Nepal - Love thy neighbour

A full hour before my alarm clock could penetrate my blanket and hangover, Milan Thapa knocked loudly on the room door of my sparse Birganj lodging. Groan. I groggily let him in, shivering against the morning chill and taking in his annoying 6 AM freshness. Still, I was unwilling to boot out the chap who had taken me around the Nepali border town last evening, bought me dinner, and of course, ‘organised’ the permit for my entry into the mountain kingdom. 

The dog-eared photocopy of my Pulsar 180’s registration book had been a no-go with the adamant official at the customs post. Milan had smoothly appeared at my elbow, taken me to his one-room house nearby, and, as I bounced his two small chortling kids on my knee and burnt my lips on steaming lemon tea, explained how much it would cost to get the permit done. With no other choice, I handed over the money – not a small amount – whereupon he instantly became my bosom buddy. 

Not three hours later, I found myself at a little bar seated across from him, discussing bike travel, Indo-Nepal relations and life on the border over a growing number of empty Tuborg Lager bottles, with an unconcerned mutt sleeping at my feet. And now here he was again, buying me lemon tea amidst the dawn fog, advising me to take the Mugling route to Kathmandu, insisting I meet up with him on my way back, and finally, seeing me off. In this age of cyberproposals, why not instant friendships, I thought.

It was barely half-past six, but Birganj had woken up. Elaborately-decorated rickshaws and battered autos did blind double-overtakes while lounging men inhaled the warmth of tea and cigarettes. My fingers icy in the wintry morning air, I dodged them all and settled into a moderate, steady pace on the flat, straight road towards Kathmandu, 280 km away. 

Old Toyota sedans and pickups, the odd Chinese bike, occasional tourist buses and a few belching Tata trucks apart, traffic was minimal, and I puttered along, sedate as a grandfather, relishing the scenic, mildly winding route along the trickling Bherahi river. It was straight out of a KG-kid’s drawing-book – curvy water, gentle hills in the distance, smiling sun and heck, even a few V-shaped birds winging through the blue sky.

A left at Hetauda, a crossroad town still larger than any other till the capital, and the road across the Terai plains began to follow the Rapati towards Bharatpur. The road was smooth, broken only at a few presumably landslide spots, and I stopped every so often for tea. A middle-aged woman would get up from scrubbing vessels or washing clothes and boil up some brew, while a couple of shy kids would peep out from a doorway. Some men would be huddled around a carrom-board some distance away, while platoons of cute little Nepali kids scampered by towards the nearest large village and school. Now and then, a checkerboard of yellow-green fields would burst out of the more sober crop patches.

It was only after lunch at Narayangad that the road actually entered the Siwalik mountains, with large tree-blanketed hills chivalrously flanking the rushing Trishuli below. Once, when I dismounted and leaned against the boulder-shoulders (neatly enclosed in wire-mesh), I spotted river-rafters tackling the bucking rapids below, excited shouts made faint by nature’s vast gallery.

The smooth, flowing Prithvi Highway, built in co-operation with the People’s Republic of China, offered zippy progress on a platter, but the Kullu Valley-esque visual calm erased the urge to hurry. I halted for yet another tea at a Malekhu shop displaying rows of whole skewered river-fish, gave lifts to schoolkids and made small talk with machine-gun-toting soldiers at a couple of checkposts. Some broke out into smiles and cheery welcomes on hearing I was from Mumbai. Half of Nepal seems to have a friend or relative in India; the other half has worked here in a ‘Chinese’ restaurant.

As early-evening crept in, the road wound up in preparation for the descent into Kathmandu Valley. The city itself was not more than 30-40 km away, and a logjam of six-wheelers was keeping things slow. But my attention was totally diverted from their non-functioning taillights when the Great Himalaya finally spiked into view. Three layers of successively higher and distant ranges – brown, purple, then brilliant, jagged white – cycled in my peripheral vision as the increasing human and vehicular traffic built up into Kathmandu.

It was a Sunday evening, but things were fairly busy in the capital. Traffic, more disciplined than in most of India’s cities, filled the main road which bore neat lane markings. A dozen showrooms hawked Chinese motorcycles, many more offered the usual suspects of branded products and services; throngs of weekend mall-goers in woollies ebbed along the pavements. I asked my way down to Sundhara, entering a rather narrow hotel- and tour-operator-filled lane which opened onto a bustling square. Skewered meat was being spot roasted over glowing grills, while sales pitches for cheap sweaters and carpets alike wafted through the smoke and the nippy evening. 

Come morning – almost noon, actually, by the time I shed my reluctance to wiggle out of the warm sheets – I set out towards Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square, a complex of ancient temples and palaces off Ganga Path, not far away. I wove through packed streets strangely reminescent of Tokyo – cluttered with imported Japanese cars, peppered with glitzy shops, overflowing with trendy youngsters – until I got to the cordoned-off, pedestrian-only World Heritage Zone. Smiling past postcard and trinket sellers like a beatific, desire-less Buddha, I entered a timeless pagoda-land. 

Wooden and neoclassical palaces, Ganesha shrines and Hanuman idols, pillared bells and stone towers. Legends and traditions, ceremonies and significances. Rickshaw-drivers squeaking through the streets, small beggar kids plucking at the shirts of foreigners taking pictures of a thousand pigeons fluttering up from plinth and platform, schoolgirls, stallkeepers, sadhus, sentries, sellers, seekers. 

It was a couple of hours of escape into a Kathmandu lost forever after its ‘discovery’ by Western hippies in the 1960s. Now, it looks like even that time of love-and-LSD – or rather its spirit – has more or less slipped by, leaving mementos like the fondly-named Freak Street for a host of new-age package-tourists to visit and feel good about. Noted writer Paul Theroux, in a recent online interview debating the end of the age of travel, scornfully remarks that “Everybody and his brother have been to Kathmandu” – a symbol of the mystique the city once held for Continentals, and how the jet age has savaged that. Of course, a steady supply of matted-haired, self-discovering backpackers can still be spotted at corners in the bazaar-ish tourist hangout of Thamel.

Instead, like so many other Asian cities, Nepal’s capital has burgeoned into a modern metro, with all the attendant trappings from office buildings to AIDS worries. Recently, the country witnessed the assassination of the royal family and violence by Maoist insurgents – which in this time of terrorist paranoia, has brought it to the attention of the US. I flicked through the Nepali Times over a thali lunch, which talked of a possible US-India committee working at solutions to the threat, lambasted local politicians and condemned a firebomb attack on innocents. Subsequent pages covered mountain film festivals, golf tournaments and Thai sex-educators. Life must go on.

I made my way out of Kathmandu towards Godavari, about 20 km away, where a Jesuit friend of mine, Juel, worked as a teacher in the St Xavier’s school. I headed through Boudha (the Buddhist centre with its famous stupa and monastery), took the ring road past Tribhuvan International Airport, through Satdobato and Jwalakhel, finally reaching the sprawling campus of what was at one time probably Nepal’s most prestigious school.

I hadn’t seen Juel for nearly four years, and we dwelt on nostalgia for a while over tea, catching up on retrospectively speedy time. “When I first came here, I used to get really bored,” he told me. “I would go to Kathmandu every weekend. But now I find life here in Godavari very peaceful and relaxing.” I asked him about the Maoist threat; apparently St Xavier’s had so far escaped attacks though a rebel call for a national educational strike was expected. “They want to set us back a hundred years,” he shook his head.

We rode around for a while, stopping to check out the source of the river Godavari and later climbing up too many steps to the giant statue of a meditating Buddha, gazing over the Kathmandu Valley.

“You see all those buildings there,” pointed Juel, “All those have been built in the past few years. Hotels and resorts mostly. I remember when it was all green...” As the sun went down and a sprinkling of lights began to spread, I squinted at three or four great white high-rises of rock in the distance. “You’ll get a great view of those mountains in the morning,” Juel assured me. “I’d gone on a four-day trek towards Annapurna... reached 4,800 metres... it was amazing!” 

As night crept in, I sat down for a St Xavier’s Feast dinner with Juel, seven other Jesuit priests and nuns, and three American volunteers, in a large wood-panelled study lined with books, and an electric heater at one end (which cast a four-inch radius of warmth). Father Bonny, a self-taught amateur magician with a modest smile, kept us all entertained as we ate roast-chicken which had been gifted by a parent who owned a poultry farm. 

Stepping out onto the large wooden balcony, I watched my breath fog up as it confronted the cold. Deep in the still blackness of the surrounding mountains, maybe there were multitudes of rebel gangs plotting attacks and strikes. But behind me, there was warmth, laughter and life.

TRAVEL LOG

The Kingdom of Nepal lies to the north of India, stretching from Uttaranchal to Sikkim, and south of Tibet. A large stretch of the Great Himalaya, including the world’s highest peak, fall within its borders, making trekking and mountaineering prime attractions, while the historic capital, Kathmandu, is full of fascinating architecture.Easy accessibility, great scenery, good roads and friendly people make it a great biking destination.

Entering Nepal 

Indians need neither a passport nor a visa to enter Nepal, though you must have some form of valid photo-ID on you. You need to get an entry/stay permit made at the Customs office, which you might be asked for at Army checkposts along the way. And remember to carry your bike’s original documentation.

Money

Indian currency (referred to as ‘IC’) is valid for use in Nepal; the exchange rate at the time of writing was 1 INR = 1.60 NRs. Just for trivia, there’s a 25-rupee note in use. Petrol costs more or less the same (NRs 52/ INR 32.5 per litre).

The route

The three main road entry points from India are Sonauli in UP, Kakarbitta in West Bengal and Raxaul in Bihar. We entered through the latter, 205 km from Patna via Muzaffarpur and Motihari (decent highway barring an atrocious final stretch from Sagauli passing off as NH28A). The traffic conditions in the town of Raxaul, and to a marginally lesser extent in its counterpart Birgunj across the border, are from the depths of hell. Both towns have cheap lodges (around Rs 100-200 for a room).

From Birgunj to Kathmandu it’s 285 km via Hetauda, Narayangad and Mugling. This is the longer route, used by buses and trucks, but the road is well-surfaced, especially after Mugling on the Prithvi Highway, and the views picturesque indeed. The shorter but steeper and reputedly in-bad-shape Tribhuvan Highway, direct from Hetauda, is more isolated and therefore less advisable, in view of the current political situation and possible (however unlikely) attacks by rebels.

In Kathmandu

Some historians put Kathmandu’s age at as much as 1,300 years. The Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square in the heart of the city, a complex of temples and palaces built between the 12th and 18th centuries is a World Heritage Site and a must-wander. ‘Service charge’ for Indians is NRs 25; souvenirs/handicrafts, postcards and a Kathmandu-Patan 

City Map (NRs 25, with a useful list of hotels, sights, banks, hospitals, trek operators etc) are sold opposite the ticket booth. The main tourist areas of Thamel and Sundhara are nearby, with narrow streets full of stalls, shops, and plenty of small and medium hotels, usually good value – for instance, Hotel Royal Gorkha (Ph: 977-1-255524) has comfy rooms with running hot water, carpets and colour telly for INR 300. Hotel restaurants can be a bit expensive, but food at independent eateries and roadside stalls is by and large good and sensibly-priced. More info at www.info-nepal.com