Please bare with me on this one, it’s going to be long, but I have a lot of cool (I hope) stuff to share. Also, pictures are on their way soon, so stay tuned! I have been in Kathmandu (KTM) for a week now, and I finally got a free morning to ride. I rented a mountain bike and my friend Tyler, a resident of both Kathmandu and Colorado, took me for a ride along the Northern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. It was an eventful ride, one that reminded me of how much I love this place. I’ll break the description down into three parts:
Part 1: The Streets.
The roads of Kathmandu were not designed for the bustle of modern day traffic. The rapid growth of the post-civil war economy (Nepal was embroiled in a bloody civil war from 1996-2006) has resulted in a massive increase in the number of personal vehicles on the street in the last five years. That increase, coupled with the fact that Kathmandu has no urban planning whatsoever, has resulted in massive traffic jams for much of the day. Luckily, because I left early in the morning, the streets of Kathmandu were calm, and relatively exhaust free. When I rode my bike home from the shop last night, I got stuck in rush hour, and there were moments where I couldn’t even move, such was the number of cars and motorbikes that were pressed together trying to navigate the narrow streets. Riding on the streets of KTM is an experience unlike any other I have had in my cycling life. The closest thing I can compare it to is racing a crit. Except the other racers are metal and weigh thousands of pounds and everyone is going in different directions. Needless to say it’s a little nerve wracking, but my crit instincts have served me well. I might write a more detailed description of the KTM streets in a later post, this one is already getting long-winded, and I’m only getting started.
Part 2: The Countryside
After Tyler and I met up in Thamel (pronounced Ta-mel, more on Thamel later) we headed north, passing restaurants, shops, temples and the U.S. Embassy as we made our way out of town. The farther away from the center of the city we got, the thinner the traffic became, until we were at the edge of the valley, climbing a potholed, switch-backing road. After a turn and quick decent down some single-track the scenery instantly changed. KTM turned from a bustling metropolis, awaking to begin another busy day, to a group of quiet homes and farms, just beginning to rise for work. A mix of rice paddies and forested mountains made for amazing scenery as we worked our way west across the northern rim of the valley. The green of the mountains outside of Kathmandu is entrancing. It is deeper and more vibrant than I can describe in words. I have a special place in my heart for the insanity that is Kathmandu, but it is in this place where the true beauty of Nepal comes out.
We traversed narrow dirt single track between rice paddies and old trails that had for decades been solely traversed by farmer and their livestock. Around every corner a surprise: A water buffalo, an old man carrying the days load, a group of school children, or an angry dog happy to have something to chase. No matter how surprised we were by whatever was around the corner, inevitably whatever we came across was even more surprised to see two skinny bideshi (foreigners) in tight spandex! Mountain biking has become increasingly popular in Nepal over the last few years, but we are still a novelty for most Nepalis. Most surprising perhaps was when we turned a corner on a narrow descent and stumbled upon a group of around twenty Didis (women) bathing in a river. They were all covered by traditional lungis, red shawls that women wear when bathing outdoors, but it was startling nonetheless. I can only imagine what they thought of us, but there was a lot of giggling as we picked our way around them and across the river with our heads down.
Part 3: The Return Home.
As we worked our way back into the city we rested at a small tea shop. Here we were still an oddity, but maybe not as much as before. It was calming to sip on tea and look out over the rice paddies. It felt good to have stretched my legs, which until that point had still felt stiff from the long journey here. As we continued home the roads got wider, turned from trails to jeep track to asphalt roads and eventually we were back in the bustle of the city, competing with cars and pedestrians for space on the road, trying not to get run over or hit anything.
Eventually Tyler headed home, and I stopped in Thamel, the tourist section of town, to fill my grumbling stomach. Thamel is a section of town where the narrow streets are filled with shops and shopkeepers hawking a myriad of brightly colored knick-knacks. From bags, to prayer beads, art and clothing, there is a cheap gift for everyone in the family in Thamel. There are also shops with a great selection of bootleg DVDs, which are a great way to keep yourself entertained. Sketchy dudes walk by you and whisper in a low voice “you smoke hash?” Children beg on the street and get high huffing glue. The glue dulls their hunger, and kills their brain cells. Thamel is the worst of Nepal, and yet it is the only place that most visitors see. Thamel makes Nepal seem poor, desperate and cheap, when in fact Nepal is beautiful and full of hope! Nepal is not a rich place in terms of GDP, but the warmth and energy of its people is in my experience second to none.
I tell you about Thamel as an intro to this story: For all of its faults, Thamel is a great place to get a meal if you are craving a taste of home. After a long ride I decided to indulge with a chocolate croissant. I was sitting on the curb in front of the bakery, enjoying my post ride snack, when a young boy, maybe eight years old, came up to me. He was dirty and wearing a slightly-too-large, tattered t-shirt and pants. “I’m hungry, please buy me biscuits.” He put one hand on my knee and with the other rubbed his stomach. He pointed to the convenience store next to me. “Buy me biscuits, buy me juice, I’m hungry.” Having spent so much time in Nepal, I have made myself pretty much immune to street begging, but as I sat there with a chocolate croissant in my hand, there was no way I wasn’t going to buy this kid food. It might have been the wrong choice, and I toiled with whether or not I should for a few minutes, but eventually I relented. I’m not sure what he did with the biscuits I bought him, he may have ate them, but he also might have sold them or traded them for something else, maybe glue, I will probably never know. Street children are an unfortunate reality in Kathmandu, and in most cities in the world, and my act probably made me feel better more than it did any real good for that kid, but those are the choices we all have to make when we come to a place like this. I’m not sure my story has a moral, I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned about tourism or the destruction of culture or the global economy or development or something, but at the heart of it, it is just an exchange between two humans from vastly different lives. Throughout my travels I have tried my hardest to bridge those gaps and understand how others live. In some ways I have succeeded, in others maybe not so much.
Hopefully I didn’t leave this post on a low note. I finished up the ride and had a relaxing rest of the morning at my hotel before doing some work in the afternoon. Hopefully I will get to ride again tomorrow. Nepal is a truly beautiful place full of beautiful people, and I am reminded of that every day that I am here, especially on days like this when I get to enjoy the beauty of the valley on my bike. I am very lucky that I get to spend three more weeks here, and hopefully I will have more adventures to share. I hope you all enjoyed this post, and if you have any questions or comments, especially about Nepal, please leave them!