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Biking in the time of bandhs


GARRYK HAMPTON


After spending the last few months riding with views of majestic snow capped peaks rising high up into the deep blue skies of Tibet and Nepal, I've been bitten by the climbing bug. I have to summit a mountain over 8,000m, just not today. It was the first day of a bandh declared by the Maoists and I was biking my way to Pokhara. It felt great to be back on the road. Riding at lower elevations with plenty of oxygen accompanied by beautiful views is a pure pleasure.

To get out of Kathmandu Valley I had to bike over a small pass-small in comparison to the 5,000m monsters on our way from Lhasa to Kathmandu. After cresting Thankot I could see the road winding all the way down the other side. I was met with the astounding sight of not a single vehicle on the road. This place is usually a snarled honking mass of cars and buses. As I took the first bend and started my descent, I looked to my right and saw some of the higher peaks jutting up from behind the shorter mountains. Halos of clouds circled their peaks. Even though I hadn't seen any traffic I was still cautious when going around the turns but that caution decreased as I sped faster and faster downhill. The rush of wind against my face stretched my grin from ear to ear.

It seemed as if everybody was taking advantage of the bandh-kids used the road like a blackboard drawing pictures with coloured mud, others played soccer and street cricket while adults strew hay across the entire road, I'm not sure why. More than once I stopped to let herds of cattle, goats, and buffalo pass.

Kids are always eager for a ride and as a Peace Pedaler, getting them to join me is part of spreading a little joy. It was easy enough taking them where they wanted, usually short distances down the road. Twice I offered old men rides but they either didn't know how to ride a bicycle or they jumped on for a free ride. When I noticed they weren't pedalling, I'd stop, point at the pedals and make with a pedalling motion with my arms. Not that it did much good. In the end I had to give them both the boot. I'm no rickshaw.

Around noon I got hungry and looked for a place to eat. After finding nothing in three different small towns, I began to think it wasn't such a great idea to ride during a bandh day. Finally I found a place that served dal-bhaat and despite having to wait half an hour, the food was not too bad.

Thankfully I didn't run into any Maoists, but everytime I saw men in camouflage with guns, my heart skipped a beat or two. Much of the fear stemmed from rumours-someone always knew or had heard of someone who was robbed by the Maoists. We even heard they gave receipts for items taken so the tourist could later claim insurance, or if by chance they were to meet another group of Maoists, prove they had already "given" to the cause. The story has been circulating long enough for there to be some truth in it. So I always kept my speed up and yelled a cheery "Namaste" as I rolled by. I was stopped at one checkpoint, but they were very friendly and wanted to know if I'd seen anything. They declined a ride. At least I tried!

At 98 km I ran into some boys who took turns riding with me before taking me to a couple of hotels because I had to stop for the night. The first was a dive and wanted twice what I was paying in Kathmandu. The second was more of a resort and would accept nothing less than $15, which seemed unreasonable because they had no guests and weren't likely to overbook all of a sudden. The third place was the charm. I said my budget was Rs 200, and the manager said that'd be fine-a much wiser businessman than at the previous resort; some money is better than nothing. One of the boys looked disappointed because he had offered to let me stay at his house.

As I walked up the resort steps with three porters carrying my bags, I noticed the garden had a surprisingly mix of cacti with seasonal blooms. My intention was to go to Pokhara the following day, but as I got more comfortable, I realised there wasn't any reason for me to get there before Jamie, my friend and fellow Peace Pedaler, who was to reach a day after me. I'd let the food make the decision. Dinner was great. That was one decision taken care of. After dinner I hashed out a few songs on my new Martin Backpacker guitar, but the staff's performance put mine to shame. The next day I did little more than type in my journal and bask in the sun with a spy novel. That night there was a downpour but luckily the skies cleared by morning. After a big breakfast I set off with farewells from the staff, a small bouquet of flowers and a Nepali ceremonial scarf tied around my seatpost.

It was a long day with some serious climbs. I was constantly on the lookout for kids to recruit because they don't weigh much and have lots of energy. They also have friends who want to have a go, so you get fresh legs every few kilometres. The best part is hearing them laugh and watch them get excited when they see people they know as we ride by-their few minutes of stardom.


Again, there was hardly any traffic on the road. I saw a few cars and buses in the last 15 km. Other than that, only two military vehicles and one ambulance whizzed by. The scenery from the resort to Pokhara was even more spectacular. As I rounded a bend, I saw a waterfall spraying about 10 feet like a waterslide into the river below. Above it the Himalaya stretched across the entire skyline. I had to stop and take it all in-the peace, the view and the solitude.

After that somewhat spiritual interlude, I had to attend to more bodily concerns like food. Unfortunately, every restaurant was closed, like on the first day of my ride from Kathmandu. I settled for some crackers from a roadside stall and a few bananas from an old man. I don't think he really wanted to sell them, but a young girl came up and made the transaction with him looking on bewildered.

By the time I was within 25 km of Pokhara my stomach was really empty and I felt tired. My saving grace was a pack of kids on bikes. They took turns helping to pedal and some of them spoke enough English to hold a simple conversation, which distracted me from my growling stomach. A magnificent view of the Annapurna range also helped to keep hunger at bay. I was fortunate enough to see nearly all the peaks, that late in the day the range is usually shrouded in clouds. From the road they looked massive juxtaposed against lower forested hills. Those mountains are giants, marvels of tectonics.

Garryk reached Pokhara without mishap but the real adventure for the Peace Pedalers was to begin on their six day ride from from Pokhara to Bardia National Park. They passed blown bridges, slept next to Maoist camps, ate breakfast a stone's throw from their campfire and even unwittingly picnicked on the very spot where two police officers had been killed.

(Garryk Hampton, is co-founder of the Peace Pedalers along with Jamie Bianchin. They are on a five-year mission to ride through more than 100 countries and over 80,000 km. They began on 13 April 2002 from the US and have pedalled in Japan, Korea, China, Tibet and Nepal. India and Sri Lanka are next on their route. They tour on two tandem style bikes, ideal for "guest riders". www.peacepedalers.com)



LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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