Nepal : chaos and deception
A little introduction: For a long time, when I was asked what was my favourite country, I answered Nepal without hesitation. This year I went there for the 4th time, and for the first time by bike. I really wanted to put the wheels down there, to get a feel for the country as bike travel only allows.
And finally I think I will answer differently from now on when I am asked this question.
And in the prevailing over-positivisation, I find it important to give my feedback.
The title sounds catchy, doesn't it? But that's finally the feeling I had in 6 weeks there.
Missed shots, U-turns, heat, humidity, boredom.
I'm not saying that Nepal is like that, but the route taken, the way it was done, the season, the circumstances. All this put together, it didn't give the right combo.
There is a postcard image of Nepal. And that's part of what I was aiming for too, yet, by necessity, I saw everything but the postcard.
The tourist circuit is relatively established. A few days in Kathmandu, a few days in Pokhara, a short walk in a national park, a trek somewhere in the mountains and that's it.
This is often true, and rightly so, because it's a tour that's really worth a visit. But we chose the long version, the one less known and potentially full of surprises.
We returned to the west, as far west as possible. Always this masochistic idea of crossing countries by the farthest ends.
And from there, it's mainly flatness and boredom. Especially if you stick to the main road. Those regions that are not touristy are so for a reason, there is not much. It's flat, the asphalt is bad and the alternatives are few.
And this for something like 500km.
Add to that the weather. The good season was late in arriving in the country, the temperatures were crazy, the humidity too.
And my mattress didn't want to respond to anything. Sleeping on the ground, sweating from head to toe, doing nothing, slumped after an uninteresting day. And to do it again the next day.
Mind you, I'm not saying that it's not beautiful, on the contrary. But let's just say that if it's charming for a few dozen kilometres, you quickly get the impression that you're pedalling in the same scene every day, that things repeat themselves endlessly.
But we are making progress. Slowly but surely. And that's when the chaos starts and continues. Pressed for time, I have to pick up my father at the airport in Kathmandu. I leave the bike somewhere in the flat country that is the southern part.
No more mattress, the camera gave up, my father is not able to walk as he used to and so we had to turn back on the trek. Tens of hours of bus to satisfy everyone, a lot of money for nothing, fatigue, disappointments.
A return to Kathmandu which falls during the biggest festivities of the year, everything is closed and the rain falls 24 hours a day.
I keep it short. But basically I cycled the most uninteresting part, took a lot of buses, didn't have a camera when the mountains finally showed up and finally spent a lot of time going around in circles in Kathmandu.
That was it. That was special. And I think I learned from it.
It's not just black.
Well, it's not a pretty picture, but it's the chronology of my Nepalese chaos. I'll try to tell it in a little more detail, chapter by chapter.
If the eastern route was not very interesting, there were sometimes possibilities to get off the asphalt and the main road. These roads are hardly an alternative as they do not represent a continuity, you have to juggle, compose.
However, they have always been a nice surprise.
The local life, the nature, the birds, the calm, the kindness of the people. It was heartbreaking to finally return to the main road.
The scenery becomes much nicer once you start crossing north, through Tansen to Pokhara. More relief, a wilder nature, and especially the access to the more mountainous regions. Or at least the viewpoints.
This is the road that leads to Pokhara, where people meet when they quickly flee Kathmandu. It is also the starting point for many treks, especially those in the Annapurna range.
But we are not very lucky, and it rains. A lot, all the time. We rarely see the snow-covered summit of a mountain, and walk along the walls to get around because the rain is so heavy.
Everyone tells us that this is not normal, that the weather should have turned and the right season should have been here already. The tourists wonder what to do, if they are going on a trek or not. Some even go to the nearest airport.
We decide to go further east, towards the Langtang valley. For that, we have to follow the direction Pokhara-Kathmandu. Either by the mountains or by the main road.
Because that's also the thing about Nepal, there are not thousands of possible roads, due to the geology, but also to the rather bad infrastructure, let's not be afraid to say it.
We took the second option, the second, if not tertiary, road.
It's quiet, far from flat and far from easy. It's a short-lived happiness to find a bit of silence, really nice scenery, no or little traffic.
You really have to take the time to ride this section that links the two cities. The main road is much easier as it is straight in one direction, but it is a chaos. Dusty, noisy, dangerous.
You need to plan for a few good days, you don't necessarily drive very fast around here. But it's a great insight into Nepal and life off the road.
My camera broke down on these roads, so some of the pictures here are not mine. It's all the more frustrating as this is just when things were getting interesting.
On the heights of Ghorka, the view is splendid, although cloudy. From there, the mountains stretch from east to west: Annapurna, Manaslu...
We see some mountains when the clouds deign to move a little. I learn to see all this without a camera. But above all, I told myself that when it's clear, this view from here must be worth the move alone.
This was followed by a bus ride to the Langtang valley, an aborted trek and a bus ride back to Kathmandu, and the promise to come and get the bike later. Somewhere along the way I felt like getting it over with as quickly as possible, bringing the bike back home and putting it in a box.
But then, what's the problem ?
This was not my first time in Nepal, and the last time I was there was 5 years ago.
Let's just say that the prices have gone up enormously. Beer has at least doubled, food has doubled, and a litre of petrol is 2 euros! Which is a lot compared to the average/median salary.
On top of that, you add the covid and the deprivation of tourists for 2 years. Tourists who are starting to come back timidly but surely.
I personally found that the contact with people was much more ambivalent than before. Still a lot of lovely people, but also people thirsty for rupees. Probably for obvious reasons, but it's more the form than the content that bothers me.
Let me explain.
Instead of changing the prices on the menus, being clear about the basic prices, announcing the colour by saying that the cost of living has increased, it is understandable. It's a tacit agreement, if you order something on the menu, you agree in principle to pay the price that is advertised.
Except that it was often much more petty.
- When it came time to pay, the figures were wrong, and taxes were added when they were not specified anywhere. We were told that this was to compensate for the rising cost of living. Well, damn it, you have to raise the price on the menu, not meanly at the end. Once, twice, thirty times, it's tiring.
- Invited to a birthday party, I force myself to eat my rice dish. I'm not hungry, I don't want to eat the same thing again, but out of respect I eat my plate.
The next day, we are asked twice for the price of a dish offered in a restaurant during a birthday party. We are also asked twice for the price of the room, a price that had been negotiated and decided the day before.
- We are asked a certain price for the bus ticket and the bike. Okay.
A few hours later he comes back and asks us for 2000 rupees more for the bike. We protest. He comes back, finally it's 1000 rupees. We yell, because it was already agreed in the price. He comes back, and finally we don't have to pay anything more.
This impression that we have to fight constantly to get a little bit of fairness.
That's it. It's often been like that for me. Things that are clearly decided between the protagonists and then change at the last minute.
Anyway, I won't list the setbacks, because it was a daily occurrence. But I will make a small list of information below.
And then, the prices are really high compared to the region and the surrounding countries. Let's say I spent as much in 6 weeks in Nepal than in 4 months in Australia. This may sound strange to you, but again I'll explain.
There are many things I didn't pay for in Australia. I was already offered a lot of things on the roadside, and then it's easy to camp for free. But most of all, for a little help, a tip, a shower, some help, a plate of rice or a piece of grass to camp on, nobody will ask you for money in Australia. It would seem preposterous, considering the level of hospitality in the country, which I find exceptional.
Well, in Nepal, I had the impression that everything is paid for, and dearly. So much so that in the end I managed on my own and preferred to walk than to ask for anything, the taxi prices having become absurd.
So little by little the costs add up. And everyone I've ridden with and travelled with there has told me they've been amazed at the difference between what they thought they were spending and what they actually spent. Traffic :
Big file. I found it quite catastrophic.
On the main roads, and often the only one, all the traffic is concentrated, especially the buses. They go fast, have no mercy.
And that's what's crazy. There's not that much traffic, but it doesn't take much and it always brushes up against you to make it a living hell.
The asphalt is bad on top of that. The tracks here and there, the narrow roads are much better!
My little conclusion :
This is just my little experience, isn't it. And many will tell you that I find it almost naïve at this stage.
I went through all the possible emotions. We met wonderful people, saw beautiful things. But also the boredom and stress of a country that I find one of the worst in terms of traffic danger. Then simply the fact that many of those I met thought I was more of an idiot than I really was. A lot of head-scratching, a lot of misunderstanding. And above all, I got the answer to the basic question: why don't people ride in Nepal. It's not necessarily a country made for that.
You can see elsewhere what a marvel it is to ride in Nepal, but I see several things: the same reluctance of people to criticize what has to be criticized, the choice of a precise itinerary, without having to go through the most boring parts of the country. And also maybe the lack of comparison with what I experienced there a few years ago.
But the country is full of beautiful people, breathtaking places, culture and wildlife. There's no denying that.
However, cycling may not be the best way to travel there.
I was afraid that all this was just me and maybe some fatigue. But a few hours after take off we arrived in Thailand for 6 weeks in South East Asia. And there I found the warmth of the people, the ease of interaction, the hospitality, the respect.
In short, I took a breath, it was good to be back to a somewhat normal bike traveller's life, and especially to see that my experience in Nepal is not only mine and that it is not an end in itself.
So there you go. I'd probably go back to climb, but it's unlikely that I'd take the bike there again.
Tricks and thoughts :
Not that complex, there's always a corner of the forest or rice field. If people see you, without getting you out of the way, the word will get around quickly and everyone is likely to come and watch the show. Which is rather charming, and done with respect. But it's not the quiet bivouac for sure.
Dashein : An important moment in the life of the Nepalese, it is the biggest festival of the year. It lasts for a fortnight, but mostly only a few days. During these few days, almost everything is closed. It is difficult to find a bus for the treks, to find a restaurant or a café open. The Nepalese get together with their families to celebrate. It's cool, but it's also a time when you don't want to be in the wrong place. In Kathmandu for example.
Prices have gone up a lot lately. Petrol, so transport, food, beer, services... I found that it was not at all as cheap as a few years ago. Nothing scary, but don't expect to spend almost nothing either.
Buses go just about everywhere. You just have to be patient. The roads are really bad and the travel times are long. For some destinations you have to change buses several times. 200km can easily take the whole day.
Frankly, I find that the transportation is a bit of a motivation killer. There are places I wanted to visit that are only a few hundred kilometres away, but it's a 2 day round trip, and it's sometimes tiring, with the noise, the dust, the waiting, the discomfort.
There is no train, but a plane that goes from Kathmandu to Pokhara. More expensive than the bus, but 25 minutes of travel against 8 hours. That's it.
Aim for the right season. This is becoming difficult as the weather is becoming less and less predictable, but otherwise it's quickly disappointing. The rains prevent you from doing a lot of things, but on top of that they cut the roads and destroy the trekking paths.
Knowing that during the mid season, the sky is really overcast, and you can't see anything of the scenery.
Heat and humidity to consider too, the south can be a real oven.
As everywhere, choose the right weather for sure, but it is all the more true that the interest of the country also lies in activities dictated by the weather.
Nothing to see, move on. I only found one good coffee shop in Kathmandu, and even then it was far from exceptional. Seriously, stock up before you come.
Namely, the Nepalese coffee chain Himalayan java coffee is probably the best bet in many places.
On the Kathmandu-Pokhara road, it's a mad dash of buses and trucks. A beautiful mess. Outside it is rather calm, but the drivers are really disrespectful, and the buses pass you while laughing. I didn't necessarily feel safe on these roads, less than in India anyway.
Small roads and paths are often very pleasant though. It's not as fast but a thousand times more pleasant, so take the time to follow them as much as possible.
I had to have my bike serviced in Pokhara, and it was a disaster. The capital may be a bit better off, but to be perfectly honest, I'd wait until I was somewhere else, or if I had to do it again I'd do it myself. Several shops, they did absolutely nothing and charged me a lot. And I pass you the details. Avoid Pokhara for mechanical stuff.
Post covid :
This is a post Covid world. It's a world that's hungry for money. And it's also a world where many things have closed. Including establishments that you can still book online! I've even had several cases where I've had to go somewhere else, having faced a closed door, a closed hostel. And the next day, I received an email from booking.com saying that the establishment had complained about my not coming and that I had to pay. What a joke.
Moreover, the photos online are often far from reality. This is already the case in normal times, but now the establishments have spent time stopping and the photos are even more misleading.
Road quality :
I found the asphalt really bad. And be careful with the hilly roads, many landslides, causing traffic stoppage and often even deaths.
Bus and bike :
You can easily travel with your bike in the bus. There is always room in the hold or on the roof. You have to pay, too much, but it helps.
It's easy when you book in advance, but also when you have to pick one up on the side of the road.
Much less obvious than in India. Surprisingly a lot of meat. Dhal bat is often the only option.
National parks : Mind the roads crossing national parks. There is wild spots where you'll face checkpoints, where they not gonna allow you to cycle across. You'll have to jump on a jeep, and pay for it, indeed.
Don't hesitate visiting it tho. Prices are fair and it's a nice experience. A lot of rhinos, crocs, elephants and tigers in some places.