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…

 

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…

 

Judgement Day

The guys have now had a full, intensive, course of instruction. They were experienced motorcyclists in their own right, but in reality that was just machine handling skills. Road safety and having a few options of different techniques available were both new areas. Are they safer than they were when we started? Oh yes, without a shadow of a doubt.

We split into two groups for us to observe them riding, Pete and I starting at the rear and working our way to the front and then dropping back, and re-starting the procedure. This works well, and when we overtake the individuals, they no longer think it’s an invitation to race!

The roads are varied; some mud, some gravel, some metalled (in places, at least). But they are all poor. Overall they are much more aware of what’s around them due to improved observation skills. They check for safety before moving and look ahead at overtakes rather than just winging it. A great improvement. They realise now that they may be overtaken more but they will then very soon re-overtake that vehicle and more. It’s a fable we all know but in Nepal it’s a Turtle and a Hare.

They are actually riding at a slower,more regulated, pace now. Some have picked up ‘The System’ quite quickly, others are a little weak still, but just about getting there. It’s a treat watching them being overtaken by a manic scooter-riding local on the tarmac who then slows down for the dirt road and our guys just stand up, look up and accelerate straight past. The message has really got through. Some even leave the tarmac and ride on the dirt to the side. There is often more grip here than on the dusty tarmac so they’re really thinking about their riding now.

Tea is had at a roadside café. Very hot and sweet, lovely. The only problem is my height. At over 6 foot it is considerably in excess of the average Nepali. I have been repeatedly reminding myself of this every time I step out of the shower as the door frame is lower than I expect. Some of the public toilets are surrounded by stalls. I can just stand there and watch the world go by…feels quite awkward actually.

This tea stop is no exception, there is a corrugated metal roof over the seating area. There’s no point having a roof too high, why have one 20 feet up? It just needs to be high enough, which it is for the expected customers. Luckily it has a gutter on it so I walk into that rather than the edge of the sheeting. Unluckily, that gutter is metal so it still flippin’ hurt. Makes quite a noise, too. So I quietly sat and nursed my head.

“Time to go” said Pete

“Clang”! said the gutter…

We then continued to ride to lunch which was at a beautiful location; the Peace Zone Restaurant at Balewa.

This is at a junction of two rivers; the Modi and the Kali Gandaki. It is a particularly Holy location so there are many bridges, all the same as the one from yesterday. Some were the same 20 feet above the river bed, the one we crossed was, at a guess, 500 feet or more, with the same see-through bottom. And bikes, of course.

Heights don’t bother me at all and the views from there were stunning, I have attached some pictures.

The restaurant itself is quite a lavish affair with a variety of zoo themed tables and chairs to sit at, only instead of corrugated metal they are made of Bamboo. They go “Thud”! and still hurt.

We then rode back down the hill to a place called Sarangkot, famous for paragliders and an excellent spot to see the sunrise from. We had another tea stop there which, due to the lack of shelters to sit under, was pain free for me!

We completed our ride home and all twelve students had certainly improved enough to pass the course. Tomorrow we will be looking at them delivering training to each other with a view to them cascading these new techniques to the remaining riders.

Off Road at Last

Today was to be the first full day of off-road training. We awoke to clear skies for the first time and had a clear view of a snow-capped mountain called Machapuchare, which in Nepali means ‘fish tail’. This name is given to several mountains around the world. That configuration of peaks cannot be seen from our location, but it was impressive nonetheless. I have attached some photographs of the day with very light editing , I hope to further improve with photoshop or lightroom on my return. All feedback gratefully received.

It was about a 40km ride to get to the ‘training ground’ but we had agreed that if we saw somewhere suitable to practice some techniques, then we would stop and do the exercises.

We were riding through town to start with and whilst most of the guys had started to lift their vision slightly, others hadn’t. Checking mirrors in Nepal means making sure they’re tight enough for the kid sitting on your knee to hold on to. The most we’ve seen is four-up on a scooter with a large Labrador sprawled across the foot plate. Seemed happy enough, though…

We left the town and were soon riding on gravel tracks. Traffic was light and we wound through a few paddy fields. Now those wheelbarrows towing a trailer made sense…this was their natural habitat, working in water about 18 inches deep. That’s one mystery solved, then.

We came across a dip in the road when the gravel was replaced by mud before climbing again. Only 12 feet or so, but in the bottom of the dip it was thick mud. There was a bus stuck at the bottom. We had no choice but to watch. The driver unsuccessfully tried to climb up the bank. He then unloaded some passengers and reversed back towards us to try again. This time he set off at a fair old rate to build some momentum. He almost came to a stop again but managed to keep it moving. Success! We had already explained to the guys that the ‘usual’ route may not be the safest and to look for a safer alternative route. We went around the pool of mud and up the bank.

We were now on a river bed. In monsoon season the river here is 6 or 7 feet deep and is impassible, but at his time of year it meanders through the river bed, no more than a foot deep in places. An ideal ground for training. We stopped there a while and practised techniques for river crossings, hill ascent and hill descent, getting all the students to practice repeatedly. Eventually, we set off through some more paddy fields on gravel tracks, just me and Pete stood up on the pegs, the rest sat down, as they always had done.

I was about fourth from the back when I saw the lead guy turn left towards a bridge. Now, I say bridge and you’re probably thinking of a rickety wooden thing. Well, it wasn’t. It was a very well-constructed bridge. A steel wire suspension bridge. About 2 feet wide. At the top of a 20 foot high 45 degree slope. Constructed of gravel. The last 5 feet was steps, with a 10 inch wide concrete slope in the middle of it. The first two guys got up well enough, number 3 had a lot of problems. Focused by a 20 foot drop into a dry river bed. Luckily the low fencing caught him and his mates pulled him back. We then explained about the necessity to arrive at the mission in a fit state to do their job. Was crossing the bridge a necessity? No; at this time of year the river itself is easy to cross with far less risk. We gave them the option to go by bridge or river. They mostly chose river. Discretion is the better part of valour, and valour is the better part of courage. So Pete and I courageously took the easier river crossing.

This was a penny drop moment for the guys. They all want to show us what they can do but when I explained to them that, had we chosen to cross the bridge and got injured, the course would end. Had they crossed the bridge on their own, they could have died. Their mission would be lost and someone else would have to replace them.

In a country that has no formal training, choices like this can have a massive impact. We could have crossed the bridge, but what would that have proved? They learnt more from us not doing it. Much like IAM observing, particularly overtaking.

After that the roads changed suddenly, and we were glad we had taken the time to introduce simple lessons at the river bed, because it got damned complex, damned quick!

The road we were on traversed a hill (in the UK it would be a mountain. A proper one. Snowdon would be scared of it) called Kahun. The vertical ascent was only about 600m. But it was mostly ‘up’. Seriously ‘up’. Nepal does not do ‘flat’ in any form. This was serious stuff but the guys took on what they had learned at the river bed and reached the top in only an hour or so, but in better shape than usual. No-one fell off (seriously, seriously) though they were pushing themselves to try new things and were working quite hard. Such is the nature of learning.

There were some points raised, such as don’t stop side by side on an incline when some huge English bloke is barrelling up behind you. Two elbows, two Nepali shouts of ‘WTF was that’ and a demonstration of bagatelle soon had them checking mirrors and not stopping on slopes but waiting on the flat bits. But it was an absolutely awesome ride, fantastic scenery and an experience I would have paid for (but don’t tell my boss)! I reckon less than three Europeans have experienced this, and we’re two of them.

We stopped at a village on the way. Terraced paddy fields and potato / corn plantations were all around and it re-iterated the hard lives that the Nepali have. But their pride, honour and friendliness are beyond redoubt. If they have nothing, but they see you need it, they will give it. They have a huge reputation for loyalty and fierceness and you can see it at every level.

The internet is full of stuff about Nepal, some of it is even true. The water is one of those things. I was absolutely gagging for a drink but when the glasses (metal ones, which are quite common here. Might buy some for the missus as they drop quite well when one is washing up) were brought out the water was a brown colour, the clear stuff can give you problems from the tap, so there was no way I was drinking this! I politely declined then I heard the proprietor offer it to the next bloke and say ‘Tea’? I would have beaten Linford Christie to that tray. Nepali tea is very nice. A light hint of spice, sometimes black, sometimes with milk and usually with sugar. It hit the spot a treat so we kicked back and enjoyed the awesome view before continuing.

Bearing in mind we were on trail bikes, I was surprised to see road bikes parked up in dwellings. I guessed they must have come up the other side of the mountain as it was probably a better road. Nope, exactly the same. Incredible skill to get a road bike up here, on road tyres, over roads made from tarmac (some of it even in continuous runs), gravel, rocks, mud, leaves and bark. Or any combination thereof.

We passed several farms, but at one of them the road (I use the term loosely) was below the farm. I saw / sensed a movement in the hedge to my left. When I looked there was an airborne dog at head-height. It must have seen us coming, got into hunter mode and aimed for the biggest in the herd which was me by a huge margin (unfortunately Pete was with the other squad). I have had my rabies injections but didn’t really want to risk it so I just accelerated away. This bugger could run though. Fast. For a long time. Luckily it got bored and dropped off. Still think there is teeth marks in my boots though…

We had lunch at a café at the top of the mountain. Again, sweet black Nepali tea hit the spot. Must take some home. There was a haze in the air but the view was awesome. Bright red rhododendron were blooming everywhere and eagles where gliding all around. Until I got my camera out then they buggered off sharpish!

On the ride back down, all of the guys were trying to put the morning’s exercises into practice and were showing good signs of improvements. Using the ‘new’ techniques they were no quicker, but were a lot safer. It was a good day for them, and an awesome one for me that I would love to repeat. There is no off-road experience in the UK that can come close to this environment and no-one over in Nepal that can deliver the training. I see an opening here…any volunteers? Join the back of the queue!

 

Gentlemen, start your engines

Today there was a session presented by one of the GWT mechanics. It involved repair and maintenance techniques that could be used in the field. Wheel removal to repair a punctured tube; cleaning the brake shoes / pads; draining water from an engine that has submerged; cleaning spark plugs etc. It was all well received and everyone got involved. The toolkit was impressive. Like in the UK, once qualified, mechanics have to buy their own tools. Only here, they are expected to get them made locally. I have attached a picture of his tool roll. Some TATA spanners, an adjustable spanner, three tyre levers made from re-bar, some sandpaper and a hacksaw blade. This blade serves many purposes. Cutting, roughing the inner tube before repairing, gapping the spark plug…very innovative. Expect an expensive main-dealer branded one out as soon as they catch on!

The tyre levers proved problematic though. They were the right length to slip under the brake disc to maintain pressure. Until they slipped. Which they did; twice. Both times the mechanic caught himself a smack in the shins. Judging from the strained wince on his face, it certainly did sting! Third time, he kept a foot on them. Learning has taken place.

The Trust’s Field Director, Lt Col Steve Whitlock, took time out from his busy schedule to come to Pokhara and visit the group. A keen motorcyclist himself he is passionate about the safety and welfare of his staff, hence he put a call in to IAM Roadsmart and the rest, as they say…

We had asked for a flat (ish) area to practice front and rear wheel skids. Surprisingly, the local football pitch was chosen. It was rough ground, to say the least. Some fair old boulders were laying around and I certainly wouldn’t fancy playing on it. We had been concerned about chewing it up with the skidding exercises but we were assured it wouldn’t be a problem. I actually think the damage we did levelled it slightly so it all worked out ok. we drew a massive crowd once word spread but the rain soon had everyone back indoors. The monsoon season is approaching and the weather is starting to turn.

We had discussed the use of brakes on motorcycles and the opinion of our guys was that the rear brake was the best brake; they didn’t use the front brake as it could cause a crash. We had seen plenty of front brake use on the ride yesterday, usually in panic situations, luckily everyone stayed on.

This is not an unusual view in the UK, especially amongst newly qualified riders, so the task is the same; to get them to understand that the front brake is the most efficient and needs to be applied smoothly and progressively. So we decided to spend a good deal of time on the braking exercises.

The rear wheel skid was no problem in the end and they were grinning like maniacs in no time at all. The front wheel skidding exercise was met with some trepidation though. It did take a while for some, but they all got there.

They are all very willing to learn and lap up input. There is no real formal training program for motorcyclists in Nepal. You can attend a ‘school’ who will teach you to pass the test. That test is a figure of eight then ride uphill, stop and do a hill start, turn round at the top and ride back down again. The test takes about 3 minutes. Or, you can go to a market and buy a licence. There is a Highway Code type book, but it is never tested, or read I suspect. They just follow the example set by their peers. There are many penny drop moments today. Mounting and dismounting, picking up a motorcycle not to mention the braking exercises. Everyone has worked hard today and we are both very pleased at the progress they have made. A couple of weak guys but there is time yet. A good start to the week…

Kathmandu to Pokhara

We met early in the morning for a bit of a chat about riding in a group, then set off on the journey to Pokhara, about 200km.

Having had the time to reflect on yesterdays’ ride we decided it wasn’t really that much different to riding in Central London on blue lights; hang back, position early and steady away. We split into two groups of seven and left about 15 minutes apart.

The ride through Kathmandu was similar to yesterdays’, but less manic. One or two hazards you don’t see too often in the UK such as cows wandering around the road and laying down wherever they feel. As they are sacred everyone just ignores them and drives around them. I don’t think any horns are sounded; the cows have bigger ones, anyway.

A few monkeys lurking in the cabling above the streets. I should imagine the onset of rain could be a worrying time…

The thing that struck us most was the dust. It’s absolutely everywhere and coupled with the pollution in Kathmandu from old, un-serviced vehicles the back of my throat and eyes were stinging quite early on. Almost everyone wears a mask and I could see why. The dust is caused mainly by the extensive work on expanding the road network, but whilst roads are ripped up fairly quickly, no-one seems keen to re-build them quite so fast. Most roads are heavily potholed (they make Aberdeenshire ones look pristine). Many of the smaller roads are just dirt tracks, as are some of the main ones.

Within seconds of leaving the tranquil surroundings of our base we are back in the madness of the city traffic. We attract a lot of attention with the high-viz vests we had got the guys to wear; we saw no other rider wearing one. Plenty saw us though, and they reacted to us a little earlier…may be on to something here!

That said, it didn’t stop people overtaking and breaking into our formation. Even bus drivers would pull alongside us then just pull back in amidst the group. They couldn’t go anywhere but the mission here seems to be to overtake whatever vehicle is in front of you. A few hundred yards later we had all overtaken the bus again. If we didn’t immediately overtake the next vehicle, then it would repeat the earlier performance (with the usual horn note as well).

The range of vehicle types here is huge and one of the more unusual ones is a bit like a rotary cultivator with a single wheel, mounted in a wooden wheelbarrow-like chassis. Behind this is mounted a wooden trailer; the driver sits on the trailer and steers his chariot by turning the wheelbarrow. A bit like Tom Good in ‘The Good Life’. No brakes are fitted, though they do have a horn…

We wound our way through some very small streets with quite steep inclines and it dawned on us just how much this training could help. This is the city centre and some of the roads were unmade and about 1 in 3 or worse, so further away in the countryside how bad would things be?

As we left the capital the dust reduced, a little, but the heat built up. On the occasional stretches of good road, we kept up a speed of about 70kph (40mph) and this seemed to be the average speed most people seemed comfortable at.

This road is an important one in Nepal and is very busy; we were constantly overtaking, being overtaken or queueing whilst two vehicle who had met head on (whilst overtaking) sorted themselves out. Communication was by the usual method; horn.

The poverty level here is incredible; it is a whole other conversation but the level is so amazing that I had to mention it. It really does beggar belief.

A couple of things that were immediately apparent were that nobody lifted vision any further than about a coach length. They also follow extremely close; about 3 or 4 feet was the norm. By sitting a little further back and positioning out slightly both Pete and I watched our charges struggle to overtake a vehicle to then be trapped between it and the one ahead. Also being close to it, they had no vision to see when or if it was safe to pull out for a look. By being further back we had the vision to position earlier and confirm before overtaking both vehicles and our ducklings trapped in-between.

After a couple of hours we stopped for a much needed drink then set off once more. At one point we approached a crossing with a man waiting patiently in the middle as cars passed him by. He had his arms straight above his head. As I got closer I realised he was carrying some corrugated plastic roofing sheets and was holding them above his head so the cars could pass beneath him, which they were doing quite successfully. However, him being Nepali (so relatively short) and me being tall and on a trail bike was leading to a rather unpleasant situation. Luckily he saw the impending problem and tilted my end of the sheets up slightly as I went beneath them almost prone on the tank. Sometimes you just have to laugh…I hope there were no taller vehicles approaching.

We stopped at a road side café for lunch. One of the senior staff new the owners so we all sat down to a ‘Thali’, the traditional dish of Nepal. Rice, curried vegetables, some curried chicken, raw vegetables, dried onions and some dried fish. It is served with a thin dahl, like a soup, that is poured over the rice. Not as spicy as Indian food but quite flavoursome.

After lunch we set off once more. There was to have been an afternoon stop but the front couple of riders overshot so we continued on. Fatigue was setting in now, and the group was starting to get strung out. Then the road ended. Just stopped. Ahead was a cloud of dust. I realised this was part of the road under construction. The tarmac stopped and we were riding on the unmade aggregate laid as a base. In the middle of the road was a long line of piles of finer aggregate waiting to be laid prior to the Tarmac. The dust was awful; visibility was so low I couldn’t see enough to overtake the bus ahead as it bumped its way slowly over the poor surface. This went on for over a mile before the tarmac resumed and the dust cleared. A short while later we thankfully arrived at our destination. Again a very short drive from the main road and a small oasis of calm.