This past weekend I joined some dozen or more people on a biking and rafting trip put on by Himalayan Singletrack, a bike shop located in downtown Thamel. Rather than hire a bike, I arranged to bring my own, beautiful Kona and helmet. The plan: bus to Nagarkot with bikes, bike downhill to “zero kilometer” about 25km, have lunch, get bussed to camp site and hang out, have dinner, raft the following day for 3-4 hours and get bussed back to Kathmandu that afternoon. Fun!
I ferried Ryan, Grant, their bikes, our camping gear and our cooler full of frosty beverages down to HTS’ shop in Thamel early Saturday morning in the Gypsy, since it has a bike rack. After returning the car back home and cycling down myself (in the rain 😛 ), we put our gear on the bus and hopped on ourselves to finish my coffee and prepare for the 1 1/2 hour drive to Nagarkot. The enthusiasts included friends, acquaintances and folks we didn’t even know, including Aussies, Americans, a Fin, Brits, Canadians, Nepalis, and Norweigans. Our only universal language was English, making it easiest for us Americans and Commonwealth people. The HTS guides were impeccable about the bike loading process, padding the frames well to keep from scratching. By the time we departed Thamel, taking a large branch from an overhanging tree with us (CRACK), traffic had begun to pick up, but fortunately the rain had stopped.
An hour and a half later, including a short nap, we arrived at the top of Nagarkot, having navigated the recently completed highway (“Japanese Friendship Highway” I think it’s called) that is the glassiest surface in Nepal and the switch-backs up to Nagarkot, an elevation of 2200m or so. We deboarded, the guides began unpacking the bikes, and we had a light breakfast of tea (“who wants milk tea, raise your hand!”), cheese croissants (much needed salt) and apple Danish (the breads were from HotBreads in Thamel), oh and some bananas. We stood around, watching the local shopkeepers sell their wares from places like “Delicious Food Land” to tourist Nepalis who would mount the trail to Nagarkot tower from time to time, snapping photos. We were quite the spectacle in our odd western clothing noshing on breakfast wandering around and avoiding the traffic. Dazzingly dressed rich Nepali ladies peeked from inside expensive SUV’s, their dejeweled kleenex boxes sparkling as they drove past. After a briefing by Jenny, HTS owner, we lowered our seats, hopped on the bikes and sped off. I took up rear position, the 6% paved grade for the first kilometer too hardy for me to go as fast as our young spirited Canadians (or for that matter, the hardy Brits…yeah I rocked it).
The following two to three hours were a blur of typical back country Nepal biking, but nearly 100% down hill, so freaking amazing…sections of “road” (This was primarily a jeep track) cobbled by large roundy stones about the size of my head or sharp-edged stones about the same size. Don’t slow down on that stuff, or you’ll stall, just roll over it. Some dry sections, but mostly wet. At the top of the mountain, greyish mud, sometimes black, and by the time we reached our destination it was red clay. My legs looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. Sometimes the mud was so thick that I had to pedal through it just to keep from falling over, the red mud coating my rims and frame. The trail frequently switched back and forth to go down the mountainside, small streams crossing it, creating water features. Often these streams would be bordered by a berm of land created to keep the stream moving across and not spreading out. These berms, between one and three feet high were challenging and fun to cross. Often we would be going through small villages, chickens clucking, water buffalos and cows lowing. One herder led his cow with one hand while texting with the other… We stopped at a spot for a snack once, arranging our bikes at the base of the village’s main tree (they all have one). This one (a pipal tree, sp?) must have been hundreds of years old, its roots grasping the mound of earth from which it grew, and thousands of small root shoots reaching back down from its branches. A farmer and his wife let their water buffalo have a bath in the local pond. The Canadian girl let some local kids ride her bike a bit and then showed off with her bunny hopping skills; the local kids were clearly impressed. Everyone had a blast, some people crashed and got cut, bruised or otherwise beat up. The worst injury was Al’s (a Brit) who broke a couple ribs, taking him out of the rafting part of the trip, a shame.
The last bit was a stretch of paved road where we zoomed along for a bit and then had to climb. An interesting painted sign, nearly a mural, of a very happy condom. Some kids, asking for money, decided that slow uphill cyclists were a good target, and attached themselves, literally, to a couple of us. Markus had it the worst, two kids hanging on his bag or shorts, attempting to slow him up enough to make him stop and get off. Of course, he is a tank and just kept on, dragging them along while not acknowledging them. Pretty impressive!
We finally all made it to a lunch stop, cracked open some beers (our bus was there waiting with our gear) and had an amazing lunch of Tandoori-style chicken, Vegetable (Tarkari) Curry, and never-ending baskets of Naan (nicely salted). While our lunch was amazing, our venue was typical Nepal, a restaurant on the side of the road, muddy parking lot, paving crew going by, truck route. Since we were out of town, the paving crew wasn’t a large truck with heated pitch inside spreading it and a roller following to compact it. Rather a crew of a dozen or so, one assigned to heat the 55 gallon drum of pitch over a fire, spurred on by a squirter bottle of gasoline, a couple guys sweeping the road of big clumps of dirt with little hand brooms, and a few people shoveling asphalt rock. It was quite the labor-intensive process.
After lunch, we said good bye to the folks who wouldn’t be joining us on our rafting trip (they would later be picked up by the same bus heading back to Kathmandu with our bikes) and headed down the road to our camp spot by the river, a place called Anjal Riverside Hotel and Lodge. I’d been to it before, and it’s decent. Not much more than a few thatched bamboo pagodas and a concrete walled Nepali latrine, this place makes for a good meal spot, and at least is flat for tents! HTS had set up premium tents for groups of two (and one that would sleep four) so we picked our spots and tossed in our gear. Since this would be our venue until the morning’s raft trip, we opened the beer and salty snacks and relaxed. We took a quick dip in the (very cold) river with some soap to get off the grime and sweat, and Ryan brought down a frisbee. We flung the discus and sipped on beer for a bit before retiring to one of the pagodas for cheetos and conversation. We (attempted to remember and finally got it) played Gin Rummy. Sometime in the late afternoon our hosts served dinner; spaghetti with homemade sauce, steamed potatoes, “finger chips” (french fries) and chicken curry. Good hot food does amazing things with one’s spirit. Night fell, and with electric lights and candles came swarms of insects, ants to eat the dying insects, and spiders to hunt them. It made for an interesting time. I headed to bed past midnight, the rain pattering on the rain fly.
The next morning brought more rain, and our hosts provided us with omelets, toast, condiments (honey, jam, peanut butter, hot sauce) and rice pudding along with tea and coffee. The rain had pushed a mist down onto the river, a thick layer some 10 feet tall that obscured any rocks or hazards from our vantage point. The rain over the past few weeks has brought the river up, we’re truly in monsoon season now. We loaded up minimum gear for our raft trip and drove the 18km to our put in point. Our river guide, Dill, instructed us on all the commands he and his other guide would be giving us rafters, points on safety, etc. The lower Bhotekosi River roughly follows our route, illustrated below (point A is our camp, B is our put-in point, we rafted back to A):
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We suited up in wetsuits (kinda chilly, still raining steadily) and life vests, and helmets and loaded up into our (slightly smaller than standard, as the guide says “they’re more fun!”) 14′ rafts, six to a raft. Mostly the girls in one raft and guys in another. We immediately began having fun in our 3+,4 rapids, going down into bowls getting jostled around. Our guide yelled out commands as we swirled down the river: “Left back!” “All forward” “Stop” “Get down!” Our blue and yellow oars stabbed at the water, sometimes missing altogether as the river dropped away beneath us, the raft diving into a bowl. The three safety kyakers buzzed around us, snapping photos and keeping watch on the lines to take and the rafts.
The Bhotekosi river led a serpentine path around the valleys of the foothills, mists swirling around us, tropical jungle sometimes hanging over the river, hiding loud tropical birds inside its tangle of leaves. Sometimes on quieter parts we had a few minutes to observe fishing lines tied up to bamboo poles or just rocks on the sides of the river. We passed by a riverside village, its buildings towering a few stories above, backs open to the river where kids waved and yelled “helloooo”, rain water spilling off the roofs into the river. The green foothills reached for the sky around us all all sides, low clouds and mist collecting at the top as if some model railroad engineer had pulled apart some cotton balls and sprinkled them onto his diorama.
We came to a section of river that was very high, and had quite the drop, three meters or so over a couple hundred yards. The guides figured out our line and we plunged forth. The first raft made it through ok, then we dove and the river swallowed us. Our raft’s nose dipped and then popped out with such force that we flipped backwards onto ourselves, everyone was thrown. The world went dark and all I could hear was roaring as I plunged beneath the swirling madness of a 10 meter deep Bhotekosi. Banging over some rocks, I surfaced beneath the inverted raft and knew I had to get out of there. Taking a deep breath I plunged back into the washing machine and began paddling. I surfaced again, and took half a breath of air, the other half water. My preserver kept me buoyed up and I eventually got out of the rapids and assumed the “feet first downriver” position while one of the safety kyakers came to my aid. Some 500 meters downstream we reconvened, everyone fine if not a bit banged up. A few scratches and bruises, we were no worse for where, though I was a bit shaken of course.
A lot colder, but still in the spirit, we continued to brave and conquer the rapids, pretty good for a group of mostly beginners. We took a brief break at nearly the end and did some rock jumping. At the end of the trip, we pulled ashore and collapsed into a lunch. Not the most impressive (all the staff were rafting), but serviceable and filling. We decamped and got on the bus, sleeping a decent bit from exhaustion, winding around the switchbacks that would take us over the crest of the foothills through Dhulikel, down past Bhaktapur, and finally into Kathmandu.