (we’re not going there either!) Even the imprisoned opposition ask you not to visit the country as it legitimises the ruling junta – who are we to argue with that? Either way, Burma was a no-no, so we would be shipping the bikes by plane from Kathmandu to Bangkok and we couldn’t have any fuel in the tanks when it came to crating the bikes for the flight. In the end, I estimated that we could comfortably make it to Kathmandu on what we were already carrying in our tanks and Em, while slightly more cautious, was willing to trust me – after all had I ever let us down before??!!…..

As we climbed into the hills, the roads quickly became more twisty and soon we were negotiating a seemingly endless series of very tight hairpin turns, something we hadn’t come across since Switzerland, which kept us permanently in first or second gear. We had the roads completely to ourselves and for hours we kept climbing, soon passing through the clouds and past dozens of quaint villages. It never ceases to amaze us just how clean and ordered the villages in Nepal are but up here on 2500+ metre mountain passes with steep 1000 metre drops, the order was brought to a new level. Despite the near vertical terrain, every inch of land was used for planting, with metre wide ledges neatly walled off and an identical ledge sitting a metre below. This system of stepped plots continued as far up and down the mountain as we could see, and the fact that the main crop being grown was flowers simply added to what was already a beautifully functional system. So much were we enjoying the ride in these hills that, had we not been on a deadline for shipping the bikes, we’d have stopped for the night along the way, but the twisting roads meant our progress wasn’t exactly as rapid as we’d planned. Late afternoon saw us beginning to descend towards the Kathmandu valley and, with dusk approaching, we found ourselves on the final 25km stretch of road into the capital. Fabian, who’d ridden directly from Pokhara to Kathmandu a few days earlier, had emailed to warn us about this section saying it was very, very busy and very, very badly potholed, so bad that he’d come off his bike. He wasn’t lying and we were soon battling with fast moving trucks and desperately trying to negotiate a constant minefield of countless very large, very deep potholes. It was whilst on this road that I felt the tell tale signs of a an engine struggling to get enough fuel…..

Sure enough, within a kilometre I had to pull over to the side of the road and confess to Emily that I ‘may’ have slightly misjudged the fuel situation – a result no doubt of a day spent riding almost exclusively in first and second gear. A bemused Emily (Em: ha, ha, that’s one word for it!!) then let me ride her bike 5km back down the crappy road we’d just negotiated to put some extra fuel in her bike together with a jerry can to re-fill mine. Off I went, being careful, once again, to get just enough to allow both of us to reach Kathmandu – I came back with enough to go another 50km (we were now only 20km away from the capital). Having refuelled the bikes, we set off again and within a kilometre we had reached the outskirts of the city where we came upon a huge traffic jam. We tried to edge our way through the melee but it was no good, the traffic was simply too heavy and pretty much gridlocked. For a noisy and polluted two and a half hours we slowly edged our way deeper in the city and finally, in the darkness, escaped from the congestion into a side road that would lead us to the Thamel area of the city. It was there, just 60 metres shy of Thamel, that my day took a turn for the worse – my bike ran out of fuel! Again! To say I was a touch sheepish as I turned to Em to explain that I wasn’t pulling over just to check the map would be something of an understatement. She’d, quite frankly, enjoyed giving me enough grief the first time round so I was not looking forward to what she’d think or say now I’d done it twice – the fact that the shocking traffic had meant that we’d used 50km of fuel to go 20km wasn’t really going to wash – ahem!….. (Em: let’s just say, I was not amused…)

Having taken a fair amount of abuse of the ‘I told you so’ variety, I tried to buy some fuel off some cab drivers but that was a no-go (they were all LPG powered) so I had to get a taxi to a local petrol station; not ideal as it was still rush hour and Kathmandu was suffering a fuel shortage. (Em: this was  not before, in desperation, I took a walk down the nearest alley to see if there were any hotels within bike-pushing distance – there were some but they were all full!!) Half an hour later I was back with another 5 litres and we were able to finally make our way through Thamel’s tight tourist-packed streets. It has to be said it was something of a culture shock to suddenly be surrounded by tourist shops, bars, Irish themed pubs and pizza restaurants. We stopped in the busy pedestrianised street and took turns to check out hostels, but continued to encounter that rare (for us) phenomena of the fully booked guesthouse. A few minutes and another guesthouse later, I was sitting on the bike when who should walk up to say hello but Fabian! We’d known he was still in Kathmandu but for him to actually walk by as we had just arrived – what a coincidence! We caught up whilst waiting for Emily to come back and when she did, reporting another rejection, Fabian said his place definitely had rooms available. Relieved, we followed him as he jogged down narrow alleyways until we arrived at the his ‘home’ and, having checked in and managed to negotiate safe parking for the bikes (an effort in itself), went for a well earned beer in the westernised world of Kathmandu’s Thamel district.

The call of the wild…

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

(Emily) Luckily, the morning mistiness and threatening rain were soon a distant memory as we rode away from Pokhara and south towards Chitwan National Park. It would have been perfectly do-able to get to Chitwan that same day but we had read about a small village called Bandipur, en route to the park, which sounded like a bit of a gem. Continuing the theme, we found the ride to be extremely pleasant, taking us past paddy fields and through lush green hills – perfecto! There were more buses on the road that there had been on the Siddhartha Highway (in fact, it was all buses and 125’s; no cars) but although they hurtled along at quite a pace and belched out smoke like mad, they generally saw us coming and moved over so it wasn’t a problem. I was really surprised when we came upon the turning up to Bandipur after just a couple of hours on the road (it was only 80km after all); we had both been enjoying the ride and weren’t even close to that ‘are we nearly there yet?’ feeling. We paid a small fee to get through a barrier – Bandipur is part of a development programme that works towards keeping the village and its residents operating profitably whilst maintaining a sustainable artisan way of life – and began the steep ascent up to its location on a high ridge above the town of Dumre. It had been a while since I’d done hairpins so there were a few hairy moments!

At the top, we soon found that it was impossible to take the bikes into the old village (which was completely pedestrianised) so we parked up and James went off on foot to check out potential guesthouses. While I was waiting, one of the first things I noticed was that the place was incredibly touristy – every second person walking back and forth through the entrance to the village was a foreigner (I guess they’d all been reading Lonely Planet too!) Given the high volume of backpackers and other tourists, it was no great surprise when James came back to report an almost fruitless search; most of the guesthouses were full, including the cream of the crop, a gorgeous oldy-worldy tavern-esque building that looked particularly cute. Bummer. However, there was room going at a homestay just a few hundred metres away (an important consideration as we would have to lug all our stuff from the bikes to wherever we were staying) so we ‘snapped it up’ for want of other options. It was a bit of a hole – no running water, a smelly drop toilet and the ‘beds’ were little more than cots (rock hard cots at that) – but it was so bad it was comedy. I don’t even think the room was meant for guests, it had more of the air of a young daughter’s bedroom. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers! On the plus side, the guy at the flashy hotel just outside the pedestrian area said we could park in his gated garden once he heard that we were on ‘big bikes’. This was certainly preferable to the visitors’ bike parking on offer which was little more than a dirt pit and already rammed full of 125s, and not particularly secure looking!

Bandipur was as charming as we’d hoped it would be – a gorgeous living museum of traditional Nepali culture (James: and giving Em a much needed ‘ethnographic’ fix!), where local people went about their daily business with little regard to the tie-dye draped travellers that appeared at every turn. Many of the houses still had their original carved wooden window frames and over-hanging slate roofs and, as we’d seen in many of the villages we’d passed through so far in Nepal, a sense of pride in their homes was very much in evidence in the neat courtyards and pretty gardens. We had a little wander, enjoying yet more warm smiles and the fact that the children who approached us were simply doing so to say hi, not to ask for money or sweets (à la India), then stopped for a hot chocolate in a café overlooking the valley to write diary as the sun set. There we got chatting to a couple of girls from the US who were staying in Bandipur as part of a charity programme – a great thing to do post-uni, especially as it’s the perfect location for combining it with trekking or adventure sports in your time off. We went to the ‘Old Inn’ for dinner, still gutted that we couldn’t stay the night but at least we could enjoy the ambience for the evening. They offered a buffet meal around a camp fire out on the flower filled patio – perfect, particularly given that the nights were getting pretty chilly now we were in the hills. We invited a lone female traveller, Kathy, to join us and ended up having a very interesting time chatting with her over a very tasty Nepali curry. A great evening!

I can’t say our night in the homestay was the best sleep I’ve ever had (a bit difficult when the bed’s like plywood and not long enough to lie straight on) but at least it meant that we were up and away early, something we normally find a bit of a challenge! It’s a shame that it was such a hazy day as the scenery en route to Chitwan was awesome, particularly coming back down from Bandipur on the twisties. Once back down in the valley, the road ran alongside a beautiful wide clear river, however,  it may have been our imagination but the driving did seem to get worse as we headed further south towards the Indian border – coincidence?  I think not! Also, the road surface deteriorated and we had long stretches of dust and potholes.  Hmmm, seemed rather familiar…The final stretch into Sauraha (the town on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park) was dirt road but very enjoyable as it took us through tiny untouched villages where wheat was laying out across the road to dry and life just seemed generally unchanged. Once in Sauraha, we checked out a few guesthouses and found one with a price to our liking (a lot of them were quite expensive as they capitalise on the fact that most people come as part of a set tour group) – it was simple and clean and the mosquito nets over the beds enhanced the safari vibe (although in reality, of course, it just meant that this was a mosquito heavy zone – not so evocative!) James got chatting to a couple who were overlanding in a camper from Spain to Australia with their two kids – what a great experience and proof that it’s never too late!

Part of the attraction of Chitwan was that it offered elephant safaris and also the chance of seeing a tiger (being one of the few parks that actually has them). However, when we visited a few tour offices for information, it soon became apparent that that elephant rides didn’t actually enter the park proper and that the only real chance of spotting a tiger (though still very remote) would be to take a full day jeep safari that largely involved waiting and watching in the hope that a tiger would appear. After much deliberation, we decided to pass on the elephant ride, knowing that we would have the opportunity when we got to Thailand and instead set an itinerary for the next day that involved a morning jungle walk then a jeep safari in the afternoon. We got an early night ready for an early morning rendez-vous down by the river…

We rose when it was still dark but soft morning light was just breaking over the river by the time we got down there to the meeting point. It was really quite a magical scene: dawn mist rising amid the reeds, majestic elephants crossing the shallows and long, dug-out canoes cutting silently through the water. We clambered into our dugout with our two guides -  one of whom, Dorma, was the park’s first female safari leader -  and began a tranquil hour-long ride down river. Along the way we spotted lots of different birds, including kingfishers and peacocks, but unfortunately (or fortunately?) there were no crocs to be seen as the water was too cold at that time of day. Perhaps later… The canoe deposited us a few kilometres down river, onto the bank across the other side from Sauraha, which meant we were now in the national park (the river marking the border). After a little pep talk about what to do when face to face with various animals (rhino: stay still as they can’t see well, tiger: don’t turn your back. Ok, sorted) we started off into the jungle, with one guide walking in front and one behind at all times for safety. We’d only been walking for ten minutes or so when Dorma drew our attention to a nearby tree – the bark bore several long scrapes about six or seven feet up the trunk. These were tiger scratch marks!! It was quite exhilarating knowing that, even if we never got to see them , we were walking through areas where tigers were roaming freely, perhaps even  observing us from deep in the undergrowth… coolio! We really enjoyed the walking safari and the company of our two guides – it was a relaxing way to see the flora and fauna on offer and, without wanting to sound like a ponce, you did feel ‘at one with nature’. Towards the end of the walk we came upon some deer: ok, I know you can get right up close to deer in Richmond Park back home whereas here we couldn’t get too close lest we scared them off, but it was exciting having the guides track their movements and seeing them in a completely natural habitat. No tigers, though : (

A few hours later and our walk returned us to the river, back opposite the first few buildings that marked Sauraha. A quick crossing in another dug-out had us safely deposited on the other side and we spent lunchtime watching the elephant bathing from the bank – brilliant! The bond between an elephant and its trainer is amazingly close (often they will stay together for life) and it was fascinating to see how man and beast worked together in harmony during the washing process. The trainer only has to say a command, in a level friendly voice rather than barked like an order, and the elephant obliges, whether it be to lie down, lift its foot for cleaning or even squirt itself with water to rinse off! We watched two elephants have their bathtime while we were there and it struck us how gentle and respectful the mahouts were in how they interacted with them. Pure viewing pleasure!

That afternoon we were booked in for a jeep safari, cue our third river crossing of the day. We were a little bemused when seven of us were ushered into the back of one small jeep but it wasn’t too much of a squeeze in the end as two of the guys stood up the whole time (trying to be a bit cool, I think!) At first it seemed like it might be four hours of driving down dirt tracks looking at nothing but walls of tall grasses on either side but after a while we started to see something other than vegetation: wild boar, peacocks, deer and… er… chickens! The route took us to the crocodile breeding centre, set up to protect and promote gharials (one of the two species of crocodiles found in the park, the second being the rather alarmingly named ‘marsh muggers’) which are rather odd looking reptiles with very narrow elongated snouts. (James dorky fact: The word ‘mugger’ or to mug is actually taken from the Marsh Muggers, after British colonial types in Nepal and India witnessed these crocs snatching their victims from the river banks.)  They had different pens according to the crocs’ birth year so you could see how they developed from little nippers to full grown adults – some of them were very large indeed! Back in the jeep and a few more chickens later we were starting to think we were out of luck in terms of spotting anything impressive but a drive down by the river revealed some marsh muggers lurking in the shallows across the other side. Shame there was no water buffalo attack à la the famous youtube video but you can’t have everything!! We were just heading back to the drop off point for the canoe back to Sauraha when we turned a corner and low and behold, a humungous rhino was standing right in the middle of the path. YES! Right at the end of the safari and we had been duly rewarded for our patience. The jeep crept forward and managed to get pretty damn close before the rhino plunged abruptly into the undergrowth. We thought that was it but then spotted the shrubbery moving a few metres away – he’d stopped again and soon moved into a clearing where we once more had a great view. It was amazing to see a rhino so near – they really do look prehistoric with their huge armoured plates and the sheer size of them is staggering. Needless to say, we were all very excited to have seen something so extraordinary and returned to the village very satisfied customers.

In the evening, we went for a meal at lovely place by the river and somewhat lowered the tone by challenging each other to eat a spoonful of chilli salsa then dissolving into hysterics… we’ve been on the road a long time now, these are the kinds of things we do to entertain ourselves!! We’d had a great day and were in high spirits after already having so many positive experiences in Nepal. Tomorrow we would head to the capital, Kathmandu; the name alone conjuring up a sense of magic and adventure. Bring it on….

Poking around Pokhara…

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

(Emily) So what’s Pokhara like? Well, it has a beautiful lake, green hills, snow capped mountains, clean guesthouses, shops galore and restaurants serving every type of food you can think of… what’s not to love?! To say we were excited would be an understatement! Pokhara is trekking central; every second shop is either a camping retailer, selling all the fake North Face products you could ever need, or a travel agent organising trips into the Himalayan Annapurna Range. But even if you’re not inclined to the masochistic art of climbing mountains (like us!), there’s a lot on offer to keep you amused and entertained for a good few days (or ten…) Our first priority when we arrived was to get ourselves a decent meal – we’d read months before that Pokhara had, amongst other things, a steakhouse and James was literally chomping at the bit. However, Fabs wasn’t feeling too good on that first evening so we took one for the team and said we’d wait until he was better to experience the elusive ‘steak moment’, opting instead for a great little restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place in any European city. The salad, complete with balsamic vinegar (yes, that’s right!), had us rhapsodizing and, sad as it sounds, I think that once we combined it with a swig of red wine, there might have been a little tear to the eye. Sod all the temples, this was our religious experience!!

We began our time in Pokhara with good intentions, determined to make the most of having trekking nirvana on our doorstep, and on our second day (day one being reserved for laundry and touring the various cafes and German bakeries…) we set out on a hike up to the highest viewpoint – Sarangkot – in the immediately surrounding hills. It was 5th November – eight years since our first date – so we thought we’d celebrate our anniversary with a picnic at the top. Ah, how romantic : ) Rather stupidly, we set out at midday and all too soon we were sweating buckets in the heat of the unrelenting sun, cursing our now obvious folly (or rather James was cursing my folly – he’d been the one to suggest we got a taxi to the top and walk back down!) James was also suffering from a pretty terrible cold (the remnants of India working its way out of his body, no doubt) and was struggling to breathe; not quite the romantic stroll we’d envisaged! Still, it was good to be out in fresh, clean air and the woodland path we were following was deserted, apart from the occasional shepherd with his goats (the other tourists had clearly either taken the sensible taxi option or were far too hardcore for this little ‘amble’ and were straight to the Annapurna circuit!) After an hour and a half it looked to me like we were nearly at the top but James knew better how easily one can be deceived when climbing in the hills (David and Sal, he was remembering ‘fondly’ the walking holidays you guys took in the Alps when he and Ben were teenagers…!) In retrospect, finishing off the last of our water at this point was a little premature as it turned out that we were actually only about half way up. Add dehydration to the heat stroke and wheezing and we were in danger of needing a doctor rather than our idyllic picnic!! Nevertheless, we struggled on (are we pathetic, or what?) and eventually made it to the top where, James had to admit, the view did make it all worthwhile: in one direction, we looked back down the way we’d come to Pokhara and Phewa Tal Lake and in the other we had the Annapurna mountain range stretching majestically from  Dhaulagiri (8167m) in the west to Annapurna II (7937m) in the east. All the while, the sky immediately above us was filled with colour as paragliders swept serenely about the Sarangkot peak. Perfecto! A few hours in the sun, and a bag of mo mo’s (little Nepali filled dumplings, a bit like tortellini) soon revived us from our ordeal and we made to leave before dusk. Luckily, we passed a 4×4 that was about to take some paragliders back down to town so hitched a lift – I don’t think the path through the woods would have been quite so easy to navigate in the dark!

That was about it for our trekking career (I think James’ report back to Fabian that evening was ‘Never again’!) To be honest, my ankle is still not quite right from the accident in Istanbul so we couldn’t have done much more anyway (good excuse, huh?!) Instead we busied ourselves with boating out on the lake (ten percent rowing, ninety percent drifting, reading and sunbathing) and sampling all the cuisine on offer. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it!! And suffice to say, the steak sensation was worth the wait when we finally went with Fabian, Juan and his girlfriend Olga – our fellow diners must have thought we’d spent the last few months under a rock such was our enthusiasm! It was great that Pokhara, by pure coincidence, gave us the opportunity to catch up with friends who we’d met along the way: obviously Fabian had arrived with us and we’d known in advance that Juan (a Spanish biker on a GS 1250 who we’d first met in Pakistan) was already there. Then, on the evening we all went out for Fabs’ birthday, we were reunited with Peggy and Patrick, the German cyclists who we had met back in Istanbul (if you remember, they’d had their bicycles stolen from the train in Serbia…) It was great to catch up with them and hear about their experiences, particularly in Iran which we were so gutted to have missed out on (our visa application was rejected three times). We even saw Isabel and Esteban, our Spanish friends, when our last night coincided with their arrival. They’d left India to go back to Spain for a wedding and then had a complete nightmare trying to get back into the country – Indian immigration has some stupid rule whereby even if you have a multiple entry visa, once you exit, you can’t return for two months. Don’t get us started… (In fact, when we went out for dinner with Estebel and some people they’d met on the bus from the border, all eight of us ended up having a huge cathartic rant about our experiences!)

It was all too easy spending time in Pokhara and the days blended into a happy haze of food and relaxation. James bought me an e-reader for our anniversary (had it sent out from the UK on the sly!) and it is the best present ever; we’ve downloaded over 4000 books already! It came already loaded with the classics so the free time in Pokhara gave me time to devour one after another – ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ – before moving on the rather less high-brow ‘Twilight’ series!! Towards the end of our time there, we realised we’d better get our act together with organising the bikes’ shipment from Kathmandu to Bangkok, and of course our own flights too; we managed to get two of the last seats on with Nepal Airlines, phew! We also visited the Gurkha Museum which is situated next to Nepal’s main Gurkha recruitment centre: each year hundreds of men from all over Nepal come to put themselves through the rigorous selection process  from which only the top few are chosen. The Gurkhas have a worldwide reputation as excellent soldiers and it was fascinating to read about some of the achievements of certain individuals in the various wars of the last century – lots of VCs awarded! Very humbling.

After a week or so the time came to move on – we wanted to get down to Royal Chitwan National Park for a few days before our final stint in Kathmandu. It was very misty on the morning of our departure and, having had a bit of rain the day before (what’s this wet stuff falling from the sky?!) we thought we might be in for a damp ride. It would have been all too easy to makes our excuses and stay another day but we bit the bullet and headed off…

In Nepal and loving it!

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

(Emily) On our first full day in Nepal, we took a leisurely breakfast knowing that as riding days go, the 26km to Lumbini was pretty much at the top of the doddle list. (We’d originally planned to get there the previous day after the border crossing but riding in the dark is not the most sensible idea in a new country and we’d been absolutely shattered.) It was a bumpy ride through farm land and we pulled in at one point to observe a group of enormous vultures clustered around some carrion in a field –  David Attenborough eat your heart out!

Lumbini is a tiny town, more of a village really, that gets a mention in the guidebooks on the strength of it being a Buddhist pilgrimage site; indeed, it is home to the birthplace of Buddha himself. Coolio! We rocked up and found a guesthouse pretty easily. As we waited outside the hotel for Fabian to go in and check out the rooms before committing, a Buddhist monk drew up alongside us on his motorbike to say hi – such an incongruous image, just brilliant! (James took a photo and promised to email it to him later, love it!) Once we’d freshened up, we strolled back down the road to the main attraction – the Buddhist complex. There were a few tourists around but generally it was quiet and calm, just what we had been hoping for. As we walked into the conservation area that houses the Buddhist monuments and monasteries , some Europeans were leaving on hire bikes and told us that given the size of the park, cycling was the way forward. A few minutes later, we too were on bicycles, feeling somewhat vulnerable due to the non-existent brakes, suspension or helmet!!

It wasn’t far to the main site – the Maya Devi Temple -  which houses the memorial stone that marks the exact spot where Buddha is said to have been born in 563 BC. It was a peaceful spot, with the temple set in the middle of a green lawn, surrounded by mature trees from which prayers flags fluttered in their hundreds.  We wandered around, soaking up the chilled atmosphere and enjoying watching the monks stroll around with the peaceful air of the self-fulfilled. We followed this up with a little cycle around the lake there – not the smoothest ride given the rocky track and we were all suffering from a bruised coccyx by the end! Good fun though : ) There wasn’t a whole lot else to do in town but that was fine by us; the guesthouse had wi-fi so we returned there for a bit of website updating. It was the perfect start to Nepal – relaxed, unhurried and stress-free.

The next morning, the plan was to ride north to Pokhara. Carl and Bene had already written to recommend a route – the Siddhartha Highway – which snakes its way through mountain valleys. We couldn’t wait! Well rested, we packed up early and, waved off by a American backpacker in his late 60’s who had taken a bit of a shine to Fabian (“You look like a model,” he breathed when Fabs appeared in his leathers!) we hit the road in high spirits. Things continued to look up when, half an hour later, we spied a neat little roadside café where we promptly stopped for breakfast; so civilised! (We’d not seen anything like this in the whole of India…) Another plus was that the traffic, although quite heavy, was much more manageable; drivers in Nepal actually use their mirrors and seem to have an awareness of their surroundings. How novel to ride along without the feeling that the other road users couldn’t care less if their reckless driving led to your demise! Things were going great, what’s more, the best was yet to come – once we left the plains and joined the Siddhartha Highway, the road began to wind its way up into a steep v-shaped valley which followed a wide, undulating river down below us. It was absolute heaven: empty roads, clear skies, the perfect temperature, lush greenery, stunning views, well- kept villages, warm smiling faces… lovely! In fact, when we stopped for a lunch of samosas and bananas on a grassy knoll overlooking the river, James said it was quite possibly the most pleasant day’s riding we’d had so far. Not necessarily the most adventurous, or exciting, or challenging, or beautiful (although there were definitely elements of all these things) but the most pleasant. Yep, for sheer riding pleasure, it was right up there.

The ride continued like this the whole way to Pokhara and, not only were the conditions perfect, but the timing was spot on too – at 170km, the day’s journey was just right (short enough to be able to ride at a leisurely pace stopping regularly for breaks and photos, safe in the knowledge that we’d arrive at our destination while it was still light; long enough to enjoy the great road). We rolled into Pokhara around 4pm and, after making our way to Lakeside where all the action is, found a fantastic guesthouse among the many on offer where the novel smell of freshly laundered sheets hit us as soon as we opened the door to our room. That had us so excited you’d have thought we were shooting a washing powder commercial! So, as you can probably already tell, our first impressions and experiences of Nepal were pretty damn good! We can hear the sighs of relief from our readers who, perhaps, have been getting a bit fed up with our moaning about India!! That chapter is behind us now and there are good times ahead…

Post script: India

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

(James) Some of the more observant amongst you may have noticed that we were, well, a tad disappointed and disillusioned with India. We have tried to be diplomatic and not moan too much in our recent entries on the country but are aware of the fact that our writing was often negative and a bit ‘ranty’.  We’re also aware that given that most of those who follow us read our blog whilst sitting at work, and for many doing so in winter, it might sound a bit galling to hear two lucky sods moaning about our problems as we ride on our dream trip.

I should say that we haven’t (thus far) had a single complaint, critical remark or comment questioning our attitude and, almost without question, everyone we’ve met in India or in Nepal (from where I write this) has been of the same opinion. However, we thought we should write a small entry if only to support what we’ve written and to ensure we don’t unduly cause offence (not that we think we can have); something that Fabian, who is of the same opinion of us, has found on his website, where his remarks have (unfairly in our minds) been criticised by a couple of his followers. Fabian, incidentally, had visited India before as part of a tour group (a common way to do it) and had enjoyed his experience – not so this time.

I should start by saying that India is an incredibly diverse country, with an amazing history and rich culture, and we did meet some incredible people, but that can’t hide the fact the India has, in our  eyes, some very real and very significant flaws (yes, I know all countries have flaws) that people seem to either excuse or ignore.

We simply found that everything in India was a constant battle. The guide books refer to it as a ‘sensory overload’ which it undoubtedly is, but that, frankly, is a bit rose tinted. The fact is India is, for the most part, filthy (there, I said it!). Almost without exception every city, town & village is festooned with rubbish piled everywhere. We often saw people walk out of pretty expensive looking houses in affluent neighbourhoods and just throw their rubbish in the street right outside their front door. For the life of us we just can’t understand this. And it’s not just rubbish that fills the streets; animals run round everywhere producing their own waste which, like everything else, seems to be just left there to rot. Cows are considered sacred but in reality a cow’s quality of life in India is something that would ordinarily have animal rights groups up in arms. Left to pretty much fend for themselves, they spend their days lying in the middle of roads, rooting through and eating piles of rubbish and receiving no veterinary care for some of the diseases this lifestyle inevitably produces. Frankly, it’s no way to ‘treat’ an animal, and certainly no way to treat something  you revere.  The result of all this, in the considerable Indian heat, is a pretty awful smell, and clouds of flies which frequently lead to outbreaks of disease. So, if the idea of sitting down to eat at a street side food stall (which we did hundreds of times) next to piles of rubbish and poo (from various animals and humans – yes we often saw people just squat down to defecate in the middle of the street!), watching dogs fighting (or humping each other), having cows, goats, pigs or any other sort of animal right next to you, seeing huge rats running through the rubbish (and over your feet), and having cars, buses & trucks belching out black smoke  as they pass with their horns permanently on, while clouds of flies buzz round you sounds like fun then you’ll love India.

We’ve already written about the driving which isn’t so much crazy as intentionally dangerous so I won’t go into that, but we found this complete lack of pride/concern for others was everywhere. After the incredible honesty and friendliness that we’d experienced in the previous 18 countries, India came as a bit of a shock. We found we really had to watch ourselves, as the locals had scams on scams all designed to rip you off – it seems to be corrupt from the bottom up, and you’re seen simply as a rich westerner there to be fleeced for everything you’re worth. If someone tried to help us they always wanted money for the effort, nothing was free and it slowly made us more and more wary of people’s offers of help  – not something we really liked.

We’re not exactly wet behind the ears when it comes to travel so these things really can’t be put down to cultural differences (an excuse, interestingly, used initially by the head delegate of the Delhi commonwealth games after teams threatened to pull out of the games in a row over conditions and hygiene – he quickly withdrew it!). The few India lovers we’ve spoken to about this tend to give the stock answer, ‘That’s India’….  Well, I’m sorry but what kind of answer is that? In fact, what does it even mean?

 These problems can’t be blamed on the fact that India’s a poor country because it’s not. It’s the richest country (China aside) that we’ve been through since leaving Europe; it has a huge economy, helped by having a cheap labour force in its own back yard. It’s about to spend several billion dollars on new state of the art military fighter jets, and is spending countless more billions developing a space program, and yet, it cannot look after its own people. According  to a recent report India has 42% of the world’s malnourished children – 42%! That’s more than the combined total for Africa (African countries, unlike India, however, don’t have the financial resources to escape the vicious cycle of poverty they find themselves in). Nor can it be blamed on its Hindu culture. Nepal has a Hindu culture, and is a far poorer country, yet its people are friendly, honest, generous, proud and (Kathmandu aside) towns, villages and houses are clean and clearly looked after.

Whenever we spoke about any of these issues with fellow travellers to try to gain some sort of insight into the problem, we simply came back to the notion that (and you’ll have to excuse my French) nobody gives a shit, it’s as simple as that. We’ve seen some pretty horrendous things in India which we’ve not written about and certainly not photographed – we wanted to keep our blog remotely pleasant and (hopefully)enjoyable so we’ve spared you some of the lowlights. Some of you may not agree with what we’ve said, and you’re welcome to your opinion just as I am. But you’ll have to accept that we have tried to walk a fine line, between keeping our entries accurate and honest, yet without making them so brutally honest that we end up put you off your dinner.

One other reason for our ‘stance’ on India is that having travelled through so many other countries, we want to ensure a level playing field, so try judge each country by the same set of rules to maintain some sort of consistency. With this mind, it would hardly be fair to make exceptions for India, who despite everything, benefits from over 5 million tourists each year. If any of the other countries we’ve been through (all of whom can only dream of such tourist numbers) were to have the same flaws on display or simply were to treat tourists in such a way, people simply wouldn’t go there. Yet India survives on the back of this generous, if misguided, attitude that defends every shortcoming with the inane, ‘Well, that’s India!’

Of course, if you don’t believe us pop down to your local travel agent, give them several hundred pounds for a ticket and go see for yourself. As for us? It’s a big world out there, I think we’ll see what else it has to offer….

So long, India: Hello, Nepal!

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

(Emily) We pretty much couldn’t leave Varanasi fast enough and 7am on 1st November saw Fabian and ourselves packing up the bikes with an air of giddiness. We’re heading to Nepal, baby! After the debacle of getting into the city, we followed James’ non-GPS route to exit and, to our relief, soon found ourselves on the road north to the border. We’d left in good time to do the 300km stint but, as Fabian had predicted, our progress was considerably slower than the previous few days’ riding as we were back to single lane road and the suicidal overtaking/cars coming in the opposite direction that we loved so much. Deep joy. Several stretches were badly pot-holed and neither I nor the bike enjoyed that very much; I was suffering from a pulled muscle in my shoulder which jarred painfully with every bump and my poor bike was bleeding again (fork seal leak still not fixed… ) We stopped for some roadside samosas around 11am (despite the unsanitary conditions, there’s no getting away from the fact that the samosas in India are goooood) and, somewhat optimistically, projected that we might reach Gorakhpur (two thirds of the way to the border) by noon. Hmmm. The cows and goats and kamikaze drivers continued to conspire against us and it was actually more like half past two when we entered the chaos of the city (the bypass was only available if coming from the west so we found ourselves in the thick of things). It was, to use Fabian’s favourite phrase, ‘a living hell’!! Hot, sweaty, dirty, congested and, forty-five minutes later, I had a serious case of clutch-claw going on. Still, the end was nigh and, after a little ‘detour’ through an army barracks (Fabian’s GPS again….), we found ourselves on the right road for the final 80km to the border. The traffic had thinned out a bit so we hurtled along, minds fixed on the target. Ironically, the scenery became a lot greener and there was noticeably less  garbage lying around for our final stint in India… it didn’t make us any less desperate to leave though!

Darkness was falling as we approached Sonauli, the border town; somehow it had taken us ten hours to do the 300km (185 mile) journey!!! Even as I write that, I think ‘surely, it can’t be possible…’, Then again, a 30kph average sounds about right so there we are. The ‘border’ at Sonauli was a complete joke; we rode along a busy bazaar/high-street that had basically turned into a parking lot for trucks and lorries and, seeing an archway come into view at the end, realised that this was it – the border. We’d have ridden right on and through had someone not beckoned us to pull into the side of the road next to a shack about 100m from the end, half hidden behind the parked trucks and camouflaged amongst all the stall fronts. This was customs , wasn’t it obvious?!! I stayed with the bikes, trying to protect them from knocks by the trucks that were inching through and the motorbikes and rickshaws weaving in and out of them, while James and Fabs did the relevant paperwork. We could not actually believe this was the border, it was ridiculous!! Immigration was the same deal – a non-descript shack – though it did actually have a front entrance rather than being open to the elements like customs! When finally the endless rigmarole of paperwork was over, we were told to go through and seek the customs house on the other side… this was it, we were about to cross into Nepal – yee-ha!!!

Okay, so it wasn’t quite the revelation we were anticipating to leave Indian soil. For one thing, it was dark so we weren’t exactly able to take in our surroundings. Also, it would be foolish to expect things to change straightaway; we were still on the same road after all. However, enough subtle changes were detected to verify the entry to a new land, not least the fact that people were already noticeably warmer and friendlier in country number 20. We were met with a hearty greetings of ‘Welcome to Nepal,’ and big, genuine smiles abounded from both border officials and the soldiers. We were all so tired and hungry that, after a little friendly negotiation on price, we booked into the nearest hotel and having persuaded the manager to let us park all three bikes inside the foyer, agreed to meet downstairs for something to eat half an hour later. As overjoyed as we were to be in Nepal, we were somewhat alarmed by the plague-like presence of insects; the walls of the corridor outside our room were thick with winged inhabitants and we literally had to seal our mouths shut as we descended the stairs lest we inadvertently inhale a bug or ten (pre-dinner snack, anyone?) Apparently, our arrival had coincided with an annual creepy-crawly fest, unique to the border town. Bummer if you live there! As for us, we were too tired to really care and once we’d brushed some offenders off the pillows and put a side light on to attract them away from the bed in the night, we slept like babies! (James: It seems to have slipped Em’s mind that I ended up with an insect stuck deep in my ear. It was flapping away, and not even tweezers could reach it. You’ll have to trust me when I say it was a deeply unpleasant experience which only ended when, some half an hour later, it managed to work its way out!) Okay, so then we slept like babies!