The Cycling Bug's Tour of Lalitpur on a Mountainbike.
A bug bit me a few years back, and since then it has made me restless.
It makes me travel just like the wind.
It does not matter where, to what direction, with whom. What matters is just how, and the beginning of this story.
I had wanted to make a cycling trip around the accessible part of Lalitpur since a long time, but it mostly got postponed for one reason or another. At one time it was my un-preparedness that held me back; at the other I simply had no heart to do it alone. And so it had rested. Friends were busy: some with their busy work schedule, some had their equipment damaged from the previous trip and needed urgent repairs, and there were still some others who had health-related issues that prevented them from getting outdoors and made them something like couch potatoes with knee problems and joint problems. There were many other trifling issues that prevented things from happening, and my travel plan simply got postponed.
I was a bit tired for quite some week: writing one proposal after another, trying this listing and that, and being unable to make a sale… It was all mentally very depressing. I just needed a change, and needed it fast. But it just had to come by itself, suddenly.
June 18, 2016, and I woke up at four in the morning, unusually. Another bad day, I was thinking half awake. Why so early? Half naked, I looked outside the window. It was light, alright, but the air felt gloomy white and the sky overcast with early monsoon clouds. Once awake I am not the type that can easily crawl back into bed. A cup of water, almost half a litre of that, and I got dressed, half of me wishing I could go back to sleep while the other half of me wishing I could clear the clouds of depression from the air, at least for a day. A camera, an extra battery, emergency maintenance toolkit, a survival tool set, a few tablets and water disinfectant together with some standard bandages for minor wounds, a rain poncho, and a litre of water... all shoved haphazardly into my small backpack and I was out with my bicycle in another half an hour. Local tea shops were still not open and I soon hit the open road.
I had no idea what cycling for a full day along a less-travelled road was going to be like but I just wanted to get out of the dusty city and its chaotic traffic. There was a group of cyclists taking the same road as I was and it cheered me a little just to know that I will be having some sort of company at least. I did not know what they would be like on the trail: friendly or reserved, helpful or introverted. As it happens with me, I was mentally prepared for eventualities, so I threw everything to the wind and continued pedalling. “Come on,” I would tell myself from time to time. “It’s your road.” But then I would, from time to time, keep looking back to see if there were any signs of others. They were either already gone ahead of me – but that could not be the case as it was still very early – or else they were just looking for each other. I pedalled on for about an hour.
Half past six, a local told me at Chapagaon. Time for tea, and a lubrication check-up: the chain was struggling a bit so I squeezed out some drops of lubricating oil. It now felt smoother after the treatment and a cup of tea served well. I kept my eyes on the road but there was no sign of them. The locals had not seen any one pass by before me. Damn! I retorted. They’re cowards afraid of the distance and the monsoon rains, so they postponed their trip again, I tried to console myself. I was wrong, I would discover later, but the impatience hit me and I ordered another cup of tea before hopping on to my saddle.
The road sections were muddy with potholes full of dark water. Occasional vehicle that passed simply splashed muddy water over you and you cursed the driver as you pedalled along. The nice looking tarmac suddenly turned into gravel and you started sweating even though birds sang the monsoon songs all around you. The forest air was clean, the air cool and calm, the trail enjoyable, and the bike was obedient to a large extent. I found the black road again and soon I was in the small town of Lele.
A group of women were planting a paddy and I managed to capture them in frame. Their song was beautifully melodic but I had left my mobile phone behind and had no audio recording equipment. They made jokes with me and my camera but that was easily passed with a burst of merry laughter. A little way off someone was selling cucumbers and I got a decent size from him for 30 rupees. It was a juicy treat before the long tiring climb. There was still no sign of them. Boggers!
It happens. Panting for breath, stopping for water, taking a few minutes in an attempt to relax the muscles of the groins aching from the discomfort of the saddle, stretching the eyes along the trail you just climbed to see if anyone is following you for company, and when you find out you have a long way to go, you take the left turn from the fork and continue along until you find a small hut on the right side just by the road and ask whether they could provide some home-brew called “airak”. So nice that they did provide it in a small stainless steel glass that helped me gulp down some bites of the previous day’s samosas that I had carried for breakfast.
And as I was gulping my breakfast down, they whizzed past. “Your friends,” men inside the little hut shouted. Wow! I jumped, almost. They were not exactly my friends, but I knew one or two of them. They did take the road after all, and that felt comforting.
Dark red plums loaded with magnesium salts and vitamins lingered in the mouth even after minutes had passed as I descended downhill. They travelled just for the sake of travelling and many of them complained about this or that and this or that not being available to their liking. If you wanted city service all along why come here to these remote parts, I wanted to ask, but I had a camera and I loved photography. Why waste precious time talking about deep matters and things they barely understood. I would rather, when the sky permitted, wait a minute or two just to capture a local woman walking down the road with a huge load of fodder on her back. And she would complain why I had taken a picture of hers with such a load and such a thick coat of mud on her legs. I would keep smiling, trying to evade the scrutinizing questions.
It was a great day for mountain-biking with cloud cover for almost the whole day but a sad day for photography: as soon as I took the camera out of its waterproof bag, drops would start falling down. And I had to shove it back in, under layers of rain-proof fibres. However, the journey was pleasant. Some occasional motorcyclist would whizz past with high revving engines, giving such a queer look to me as if he had never expected to see someone cycling in that weather in that part of the mountain. Perhaps he thought it strange that someone would for reasons unknown choose to cycle those mountain sides with the thin tyres spraying dirt all over. It was a tiring job, he barely knew and hardly understood. “Pheeewwwww!” I sighed and continued along until I saw a tiny hut by the road side. I was hungry as hell.
Men were drinking white liquid in an equally white battered aluminium bowl. “Chhang”, I understood as it needed no introduction. Asking a bowl for myself, I sat down and dug into my bag. Yeah, there were two pieces of samosas left. The bites felt so good, and the bowl of home-made beer was heavenly. They were far behind me, and I only saw the small white pick up truck coming. Out of a group of 23, three of them had managed to carry their bikes along on the back of that smoke-belching metallic beast. The devils! They couldn’t even cycle a few hours. Ten rupees a bowl served quite well that afternoon.
Then it was downhill, one of the best trails after Bhardev, to Chaughare, or Char-Ghare as many called it. The road twisted to the right and left, and then to the right again, and then to the left, in numerous bends as green paddies far down the valleys on either side were occasionally interrupted by a house or two. An almost empty road, punctuated only with the sound of rubber rolling along the black surface of the asphalt tarmac. From one scenic wonder to another, the road took me along a journey that somehow felt like trans-Alp tour on a mountain-bike: I have not been there but the similarities are marvellous: the Alpen-Cross, you could easily call it.
The climb again on the other side of the gorge with thick forests and I wished I had company: to sit at some local house asking for the traditional sauerkraut and maize-flour pudding. Alone, I just had no heart to do it as the journey was still too long to make. Asking a young driver for directions, I left the main road and took the heavily rocky one to the left. Pedalling was difficult; my bicycle had just to be pushed along the bumpy slope.
The sky offered no comfort for photography and I had my rain-poncho on. Such bad luck. Ten minutes turned into thirty, and thirty minutes into ninety but the climb would continue on and on. And finally, in the misty mountains, long dome-roofed brown coloured bunches of straw huts appeared. Mushrooms?!! It was a huge surprise at that remote spot. Where would they take the produce to sell? But the answer to my inmost question at that time came by itself. As long as there is life, there is hope; and as long as there is hope people will keep doing things that they believe will better their lives. And here, in front of my eyes, were the exact manifestation of that truth: people will carry loads on their back for hours to get to the road, then wait another series of hours to take their produce to the market that takes another series of hours to reach. Just to keep the hopes alive, just to feed the dreams. And that is life, a great reality.
“Hello,” someone came along. A little voice.
“Hey, come. See there’s a foreigner,” he was soon shouting to his friends. And soon a bunch of them surrounded me.
“Look, look,” someone added, “it’s a bike with disc brakes.”
“W—o—w! What an amazing bike.”“Just look at the colour.”
And they continued in their own childish manner of innocence. No doubt very few outsiders visited their place, and very rare few with mountain bikes. But nonetheless, some actually did, and that is how these curious little minds filled their young brains with at least some knowledge of things they barely got a chance to touch. Yet again, there were motorbikes parked on a side stand in the mud. In all likelihood, the parents and guardians of these little children use the Indian-made beasts to carry their produce to the markets.
"Where you going?” One of them asked me.
“Me?” I asked. They nodded their heads in affirmation. I did not feel it appropriate to disappoint these young minds by revealing myself as a fellow countryman, and so I chose to answer them in the same language as they had picked. “I’m going to Batase Da(n)da. You know where that is?”
One of them pointed to the left along a red muddy trail littered with huge muddy potholes. I had guessed as much, recollecting the memory of studying the map of the trail online just the previous evening. Had there been some old people, I might have stayed for a little while asking for a glass of buffalo milk or things like that, but I did not see any grown up, and my heart felt uneasy going into serious business with the kids. Even the grown-ups in the mountains would not talk to strangers oftentimes, so I decided I better move on. But they ran on either side of me following my bicycle. “Go back,” I shouted at them. I did not want them to fall and get injured. “Go home,” I shouted again and again until their voices faded in the distance and the muddy trail changed into a rocky one taking me down the mountainside of Khar Bhanjyang. My brakes started making uneasy noises on the bumpy downhill trail and I had to stop. Damn! The pads on the front were worn out, and it took me more than half an hour to change the pads and to tune them. Luckily, a local farmer provided a glass of thin watery very sour whey for which I was very thankful.
I saw the bunch as I hit the road again after the stop but one of them had a bad fall breaking his helmet and getting bruised on his hips and arms. He was lucky he had a lot of muscles covering up his bones; otherwise, had he been a thin twig like myself, he would have perhaps broken at least a few of his bones. I offered a piece of fabric to cover up his wound, and also gave them a spare shoe-lace to hold it in place. Then I gave him a couple of ibuprofen tablets as pain-killer but their leader would not accept my offer of disinfectant. They perhaps though of me as an intruder, and finding no way out to help him any further I chose to leave them, feeling very uneasy inside myself.
I am an endurance runner, and so instead of pushing myself too hard, I prefer to do it slow and steady maintaining a more or less constant pace all along. I also have my own way of moving along: I talk to people, I share their stories, I capture a few shots, I share laughters and I build relationships. But here, in the thick rain with heavy clouds of vapour rising from the ground as the drops from heaven beat hard upon the rocks, I kept pushing my bike along: me and my bike along the trails of Chhepare Da(n)da, Batase Da(n)da, DhungKharka... and all along, the misty mountains never raised their veil of rain-clouds for what might perhaps have been some majestic scenery and some great frames captured with my camera. The trail, the bike, the heavy downpour, and the breathing was all that I had. Then the last descent down the bumpy stony track to Panauti and it got quite dark. The batteries in my torchlight were almost dead, and as I sought newer replacements in the local shops, the boys disappeared without saying a word. I did not see them later in the dark.
It was a great trail all along; a very memorable mountain-biking experience. They had been some sure company along the way and I was never a part of their long planning since the very beginning. They had their own group and if they preferred it to be like that, I would better be myself as well; with a faint headlight and a red blinking tail lamp I simply chose to continue along the highway as the night progressed.
(Text and photographs by Subarna Prasad Acharya. Portion of the map has been taken from Google Maps. Detailed map of the route is available here:
[The author is an avid traveller, cyclist/mountain-biker, photographer, writer, and freelance guide. He has a blog (this one in particular), an Amazon author’s page, a National Geographic Your Shots page, and also a YouTube channel.]