My time in Kathmandu was frustrating. I had been lucky to stay with some fun, easy-going guys for 10 days, and enjoyed the wealth of attractions the city boasts (7 UNESCO heritage sites), but my time was consumed by near-daily trips to embassies chasing up visas for India and Myanmar, instead of the intrepid hiking trips I had planned. Exacerbating the situation was a Christmas away from home; I had sat on skype, watched my family dig into Christmas Dinner, while I ate the same rice and daal I had for weeks, as children outside sauntered to school (Don't they know it's Christmas!?).
The day my final visa was issued I burst from Kathmandu. The heady freedom surged towards me; I was at home on the road, exploring new, never-before-heard-of places, and seeking new strangers to be my friends. First days cycling after a break always feel effortless. It is simply sitting on the saddle, focused and smiling, no complaining or screaming from my legs yet. Within 2 hours of leaving the dusty capital, I found myself on a road perched on the side of a valley, a sharp drop to the river a constant companion on my left, sometimes too close when a truck or bus howled past me. Terraced fields stretched above, below, in front, behind and all around me. White clouds billowed in the distance, obscuring the majestic mountains of the Himalaya but not detracting from the painting I was immersed in. That night I slept on a river beach gazing at the canvass of stars which seemed to shine for my eyes only. No-one in the world knew where I was. I liked that. It was December 30th, the penultimate day of the year (Not in Nepal which has its own calendar, currently in the year 2073) and I reflected on the people I had met and the sights I had seen – It was all a lifetime ago now. So much happens everyday when cycling around the world that even a week feels like a year. I looked forward to 2017 and wished every day would be something like that one. What country would I be in this time next year? No... what continent would I be in this time next year?
Some cyclists like to go fast. My urge is always to travel slowly on the smallest and most challenging roads. I learnt long ago in Albania that this is where great experiences and achievement are found. That is why - also buoyed on by frustrations for adventure in Kathmandu - I decided to turn off the main road onto a road so minor some of my maps didn't show it. I itched to discover what views this road would offer, how people lived along it, and for an injection of adventure again.
The road surface started nicely, lulling me into a comfortable rhythm of cycling, but soon changed abruptly to a sand track. Passing vehicle were rare, one benefit of taking a smaller road, but when they did pass a monstrous cloud of sand was kicked into the air, enveloping me and my bike, and coating the nearby plants and trees, already orange, with another layer of sand. I quickly learnt to close my mouth to avoid the grit. Although the road followed a river it remained steep, and regularly forced me to get off and push the bike. Mercifully, on the steepest and sandiest section, an old man walking 3km to the neighbouring village helped wade the bike through the ankle-deep sand to the top. He giggled all the way, probably wondering how the silly white guy had got himself into such a situation. I was also wondering, by now almost angry with myself, how I'd got myself here, and why was I constantly trying to make my life more difficult? Was cycling to Australia not a challenge enough?
The valley continued east, but my road turned south, climbing up and out of the deep valley. Near the top darkness fell, and opportunities to camp were limited. I slept on a patch of grass just a few metres from the road by 7pm. It wasn't the most memorable New Year's Eve party of my life. Even my phone ran out of battery, and my 11:55pm alarm didn't go off.
...But, it was the freshest I've ever woken up on New Year's Day; I was on the bike before 7, the promise of a new year of adventure and experiences written in the sky as colours seeped into the wispy clouds. From the top of the climb I was awestruck by the scale of the horizon, the flat Terai stretching southwards like a vast ocean for thousands of miles. It was hard to imagine the featureless terrain lacking a bump or ripple could ever end. But I knew it did. Because I had just cycled from exactly that point. Thousands of miles to the south, three months of cycling, this land would finally reach the ocean.
(A few days later)
"You're not Indian" remarked the exceptionally observant border guard.
"I know" I replied, puzzled by this bizarre greeting.
"This border is for Indians only. You're not Indian" repeated the guard, his words stinging like a punch in the face.
I was just metres from the border crossing which I had spent the last 7 hours slogging up a 2,200 metre pass to reach. This wasn't how my time in Nepal was meant to end. Before I returned, I was sure to leave as much of my dignity behind as possible, pleading with anyone who would listen to let me across this damn border! I admitted defeat and left just before the border guard prepared to tell me a third time that I wasn't Indian and I did something I would regret.
I was convinced there must be a reason I had been turned around. My Chinese visa denial had presented me a trip to India. When one border denies you, a new experiences invites you, right?
While assessing my ability to camp undetected behind a temple, I was confronted by Mekhraj who was quick to invite me to his house. I was equally quick to say Yes!
He lived with his parents in a hut made from wood, mud and bamboo. They worked long, difficult hours, but I admired the simplicity of their life, and the harmony they existed with nature. We went to feed the cows; in the morning they would provide our milk, and their poop would be collected for bio-gas. Getting some vegetables for dinner didn't mean a trip to the shop, but a stroll to their garden to pick some vegetables. Rice for dinner and a cup of tea also came from their fields. Stunned, I asked Mekhraj what they actually needed to buy. “Uhm, just salt, sugar and oil, sometimes bread,” he replied.
I realised this was the experience I needed. I hadn't been ready to leave Nepal just yet!