Nepal 2019, Uncategorized

Kusma at last

Today is the final day of the course; the ladies have had all the training so today it’s a case of watching them deal with a variety of hazards and roads, seeing how they use their skills and judgement for themselves. They are a lot happier this morning, a good night of rest and they’re raring to get going. There is a mix of tarmac roads to start with and they are all much more confident with the bike. They may only be 150cc machines, but they are very tall for them. Most bikes in Nepal are scooters, which these three are all used to riding, and they have an automatic gearbox. Manual bikes are predominantly 150cc with a couple of 200cc models, and the ubiquitous Royal Enfield Bullet 350. They have all struggled with fine clutch control, tending to use it more as a switch, but they do very well in the villages and the very slow uphill stretches behind very heavily laden trucks. At the start of the course dropped machines were quite common as they struggled with the clutch and height of the machines. No such problems now.

We head out into the hills and the rough, unmade roads and rock trails that these machines were bought to deal with. From the start we have introduced the phrase ‘risk assessment’ to them which is, when you think about things, what we all do when driving or riding anyway. Only now, they are more aware of the risks. They have had enough to cope with using the clutch and the size of the bike anyway, but now they have to figure in planned routes, and planned stops, so if they need to stop they can put a foot down. With their diminutive size this needs a lot of thought and they do well. Two of them are considerably taller than the third so they have, in general, more route options available and they all have different levels of skill in various techniques but they all play to their strengths and take the best choices for them. They all get to the destination with very few issues and the smallest one has none at all. She had the biggest hurdle of all to overcome but has done so very well indeed. Both myself and Pete are very impressed with the progress she has made. No complaining, no excuses, just questions and downright determination.

At the top of the hill we find the highest, longest, suspension bridge in Nepal. It is 347m long and 166m high, access and exit via some stone steps, and it is a road in constant use by both bikes and pedestrians in both directions. Nepalese don’t often look 347 metres ahead when driving or riding so you have to pass as well. This is done by leaning into the side mesh. All good fun. We were here last year and I regretted not riding over it, so this year I ticked an item off my bucket list and rode across it. Click below

to see the video if you want. When I got there, two of the girls had walked and wanted a lift back, so the return route was with a pillion.

The third lady wanted to ride across it, so she did so. These bridges are a common sight in Nepal and an essential part of the road network. This one turned a commute between Kusma and Balewa from a 2 hour walk to a 5 minute one and the girls will have to deal with them, or seek an alternative. It’s great to see them riding in acknowledgement of their own abilities and confidence rather than being a passenger on the bike which they were at times on day 1.

The return route is on similar roads, only downhill now, so another set of problems have to be overcome as well as confident use of the front brake. In common with many scooter riders across the world they were afraid of using it in the belief they would crash. Again, they dealt with all routes and hazards with great skill and competence.

To see these three grow in confidence the way they have this week has been a great source of pleasure for Pete and I, they are the first ladies trained in Nepal in motorcycling techniques and in the 50th Anniversary year of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, and our own Women in Action month, there is a lot to be proud of both for them, and us.

Hopefully more female motorcyclists can be trained but there is a current backlog of tests in Nepal to acquire a driving licence. The GWT are desperate to overcome this but so far there seems to be no shortcut available.

This has been another memorable visit to Nepal for us both, and to see first-hand the level of care these people deliver to retired Gurkhas and their families is truly humbling.

As well as delivering welfare, the GWT have built 30 schools in the last 3 years and are doing water management projects across Nepal; there is much more to the organisation than we both thought…

Nepal 2019

Stretching our legs

Welcome back and thanks for following. Yesterday was spent mainly on road with some work around clutch control and re-visiting some previous exercises. We found a housing estate and did figure of eight circuits so they were exposed to left and right turns as well as some problems with regards to road camber. Left foot down anyone? When you’re not particularly tall, mounted on a high bike with some horrendous adverse cambers, you very soon dispel that old myth, Pete can assure you. These ladies are resourceful though…high kerbs are utilised and road positioning changed to adapt to camber etc. They are starting to risk – assess every situation now. Not always the best solution but it’s a big start. After that we head out into the countryside on (mainly) tarmac roads and the morning exercise is showing results; far more thought is going into hazards now, with much more accurate planning.

We then take a route to the top of Kahun Danda which affords an excellent view over Pokhara. It’s a popular spot with locals as well as tourists. One of the saddest sights is the amount of plastic litter. There are no bins or anywhere to place rubbish. Apparently it is in the government plans but has not yet been built. This situation is unfortunately repeated throughout the areas we see in Nepal and I don’t have a solution…I don’t think anyone does.

On the return route a couple of the ladies struggle with the manual gearbox and seem reluctant to change up, no doubt because it adds to the work in changing down when stopping. As a result we occasionally have a bit of a queue behind us (but not for long…this is Nepal after all) so we try to encourage the use of higher gears. At the end of the day there is a lot more confidence within the group.

Today we spent mainly off-road in the environment they will be working. As I have said before, these are tracks throughout the mountains. They are rough (very) in places and steep. We are not training for competition here, or even recreational off-roading. This is work for them, with serious consequences if they do not arrive at their pensioners to deliver care and assistance.

They are much better with clutch control now, but throwing in the additional hurdle of off-road may well cause extra difficulties. Indeed it does, but not as much as we feared. In actual fact they do bloody well! There are a couple of dropped bikes, some failed attempts on inclines but they look have learnt if this happens to stop, take a deep breath and assess the situation before re-trying.

One of the exercises we did around clutch control was to get them to walk alongside the bike. The penny drops now and they start walking it up (and down) some of the steeper sections and they are encouraged that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They have to get there, not get there fast.

They actually told us at the end of the day they did not understand some of the exercises we had been getting them to do but now they could see why.

One of the ladies – Pooja – kept complaining that her handlebars were loose and moving around. I checked them and couldn’t see a problem, but when we stopped for lunch she insisted it was broken so I took it for a short spin and found no problem. It transpires that yesterday the bike had new steering head bearings fitted. Eventually we get her to realise the bike had been broken before; now it was fixed and that was how it was supposed to feel!

We have lunch at Ghandruk; the site of an old Royal Palace, now demolished. There is a Hindu Temple there now and the ladies invite us to look. There is a long, steep stretch of stairs to the top and our fitness level is ‘less than ideal’. Oh well, let’s get going then. On reaching the top and going through the entrance arch imagine our joy to see that was just the approach walk. The summit climb had been hidden from view. I hope these ladies are up to speed on CPR.

At the Temple itself there is a fantastic view and we are both given a ‘God Gift’ from the temple to tie on our bikes; a length of ribbon which will make us stronger. I’ll have five yards to take away please.

I suppose that’s Karma…we have been getting them to do things on bikes that has got them out of their comfort zone and made them tired…they’ve just done the same to us!

The descent causes more challenges than coming up, but in our experience that’s normal. There are quite a few drops on the way down, mainly due to brakes, so we re-cap on brake use downhill on poor surfaces and things improve. At the bottom the earlier hilarity has gone and they all seem a little down. Hopefully some consolidation tomorrow will improve things.

Nepal 2019

Discovering Fesh Fesh!

Pete and I have been out on the bikes on our own, riding around Pokhara. The driving is exactly the same as last year; very few people indicate. Well, actually they do, but not the way you’d expect. For example a right indicator means they want you to overtake them. Or maybe turn right…but it works!

Horns are still as plentiful as ever. Pete and I haven’t used ours as there has been no need; careful observation, anticipation and planning has meant we have not needed to alert anyone to our presence which is the UK perception of horn use. In Nepal it means many things, such as ‘Hello’, or ‘I wish to overtake you’, ‘I am overtaking you’, ‘Please overtake me’…quite a long list we think, but the one thing it never seems to mean is any form of aggression; road rage just doesn’t feature on the map…

A common technique is one we have all probably experienced when riding motorcycles in the UK. The old ‘If I don’t look at you, I can’t see you, so you’re not there’ approach. Again, it works, someone always makes room for you. Often with a horn note to let you know, and of course a polite ‘Thank you’ horn note is the standard reply.

But it’s just what you have to do. You cannot ride ‘UK style’. For a start, you’d never get out of a junction! You have to join in. Pete was joining in by not looking at a car from his left at a roundabout. The car started it by ‘not looking’ at Pete first. It made for interesting viewing from behind, and it was close but slow (as it always is) and people made room.

After yesterdays’ work on the football field – some pictures attached from that – we went to the river bed today. We remembered from last year it had a selection of short, gentle, slopes and shallow river crossings to learn some basics on.

The journey there revealed there were some issues with the use of the clutch which is not surprising; most of these ladies are scooterists so are unfamiliar with it. We decide that we will do some exercises to improve that.

Upon arrival at the venue things have changed a lot! There is work underway to construct a new bridge with a lot of groundworks. The gentle slopes have gone, replaced by steep mounds of loose stones and the river has been diverted into a narrow channel. Time to change and adapt again!

We start off just by getting the ladies to walk alongside the bikes, engine running and in first gear. By gently slipping the clutch the aim is to walk alongside the bike with it driving itself, rather than the rider pushing it. This proves difficult for some as they tend to just ‘drop’ the clutch resulting in uncontrolled launches or stalls due to lack of revs. We spend a great deal of time on this as it gives excellent practice on clutch / throttle control balance and control. Gradually confidence and ability improve.

Pete and I have a recce of the area to find another suitable challenge but the route we followed didn’t reveal anything suitable so we returned. Pete was in the lead and had a bit of a moment climbing some loose rocks so I stopped further back to give him time and me room to build up some momentum to climb them. No worries, it was just a ‘moment’ and my way was clear so off I went. Literally. I had stopped on a bald bit of ground amongst the rocks but in fact this was something called ‘Fesh Fesh’. It has the consistency of talcum powder and is almost a cross between fine ash and snow. I had been warned about it but didn’t know what it looked like. Well, I did now! In thin amounts on rocks it is like ice, up to a certain depth (a couple of inches) your tyres can cut through it to the ground beneath. Anything deeper and it’s a case of trying to ‘float’ over it quickly. Horrible stuff!

After I pick myself and the bike up we get back to the group and talk about how to get up some of the mounds (these are actually a mix of rocks and fesh fesh so they collapse quite easily). The ladies decide they couldn’t ride up it, but could maybe ‘walk’ the bikes up so we do just that. They soon learn the advantage of being ‘uphill’ of the bike; if it falls, it falls away from you, and if you’re short in height then it’s easier as you are above the bike. It’s great, even at this early stage, to see them putting new ideas into practice. We have explained to them at the outset that this is about arriving at their destination. If they crash out on the way to see their patient in the mountains then the patient doesn’t get the treatment they need, and the ladies get some treatment they didn’t want.

We look to move to a long stretch of road where we can practice using the gearbox and standing up whilst riding. At this point one of the ladies had an innocuous trip and hurt her ankle so it looks like she may not be able to complete this training. We will see tomorrow.

They all see the point of standing up on rough surfaces after a few miles of this and with the onset of another storm we return to base. The ride back is a huge improvement over the ride out earlier today. They understand more about clutch and gear use so we stay together, there is much more control when moving off; all in all an excellent day and they have worked really hard. They themselves are still enjoying but all complain of sore forearms…and anyone who has ridden off road will be familiar that!

The photographs on this blog entry are courtesy of Sidhartha Gurung, the GWT Photographer, and I thank him kindly for letting me use them. I can’t put mine up as I dropped my camera…don’t tell my wife!

 

Nepal 2019

The start of a new journey

We were flying via Mumbai this time, with a little under an hour and a half to catch the connecting flight, so there wouldn’t be much time to look around. We checked in with plenty of time, but the second leg flight, from Mumbai to Kathmandu, was full so we would not be sitting together. Luckily one of the seats had extra leg room. Now, for those of you that don’t know us, I’m about 6’2 and Pete is about 5’8. ‘Who has the extra leg room, please’? we enquired. ‘Mr Doherty’ was the answer. Typical.

Due to a delayed departure from Heathrow, and adverse flying conditions on the journey, we were left with under an hour to catch our connecting flight. At check in we had to hand in the boarding cards from our last flight, as well as for this one. We also had to get our hand luggage checked again. Pete got stopped due to a small bottle opener showing up on the scan, and security thought it was a knife, so it was removed and the scan repeated. This took about 10 to 15 minutes and we were worried we may miss the flight. Thankfully an airline rep had showed up to lead us to the gate where we had to queue again, for another luggage scan! At last we made it, Pete into his extra leg-room seat and me in the middle seat of three with a very large man to my left, who was trying to make himself small but it wasn’t really working. The guy on my right was much smaller but managed to spread his knees and elbows quite wide. Then the elderly gent in front reclined his seat and I was stuck. I swear I could hear Pete stretch, yawn and smirk…

We landed a little ahead of time in Kathmandu and once my legs worked properly we caught our internal flight to Pokhara. It was evident from the air that the ongoing building works since the 2015 earthquake were progressing well.

We were met and taken to our accommodation. A shower was called for which did the job. Mind you, I can confirm that despite any similarity between cans of shaving foam and antiperspirant, the two are most definitely not interchangeable. Another shower then…

The next day we met Steve Whitlock, Field Director of the charity, who explained a bit more about our task. When he interviews for field staff he often has females who are very well qualified for the role and board very well indeed, but lack motorcycling experience which is also an important skill. They ride scooters but aren’t used to the manual gearboxes fitted to the Honda XR150L machines that are used.

He has sought out volunteers and asked that they gain experience on the machines before attending this course. There are to be four of them, so with the two of us, that gives an excellent ratio and we should be able to do a lot in the 6 days we are with them.

Not so much ‘advanced riding’ this time round, just to improve confidence and develop skills. The training program is discussed, adapted and agreed upon.

The next day we meet our clients. All four seem very happy to be here but are a little nervous about what is expected of them. We have a chat in the morning about the layout of the course, then start from basics again. We cover everything from pushing it around to picking it up, walking around it whilst holding it up and getting on and off from both sides. All essential skills when riding off road. On tarmac it’s normal to get on and off the bike from the left, but off-road that may not be possible due to the ground conditions, rock walls, drop-offs etc. so we spend a lot of time practising these skills.

After lunch we ride a short distance to the local football field (still strewn with rocks etc, same as last year) where we can make a start. To begin with we just ask them to ride around a bit and get used to the bikes. It is apparent that they all lack confidence in themselves and the machines, and a couple are not as familiar with the clutch as we expected.

We start with some ‘confidence riding’ which is where we play follow my leader with myself or Pete up front, and the other at the back. The leader rides around and gradually does things like taking a hand off the bars and holding the arm out. Or a leg. Or stands up. This may well sound unusual to some of you, less so to others. The idea is after riding around like this for a while you sit back down and it all seems a lot easier. The tasks get gradually more difficult and this is where you have to be careful as the lead bike. It is important you don’t go to difficult too quick and allow time for consolidation. The idea is to build and improve confidence; it’s all too easy to destroy it and end up in a worse position than you started.

They all get involved and engage with the training and do just enough to stretch themselves. By the end of the day they are riding around , kneeling on the saddle, laughing amongst themselves and really enjoying it.

On the ride back, a lot of the trepidation has gone and it is obvious they have all improved greatly. Tomorrow we aim to go to a river bed and start some exercises to improve off road confidence in the same way.

As well as IAM RoadSmart celebrating ‘Women in action’ this month, it is also the Gurkha Welfare Trust’s 50th anniversary so there is a lot to celebrate. A fitting week for the first course of its type in Nepal.

Nepal 2019, Uncategorized

A Year On…

We are on our way again! We are due out in 2020 with a follow-up to our initial trip last year. For those who did not read about it – or as a reminder for those that have – last year’s blog is on the ‘Nepal 2018’ page. You can find the link in the green bar at the top of this page.

This year we were additionally asked if we could train some more welfare assistants for the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Only this time they are women.

The Gurkha Welfare Trust is a charity that takes care of retired Gurkhas and their families who often live in outlying parts of Nepal where there are no services to speak of. In the past Donkeys were used, but in more recent times the use of motorcycles has increased. They use the same Donkey paths and river / stream beds for which there is no training available in Nepal. In fact there is no real formal motorcycle training in Nepal at all. The most highly trained riders are the people we trained last year who are busy carrying out their own care missions. Monsoon season is on its way and when that happens the motorcycles get put away. Not because the riders don’t like getting wet, but all that water has to go somewhere, and stream beds get buried very quickly under a lot of fast moving water.

Neither Pete Doherty nor I really recall seeing many women riders, or even many women welfare assistants within the places we stayed, though we were focused on the task in hand so weren’t particularly looking out for them. But they do exist.

This trip has two aims; to help a group of women riders gain extra general motorcycling confidence and off road skills and a group of young gents who need a bit of all-round improvement in motorcycling. They will not be training others so that side needn’t be covered this year. That means the two groups should be done in 11 days. 6 days for the women and 5 days for the men. The extra day for the ladies is to be a ‘long run’ off road by way of consolidation. This will not be necessary for the men.

The focus on this trip is the women. If they need an extra day then they get it, at the expense of the male group. The two groups are to be trained separately, perhaps a little more on this later.

For now though, it’s last-minute prep before setting off to Heathrow. Pete is going to start packing soon…

So please bookmark / follow this site and I will try and update it as we go. All comments welcome!

Nepal 2018

Back to Kathmandu

Our time in Pokhara is over, it’s time to return to Kathmandu to finish off. Or Dustmandu as I have heard it called. This was to have been a motorcycle ride, but some of the guys are still needed here so we are sent by domestic flight. As you will have seen in the news recently, it is not particularly unusual for aircraft accidents in Nepal, and no Nepali airline has a CAA licence to fly into Europe. This could be interesting.

We go through security without any hassle and sit in the departure lounge. There is a small shop selling books, trinkets and cold drinks; it’s a hot day so we have a couple each. The flights are delayed by an hour or so. It’s a busy airport with a variety of aircraft taking off and landing regularly. We watch as planes taxi, propellers spinning madly, between queues of people waiting to board. The ground crew are just as blasé with their own safety as they duck under the spinning blades to reach their destination.

Eventually we are called to board the aircraft and it’s full. All 27 seats are taken. It’s a bit like a small 1950’s coach with wings. We are greeted at the top of the steps by the flight attendant, who greets everyone with a smile and a ‘Namaste’. We find our allocated seats. They are in rows of three; two on the right of the aircraft and one on the left. We had been advised to sit on the left to get a view of the Annapurna mountain range but we are seated on the right. With the low cloud today, though, they weren’t visible anyway. So long as the pilot knows where they are…

The safety briefing consists of ‘Please read the card in the seat pocket’. I’m ok, I’m sat by the emergency door so I make sure I know how to work it. I’ll have to be quick if it happens ‘cos Pete is behind me!

At take off the engines scream and it seems an age before the bus gets airborne, struggling with the weight. There is a trekking party with us and their bags seemed a lot heavier than the allotted 20kg. Mind, at least they don’t weigh the passengers otherwise Pete and I would have definitely been ‘Excess’.

The flight is scheduled for 35 minutes and the attendant is busy; first we get a boiled sweet. Then she’s back with a small packet of peanuts. Then it’s a soft drink before returning to collect the rubbish. All complements of the airline.

She then makes an announcement over the tannoy. She struggles to make herself heard over the engines but we get the message; landing delayed by Air Traffic Control in Kathmandu by about 15 minutes. We continue to circle; the unmistakable peak of Mt. Everest peeks above the clouds.

I start to see other planes, I imagine also circling, wondering with some morbid curiosity as to why we aren’t landing. Suddenly the plane slows. I wonder if the pilots are the same as the drivers. Have we got close to the back of another plane, looking for an over take? Do planes have horns?

We then start our descent through the cloud and into the bowl of land that is Kathmandu. The landing is a little bumpy then we are led (literally) onto the apron to disembark. A bus awaits and we sit and watch as our luggage is unceremoniously loaded into what looks like a metal rubbish bin on wheels. This is then attached to the back of our coach and we drive to the terminal building. There is a lot of construction work in the area and here is no exception. A local is angle-grinding a metal frame. As the bus doors open, a shower of sparks enters. A few of the trekkers spend a few seconds politely advising them to point the grinder the other way. They are met by a shrug of the shoulders and a shower of sparks; this time they duck.

We are met by another official and driven in an air conditioned vehicle to the welfare centre; the respite from the heat is welcome. I notice, not for the first time, the wiring on the pylons in the street; the power cuts make more sense now, but imagine finding a loose connection in that lot!

That night we go out in search of a decent WiFi signal, as the centre is having some issues (most of the wiring on the poles is internet, apparently). We find one at the top of a hotel, complete with a horizon pool, eight floors above the city mayhem. Again we are reminded at the huge gaps between opulence and abject poverty; there seems to be no middle ground here…

 

Nepal 2018

Rain, rain go away

Today was about assessing the groups training skills, for them to be able to pass on information and advice to others in the future. We only had the morning as Lt Col Steve Whitlock was coming in to do the closing address in the afternoon.

Plan A was to ride to the river bed and watch the guys working in pairs to explain and demonstrate to their colleagues the various techniques they had learned such as front and rear wheel skids, river crossing, hill ascents etc. Unfortunately the two team leaders informed us that rain was forecast so we would wait and see but in all likelihood would not be going out. Not because they don’t ride in rain, but in mountainous regions rain has a habit of turning river beds into raging torrents. The kit they have is also very basic (generally they provide their own) so getting wet would lead to getting quite cold very quickly. Improvise, adapt and overcome…

Plan B was to use the same method, but use the small car park and get them to explain and demonstrate suitable techniques; getting on and off the machine, safe starting and stopping, picking up a dropped bike etc. Then the rain hit. I have never seen such heavy rain, and I live in Northumberland. I work there, as well as Cumbria and Scotland so I know quite a bit about rain. This was an absolute torrent that just did not stop. Within seconds the guttering could not cope, car parks and lawns were flooded and the storm drains were working hard. A brief jog of about 12 feet between buildings and the rain was dripping off you, hair was soaked (in my case, scalp was wet). I have tried to photograph it but it just doesn’t do it justice. Improvise, adapt and overcome…

Plan C was to use the classroom and get them to take us through the various theory inputs required. We had designed a PowerPoint presentation for this course so we set the computer up about 3 minutes before the power cut. They are common here, especially in the rain and storms, and there are various back-ups but they can take a while to switch in and this took a while. Improvise, adapt and overcome…So it was we ended up in a dim classroom with no power (but dry) using a whiteboard and markers.

It worked well and everyone engaged with the session; they asked questions from the floor and generally did an excellent job. In the end, 9 of the 12 satisfied us and their leaders that they had sufficient understanding and depth of knowledge to be able to pass on the techniques and explain why they worked to someone who was asking challenging questions. The remaining three were to have their future development managed locally.

Lt Col Steve Whitlock then addresses the group. He was extremely pleased with his guys and it brought it home to us when he stated they are the ONLY trained motorcyclists in Nepal. No training is required before test, and there is no post-test training at all. That is something both Pete and I are extremely proud to have been part of. It really has been an honour and a pleasure…