The road climbed, twisted and turned. Every time I reached a substantial settlement I checked my map to see if I had reached Butwal. Finally one last turn close to the hillside and I rode downwards to the city of Butwal which stretched out to my right. My initial reaction was one of disappointment. It did not look very inviting.
Once over a high bridge I cycled downhill on a wide road past high-rise buildings and businesses until I found the bus station and the hotels nearby. I checked into a room at the Hotel Park Plaza which overlooked the bus station. It was, as seems to be the way, a bit grubby. It had not even been cleaned since the last occupants left. Once pointed out I was quickly provided with clean sheets.
Butwal is relatively modern having been extensively developed since the 1950’s when Nepal finally opened its borders. It is a staging post between India and the rest of Nepal.
I decided to stay several nights to rest and prepare for the next part of my journey. I also needed to recover from mosquito bites and a swollen left leg. I had fallen off my bike trying to avoid being speared by the wavering end of a long bamboo pole. It was being carried along the road ahead of me and I had to react quickly when it swung in my direction. In addition I had later slipped into a hole walking my bike by the roadside and banged my left shin causing a sizeable haematoma. My leg hurt and the mosquito bites on my face and arms were a nuisance. A few days staying at a hotel in Butwal was a good idea.
However the next day I walked my socks off exploring the city. It is divided up into three parts. A wide river cuts it into two. On one side is an industrial estate with basic housing on a dry rocky island. On the other is the markets, businesses, bus station and better residential suburbs. The third area, and one I discovered on my final day, is a small residential area to the North. I found this last place the most interesting as it was the oldest and had many well crafted wooden buildings.
I had some apprehension about my route north on Highway 10. It looks quite daunting on the map as it climbs towards Tansen and Pokhara. However I thought I would give it a go. I had breakfast at my local roadside restaurant, bought some provisions and set off on my fully loaded bike towards the pass to the North of Butwal.
Once in the Lumbini region I thought carefully about visiting Siddartha’s (Buddha) birth place at the town of Lumbini. It is now a well developed world heritage centre with a large garden built around the Ashoka pillar which designates Buddhas place of birth. I had already decided to continue East and past what I regarded as a tourist attraction.
However I came across a local road sign for Kapilvastu. Recent archeological work has revealed the ancient ruins there to be of King Śuddhodana’s (Siddartha’s father) palace. It is the area where Buddha lived until he was twenty nine and where he ventured out beyond the palace walls before deciding to tackle the world of suffering that he discovered. The temptation to view the land, ruins and museum was too great. I headed off along a rocky road through woodland South towards Kapilvastu with monkey troops for company. The area is quite swampy in parts and the open land is richly cultivated by local families.
Once past a small village I was presented with a wide river to cross. A major bridge was in the process of being built and jutted out from the opposite bank. Meanwhile
people had to wade across the river.
I made three crossings to carry all my gear and bicycle and helped an elderly man with his bike.
Shortly I arrived at the small village of Tilaurakot. I had milk tea (made by a grumpy woman) opposite the entrance to the museum. I only had half an hour to visit before it closed.
The museum is quite small but contains hundreds of artefacts including many coins and stone carvings. Outside is a garden of architectural finds and another open building with large stone exhibits. A short distance away through the village are the ruins of the old palace. They were impressive with the remains of long wide palace walls, buildings and large gatehouses.
By the entrance to the site I stopped to chat with several monks that lived nearby, one of whom was originally from Sri Lanka. He had a wonderful smile!
Possibly the Kapilvastu site is less impressive than the modern development and garden at Lumbini but I felt glad to have visited and seen the countryside where Siddartha spent much of his life before travelling.
After the junction at Tilaurakot I headed North with a view to rejoining highway 01. With the light fading and nowhere to camp I kept cycling along a long road through treeless wetlands. Fortunately there was a small shrine, Ashok pillar and deserted building by a lake. There were several empty rooms so I bedded down for the night and became a meal for the mosquitos that lived by the lake.
The Ashok pillar at this shrine was, like the one at Lumbini, dedicated to a Buddha by King Ashok. However it is believed that it was for the birthplace of the Kanakmuni Buddha. If I had not reached the birthplace of one Buddha it appears that I unwittingly slept at the birthplace of another.
The next day was fun. I bought a litre of honey complete with dead bees for less than £2 and met a cycle mechanic. He showed me the wheels he built for cycle rickshaws.
It was a short cycle ride past the Indian ‘foreigners’ immigration centre and over another small bridge. At an army checkpoint a Nepalese soldier shouted ‘welcome!’. I was then certain that I was in Nepal but no one had asked to see my passport. It was the most relaxed entry into a country I had ever experienced.
Overjoyed to reach Nepal I dashed the few miles in to reach Mahendranager.
I still had no Nepali visa and carefully looked for an immigration office or at least an important looking government building. I encountered a large crowd of men. One man was being held up and looked a bit floppy. He had overturned his cycle rickshaw and a bit bruised. It was quite a scene. They manhandled him into the passenger seat of a rickshaw and he was taken away presumably to a local clinic or hospital.
I cycled a little further and reached the main junction in the town where two policemen were beating some chap on the floor with their sticks. This did not seem to attract much attention from passers by. The guy was quite disheveled and appeared drunk.
Cycling down the main thoroughfare past the bus station I spotted a sign to
the Hotel Opera; one of the few places to stay and recommended by Lonely Planet as good value and the best place to stay.
I dropped into the NCell shop to sort out a new sim for my phone. The sticking point was my missing visa. It then transpired that I had missed the relevant building at the border. Easily done as there are no checks once past the Indian side. So somewhat laboriously I returned, found the small building and sat with a friendly chap who quickly processed my visa for 3 months. He took large denomination Indian notes and then offered to further exchange cash for Nepali currency. The rate was good and he provided a huge wad of very low denomination notes. I had a fistful of Nepali Rupees and which is quite bulky to stash. Useful though as few people seem to have change.
Back along the potholed road to the town and to NCell for my nano SIM card.
For that, and which is actually fairly straightforward, I had to provide passport, visa, photo, personal details, wife’s name, grandfathers name and fingerprints. The last two surprised me.
I checked into the Hotel Opera which is decidedly swish and they provided a fair quality room on the ground floor in a side annexe close to the road. Perfect for me and my bike.
Mahendranager is an active border town with a busy bus station and thriving shops. As the link between India and Nepal it appears quite prosperous. Amongst the multitude of shops I was struck by the number of places selling alcohol, spirits in particular, and the amount of bicycle shops. In Nepal the cycles are far more modern than in India with cables and gears.
I declined the hotels offer to use their casino the entrance to which was close to my own room. The hotel came to life when VIPs arrived to stay. They were accompanied by armed guards and soldiers that became posted around the grounds. I imagined that the guests were government officials and had quite an entourage. The next morning I was back on the road heading East on Highway no.1.
The next stop on my ride East placed me at Moradabad. I quickly found a simple room close to the main railway station on Budh Bazar Road. Cheap and clean; Hotel Pankaj was the perfect place for me to roll in with my bike.
I took a little time to walk around the city. It is known as the ‘city of brass’. I tried unsuccessfully to find brass items. Moradabad also boasts of being the greatest exporter of textiles. However I think much of this business is undertaken in large warehouses away from the public gaze. However it is a colourful city with a vibrant market and atmosphere.
Interestingly an area behind my hotel had a wonderful old house and the owner was very happy for to to photograph the grand entrance. Also the whole area in front was filled with cannabis. I had seen it growing in large amounts all along the highway. It is a common weed but surprised to see so much in the centre of a large city.
My search for the brass was fruitless. But almost opposite my hotel was a Royal Enfield mototcycle showroom. Proudly displayed outside was an early 80s example. I met the manager and enquired about the price. He told me that it was ‘not for sale’
The only disappointment with Moradabad was my evening meal. I had spotted an restaurant on the Rampur road with a tandoori clay oven. I missed the amazing food I had eaten in Delhi. Sadly the food was barely cooked and inedible. I left it almost untouched and despite my protests paid in full for the dubious experience. I switched to a roadside seller around the corner and enjoyed a classic rice, roti, vegetables and pickle dish with automatic refills.
I passed through Rampur on the way to Rudrapur City. Rampur has a wonderful old railway station which is the resting place for an old carriage. The surrounding building is a home to local families and for sack makers.
Unable to find a room on arrival in Rudrapur City I cycled into a residential area and enjoyed some momo and tea from street sellers. I was surrounded by local people that took a great interest in my travels and bicycle. My search for a room was then accompanied by two young lads on their bicycles. They led me to the centre of town which had numerous high rise tourist hotels none of which were terribly suitable. Finally I found one; the Hotel Corbett Inn and they happily provided a cheap room by a small roof area. Once settled I went out to soak up the local nightlife. I had a great meal and on the way back was drawn in to a wedding party. The couple followed the procession of lights and music in a car. I was treated like a special guest and had quite a part in the wedding video with my interviewed reactions to the event.
A wave goodbye to the staff at the Corbett Hotel and I continued towards the Nepalese border. Past Bandia and towards the town of Sitarganj I stopped at a lake which appeared to stretch as far as the eye could see.
I stayed at yet another dirty little hotel room at Sitarganj. I find it incredible that so many hotels, many of which have staff doing very little, are happy to place their guests in filthy rooms that obviously have not seen a cleaner for months on end. I ate fish from a nearby stall which was directly in front if a liquor store. It was home for local drunks. The fish tasted fine but I was to suffer afterwards.
Sitarganj was a lot bigger than I realised as I had arrived late in the evening and had not really ventured too far. I really had my eyes set on reaching the border with Nepal and set off fairly early. After reaching Khatima the road turned to a stony track which followed along a canal. A large barrage presented the last great barrier before the border and with a pleasant chat with an immigrations officer and exit stamp in my passport I was between the countries. I could not suppress my absolute joy at reaching Nepal.
My stay in Delhi was extended. I telephoned my mum and heard someone that sounded like they had suffered a stroke. This was the case. I contacted my wife and brother She was quickly admitted to hospital and I put everything on hold and waited for news.
It was a temporary ischaemic attack. Not good but no longer an urgent situation. She was put on a short waiting list for a procedure to improve her cerebral circulation. With help at hand the situation was under control and I could consider leaving Delhi. It was a difficult choice but with reassurance that all was okay I felt I could move on.
The bridge over the Yamuna river was jam packed with early morning traffic in each direction. I struggled to escape Delhi but only once past Ghaziabad did the traffic thin out. The suburban sprawl extended and the living conditions seemed extremely poor. Buildings are in a bad state. Everywhere is strewn with rubbish and surface water is black, smelly and contaminated. With a large poor population trying desperately to eek out an existence it was a place from which to escape. Traffic belches out huge volumes of pollution and the air is difficult to breathe. As a touring cyclist I hated it all and felt sorry for the people that were forced to endure such conditions.
I made Hapur and desperately searched for some kind of lodging. After a bit of a search I found a hotel on the station road. It was expensive and a bit crummy. During the night a storm raged. I awoke to find the streets flooded.
After sinking a cup of tea I set out once again. Breakfast was gratefully provided on the road by a shop owner on a motorbike who gave me various pastries as we moved along the road together.
I had to cycle around a lorry that had not quite made a bridge and lay on its side.
The next stop was Garmukteshwar. This busy town lies to the West of the sacred Ganges river. I cycled through local farmland until finally reaching the ‘mother’ Ganges.
I returned to the town and on local advice went back to the main highway to continue East and find a room for the night. I turned down the first motel which was both expensive and looked empty. A little further on I reached the road bridge over the Ganges. On the West bank lies the Hindu pilgrimage town of Ganga Snan Ghat. I was able to get a fairly decent room at a large pilgrims hostel with a large auditorium and canteen.
The Ganges is big business. The riverside was filled with pilgrim services; offerings, boat trips, ceremonies and shrines. Stalls provided food and religious items. Many sadhus or holy men wandered about. I bought one of them lunch. I watched as people immersed themselves in the Ganges and had a good walk around the town. At a temple devoted to Ganga I was invited in to the main courtyard and sat to chat with the temple elders.
The Tibetan enclave at Majnu Ka Tilla in Delhi is a special place. It provides a home and focus for a Tibetan community in exile. It consists of narrow passageways that make up a fairly dense area of buildings. On one side is a busy dual carriageway. On the other the banks of the Yamuna River. There is a unique blend of businesses and stalls providing a large range of Tibetan services and crafts. At the centre is a Buddhist temple. it is by nature a haven of peace and tranquility and provides a stark contrast with the surrounding city. It has become a focus for visiting Buddhists from all over the world and a stepping stone to Dharmsala and other destinations for meditation and contemplation. I felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to stay there. I will return to stay again before finally winging my way back to ol’ Blighty.
I booked two nights at the Wonghden hotel to get myself established in India. I had been recommended Vodaphone in terms of mobile phone coverage for the areas I planned to visit. I set off into central Delhi on my unladen bike to sort out a new SIM card for my phone.
The sights and sounds of India brought back memories of my trip here with Anne. I found myself once again at the Red Fort and stopped to chat in front of the main gate.
Unfortunately I could not cycle in the grounds but instead pushed on South towards Connaught Place. As I cycled past a hospital A&E department I hoped that I would not end up inside it.
I stopped to eat a paratha close to an ‘independent’ journalist centre heavily ring fenced with barbed wire.
The freshly baked paratha was lightly stuffed with spices and vegetables. It was wonderful and so… so much better than the pale imitations served in restaurants back home. It was a busy stall!
As expected it was not terribly easy to get a SIM card for my phone. At Vodaphone I was given a queue ticket. When I finally (yawn) was seen; yes they would provide a prepay SIM but only as a replacement which would involve a return to the shop the next day.
I went to the Airtel shop, also at Connaught Place and immediately was seen by a friendly chap. He also sorted out another customer at the same time. He skilfully juggled forms and photocopied details and fairly quickly I was walking out with a new SIM and internet data plan. A call to Airtel four hours later to confirm my details and I was connected.
Because of security issues and in the the light of the Mumbai terrorist attack applicants for mobile connection need to provide a photo, passport, visa and personal details including address in India and other family information. Frustrating but with good preparation it can all be done very quickly.
I returned back to the Tibetan Colony via the Kamala Nehru Ridge Park. The park rises quite high above Delhi and is occupied by monkeys and various Delhi University faculties. It also appears to be a good place for dating. I was taken aback to find such a pleasant green lung in the midst of the Delhi madness.
Back to the Tibetan Colony and then out to eat a superb meal at one of the small eateries in one of the streets on the Indian side of the main road. I also snagged some momo at a fraction of the price that the Tibetan restaurants were charging.
The flight to New Delhi arrived a little later than I would have liked. Once I had picked up my bike and luggage it was already dark. Hardly ideal for finding accommodation in the sprawling metropolis of New Delhi. Thankfully the bike had survived the flight and I put it all back together for a new adventure.
I had some difficulty changing money as the Thomas Cook counter was closed. It was staffed but they told me it was shift ‘changeover time’. It would be a ’15 minute’ wait and which then became another 15 minutes. Given that it was getting late and I needed to find somewhere to sleep I used an ATM.
My plan was to head for the Tibetan Colony at Majnu Ka Tilla to the North on the Yamuna river. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to book a room at the well reviewed Wonghden House but they had told me via email that there were plenty of other good hotels nearby. It was my best shot.
The roads were a nightmare. Roadworks led me West until finally I hit the ring road back towards North Delhi. It all took forever and it seemed like the road system was a disaster. With the help of google maps I found my way to the Tibetan Colony and to Wonghden House. They had a room! Hurray!! The staff were surprised that I took my bike up to the room on the 4th floor but had no objection. It was an excellent room right next to the roof area which provided a good view of the Yamuna river behind.
I woke early and caught the sun rising beyond the river. I had arrived in India and had found shelter within an oasis of calm.
A few of the people that made my trip so magical. If there is one reason to visit Sri Lanka it is to meet such wonderful people who express themselves in such a warm open and generous way. Extraordinary people.