My last post left me off in Pokara, which was like a beautiful resort town on the side of a lake. I spent a day there driving around to see the sights, and ended up meeting an Australian who had rented a motorbike for the day. We met up at the Gurka museum on the outskirts of town. Gurkas are Nepali’s who have joined the British Gurkah army, and they are extreme soldiers. The still carry these large curved knives around, and if they get selected, they get paid around 1000 English pounds a month, plus citizenship in England and a pension program. I met one man who had retired from the Gurkahs, but had supported almost his entire extended family through his pay check.
We left the museum and found our way to some caves that were in the area. The first one had a power strip with lights running down the middle of it, but they were all broken and we used our flashlights. At the entrance, we were met by a gang of five children whose hands began to find their way into our pockets when we left the light outside and entered the darkness. The Australian quite forcefully lifted one of them into the wall with his elbow, and they stopped trying to pick pocket us, but they still begged for money. I eventually gave them a total of five rupees to get them to piss off, but they still followed us around.
We left this cave area and walked about half a kilometer to the next one, where there were supposed to be bats. Bats there were. Thousands of them. We crawled through the cave for about 45 minutes before attempting to head to a temple. We got separated in traffic and I never saw him again. I found what I thought was the road to the temple, and got lost in the back roads of Nepal. I soon gave up on finding the temple and decided to just see how far the roads would take me into the farmland. I soon had to give up because the roads deteriorated into ruddy pot holes that the Bajaj cruiser wasn’t meant to take.
I spent that night in Pokara, then said goodbye to the Germans before driving south along the most twisty road I have ever seen. I was headed to Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha. Getting there was an adventure. The road was small, and on the map looked to be a pretty direct shot all the way down. 160 km it said. In reality the road doubled back on itself, spun around the mountain and down through valleys, crossing streams on old bridges where signs read: Warning, bridge damaged. One vehicle at a time. Makes you feel safe. The views were stunning as I have never seen a region like this. The mountains come up out of nowhere, and continue to rise until you have to strain your neck to see the tops.
The most challenging aspect of this part of the trip was simply focusing on the driving. This is not the relaxing cruising that I am used to. Here, going 80km an hour is a death wish. Very often, like every 20 minutes, I would come around a curve and find that the road was gone. Just gone. Landslides happen all the time, and they just clear the road off the side of the mountain. I would slowly make my way across these slides, picking out paths worn by trucks or other bikers. The thing was, every time I came around a curve, I was just as likely to find a cow, duck, child, truck, dog or a pothole the size of a VW bus as I was to find usable road. I quickly started taking turns very slowly.
I finally made it to Lumbini, and for the first time in a long time, checked into a Lonely Planet recommended guest house. There were only four in this “town” of a few hundred people, and three of them are mentioned in Lonely Planet. I was stressed, worn out, but extremely happy to be there. The last part of the ride had been brilliant because the terrain transformed from the mountains to the plains. I was able to drive in one direction for hours, just looking at the animals grazing in the fields and the crops growing beside me. Lumbini is about 15 kilometers from India, and I seriously considered illegally hopping the border for a night, but was talked out of it by the off chance I wouldn’t be able to get back in due to the border patrols. The approach reminded me of the ride into Hilton Head Island, SC. It was lined with trees on both sides, and they had vines and/or moss hanging down from them.
That night I borrowed a bicycle from the guy who ran the guest house and toured the Lumbini Development Area for a little while. This area is a walled in part of land that extends for miles around the actual site of Buddha’s birth. It has been developed by the Japanese Buddhists and is pretty incredible in terms of scale. There are maybe 15 meditation centers and monasteries rising above the skyline, and a giant pagoda at one end of this rectangle. It was a very peaceful place to be at sunset and in that time when the light is fading and the day winds down. After the stress of the motorcycle ride that day, I enjoyed the languid pace of the bicycle. I didn’t see any other westerners in this area, other than one guy I bumped into at the guest house. I had a simple dinner of fried rice, and went to bed early.
I have been waking up at obnoxious hours because I have been going to bed so early. 5:45 – 6:30 is not unusual. After waiting for the guesthouse guy to wake up, I had some breakfast and rented a bike again to see the actual site where Buddha was born. It is surrounded by trees with prayer flags, and ruins from buildings created in 300 B.C. I don’t think I have ever seen anything so old. The morning passed quickly, just me on the bicycle exploring this area.
I was going to stay the night again, but saw all I needed to, and set off for Chitwan National Park. It was an easy ride, and I was there by 1:00pm. In this country, there are so few paved highways, that if you find one heading the way you want to go, it means you are on the right road, since there is only one in the region. This one was flat, but passed through interesting forests and fields, with a good little mountain pass in the middle to break up the ride.
I got to Chitwan, and instead of finding a place to stay, I walked around till I found a good group of people, struck up a conversation, and ended up staying at the same place they were. One was American, two were Canadian, and the others were from Germany and England. The seven of them had been in Tibet when all hell broke loose, and they were stuck together in a hostel there for two and a half days. They have been traveling together ever since. One of them, a guy named Ken, had one of the photos he took on the front page of the New York Times, because they were the only people who were able to get photos out the day it occurred.
I hit it off with them (two of the guys were spending a few months goofing off before law school), and we spent the afternoon planning out our trek for the next day. We decided on a two day, one night trek in the jungle to try to see some rhinos, tigers and whatnot. We canoed down the river, past crocs and birds, before pulling up on the shore in the middle of nowhere. The trekking turned out to be walking along jeep trails for the most part, staying very quite and hoping to see wildlife. The forest was burning, apparently it is a yearly event , and this was actually very cool to experience. We would crest a hill and see the flames licking across the path ahead of us. This would force us to head off into the brush to get around it, and we ended up seeing a rhino and bear who were moving slowly away from the flames. Some wild boars as well.
After a time, the walking became monotonous as we were passed by a few jeeps who scared the wildlife away. It was not my idea of fun. I made it about 15 kilometers before I gave up and paid some guys on a Jeep to take me back. This group was all Nepalis, and they were drinking beer and having their own little party on the back of the jeep. Totally different atmosphere than the silence out guides had tried to impose, but I actually saw more wildlife in my two hours with the jeep than I did in the seven I spent walking. All told I saw three rhinos, a bear, some bison, a jungle cat (like a small puma), some magnificent stags, and a lot of birds and crocs.
When I got back to camp, I ran into two of the German girls who I had met in Pokara, and we spent the evening hanging out and eating dinner. I had a better time this time because we were all speaking English, and it made my life easier.
The next morning I checked out, and came back to Kathmandu, where I stopped by Arjun’s house on the way in. I met up with a guy from South Africa who is staying with him, and also a guy from Germany. We spent the night relaxing and watching the movie “Into the Wild”. Creepy how much I identified with the movie. I had read the book a long time ago, but the move was much more dramatic, and it gave Chris (the main character) a mush more personified role. I have applied to Couch Surfing to work for the collective in Alaska this summer, and if it happens, will be really setting off.
I have a week here, and will help finish Arjun’s site before I go bungee jumping and head out back to Thailand.