Jane Wilson-Howarth

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Standing on the shoulders...

Tuesday, 08 May 2018
In the Peace Palace at Baglung, we were lulled to sleep by screechy Nepali radio music, chitchat, distant partying, car horns, a Buddhist horn, temple bells, cockerels, pigeons. The cacophony was at full volume when we woke, as everyone gets up by dawn and all the rooms were vacated by 6am. Alex was sore but stoical so we pressed on. Back down the scary hair-pinning road we rode to cross the Kali Gandaki then struck north along the valley towards the town of Beni. The countryside felt properly subtropical as we encountered another mongoose and Alex was hit in the mouth by a huge swallow-tailed butterfly.
We took plenty of tea breaks sometimes in fine traditional gabled houses and at one saw crows mobbing a small eagle. We watched as one crow actually managed to land on the eagle’s shoulders, took off, landed again and for a second or two appeared to be surfing the larger bird. We couldn’t decide if this was bravery or foolishness.
The road deteriorated badly once we’d sped through Beni but that meant other traffic was moving much slower and felt less threatening. We had to develop new rough-riding skills now though. Through trial and error, I decided that the best technique for ascending rocky steps was to drive like hell in as straight a line as was possible. A couple of times I was probably a bit over-enthusiastic as my hands were the only parts of me that remained in contact with the bike. Rocky patches strewn with boulders and also deep water yielded to speed too and I found myself recalling the hedgehogs in The Animals of Farthing Wood film trying to resist rolling up when they were scared. Here my instinct to slow down to keep control but that didn’t work at all. On one stretch where I lost my nerve, I dropped the bike and Alex had to help me lift it upright again (until then I thought these were light bikes). Speed didn’t always work though. Where the road surface acquired the consistency of washing up liquid, a more sedate approach was required otherwise the back wheel slipped away and the rest of the bike and rider followed, messily.
We got into conversation with a bunch of large Indians riding Royal Enfields – all the way from Kolkata, and they were generous enough to present us with Royal Riders’ Club badges. They made quite a ceremony of it, with lots of selfies. All of them were wearing knee and elbow protectors as well as proper biking leathers.
The gorge and the scenery were lovely but it took us most of the day to ride 36km. Again it was quite a relief to arrive at somewhere with accommodation so we could stop for the night. I’d been looking forward to returning to Tatopani but actually drove right through it as it was unrecognisable after the passage of time, and the ravages of the earthquakes. The tiny community was at an altitude of 1200m and is known for its hot springs, and what luxury it was to paddle our feet at the edge of the icy Kali Gandaki where geothermal water joins the river, and Plumbeous Redstarts fish.
Ends of days are often magical and we were reluctant to leave the river as the darkness deepened. Next morning was special too as dawn revealed the forbidding sheer glistening Nilgiri himal at the head of the deep steep V-shaped valley. That encouraged us on but soon after setting out, a Nepali on a small bike stopped to tell us that the road was “jammed” and it might take them until 11am until the road was clear again. I assumed there had been a landslide. The man told us we should go back to the last bridge, cross to the eastern side of the valley and they we could by-pass the blocked road. The alternative ‘road’ wasn’t marked on the map nor was it on google but we trusted local knowledge especially when it seemed to be taking us in the right direction. The way wiggled and wound and was rough and loose and sheer in places. Riding down was worst. Like on a push-bike, the natural inclination is to slam on the breaks if things don’t look good but of course the left ‘break’ on a motorbike slips the clutch with is not what is needed.
I lost my nerve (again) on one crazily steep descend and found myself lying in mostly soft soil (with a few inconvenient and rather sharp rocks). The bike was pinning my leg down. I was able to kick my trusty steed off me but then couldn’t right it. Frantic horn-honking brought Alex to the rescue and he and I managed to pick up the bike while we contemplated how heavy these little 150cc Bajaj machines were. I got a bit bruised and grazed but that fall badly kicked my confidence and as a result dropped the bike three more times in the space of about an hour. I tried to give myself a good talking to but I don’t think I was listening.
Finally though, we meandered back to the river. The problem was that the way back onto the ‘main road’ was across a foot bridge over the river. We asked some local men whether there was another bridge and they confirmed this was it and it was all right to ride across. When I told them I was scared, they just laughed. Unsympathetically.
The bridge was bouncy but sound, made of steel, and terrifyingly long. We needed to ride the bikes down onto it by way of a perched river-smoothed boulder that acted as a step, but once on the bridge the tyres slipped on the metal and it felt less than secure. It was hard not to look at the rushing river through the slats on the bridge but there was no turning back; the bridge was just too narrow for a u-turn.
The river-crossing took long enough to allow time to wonder whether, if I plunged to my death while uttering obscenities, my place in hell would be assured.
 
Even in the lower Kali Gandaki gorge, the scale of the scenery was awesome
 
The road snakes north along the west bank of the Kali Gandaki
 
Nilgiri South himal
   
Some impromptu road improvements: tumbling huge boulders down into the river
 
It is rivers that divide Nepal and some bridges looked scarier than others
 
This bridge was also in a bad state of repair
 
Then I realised to rejoin the 'main road' this was our next river-crossing
 
Sound but bouncy and slightly slippery suspended footbridge near Tatopani

This piece is part five of a series of seven posts on our Mum-and-Son transHimalayan trip. The first of the blogs is here transHimalayan Adventure. The next episode is Onto the Tibetan Plateau.