Seven days I ended up staying in Pokhara. I had originally planned to spend the night and then head through to Kathmandu, but decided to have a day off, and come the afternoon I wasn’t really feeling up to riding the next day. I had put aside a week to have off in Kathmandu, so I wound up just spending those days in Pokhara instead; the town was lovely, if very touristy and the hostel was super comfy.
I was also in a bit of a slump mentally, every few months it comes around, motivation for the road wanes and willingness for adventure seems to vanish. It usually coincides with something else going on, some block in the road or, in this case, lack of a longer term plan and goals. I had 3 weeks until I needed to be in Kolkata, India but no plan of how to get there, which sounds very romantic and free but doesn’t sit well in a slump. I had no motivation to go anywhere and no looming goals to force me out the door. Recognising it for the slump it was I came up with a halfhearted plan heading through East Nepal, on the basis of completing the West to East route and stopping at Kathmandu on the way. I had the option of heading to upper Mustang with Martin and Xenia, but that wouldn’t be for another week and I wasn’t keen on punishing Donkey even more, he was still really hurting after the last load through North India then again in Nepal.
The death of the slump came about after about 4 days. I’d decided to leave for Kathmandu the following day, and headed to get some new oil in Donkey and fix a few little bits. I discovered the belly pan was utterly and completely screwed up, it wasn’t just “a little out of line” anymore, it was so far off it took me an hour of bending, banging and swearing to finally get the damn screws back in, usually a two minute job. The horrendous road through Nepal had really taken it’s toll. I sat that night worrying about it, Mustang was off the cards now and I planned a new route to avoid more bad roads in Nepal and India.
I woke up in a stubborn mood the next day feeling stupid for being so resigned to change my entire plans just because some metal was bent the wrong way. I cancelled the plan to ride to Kathmandu that day and set off around town looking for a garage to try and fix the plate. It was a bit daunting, the thick steel mounting bars themselves had bent and it would be risky, if I screw it up, bend a piece and snap it, or shear a special bolt I’ll be without a plate at all, which leaves the engine super vulnerable on these potholed roads.
With A-Team music playing in my head and looking more and more like an episode of scrapheap challenge, I set to work. After a couple of hours trying and failing to bend the plate to fit into the bent mountings, I gave up and started just changing the mountings. Taking them all off, I realised just how far buggered they were, the main one being bent by about 40 degrees. The guys in the garage pointed me to someone who might be able to help bend it back, who said “nope too thick” and pointed me to a welder. He looked confused but did his best heating the joint until it was glowing then using a huge pipe and a lot of leverage to get it bent back again. I’ve no idea how much that has weakened the material but it works for now. The plate still needed some work to get back in, but a quick trip to a guy with a metal press and rivets finished it off. A huge sigh of relief when it all finally slotted back together smoothly.
I was so chuffed it was fixed, and I’d got over my slump by getting down to solving some problems instead of moping around, and it had made my planning much easier. I realised I’d let myself be pushed into a route and plans by avoiding the problems with Donkey and being scared of bad roads, instead of solving the problems and taking on challenges. Now with the engine protected Mustang Valley with Martin and Xenia was back on and India should be much more fun afterwards too.
With 4 days to kill until heading off to Mustang I set off for a quick visit to Kathmandu the next morning. A fairly simple ride, a few people trying to kill themselves with their driving, surprise potholes and vomit flying from bus windows, a normal day in Nepal. Getting into centre of the city wasn’t so straightforward, my GPS threw a fit and wouldn’t turn back on, so I had to find my way through the tiny streets and alleyways by guess work. I eventually found the hostel district, and the centre of it, by following the hippies, the trail of many dreadlocks and baggy trousers.
A turbo tour of sightseeing the following day, riding the bike from one sight to the next, seeing temples and pagodas around the city. I attempted to ride up a mountain with a viewing tower but the road was blocked and they wanted about £20 for a return ticket on the cable cars. No thanks. A lovely evening drinking with a bunch of Brits I met in the hostel, telling tales of the trip and getting some good advice from them about places in India.
I was very glad to return to the comfort of Pokhara, I did not really get along with Kathmandu, glad I didn’t commit myself to a week there, the tourist area was particularly soulless, all the shops were copy and paste of trinket shops, fake brand clothes and unhappy locals running them. The rest of the city just felt like an extra dirty and busy capital city you would see anywhere else in the world. Some of the sights were worth a look but a single day there was more than enough for me. Back to the calm of Pokhara please.
I arrived back at the same hostel as before, such a lovely bunch running the place, they greeted me like family coming home. Out in the evening to meet up with Martin and Xenia for some food and a good long catch up. We’d only been apart for a month or so but we had plenty of stories to share and planning to do for Mustang Valley and the permits we needed for it.
We set off toward the valley not sure what to expect, but we weren’t expecting anything crazy difficult. If I’d known how hard it was going to be I really don’t think I would have gone. The first 100km was just tarmac roads leading to Beni, after that the surface got progressively worse. Usually when riding on a bad road, you get small patches of really bad stuff, maybe the road washed away, or a bunch of really big potholes, this was a bit different. We’d come up on some comically bad patch of road, like the gravel would become big stones, or the road would get steeper or deep sand, and we’d laugh at how bad it was and make it over it, but it didn’t end; that was the new normal. So every patch we came across leveled up the difficulty without it really ever resetting, it only seemed to get more and more ridiculous, it was funny for a while until we realised how much ground we’d covered: not a lot.
By the time the sun was going down we were wondering what the hell we’d got ourselves in for and found a place to sleep for the night. Lodgings are few and far between in the valley and we bumped into two cyclists coming the other way who warned us against going further that night so we stopped in the guesthouse we were already at. Weirdly they had stopped us because they followed Martin and Xenias blog and recognised the “XT Adventures” stickers on their bike, small world.
We thought we didn’t have much rough stuff left to go the next day, very wrong. The road continued to get worse, it was quite fun having a proper challenge for a while but some parts were legitimately frightening, staring at a bunch of unconnected steep rocks that dropped back down into a deep stream, knowing if I wobbled there’s no way I’d be able to stand properly or hold the bike up. It was made clearer how bad the road had got when Xenia crashed. I noticed they weren’t behind me anymore and after waiting the normal 5 minutes to see if they were just taking photos I doubled back and found Martin bending the handlebars back into alignment using a rock wall. Luckily Xenia had landed well and the gear did it’s job, she was bruised and sore but nothing broken. It was lucky considering she’d been going pretty quick, dislodged a rock with the front wheel which then jumped the back wheel out, sending the bike careering left, and Xenia right.
On a particularly bad little section of rocks with water running over them we had to help out a car with an incompetent driver, jamming rocks under his wheels so he could get some momentum. Xenia nearly got stuck after starting up a steep section when a herd of sheep penned her in to a dangerous route over the rocks and she had to stop precariously balanced. By lunch we were knackered but the road did start to give way a little, mostly because the terrain flattened so the road was less punished by the weather and vehicles. Sand and mud became a little more common, but they were no problem to deal with now. The next interesting bit was when the road closed and everything was diverted down onto a huge old river bed, filled deeply with very smooth stones and nothing between them to hold them still. A couple of little river crossing on those was weird, it acts like sand sending the bike wiggling around so you need a lot of momentum to not get stuck and dig in, as well as picking a good line through it in the first place.
On one longer crossing we neither picked a good route or had enough momentum. The river swung around a bit and ran with the “road”, we misjudged the depth of it further along and I followed Martin into the shallow beginnings, as he tried to exit the other side he dug in and dropped the bike at a near stop. When I saw him I hesitated, not wanting to commit to running in to him, I saw there was another route out and gunned it again to get some momentum up, just as Martin was getting up trying to tell me to stop. The river got deeper and my front wheel whacked a big rock and flew left, with me hard on the throttle the rear wheel happily followed sharp left and I carried on straight, superman’ing into the river. Bugger.
I got to the kill switch, not knowing if the bike was submerged and then checked myself over. I got away very luckily, my right foot was jammed under the bike but absolutely fine, the boots had save me any bruises and the pannier & engine guard had given my foot enough room not to spin round. The rest of me had a soft landing in water, just banging my arm and hip on some rocks. My main problem was I was now freezing cold, I have water proof gear but it tends not to work when you go swimming in it, and the water was freezing, coming right out the mountains. We took the obligatory crash photos and got going again.
The rest of the day was a little more straight forward only a couple more very challenging sections. We did have a long wait at one of the checkpoints because I’d somehow lost my permits for the valley in the day, thankfully they could call down to the office in Pokhara and confirm I had applied for them and let me go. Another couple of hours ride and we made it to Muktinath with 3 miles of perfect smooth black tarmac at to finish it off, for some odd reason they’re tarmacking from the top of the road first. This town is literally the end of the road, from there it’s on foot only, right through the Annapurna mountain range.
We found a hotel ran by a guy we were convinced was a Russian Pirate who’d got lost in the mountains and decided to open a hotel. We had a day off up there to see some of the sights and chill out, most of it was without internet and with very patchy power all day though, so we mostly sat around playing cards, reading and trying to keep warm. None of us were really looking forward to the descent, now we knew what was ahead, but it should be a little easier going down, not having to fight for traction trying to get the bikes upwards.
The bikes were covered in ice come morning and with my still damp clothes it made for a very cold start. The rivers that we’d crossed on the way up had also swelled a little, making them a little more risky this time round, we had to wade in some way to check for a solid path. Somehow there was more traffic too, lots of buses kicking up an insane amount of dust, at some points I couldn’t see more than 5 meters ahead. Xenia managed to prove you can get hurt even in the simplest of accidents, on a steep downhill section that was basically a river bed on the road. We had to go slow and pick our spots carefully with all the big rocks it was hard to even stop, a clever bus driver started to force his way up the hill despite us coming down and we had to stop where we were. Unfortunately for Xenia she was at a spot where she couldn’t reach the ground with nowhere to go, she toppled over slowly but managed to land funny and pretty much broke her finger. Somehow she managed to ride the rest of the day with three fingers on her left hand strapped together and in a lot of pain.
We still made much better time than on the way up though and by the afternoon we were all the way back down in Beni, the start of the tarmac road to Pokhara and we pushed on to get there that night. A couple of hours riding in the dark in Nepal will certainly help keep you alert, buses on the wrong side of the road and invisible pot holes everywhere; my headlights flickering on and off did not help.
The rough road had taken a serious toll on Donkey again, the bash plate was almost as broken as before and various other bits were falling apart. I headed to the garage again the the next day and set to work, but these were all simpler problems than last time. I replaced a missing bolt for the front sub-frame, bent the gear lever back into place after a big rock had managed to hit and bend it upward (it’s about a foot off the ground!), and finally got a new washer on the lever mount that was damaged in the crash back in India, rewired the headlight switches I’d installed which the bumps and dust had buggered up. Good as new, sort of.
One last day in Pokhara, mostly spent sorting things like booking flights and visas for Vietnam in 2 weeks time. Then saying goodbye to Martin and Xenia for a while, I’ll probably see them again in a few months in Australia, that is very weird to think about so far off in time and distance. For now it’s south toward India and leaving Nepal behind.
25/10/2017 – 10/11/2017