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April 2013 Club News

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Nepal, India and Bhutan by Royal Enfield

By Bob Rees

The riding group;: Our mechanic Haffeez, Chris, Bob,
          Elina, Huw, Chilli, Tony, Sheryl, Mike & Denise Ferris
Where can Chris and I go next? Bhutan seems to be a mystical place trapped between India and China, its off the beaten track and hasn’t been open to foreigners for that long, so a perfect place to go.

We decided on a “Ferris Wheels Motorcycle Tour” and went with Huw & Elina, Sheryl & Mick (Chilli) from the ACT and Tony from NSW, as well as Mike and Denise Ferris who own and run the tour.

It involves riding Royal Enfields on a 2700km ride through three countries, Nepal, India and Bhutan. We’d ridden the bikes before on a trip through the Himalayas in north-western India and thoroughly enjoyed it.

We flew from Perth to Kathmandu in Nepal to start our adventure. Huw & Elina and Chris & I arrived a few days before the others to have a look around Kathmandu, and Elina had a conference to go to with her work.

Kathmandu is a dusty place, plenty of rubbish and narrow streets, but the locals were great and we didn’t get hassled too much. Our hotel was situated in the centre of Kathmandu and was close to everything. Power cuts are normal, some they let you know about, others just happen.

The cafes/pubs were excellent. It was quite cold at night, so windcheater and beanie were necessary. The outdoor cafes all had open wood fires which adds to the atmosphere, and the beer tasted great.

Chris, Bob, Elina and Huw at the “Rum Doodle Bar”.
One bar we went to, “Rum Doodle Bar” was a place where the mountaineering expeditions used to have a drink. Edmund Hilary had been there and signed a “Yeti” foot!

We had a good look around Kathmandu including Durbar Square which has fabulous old buildings, a Monkey Temple, a huge Buddhist Stupa and the Bagmati River where the Hindus burn the bodies and float them down the river. I was a bit taken aback seeing a foot sticking out.

Mt Everest.
While we were in Kathmandu we took a small plane over the Himalayas and Everest. Only about 20 people and everyone had a window seat and the chance to go to the cockpit and have a pilot's view as well. A great experience and the views were amazing.

By this time the others on the trip had arrived, the bikes were lined up outside the hotel, we had a back-up vehicle, mechanic, spares and guide.

We were off, Enfields rumbling away early in the morning to avoid the Kathmandu traffic (didn’t really work), then heading west towards Pokhara.

Transport in Nepal: spot the driver.
We were riding through the mountains on pot-holed roads full of trucks heading to India, but by lunch-time we branched off towards Pokhara, the traffic eased off and the road was a bit better. It was a great day’s ride with steep gorges, terraced hills and the Himalayas in the distance.

A lot of trekkers start their trip from Pokhara, so there were plenty of little shops, restaurants and souvenirs, but much smaller and quieter than Kathmandu. The lake is stunning, and the Himalayan mountains looked fabulous wherever you were in the town.

Huw and I rode the bikes to an Enfield tavern and had a couple of beers there. Great place, bikes outside, one hanging from the ceiling in the bar. The table legs were made of truck crankshafts and ashtrays (remember them) were brake hubs.

We met a girl there who had ridden overland from the UK travelling across Europe, Turkey, Iran, the Stans, including Pakistan and India, by herself on a trail bike, she’s on her way to Australia. The workshop next to the bar was interesting with a Triumph Cub tucked away at the end of it.

Huw and Elina and a couple of the others decided to do a bit of paragliding, Huw was getting a bit queasy and turned around to the guy he was paragliding with and said, “I think I’m going to be sick”. He grabbed Huw’s head and turned it away so as he wasn’t going to be covered in breakfast.

Elina “The Brave” went up 18,500ft, amazing. Chris and I rode up the mountain to have a look, making sure Huw wasn’t above us ha ha.

We stayed two nights in Pokhara, it was most enjoyable. We were now heading south through the mountains to the lowlands of Nepal. Fabulous ride with magnificent scenery.

Making Chai tea
        on the Plains.

We would stop for a cup of chai tea when we wanted using the same places as the locals, I reckon that’s part of the charm of riding a bike, I don’t think I could stand being in a bus. Where we were going wasn’t on the tourist track either and we saw no other “Westerners” the rest of the time in Nepal.

We spent the night in a place called Lumbini, which is the birthplace of Buddha, which was very interesting.
We spent several days crossing the Plains, sometimes only 100m above sea level. It was a very poor and primitive area, but again the people were very friendly and welcoming.

Having said that wherever we stopped a crowd would gather to have a look at us, I guess we looked a bit like aliens as we were well and truly out in the back-blocks.

The only drawback riding was the fog in the morning, it was quite thick and would hang around for hours as there is no wind. A city called Biratnagar was interesting. It was very dusty, so leaving there in the morning was a combination of dust from the trucks and fog - couldn’t see a thing - and they couldn’t see you.

By the way it seemed normal in our hotels to wonder if the hot water was going to be hot, or if the power was going to be on, and wonder at the electric sockets hanging by their bare wires - which seemed more common in the bathroom any other room. But it was all part of the experience and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

By now our small group had got to know each other very well and we all got on like we’d known each other for years, we had plenty of laughs and chatted whenever we stopped.  As it was only a small group if someone didn’t fit in it would have put a damper on the trip so I think we were grateful that we did get on so well.

After several days riding, sometimes though dense forests we came to the border of India. Nepal can be chaotic enough, India is another league of its own.

Huw and his brother.
The locals travel (walk, ride or drive) from Nepal to India without worrying about borders, but we needed stamps in our passports. After a while we found the passport office and a soldier in full military gear, old style bolt-action rifle and sneakers, he found an immigration officer and we were writing forms out before being stamped and back on our bikes.

The amount of traffic (especially trucks) had increased enormously in India so we took the back roads to Darjeeling - our destination for the night. The road was shocking, very pot-holed, narrow but with little traffic.

We were climbing all the time so the views were fabulous and later in the day tea plantations were the norm - on steep hills too, I always thought they were on the flat, wrong, they were everywhere.

Chris admiring Mt Kangchenjunga, 3rd highest in the
We came across a place to park the bikes and stare at the Himalayan mountains in front of us including the third-highest peak in the world, Mt Kangchenjunga - it was stunning, snowcapped with a back-drop of blue sky. Actually we hadn’t seen a cloud since we left Albany.

It was Christmas Eve when we arrived at Darjeeling. It had been a dusty day and we were covered in it. The hotel where we were staying was fabulous, a relic from the colonial days. It was something you might imagine in a movie, we were greeted with white scarves and sherry, the place was overrun with porters, waiters etc and the rooms had “coal” fires, hadn’t seen them since I lived in Wales in the 60’s. It did get very cold at night.

We had Christmas drinks out on the verandah with fires blazing, a local band, dancers and for a short time they had me dressed as Santa Claus - a rehearsal for tomorrow.

We then had a Christmas meal in this fabulous hotel. Next morning was Christmas Day, it was the first Christmas we had been away, and even though our daughters had their own families we still missed them.

But the day we had planned was pretty full. Firstly it was to the famous (small) Darjeeling Zoo, with Bengal tigers, snow leopards and other local identities, then to the Everest museum adjoining the zoo which was very interesting and full of memorabilia from expeditions throughout the century.

Santa-Bob Claus handing out presents at the refuge.
After heading into the main square we went to the shops buying presents for some of the under-
privileged we were to meet that afternoon. Then it was back to the hotel where I dressed up as Father Christmas. Together with my elf and five other bikes we rode (no helmet for me, just a red hat with a white ball - great safety feature) to the local Mother Teresa Refuge.

On the way the locals were waving and shouting out “Father Christmas” as we rode by - great fun. The refuge is for people with nowhere else to go, often mentally or physically handicapped. Some had been there since childhood, so it was great to be able to give them presents, party hats etc and to give them a break from the monotony of life in these grim places.

Carols and music was played, dancing with a lot of laughter. A local teenage band arrived and started playing, after a while it was time for us to return to the hotel. Had a ball riding back too. Then more drinks and another great meal.

Elina, Chris and Denise chatting to local women at
          the border.
Next morning we were heading out of Darjeeling on our way to Bhutan. Remembering we were high up, and the nights were cold, on the outskirts of town on a hill was black ice, the first we had come across - Sheryl came off and Tony a bit close behind had no choice but to run over her bike. They were both OK and our mechanic fixed up Sheryl’s bike.

After that we were very cautious riding through the mountains especially on bends where the sun had not shone. Having said that the views were again spectacular, the Himalayas again bathed in sunshine, we were certainly lucky with the weather - just look out for the ice.

All day we rode through the mountains till we eventually came back to the Plains (the Great Gangetic Plateau) we crossed some huge riverbeds where, when the monsoon is occuring, the rivers flood the land before crossing into the deltas of Bangladash.

As we rode closer to Bhutan we had to ride along the worst road we’ve ever ridden. It was 25 kms of dirt with the worst and biggest pot-holes I’d ever seen, and there was no wind so the dust clouds caused by trucks would hang around for ages. It was a relief to come to the end of it.

We reached Bhutan just on dark having gone through more customs formalities. It was a smart hotel with great food. It was also our 40th wedding anniversary and we were surprised and delighted by the presents given to us - Huw & Elina, Mike & Denise and Amar (our Indian guide) in particular and a card signed by everyone on the trip.

In each country we visited we had a different back-up vehicle and driver. Bhutan was no different, but here we also got a Bhutanese guide, which is part of the condition of travelling though the country. You also have to pay $US250 tariff a day each. The number of tourists are restricted as well.

First thing that strikes you about Bhutan is its cleaner and there’s very little traffic (or people). Also cigarette smoking in Bhutan is banned - I wonder if it’s the only country in the world?

As soon as we rode out of the hotel we were climbing, and this was to be how it was for the next 10 days - either going up, or down. There are no straight roads and I reckon they average 15 bends per kilometre most of the time.

Had to be on the look out for black ice.
The road for the first morning was brilliant - good bitumen, bend after bend and fabulous views as we went up and up - and no traffic. After lunch the road narrowed and had more than the occasional pot-hole, this and road works was to be the norm for the next 10 days in Bhutan.

We made our way to Paro, the third largest town in Bhutan. It was small though, the population being less than Albany, a lovely place with a river running through the middle, 3000m above sea level.

Double the fertility and strength.
One of the striking things about the houses and other buildings in Bhutan was the amount of gigantic penises painted on the outside walls. The penis was excited, shall we say, and it was generally complete with balls and a decorative bow. It was a sign of fertility and strength - obviously held in high regard.
There were sometimes flying ones attached to the corner of buildings. We thought about hanging a couple in Albany ha ha. And Gross National Happiness is a decree given to the people by the King - what a great place to live.

          Tigers Nest Monastery.The hotels we had in Bhutan were top class, the one in Paro was 5 star plus. Huge bedroom/lounge with heated floor, even the bathroom had a heated floor and the hotel itself was spectacular, from wherever you looked was views of fabulous snow-covered mountains.

Having said that the nights were now getting much colder with heavy frost and ice on the ground in the morning. Paro is close to the “Tigers Nest” a famous Buddhist monastery build on the side of a steep hill on a rocky ledge. A lot of Buddhists go there as a pilgrimage.

It was one of the must things to do - climb up to the “Tigers Nest”, everyone was keen including Chris of course, so I had better join them. I had read that it was 750 steps, I thought I could manage that OK, but that wasn’t quite right. You had to climb for hours to get to the 750 steps first, all up it took 5½ hours there and back.

The views were fantastic and the monastery well worth looking at. The pilgrims were giving donations and saying prayers at the shrines of Buddha, so I thought it was a good idea to donate something to make sure we got back down in one piece.

Entrance to the
          capital of Bhutan, Thimphu.Our next stop was Thimphu the capital, the road there was brilliant, although it was cold. We passed a giant Buddha on the way into town.

As it wasn’t that far we were there by lunch-time. Ferris Wheels are very generous in letting you use the bike any time you want. A lot of other companies don’t do this, so Chris and I rode through town. We managed to find an Italian/Bhutanese cafe that sold great coffee - we went back twice.

Buddhist Dzong or Monastery, Bhutan.
This was one of the few places that had the internet and ATM machines. Nice clean town though, again with a river through the middle. I realised later that Bhutan is really a country of valleys running from north to south, so when riding across the country we would climb over one pass and into a valley and over another etc, which is why there are so few straight roads and such brilliant scenery. Most passes we crossed were around 3500m, with the highest being nearly 3900m or 12,800ft.

What a fabulous place to be riding motorbikes.
This also means that the roads were narrow and had long drops down the side of the road. If you went off you had no chance, so you were always very aware and looking out for trucks or buses coming towards you on the narrow roads. Having said that most truck drivers were very courteous and patient, pulling over to let us pass when they could.

More next issue.

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