Posts Tagged ‘Nepal’

Of calm and chaos

I spluttered out of Kathmandu, my lungs assaulted by the gritty air that lifted from fields of litter and their resident limping dogs. In the hills the smog abated and the light paled to silk. I dealt the city one last scrolling gaze. Terraced rice paddies met a dusty sprawl of corrugated roofs, white cumulus stacked on top like a novelty hat. In there somewhere were the small-street crushes of spice and soap vendors, the lean men plugging away on their cycle rickshaws loaded with zippy-eyed tourists. The goodbye though was an easy one – I’d been too long in the city, and it felt good to feel the hill breeze on my face and watch again the plodding theatre of country life from my saddle.

The road carried me out of that valley and into the next – at the beginning of the descent I met a long string of static cars, locked in place through the obstinacy of two bus drivers. They had rounded a corner, and in typical South Asian style neither had made the merest of concessions. Now the grunting faces of their machines were set millimetres apart and someone was going to have to reverse, but by the time that point was conceded, several dozen motorists had done what drivers here do with professional endeavour: closed all gaps.

I squeezed past the unfathomably chipper motorists and should have had the entire downhill to myself but cars and buses in the other lane, sensing an opportunity, were using mine. They veered out into my path and flashed their lights – the international symbol for: ‘I’m about to do something unthinkably stupid, you’re gonna have to cope with me’.

My speedo ticked past 70 km, but the anticipated edges of Pokhara were not yet in view. Not there at 72km or 75km. I asked a farm worker the whereabouts of the town and he pointed behind me. I was, apparently, heading back to Kathmandu. ‘No no. That’s impossible’ I informed him. ‘I’ve come from Kathmandu, and there’s only one road!’. He shrugged, but wasn’t put off. Pokhara, he assured me, was 42 km behind me.

If that were true, something unthinkable had occurred, 21 km ago. The only explanation was dizzying. 21 km ago I’d stopped for food. 21 km ago I’d got back on my bike and pedalled back the way I’d come and 21 km later I’d realised my mistake, but only when the expected town hadn’t appeared.

Let’s all take a minute to ponder the near impossible amount of dreaminess this requires. Let me help you: I failed to spot that the sun was now on the opposite side of the sky. I failed to notice the wind had shifted 180 degrees. I failed to notice the river had moved from my right to my left. I failed to recall any of the scenery I’d already cycled past, not a flicker of deja vu to make this any less excruciating. I failed to notice that sign posts for Pokhara had been replaced by ones for a city I was trying to leave. And finally, and this is a pearler, I failed to notice that the Himalayas, the earth’s grandest mountain range, had vanished from view. I know what you’re thinking. I am one special human being.

At the time I considered I may be developing a terrible and terminal brain disease, and began listing recent memory blanks: the evidence was stacking. But I fear the truth is a little more depressing: sometimes I’m just not very observant. I lose myself wondering why I have more freckles on my left arm than my right, or why I sneeze when the sun shines. This world ride has been wasted on me. I might as well have set off on laps of the M25, ogling again the same curiosities with fresh goldfish-like delight.

Weeks before I had taken the heart-rending decision to post my passport home in the hope of getting a Pakistani VISA. I wasn’t reassured by the name of the company to which the Pakistani embassy had outsourced the visa application process and who were to keep safe this essential document. ‘Gerry’s visa dropbox’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. It’s felt like dropping off a dead relative at a funeral parlour called ‘Fred’s bury-n-go!’

Due to problems too boring to recount here, my passport arrived back in Kathmandu, visa-less. Soon afterwards a bomb at Wagah, the only crossing point on the India / Pakistani border killed over 50 people, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility and the embassy were, to put it mildly, reticent to process visa applications.

So I’ve a hit a kind of cul-de-sac, which was always going to be a risk by coming south of the Himalayas. There is no direct passage across Asia to Europe because I have no permission to travel in Tibet or Pakistan, and I was denied a Bangladesh visa too. Flights, now essential, would cost money I hadn’t bargained on spending, so I decided to go to Hong Kong, give some lectures and do some fundraising. And then a thought: Mongolia. Why not?

There happened to a very good reason why not. Mongolia during the winter gets a bit nippy, to the tone of minus 40, on a good year. A bad one has a special epithet: dzud, or The White Death, like 2010 when the many of the country’s yaks ended the season a bit quieter and more solid than usual. By the spring thaw a fifth of all livestock had frozen to death in nights of minus 50.

The cold terrifies me. I succumb far quicker than others, the slightest chill renders my fingers and toes the hue of old bruises. So it was a perverse call to make, but ‘do one thing every day that scares you’, as the cliché goes. I have a lifetime of central heating and Earl Grey ahead of me so as long as I end the winter with enough fingers to hold a tea cup, it will be but a memory, and a story to boot.

My ride to Butwal in the twisting vales of the Himalayas was fuelled by samosas. The juvenile yak skull I had tied to my bike wore through my gear cable housing, so now I packed it away though it didn’t quite fit. It was probably a disturbing sight, those two bones protruding from my front pannier. But maybe not any worse than the spectacle of motorcyclists who’d tied live chickens to their bikes, half a dozen each side of the front wheel, upside down, so their heads spent their last attached hours three inches from whizzing tarmac. At last I was propelled off the hills, back into Terai – the giant indo-gangetic flatlands of southern Nepal which stretch out into northern India.

In Butwal a cafe owner quizzed me about my ride and then gave a dragging sigh.

‘Stop this travelling. Go home to your palace and give money to your mother’

‘My, my palace?…’

‘In Nepal tourists are God, you understand?’

I told him I did

‘If you see one of us Nepalis in England, will you help him? Will you love him?’

‘Yes of course’.

He smiled. ‘Good luck then Sir’.

When there are no guesthouses, or spots to rough camp, I sometimes ask in police stations, temples, churches, mosques, even hospitals or schools. It’s the privilege of a western tourist – in much of the world you are forever the recipient of trust. I laugh as I imagine picking a school in the UK and asking the principal, whilst scratching my gratuitous facial hair, if I could shove my bivvy bag on the sports field for the night. I’m not sure what the law is in the States, but I’d imagine just asking would mean confiscation of your hard drive and the compulsory insertion of a tracking device in your genitals.

One night in southern Nepal I ventured into a police station with a plan to ask the officers if I could sleep there as people were well spread over the farmed land and I don’t have a penchant for 37 strangers watching me sleep, it’s happened before. In minutes I was sitting among them, mopping up curry with chapattis and with the promise of a place to crash. The captain was in town, and I was his favoured guest.

‘You will give me selfie’ he asked. ‘Of course!’ I said.

‘Great. We are honoured you chose us. When my grandchildren see you on Discovery Channel I will say to them that man stayed with us! You are a legendary man.’ I protested, but he stopped me with a raised hand. ‘Legendary’ he assured me.

At Sunauli, the Border town, I didn’t feel very legendary. In the ten minutes I’d taken to get towards immigration I had become a kind of nefarious pied piper and had accumulated vendors, pimps, drug dealers, money changers and middle men, opportunists, officials, pseudo-officials and deviants – a vast serpent of them, the front-most ones re-positioning around me, hoping to be the first or second to rip me off. They cajoled me down the road, and to any of the tourists safely cocooned in their tour buses, it must have been a ludicrous and unenviable spectacle.

Ahhh, hello again India, you troublemaker. I’d been hanging out with Nepal, and had forgotten India was such an anarchist. A car zipped past, loosely associated with twenty or so bodies. The majority of the driver’s body couldn’t fit inside the vehicle either. He journeyed whilst bent into a letter C, only his arms holding the wheel and his legs remained inside, though I couldn’t be sure it was him or one of the other dozen in the front seat who was operating the pedals. Generously, considering his predicament, he took a hand off the wheel to give me a wave as they swerved past.

The horns were driving me mad, though I was starting to understand the pattern of it. There are certain situations that seem to merit a blast of the horn here: when you’re overtaking, when you’re being overtaken, if you haven’t seen a car in a while, if you haven’t used your horn in a while, if you have just used your horn, and in place of the words ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘what are you doing?’, ‘do you like my horn?’

My days in Northern India are now just a muddle of recollections – early morning cricket games in the dusty spaces about town, a man carrying a whole bed on his head, being overfed flavoursome food everywhere, the Indian sun – a perpetually tangerine orb, it’s glare blunted by the milky light of pollution, dunes of burning litter by the road and an acrid fog of melted plastic. Wanting directions, I remember once asking a man if he spoke English. He dropped his gaze. ‘I am not civilised’ he lamented, and slunk off, still staring at his feet.

I slept often in police stations guarded by smileless officers with bayonets who slept on the stone floor of their station and at intervals spiced the air with incense. I nearly died at least once per day under the wheels of ebullient rickshaw drivers and have had more near misses here than anywhere. I grew intimate again with India’s toilets – I wondered if perhaps there should be a specific visa for Indian toilets, and then I could have just got a transit visa for the country itself.

Waves of women in black niqabs swept through the streets of Azamgarth, always far from the Muslim men in their grave white thawbs and jaunty dyed-red beards. I thought about how even post-partition, India is home to 176 million Muslims. There is tension between religious groups, occasional violence and prejudice, but relative to other parts of the world, it surprises me that there isn’t more of it considering just how many devotees of different faiths live here, cheek by jowl.

India is not an assault on the senses as a lethargic guidebook writer might offer; an assault doesn’t exclude the possibility of recovery. India is more like a maiming of the senses – I have lost an entire range of hearing to the horns, I will always be able to smell Varanasi, even when I’m continents away, and after photographing Hindi women at the market and gulal powder in pots on the streets, my other photos are rendered anodyne in comparison. The rural roads in India though are a different game entirely though: easy, jovial places where roadside cricket games and the daily banter keep up my spirits. Boys on bikes hurtle past, some slow and ride aside me.

‘Please come to my school’


‘For children, for looking at you’

‘But the children are always looking at me’

‘Do you like me?’

‘I like you’

‘Then give me your bicycle’

Laughter. Some muttering in Hindi.

‘You know you’re in India right?

I tell him yes

He speaks again to his friends, maybe: ‘yeah, he knows’

I like the idea I could have accidentally got here. Shit, did I turn left at Nepal? I was wondering why that guy with India written across his shirt wanted to see my passport.

My mantra for biking in the world at large has been ‘expect the unexpected’. That car door will open, that man will turn without looking etc. In India the visiting cyclist needs to expect the impossible. Like a man driving a rickshaw with an entire cow inside it, the careering rump of which almost topples two motorbikes. Like a man with a trident who jumps into middle of road and starts making threatening sounds to the closest pedestrians before several people lead him away screaming. Like three old men in white robes on a motorbike who cut across a jumble of zipping rickshaws to offer me marijuana from a tin. I declined of course. Getting high wouldn’t help me dodge the flying cow’s arses or calmly assess the intentions of a wailing man armed with a trident.

Varanasi – I’d been here before, several years ago with a girlfriend. We were woolly-minded and stupefied the entire time. It was hard to forget, and we loved it.

I’d walked the ghats before, I watched the bodies being thrown onto the fires – the city is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and people believe it’s a great privilege to have your body cremated here. This occurs in public, like most things in India, on the ghats by the Ganges. The devoted come to Varanasi when they sense death, some to a few of the ‘hospices’ that line the ghats, there were more before the balance of power shifted and tourist guesthouses took their place. It’s a city of abundant sadhus, cows who’ve never known a field, and a great press of humanity. It’s chaotic, but in a truly enchanting way and taking a cycle rickshaw through the mayhem is magic.

I decided to try the south of India next, with just a month left on my visa. I managed to find a berth on a train to Mumbai. I went to the parcel office to hand over my bicycle as freight. The men in charge were crowded around a pornographic magazine, oohing and ahhing with each turn of the page. They invited me to join in and shrugged when I asked to register my bike instead. One man gave me a form and hovered over my shoulder instructing me what to write in each box:

‘Here, write: name, and here, write: UK. And here, write: bicycle, old and used.’

I wrote bicycle

‘Write old and used’ he reprimanded

I watched a train approach the station. The platform was crowded and as the head of the train swept past the passengers, men began hurling themselves at the moving body of it, desperately hoping their hands would alight on a door handle. Some managed to cling on, but others bounced off, returning in downcast heaps to the platform. By the time the train had come to a halt each closed door had upwards of ten men dangling on, and they were immediately joined by a rush of people so violent it brought to mind a race riot. When the door opened a tsunami of pushing propelled one person inside, the rest were too crammed together to get in. One man managed it but his bag wouldn’t follow, he couldn’t pull it past the press of bodies and he wouldn’t let it go. Thus he stayed there for five minutes, yanking, everyone shouting, and not one of the hundred pushers behind him gaining entrance. It reminded me of the traffic jam in Nepal, of the inefficiency of bullishness: everything done at a charge ends as self-defeating as it is frustrating to witness.

I had to carry four panniers, a tent, and a loaded dry bag on my own to the train, and struggled until an Indian man came to my aid. I was worried he would ask for money, but I decided I could afford to offer him some for his trouble if he asked. When we got to the train he got out a 100 rupee note and tried to hand it to me! I refused and he left, grinning away at my incessant thank yous.

The indo-gangetic plains of India passed by, the country sepia and old fashioned in the tint of my window. Kids flew kites over shacks. Unpeopled shrubland stretched away.

In Mumbai I stayed in hotel Delight. Either someone had a sense of irony, or the delight refers to checking out. It was a place of sour-faced patrons watching too-loud TV, bed bugs, shoe-prints on the toilet seats and for some reason an old crust of pastry found its way into one of my sandals. But Mumbai I enjoyed. Wide roads, quirky antique markets, trysts on the promenade – a rare and welcome sign of public affection between men and women in Asia. I went to a party with a bunch of Bollywood film makers, visited Mani Bhavan, the focal point of Ghandi’s activities and read his letter to Hitler in 1939 when war was imminent. He wrote something along the lines of ‘don’t be a dick’, but I could be paraphrasing.

Strolling through the streets of Colaba in Mumbai felt like waking from a coma: people flashed in front of my field of view, peering, speaking in words I couldn’t make out, but in a manner that implied a request. Beggars followed at point blank range, skimming my arms with their fingers. The instinct was to lift a kind of social shield, blot out the cajolers and the wheedlers, but then you miss the best bits, the small invitations to sit with men and drink tea, talk about cricket, or the news.

The size and population of India is hard to fathom – this state, Maharashtra, has an area greater than the UK and almost double the population. There are 36 states or territories in India and this is not the most populous. 10 cities in this state alone have populations greater than a million compared to just four in the entire UK.

I cycled south from Mumbai, staying to the small rambling roads that ended at estuaries and where I took boats where bridges had yet to find the need to exist. Mostly it was an uneventful but enjoyable ride, much calmer than the north. I slept on empty beaches and in mango orchards. I saw gangs of langur monkeys and cruised past mangrove-edged inlets and Portuguese colonial forts, now ailing in the ocean. I met a man who asked where I was from and when I answered England he yelled ‘Boris Becker!’ and mimed some tennis serves until I told him that no, Becker was German. He did one last despondent serve anyway. After a few days my front rim developed two cracks that quickly spread and bowed, making the wild grin of a madman from the steel. Before the wheel collapsed entirely, I bought a new one. It cost four pounds.

‘It’s so Goa!’ was the advertising slogan on a billboard as I entered one of India’s smallest states. And that, I soon discovered, was the problem. Goa has become an adjective, a parody of itself. The heady hippy days were almost gone and now its commercial heart beats to the drum of Russians on package tours. The clubs all close by 10 pm because – and I love this – of an Indian law on noise pollution.

It is a beautiful state though, and there were far more attractive corners of Goa to see but I had only two days on the beach and I chose the wrong one. I arrived in Anjuna where the calm of the coastal lanes behind me was immediately fractured by a fleet of bolshy touts. I was offered cocaine, weed, LSD. Did I want ketamine? No thanks, I don’t always trust the biryani.

But I ate in the local joints, eschewing ‘The Burger Factory’. I swam, and fussed about the flea market. I met a cool gang on the beach, had a few beers and then took a bus to Mumbai where I was able to spend two days interviewing patients at MANAV – a psychiatric rehab centre – part of my project on marginalised people in Asia which I hope to combine with the story of my ride in a forthcoming book.

I am currently in Hong Kong, house-sitting for the adventurer Rob Lilwall who cycled from Siberia back to the UK five years back and more recently walked from Mongolia to Hong Kong.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Rob and Christine, now in London. Thank you as well to Kunal my exceedingly kind host in Mumbai. Also to the MANAV foundation, Rahul and all those who have helped me arrange speaking gigs in Hong Kong (Simon, Liz, Rupert and the RGS, Rachel, Rob and more)

I’m about to embark on a series of lectures in schools in Hong Kong and at an event on the 15th December at the British Consulate, run by the Royal Geographical Society. If you live in Hong Kong, or know someone who does, please spread the word or come down.

Forgive me for the lack of photos this month – my camera, one of the few bits of kit I started with, is playing up.

Next up: A month in China before I hit the wilds of Mongolia. My ice tyres have arrived by post, gulp. 

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis

In this world, few things exist alone, unworried by and remote from the rest. When heavy rains and gusts ripped through India’s eastern seaboard and cyclone Hudhud was christened as such, the sun was shining over Nepal, hikers were pounding Himalayan trails in peak season and nobody rued the interconnections of this world. Not yet, anyway.

As Indian police began the evacuation of 400,000 people on the Bay of Bengal coast Mike and I were beginning to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit: a trial most often the realm of hikers (over 20,000 of them yearly). The trail scoots round the Annapurna range, a 55 km long section of Nepali Himalaya including 14 peaks over 7000 metres and one, the eponymous peak of the range, over 8000 metres. It’s one of the earth’s most venerated hiking trails, and in the space of the next few days, it was about to bloom in renown, but for all the wrong reasons.

Mike Roy would be my companion. Mike was part of the six strong posse of riders who, two months ahead of me, crossed Myanmar. His blog The Three Rule Ride is an awesome account of a two year bicycle odyssey from Korea in which Mike has given genuine thought to the environment.

Other things to know about Mike: he is an American, he loves food (though limits his pace of consumption, cf me), he meditates, he can speak Korean, Chinese, Italian, more than a smattering of Thai and Spanish, and has blossoming Nepali. He has an uneasy relationship with geodesic domes. He has a tendency to look intermittently mystical.

‘Now, you guys will ride down, it’s easy, and then it’s flat’ reported the confident young girl, perched on the steps of the village police post.

‘Flat?’ We chorused, from the shadow of sky-tickling mountains.

‘Well, you know, ‘Nepali flat’: Up, down, up, down, up down.’

An hour later Mike and I were still lugging our bikes down the steps carved into rock, blaming the process on not just on one optimist but two: a boy had directed us onto this hikers’ path hours ago. We wanted to be on the road which lay now tauntingly on the other side of the river, golden in the sun, like a promised land, unmeant for people as used-up and ugly from toil as us.

It was a familiar trap: you strive for ages, bent on some irrational hope that things will improve, only to learn that they will not, but by that time doing an about turn would be too spirit sapping, and anyway, things might improve, right?

Day one on the famed Annapurna Circuit drew to a cruel end.

By nightfall, we came upon a house and were offered to share a room with a preternaturally fat pigeon with diarrhoea which was perched (wedged) in between rafters. The woman showing me the room caught me anxiously appraising the thin plywood floor boards with inch wide gaps, offering glimpses of a painful landing: the dining table on the floor beneath. To prove the robustness, she jumped savagely, landing with a thud, laughed in my face and was gone, leaving us to our rickety bedroom.

The next day a line of honeyed light caught the peaks, and then dropped, filling the valley with warmth and promise. It was a return to shouldering our bikes though, traversing rivers, mounting unending steps, blaming ourselves. The circuit had promised to be tough, but not at this meagre altitude. About us was a stadium of yellow-green rice paddies, the breeze shivered them: ‘shhhhh, shhhhhh, you idiots, shhhhh’.

Finally we got to a bridge and rejoined the road. Almost immediately two hale and burnished trekkers, Scandinavians probably, jogged past. ‘Hi guys!’ they chirped. Mike looked like he might attack them, but cheered up a minute later saying ‘I’m kinda glad the start was tough. Everything will be easier from here on’. Briefly, I wanted to attack Mike.

The next two days to Manang were spent mainly on a road that only fitted that definition because people referred to it as such, and because it joined places, not because it actually resembled one. It was the sight of man sized boulders which hikers had to round that clashed most with my vision of what a road should be. Bike touring had again become bike-lugging, but there were the other things to enjoy: grand rainbowed waterfalls, purple-tinged fields packed with the stalks of harvested buckwheat, the cheery trekkers: robotic-looking in their pole-assisted mission. The British announced themselves with awkward apologetic manoeuvres when confronted with another hiker ‘Oh God’ I heard one man say ‘this is embarrassing’ as he shuffled into someone’s elbow. There were porters too, their job two-fold: to carry three rucksacks a piece, and to force everyone else into judging themselves inadequate slouches.

From the outskirts of Chame an audience of Buddhist prayer flags strung across the river waved us off and as we passed trekkers their words lingered in the air long enough to catch ‘wow, hard work’ and ‘no suspension. Alright!’ Reading the prices of food on menus on the trail involved a light-headedness to rival that provided by the thinning air, especially if you’ve been tramping around rural Nepal for a while and living cheap. ‘Oxygen goes down, prices go up’ as the saying goes. Oxygen is at a premium not just for the altitude though, methane displaces it. The local dish of Dal Baht makes up the dinner for most, and is the most flatulence-provoking food known to mankind. The fact it appears high on menus on a trail in which people walk one behind one another makes me wonder if it’s all just one big Nepali joke on the visitors.

Food. I fight the urge to ask the question that I know is not becoming of a grown up. It’s not: ‘What would you recommend?’ Not even ‘What is the cheapest?’ I want to know what is the biggest feed on the list. Mass over flavour. I ask anyway, and receive the muted smile I expected, but get a mound of potato as big as my head, so I don’t care about the faux pas.

The most delicious feature of the circuit though is the changeability of the landscape, and on the approach to Menang it altered again: from the steep valley lush with deciduous forest and sparkling with banks of rust coloured fern, woven like scrap metal, to a flatter, pine forested place, presided over by bigger mountains and beige coloured rock faces eroded into surreal shapes. Each splash of pine forest was riven by the grey streaks of old landslides.

A helping hand from a porter

We were alone, the trekkers had taken to the other side of the river and the road this far wasn’t yet accessible to vehicles. Crows cawed. Wind quivered the yellowing pines. Donkeys stilled in the road, like for them, time had ceased to pass. This is a place of stories: witches are said to wander these parts.

We passed a row of tables by the empty wind-blown road. Amid the artifacts were yak bones and two great yak heads with light bulbs in their eye sockets, old pottery, goat horns, a black necklace fashioned from the vertebra of a snake. A man appeared, chanting, prayer beads in hand. ‘Three babas’ he said nodding to his stash meaning three generations had gathered the finds on sale.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a bit envious of Mike’s bike which sported Buddhist prayer flags, the face of a bearded man carved from bamboo root from Vietnam, and the best novelty horn imaginable, which sounded like a clown’s. From the table I immediately claimed a charred baby yak’s skull and cable tied it to the underside of my handlebars. People now approach my bike, take a sudden step backwards and cast me a worried look. Children cry. Old women bring forth prayers. It’s fantastic.

As a breather, unlike most humans, I am of a singularly noisy variety when I exercise, and especially at altitude. Mike didn’t know this. Momentarily he looked back, concern written in his eyes, as if he might find me grounded, woven in my bicycle, drowning in sputum. When he saw that wasn’t the case, his face reverted to one of pleasant surprise.

As my breathlessness abated, and serenity returned to the Himalayas, I looked up at the mountains, now snow-coated and appearing impossible to reach. I mentioned this to Mike. ‘Nothing’s impossible’ he returned, grim-faced and sounding like a Nike advert. A wimpier travel companion, I realised then, might be easier on my ego.

The culture around Manang is recognisably Tibetan. On the approach to the town the small children have the paradigm rosy cheeks, and are so muffled they can hardly flex their knees or elbows when they walk, making them hilarious for their being unchangingly star-shaped. By three and half thousand metres up signs advertising the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness arrived on the scene, which just rubs it in if you’ve been suffering from 3000 metres. Exertion is a major player in who succumbs and bikers are a lot more susceptible.

The first sight to greet us in Manang might have been used on the cover of a book entitled ‘Wilderness Medicine: a practical guide’. Two western doctors charged through the village, one squeezing an IV bag of fluid attached to the arm of a Nepali woman who was being piggy backed by a porter stampeding through town. Later I learnt that the medics had to rub off melted yak butter from her forearm, a local remedy, in order to insert an IV line.

As we wheeled our bikes through the town I looked back behind us: a fleet of clouds was driving up the valley. I didn’t think to mention it to Mike.

Manang was in full bloom at the peak of the tourist season and few guesthouses had rooms to accommodate two bikers and the skull of a juvenile yak. Trekkers shuffled about the one street taking days off from the trail to acclimatise, buying books which seemed to be entirely about death in the mountains and watch films in the two small movie houses which also seemed to be about perilous quests into the unknown. Deciding I needed something a little more escapist (or just not entitled: ‘The day I starved and had to eat my frozen friend’s face off’) we headed straight to a guesthouse, ending the day with a few beers with fellow bikers James and Logan. As I walked out into the moonless night, I shivered and saw the snow. It wasn’t a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few minute white specs floating out of the night sky: pioneers, I would discover.

I was wrestled from sleep by a white light, and discovered a broad white bar occluding the view out of the upper part of my guesthouse window. It fell. Gravity has beaten the abundant snow gathering on the roof and it had joined snow heaping up on the ground. A head-scarfed old lady shuffled through the white-out, shovel in hand. There had been no weather warnings, and everyone in town was as agog as we were: a blizzard had gripped Menang, in October: a month of unchallenged blue skies in the middle of the Himalayan dry season. And we still had the steady climb of 2000 metres to climb to Thorong La, a pass of 5416 m which claimed the blue bit of my map and where the contour lines crowded together like tree rings. And if it was snowing abundantly here…

But as the snow continued to pile up, people’s minds were not on the pass, and the snowfall forced everyone’s faces into silly grins of the type that grace seven year olds when school’s cancelled. With the power out, there was nothing to do but read or crowd about the wood-burning stove which was incited with dry yak dung, as the scent of garlic and butter swirled and a snowman in sunglasses took shape outside my window. As more hikers arrived and nobody could leave, Manang became a stoppered bottle of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.

Manang under snow
It was here we met three New Zealanders: Emily, Claire and Tim, all in shorts. This was immediately satisfying. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but in my mind, all New Zealanders wear shorts, and only shorts. I am certain that if I would go there I would find people running about glaciers in vests and underwear. They don’t have homes, or jobs. They sleep in crevasses and spend their days playing water-rugby in grade five rapids.

Emily, Claire and Tim didn’t pack trousers in order to hike over a Himalayan pass of 5400 metres. And that’s how it should be. They are the only nationality allowed to do this and not be considered foolish or ill prepared. All three were as outdoorsy as every Kiwi I have met, and Emily was keen on something called Adventure Racing (if you’re not acquainted look up masochism in a dictionary, it’ll be there).

The following day the sky was a pacifying blue, and the Annapurnas looked to smoulder as snow was whipped from their upper reaches by sun and breeze. Manang was alive again: sunglassed, pack-laden trekkers pounded through two feet of packed snow which was yet to live as slush. Above, electric cables, the ones still up, bled snow in plummeting shafts. The rock faces of Annapurna 2 and 3 were unsullied panes of white. Mountain goats, driven down to town by the snowfall, began pestering shop keepers and munching on gardens.

Mike and I trekked up to a ridge above Manang where the snow was thigh deep and eye-aching, almost forcing us to break trail. Our feet slid deliciously into it. When we returned power had come back to the town. Inside a hostel a posse of Australians sat, their eyes trained intensely on a TV: the BBC were reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies so far, at least 140 missing. The news channels knew more about the disaster than anyone in Manang itself, one of the biggest towns en route. Everyone began playing the ‘what if’ game, everyone had a reason why they could have been two days further ahead, at the pass, when the snow-storm hit. Manang was all chatter, but facts? They were as absent as colour in the peaks.

The drone of search and rescue helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks. They zipped to and fro, like the rumours around town: two metres of snow at the pass, body count: 21. Scores were still stranded at Tilicho Lake and High Camp. The Israelis were being evacuated first as the Israeli government had fronted the money for evacuation of all its citizens. Later, this would be a topic of controversy and rumours spread of helicopters half full refusing to take anyone not Israeli, of bands of Israelis commandeering the available satellite phones and, more farcically, of two people who’d blagged their way onto a chopper because ‘we’re half Jewish!’

We stared wistfully at maps, pondering the future of our ride, knowing it may now be impossible to proceed – already many hikers were turning face and marching back to Besishar. We decided to linger, and then, realising bike travel was fantasy (since hiking may well be too), we left our bikes and gear at a guesthouse and set out to the pass on foot when everyone else was in retreat. We bought wooden sticks as trekking poles and stuffed plastic bags down our trainers. Thoughts of avalanches were edged out by the slim chance of making it up. The events on the pass felt remote. We met two hikers, a Lithuanian and Siberian, unfussed, who ran out of beer and cigarettes from high altitude near Tilicho lake. ‘It vas tragedy’ the Siberian pined. From where others were being air-evacuated, they had left on foot through deep snow drifts, motivated by the fear of remaining without the refuge of booze and fags.

The Nepali minister for tourism arrived into Manang by helicopter and promptly presented to the medical clinic with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness – typical, I thought, of tourists not to heed the advice, especially amusing through if you yourself promote that advice. I was asked to check in at the clinic too in case they had a rush of patients who had been stranded on the trail and needed help, but having not been called into action, I set out on foot.

Snow: the great eraser. Filching not just colour and detail, but leaving the land bereft of smell, of movement too, with the exception of avalanches and as we tramped out over the hills northwest of Menang, a huge crunch caused us to swivel and watch snow barrel down the opposing side of the valley. Our gaze waited over the mountainside before we moved on, our thoughts murky, our plan still imprecise. We met a few trekkers heading back who had been stranded at High Camp, they bore news that the Nepali army had closed the pass to collect bodies.

The next night we spent with a French girl, Maryon and American guy, Elie. ‘Hey, do you guys blaze?’ asked Elie.

It wasn’t strong weed, but it doesn’t have to be at 4200 metres above sea level. I know this because an hour later I found Mike in his room sat upright and crosslegged, meditating. He was wrapped in a yak hair blanket inscribed with Tibetan runes. He looked, in almost every respect, like a wizard. The only inconsistency was the fact that he was wearing a pair of gloves on his feet, and instead of solemnity, his expression was one of lightly controlled mania.

‘That Yak looks demonic’ said Mike. Having considered that Mike was no longer high, I peered at the beast and had to agree. A long face, big horns and a bleak, nowhere stare. I was still vaguely spooked when we came to some other trekkers who paused by us. ‘Over there, you see?’ one pointed to the shape of a man over the river, lying down in the snow. ‘It’s a dead body’.

Until that point, the events on the pass had seemed remote and marginal, too extreme perhaps to process. We had been merely held up and I hadn’t considered the reality. The reality was brutally unsheathed now, in the shape of a dead man, and a red rucksack, laid out in the snow.

There’s an expression in medicine which, typical of many of doctor’s idioms, carries a certain brutality but is useful nonetheless. ‘You’re not dead’ they say ‘until you’re warm and dead’. Hypothermia can do strange things: brain function can be preserved, heart-rate slowed so much as to affect death. I had to check.

If he’d been out there all night, or for longer, then I couldn’t see him being alive, but nobody knew. We passed a German hiker, noticeably shaken by the sight, and then to the body. He was lying down, head on a red rucksack for a pillow, a blanket over his legs, one hand balled up to a fist. He had been dead for some time. It was shocking in the juxtaposition: dead bodies belong in hospital beds, in the morgue, not alone, skin still shining, growing hard in the snow.

He was a monk whom we later discovered had walked from Thorung Phedi against advice during the night. By his posture he looked resigned to death, not as though it had come suddenly and with a fight. Later I wondered whether his religion might have played into this. Perhaps, amid the cold, with a certain fatalism, he’d thought about his next life. But perhaps not.

An army helicopter above described a curve and as we hiked around the next corner, they must have winched up the body.

As we hiked our wooden sticks created tunnels of glacial blue in the snow which was lumped over unseen boulders and shrubs – the world had been bubblewrapped. Recent avalanches churned up the snow, twisting it up into ragged shapes, like a sea bed of coral. My heart was set to pounding as I took stock of a great crack in the snow, extending down into the earth, where rocks and snow were spilling in ceaselessly. It looked as though at any moment the mountainside would snap and tear off towards the river, plunging at 20 degrees to the vertical. Maybe my perspective had changed: Would I have been as afraid had I not just stared into the frozen features of a dead man? I don’t know, but as I paced through the snow my feet found other footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.

Sunlight roused the valley, waking the colours and contours of rock exposed by the melt. The crags above us were blotted with the shapes of big birds of prey, Himalayan vultures perhaps, and as the snow melted rocks shifted, at times tumbling down to the trail from on high.

It was a scramble from Thorong Pedi up to High Camp, which was at almost 5000 metres and the snow was still waist deep. We were now the only foreigners this high aside from a Chinese hiker, the rest had returned, and a few had been airlifted out. My head ached. This was the place that porters had arrived at days before, clutching notes from hikers near the pass which stated that they were in immediate and life threatening danger. Send help. No help by then could be sent. Mike set off on a short recce but even now, days after the snowfall, the trail to the pass was judged too dangerous and, dissuaded to try because we still had to return to Manang to collect our bikes, we decided to return by foot, trudging through the melting snow which was exposing sweet smelling shrubs, in a steady, pleasing silence.

Manang was a ghost of its former bustling self when we returned, and much of the snow had evaporated with the tourists. Uncomfortably, because we were in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as perhaps they would ever be: the high rock faces sheeted with snow, the blue October sky, the rust and ochre of autumn, the earthy colours of rocks and pine.

We met tour groups, one British, with members in National Geographic t-shirts but so obese that the logo was distorted, stretched over geographically significant bosoms and man-breasts. A teenager in the posse received a text from a friend and said ‘Hey, hey Jack check this out. My mate wants to know if I’ve seen any dead bodies! Ha Ha Ha Ha!’ His friends joined him in the hilarity. I exchanged a look with Mike.

We arrived back at Besishar which was in the midst of Tihar (Diwali) celebrations and ornate Hindu girls dazzled onlookers with their practised dance routines.

An avalanche on the way back to Manang
That Nepal struggled to deal with the unfolding tragedy is unquestionable, that it needn’t have is under debate. Nepal is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The Annapurna Circuit is not a jaunt through Yosemite and the Himalayas are a different breed to the Alps. But with over 20,000 hikers paying 40 dollars a pop annually questions will and should be raised. Here are mine:
  • The cyclone was being monitored. The snow was predicted. Why were no severe weather warnings telephoned to the villages and camps en route before the snow fell, especially the ones after Manang where there is no public Internet access? (and if these calls were made, why were the hikers not told?)
  • Why are communications between points on the hike so patently inadequate? There are is no radio communication or relay towers, and only one satellite phone. When power went out, there was no way to relay a message to high camp and tell them to instruct trekkers not to leave.
  • Why did nobody take charge of the disaster – the trail was only closed a full 4 days after the snowfall and misinformation was rife.
  • How does TIMS (the Trekkers Information Management System) spend the 20 dollars a trekker it receives? Is any of it used in crisis prevention?
Officials I spoke with were in the habit of reminding me that Nepal is far behind the west in matters of disaster preparedness. That may be so, but it can’t be used as an excuse for mismanaging was has been an epic calamity, and the loss of 39 lives. You can argue that the responsibility lies not just with authorities but with trekkers too. I agree, but trekkers can’t make reasoned decisions without the information. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at the pass, even in the dry season. It’s conceivable that the hikers set out thinking it would soon peter out, they could have had no idea that two metres would fall, obliterating the trail and leaving them to exposure and ultimately, death.

Some of the misinformation may have been born of a vested interest, locals and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) were in the habit of telling everyone the pass was open and easily reachable in the days after, when it clearly wasn’t. This is peak season, and bad weather is bad for business. I sympathise, but this relentless optimism just added to the confusion.

Whilst the trail is spectacular, I can’t recommend the Annapurna Circuit for touring bikers, though this has nothing to do with the disaster. For trekkers it’s fantastic, but too much of the road is still unridable (for surface, not gradient) and trudging behind hikers with a 20 kg bike and more gear over your shoulder is not as fun as the Himalayas should be. That said – with a fat tyred light weight mountain bike and no gear – perhaps it’s a better prospect.

A lot more has happened this month, but alas, no space. I visited a leprosy hospital near Kathmandu, and one of the mobile health clinics that serve the city’s street children. Perhaps these will appear in a later edition.

Thank yous: Lizzie and Sanju, My Mum, Anna, Fareed, Mike (a special thank you for Korean acquired toe warmers), Mango Tree for the tranquillity I needed when the trek was over, Cory, Benny and Carolyn.

Bullet in my kneecap

A Nepali market
It was love at first sight. There were mushrooms, beans, asparagus. There were eggs, sitting now in a small lake of my own drool. There was something vaguely sexual in the lay of the bacon, the way it was sprawled, invitingly, in melted cheese.

It was a breakfast that would have prostrated Homer Simpson, and it came courtesy of my friends and masterchefs Annelie and Rahul. I pedalled a full 100 km before I needed to eat again, to Gawahati where another friend, Sumanta, had organised a place for me to sleep. When I left the day  after though, I had forgotten to pack my towel. 40 km later Sumanta appeared in his car to hand it back to me. To fully explain how generous this was, let me for a minute describe my towel. 

There is a thing that lurks in the fetid, nethermost crevasses of my rear pannier. Perhaps it was once white, but it’s impossible to tell. It is the Gollum of bathroom accessories. Claire once held it aloft with a finger, asking, with a more than a faint sense of alarm, ‘what is this?’ It was a genuine question. ‘My towel’. She cocked her head, working her imagination where the most credulous would falter. It’s the kind of thing you might use to wrap your dog in, if your dog was bleeding and needed to be taken urgently to a vet. But only if you really hated your dog. And Sumatra, the kind Sir, drove an 80 km round trip to give it to me. There is no better demonstration of how generous the Indians are than that.

I cut west from Gawahati, enjoying sunny days at last, past vivid green paddies, until I hit the flood plain of the vast Brahmaputra River. The waterway is one of Asia’s greatest: it drifts down from the Ansi glacier through Tibet before fattening up through India and spilling into the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the few rivers in India that are known as male and not female. The annual floods are expansive, and I cycled through a surreal water-world where just forested islands and the odd village were spared. An immense bridge spanned the river, on the other side an elevated railway had become the thoroughfare between villages and hundreds of people marched its course. I slept on the edges of the forest, the air thick with fire flies at dusk.

The next morning a soldier in the road asked me to stop for tea.

‘I’m really sorry I have to push on’ I told him, thinking of my flagging VISA .

He thought about this for second and then said ‘No. You’ll have tea. Please sit down.’

‘I’m really sorry but…’ he turned then to bark some orders at another soldier, as he did so the barrel of his rifle, which was dangling from a shoulder, brushed against my thigh. It then hovered just over my leg as he continued his conversation, the bullet’s trajectory: my kneecap.

He turned to me again. ‘So you’ll have tea?’


It tasted amazing, like a prisoner’s last meal might.

(This post title might be a little misleading, but I ran with it because I’ve just finished Tim Cahill’s ‘Jaguars Ripped My Flesh’. And it got you reading, didn’t it?) (sorry Mum)

My first sight of the Himalayan foothills, a low blue-grey saw beyond a spread of tea plantations, became quickly blurred through weeping eyes. I was surprised by this burst of sentimentality, but then getting here did feel meaningful, like when I arrived to the Arctic Ocean or at that first snatched glimpse of Table Mountain. Crossing the biggest mountain range on earth, along with the coming winter I’ll spend in central Asia, I count as my last big barriers between my wheels and England.

Each day the mountains remained a low silhouette, striped by cloud or masked entirely, but they loomed nonetheless, swelling in my mind, sneaking into my dreams. It was impossible to view the peaks and not wonder what these flats looked like from the opposite perspective: in the thin air where self-doubt reigns, on the steep and jarring trails that wend among the peaks, the ones that set your heart pounding and chest shaking and soul searching.

I pedalled through the Buxa forest next, a place of ivy-dressed trees and scrambling monkeys. I noticed the road I was on swung close to Bhutan and then a small road branched off and penetrated the country, which was now just 17 km away. I didn’t have the coveted Bhutan VISA but perhaps I could sneak in, nose around a little, export some of their fabled national happiness, import some of my own.

Two Christian missionaries on motorbikes didn’t like my chances – there were, apparently, roadblocks and officials ahead. I decided my tactic would be one of speed over stealth. The Bhutanese officials would most likely be Buddhists, I reasoned. They probably wouldn’t shoot me.

The Indian post was easy, it may have been manned but any chance of being discovered sneaking out of the country by officials was dimmed by the very Indian-ness of the tableau: goats shambled, vendors streamed, rickshaws swerved. Then I saw big arch etched with dragons. Bhutan! A truck went past as I did, the timing was perfect and I slipped by unnoticed. Another roadblock loomed though, and I was sure I’d get stopped until I saw a solider talking through a car window and oblivious to anything on the road. Suddenly I was in the unlikely position of cycling through Bhutan, and without a stamp, VISA, permission or care.

I decided on a smaller road to a place on a signpost called Kanyo Thang because the road stayed low and because I wondered if the town might have been named after a Bhutanese rapper. I saw the wall that designated the border stretched out across the fields. Prayer flags flapped beside a river bringing cool water, I imagined, from distant ice caps. The local people I came on looked surprised to see me, wondering perhaps how someone as dishevelled as I could afford the 250 dollar a day VISA Bhutan insists on.

I made it a school, the children dressed in the traditional robes of Bhutan, were perhaps the politest children in the world. As they filed past me I enjoyed a chorus of ‘Happy journey sir!’. A sign on the outskirts of the village warned about the perils of drug trafficking and the hefty penalties for those caught. There was no mention of the penalties for those pedalling religion like the missionaries I’d met before. I wondered whether it was drugs or religion that would cause the most harm.

I’d sketched a route from googlemaps into my journal – it was an improvised ride to Darjeeling, via the back door. I’d bounce about on spindly roads but for forest and mountains I hoped it would be worth it. In Matelli, the local consensus was that there was no way through to the next place on my route, Gorubathan. But a few said yes, it was possible, only 15 km, others assured me it was 30km.Some people smiled in silence. One man dinged my bicycle bell. Eventually someone opted to show me the way, I walked behind him for five minutes and when he stopped outside a Hindu temple on the edge of town he said ‘wait a while with us brother. Share your love.’ And directed me inside.

‘I can’t share my love today brother, I have a long way to go’

He seemed satisfied with that and pointed the way. The track was decades old and in a bad state: ragged islands of tarmac in a sea of dirt. It was a jarring journey past tea plantations and only used by the workers within. A few women glanced at me sideways through sari-shaded eyes and never stopped picking the tea. The track ended in a footpath – this couldn’t be the way, could it? A local man working for a hydroelectric plant offered to be my guide. I wheeled by bike behind him on the path and we arrived soon at a small cliff face, the path ran across its face, sometimes a few inches in width and flanked by a ten metre drop. I have dragged by bike over all kinds of obstacles, but this looked impossible to cross. A farmer arrived though and without conference he grabbed my rear rack and the three of us hefted, rolled and swung it over the gaps in the path. Several times I almost lost purchase in an effort to stop my bike crashing into the river below.

We made it, and when minutes later a road appeared I narrowly avoided hugging my guide. He was going the other way and so left me with a description of my route, adding ‘the forest people will look after you.’ And then, outlandishly, ‘Watch out for tiger and elephant’.

I crossed a bridge and climbed steeply, the temperature brushing 40 degrees, the air a breezeless weight wrenching all my energy away. I dared myself to reach a palm shadow, and then the next, sweat pooling in every crease of skin.

Older tea pickers with lordosis

At Gorubathan I wasn’t sure if I should continue with my plan, which would involve not one big climb to Darjeeling but two, as the route swung down to the Teesta River before climbing again. There was an easier option to Darjeeling. I was exhausted having hardly hit the foothills, but I decided to defer the decision until I was plumped with a good meal. I ate roughly three, leaving the server agog at my effort, and then ploughed on past village girls who scowled at me but couldn’t keep it up for long and burst into giggles further down the road. I ended the day at a village which had a large effigy of Buddha, and local men found me a shelter: I would share a hut with an old man. When I opened the door two rats scarpered up opposing walls, mosquitoes danced in the gloom. I would have been happier in my tent, but it would have been rude to shun their hospitality – the price for such good intentions was a fresh slew of mosi bites and hours of fractured sleep, cut through by tense wakeful moments reverberating with an old man snores and the scuttle of rats.

The valley was steep and pine-sided, the road a fund of switchbacks. At length I hit Lava, a town of colourful several-story buildings and an ornate burgundy Buddhist monastery, 2000 metres above sea level. Prayer flags fluttered and young monks waved at me from the balconies as I mulishly climbed the final metres.

The climb ended 200 metres higher up and then I careered downhill through a run of fetching Buddhist villages in which the houses were poised over a deep valley. From Kalimpong I descended to the Teesta river, spotting three wild peacocks on the way. There are various ways into Darjeeling, all steep, this one though was the steepest. In fact, after 67,000 km of touring I can think of only one other climb this steep and prolonged. I climbed an agonising 1500 vertical metres over just 13.5km which is an average gradient of over 11%, average being the all-important word. Virtually every corner was nudging 25%, and the corners came in droves. It helps to be angry at the mountain, a kind of teeth-grinding murderous rage propels me up it. People passing me in cars looked startled, and I realised that it might have something to do with what was happening on my face.

I topped 2000 metres again and camped on a cloud-rushed ridge next to a Buddhist shrine, a vaguely forbidding kind of place. The next morning I heard chanting so I scrambled out of my tent and strolled towards the voices, through the mist. You have to see it from the women’s perspective to understand their reaction, which was one of eye-bulging terror. You are deep in prayer, on an isolated forested ridge, near a shrine. You are enclosed in a dense mist. The dawn is still and silent. Then something groans. You look in the direction of the noise and there, blundering out of the mist, is a pale hairy thing, releasing a low, unintelligible moan.

The women did bid me good morning in the end  – when they returned that is (they had run away quite fast) and could see I wasn’t supernatural.

Then I whistled into Darjeeling where I had three days to rest before I had to leave India – the time allowed on my VISA was up. The town of course is a famous hill-station, in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. I wasn’t convinced about all this talk of hills. I get it, it’s relative. But in the UK I would be on a certified mountain if I were just half the altitude of Darjeeling.

When the swirls of cloud are thin enough, it is, Darjeeling, one of the most dramatic big towns in the world. On my second day a breeze threw the clouds away revealing a deep valley with roads that looked drizzled on, like icing on a cake. More strikingly though was the vista looming over the town: a row of some of the tallest peaks on earth, including Kangchenjunga, India’s highest mountain and the world’s third, making even the prodigious peaks of Sikkim to the north look cutesy. It’s a sight branded by the travel writer Jan Morris as ‘one of the noblest experiences of travel, one that has moved generations of pilgrims to mysticism and even more to over-writing’. So I’ll leave it at that.

In Darjeeling I met Mike and Chris, a pair of American bikers who had been part of the six strong posse of riders that passed through Myanmar together about two months ahead of me. With their coveted six month Indian VISAs they could afford to loiter and had toured much more of the northeast than I had time to. They were the first cyclists I had seen for months, and it was occasion for beer and stories. In between I visited the zoo and museum at the Himalayan Mountain Institute where there was a 3D plastic mould of the range. I strolled down to the western end, to the Karakorum, where I hoped to cross, but no highway was marked. I stared at it for a while though, dreaming of snowy vistas, hoping for Pakistani VISAs.

I said goodbye to Mike and Chris – Mike waved me off from a bike bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags – and I cycled back down to the lowlands, past tea plantations where the women hip-deep in the shrubs picked away, automatically. I crossed into Nepal via a bridge full of cycle rickshaws, where men in topis and a woman soldier welcomed me to the country. She had henna motifs on her hands and striking green eyes, like the photo of the famous Afghan girl. 

Nepali man, and a Nepali smile, wearing a Nepali Topi

Nepal grew more rural as I pedalled the flat road across the east, travelling over bridges, themselves ranging over sandy river beds. One morning, after pedalling for a few minutes, a snake wiggled past my front wheel. My heart was still pounding five minutes later when I spotted a tiny backpacked child to my left and saw that his school bus was on the far side of the road. Even though he was on the left of the road, his head was fixed to the left as well. When he bolted there was no time to sound the bell, or even to shout. A tailwind was helping me to 30 km/hr. I turned hard to the right and he skimmed off my left pannier and continued to run to his bus as if nothing had happened. He wouldn’t have reached the height of my handlebars and if I’d hit him full on, I don’t want to think about the result.

As I pedalled west, homeward bound and with the sun on my back in the mornings, I passed dazzling huddles of women, eyes bright in the shadows of their saris. There were Sadus too, pacing the road, happy to have their picture taken for an apple or two. There were bristle-faced gaunt-chested men, sitting up straight and dignified on bicycles.

I came to a forested area where I saw some deer and then monkeys that watched me carefully, and moved with tension, like burglars in the night. One morning I came to a big group of Nepalis huddled around something long and thin, stretched out on the road. It was a rock python, killed minutes before by a truck. ‘Ahhh. Just a baby’ said a man, dolefully. The snake was eight feet long. It must be tough crossing roads when you’re that long. The odds can’t be in your favour.

The 13th of September: my birthday. I realised at some dusky point in the evening. I’d forgotten for the second year running. Time unspools like mountain roads, I lose track of where I am. I’ll be home, perhaps, before the next one. I was in a town called Hetauda which was announced via a signpost that read ‘Shivan cement welcomes you to the Green city of Hetauda’ and I had to marvel at a town so apparently eco-friendly it is sponsored by a cement company. I spent the evening perusing emails from friends wishing me happy birthday, and bearing news of new babies. And an email from Claire reminding me of my birthday and telling me not to forget like last year.

The tourist season is short and hectic and Kathmandu’s streets were messy with taxis and motorbikes and people wearing masks to prevent inhaling the pollution and dust. I didn’t bother, its one of the small perks of being an ex-smoker: city air will never match the damage you’ve done to yourself. No need to stress about city air.

In Kathmandu I hung out with Anna, a PhD student from my hometown, and I worked on getting VISAs – another for India, one for China and one for the nightmare of the trio: Pakistan.

The Chinese embassy was the usual confusion of applicants, all jostling and looking defeated from the moment they passed the metal detector. Nobody had a clear idea of what documents were needed, because embassies like to keep important things like that secret until, hours after getting there, you find yourself at the front of the queue and then some self-satisfied paper pusher can tell you what you’ve forgotten. This was my second visit. Three Nepali men in suits strode past the entire line and entered at the front, grinning to each other. They seemed uninjured by the muttering that was, in the end, their only comeuppance. (note to self – do not write blog posts immediately after spending hours in line for VISAs. Wait until stable mental state has returned).

A lady three ahead of me in the line, British, was carrying an extremely cute three year old girl whom she deposited on the counter. The girl pressed herself up against the glass turning the embassy official gooy-eyed and silly-faced. It was the best tactic I have ever seen used to score a VISA. I didn’t hear what the lady said to the official, but I reckon it might have been something like ‘I’d like a five year multiple entry VISA to Tibet please. Oh, and hurry the fuck up’.

So no need for the obsequious noises, the myriad thank yous, the flaunting what you know of the officials native tongue. Just borrow a baby, that’s my advice. Steal one if you have to. Pass it down the queue so everyone can benefit.

As I walked back to my hostel I past the Nepali passport office. The mass of humanity awaiting documents brought to mind a refugee camp. With a UK passport, things really aren’t all that bad, are they?

My brain hurts thinking of all the hoops I have to jump through for the next stage of my trip. I can’t say for sure what will happen next but plan A is a Himalayan adventure in Nepal, then back into India, into Pakistan and over the Karakorum into a very cold China. If I can’t do that, then there will be flights involved, which will be spirit-crushing but unavoidable.

Thank yous – Anna, Sumanta, Lizzie and Sanju.

Finally I’m glad to announce that this blog made it to number 10 in the list of the world’s most popular bike touring blogs (based on Alexa, domain and page authority) so thank you to everybody for reading and sharing.