We were also pushing our bikes because we couldn't quite muster the energy to get on them and start riding toward Kathmandu. Even though we had been mostly sedentary on our Tibet tour, we were exhausted from the long days, on a schedule that was not our own, and negotiating logistics with our guide. In addition, seemingly exactly on cue with the border crossing, we were both struck with mild cases of digestive issues. All of this signaled we needed a rest day before taking on the exploration of a new country.
We settled in to a niceish guesthouse that was amenable to taking US dollars. Upon crossing the border we learned that banks were closed for Nepal's fifteen-day long Dashain festival, a Hindu celebration of the triumph of good over evil. The only ATM in town was broken and the obligatory sketchy money changers usually found at border crossings were mysteriously absent. The subsequent requests to pay with dollars at shops and restaurants were met with a confusing side-to-side head bobble along with a smile. It didn't look like a no and it didn't look like a yes. Referencing our guidebook confirmed our inference from context; it is trademark Nepali body language for being in agreement with someone or something.
The next day we felt much more energetic and prepared to ride. It turned out to be a good thing that we stayed in Kodari since the Araniko Highway that the Chinese financed to Kathmandu back in the sixties had seemingly received no maintenance since then. We had to crank down on our brakes to slow our steep downhill momentum because the road was so potholed and bumpy that our bags would otherwise fly off our our bikes.
While we had been anticipating a nice easy descent to Kathmandu for some unfounded reason, we were actually navigating the much more logical rollercoaster of climbing and descending as we crossed ravines of the tributary streams along the side of the dramatic main Sun Koshi river valley. We took an unexpected break along an uphill stretch for the nice surprise of watching a troop of monkeys cross the road, the most exciting wildlife sighting of our entire journey to date!
Later in the afternoon, we reached the highly anticipated landslide that had been the talk of all the tourists traveling from Tibet to Kathmandu. The massive landslide had actually occurred in early August during a period of heavy monsoon rain, even making international news. A section of slope 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) long slid into the river, creating a dam that formed a lake extending 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) upstream. Two dozen houses were buried and at least 156 were killed. Until August 27, when a track began on August 16 by five bulldozers was completed, air travel was the only means of reaching Kathmandu from Tibet. A group of businessman dependent on the route for the import of Chinese goods financed the project. Nowadays, with still no sign of real road repair, most travelers catch a bus to the landslide, walk a rough trail along the foot of the debris at river's edge for an hour, then catch another bus on the other side. Higher budget or more time-conscious travelers hire a jeep to take them across the landslide.
When we reached the edge of the landslide, we dismounted and got no further than five feet down the pedestrian path along the river before a group of women insisted it was not possible for us to go this way with our bicycles. As far as we could see, it seemed feasible, but we skeptically turned around and started to push our bikes up the rutted truck track into the heart of the landslide. At this point we thought it would be a short incline, but at the top of the first rise, the countless switchbacks revealed themselves and the scale of the slide became fully apparent for the first time. We could barely keep our bikes going forward while digging our feet in to the soft ground.
To make matters even more challenging, we were leapfrogging with trucks that were lurching along in short spurts between episodes of getting seriously stuck. We would have to drag our bikes out of the tire ruts to let them pass, then negotiate around them on the crumbly edge of the road when they were stuck. It seemed like forever before we reached the top and going down the other side was almost fun. Matt rode down the switchbacks, periodically getting thrown off when the bike wobbled in a sinkhole. I opted to run with my bike, kicking up clouds of dust that shimmered with tiny flakes of mica in the fading sun.
Between the extra hard workout and being unaccustomed to the humid heat after cold, dry Tibet, we were ready to call it a day in the next village we came to. We stayed in a simple place that was not so clean, and had a selection of very basic restaurants that also looked not so clean to chose from. However, everyone was very friendly and patient with our lack of Nepali money, language, and knowledge of their country and customs. We were shocked that even in a small village that was completely the opposite of being affluent, most people had enough English to make interactions a piece of cake compared to a similar evening in China. Despite this we felt a bit hesitant and shy, as though we had just started traveling for the first time. It made us realize how much we had developed a comfort zone in China, and now all of the factors that had created our sense of routine had been shaken up.
The next day we climbed through the hills that create one side of Kathmandu Valley on a narrow road that was particularly busy with family visiting family for the Dashain holiday. One thing felt all too familiar: black clouds of exhaust from tailpipes pointed at our faces as overloaded busses, jeeps, and trucks passed us, while they were simultaneously getting passed by gangs of motorbikes. Our bodies were feeling the effects of nearly three weeks off the bicycle prior to our arrival in Nepal as well. We stopped a little before sunset near the ridgetop town of Duhlikel, with panoramic views of Himalayan peaks when it is clear, which it was not for us.
The bizarre resort hotel that we quickly chose before dark specialized in over-promising and under-delivering, especially for the pricey price. The hot shower was not hot, the toilet handle would not flush, the door wouldn't lock, the wifi would not connect, and the solar back-up light in our room was out, which had been installed for Nepal's regularly scheduled load-shedding electricity cuts. We tried our best to resolve what we could with the hard-working manager, feeling that the problems were due to the absentee owner's neglect more than a direct reflection of Nepal being in the world's 16th poorest country, as indicated by average national income. In the United Nations Human Development, Nepal ranks 157 out of 187 countries (as of 2012).
The next morning we got a partial peak at the famous mountain view before heading down into Kathmandu Valley. We stopped about ten miles short of Kathmandu in the historically significant and well-preserved city of Bhaktapur. Nicknamed the City of Devotees for the diverse collection of Hindu temples--a few Buddhist ones too--as well as small shrines tucked down alleyways and on nearly every corner. In the 14th-16th centuries, Bhaktapur was the most powerful of three rival kingdoms in the Kathmandu Valley. To prove this, the Malla kings constructed no less than 172 temples in a show of competition with Patan and Kathmandu itself. Even today, Bhaktapur remains the best preserved of the three.
The only thing superseding our excitement about the opportunity to explore this intriguing place was the discovery of a working ATM, followed by the fact that Nepal grows its own organic coffee! We wasted no time in sampling this treat, which we had not enjoyed for quite some time, and determined that it was excellent. Just when China had fully weaned me of my coffee habit and forced me to appreciate the qualities of tea...
With a decent caffeine buzz going, we settled into the Kumari Guesthouse on a corner of Durbar Square just before an intense afternoon rain and hailstorm. We spent the rest of the day and the next taking in the sights, from pottery-making to festival processions to plain old people-watching. We were starting to get synced with the rhythm of Nepal, one that we could tell would keep us grooving for a long time.