THE EXOTIC BACKDROP WAS ONLY PART OF THE MAGIC. Cutting the engine and bedding down the side stand into deep sand, the rest of the spectacle was revealed in howling, singing and creaking glory. Jungle noise – and perfect isolation to enjoy it in.
The past few days had been hectic, that was for sure. My adventures with the landslide and two nights of accidental camping had left me cold, coughing and dirty enough to front a little cash for a nice room in central Shimla – though that came with the similar needle-in-haystack navigation and confusing road systems I’d become accustomed to in the months I’d been in India. Like the surprisingly slippy, symbiotic driving style, road layouts seemed to have a law unto themselves, just one that escapes the western eye. When I wasn’t forced to ride, Shimla seemed pretty nice, crowding a wooded hilltop with bright colonial buildings and boutique shops. A modern anomaly in the mountains.
I made a pit stop in Rishikesh to get the bike serviced, and I knew there were cheap hostels. In my handful of stopover days, I was fortunate enough to chaperone another English rider through the idiosyncrasies of the Indian medical system (it had been me only weeks before, after all). Rafe also found out he’d broken his wrist and, confronted with a four week waiting time before another x-ray, he jumped ship to recover on the beaches in Thailand. Still with many kilometers before I’d reach a shoreline, I was justifiably jealous.
But now, standing in that sea of green – a peaceful chaos of buttery oxygenated air and the life and death shrills of hidden, spectacular creatures – I hoped that all the kilometers which led me to the ocean would all be this spectacular. For a short while, I was in a bubble of bliss.
But all bubbles eventually burst – and mine bought me back to earth with a punch.
My phone; my map, my rescue hotline, my social connection, my photo album. Gone.
I patted down my jean pockets and shunted through the usual tank bag clutter only to reach the bottom with nothing to show for it. The zipper on the top flap seemed to flutter in a wind that wasn’t there. I guessed I’d left it open while riding. Shit-balls.
It occured to me I had absolutely no idea where I was. Other than in the heart of a Tiger reserve.
I looked for a couple of hours, re-riding my tracks and scuffling around on my hands and knees in the sand and overgrown verges, but it was gone and the longer I searched the more I was losing any chance of making it to the border today.
It was a shit pill to swallow, but I fired up the bike and carried on into the wilds.
The quality of Indian roadside directions is both laughably inconsistent and unreliable, at the best of times and I was resigned to it being my only method to reach Nepal. Better yet, I was far enough away for most villagers to have no idea, but thankfully most felt obliged to have a crack at suggesting a route anyway. One gummy old man with a smile that wrapped around his face like a ribbon seemed to suggest the Nepalese border was exactly twelve kilometers above me. Confused, he squinted his lost wisdom upon me.
Despite stuttered progress, frustrations were melted away on the sweet-wrapper purples of an Indian sunset. That would change at night though. It always did in the dazzle.
I’d been funneled through Rampur, maybe fifty kilometers away from my intended route, and with the faintest glimmer of a dying day decided to press on to Rudrapur, closer to the border for the next day. It wasn’t so far, but turned out to be a boxing match, without the two minute rounds.
Teeth gritted down on dust and grit floating sandstorm thick, choking and blinding. Full beams, black night, dawdling cars and dust clouds concealed potholes – wheel killers, like riding atop the yawning mouths of whales. One set perfectly flicked the back end up two feet into a stunning nose manual, impressively impossible for a two hundred kilo bike. Gravity ensured it came back down as quickly as it had come up, with a spine jarring landing.
My exhausted eyes caught a bright red and white ‘HOTEL’ sign at just the right moment, but my tired brain tried to weigh up the pro’s and con’s of staying out of town and I rode straight past it, having to U-turn after a couple of minutes decision making. I checked in, leaving my drivers license as deposit, and went to my room to wash the filthy urban mascara that had waxed itself around my eyes. The baby blues had faded to the same grey I was trying to scrub from the skin on my cheeks.
With the hotel wifi I tried to remotely locate the phone, but I was locked out of my google account too, and was drawing blank for the password. It was an hour of painful, hair pulling clusterfuck before I was tired enough to pass out to the heavy industrial metalwork noises hammered out by the engineering factory downstairs. The phone, and all my photos, were gone forever.
Maybe a tiger had eaten it.
In the morning I scrawled a basic map of towns and place-names that I should pass on my way to the border, where I’d happily start winging it East. Frighteningly, it worked. I was at the Nepali border in no time. Being turned away?
Apparently there are a number of different border crossings, none of which are signposted or advertised. On my third attempt I had to follow another motorbike along marvellous foot wide, white sand jungle trails, scrape my luggage rack through a tiny pedestrian gate and ride a narrow, busy bridge into border control. It took me around an hour to clear both sides, buying a visa and vehicle tax on arrival.
You can feel the difference. Nepal was calmer, the roads were wider and cleaner, homes were freshly painted and well maintained, ghosts played under the comfortable afternoon fog in the bordering, expansive rice paddies. Best yet, it was the first time I’d been able to cruise above 100km/h for what felt like weeks. It looked like Nepal might just be the wonderful lost world I’d been told to expect.
Buzzsaw vibrations through the bars were unsettling the pins in my wrist much more than a week spent boulder bounding in Spiti. I rested after around an hours riding, deciding to pull some Nepalese rupees from an ATM in the next town, the ten thousand Nepalese rupees I’d converted at the border had already been mostly chewed up on the admin/paperwork. Both cards were declined, one requiring phone calls, the other needing an app to unblock – things I needed my lost mobile for… I couldn’t sigh loudly enough as I saddled up and carried on riding long enough to figure out a plan.
Pokhara. I’d ride straight there. I needed a base to sort things out, and apparently Pokhara was the national capital for paragliding, maybe I could arrange a course while I was over there? It was a long haul ahead – maybe around 600km, so I planned my overtakes to slingshot me past with the least drop in momentum, slowing only for towns and bigger convoys. I even teamed up with a pair of reckless lads on a Duke 390, swerving around, bellowing laughter into the air and flipping off cars they passed too closely and too fast. The bullet could barely keep up and I preferred to ride into Pokhara, rather than arrive in the back of a police van or a hearse. Admiring their spirit, I splintered away for an oil change then a more considered pace.
The sun went down while I cruised through another national park that bordered the highway. Bardia national park. A park that just keeps going and going – where good tarmac lures you into race mode, but thick vegetation either side and the guttaral exhaust growl begs control, animals easy to scare from the borders and into your path. Between deep jungle, small villages bordered straight stretches of the road for a few kilometers at a time. Bikes, carts, dogs, children – all the things you don’t want hidden in the road would be hidden in the road.
Nepali driving, something which hadn’t given me too much concern since I crossed the border, took a frightening drop into kamikaze territory after dark. I was in Bardia national park, where the guttural growl of my exhaust could frighten wildlife into the road ahead of me, and I was already competing for space with unlit bikes, carts, dogs and children. Everything you dont really want to crunch into. I stopped for food in a roadside ‘restaurant’ and equired about somewhere nearby to stay. The owner was drunk, but winked me a two hundred rupee wooden bed with a sheet over it. I didn’t really want to keep pushing into the night, so accepted and sat down to eat, only to have the scowling female hostess telling me the man didn’t work there (he was just a drunk) and the room would be five hundred rupees – kinda steep for a hard slab in a shithole. But it was a clever move, I’d had three beers and locked my bike away, there was no chance I’d leave now.
After a mug of hot buffalo milk I clawed my way underneath the skimpy pink mosquito net and into disturbed sleep, clawing mid-munch mosquitos away from my skin. The morning showed me the mosquito net was more like an old fishermans net, well worth the five hundred rupees, right?
I set off around 6am, without breakfast, and hurled my way towards Pokhara. The road north left no room for the rythm of riding, a stacccato of stop-start in symphony with bad drivers, frequent rough patches and unmarked obstacles. It was slow, draining riding and rather than enjoying the scenery my mind clawed at the odometer, wishing the kilometers away.
I was passing through a small town, one of many that strung out like beads on the thread of the Pokhara highway, when two traffic cops whistled their outstretched palms to attention and waved me to the side. I’d decided not to ask what was going on, sure that there’d be a routine check in there somewhere. But after ten minutes of babbling back and forth over radio static, and nothing mentioned to me as to why I was stopped, I approached one of the officers to ask.
“Just checking,” he said evasively through his white facemask. “We’re looking for an Indian registered bike. A car driver has made a complaint, said a motorcycle crashed into him.”
I’d had a particularly close call on the way up, overtaking a bus over a stretch of bad gravel, I was able to take a better, quicker line past. Mid overtake, honking to let the bus know I was coming, it started mindlessly drifting out into the middle at about the same time a purple car came gunning around the corner towards me. Thumb held hard on the horn, I braked hard and shouldered against the back tire of the bus to make room. The car driver had plenty of space but still managed to pincer me steadfast between the bus and himself. Everyone stopped.
“Whoa whoa whoa – what the fuck?” I glared at the car window, driver nudging forwards obliviously. I glanced down at the luggage racks to see whether anything had touched, but there was clearance on both sides, somehow. I slipped through the narrow gap, waved a frustrated hand to let them know I was pissed off and called the inside of my visor some pretty viscious names. You can be not taking anything for granted on these roads, and still get shoved off your bike, I was reminded nearly every day.
If it was the same incident, and god knows I hadn’t seen any other Indian plates yet in Nepal, then ‘Crashed into him’ was a bit of a fucking exaggeration. The cop jumped onto the back and escorted me to the local police station.
I was angry at the driver, but knew better than to let it show or affect any of the twenty different policemen who swarmed around the foreigner on the bike in the station courtyard. I chatted to a few in broken english, the seargent in better english and even shared an eye-rolling joke that the dark skinned Nepali was nicknamed ‘the Nigerian’. They were warming to me and offers of support in my case came through after a time.
Without the driver showing up they would only keep me there for a couple of hours and, having taken scans of my passport and drivers license, told me to continue to Pokhara but call them with my guesthouse address when I arrived, to continue the case. It was around two hours further riding, with the daylight ending in twenty minutes and a rain storm that whipped up within thirty.
I arrived in Pokhara Lakeside cold, wet and angry. Some shopkeepers helped me find a hostel with minimal fuss, my drowned-rat appearance apparently playing on their concience. I managed to smile, share the synopsis of my day over a beer and relax knowing that this would be home for the next few days at least. A hot shower washed the stress off my knotted shoulders and curled up against the cold that had settled on my bones.
I couldn’t lie – it hadn’t been the introduction to Nepal I would’ve chosen, but this is what happens on the road. Expectations are dashed from plans and reborn in the unexpected. In the same way India had felt it necessary to test me, Nepal was simply seeing how well I rolled with the punches.
There would be more punches to come, but in Pokhara the good times were the only things rolling. And that was worth the Badventure bruises to get there.