Darjeeling, India - Kathmandu, Nepal Dec 1st - Dec 26th
The wonderful things in life are the things you do, not the things you have.
It’s with mixed feelings that I leave Bangladesh. After such an intense and crowded experience, I’m somewhat relieved to have some me/us time, but I fear the feeling of emptiness lingering around the corner. The first three days in India, tears come to my eyes on multiple occasions. I think of the wonderful people we met and of the hardship they live in. What will it take to change the life conditions for future generations? The next four weeks on my bike do not answer my question but they do help me to digest my emotions. Today, I feel privileged and wiser to have traveled in Bangladesh. Observing such a different society and having the privilege to be part of it for a few days makes me more complete.
It is good that India requires my instant and full attention because the traffic is insane. The new situation helps me to distance myself from my Bangladesh feelings.
Two truck and one bus accidents within the first three hours create a huge traffic jam. Fortunately, our fatbikes allow us to slip along all the cars and trucks, even though the side road is sandy and rocky. On our way to Siliguri, a bigger town at the foothills of Darjeerling, we meet the first cyclo tourists in a long time. Molly and Haydn are biking from England to New Zealand. In case you want to learn more about their travels: http://www.cycleforlove.com . They cycle the globe for refugees.
Our first stop in India is in Siliguri. It is a 1 million people city in West Bengal, and even though the city has nothing outstanding to offer other than its location at the foothills of the Himalayas, we enjoy staying here, resting, discovering new food and enjoying the colourful happiness of Indian people.
We book a jeep to travel to Darjeerling because neither Frank nor I are ready to climb to the tea plantations after more than 1,000 km of flatness cycling in Bangladesh.
When we discover the grades of the itinerary, both of us are relieved at the sight of not having to cycle these roads. Darjeerling is a town known for its tea industry and is located at 2,040 m altitude. From here, you can see the third highest mountain (8,580 m), Kangchenjunga. We visit the Happy Valley tea plantation and museum. One of the best teas in the world is coming from here. Almost 90% of their production is shipped to London (Harrods), Germany and France (Mariage Frère). We learned that tea from high altitude is better quality than from the plains as the leaves get less water and grow slowly. Furthermore, the tea plant for white, green and black tea is the same, the difference is in the processing.
Like Frank told you in an Instagram posting, we still don’t appreciate a good tea to its right value and prefer a good beer, but we are better educated now.
For the first time in a long time, we can also enjoy Western food like Shepherds pie, Mac & Cheese and lemon pie with a glass of wine that is far too sweet. These little tastes from home feel good.
Before we leave India, Laxmi, a very smart local young woman we meet along the road invites us for a cup of tea and some noodles. She explains to us how her mother did everything to have her three daughters educated so they can be independent. The societal pressure and caste system still prevents millions of women and men to live the life of their choice, and it’s refreshing to see she’s doing everything she can to choose her own life path with the help of her mother.
Getting our Nepal visa and crossing the border is smooth and easy. We stay one night in Kakarbhitta and work on our itinerary to Kathmandu. Frank gives me three options: easy, not so easy and impossible according to Google. We choose the impossible option. After the easy riding in Bangladesh, we’re looking forward to the unexpected adventurous road. I still don’t know how Frank manipulates my reasonable thinking to say yes to this itinerary. The first 100 km are steep and paved. All good until we hit dirt road in Bedhetar. The downhill of 25 km takes us three hours to the valley and it is so dusty and rocky that we look grey when we arrive at the bottom of the hill. Even tractors and big trucks have difficulties to ride the road in either direction. I start to doubt my...Frank’s! decision and wonder what is ahead. Still 420 km to cycle. Local intel is conflicting. Going from “it is paved after the village” or “don’t cycle there” to “road work in progress”...but I really don’t want to push my bike back up the hill to Bedhetar. After a party with the road workers and a good night of sleep, I feel confident that it can’t be worse than the last stretch. Good surprise, after 10 km of more dust, mud and big rocks , the road is beautifully paved. My smile is back for the next 30 km with one or two tears of exhaustion at the top of the mountain. However, the view on the Himalayas chases them away in no time.
I will not explain the next 250+ km. The fact that I already cry of exhaustion and despair in the early morning instead of the late afternoon is self-explanatory.
We push our bikes, no cycling is possible, and it’s never ending. The breath-taking views and the kindness of the villagers make it a bit easier, but I can’t explain how relieved I am when we hit some pavement after Diktel where we spent the night in a ‘hotel’ a local recommended us. It was the worst place we ever stayed.
The 500 RS (CAN $5) we pay for the room are used to buy the flooring the son is placing just before we move in. The mattress is a wooden plank and the blankets so dirty that we take out our sleeping bags. The room has a hole where a window could be placed in the future, and Frank has a hard time to pee standing in what could be called a washroom as the toilet is under a staircase. He has to lean back, and I am not sure how it all landed in the right place. It would have been funny if I had not been so tired.
Starting now the road is still steep and tiring, but it’s almost a pleasure to be back on the bike even though my legs are protesting each time it’s climbing.
After three weeks of camping, we decide to take a hotel room in Halesi for three nights. It is a nice small town with holy caves shared by Hindus and Buddhists. We stay in a nice Tibetan hotel where Dawa and his wife take good care of their eclectic guests.
Buddhist monks, NY life style Buddhist coaches, Ian Daniel, producer of the US tv show ‘Gaycation’ and us, make it an interesting crowd with good debates. Frank and I will definitely not convert to Buddhism like many Chinese or Westerners do but we are open to listen to their stories and experiences. Around a good vegetarian meal and hot tea, the monks explain us how they became Buddhist monks, either by choice or because the parents want their child to become a monk or nun. The education they have to complete in the monastery is quite similar to University studies. Once adults, they do something similar to a Bachelor, Masters and eventually a PhD degree. Most of them have a good sense of humour and are just happy, and we have good laughs. Ian and his friends are different kind of animals. Ian, the critical out stander of the group of five, questions his friends about the path they choose, the meditation and life style, the money they make and want to make out of it in the future. But he is also open to new things and feels it could help him and others to live a happy live. We have a bit more critical view on the whole Buddhist thing, the money made by the monks and the life style coaches. Having said that, the money and power is part of each religion, so nothing new here.
Our Christmas treat is a real bean coffee, and eventually, the rest of the road becomes smooth and nice most of the way to Kathmandu.
While waiting for our Vancouver friends, Alexa, Mary and Lang to arrive, we stay at the Kathmandu Guest House. After a few weeks of hardship, we welcome our first heated room, warm shower and amazing breakfast buffet. The cherry on the cake is that Reinhold Messner, very famous Italian climber, is in the same hotel. Even Frank gets emotional when he shakes our hands with an iron grip. We feel the year ends really well and are happy to share the next six weeks with our friends.
stunning Himalaya views
generosity and kindness of Nepali
Dal Bhat and MoMos
KGH aka Kathmandu Guest House
real bean coffee
eclairs from ‘Flat Iron’ coffee shop Kathmandu - can you tell that we are hungry :)))
mud, rocks and dust on the road from Dharan to Diktel
cold weather in the evening when we’re camping
T2 and T3 from MEC
my Sony camera - RJ, thank you for recommending it
We have just crossed the Indian border, with the benediction of our Bengali police escort, too happy to get rid of us safe and sound.
Not even 30 minutes on a dusty wide Indian paved road and we are already.... stuck!
Not even a bike can find a way to sneak out or through a huge traffic jam caused by, what we will discover much later, a couple of accidents.
Things get worse as the road giving access to a narrow bridge forms a real bottle neck. It is a long bridge crossing a very wide river. The river is totally dry creating in us some frustration to be stuck on a too narrow bridge that is actually at the moment not necessary. Of course a stupid frustration that was not shared by anyone around us maintaining classic British stoicism ... probably an English heritage from a time now gone.
Buses, trucks, cars, motorcyclists and the 2 of us trying to find a way to gain few meters. Any gap, any space is quickly filled up. Who cares about the lane reserved for the oncoming traffic, if there is an open space it needs to be filled up.
It feels like we are part of a giant Rubik’s Cube, someone needs to solve the problem by shifting the tiles in the right direction. If there is a God somewhere we will need his assistance. From above, he should have a clear vision of who should move to create some motion.
We zigzagged between and over what ever was in our way to slowly progress forward.
The sun was hot, the air dusty and yellow, but everyone was calm, no road rage, no stress. Some even joked with us saying we were the cause as everyone came to welcome us.
Actually, aside of a few jokes and a few smiles, compared with Bangladesh, we felt like we did not exist anymore. Bangladesh was constant and overwhelming but friendly attention. Only few meters across the border and we are not VIP anymore, just 2 cyclists added to an already packed road.
We can almost still see the last trees in Bangladesh and already are feeling so far away from it.
We are in India, hoping to reach Siliguri, only 70Km further, before the sunset.
We did it, right at sunset. 3 major accidents involving buses and trucks, ambulances unable to reach the accident scene, stuck like everyone, were good reminders of our vulnerability. Feeling too comfortable in the traffic, being involved in an accident and we should not count on much medical assistance. Honking is useless but people are honking. Not irritating anymore, it has been part of our sound environment for many weeks now.
Siliguri is a big city, busy with a certain charm. Charm supported by the presence of many women on scooters, bicycles and liberated from the Muslim doctrines and dress codes.
Cheap hotels but with hot water and plenty of choices of types of food and tasty meals.
I need a new saddle. Found the exact same saddle for the equivalent of US$7.
One day off to regroup, wash our clothes and work on the maps.
Drawing an itinerary, then have a look on the route profile. Smartphones now offer plenty of solutions through Applications to clearly and quickly plan the almost perfect itinerary. Accurate road maps, topo maps and live localization make things fun to organize. Though, there is a little bit of nostalgia for the time where in some Asian and Central Asian countries I had only an aviation map to figure out my position and a vague bearing to follow with my compass.
Old I may sound after that statement but it was not that long ago in reality.... what is 30 years when you are 60 :)
Darjeeling as the next destination was an evidence and a very nice discovery
Sikkim could be a bonus if we had the time and could have the access permit quickly enough. It is early December and friends from Vancouver are meeting us in Kathmandu for new year with their bikes to share the road for a few weeks. So we need to make a choice, give priorities to our bucket list according with the time needed to cycle to Kathmandu.
I have been in Nepal more than once but have never really explored the East Terai. A mountainous area with barely no, if any, road access. The topo maps show dirt roads along endless mountain ridges, offering in my imagination, grandiose view points to some of the most famous 8000m peaks. On my updated digital maps, there is now a yellow line going from East to West through that area. I am already excited by the idea of being able to pedal the area. Western Terai -West of Kathmandu- is hilly, Eastern Terai reaching Darjeeling on the West Bengal district of India is definitely more a mountainous landscape.
The bad news is, there is no border open for foreigners between Darjeeling and Nepal. So choosing Darjeeling and its tea plantations at 2100m as the next destination means we will have to get back down to almost sea level in order to cross the only international border to Nepal.
After 4 weeks of flat Bangladesh “we” (?) crave for some hills, cool air, cold nights and fun downhills. Not much searching for the best route to follow needed, there is only one from Siliguri to Darjeeling and another..... to go down ....to reach the Nepali border. The only headache comes from the vision of the road profile. ...
62km to cover with the last 35 at grades of 10+% to gain the 2000m.
Riding our bikes over bridges in Bangladesh were the toughest recent climbs .... and there were not that many bridges to go over.
Jeeps with the sign Darjeeling are parked right in front of the hotel, drivers yelling their destinations to catch the attention of the rare tourists around.
US2$ / person for the ride... watching one jeep taking off, I estimated 10 people were squeezed in the jeep for the journey.....
No need to negotiate much, a driver/jeep owner and I agreed to a US20 ride for both of us and the bikes. No need to wait for enough potential clients to pack his jeep. Not too proud of that solution but very tempting. For that price, we avoided a long and probably painful climb because of the recent lack of climbs in our legs and also because we were no longer acclimatized to altitude.
Bikes tightened on the roof and comfortably seated in a vehicle where usually 10 people find their place, we left around 8 am the next morning. 62km and 3hours later we discovered the town of Darjeeling. Pleased we picked that option as the road was very busy and very narrow. Grades up to 15% were confirmed, .... so everything considered, we took the right decision. If not, we would have found other good reasons. Those were easy to claim and very obvious.
Darjeeling is like a nest of people living on a very sharp, narrow, ridge.
Steep streets forming a maze between houses and buildings we are still wondering how they stand straight.
As usual in many Asian countries, houses and places in general are not heated. Shorts and T-shirt’s found their place back in our panniers, fleeces and down jackets after many weeks of warm conditions, lost at the bottom of our bags, can finally get some fresh air. Sleeping bags added to thin blankets provided by our host, helped us to stay warm during our nights in the guesthouse.
Darjeeling is a tourist mountain station destination. Mainly Indians from the lower valleys are looking, during the hot summers, to get some cool conditions, experience the historical 80Km journey up to the city with the famous Darjeeling Himalayan railway and its steam locomotives - still in duty despite almost 140 years of loyal services, an English heritage - and enjoying views of the white peaks of the Khangchendzonga (8598m, the third highest mountain).
We are in December, off season, there are not many West Bengal tourists and for sure not many Caucasians around. Sikkim was still tempting but applying for a permit and not much time to really explore it, the idea was quickly abandoned. Rather we spend 2 more nights in Darjeeling, an area offering some interesting hikes.
90km to reach the Nepali border check point from 2100m to 100m did not require a brainstorm meeting. Obviously it will be for sure a fun long downhill surrounded by big pine and eucalyptus forests and tea plantations. Confident, we straddled our bikes in an early morning and took off by a dirt road discovered while hiking. The road let us avoid the busy stretch going out of town.
Why are we going up while we should go down? After the few flat kilometers expected, the road showed some tendency to take us higher, re-assuring us briefly that it will eventually go down. The first 35Km turned out to be a roller coaster with sometimes short but such steep sections that we had to hike the bikes. We rode and pushed our bikes in a superb forest made of tall pine trees. The road winding further down between tea farms.
We followed the Nepali line of demarcation and passed the unique border check post open only to Indians or Nepali people. For us, foreigners, it will be another 40km, mainly downhill to the customs and the immigration check point.
We camped in a huge field hidden behind the tea bushes on the Indian side of the border, sharing a great evening and night chatting with a couple of German cyclists, who by pure chance, crossed the border from Nepal as we arrived. Nice to meet them after many months following them on Instagram.
Just pronouncing the word creates in me a warm feeling. I have been traveling the country many times, on foot, on bike and of course along many of the most famous or infamous hiking trails. Never get tired of it and will probably never be.
I spent a lot of time in the Himalayan mountains, my preferred environment, but also enjoyed the lower valleys. The Western side of Nepal is sometimes on my way from or to North India, Spiti, Manali, Ladhak or Zanskar. The Eastern side of Nepal remained unknown to me. So when I vaguely heard about a new road crossing the midlands hills, I jumped on the idea...and so did Sylvia. I should maybe say that her enthusiasm needed to be built up a little bit when I showed her the route on Google Earth. A good tool to visualize terrain but that can also reduce the effect of surprise. So we usually use that tool later to remember a journey done.
A chat with a “knowledgeable” person at the Nepali custom while waiting for our visas sounded like the road was “existing”. So we looked at the profile and distance of the route with a Black Top (paved) road in mind. Even more.... with a smooth, level, freshly done “Black Top”. He said NEW ROAD after all.
One thing we learn when cycletouring or bikepacking is never ask locals about what is waiting for us further ahead (distances, route profiles, conditions and... how difficult it will be). They just don’t know. They often know less than us. This is true in all continents, rich or poor countries.
Why we persist to ask and to refer to locals for intel stays a mystery to me. I think the feeling is shared by most cycle tourists.
The beginning of the climb was similar to what we have done in Darjeeling, on the Indian side of the Nepali border.
The south face of the Himalayas, more exposed to heavy rains, monsoon, is more eroded, torturous, aggravated by the hit and motion of the Indian plate raising against the Asian plate.
It is steep slopes, luxuriant vegetation, deep ravines and more of an agricultural landscape. As we gained in elevation, the slopes are literally carved in multiple terraces, sometimes so narrow that they would not be a camp spot option. Vegetables and cereal fields are vanishing while rice fields are remaining as high as 2500m.
Confident by the pavement we try to consider and embrace the steep climbs as a friendly difficulty as it could have been worse IF it was not paved....we thought....at the beginning. These self talks and personal motivation thoughts suddenly became a “once upon a time”.
Like Google Earth, Google Maps is sometimes a source of information to confirm either a route choice or a distance or .... a feasibility. We did check what Google map suggested from our point A to our point B. The result was perceived then as a glitch in the system as from A to B, Google map would have forced us to go to C, D, E, F, .... and Z. Meaning a detour of over 350km at least in their “faster choice”. How stupid, unreliable that tool can be. My digital map shows clearly that new road. Not even a dotted line or a thin white pale line, it was right there, shown as a dark thick yellow line.
We (I) felt so good to be smarter than Google maps and to work with the right tools that have helped us so much and without any flaws for the last few months.
The 300km route was SUPERB, remote country, typical adobe Nepali houses linked to each other by walking trails and for few.... by the now new road.
Dust, dry mud, wet mud, landslides, gravel, rocks, sand, sometime barely a trail, that is how we found the dreamed of BlackTop road. Construction is definitely in progress in some sections. The huge project and distance in a very rugged terrain requires dividing the distance into many sections and between many different contractors. It does not seem a lot of coordination is happening between them. A few sections were “acceptable” - everything here is relative - others were just miserable to ride. We hiked the bikes sometimes for few hours to end the day exhausted and covered by the dust our own feet and tires created. One day, a long climb was done with the incentive and the encouragement of a 25km downhill waiting for us behind the pass.
The providential 25km can be summarized by a 5 hours long effort. Above ankle deep powdered sand hiding big rocks, trenches and dusty air irritating the eyes and filling our lungs make that dreamed of downhill worse than the uphill. A funny thought came to my mind. This is like being in one of these fatbike winter races or expeditions we have done. Riding the bikes in those conditions required the same type of ride. Looking for the right line, compact snow/compact mud, crusty snow surfaces hiding air holes/light flour type sand hiding rocks.
All the streams, creeks were dry. Water is detoured by hoses to irrigate rice fields and provide water to families via 1000 litre black plastic barrels sitting along houses. So, at the end of the day, we were looking for houses surrounded by rice fields to pitch the tent and get some water to somewhat clean ourselves and cook.
We have always been welcomed and very often the invitation included a Dhal Bat meal. The cold temperatures at this time of the year are never a real problem for us as we have a good winter tent and good sleeping bags. The tent becomes a cozy place where we like to rest in early evening. It is getting dark around 5PM and temperatures drop down very quickly when the sun is gone. Accepting an invitation for a meal forces us to stay “up” in the cold longer than we want. Cooking in Nepal is a long process. It is done inside of the house in a room that we can call Kitchen. In a corner of the room, a clay oven or pit is a designated wood fire place. Quickly the smoke invades the room as no chimney is built. Nepalis want to keep the heat of the fire in the room and so the smoke is associated with heat.
So we stay out and try to be as interactive as possible with the entire family with the few words of Nepali we learned in each of our previous encounters. Nepalis have a very social life style. Especially in the country side where cell phone coverage is weak or even non existent. No cell phone coverage, no internet access. This reality preserves the family and social aspects of a culture that will eventually disappear sooner than later.
Kids are always a source of amusement, too happy to play new games with us after the first few minutes of shyness.
Despite the difficulties, the itinerary was superb. The encounters amazing. The hospitality and kindness beyond anything we could describe. So many opportunities to learn more and more about Nepal and Nepalis. So, absolutely no regrets.
It took us about 14 days to cover roughly 350km and now that we are In Kathmandu, in a heated room, showered with hot water and waiting for our laundry to be done, we feel it was one of the best parts of our journey so far in Nepal.
After all the bike trip was meant to be an adventure, we planned it and we are living it that way.
We are now about to start a new Nepali journey, this time shared with friends from Vancouver arriving with their bikes just in time to celebrate the new year.
To be continued....