Once upon a time, in the era 1950 to 1960, I rode my bicycles a lot. I probably rode 20,000 miles or more. Heavy old bicycles, light touring bikes, racing bikes. Track machines with a single fixed gear and no free wheel. Tandems. I knew how to handle a bicycle pretty well. But I knew nothing about motorcycles. I never even rode a motorcycle—until three days ago.
I noticed some signs when I was in Kathmandu, in April of 1996: "Motorbikes for Rent." But I did not ask about the details. This year, I decided to inquire. In Pokhara, a guy quoted me a price of 300 rupees per day. But I was just curious; I was not going to rent a motorbike there. After our successful trek, when I got back to Thamel (the tourist area of Kathmandu), I went up the main street from our hotel (the Potala Guest House) toward the top of the hill. There was a big sign, "Honda Motorbikes, 250, 125, 50 cc for Hire." I inquired. The guy had no 50 or 125 ccs, but only 250 ccs, and he said they were 1200 rupees per day. That's 20 bucks! Not cheap, and I told him so, and walked out.
Then at the top of the hill, I inquired, and they had a rate of 500 rupees for a Yamaha. I figured I could live with that price—$8 per day. The fact that I had never ridden a motorcycle before was not a concern. I could do some on-the-job training. No problem. After all, a clutch is a clutch, right? And a cycle is a cycle. I knew I could handle THOSE details. After that, I wasn't going to sweat the small stuff.
They held my passport as security—they didn't deal with credit cards. They didn't pay much attention to my driver's license, though they did look at it. Then, they helped me get the engine started. I figured out which lever was for the clutch, and which one for the brake.
NOTE: When I was a kid, the right-hand brake on a bicycle was always the front brake, and I liked that, as my right hand was stronger, and I could control the braking best with my right hand on the front brakes. More recently I have been finding that, alas, most new bicycles have the front brakes controlled by the left-hand brake lever. Why the change? I assumed that was because motorcycles have the front brakes controlled by the left-hand lever. WRONG. Motorcycles use the right hand for the front brakes. The left hand is used for the clutch. Minor surprise. (Why did bicycles change?)
Also, I immediately found that even though the signs said "Motorbike," this was a real motorcycle. The speedometer went all the way up to 120 km per hour (though I did not). Even though its engine was just 135 cc, it was a full-sized machine, and it probably weighed 250 lb. Fortunately, I'm a big, strong guy, and did not have any trouble keeping my balance.
I started down the streets of North Thamel, and the manager came along by bicycle to show me where I should buy some gas, because the fuel tank was empty. I filled it up with about $6.40 for 10 liters. Then I started north for the Ring Road.
Anybody who has never been to Kathmandu might think that its "Ring Road" is a circumferential road like Route 128 around Boston, or the Ring Road (motorway) around London, a divided highway, limited access, with two or three lanes in each direction. Not quite so. This road is about three lanes wide, TOTAL, and is usually filled with at least four lanes of traffic. Often, a truck will go to pass a bicycle, and a motorcycle will go to pass the truck, and a sedan will honk to pass as soon as he can get his passing lane. And what if the oncoming traffic consists of a bus passing a bicycle passing a water-buffalo? All in three lanes? (Not to mention an occasional wandering cow or a herd of goats.) Let's just say that the traffic on Kathmandu's Ring Road has no relationship to any traffic pattern in the USA or Europe.
However, when the Ring Road was NOT full, it was one of the widest, straightest, and smoothest roads in the whole valley. Later I got the little Yamaha into fourth gear, and wound it out to 50. Wow, that seemed really fast! Then I realized it was 50 km per hour, barely 33 mph. But that was still plenty fast for me. I never did find any roads long enough, straight enough, or empty enough for me to push it up above 45 mph.
I chose some less-travelled roads to get out to the Ring Road, and as I went, I learned how to ride that cycle. I discovered how to shift, and how to use the front and back brakes. And, how to use the horn. I never did find out how to get it surely into neutral. The procedure that seemed to work sometimes, did not work ALL the time. But, no harm.
I never did figure out how to operate my camcorder while riding. It's too bad—and it's also probably a good thing, not to try to do two complicated things at once.
My primary objective that day was to go to Nagarkot, which is a small town on a high ridge about 20 km northeast of Bhaktapur, which is 10 km southeast of Kathmandu. This place is supposed to have a good view of the mountains. I wandered southeast around the city until I hit the electric, trackless trolley lines going to Bhaktapur. Then, I went down along that road to the east. After a while I jogged off to the north, and then cut back east, to take the road toward Nagarkot. It was actually well marked by a sign in English, "Nagarkot, 20 km." The road started out fairly straight, through pleasant farmland, and then started curving up through the foothills. I had to pay a little bribe when some local guys put a rope across the road. They were raising funds to finance a local recreation center. I also had to pay a toll of 2 rupees (3 cents) to go up the road to Nagarkot. The road was not narrow, not scary, not bumpy, and not steep. It was sort of like Mt. Hamilton Road in San Jose—upgrades and curvy, with not a lot of traffic.
After a few villages, I began to get good views. But rather than stop early and take pictures, I decided to go up to the top and take pictures, then take more on the way down. There were several tourist hotels and restaurants that were advertising themselves as I came into the town of Nagarkot. I just kept going up through pastures and then forests.
Soon I was following only one other motorcycle. The road turned from good tar to dirt. He kept going. I followed. The road got a little steeper, and a little rougher, and I had to use good judgement to pick a route up the rough road. Sometimes I followed the other bike, and sometimes he let me go ahead.
I learned, as I went, how to make a motorcycle go up a fairly steep hill. I must say, even at 6 or 8 mph, that little Yamaha had pretty good guts and torque. In general, it would not quit. All I had to do was keep applying a lot of throttle and keep it steering around the worst bumps and ruts.
After about a mile, I was near the top, as it leveled off, and I could see the summit tower. I came around a corner—and there were a dozen big buses, a dozen cars, and a few dozen motorcycles, all parked. It was NOT the end of the road, but the road did start down to the south, and I did not want to go farther. I parked, and took a walk. There were many people, sightseeing and picnicking on the Saturday afternoon.
The summit area was quite brushy and wooded. I followed several small trails. At first I thought I might have sneaked through small trails to an area where a fee was required, but later I found that was not so. There was an area with a small (40-ft.) fire tower. I did not go up there, as maybe a fee or ticket was required. I took some pictures from the heliport area.
The complete facade of the Langtang peaks and a great continuous wall of peaks to the north, northeast, and east was quite glorious, (Raamro). And the great peaks in the northwest, Ganesh Himal and Manaslu also were beautiful. Even though the day had started fairly hazy down in Kathmandu, it was quite clear up there. I gazed off to the east—a GREAT wall of mountains. Later I learned that Mt. Everest is visible amidst the far eastern peaks. But it is not very high on the horizon, as it is so far away that peaks that are closer appear higher.
I took several photos with my 35- mm camera, some views with my camcorder, and finished off the last few shots on my panoramic camera. THEN, I noticed the views of the Annapurnas and of Dhaulagiri in the far west. The Annapurnas stood as spires; Dhaulagiri was like a big wall, probably 80 miles away. As I had been studying its visage from close up for a week, I recognized it instantly. (The view of Dhaulagiri was good from the top of the hill at Nagarkot, but not from down in the town.)
But now I have no question that one can see HUNDREDS of kilometers in various directions from Nagarkot. Even if you do not rent a motorcycle, you can easily hire a taxi to take you out to Nagarkot for a half day. A rate of about $50 would not be bad if split between two or three people. But for best viewing, you should plan to get there for daybreak, and the early morning viewing when the clouds are less likely to hurt your views.
Could you actually arrange to hire a taxi at 4 a.m. and get out to Nagarkot by daybreak? Maybe, maybe not. You could always ask. You might have to go out in the evening and stay overnight. There are inexpensive buses, if you are not in a hurry.
My primary reason to rent a motorbike was NOT just to duck the high price of car rental in Nepal. In Nepal, as in other Asian countries, renting a car includes the hire of a driver. Hertz or Avis will cheerfully rent you a car (with driver), at rates of perhaps $100 to $200 per day. Last year, I decided to hire a taxi from a good guy named Gobal for an all-day 200 km trip to the Tibet border at Kodari. I specifically hired this guy with his taxi because I had ridden with him, and he was careful, thoughtful, and considerate, which I cannot say of all drivers in Nepal. It was a very good trip, and $80 covered the whole day. If you want to hire a good driver, go to the Potala Guest House and ask for Gobal.
But, I was not just trying to avoid cars, drivers, or costs. I wanted to rent a motorbike for the adventure, to see what would happen. Nepal is an amazing place. Especially if you are open to opportunities as they arise.
I rode back down to Thamel. The rental place was surprised and delighted to see their machine in one piece, as they obviously expected this KLUTZ to wreck their motorcycle. I told them I wanted to rent it the next two days. On Sunday I rented it again, but I only rode a few miles, downtown to buy some glasses, and then up to Batbhateni to talk with some engineers at Lotus Energy.
On Monday, I got an early start at 6:45 a.m., to avoid the heaviest traffic. I drove far south along the Ring Road to get to the small town of Beresshi, and continued up to St. Xavier's School. Peter Owens (of the trek) had told me that one could go up a road to the hill of Pulchowki, which means, Place (Chowk) of Flowers (Pul). He did not caution me how rough the road was, only that it went up to 9,000 feet, with a great outlook over the valley.
So, up I went. The road was alternately paved and gravel, and then with loose stones. It was not really very STEEP, but it was not an easy road. Any good car with good ground clearance (even my VW Beetle) could have easily made it up, but the motorcycle had problems as it kept bouncing over the loose rocks. It was not very stable at all.
I discovered out that just trying to STEER was not very effective, as the wheels were (effectively) not on the ground. But using my feet to dab at the ground worked pretty well. All the while, I toiled up the hill, at nearly full throttle, at 5 mph. I had to stop and back down a couple times, and then restart to go up. I saw no other vehicles or people on the way up, but at the top I met a family with six children and two kids. When they tied the small goats to the Hindu shrine at the top, I pieced together why THEY were there.
I walked around the top. There was an antenna farm for radio and TV, as well as Hindu and Buddhist shrines. Again, the view of the mountains was very impressive, though not quite as clear as the previous days. But the valley was hazy, and looking over it was quite interesting. I could see across to Nagarkot where I had been two days earlier.
The descent was not easy, but I used my rear brakes A LOT, my front brakes a little, and got down OK. On the way down I saw three other motorcycles going up, and each seemed to have some struggles. I could see places with gravel torn up as they tried to get going on the steep upgrade. Note: In 13 km (40,000 ft.) the road ascends about 3000 ft—plenty steep enough. There also is a hiking trail that is much shorter and more direct, but it would have taken me ALL DAY, to hike it.
As I descended the paved road through Beresshi, I heard several noisy mills where polyester fabric was being woven. There are more than two dozen looms in little old brick buildings. I never saw any such looms in any other area of Nepal.
By this point I was very weary of sitting, and went back to my hotel. I went to Lakshminarayanan's Restaurant, and ordered a beer and some Chinese Chop Suey. (The menu said chopusy, but I knew what they meant.) Then I took a nap, three hours.
Later, I went down to New Road to pick up my new glasses, and up to Lotus Energy to pick up my modified Khukri knife and sign off some paperwork. Then I returned the motorcycle to the rental place.
When they inquired, I merely told them that I had gone up to Trisuli Bazaar. They were impressed. I mean, I didn't want them to think that I had trashed their bike. I also didn't want to explain why I took it up Pulchowki.
But when I told Peter, Jai, and Buddi that I had ridden the motorbike up Pulchowki, they were really impressed. Jai could not quite believe that I had never ridden a motorcycle before, yet had ridden up Pulchowki. But that's the truth. I have the pictures to prove it.
I wouldn't recommend this to everyone—that they learn to ride a motorcycle in Nepal. As I have ridden many thousands of miles bicycling, under every difficult condition, I had had some preparation. Because I know how to slip my clutch by foot, I could figure out how to do it by hand, too. As I knew how to navigate around Kathmandu by sight, and by memory, I did not get lost too often. That's a good thing, as there are almost no street signs in Kathmandu. In fact, most of the streets do not even have any names. So I just navigated by internal guidance. (But I also had good maps.) And, as I was a student of the traffic in Nepal, I figured out that riding smoothly and steadily, even though I could not be aware of all the traffic bearing down on me, meant I had a chance to not get run over. And I also knew enough, not to take chances.
On Sunday evening we were going over to supper at a restaurant in the Thamel area, Thamel House. Of course, this was a building without a number, on a street without a name. Jeevan said, "I could direct you to get to the right place if I ride behind you." I replied, "Maybe so, but I would NOT recommend this, as I want you to get there ALIVE." So I drove over on my own and had no trouble finding the place. The weight of another rider swaying around behind me was a new experiment I did not want to take! Not at night. Not with a guy whose life I valued.
So much for experiments. I learned a lot. I did not kill myself, nor cows, chickens, pedestrians, or bicyclists. Though I might have scared a few of each.
And now that I am back in California, am I going to take up motorcycling or buy a cycle? Absolutely not. Much too dangerous!
All for now. / Comments invited!
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer
Mail Stop D2597A
P.O. Box 58090
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090
P.S. A friend of mine suggested that people who want to take up motorcycling without killing themselves should read Motorcycling Excellence: The Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Guide to Skills, Knowledge, and Strategies for Riding Right. It costs about $25. I have just ordered a copy, ISBN 1-884313-01-9, and I am going to read it.