“SIR! SIR! What you want, Sir?” The security guard yelled over my shoulder as I strolled along. I’d just made a right-hand turn down the second lane after the Bluebird Supermarket. The directions I’d been given were to lead me to Himalayan Enfielders but, as I was now to find out, it was also the back entrance to the Israeli Embassy in Kathmandu.
The security guard gave me the once-over while I explained with motorcycle sounds and actions what I was looking for, then, with a smile, he pointed me to a gate a little further along.
The Himalayan Enfielders workshop area is without doors partly due to the tropical climate, but also because the machine gun towers around the perimeter of the Israeli Embassy would deter any unwanted snoopers.
“Good afternoon, Sir,” greets me as I tyre-kick my way around the premises. “My name is Goofy; can I help you?”
After making some general small talk about prices we settle into the office/clubhouse for a glass of milk tea. Goofy, one of the partners in the business, tells me Himalayan Enfielders began when a small group of enthusiasts opened a workshop, initially for somewhere to work on and modify their own bikes, but it has evolved into an authorised dealership for Royal Enfield motorcycles. The premises are also a meeting place for Enfield aficionados.
The Royal Enfield factory in Chennai, India, has been making these classic bikes virtually unchanged since the Poms sold the factory to them lock, stock and barrel in the 50’s.This classic, single cylinder bike, with its low-down torque and throbbing exhaust in 350 cc or 500 cc, is perfect for the winding roads around Nepal.
I explained to Goofy that I’d been in Nepal two years ago at the end of a trek around the Annapurna area. This time I was back for three weeks and I was determined to try the Royal Enfields.
“No worry. I organise for you,” he smiled.
It was an early wake-up and I had to check my bags out of the hotel. I am meeting Binod and Chandra from Himalayan Enfielders to head off for a three-day round trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara, 200 km away in the west. I’ve managed to borrow a fairly scruffy, but reliable 1978 model, 350 cc Royal Enfield.
It’s 8.30 am and everyone has turned up. The group has grown to six as word of a road trip spread about the local bike fraternity. It’s drizzling steadily—great! We head out into the busy morning traffic, stopping briefly for fuel as we head out of the Valley (legend has it that the Kathmandu Valley was once a huge lake but then one of the local gods released the water).
One of the riders stops with smoking handlebar wires. He has an electrical short circuit caused by water getting where it shouldn’t be. Wires are ripped out of the culprit horn switch block, and after a bit of re-jigging, the group is soon on the move again.
We have to stop again at an army security checkpoint to record our rego numbers. I need a bit of assistance here as the number plates are in Nepali.
It’s still raining heavily, the traffic is as thick as, there’s trucks spewing out unbelievably thick diesel fumes, and the roads are slippery and full of potholes. Chuck in the odd goat wandering across the road and personal concentration is in the red zone.
We re-group after 1 ½ hours at a teahouse at Naubise near the Darman turnoff and finally the weather clears. Wet weather gear is quickly removed as it’s fairly muggy. The Kathmandu area is quite tropical; bananas grow in a lot of local gardens.
Another stop a bit further along to pay road tax/toll (5 rps for motorbikes = 10 cents Aust). The traffic is now a lot clearer and I can practice changing gears through the corners rather than just lugging it along using the clutch to help. The Enfields have the gear change and back brake on the opposite feet to normal so it’s an acquired knack to perfect.
We stop again as Chandra has trouble with his bike. The choke mechanism on the carby has come loose. The thread is nearly stripped so he affects repairs by using some silver cigarette paper wrapping to tape the thread. Chandra is a helicopter engineer when he’s not out riding so there are a few comments thrown around about how he repairs helicopters.
As we head off I spot a distance marker to Pokhara (one of infrequent signs in English) and realise that we have only covered about 80 km but I am feeling more confident on the open road. I am starting to enjoy myself and have a bit of a look around as I’m cruising along. Then it happens.
About 100 metres away a large fully laden Tata truck coming towards me runs wide on a corner and rolls onto its side throwing bags of flour and sundry everywhere. The road in front of me disappears in a cloud of dust as I take evasive action and come to a panic stop.
The other guys pull up too. Before we are able to render assistance, local villagers swarm over the cabin and extract the three occupants who appear not too badly off, although they have lost a bit of bark from rattling around in the cabin (no seatbelts over here). One of the truckies has a good head wound and it looks pretty spooky with the blood flowing well. Co-incidentally, an ambulance taking another patient to hospital pulls up and the bleeder is bundled in the back and the ambo continues on. Apparently the truck crew were from India and the long hours on winding roads together with a drop of local firewater had been too much.
Much reflection from our group on karma/fate and what would have happened if we’d been 15 seconds earlier. The truck crew were fortunate that they didn’t go off the other side as it plummeted at least 30 meters into the Trisuli River.
The average speed riding the bikes along this part of the Prithvi Highway is about 60 km/h. The road is very windy around the side of mountains, much like the Great Ocean Road, and sometimes you have to contend with rockfalls that have blocked half the road.
At all times you are on the look-out for oncoming traffic overtaking in most inappropriate places. The main offenders are the brightly (dare I say gaily?) painted trucks and buses that use their horns as a sort of early warning radar. They pass whenever they feel like it. If you hear a horn being used around a corner it may mean that two trucks, side-by-side, are heading your way. It makes life interesting and certainly develops your horn antenna. The whole country uses this system of horns very effectively and therefore your horn is a very important feature of any vehicle. It just takes a while to comprehend the concept and frightens the daylights out of you until you realise the system.
There is another issue that also requires some thought, that is, when approaching a slow moving truck from behind, apart from the horny riding technique, the drivers are very helpful and put on their indicators when it’s safe to pass. I am still yet to differentiate the difference between this and when they are moving over to miss a pothole, but I know how a sardine feels!
A little later Binod, who is leading, has to pull up abruptly as another truck comes around the corner on the wrong side.
Once we pass through Mugling, a large town on the India route, we turn off to Pokhara and the road is a lot more traffic free, only those pesky goats to contend with. The country flattens out and the valley opens up with several large bridges to cross. We are now able to flog the bikes a bit more and are averaging about 90 km/h.
About 20 km from Pokhara the road is very low and must flood seasonally as the basically bitumen road is undulating with many repaired and un-repaired potholes. Sometimes it’s easier to ride off the road altogether. As a consequence of this, vehicles are weaving all over the road to pick the best path. It’s another high concentration zone with, yet again, the usual assortment of domestic stock wandering amongst it all. Cattle (sacred cows) have right of way over everything. One story has it that the locals drive their stock on the road in the hope that someone will run them over and have to pay exorbitant compensation.
With only 10 km to go—I know as I was right next to one of those concrete marker posts—I have a crash. The small truck in front of me pulls a dodging manoeuvre and stops, probably to avoid a goat! I am unable to stop and crash into the back of him. It’s not serious but the impact has jammed the front mudguard down onto the tyre and I have banged my left hand. However, I am still upright but stranded in the middle of the road.
This causes great consternation, not only for myself but also for the mandatory passengers in the back of the truck who immediately start a shouting extravaganza. I am not able to understand much of the hullabaloo, but their tonal inflections and body language seem to indicate some concern about my parentage. Being unsure of the local etiquette in these matters and having heard some interesting stories of past incidents, I was sure that being taken hostage and forced to marry the driver’s daughter was on the cards. In the end the crescendo dies down and the truck simply drives off without so much as a by-your-leave. A great source of relief to me I don’t mind telling you.
One of the other riders, Suskil, arrives and helps me drag my Enfield to the roadside. It is very hot and steamy in the afternoon sun and, with my heart rate increased considerably, I am sweating profusely. As it happens, a crowd develops around me, giving all sorts of incomprehensible hints. It appears only superficial damage to the bike and if I can remove the mudguard, I should be able to continue albeit with crooked handlebars. My trusted companion disappears into a nearby workshop and returns with a 5/16 BSW open-end spanner and after a few minutes the mudguard is removed.
I am getting ready to head off, with the mudguard strapped to the top of my luggage, when Chandra pulls up—he has been delayed with a flat tyre, but as luck would have it, right near a Puncha Walla (tyre repair establishment).
We soon enter Pokhara and head for the resort area of Lakeside. There are a lot of tourists here and the usual accommodation places are either booked out or have hiked up the prices. Somehow another one is soon found at a reduced rate.
I get to share a room with Rajesh who assures me he doesn’t snore. He’s curious about what I eat in Australia as he’d heard we didn’t eat much rice. A hot shower to remove the sweat and road grime, some clean clothes and an afternoon kip is the immediate plan.
At 7 pm we go for tea at the Amsterdam Bar and then afterwards to the Paradiso Bar and still later to the Busy Bee. Binod and the other guys know a lot of locals so it’s a fairly late night and the streets are deserted as we walk back to our rooms to crash.
I’m sure I dreamt most of yesterday again—I felt like I was still on the bike. A bit of a sleep-in and the tea boy knocks on the door with some hot milk tea. A great Nepali custom.
A clear blue sky and this morning we go for a short ride to Beknas Tal, another lake, not far out of Pokhara. There is a big festival and the road is lined with flowers. Many people and banners. A lot of school kids in uniform and women’s groups dressed in the same colour saris. Very colourful. There are plenty of army and security forces as the Prime Minister is also in attendance.
We settle in to a teahouse for some dahl baht and a refreshing ale for lunch and watch the crowd disperse after the ceremonies.
The road is absolutely chokkers with people as we wind our way through on the Enfields. The bikes just plod along in first gear at a little over walking pace; they must have heavy cranks as there’s not a hint of stalling. When we reach the main road there is a big traffic jam so we work our way to the front (bikers prerogative) only to find that the army has stopped everyone to keep the road clear for the PM as he heads for his helicopter at Pokhara airport.
A half hour later we are set loose and it is fairly obvious that security is very high as army personal are deployed at regular intervals along the road back into Pokhara. There are also many army trucks and the odd armoured troop carrier.
As we have been split up in the traffic jam, we re-group under a shady tree on the edge of Pokhara. After some time Chandra comes along and says we may as well go back to the hotel as Rajesh has had a minor accident with another motorbike and they have gone to the police station to sort it out.
Rajesh shows up a bit later with a broken tailight and says he has to go back to the police station tomorrow to retrieve his licence and pay a fine.
In the evening I go to a dance restaurant with Rajesh. These type of establishments are very popular—they’re a bit like the 60’s go-go scene—with girls dancing on stage to the latest Indian pop tunes. A buff steak (that’s water buffalo as cattle are sacred) for tea and a couple of rums. That’s about it for today.
It’s been raining overnight. I’m not looking forward to the trip back to Kathmandu without a front mudguard if the roads are wet. Worse than that, it now starts to rain steadily! Luckily, before we leave, blue sky appears and remains for the rest of the day.
There are now seven bikes, as Jiggy, a Yank expat and his wife, rode over yesterday. Jiggy’s a bit of a character as he’s taken on Buddism and married a local girl. He also draws cartoons for the Nepali Times.
I rig up an old rice bag to act as a mudflap to stop the mudguardless front wheel spraying water in my face.
The trip back to Kathmandu is without incident and the road is relatively traffic free. It makes for good riding through the sweeping turns chasing Binod. He is better when we come to traffic (more experience with horns and indicators) so I am often left behind playing catch-up.
The group gets quite spread out, and when we stop to re-group before entering the Kathmandu Valley we, are now only four. After some time the decision is made to move on. I find out later that there was some confusion about the rendezvous point.
There is a huge traffic holdup on the rim of the Valley, due to the army checkpoint. They need to check our rego again. But once again it’s bikes to the front of the queue and the group is soon through. This manoeuvre must have saved us at least 1 ½ hours.
A bit more of Kathmandu traffic—watch the goats—and we are soon back at the Himalayan Enfielders workshop with smiles all round and a few local beers to wash down the diesel fumes.
An interesting experience for sure, it’s certainly been a full on and fun filled three days.
Now just how far is Kathmandu from Lhasa in Tibet?
Horns are used constantly, but even though the traffic is in total chaos and vehicles cut in constantly from the side, there is absolute patience and not a sign of road rage. The horn method works itself out after a while. It’s probably the most important accessory on the bike.
Step 1. A couple of toots when approaching vehicles from behind.
Step 2. Another couple of toots for good measure, when just about to pass. This will generally be responded to by the driver with a couple of toots or a wave or both.
Step 3. Give a few more toots when passing (probably just to say “G’day” to the driver).
Step 4. Still more tooting when passing is completed, to say, “Thank you for not running me off the road.”
Step 5. General miscellaneous tooting when on the open road, maybe because it’s too quiet, or to let bicycle riders, rickshaws and various animals—have I mentioned goats?—know that you’re around.
Simple, isn’t it?
Tips for travelling by Royal Enfield motorcycle in Nepal and other handy stuff.
1. Carry your own toilet paper because most local squat toilets don’t use it; the locals prefer the left hand and bucket of water method. When you stay at cheaper hotels with western style cisterns, other backpackers have pinched it.
2. Goats are the #1 enemy of motorbikes and are prepared to wander/run/skip into your path at any time without any noticeable provocation. Substitute water buffalo for goats when in flatter rice paddy country.
3. 98 percent of the time a right-hand indicator and a couple of toots from a truck or bus means it’s safe to pass even if you can’t see around the corner. It’s the other couple of percent that keeps you on the edge.
4. Wear a bandana when riding. It keeps out most of the diesel fumes. Sometimes it’s so thick you can’t see to overtake. Remove bandana when stopped at security checkpoints and say, ”How far to Kathmandu, mate” in your best Aussie drawl. This guarantees an astonished look and a quick wave through.
5. Your horn is your greatest friend. Communicating when riding is not possible without one. Some bikes have two, one presumably as a backup.
6. Khukri Rum tastes the same as Bundy Rum and is very cheap.
7. A couple of BSW spanners—it’s a Royal Enfield, old chap—and a multi-tool covers most emergency repairs. Roadside establishments seem to be able to supply various sizes of hitting devices.
8. The first day of riding is the worst. After that the traffic is still the same but you start to get the gist of horns, indicators, hand signals, traffic and pedestrian flow.
9. Verandas and doorways of roadside teahouses are low. About forehead height actually!
10. When eating with locals use your right hand only (refer to cultural point 1).
11. Changing gears. The gear change and rear brake levers are reversed from normal. The gearbox has 1st on top, neutral, then 2nd, 3rd and 4th or 5th if you have a late model jobbie. (ii) There is another lever so that if you get lost with the gears you give it a kick with your heel and the gearbox goes into neutral. This is very handy as you can’t kickstart in gear.
12. Cows get right of way at all times, even if just standing in the middle of the road chewing their cud.
13. Top speed, I’m told, is about 115 km/h; my speedo didn’t work. In top gear and flat out the vibrations would make my headlight rim rotate so that sounds about right.
14. Enfield’s (mine was a 1978, 350 cc model) get about 20 km/litre and petrol is 53 rps (about $1.10) a litre. There is only one type of petrol at the bowser; it’s called ‘petrol’ The other is diesel—don’t get ’em mixed up.
words & pics by Stuart Mclean