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All that Glitters is not Gold

Having arrived in Delhi sooner than I expected I had some time to kill ... or rather cherish as Homer would say. To be honest Delhi was a lot calmer than I expected, perhaps Mumbai is where one gets that sense of being totally crowded out. Thus, the first day I just tried to recuperate by finding the eateries on Connaught Place. This is the shopping and business district and is organised much like a ripple with a garden in the middle and circular streets with inter-connecting avenues expanding from the centre. I was getting aggro from every side and as my legs were tired I eventually capitulated and retreated to my hotel room to watch the cricket and a very dodgy flick on HBO. I have a lot of time for HBO due to some of the great shows they have broadcast through the years but the quality of their exports is dismal; Hollywood at its absolute worst. Larry David would have had a field day commentating on the stuff I was watching.

I didn’t have the strength to face another day of getting hounded so I decided to sample the Indian train service by doing what is referred to as the Golden Triangle; Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. I would make a day-trip to Jaipur, overnight there (I kept my hotel in Delhi to safe-keep my bike and bags) before taking the early train to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. I would then take the direct train from Agra to return to Delhi at 11pm that same day.

King Humayun's tomb - DelhiI will start with Delhi where I finished up. I had planned to join a bike-tour in the hope that they would show me the niche spots but I failed to locate the tour. So, I headed off on my own to cover probably 70% of the main sites in Delhi in one day. Honestly, bikes are the best way to see any city as you can cover so much ground. While my first impressions of Delhi were not positive it really is an international city. It is currently busying itself with preparations for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. The highlight for me was possibly the quiet Mahatma Gandhi museum where I was inspired to exercise patience in terms of my dealings with Indians. Isn’t Gandhi an absolute legend? A universal man of the people. Delhi itself was easy to navigate on the bike and it has lots of open spaces for people to lie on the grass, have picnics or play cricket. It was an enjoyable day for sure.

Jaipur is home to what is known as the ‘Pink City’ due to the almost terracotta like colour of its buildings. While it didn’t rain it was cloudy and the ground was wet from an early morning shower. This helped to dilute the numerous cow-pats on the streets so it was not a day for the flip-flops for sure. I was traipsing around the city with Josh, an American who lives in Hollywood. Not having a guide-book I didn’t have a rashers about accommodation and as he had booked somewhere I shared his cab and ultimately his twin-room. We saw what there was to see in the Pink City but omitted visiting the fortresses on the out-skirts for which we would have needed a car. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about to be honest. The boring cloudscape spoiled any photography and the architecture wasn’t that great in any case. So, feeling a little disappointed we grabbed some din dins and called it an early night. I was sure that the Taj Mahal would make up for it the following day but it meant rising at 5am to catch the train.

Taj Mahal - AgraAgra is regarded as a one-trick pony. There may be a few sights there but ultimately people don’t want to hang around and so they end up spending a half-day getting in and out so that they can see the Taj and its gardens. Only photographers would hang around from sun-rise to sun-set to capture the Taj Mahal’s many different moods. I was banking on getting a sun-set but the sky was not open for business. In addition my three and a half hour train journey turned into a marathon 10 hours as the train was originally an hour delayed and so had missed its rightful passage on the tracks. The result was that we crept along and I barely made it to the Taj Mahal at all. I sneaked in 4 minutes before they were due to close the doors and just in advance of the last moments of day-light. The place was mobbed, kids are allowed in free so school tours were plentiful and Indians get in for next to nothing. Getting inside the mausoleum itself was worse than trying to squeeze onto the Tube in rush-hour. I have never seen anything like it. The Taj is truly iconic. It is set in nice grounds so it has space to breathe and to dominate the awe-struck tourist. By the time I made it inside it was dark outside and so I was literally walking around in the dark following a bunch of random people. I couldn’t see a thing; it felt like I was treading along blindly in the one of those chambers of horrors that one finds in fun-parks. But there is not much to see in any case; the Taj is all about its exterior. Having not eaten all day (the train was too early for breakfast and I had not banked on a delayed train forcing me to skip lunch) I bailed to grab some food and make it back to the train-station. For sure the day did not turn-out as well as it might have but I have in fact visited the Taj Mahal numerous times before ... in the board-game ‘Hotel’ of course. Indeed, if one was to use this game as the basis for a round-the-world trip one would visit the following hotels (if my memory serves me correctly): Royal, President, Waikiki, L’Etoile, Taj Mahal, Safari, Fuji and Boomerang. I’ll leave you to work out the countries.



'Bourne Identity

It was refreshing to arrive in Melbourne. At last I was free from the racist sensibilities that I had suffered in India and Nepal. As I’m generally contrarian I am quite comfortable to live removed from the crowd, however, it was not possible to live unnoticed on the margins in India. My milk-bottle complexion determined that I would be hounded by touts and beggars on the beaten tourist path. Off the well-trodden path my pastiness transformed me into a curiosity. Not being used to such things it took a great deal of patience to see beyond either mill of people to assess the real India. Thus, it was a really nice feeling to float into a sea of white-folk.

Having said all that, Melbourne presented its own issues. Now that I was blending in I felt the need to separate myself once more from the crowd. As I packed so few clothes I felt a little Jason Bourne-like. I certainly didn’t want to look like a scruffy traveller or to be associated with the back-packing set. To think that I hate the boxes people put me into in Dublin! Of course, I don’t need a new identity ... I’m not going to grow dread-locks and get tattoos; I just felt the need to revert to type. Shopping was to be the perfect remedy.  

While I’m pretty good at the task of shopping I don’t really shop in Dublin. This is a function of the bad selection, poor taste and high-prices more than my hate of spending money on things I don’t really need (one’s hobbies are an exclusion of course and certainly shopping can be a hoppy for people, it’s just not mine). So now I have to give disposable clothing its due. First thing was a pair of jeans which I never knew I would miss. A$20 later problem solved, not the nicest shade of denim but most important is the fit. I got a pair of casual shades for the same price. Being in Australia I needed a new pair of board-shorts and then a couple of nice shirts for evenings out. Of course, I couldn’t resist going back to my staples; plain white tees, a cool bike cap and naturally a pair of Chucks (Converse). Needless to say, I don’t feel so naked anymore.



The last time I posted I mentioned that I would try to squeeze what I could out of India in the few rest-days I had there. I am now in Melbourne (am I getting annoying yet?). Clearly I have some catching up to do with the blog and so I will endeavour to unravel my thoughts before they become a blur. To do this I have just bought myself an Asus netbook. We are still only acquainting ourselves but it was a necessary purchase as the iPod Touch keyboard is too cumbersome to post anything significant without a load of typos and it doesn’t handle the photo side of things at all due to the lack of a desktop. The www cafes are fine but each has its own peculiarities. In addition I am restricted to gathering my thoughts when there as opposed to mulling over them as I am wont to do in my own time. There is only so many times I can rue not taking my macbook to save on weight, the netbook is the best compromise.

While Asian internet cafes are a flop, the flip to having a real connection is that it costs more (30c for an hour in India vs. A$5). Of course, this may prove to be the best way to explore the strong cafe scene in Melbourne as I can get free wifi in some cafes and even in McDonalds for the price of a coffee. Not being a coffee drinker I will have to sample the cakes ... suits me just fine. So, the netbook will pay for itself in terms of what I save on internet charges elsewhere and if I go to McDonalds it effectively means that I ‘get my shakes for free’! So, I will tip my hat to Jeff Buckley, my long-time iPod companion, and call these my ‘cafe-days’.


I'm a Survivor!

Arrival into Delhi from KathmanduTo quote my good friend Tom(Tom) 'You have arrived at your destination'. 

I am very happy to say that both the dude and his bike arrived yesterday into Delhi in one piece ... unbelievably! It was a 1300k spin from Kathmandu and I wrapped it up with three monster stages; 182k+190k+175k. I'm still scratching my head as to how I managed to drag my 16kg bike, 20 kilos of kit and 2.25" tyres that far. However, these crazy Indians put the fear of God into me and so I had to summon the necessary resources from somewhere. Of course, the better than expected roads and flat Indian plains helped me no end. If I keep this up I should be up for selection by the time the Tour rolls around in July. I had hoped the final leg would be a 'Champs Elysees' procession-like stage but a head-wind and the lack of a safe lunch-stop made it a slog. For those that are into quantitative analysis the trip went as follows:

Kathmandu - 90k+92k+ day-off in Royal Chitwan Wildlife Park (Elephant Safari) +140k+142k+80k+80k+130k+ day-off in Lucknow (Pizza-Hut, Baskin Robbins, Subway, cricket, kiting) +182k+190k+175k - Delhi

I will hesitate from penning weary thoughts as a gesture of diplomacy. This is an extremely challenging country to travel in so I will wait until I'm a bit fresher so that I'm a little more even-handed (I'm ready to sock someone etc).

As I have made such good time I'm going to get the hell out of Delhi. I will give India a chance to redeem itself with day-trips to Jaipur and Agra. Annoyingly, I've had my first drops of rain since I left Dublin. They are only drops and I wouldn't complain but for the fact that clouds will spoil any good photography of the Taj Mahal.

Will post thoughts soon.



The People You Meet

There is a constant stream of characters that enter and exit the script as one travels. Travelling solo one makes more of an effort to stock up on chit-chat in case one heads off the beaten western path where the well of proper English conversations might run dry.

You just think of a question to ask someone and then the conversation starts from there. For example at the Pumpernickel Bakery in Pokhara I simply asked a guy whether his banana bread was more bread than cake. An important question when one's tooth is as sweet as mine. The conversation went from there and he was a pretty laid-back Tassie who now lives in Sydney. He had his own travelling story from when he hitch-hiked from Athens to Stockholm on his way to spending some time working in London. The time was 1986 and it turned out to be an adventurous time to explore Europe. Firstly Reagan bombed Tripoli and as he was starting in Athens across the other side of the Med it made sense to see whether it was indeed safe to continue. Next thing Chernobyl happens and again there was a hesitation to move as Europe waited to see what the fall-out would be. Exiting Greece he would have hitch-hiked across what was then Yugoslavia before arriving in Germany at some point. This was pre the fall of the Iron Curtain so he managed to experience the diverging politics of both East and West Berlin. He arrived in Sweden at some point to meet the girl that sparked the escapade in the first place.

I was very fortunate to meet a great crew of people on my jeep tour through Tibet. Such whirlwind tours can inevitably be hit or miss in terms of company but the camaraderie on this trip was great. Most of the people had been on the road for a while so everyone was already wound down unlike on a regular two-weeker where it might take a few days or even a week to switch off.

Roland, Ishmael, Ralf and the DudeI'll introduce you to the people on my jeep as another example. Roland from Germany in fact needs no introduction. Our situations, interests and thoughts are quite identical. He too is on a sabbatical from a large corporation after working for 10 years. He also keeps a blog and enjoys photography and indeed his big picture thinking is not dissimilar from mine. So, if you know me well enough then you know Roland too.

Ishmael is from Tel Aviv and is totally deaf. He had already completed the trek to Everest Base Camp before the Tibet tour and is now on his way to India and then South East Asia before returning to his hotel-job. As I'm a little deaf myself I grabbed him for our jeep to make sure that he wasn't standing around like some fat-kid who is picked last for the soccer team. Incredibly he is travelling solo and so of course we all made an effort to make sure that he understood what was happening, in particular Ralf who received a crash course in sign-language from Ishmael. It turned out that this Israeli was the party guy in the whole group. While we were sitting in the Karaoke bar next to the hotel listening to some very dodgy Tibetan singing. Ishmael left for bed or so we thought. He instead went to a taxi-driver and asked to be taken to a better club. Ralf and I returned to our bedroom not knowing why Ishmael wasn't there. We needn't have worried, he returned a couple of hours later showing us movies and photos of all the women he met in the night-club. Unbelievable. My relationship with Ishmael briefly took a dent that night however. It was our first night in a proper hotel having spent two days in dormitory style accommodation without proper showers or western toilets. When a large group of westerners descends on eastern toilets the result is disastrous. Don't ask me why. I can't understand why people would aim for the shelf or miss altogether when all one has to do is aim for the hole ... one is squatting barely 10 inches from the hole so how people miss is beyond me. Honestly, the scene in the mornings was horrific, I had to summon all my buddhist powers of levitation to make it through the two days. Anyhow, we had arrived at a nice hotel and it turned out that Ishmael had a habit of peeing all over the seat. I can tolerate a lot but I don't care how night-blind someone is, there is no excuse for not sitting down if you have a habit of making a mess. A rare frustration on such a good trip.

When we got to Lhasa we preferred to sit on the veranda of the hotel and drink some beers. Meanwhile Ishmael was off on his own again having another great night in a big nightclub. He came home after 3am. Not to be outdone some of us took his instructions and headed off to find this nightclub the following night. Ishmael decided to go to some carnival or festival elsewhere ... where he was getting his information from I have no idea. We on the other hand were having a good time in the nightclub but something seemed to be not quite right. I'm reasonably open to how different cultures do things but I'm not quite overly comfortable with guys dancing in my face. It's a bit of an invasion of privacy. I was putting the pieces together where others seemed not to be. There were guys buying us drinks and the staff walked around in sailors outfits. The girls were showing no interest and while there was one scantily clad girl dancing on the table at one point it was a case of blink and you would miss her. The guy dancing on the table with nothing but a black tie on top sealed the deal for me. It was definitely Gay night but bizarrely some people seemed not so sure. Regardless, the music was good and everybody had a great night.

It was inspiring to watch Ishmael in action, he doesn't give a hoot. It's like he has a magic lamp and a genie grants him his every request. While we waited hours for our McYak burgers (joke) he gets his in 15 minutes. When everyone wanted to sit on the right side of the plane flying home to see Mount Everest, we ended up on the left with Ishmael on the right.

RalfFinally, there is Ralf. He's Dutch and speaks permanently through English. This might have something to do with the fact that English is the travelling language and he has been on the road for the last seven years. He is great company and dedicates his time to travelling overland to less visited countries. He toured through Afghanistan in 2006 for example. Currently he is on his way to Kazakhstan and every other 'stan' in that part of the world. To earn his travelling dollars he is a professional guinea pig for big pharma companies. While selective of the clinical trials he undertakes he sees them as being the quickest and easiest way to make money for his travels. I would consider him a work-aholic putting his travels before people, however, the guy is unbelievably passionate about travelling and I have to really respect his sense of vocation. He doesn't see himself getting off the road at all. He has finished the first draft of a book so hopefully he'll earn money more safely in the future. For anyone who is interested in travel blogs you can check his out here.

The people have been great so far ... I'm kind of steering clear of the hippy/shanti type traveller for the moment. I have no idea what they are about at all. However, there are so many of them wearing sinbad pants with dreadlocks that I'll no doubt learn more about this particular tribe of westerners in time.

Mind how you go




After a day of elephant safari in Chitwan it was time to continue my cycle from Kathmandu to Delhi. I put in over seven hours of road-time to make it to the town of Butwal. It was refreshing to stop and swap stories with a Spanish cyclist coming in the other direction. However, something was starting to nag me about Nepal and I still have no idea what. It was a great cycle and Chitwan had at last given me a taste of silence but my instinct told me that I was finished with Nepal and so I exited via Sunauli into India ten days early instead of through the far western border as planned. A night in the local love hotel might have been the final straw. When I checked in I found that the occupation of all previous guests was 'girlfriend'. The complimentary 'protection' under the mattress was not enough to defend me from an army of lice. So that's what the opposite end of the bed and sleeping bag liners are for. It was all too much although I slept soundly and thankfully so, as I needed the rest in advance of another 140k cycle to the town of Bedlum.

It was not the plan to do such long days on the bike since at least two hours of my day is spent in the hurt-box; not my favourite place by any means as it leaves me weary as opposed to fresh to embrace India.

Chat soon



A Game of Two Halves

How I missed the turn I have no idea. I left Kathmandu at 7am to begin my two week cycle to Delhi. The plan was to take two days to get to the Royal Chitwan National Park; Chitwan is the largest safari park in Asia. Looking at the map I saw a load of switch-backs on the map heading towards the town of Hetauda. I decided to go this way as it meant a fierce climb which would be a good test and it would also mean that I would avoid the busy Prithvi Highway, which I had already cycled on before. The incessant honking and stream of trucks and buses is fairly stressful. I'm much happier off the beaten track than on the tight-rope that riding the highway entails. The map indicated that if I continued straight then I would arrive at the foot of the pass to Hetauda. There was a right turn to Pokhara and indeed I saw a sign which confirmed as much. Travelling on the left-hand side of the road meant that if I simply kept to the left then I should not miss the turn. How I missed the turn I have no idea. I asked about twenty people and they told me to keep going and I would see a turn-off for Hetauda. It seems that there is as another turn for Hetauda a long way up the road where once again there is a right-hand turn for Pokhara. I can only gather that the pass I wanted to take is impassable and that is why buses and trucks continue to the next turn even if it ultimately means arriving in Hetauda having driven in a 'U'.  I'm not certain but needless to say that I was absolutely fuming, which was inevitable due to the following reasons. Firstly I was short on sleep as I had been out the night before although not too late. Secondly, the juice bar where I normally have breakfast was too busy serving tea to make me my toasted cheese omlette and granola with yoghurt and fruit (all for €1.25). Nepali's have two meals, Dahl Bhaat Tarakari at noon and Dahl Bhaat Tarakari at sun-set. They simply have tea for breakfast. Mark, on the other hand, has three meals a day (and sometimes more). As I'm not a morning person, unless I've had my nine hour quota of ZZZzzzs, I'm typically mute until I get both breakfast and lunch into me. After that I'm fine. If I've eaten well during the day then dindins is more about not letting my dinner spoil my dessert. I can't quite fathom how a cup of tea constitutes breakfast. I realise that an espresso or a tea for breakfast is not that uncommon in the west but no-one will ever manage to convince me that this is anything other than masochism. Naturally, having not eaten and having not slept too well it didn't take much to make me cranky. I was absolutely bullin'. This was the fourth time I had missed an important turn-off. There are so few highways outside of Kathmandu that I've only ever had to turn four times. I've missed them all. No doubt if I had been cycling backwards I would have seen the signs that they always seem to have for people travelling in the opposite direction to me. I was already too far down the mountain I had been travelling on that no amount of boiling blood was going to make me bubble back up to the turn-off.

So that was that, I was tracing over previous steps on the Prithvi Highway and taking the alternate route to Chitwan. I was so mad that I seriously considered doing a massive ride to the Indian border so that I could just get the hell out of Nepal. I kept staring at the tarmac when I realised that I was passing a rafting centre. Lady Providence made me spin around and I decided to stop for lunch. It was 11.30am. I had been on the road for four and a half hours and it made sense to stop to fuel up before the heat of the sun decided to make my day even more difficult. Next thing I knew I was eating my vegetable fried rice looking over the river I had been snaking all day and eyeballing some tents on the opposite side of the bank. This is where rafters on their two-day rafting trips spend the night. I checked the map and I was half-way to Chitwan. Decision made. I decided to rest-up for the day on the beach and pitch my tent for the night. It was exactly the kind of oasis I needed. In fairness, I had already clocked up 90 clicks having done everything by the touring hand-book; I rose with day-light and I arrived at my destination before the sun had reached it's highest point. Needless to say I had a great day by myself swimming in the river, lying in the sun-shine and reading my book. Of course, the honking trucks was never too far away (the other side of the river) but this seemed to me to be as quiet as Nepal gets. This was exactly what I had hoped travelling through the countryside would be like. I also hoped that rafters would arrive to organise a camp-fire and some beers but this was not to be. Instead, I spent the evening under the stars reading my book floodlit by my head-torch. Ironically it was the full-beam of the moon and not bright city lights that limited my star-gazing view. I had the croaking cicadas and my bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk for company (and of course the not so distant honking trucks). Life was great.

It was quite a remarkable turn-around to my day. I'm not a Liverpool fan but I'm sure the emotions were close to the despair and triumphalism that an LFC fan felt on that fateful day in Istanbul; a game of two-halves indeed.

Beach-view from the Big Fig


The Beginning of the Road

**A little wordy I know, I will be more concise in future**

The title of this piece is a little misleading. The term 'road' is a little dubious in Nepal and often when you are on the 'road' you are in fact riding what we would term 'off-road'. Perhaps the title should read "The Beginning 'off' the Road" or "The Beginning of the Way". In a country where only a third of the government tax-take goes back into the country due to corruption then it is easy to understand why one should not expect too much. Naturally the siphoning of public funds provides a massive disincentive for people to pay their taxes and so the available pool of money for infrastructure spending becomes even smaller again. Still, popular opinion in Nepal is split as to whether the government is doing a good job or not. It is interesting seeing the ways of a developing nation coming from the most 'developed' country in the world of course. If Ireland had continued any further with its Monopoly money there would have been no more supermarkets or petrol stations left. Even Monopoly has never offered hotel financing or mortgages.

Anyhow, a couple of volunteers I met were going to be spending the weekend in Pokhara. This is about 275kms from Kathmandu and serves as the base-town for the Annapurna Himalaya, which is heavily trekked. Pokhara is a lakeside town and so functions as a resort of sorts. The mountain lake in the snow-resort of Flims in the Swiss Alps is one of the nicest places I have ever spent time and so I was looking forward to something similar in Pokhara. As my planned cycle from Lhasa (Tibet) to Kathmandu had fallen through and as the Nepali Himalayas are only suitable for downhill rigs I had to cook up other plans. Thus, I decided to take the scenic route to Pokhara with the intention of arriving in Pokhara for the weekend so that I would at least have some familiar faces to hang out with.

Jenny, who took me mountain-biking on the Monday in the Kathmandu Valley, talked me through a route. On Tuesday I set off for my first bit of adventure touring to Pokhara. As I rose along the forest path that lifts one out of Kathmandu I felt like my wings were starting to flap. The noise of Kathmandu was fading into the distance behind me and I soared towards the blue skies in the direction of the village of Kakani at 2400ms of elevation. It was quite a stirring moment as I could feel the waterfall of emotion bubbling up inside me. Not that I could dwell on such things as my focus shifted back to the outside world where a waterfall of perspiration was occurring. I was climbing with circa thirty kilos more than I am used to. My race-weight is 74kg and my race-bike is about 7kg. I came with some extra padding for the low temperatures in Tibet and so I was weighing in at 79kg, the bike 16kg and the bags are about 24kg. I had left some items in storage in KTM so I was in fact carrying something like 20kg on the bike for this trip. On my return from Tibet I will ship my warm clothes home as I won't need them again until Argentina in February. Thus, I am used to pushing 81 kilos up a mountain and here I was carrying 115kgs. Thankfully, the thirty kilometre climb to Kakani was reasonably gentle and fueled with adrenaline I was able to happily negotiate the roads and take in some great views. I knew Kakani was at altitude, although this is hardly accurate when one is in the land of the Himal. 2400ms would be considered a high pass in the Alps but here it is nothing but a hill when Everest towers at 8848 metres. While the climb was long it felt like an intermediate climb in the French Alps, something like Les Deux Alpes or the Col d'Ornon.

What should have been a short trip to Kakani ended up being a 80k day on the bike and I didn't even get there completely on my own steam. When touring it is important to leave as close to sun-rise as possible so that you have plenty of day-light hours to arrive at your destination. This gives one time plenty of time for mishaps and for arranging accommodation on arrival. I was unable to leave Kathmandu until 11am as my laundry was not ready when it should have been. Time does not exist in Nepal like it does in Switzerland; it is simply that space between sun-rise and sun-set. In addition I had not done my homework in terms of the route. I knew Kakani was at the top of the climb but I was unsure of how far exactly as I was too busy to check. I was more preoccupied with finding the right road out of Kathmandu and I knew that once I was on this road that I could not miss Kakani. Of course I rolled right through the town without knowing it, how about 40kms through! I was aware that I had to take a right turn at the top of the climb to what is a much visited picnic spot, however, there was no official top of the climb like in Europe. Indeed, due to lack of resources there are very few road-signs in Nepal full-stop and so it was not obvious that I was in Kakani at all. The mountain was higher than the road and so I kept on cycling on what was a false-flat. This inevitably led to some picturesque views and a nice descent towards what I thought would be another climb and the village of Kakani. After 40k of additional riding I stopped and thankfully a local approached me out of curiosity. After a brief conversation I understood that I had gone way too far. I was in fact closer to my lunch-stop for day two than I was to my first-day destination. I headed back up the mountain but after 10k I realised that the sun was going to drop in the next hour and I was in no-mans land. I looked or rather listened out for one of the local buses that pass over this climb. You can hear them from miles away as they are always honking on the narrow roads around the many blind turns. They happily stopped for me and as they put my bike on the roof the passengers took the time for a toilet break. The lads working the bus were very happy and cool, one driver, one conductor and a guy who sits on top with all the luggage. The last two frequently jump onto the road to bang on the bus to let the driver know that he is cutting it too close to whatever obstacle or ridge he is negotiating. Transit time is always a long time in Nepal due to the roads and so nobody is ever in a rush. Nepali music kept us all company and the bus stopped en-route for twenty minutes to allow us all time to get a much needed feed. I was dropped at the top of the climb in Kakani, not that anyone would know and so I set about finding the turn-off towards the tea-houses along the picnic spot. It was dark at this stage and so I donned my head-torch and set about climbing the steep 4k up to the viewpoint. The reason people go to Kakani is because there is a vista of five snow-peaks and on a clear day the sun-rise is supposed to be incredible. If one slips into the National Park at the top one can visit a temple where they worship death. Death is celebrated as opposed to mourned here. While I was tired, I wasn't dying just yet. I just kept spinning the pedals, the bus had given me an opportunity to recover from my efforts and while the climb was difficult it was impossible for me to make out the road and so all I could do was spin blindly. Suddenly I passed a bemused Gurkha check-point and I realised that I was passing through a military compound. The Gurkhas are highly respected in combat and their symbol is the Khukuri knife. Khukuri knife (a poor translation of the Colaiste Eoin motto)I had been reading Haruki Murakami's 'Wind-up Bird Chronicle' in which there was Mongolian man-skinner. The book perfectly describes how this man could deftly skin a human-being like one would skin a slaughtered animal. It was a horrible way for the Japanese soldier to die. I certainly had no intention of getting in the way of the Gurkha so I just accelerated and eventually I arrived at some lights, a cold shower and my bed for the night.

I woke at 5.30 to catch the sun-rise but unfortunately there was a strip of cloud interrupting the view and so it was not as incredible as I had hoped. I settled my bill generously and made my way back down the road I had overshot the day before. It was a beautiful day and a really pleasant ride to the town of Trisuli Bazaar for lunch. This was a reasonably big town although it is never clear what a town's function is here. Clearly the title suggests that it is some sort of market town but to me it just looked the same as every other Nepali town I had seen; a noisy mess. Having had yet another bowl of Dahl Bhaat (rice, lentil soup, curried vegetables, spinach and a little salad which provides the only surprise in terms of variety) I set off to find the road that I had missed that signalled the turn-off for Gulchi. Gulchi is a small truck-stop where this road rejoins the highway to Pokhara. I knew that I needed to follow the Trisuli river but it was not obvious which turn-off this was (no signs and it was not on the map). I made my way back out of Trisuli and the police checkpoint confirmed that I had to go back about 10k the way I had come. After 9k I confirmed with a local that it was just up the road but not before he had tried to pair me off with his highly embarrassed daughter. I didn't know what to say ... even in English I didn't know what to say. Anyhow, after a few laughs I set off on my way to see that there was in fact a sign for Gulchi, it was just not in the direction I had come. What? Am I supposed to cycle backwards? I was really excited about following the course of the river as I knew it should be an easy flat 19k to Gulchi. Indeed the road dropped towards the river on new tarmac which I followed until it ran out in a village. I was told to go back to a fork and take the left hand turn. I had followed the tar at this fork and so now I knew I was in for a tough last 17k. It took me the best part of three hours to navigate my way along this 'road' or rather way. The road was a bomb-site, I had to cycle through mountain stream run-offs, I had to cycle over washed out muddy roads post monsoon and I also had to navigate the most brutal of rocky roads I have ever seen. Of course, it was all fun as it was a great test for me and the bike. Thankfully we were both made it through in one piece although I did manage to buckle my rear wheel somewhat. Amazingly I met plenty of happy children on this route who were more than happy to accompany me running along this road in their bare feet. I thought I could run but I havn't got a clue. These kids can seriously run as they don't even notice the surface they are ghosting over. I was staggered by the amount of people that lived on this stretch of road. I had yet to find a quiet spot in Nepal, people were around every corner and babbling in the bushes. The one time I found a quiet spot to rest in the shade it turned out to be a bus-stop and so I had to move on as the buses kept stopping for me. Again it was a close call with darkness and I just managed to make a guest-house in time. From here I knew I couldn't go wrong as I was on the highway, which goes direct to Pokhara.

Having adjusted to the time-difference I was starting to adjust to the early morning rises. I set-off on the road with the aim of getting breakfast in the first town, more rice. I hoped to do a big day so that I could give myself an easy run into Pokhara on the Friday. I just kept riding and while the weather was hot it was always possible to stop to get some mango Capri-Sun type drink. I love mangoes so it was very refreshing even if ultimately something artificial. The terrain was quite tough to cycle on. While the climbs were never overly long they were at least 1k if not 4k. Nepal just seems to be a series of rolling hills it seems, much worse than riding around the lakes in Blessington. To give you an impression of what touring with a loaded mountain-bike is like it is best just to double everything. So, if I cycle 50 miles it feels like a hundred. If I'm cycling a 5% gradient, it feels like 10% on the race-bike. At last I turned a corner and I noticed the snow peaks of the Annapurna in the distance. Getting closer to the HimalayaThis was the reason I had come this direction. It was a nice moment to stop although I was too tired to really care. I kept on riding towards Damauli which would leave me with a short 50k ride on the Friday. Before arriving into Damauli 110k later the road dropped down to the river I had been following all day. I had been riding along  hoping to find a quiet place in which to take a dip to cool off. Such a spot had eluded me until now. I peeled off the road and walked into the river. I peeled off my top also and used it as a sponge to wash myself. I was covered in dust so I needed to make myself presentable before finding accommodation. I also did a bucket wash of kit so that I would have something fresh to cycle in the next day. Again locals were everywhere. Privacy doesn't exist here. The ladies eagerly came over to see what I was washing, I don't think they could believe that a guy would wash his own clothes. I'm guessing only single guys would do such in Nepal. Of course, there was an endless stream of kids walking home from school to their homes in the middle of the bushes. You think you are in a secluded space but it never is here. It's nice to talk to the kids as they have good English. Private schools teach every subject through English except for Nepalese. However, in this case I was busy trying to catch my breath and so I had to be a little rude. I had in fact turned up at the local car-wash. There were two jeeps a little further down the river parked in the water getting a bucket wash and two guys in their twenties stood in the river in their underwear washing buses down. Perhaps they had read 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad' (I have not but I know everyone who has considers setting up a car-wash/valet company). They would back the bus into the water and spend twenty minutes scrubbing it down. The bus-driver would sit on the grass in the sun and smoke a cigarette. They had quite a good little business going as two more buses arrived for a bath.

the local car-washI made my way to Damauli and after checking in I managed to walk around the town and look for some food. I found a pretty hip place. As nice as the people were there I ate something a little dodge. This was to be the first time my tummy moved since I arrived. It was bound to happen but when you are cycling in this heat you need to eat and drink a lot. If you stick to Dahl Bhaat you are unlikely to be ill but having rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner inevitably means that your taste buds overrule any sensibilities. In fairness it wasn't until the next morning that my stomach started to move. I decided to ride it out as I'm sure my body would extract whatever energy it needed from the previous evening's meal. Cycling seemed the best way to reduce the biomass in my stomach. It was never violent but unlike in the west these things don't clear in one sitting. I was to have the rumbles for the best part of 10 days. It took that long to remember that I had packed grape-fruit seed extract as an anti-biotic for such occurrences. The guy who served me in the restaurant liked his music, I tried to stick to the mainstream artists I liked but he did not know them. He was a big fan of Michael Jackson and who of course appeared on the news but none other than Wacko himself. It was only when I got to Pokhara and I saw the festivals that I realised why he liked Michael Jackson so much. They love to dance here and it is taught in schools. Thus, it is easy to see why Jacko should be so much in the public-consciousness.

The final day to Pokhara was supposed to be easy but it was actually the hardest day of the trip. My legs were a little heavy from the efforts of the previous day. It is much like a stage-race, you don't want to get out of bed but you just have to get on with it and face the first hour of riding. Usually after an hour you get your legs back but it is always tough mentally to get on the bike when you are tired. The worst part was that the road to Pokhara was dead-straight and as I was trying to get there before lunch-time I was cycling with the sun directly behind me with no bends in the road or trees to provide me with shade. It was a massive effort to get to Pokhara, it was only when I watched the suspension of the motor-bikes that I realised how bumpy the road was. This was the reason I was going nowhere slowly. I must have stopped four times in the last ten miles to get some 'Frooti' (drink). Of course, the roads were full of obstacles and very large craters. Road-works consist of a truck dropping a load of dirt and gravel just before the crater. This load can be a meter high on the road. Such a jump would be impossible for the best of cyclocross riders so inevitably I had to snake my way to Pokhara. It was all bad. Since I was the smallest vehicle on the road I was always forced onto the bad lines through the craters or onto the dirt-verge.

I arrived at last and grabbed the first western people I could find. The Australian girl spoke and gave me the low-down on the place but it was obvious that she was finding Nepal tough and that I should have gotten a second opinion. I took her advice and ended up paying over the odds for a B&B. When you are as wrecked as I was you don't really care.

Pokhara was supposed to be an oasis for me, a place to relax and recouperate for the weekend. It is a nice place but it is a far cry from the mountain-lake in Switzerland that I had hoped for. The views of the Himalaya are great, however, the lake is under-developed and the town is full of people trying to sell you stuff like in Kathmandu. If this was in Europe there would be paddling boats, a swimming section, diving boards on floating islands and of course some imported sand from Egypt to make it somewhat more beach-like. Instead the water was not really safe for swimming near the shore and there was no real haven but for the lakeside restaurants. I enjoyed my down-time there getting to know the local mosquitos but it could be so much more than it currently is. Naturally, this is an unfair expectation in a country as poor as Nepal.

The biggest impression made on me during my trip was the following; while this is a very poor country it is a different kind of poverty to what one would see in Africa (not that I have been). There is no shortage of water here; there is a communal tap or a pipe installed by a local from a mountain stream every 200 metres where they wash their utensils, vegetables for the market, clothes and themselves. The place is gushing with water. In addition there is no shortage of food. There is plenty of rice to go around. It might bore me a little bit but living off a diet of Dahl Bhaat is not so bad. The people in the countryside have a relatively simple life and while I don't know what their aspirations are and whether they struggle or not, they seem cheerful and have time to sit in the shade and think. Pretty much all the kids go to school, although they typically help around the house or in the fields first. They don't have much more other than the clothes on their back. I saw hundreds of kids along the way and the only toys I came across were two dolls and a tricycle. Not that they seemed to care. It was nice to see people living so close to the land and seeming relatively content.


Bike Tour

Thorn RipioAs I am doing a tour on my bike I thought I should give you a tour of my bike. If you don't find this piece boring then there is likely something wrong with you; it's one for the bike nerds etc.

My trusty steed is a Thorn designed by a specialist touring frame-builder in Somerset. The bike is called 'Ripio', which refers to the difficult trails of broken rock that you come across in the Andes. It is a purpose-built off-road touring derailleur mountain bike. Andy's flagship bike is the 'Nomad' and comes with a Rohloff internal gear mechanism in the hub. This is a highly over-engineered German system that is 99% reliable. The sealed nature of the hub gives the bike a single-speed look but it has 14 even gears which match the effective gearing of the standard 27 speed MTB. As it is so durable it is also expensive. It can do 100,000k with very little lubrication and as it is sealed it eliminates prospective damage that might occur to a rear-mech in transit and also protects your moving transmission from the elements; this saves on replacing parts. Despite its cleverness I stuck to the typical mountain-bike derailleur as it is what I know, plus it's cheaper to start off with when one considers all the other items I had to pay for pre-departure. The Nomad also comes with frame couplings to make the bike even more compact for transporting. Useful but unnecessary for what I am doing.

Bike selection took me a fair bit of time. After doing some research I knew I wanted the Nomad but that I was paying for more than I needed. There were no production bikes out there that seemed to be anywhere near what I was looking for. Production bikes might be capable of doing a certain amount of touring but they will not withstand the load of the panniers on the bike. In addition, they are typically built using lighter aluminium tubing which poses problems for the frame should it not be able to handle the road/load. If anything were to occur it would be game-over or at least until you managed to buy a new frame. If one was to tour with a production bike one would have to take a trailer system such as the extra-wheel. I considered this but it just seemed like extra hassle considering the flights I have to take. Transporting a bike is aggro enough without adding a trailer to the mix, especially in an age where airlines are weighing everything.

Andy (frame designer) takes his bikes on 10 week tours every year so he is testing them and thinking about them all the time. I was fortunate that I spotted Andy on Fox front-suspension forks as it prompted me to ring him to establish why he hadn't gone with rigid forks. His response was that his tours are relatively short so he prefers the suspension as it takes him 5 weeks to harden up for a rigid fork. He of course mentioned that the first batch of the newly designed Ripios were coming into stock the following week. Bingo, the Ripio was exactly what I was looking for.

Having ridden it I was very concerned about the weight; the fully built bike with front and rear racks is weighing in about 16kgs. This is very heavy as mountain bikes go. The frame, fork and racks are all steel. Steel is heavy but it provides the assurance that it your frame suffers any damage that it can be mended by a local welder anywhere in the world. Aluminium, titanium, scandium and carbon tubes do not provide me with any option but to trash the frame. The tyres are heart-breakingly heavy coming in at almost 2kgs for the pair, however, I had no choice on the tyre selection. The nature of the roads in developing countries is such that you have to go with the worst case scenario and then some.

I am glad to report that I made all the right decisions with regards the bike as far as I can tell. I have been on some crazy roads. While they are not as technical as some of the uphill sections in Three-rock they are incredibly bumpy, ridiculously rocky and often washed out due to mountain streams and road-damage post monsoon season. One is unlikely to manage a loaded touring bike in Three-rock anyway.

Rear-triangleYou can see from the gap between the wheel and the seat-tube that this bike has been manufactured with extra-long chain-stays. This allows for proper heel clearance for the 'big-footed' rider when cycling with the pannier bags on the rack. Normal stays would require compromises of sorts for such a rider. This picture also shows you the Rigida Andra Carbide CSS rims with XT hubs. These are 36 spoke wheels both front and back and are virtually bomb-proof. The Carbide coating strengthens the rims and also prevents them getting that black greasy finish that gets your hands filthy when touching them. The consequence of using such hard-wearing rims is that I had to beef up my brake pads to SwissStops. I realise that I could shave a few grammes by sawing off the protruding rack-stays ... some other time.


This is a nice shot of the Thorn MT Tura rigid forks and the tyre tread. Going rigid allowed me to put on front racks, which I need considering the length and diversity of my trip. Obviously a rigid fork is going to be a little bit lighter than a front-suss but it also allows for greater feel of the road. Front-suss masks the road surface until it hits the rear wheel by which time it is too late to brake. As most of the load is over the rear wheel (bodybags ... er, I mean body and bags) it means that you want to be able to control the speed at which you hit bumps. In the case of bumps you hope that nothing gives but if something does then it has to be either the frame cracking, the wheel buckling, the racks snapping, the bags popping or the rider diving. Best not to push the limits in a country where road surfaces are not dependable I think. The tyres are Marathon Schwalbe XRs and I have a Smart Sam Alpencross as a spare (as advised by Andy). The spare is a knobbly and will allow for more traction on the front when on very loose gravel. So far the XRs have done the job, the rear will wear very well under load and I have been hammering the bike on some crazy roads without a puncture so far.


The cock-pitThe bars are Easton and the bar-ends are BBBs with an ergonomic cap for one's thumb. It is necessary to have more than one position and the bar-ends are great for working the front-end. I have SLX shifters and XT brake-levers. The best part is the Thomson stem which I thought was necessary. The allen bolts are to the front so this provides a nice flush finish which saves on any knee-bashing when working the front-end hard out of the saddle. Hitting the patella with the stem can be quite sore and can cause inflammation, not that one is yanking the bike; the weight of the bags keep things very much on an even keel. I put on a VDO Z1 computer, as it has an altimeter and a thermometer (apparently) although I'm a bit lazy when it comes to quantitative stuff these days so I haven't spent time getting to know it properly yet. I put a bell on as I thought it might be useful but it is in fact totally useless here in the din of Kathmandu.

Tubing This is a better shot of the flush finish on the Thomson stem. It also gives you a better impression on the tyre tread. The head-set is an FSA Orbit. You can see that the tubing is Reynolds 725 chrome-moly. It is quite narrow compared to modern production bikes, this means that the 2.25" tyres can throw up a lot of dirt onto the rider. Always good for making an impression with the locals. I have used v-brakes to keep things simple. They quickly alert you to a buckled rim and should have no capacity to fail/leak unlike modern hydraulic disc-brakes. As they are XTs stopping-power is immense, even when the bike is loaded.









The transmission is Shimano's SLX. The crankset and is only 48 grammes heavier than an XT for 100% more strength. As bottom-brackets are disposable these days I have taken a spare plus the necessary tools. It is never nice to ride on a worn BB and as they can wear without notice it made sense to bring a spare. I am using a KMC chain with spare power-links as opposed to taking a spare chain in event of failure. There are three bottle-cages although it is not necessary to use the third where water is easily obtainable (saves on weight). I did not take the usual water bottles as I knew I would not be able to refill them from taps in developing countries. Using regular water bottles works out quite well as it is very dusty here and so the cap keeps the rim clean unlike on the usual racing bidon. My absolute water carrying capacity is effectively three*1 litres or maybe even 1.5 litres in the cages (although likely too heavy for the down-tube cage underneath) and then two*1.5 litre bottles, one in either rear pannier. The pedals are Shimano 530s, these are dual platform and clipless although I am likely to ship my bike shoes home to save on weight. They are too hot for the climate I am currently in so I will wear flops. Durable steel pedals are a must as you never know when you might need to throw your bike on top of a bus. Anything plastic on a bike is not likely to survive the bumpy roads. In addition I am not using a kick-stand so the weight of the bike is on the pedal and rear pannier when I lie it down on the ground. Kick-stands are either too strong or too weak. Too strong and they buckle your steel frame,  too weak and they snap.

The following shots are not good ones of how I am carting my baggage but I will describe the set-up as best I can. I have 6 bags on the bike and in one of the panniers there are two further bags. These two extra bags are a ruck-sack travel cover to put all my panniers in so that I have one check-in bag for flights and a 'Ground-effects' cordura bike-bag, again necessary for flights. Both bags are easily stowable but account for 1.5kg of dead-weight on the road. I have two 20 litre rear-panniers and two 10 litre front-panniers. In addition I am using an Ortleib X-plorer as a rack bag, which is doubling up as my mud-guard. This is a dry-bag for my sleeping bag and tent and while heavier than a regular dry-bag it is more durable and comes with regular shoulder straps which converts it into a normal backpack. This is again useful for flights as it allows me to take 10kgs on as hand-luggage and save on excess baggage. I have put a handlebar-bag on also. It works a treat as it stores all my valuables and doubles as a padded camera bag and map-holder. It is necessary as I can easily remove it and keep my valuables on my person at all times. If the bike was to go walk-about then at least I have my passport and cash so that I am not stuck.











I think that is about it. The Thorn Ripio is a far-cry from gliding up mountains on my 7kg Cannondale Caad 8 Alu race bike with DurAce componentry and super-light HED Ardennes wheel-set. However, it gives me great confidence in terms of the terrain I have had to fight my way through and it is an incredibly well thought out bike. I would call it a tank but it doesn't have the same nimble turning-circle of one so I have to call it a tanker. Hardly flattering but undefeatable considering I am not riding in deep enough waters to be torpedoed.

Bike under the Himal (snow peaks)



Seven Days in Tibet

2 monks looking down on the Lhasa of 1960I hope all is swell.

I have just returned from a week in Tibet and it truly is an incredible place. A large group of us drove overland via jeeps from Kathmandu to Lhasa before flying home yesterday. Rarely have I seen the passengers of a plane so glued to their windows; the views of the Tibetan Plateau and Everest were amazing.

I am proud to say that my website was blocked by the Chinese movement of suppression where other blogs were not. I'm not really sure why but I have some catching up to do. To buy me some time I have posted my photos of Tibet in the gallery. I had planned to keep my galleries to fewer than twenty photos but the plains have flooded on this one. There are two pages within the gallery so hopefully they are of sufficient quality to be both interesting and informative.

I have a couple of down-days in Kathmandu before I hit the road. I have to sort my Oz visa (piece of cake) and extend my Nepali visa (piece of biscuit - they don't make great cakes here at all).

'til very soon

The dude