Plans aren’t always easy to follow when a country is in crisis, as Ian Lloyd Neubauer found out in Nepal
This is a story about a motorbike ride that never should have happened; about an epic solo journey on an inappropriate and underpowered bike along a frighteningly bad road that cuts through the deepest ravine on Earth to reach the foothills of the highest mountains in the world.
About a trip riddled with so many false starts, obstacles and challenges – in addition to a diplomatic crisis – that I still have trouble believing the universe let me get away with it in the end. At the start, there were four of us, an international crew of highly experienced off-road adventurers with a plan to ride from Hanoi to Kathmandu – an epic 2,500 mile-long journey through seven countries over three weeks.
Filmed by French TV, the adventure, we hoped, would bring attention to the fact that Nepal was once again safe for travel after the cataclysmic 25 April 2015 earthquake that left the Himalayan nation’s vital tourism sector on its knees. But one by one, my partners pulled out until I was the last man standing. To hell with them, I thought, hatching a new, albeit significantly condensed route that started in the capital Kathmandu.
From there I would hire a bike and ride 125 miles west to Pokhara, a lakeside city surrounded by snowcapped mountains known as the adventure capital of Nepal. I would then veer 90 miles north on the Trans-Himalayan Highway to the sacred city of Muktinath. Set on a high-altitude desert honeycombed with temples and caves, Muktinath is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists who make the long and arduous uphill trek to shower under the 108 holy waterspouts at Muktinath’s monastery.
Add bad roads, mind-blowing mountain scenery and exotic culture to the mix, and you’ll understand why Muktinath has become a Mecca for adventure riders, too. “Only those who are willing to undergo physical discomfort and rigour can go to Muktinath,” wrote Indian journalist G R Narashumhan, who like many South Asians, discloses only the initials of his first and second names but is happy to spell out his surname in full.
Idiot’s guide to a fuel crisis
Five days before I touched down in Nepal on September 25, Nepal’s government passed its first constitution. Normally a good sign for a fledgeling democracy, it enraged minorities living in the southern lowland provinces bordering India who said the constitution screwed them out of their rights. When their calls for amendments fell upon deaf ears, protesters hit the government where it hurt by blocking border checkpoints – a stroke of genius considering Nepal imports nearly all of its petroleum products by road from India.
Now everyone in the country would feel their pain as petrol pumps around the country run dry. I may have been on a holy pilgrimage, but all the prayers in heaven couldn’t help me find fuel in Kathmandu. So I condensed my journey once again and flew to Pokhara where I’d been told police had a stockpile of fuel. With a bit of luck, I may be able to convince them to part with a tankful by explaining how my work as a motorbike journalist will promote tourism in Nepal.
With a letter of accreditation from the editor of ABR in hand, I marched into the police station. Well, I tried to march in, but the guard told me to piss off. Emergency services were on life support, government employees couldn’t get to work and the economy had tanked. My needs were trivial in comparison. The following day I rocked up at the police station again, this time with a switched-on travel agent called Tara Gautam to speak on my behalf.
To his credit, Tara got us through the front gate and won an audience with the commander-in-chief. And while I don’t speak any Nepalese, I didn’t need Tara to translate when the commander replied with riotous laughter.
My request, it seemed, had gone down about as well as the Titanic. Down but not out, I crossed over to the dark side and started hunting for fuel on the black market. The asking price of the first resellers I met – Pokhara’s taxi mafia – was $20 (approx. £14) a litre. When I tried to negotiate, they got offended and told me to fuck off on a bicycle up to Muktinath instead.
Later that day as I was letting out my frustrations on a kicking bag at a gym, I got talking to the owner, former Nepalese kickboxing champion Raju Nepali. After listening to my dilemma, Raju took me to a back-alley dealer who sold petrol for only $4 (approx. £2.70) a litre. But with hundreds of desperate customers, he’d imposed a three-litre quota. I took it anyway. The next day, Tara, my new travel agent buddy, took me to a hardware store where a guy who looked like a Nepalese Saddam Hussein sold me five litres at $7 (£4.80) a litre.
It was a bargain compared to the next batch we bought, a five-litre jerry for $75 (£51) ($15 (£10.30) a litre) sold by some rat who worked at the gas station. It was obviously stolen and the price was exorbitant but I didn’t care. Put together with my other stash, it gave me just enough fuel to ride up to Muktinath on a rusty old Royal Enfield 350cc Bullet I’d borrowed from the Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club in Pokhara.
The president, fellow Aussie Matt Gardner, was already en route to the Muktinath with a group of punters right now. If I could cross paths with Matt on the road, there was a good chance I might be able to bum some fuel off him for the return journey to Pokhara. After months of planning, setbacks, reverse engineering and dodgy late-night under-the-table deals, I was finally ready to hit the road. It’d been a great adventure just getting this far, and the real journey hadn’t even begun.
Hell on two wheels
After four days in Pokhara, I couldn’t get out of the city fast enough, tearing past a petrol station where a line of double-parked cars and triple-parked motorbikes stretched for more than two miles from the pump. At the first roundabout, I veered left onto the Trans-Himalayan Highway, an ancient thoroughfare that connects Nepal with the Old Silk Road in China and Tibet.
The first few kilometres comprised a high-speed take-no-prisoners game of cat and mouse as I ducked and weaved between dangerously overloaded trucks and buses. Yet as I passed the city limits, the grime, dust and diesel fumes of the developing world was left behind and Nepal’s fairy-tale like countryside appeared in all its glory. Snow-capped mountains sparkle like white gold against a cloudless blue sky. Eagles soar in slow, circular movements. Emerald green rice paddies shimmer and blink in the morning haze.
An opal-coloured river winds its way along a ravine far below. There’d been many times over the past six months when I had given up on this trip. But after only half an hour on the road, I knew it’d all been worthwhile. The first 50 miles of road is peppered in gravel and potholes but otherwise in good nick as it snakes up mountainsides and drops into deep valleys. It’s 2 pm when I hit the town of Beni, the halfway mark to Muktinath, where I stop to munch on a few cheap and delicious potato samosas washed down with an ice-cold mango juice.
Things start getting interesting after Beni when the tarmac is replaced with a series of surfaces of such deviant and devilish nature that it seems they’d actually been put there to puncture tubes. Beds of jagged slate rise from the dirt at every conceivable angle, concealed, often-times, by river crossings, superfine chalk-like dust and gooey pits of warm, grey mud.
The Enfield howls with pain every time I drag its short, sorry ass over fields of pointy triangular-shaped rocks and straight across boulders consuming the width of the road. And why wouldn’t it? The stupid thing has no base plate. But it does have a pair of oversize crash bars that manage to catch on the dozens of trees, rocks and roots I pass.
I hear so many chilling rock-on-metal bangs that I begin to think nothing of them until I look down and see the bloody muffler has fallen off! Making matters worse, the tripod I use to take riding selfies and a spare camera that I’d strung to the saddlebag rails with five bungee cords have gone MIA, too. Wasting precious fuel, I double back for half an hour until I find a couple of kids playing a game of baseball with my muffler, though my tripod and camera are nowhere to be found.
I buy the muffler back off the kids for a dollar and use a length of chicken wire I find on the road to reattach it to my bike with surgical precision – if that surgeon had been smoking crystal meth continuously without sleep for 12 days. It’s late in the afternoon when I rock up at Tatopani, a village set on the side of the gushing Kali Gandaki River that’s famous for its hot springs.
As I sink into the deliciously warm water my salt-and-oxygen-deprived muscles begin to thaw, I console myself with the probability that after all the shit that had gone down, there wasn’t that much left to go wrong on this journey.
Rising from an altitude of 800m at Pokhara to 8,901m at its genesis on Mount Annapurna, the Kali Gandaki is the deepest and most awesome gorge in the world. Half an hour out of Tatopani I find myself riding along a narrow road hugging the edge of a colossal rift in the earth several hundred metres wide through which thousands of gallons of water churn every second. Higher and higher the road goes, overlapping preposterously fucked-up rubbly surfaces devoid of anything resembling a clean line.
The Enfield coughs and splutters as the oxygen content of the atmosphere begins to thin, though is otherwise fine until mid-morning when it begins to emit a chilling bone-crunching sound. As I punch on the noise becomes louder and uglier and the bike starts to lose momentum until suddenly I’m dead in the water. I jump off and take a look. The rear sprocket: its teeth have been rounded-off by the strain of crunching up these monstrous hills!
With no spare sprocket to speak of, I lower my head in defeat. My pilgrimage to Muktinath is over. I’m slumped on the ground staring blankly into loser-Ville and when two young Nepalese guys riding past offer their assistance. “Don’t despair, we are with you, brother,” they say. After getting on their phones and discovering there’s a motorbike mechanic in Ghasa, a village I passed only 15 minutes ago, they help me turn the old clunker around and follow from behind as I coast downhill in neutral.
Whenever I hit a patch of flat ground and can progress no further, they jump off their bike, run behind me and help push the Enfield. They are absolute bloody legends and ordinary everyday examples of the warmth and hospitality of the Nepalese people. The guy who fixes my bike however is a total bastard. He takes one look at the sprocket, removes the rear wheel, fishes out the offending part and starts machining the teeth with an angle-grinder, giving it a new lease of life.
There’s no doubting his mechanical prowess but his price is extortionate. He demands $700 (£483) for his time – $5.90 (£4) more than what the average Nepalese makes in a year. Thus begins a Mexican standoff between the two of us that ensnarls half the village of Ghasa, the local coppers and a group of passing mountain bikers and goes on for three hours in the midday heat until the fat oily prick finally succumbs to my one and only offer of $50 (£34.50).
It’s 3 pm when I finally get the fuck out of there. Pushing metal against rock, I smash it non-stop for four long, hot hours until I get to the village of Kagbeni where I rendezvous with the Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club. When I see the president, Matt I feel an urgent need to punch him in the face for giving me such a lemon of a bike. But at the same time, I want to hug him for being witness to the fact that I made it!
Muktinath is only 12 miles up the road! I also learn Matt’s group had troubles of their own. They ran out of fuel on several occasions and had to pay big bucks to buy small stashes from villagers on the road. Their bikes – a fleet of beautiful new black Enfield 500s – had given them no end of grief and one had to be strung onto the back of the support vehicle after its rear brake disintegrated.
As for the other punters – tourists who’d paid to tag along – they’d mostly lied or exaggerated about their riding experience and had a hell of a time getting up here. One guy had even come off and snapped his collarbone. “I had no idea it would be like this. I thought it would be more bitumen and patches of dirt not these pathetic excuses for a road,” says Zoe Weller, a pillion passenger from Australia.
“The terrain has been a shock to the system.” Adds Craig Hembrown from Singapore: “I thought it was going to be hard but in retrospect, I didn’t know what the word ‘hard’ meant. At the same time, the scenery is far more beautiful than anything I ever imagined, and the Nepalese people are amazing.”
To the moon
The next morning I head off in a convoy: eight Enfield 500s, Matt the lucky bastard on a Crossfire CFR250 (a Chinese knock-off of the Honda CRF) and their support vehicle. With the exception of Matt and his sweep, they are absolutely useless riders. And to make things even harder for themselves, they’re lugging their girlfriends on their backs.
But the fact that they made it this far is impressive and for that, they’ve earned my total respect. We enter the ancient Kingdom of Mustang, a wild, rugged, semi-autonomous region of Nepal that looks like the moon and is split in half by a giant sheer-sided canyon more than a kilometre wide in parts.
The road becomes even more punishing, littered with all kinds of tectonic debris and at times dropping so suddenly over the crest of hills that I think I’ve taken a wrong turn until I inch forward and see the track merge into an impossible tight switchback a few metres below.
Anyway, I’m riding along, enjoying the view, minding my own business, when that god-awful crunching noise of the chain slipping around the rear sprocket returns with a vengeance. I dismount and take a look at the rear sprocket. The mechanic’s modifications have pushed the teeth past their stress point, and all but three of them have snapped off. Seems his $700 job wasn’t worth $700 at all.
Fortunately, I now have back up, and when Matt and the group catch up, he gets his mechanics to replace the sprocket. Once the job is done and the bike’s been tested and is ready, I tell the support vehicle, which is significantly slower than a motorcycle on these roads, to shoot off and that I’ll catch up later on. But soon after I take off my bike starts spluttering, and within a minute I’m out of fuel. I remove my helmet and take a look around.
I am in the middle of nowhere, on a high-altitude desert without a lick of fuel and no mobile phone coverage. Adding insult to injury, I am now less than five miles from Muktinath, though still as far away as I’ve ever been.
An hour passes until a car drives by: a 4WD carrying a group of Hindu devotees to Muktinath. The driver pulls over, assesses the situation, returns to his car, pulls out a hose, opens the fuel cap, inserts the hose into the tank and looks at me in a way that leaves no need for elaboration. By the time I’ve sucked a litre out of his tank and fed it into my bike, my head is swimming in petrol fumes and I’m bloody hallucinating.
If I was to light a cigarette at this moment, I would surely explode. Water does nothing to get rid of the taste of fuel in my mouth, though squeezing half a tube of toothpaste into my mouth does the trick. When I finally catch up with the guys at Muktinath, Matt, can’t believe I’d caught up with them again. “I’m like bacteria,” I tell him. “I can’t be killed!”
Set under a pair of snow-capped peaks in an olive grove with a gilded temple in its centre, the monastery of Muktinath is cut straight out of Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine. A few of the boys strip off for a to run under the freezing cold 108 waterspouts, while I find a place to sit and contemplate all the interconnected factors, generous people and improbable coincidences that conspired to get me here in one piece.
Moments later, one of the other riders sits down and starts telling me about all the problems they faced on the way up. At one stage when he’d run out of fuel, Matt had to lower a bottle of fuel to him on a rope down a cliff because the switchback between them was too steep for the support vehicle to reverse down. I laugh out loud and share one or two Muktinath stories of my own. “Well, if you made it up here,” he says, “it must mean something.”
The Kathmandu Guesthouse (www.ktmgh.com) in Thamel, Kathmandu’s old city, has air-conditioned rooms for £30 per night. The Glacier Hotel and Spa (www.glacierboutique.com) Pokhara’s newest boutique luxury hotel with rooms from £76 per night.
Hearts and Tears Motorcycle Club (www.heartsandtears.com) offers seven-day guided tours from Pokhara to Muktinath from September to May. Rates are £1,212 per rider, £1,386 for a rider plus pillion, or £2,183 for two riders on two bikes.
Use of Enfield 500cc motorcycle, fuel if they have any, national park permits, twin-share accommodation, meals, safety gear and support vehicle are included. Straight Enfield rentals for self-guided tours are £35 per day.
30-day visas on arrival are sold at Kathmandu Airport for £28
Rabies, Tetanus, Typhoid and Varicella-Zoster
Punctuality is not of high importance in Nepal, but that doesn’t mean foreigners should purposely arrive late for meetings or meals. Being on time is the best way of showing the courtesy to anyone, irrespective of the destination.
Where to go
More sights and activities:
Everest Base Camp trek
Pokhara’s World Peace Pagoda
Parahawking (paragliding with hawks)
Thamel – Kathmandu’s old city
Kathmandu’s Money Temple
Everest scenic flight
Traffic law enforcement is virtually non-existent in Nepal and the on highways right is might. Be wary of trucks and buses that charge around blind corners around steep cliffs.
When to go
There are two peak tourism seasons in Nepal when temperatures are mild: Autumn (late September to late November) and Spring (March to May).
Foods to try
Daal Bhat Tarkari – Nepal’s national dish comprising of soup made of lentils (Daal), boiled grains (Bhat) and a curry mash-up of different vegetables flavoured with spices and curry powder (Tarkari).
Momo – Steamed or fried dumplings filled with minced buffalo meat, chicken and/or pork and also with vegetables.
Chatamari– A pizza-like appetiser made of rice and topped with anything from minced meat, eggs and vegetables.
Life was tough for the Nepalese before the April 25, 2015 earthquake. Now things are even harder for them. Tipping isn’t compulsory, but a pound or Euro in the hands of a guide or restauranteur will go a long way. Taxis are not metered. Negotiate the fare beforehand or you will get ripped off.