One warning that I had received about Nepal was that I should try to avoid being on the road during one of the frequent bandhs or strikes. So when just five kilometres out of the Kathmandu I passed a long line of vehicles with their engines switched off and found at the end a mob of people gathered around a derelict car, I approached with caution. Fortunately my arrival was seen by one of the shouting mob, some of whom had started to jump on the roof of the car, and a bamboo barricade was removed to clear a path for me.
The provocation behind this bandh, no one could tell me, but an article in ‘The Himalayan’ informed me that they were becoming more and more frequent and are called over anything from high petrol prices to police corruption to the death of a loved one on the roads. They stem from the much bigger and long-lasting problems in Nepal, such as extreme poverty due in part to a highly corrupt government and a decade-long ‘people’s war’ with the Maoists.
One can see the strain in the elder Nepali’s faces, but the younger generation is optimistic and excited about the future, for their nation has just turned a significant corner. While I was there, the Maoists were voted the most popular party by the people and elected to lead a Constituent Assembly whose purpose it is to form a new national constitution. The 240-year old Shah dynasty, which controlled the military, was deposed and recently the first President of the Republic of Nepal was appointed.
Exciting times indeed and this was expressed to me by many younger Nepalis, particularly in rural areas where Maoist slogans and the old Soviet hammer and sickle symbol adorn the villages. They represent a stark change in a lot of the traditional institutions held in high regard by their elders, such as that of the caste system. This outdated, discriminatory structure that confines each individual to one of 36 castes according to their bloodline, dictates everything from who may enter another’s home to who may prepare another’s meal to who one may marry. One 28-year old villager summed up the view of many well when he told me that when a person is wounded, they bleed the same blood as any other and that he looks forward to the day when there is but one caste; “Nepali.”
So, beginning with a climb out of the Kathmandu Valley, I hit the road again after two months out of the saddle. I felt the strain immediately. It wasn’t so much due to a lack of fitness or even the hilly terrain, but the oppressive, draining heat and humidity. That which had plagued me in Thailand was plaguing me here and would continue to plague me for some time to come. Even when I made it down to the mostly flat Terai region, I struggled due to the impossibility of adequate hydration. I took to having early starts as I rode from town to town, day after day, but while that offered me respite from the burning midday sun, there was no escaping the damaging humidity, which was ever-present regardless of the hour.
It was with much relief and an exhausted body that after nearly a week, I arrived in Lumbini, the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha Gautam. Siddhartha would go on to become the Lord Buddha whose teachings would provide the basis for one of the great world religions.
Lumbini Bazaar is a pleasant, one-street town that comes alive at sunset when men gather at the chai shop, children run amok, women chat on the front steps of their homes and, at least for the time I was there, a bull that had had its horn ripped out in battle with an obviously more dominant male, aimlessly walked the street like the village drunkard. Despite being a sacred creature, he was to get no sympathy from his human friends. Were he to loiter too long outside their premises, shop keepers would give the defeated beast, his head caked in dried blood, a solid whack, a few harsh words and send him ambling on his way.
Like all small towns though, Lumbini seemed to just step it up a notch during the ‘load-shedding’ power outages that are daily, though still irregular, occurrences throughout the nation. Cloaked in the blackness of night, the kids would get that little bit wilder, perhaps on account of their newfound anonymity – an anonymity that I enjoyed as I sat outside and watched the silhouettes dance before the candlelight.
The bazaar sits opposite the pilgrimage site of the Maya Devi temple, the centrepiece of which is a commemorative stone laid by Emperor Ashoka over 2,200 years ago, supposedly at the exact spot where Siddhartha’s mother had given birth to him under a sal tree 300 years earlier. In which direction the newborn then took his seven miraculous steps, I am not sure.
Surrounding the temple are ruins that date back just as long and sit in an appropriately peaceful parkland area that is brightened by prayer flags, draped from tree to tree. Adjacent to this is the fascinating monastic zone that is set over an area of several square kilometres and houses monasteries built by organisations from nations as widespread as; Sri Lanka, Japan, Germany, Myanmar, Austria and Vietnam, among others, all in their own unique style. Under heavy rain that had not let up for days, I pushed the King Brown through the mud and in minutes was able to get from a traditional Tibetan gompa to a marble white Thai wat to an elaborate Chinese pagoda that made me feel as though I was in the Forbidden City.
When the sun finally showed its face and smiled upon my wet clothes, I departed for the Western Terai region of Nepal that has long been somewhat inaccessible to tourists due to it being a Maoist stronghold. Along the way I met a couple of other cyclists who were also taking advantage of the relative peace in the area. The first was an eccentric Russian and the least conventional bicycle tourist I have ever met. He approached me bare-chested and pedaling barefoot with his backpack strapped to his rear rack. Simply deciding that he wanted to continue his travels on two wheels, he had bought a bike in Sri Lanka for $120 and started pedaling. Stringing up his hammock at a bus stand or between two trees of an evening, he is living proof that all a man really needs is a bicycle and a spirit.
The second was an amicable Swiss fellow named Hans who had started cycling in Hong Kong and for six months had been working his way west, closer and closer to home. I stumbled upon him in a wooden shack of a tiny village where he had stopped for a cold drink. He too was heading west and having also cycled from Kathmandu, his face reflected how I felt; exhausted and desiring support. Subsequently, we departed the wooden shack together and remained inseparable over the next week as we slowly sweated our way across the Mahendra Highway.
This beautiful stretch of road runs to the far-western border with India. Lightly trafficked, it is lined with dark forests as well as large patches of open, fertile land where the buffalo graze. There is no more beautiful section though, than the 50km stretch through the pristine Royal Bardia National Park. While stopping to enjoy the view from a bridge over the steadily flowing Geruwa River, we were able to spy a pair of elephants quenching their thirst, a pair of crocodiles frolicking in the whitewash produced by the dam beneath and a pair of stunning, white cranes perched on a small sandbar.
While dazzled by this theatre of lovers, we were approached by a pair of men on bicycles, one of whom had a large plastic container strapped to the back of his. He unscrewed the lid and revealed his treasure. Hans’ and my eyes widened with joy. Within lay several slabs of golden honeycomb suspended in five litres of the thick, sweet, amber-coloured nectar that he had just collected from the forest. We eagerly filled an old peanut butter jar for 40Rs (60c) and over the next few mornings, enjoyed warm chapatti with honey for breakfast.
Back on the road not five minutes later, while still marveling at the extraordinary array of wildlife that flooded the area, a bird flew into my head.