There is one sound, above all others, that terrifies me. It’s a screeching, tortured wail, followed by the kind of silence that is much, much worse. It’s the sound of a bike being hobbled; it’s legs taken away from under it. Hearing that sound requires a deep breath before turning towards it, to try and savour a last moment of peace, because it is also the sound of a day that just got a lot more difficult. But no, you cannot put off the inevitable, and the only option is to grit those teeth, unzip your pack and see whether you remembered a spare derailleur hanger. The sound is worse when the metal concerned is expensive, and it’s worse again when you are far from home. The very worst, I discovered, is when the sound comes from a bike that you lent to a goofy, smiling boy in a small village in Nepal, and the bike does not belong to you but to your riding buddy. The boy looks bemusedly at me and then back to the twisted knot of metal that used to be Rachael’s rear mech, seemingly questioning how we manage to get about on our bikes if they fall apart like this all the time. This was day two of our trip through the Middle Hills of Nepal.
I want to say that there was something deep and personal that pushed our little team of three towards Nepal and the Himalaya: some soul searching to be done or inner truths to be unearthed, in the vein of the overlander hippies in the twentieth century. Having picked up a broad-brushed knowledge of the people that live among the earth’s highest mountains from literature like Seven Years in Tibet and The Snow Leopard, I don’t think that I’m alone in associating the Himalaya and its people with a mysticism that’s rooted in their connection with those mountains. This is not a story about finding ourselves though; “because it is there” was a good enough answer then, and it’s a good enough answer now.
When we pick apart this cycling game to find out the real whys and wherefores, it usually comes down to simplicity: the simple task of turning one pedal over another, of cresting one hill in order to crest another – simple ideas often lead us to the most unexpected places. Another simple thing hiding inside a lot of humans is that inner whisper, the one that makes us want to go higher, or further, or faster. You know it’s there. Why wouldn’t I want to go to the Himalaya, where the climbs last for days and the thrill of looking down on everything from above might be that little bit sweeter, even if only for a while? This is a story of simplicity: of because they’re there, and of leaving the bigger picture to sort itself out.
Right now, the picture was fairly narrow and focused on somehow obtaining a nine-speed Shimano mech in rural eastern Nepal. We weren’t near any of the main trekking routes or tourist hotspots; cyclists do not go to Chainpur, which sits on a ridge of banana trees, rice paddies and dense forest above the vast gorge of the Arun Nadi River. A Surly Singleator makes a great temporary repair, but singlespeeding a loaded bike in Nepal wasn’t going to work for long – the Arun gouges a path directly through the Himalaya from its source in Tibet, and in the process has burrowed itself into one of the deepest gorges in the world. Even here in the Middle Hills escaping to the west or east meant a climb of over 3,000m. Gears would be useful.
Our real problem was that we were asking the wrong question: rather than ‘where can I find one?’ we needed to ask ‘who can find one?’ We were staring defeat in the face, barely over the doorstep of the adventure, but within a few hours Rachael had called a friend, Sunil, in Kathmandu, who had tracked down a mech. He in turn had another friend, who worked for Yeti Airlines and was able to smuggle our precious package aboard a flight to nearby Tumlingtar the next day. Next day?!? As speechless as we were with gratitude, it would be the first of many simple acts of generosity to come from people to which there was always more than met the eye.
Never mind that it was in fact a ten-speed mech, a fix is a fix. Repairs complete, we set out for a second time, wading six inches deep into the swirling sea of dust covering the road along the valley. When you think of Nepal, the image that usually springs to mind is one of distant snow-capped summits, fluttering prayer flags, and possibly a yak or two tended by smiling, high-cheeked Sherpa; but that’s not the whole story. Eighty percent of Nepal’s population is actually Hindu, and is strongly tied to its southern neighbour India more than the Tibetan culture to the north. We were riding in Hindu Rai country: rather than prayer flags, marigolds hung from doorframes and roof rafters, beneath a mix of corrugated iron and more traditional thatched roofs supported by clay walls. Lentils, succulent saag leaves and tiny, fiery chillies grew in each family’s garden, guarded from the roving goats and chickens that milled about. Much of the time there was no road to be seen, and people travelled from village to village either on foot or on a loudly complaining moped. Where there was one, intricately painted tractors and Bedford trucks parted the dust and rumbled past tooting their air horns, while at night jackals hooted from among the dense jungle beyond the cleared paddies.
A couple of days later, we were getting into the rhythm of life on the road. Having sniffed about some singletrack to make our escape from the Arun valley and head west, the lovely trails we had found eventually petered out into a morass of huge rocks and portage, which wasn’t going to be feasible for 2,000 vertical metres at a time. At Gothe Bazaar, a small lodge on a mule trail beside a tributary to the Arun where a family cashed in on the needs of the porters, mule drivers and occasional hikers passing that way, we decided to keep it simple and go with the river itself, heading south instead. The big question of what food to buy was being refined with some experimentation, and we had learned that lighting kerosene with a fire steel is actually quite hard. We had watched a flaming sun settle slowly into the ranks of jungle hills from beneath our tarp, followed a tarantula dancing its way through our camp, and had several more heart attacks from those bloody truck horns passing on the nearby road at night. I swear they knew we were there.
The bikes, now that they were functional again, were proving popular among the people we met, and loved having “cycle cycle cycle!” called after them wherever they went. Pretty soon, half a school’s worth of little children and a brilliant girl by the name of Parmitra (who demanded we stop so she could ask us what the hell we were doing) had joined the local policeman in having a go on our weird and wonderful cycles. It was no surprise that, as we stopped to buy a cup of tea in a small village the next afternoon, the CO of a small patrol of Nepali army soldiers came to introduce himself.
He was Lieutenant Colonel Khaki: immaculate hair, an impeccable Indian-English accent and the easy confidence of a man who knows that here, he is the law. Once it was established that we were British, his face split into a delighted smile, and it was swiftly decided that we simply had to stay with them at the barracks in Bhojpur, our next destination. Clearly the simple answer was to graciously accept, and see where it took us. It wasn’t far along the road to Bhojpur anyway, and when we did arrive a pair of young soldiers were sent to escort us towards our campsite, and also into what became a close contender for the most bizarre eighteen hours of my life.
It begins with lunch, which appears in the hands of a platoon of soldiers who seemed to have been seconded to the task of making us feel as awkward as possible. A table and chairs appear, hauled up the steep hill from the barracks below, closely followed by several enormous platters of food and flasks of tea. We sit with two of the officers, making small talk and half=heartedly protesting at all this generosity. When camping was mentioned, we pictured a flat spot for our tarp, but a first 180lb army issue tent is followed by another one, which is promptly filled with heavy buckets of hot water, all heaved against gravity by the soldiers. Cycle tourers tend to be an independently minded bunch, but add Britishness into the equation and we are practically falling over ourselves to apologise for the trouble we are causing.
After lunch we’re stuffed to the gills, happily burping away and full of food that wasn’t instant noodles or crappy biscuits. After we take a short walk around the town to source a couple of things from the market, the main man himself makes an appearance, and so it is that we sit down at dusk around the white plastic table, guests not only of the Lt. Col. but two visiting Majors as well. I try to summon table manners fitting of this international occasion, while the lids of the dishes are lifted to reveal a mêlée of Asian and western food: rotî rolls and poppadams, fat British-style chips and Pringles. The delicious curries fight to take up the last little bit of space in my stomach left after the enormous lunch, and every time I do manage to drain the glass of beer beside me, it is immediately refilled. Does throwing up on a Major constitute a diplomatic incident?
The main event, lest we forget, is the Lt. Col. himself. He’s in his element, running the show by dint of his rank as well as his eloquent English, although the somewhat forced laughs of his junior officers suggest they might be used to this performance. The best entertainment of the night though was a game that we later called ‘How Many Bottles?’ As the last of the light faded, and the faces around the table became ovals of illumination hanging in the gathering darkness outside the lamplight, the anecdotes of his time at officer training school in England become wilder and wilder. They involve outrageous escapades, Saudi Princes and monumental amounts of booze, during which he pauses, looking shrewdly around the listening officers, before demanding: “how many bottles?! How many bottles of wine did we drink between the two of us?” The guesses from around the table are unerringly high, demonstrating the required faith in their CO’s ability to get shitfaced in a manner befitting his station. We add our own half-hearted guesses, before he slams his hands down on the table, declaring that we are all fools, and they had in fact drunk forty bottles of wine, or some other lethal figure.
We began to feel sorry for young Lt. Uras, who is only 22, and seems to find it as enjoyable to talk to us as we do to him, but who doesn’t dare to get a word in edgeways unless it was to laugh at his CO’s jokes. One of the Majors has been on some wild-sounding mountaineering exploits that we want to hear more about, but Lt. Col. Khaki is swift to steer the conversation back on the subject of himself whenever it looks in danger of drifting away. It is fantastic, bewildering entertainment, but it is the genuine hospitality behind it all that makes it such a memorable evening.
Mercifully, the conversation fades to a sleepy silence, and the officers bid us a comfortable night before the silent soldiers, who had been standing for hours in the shadows while the smells and sounds of the dinner drifted around them, pack up swiftly and silently, and we are alone with our palatial tent. The night is no less eventful, as some unknown person appears inside at some point, giving us all a case of the heebie jeebies; I decide it was probably some poor soldier sent to check on us, and settle back into my food coma. As if our poor stomachs haven’t suffered enough stretching, at 7.30 the next morning breakfast arrives. The curried potatoes are excellent, as is the porridge and the honey pancakes. It’s the dubious looking scrambled egg and brioche that finally got the better of my willpower, and as we pack up our things there is a sense of desperation to get back to our independence and personal space. After a final round of awkward, choreographed photos with the assembled officers they bid us a heartfelt farewell and good luck on our journey, while reminding us that they could give us a lift to the next in a jeep if we want them to.
It might be one of the more flamboyant examples, but Lt Col. Khaki was far from the only person to go out of their way to help us. It was orange season the Middle Hills, and everyone seems very keen that we avoid scurvy. At one point, I am riding alone behind Rachael and Annie when a truck driver winds down his window, shouts “Namsteeeeeeee!” while launching a barrage of oranges into my arms. A man at a bus stop chats to us while we stop for a drink, explains that we he lives in the house beside the road, and insists that we wait while his elderly father gathers oranges from their tree to give to us. An old woman walking the other way on the road does the same. It is simple kindness in its most refreshing form, but when the daily routine of life depends on food, water and a safe space to sleep for the night, these small gifts lift our moods for hours, and keep every nook and cranny of our framebags rammed with fruit for days.
Photos: Huw Oliver and Annie Lloyd-Evans. Words: Huw Oliver
This trip, like many others, wouldn’t have been the same without the support of some cool folks back at home. We owe many backslaps/beers/thanks to Andy at BackCountry.Scot, Rachael at Hope Technology and Rab Equipment. Dhanyabad!Click here for part two of Huw’s report tomorrow.