Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Day 280 - Dhaka

Well I am back in Dhaka and leave for Myanmar tomorrow.

The plan was to get to Khulna as early as possible to book the Rocket, or at least carry on cycling to Bagerhat. I got to the office at 12:30, but there was nobody there to issue a ticket, only somebody who kept telling me to sit down and I kept telling him I didn't want to. Then he told me his boss wouldn't be able to issue a ticket until 19:00. Oh well, it looks as though I wouldn't reach Bagerhat. I returned at 19:00 to be told to sit down again, but I felt even less inclined to as the mosies were after my ankles in a big way. By 19:30 boss man still hadn't turned up and Mr Sitdown couldn't find him, but assured me he would be there as 10am tomorrow, so my ankles were glad to leave, even without a ticket.

At 9:45 the following day I was back at the office and Boss man was already there, but the bad new was that the Rocket didn't leave until 3am on 27th, to arrive in Dhaka 6am 28th, 6 hours before my flight. I was also told it might be delayed due to fog and I guessed transport in Bangladesh is hit and miss at the best of times, so I decided it was best not to risk it. So it was back to the hotel, pack and get on the road again, somewhat behind schedule. I made it another short day stopping off and looking at the decaying mosques and monuments at Bagerhat before finishing the day at Perojpur. Bagerhat and Perojpur took the brunt on the cyclone in November, but other than the fact that there were more trees down than elsewhere, there was little evidence that anything had happened. There were still a few wrecked dwellings, but I guessed they belonged to people that didn't survive, so there was no rush to rebuild. Those I spoke to said that the people of the area are used to disasters as cyclones and flooding accur every year and there makeshift homes of bamboo and corrugated iron can be rebuilt very quickly. I bought a new belt on Perojpur, feeling very pleased with myself as it meant I could continue wearing my trousers that are now way too big for me. My current belt is useless, it just hangs there and I only wear for somewhere to keep the camera. To keep my trousers up I have to keep my hands in my pockets. I didn't feel so pleased with myself after I had broken it twice before I had even worn it. I threw it in the bin.

Yesterday threatened to be a long day as the road on the map looked very basic. After 4km there was a ferry crossing which I had to wait 15 minutes for. I made best of the time by having a quick breakfast. I got talking to somebody who was on a bus and heading for Barisal where I needed to pass through. That was good news as if buses were using the roads, they must be reasonable. I made it to Barisal in good time and decided to stop for some more food. Needless to say a small crowd soon gathered with the head questioner sitting opposite me. After a few minutes he left and within seconds his place had been taken and I was asked the same questions again. A few minutes later he left too and the same thing happened, somebody sat down and asked exactly the same questions again. I felt like saying `if you are so interested in me why didn't you listen to the questions and answers rather than just staring at me?` My patience was wearing thin, especially when he tried to stir my tea for me whilst I was trying to drink it. Being asked the same questions does get a bit tiresome, but my favourite, and one I never get tired of is `Are you one person?` Of course it is not always exactly the same question, the other day in a hotel I was asked `Are you two or three persons?`, `No, no` I said, `I am only one person, it's just that I need a new pair of trousers.` I reached Maradipur 7km back from the road. On asking about hotel I was told of the Circuit House, a government run chain that are usually very good, but it took an age to find, again no signs in English, but when I asked for a room he said I need the Deputy Commissioner's permission and waved in the general direction of where I had come in from. I decided I had no chance of finding him so went in search of another hotel and found 2 next to each other. At the 2nd I was told it was 80 Taka, but another man immediately raised it to 200, but having seen the soom took great pleasure in telling him it wasn't worth anywhere near 200 and went to the hotel next door instead.

Today was another dash for a ferry, needless to say after cycling hard for 62k, it left just as I arrived. I reckon if I hadn't have stopped for a pee with 6k to go I would have been on it. Thankfully I didn't have to wait long for the next one. It was a pretty small ferry with 4 buses, 3 lorries and 4 cars and nowhere for anybody to go on the 2 hour river crossing. I made the most of my foriegn cyclist's charm and managed to get a seat on the bridge, shaded, high up and with good views of all around. Once off the ferry it was a pretty easy run into Dhaka, I didn't even get lost and went straight to the hotel I stayed in before. I have some left luggage to pick up which I had trouble explaining to the guy on reception, I think it will be a real challenge to get it back.

So as I said at the start, I leave Bangladesh tomorrow. I wasn't that enthusiastic about coming here, but I have had a great time, the people are nice, there is a relaxed feel about the place, the food is good, the weather has been kind to me, I couldn't ask for any more. But I feel sorry for the people here, they have a tough life and work very hard, but they have little support from the government, who in honesty probably don't have the resources, and added to that they bare the brunt of natural forces too.

David and Lyndsey have asked a host of questions, so here are few answers.

(1) Are you going to write a book about your experiences?

Yes, I would love to, but in reality even if I did it would be unlikely to be published, I don't think my writing would be up to it.

(2) When you finally get to Australia, will you decide to keep going all around the world?

You are not supposed to ask that question! (Yet)

(3) Apart from friends & family what do you miss? (If anything!)

A washing machine and cheese sandwiches made with Tesco's crappy, cheap, floppy, rubbery cheese.

(4) Are you fed up of eating rice yet?

I get fed up with rice very quickly, even at home, but it is such a good food for cycling that I still actively look for it. In Bangladesh I just make sure I follow it up with their wonderful sweets.

(5)Favourite place/country visited so far?(you will get asked this question a lot when you get home, so good preparation!)

Tough one, there haven't been many places/countries that I haven't liked. Vienna was a great place but Bulgaria was the nice surprise for me. I didn't expect to like it but thought it was great and would have like to stopped there longer.

(6)Would you like to live in any of the countries you have visited?

No, I would miss my family and friends too much, not to mention Teso's crappy cheese.

(7) How many punctures have you had so far?

Tut, tut, you don't read all of the blog as this was mentioned a little while back, but I would guess it's about 15 due to failure of meterials, ie rim tape and innertubes. Since I relaced everything I have had one puncture in about the last 6,000km.

(8)Will Norwich make the play-offs?

No, but I keep hoping!

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Day 276 - Jessore

I have taken on celebrity status here in Bangladesh, and I am not sure that it is always welcome.

Having left Srimongal I turned and started to head west right the way across the country, leaving the main roads behind. Once off the main roads navigation becomes a real challenge. There are a number of reasons for this, there are no signposts, no place name signs as you enter a village, no kilometre stones, nobody who speaks English, me who speaks no Bangla. My only aids are the maps I have, one in a book, the other a proper map, but they are both inacurate in different way. I found my way to Habiganj which was in the book, but not on the map, then it was a simple 15k westish to Baniyachung, except after 15k there was nothing but emptiness. I carried on heading slightly more south than I had expected but eventually arrived, except it wasn't Baniyachung, it was Hobiganj. I asked the way, discovering I had to go 20k north. Great, I now had 5k more to go than when I was at Habiganj, 25k ago, if you get my drift. At last I arrived and asked around for a hotel. I was taken to one and soon had a large crowd around me. Small hotels here only have signs in Bangla so it just a case of asking around. The hotel I had been shown to was the only one in town, a real dive, but I had no choice. Having brought all my kit up to the room it was time for a shower and once again I had to physically push people out of the room so that I could get changed. Once back in the room I could still hear the gaggle of people outside the door. Every now and then they would knock, then when I opened the door they would try to come in saying 'look, look', and I had to push them out again, clearly I am fascinating to them. I went out and managed to get away from them as I walked around the market and the mosque. When I stopped in a cafe to drink tea another crowd soon formed, some inside, some looking through the windows (photo). It was best to keep on the move, so I went for another walk but was soon picked up by the English speaking Government worker called Abdlqart and I became his prize pocession. After he had shown me around the village and taken me to a world heritage lake, it was just an ordinary lake but I made the right noises, he took me to the Press Club, a room where men just sit around and read the newspapers. I escaped to have dinner so we said farewell, but 5 minutes later he was there again, this time with a journalist who wanted to take me somewhere for an interview and photos. I said he could write what he liked about me but I was going nowhere, I had had enough attention for one day. In the end I went around the corner to a photo studio for a couple of photos, then retreated to my room. 5 minutes later there was a knock at the door, Abdlqart was there again, this time he had brought his nephew for a look, but I told him enough was enough. Further interuptions came from other people, roughly every 10 minutes, until I got annoyed with them, then they got the message.

7am the following morning Abdlqart was again at my room door, no peace for the wicked. I was away by 7:45, it is much more peaceful on the road. The days destination was Mymensingh, I didn't get there, I knew within 30 minutes I wouldn't as the narrow single tracked road turned to sand. Bridges had gone missing, which meant I had to keep skirting around watery bits to get across the narrowest bit. There was no traffic, surprise surprise, but I did meet a flock of ducks being herded the other way. The narrow sand track turned into just a couple of tyre marks across the grass, but I asked everybody I saw the direction to the next village and they confirmed I was heading in the right direction. It was great riding though, but so slow that I regretted leaving my tent in Dhaka. At last I arrived at Ajmirghat where I stopped for a bite to eat. Once in the cafe I was mobbed again and as I left I was greeted by a mass of about 100 people around my bike. I stopped on the step amd said `Wow!`, 100 voice laughing and saying `Wow` in return. The weather was looking threatening. I couldn't find the right way out of the village, but the wind was picking up and it started to rain so I went back and was offered refuge in a small book shop, where at least I had a few feet between me and the mob. Here I met a guy who could speak English. He told me that my road to Mymensingh didn't exist and there was no way of getting there, but he gave me precise directions on how to get to Kishorganj, so once the rain had stopped I decided to follow his advice. The first part was a river crossing by a little ferry, big enough for my bike and 3 people. Once across that it was back on sand tracks, over various rickety bamboo bridges (photo), then onto what were no more than footpaths to the next villages. Once through there I was surprised to find a concrete road leading to Itna where I got another ferry, this time 14km downstream on a 2 hour ride. Cabin class was a bit cramped as when it started to rain, we had to crawl inside rather than sit on the roof. The heavens opened as a thunderstorm set in, but it eased once I was back on dry land at Chamraghat. It didn't last long so I dived into a cafe as the next storm passed over. I set off again thankful to be on tarmac, wet sand would have been a nightmare. A few kilometres further along the narrow road was blocked. There was a muddy section of roadworks, the soil being made up of clay, being claggy and slippery so nothing could get through unless it had legs to assist it. I had to push the bike through, within minutes the back brakes disappearing in the sticky mud and soon after the back wheel stopping altogether. Once I was out of the roadworks I had to extract the mud from the brakes and mudgaurds with my hands. Thankfully I reached Kishoganj before the next storm started. There was a decent hotel there, but they wouldn't let me stay. I found a guy in the developing crowd that could speak a little English and once he had shown my passport to the receptionist and explained that the visa was in order I was allowed to stay. They were then very helpful, even cleaning my sandals of the claggy mud I had brought with me. The English speaking guy was an English teacher on a 3 day course so I was joined by him and 3 others for dinner. Earlier I had sat on my glasses and broken them during a power cut, so they took me to an optician and got them repaired.

The last few days have been on tarmac and pretty uneventful, until I arrived at a long bridge. They wouldn't let me cycle over it, I don't know why there were only the occasional buses crossing. I had to go to the office where I was questioned. `Why do you want to cross the bridge?` I know I shouldn't have said it but I just couldn't stop myself, so I said `to get to the other side`. `Why do you want to get to the other side?`, `I am going to Pabna`, `Why are you going to Pabna?`. I explained I was a cyclist and touring Bangladesh. `Ah, you are a tourist. Show me your papers`, `What papers? I don't have any, I have a passport`, `A passport is no good, I need papers that prove you are a tourist`, `I have a tourist visa how about that`, `That is no good, how about ID`, `I have no ID, I have a driving license`, `No I need ID, how can I be sure you are a tourist?`, `Well I am sat here in cycling gear and outside is my bike, fully laden with touring gear`, `But that doesn't prove you are a tourist`. I pointed out that whilst we sat here buses carry lots of people were crossing the bridge, why were they not being questioned? I eventually gave him my passport and showed him the visa that states tourist, then his mood changed and tea was brought and we chatted away for the next hour while I waited for a vehicle to arrive to take me over the bridge. The same thing happened yesterday at another bridge, but this time without the questioning.

Today has been mundain, an easy ride from Kushtia to Jessore, but my time in Bangladesh has been really good. It has been your constant enthusiasm for Bangladesh Mr Barlow, that has made me want to visit here, to experience for myself the things you have told me about the place. I have to admit I was a bit reluctant to come here after India, I thought it would be more of the same but worse. I would say they are very much poorer than the Indians, but they conduct themselves with dignity and are far cleaner, harder working and genuine people. It has been good fun, despite the fact that as such the sights here are hardly worth the effort, but the culture and the people, the way of life here have made it excellent. I also expected the roads to be clogged with traffic and polution, but they aren't as most traffic is the thousands of rickshaws that are everywhere and badly driven buses. If bus drivers drove like that at home, every one of them would be banned for dangerous driving. I am really glad to have come here, I thought I would be really glad to leave, but I wont be, I will take away good memories.

The building you mention Aoiffe, is the National Assembly. Construction was started pre 1970, but was halted by the war of Independance, eventually being completed in 1982. As modern buildings goes I really like it, but sadly couldn't get any closer to it for a proper look. There are few buildings in Bangledesh that stand out from the rest, but this one certainly does.

The weather here is just perfect for cycling, around 20 degrees over night, then reaching 30 during the day, with harldly any wind. My tan is coming back and the line on my wrist is visible where I wear my cycling mit.

Tomorrow I head off to Khulna, where I have to make a decision. I would love to take the Rocket from Khulna back to Dhaka. The Rocket is an old paddle boat that does the journey through the mangrove swamps and up the river delta in 24 hrs, but I don't know what days they depart on and I need to book in advance. The trouble is looking at the map the roads look very basic, which means quiet sand roads and I would really like to cycle it too. I can't do both. Time will tell.


Sunday, 17 February 2008

Day 270 - Sreemongal

Heading out of Dhaka was a doddle, far easier than getting in. I took Mahmud's advice and followed a road that was not marked on the map. It proved to be a good recommendation as it was a little road heading through villages and paddy fields. The drivers here have the same mentality as the Indians thoguh, because at a single track bridge they blocked both carriageways in both side so that nobody could get through. I just about managed to squeeze the bike through, but even that was tricky. I eventually had to join a main road to Bhairdar Bazar where I stopped the night, but the roads were quiet as very few people own cars leaving the highway for a few lorries, but mainly buses that will slow down for nothing. In the town I was struggling to find a hotel, but a couple of men helped and led me through a little alleyway where I had to force my bike past the goods spilling out from the stalls. The hotel was up some steps but I didn't even make it to reception before I was turned away as they didn't take foreigners. I was led to another, neither of which I would have found by myself as they had no signs in English. This one was down another little alley, but I was assured it was the next best place in town. I suppose I shouldn't complain as it had an attached loo and tap and was the cheapest hotel of the trip at 61p. But that is nothing to get excited about as it wasn't worth it! It was a little cell, no window, concrete floor, puke green walls to disguise the phlem running down the walls and the mosquitos and fleas were all in the price. But home is where the bike is and I just about managed to get that into the cell. I went for a wander, a strange place where pink sheep roam the streets. The town is on the bank of a river which effectively makes it a little port. News travels fast here and people of the river front knew that I had arrived by bike even though I hadn't ridden there. It also seems to be a transportation hub for rice as there were wholesalers in town and sacks of the stuff where being manually loaded on to wooden boats, being carried on the heads of both men and women. I was latched on to by a guy and when I stopped to take a photo of a man and a bunch of children no older than 5 crowded around he kicked out at them. I gave him a lecture and told him to go, but he kept following me. I made it clear that I wanted no more to do with him and he walked off laughing, so I called him back and gave him a far more aggressive lecture telling him that kicking childen was not a laughing matter. I know I come from a very different culture, but there is no excuse for kicking yougsters, especially if they aren't even yours.

Today was more paddy fields and rivers. Bangladesh is very much a nation dominated by water. In the rivers men fished with nets dropped into the water from bamboo poles and everywhere you looked you could see people working in the fields, and by heck they work hard here, the men being very fit and supple. Even with my new slim look they make me feel a slob. The scenery suddenly changed this afternoon as the paddy fields gave way to gently rolling hill and tea plantations. The roads were easy going weaving there way through the hills.

I keep learning a bit more about ettiquette here. Latest tricks are to gob out any bones straight on to the table, then when you have finished your dinner wash you hands by pouring your drinking water over them into the bowl you have just finished with. I feel a right snob eating rice with a spoon. I am messy enough with that let alone just using my right hand.

But so far I have liked Bangladesh, far cleaner than India and it seems less crowded. There are fewer people in the streets, but people everywher in the fields making a pee stopped nigh on impossible.

I am travelling light too, having left all of my camping gear back at the hotel in Dhaka as I have to return there. Weight was so much the consideration, I was more interested in saving a journey up and down all the steps of hotels for a load of things I wont even be using.

I am also getting used to being stared at. My every move is watched, waiters stand and watch me eat, people watch me take photos and are looking over my shoulders and hotel staff fill my room until I physically have to push them out when I want a bit of privacy as they seem to understand nothing else. Strangely enough though it doesn't bother me, I just carry on with what I am doing, as no harm is meant. On the whole people are friendly here but also very inquisitive.

Aoiffe, the windows without glas that you refer to are balconies with washing hanging from them, at least I think that is the one you are talking about.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Day 268 - Dhaka (Bangladesh)

My last day in Nepal was just spent doing a few odd jobs, one being a stint at the Post Office to send some bits home. Sonya and Aaldrik were doing the same so it was much easier with more than one. As with most things in Nepal, why have one person doing a job that takes just a few minutes when you can employ 10 and make it last an hour and 10 minutes. I was given a good send off on my last evening by 'Uncle' Mark from Australia, Sonya, Aaldrik and various others who joined our table from time to time. I consumed more alchohol that evening than I have done in a long time, but I still didn't drink much! I had breakfast with Sonya and Aaldrik before I left for the airport. It's always hard to leave people who have been such good campany, but we will keep in touch just in case our paths cross in the future.

There did turn out to be one very good advantage to flying out of Nepal and that was that I got to have a great view of Mount Everest (photo), or at least I assume it was as it was much higher than anything else around. The flight was straight forward enough, especially as there were only about 30 people on the flight. The worst part was the departure lounge, only one being used for all the flights. Details were on a screen that never changed the whole time I was there and boarding was done by somebody standing at the front and calling out the destination. At Dhaka it was very simple as we were the only incoming flight, so everything was really quick and I was on the road just one hour after landing and that included sorting the bike out.

The route into Dhaka was pretty simple and I was soon in for a few surprises as the road surfaces were really good and drivers even give way to you rather than just expecting you to get out of the way, bus drivers excepted. I checked into the Ramna Hotel, a much bigger place than I had expected. The floor numbering is a bit confusing. I have room 509 which is actually on the 7th floor, but is labelled as the fourth floor....strange. Once settled in I gave Mahmud a call and he said he would send his brother over the following day to help me with getting an air ticket to Yangon.

Mahfuz arrived soon after 9 and we took a rickshaw to the travel agent, which I would never have found on my own. Having agreed on the flight and the price I then had to go to get photocopies of the details of my passport plus copies of the Bangladesh and Myanmar visas, then on to the bank to cash in US dollars to get a certificate and Bangladesh Taka to make the final payment. It would have been far cheaper to get Taka from an ATM, but you have to go to the bank to get ripped off for the certificate. At last I had the ticket in my grubby mit and I can now relax for the rest of my time here. Hmm, can you really relax in the most densely populated country in the world, a country the size of England and Wales with the 8th largest population at 140 million, most of whom are all very inquisitive as they see very few foriegners, let alone tourists. The afternon was spent wandering around Old Dhaka and going down to the very hectic river at Sadarghat (photo). I stopped at a little cafe for lunch and my miming of a menu resulted in me being led to have my hands washed, oh well! I got lost in some back streets but found a ladder leading up to a textile market. Once in I was invited into a shop for tea, then shouted at for entering with my shoes on. It was a maze of stalls and took me quite a while to find my way out. People stopped me and asked questions, what is my name, country, age, marital status etc. They are all delighted and surprised when I tell them it is my first visit here, but lets face it, who would come here twice? On my first night here I got lucky with the menu at the restuarant as they had everything I ordered from the extensive menu, but on the second night it turned out that that was all they had, so I had the same again. I am back on meat too as there is very little for the vegetarian. Ettiquette isn't quite the same as at home. Knives and forks are out, belching and loud lip smacking are in. Actually most things that you would never do at home are in, playing with food with your fingers to make a nice mush, drinking the remaining liquid from a bowl to name a couple. But it is a great place for a hungry cyclist as once you have ordered a couple of dishes you keep getting free refills until you leave some is the dish. If you emtpy your dish you just get more and more. I guess they would stop if I threw up, may be I will give it a try.

Mahmud joined me at breakfast this morning. Curry and fresh chillies is not my first choice for breakfast, but the chillies wake you up quick enough, phwooor!! Mahmud gave the low down on a good route to cycle around the country, some of which involved going on roads not even marked on my map. Once he left I went out for a bike ride as the sights here are pretty out. I am back in the muslim world so being a Friday the streets have free moving traffic and cycling around has been a pleasure. Most traffic consists of the wonderfully decorated rickshaws, of which there are said to be about 600,000 of in Dhaka alone.

Thats about it for now. This evening I am off out to eat with Mahmud and a cycling friend of his so I will see if I can eat something different tonight.

Oh, I discoverd I had a puncture, a very slow one that when I repaired it I couldn't even see the hole. I discovered whilst I was in the hotel and it could have happened in either Kathmandu or here in Dhaka it is that slow. It's the first puncture since Dubai, 4919 km ago, so I can't complain.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Day 264 - Kathmandu

Well I have been in Kahmandu almost a week now, but it has been an immensely frustrating time. It is the end of the road here, I have to fly into Bangladesh as the roads borders are closed, apparently due to bird flu. Getting a flight should be easy enough after all its not that far away, but it isn't. In theory I need an onward ticket out of Bangladesh before I am allowed in, and that is where the problem lies. I now have a visa for Myanmar, that bit was really easy, far easier than expected, so the obvious thing is to get an onward flight to Yangon (Rangoon). Unfortunately there are no direct flights between Bangladesh and Myanmar, so the easiest way is via Bangkok, but nobody here can arrange a flight from Bangkok. Getting to Bangkok is not a problem, but I really dont want the hassle of collecting the bike heading into town, arranging another flight, then heading back to the airport. There are other problems too. The flight to Yangon is very expensive for the shortish trip, the power seems to be off more often than it is on, making booking anything or checking flights an impossible task. Added to that I cant book online with the airlines in this area and I know more about the route now than the agents. They tell me one thing which I tell them is not possible, and when I return the following day when there is power they "oh yeah, you are right. But there was a flight on the route yesterday, but it is not showing today".

To make things worse I also need dollars cash for Myanmar as there are no ATMs there and they don't change travellers checks, pretty much the same as Iran. Unfortunately the banks here wont give me US dollars so I have had to raid the cash machines and get rupees exchanged for dollars.

I have managed to a little bit of sight seeing around Kathmandu and Patan (photo) which is really just a suburb of Kathmandu. The main squares are fantastic, crammed full of temples of all sizes that make the place feel really exotic. Wandering the back streets reveal little alleyways that open out to squares with more temples and stupas.

It has also been very sociable here. I have been staying at the Yellow House Guest House and my plan to stay a week makes me one of the short termers. The longest has been here 3 months and most seems to be here for a few weeks. I have enjoyed the company of Aaldrik and he has had to take me letting off steam each evening as I fill him in with the details of my frustration of flight arrangements, Sonya having gone to Varanasi in India for a few days. He has been useful to talk to and has come up with ideas and suggestions which have been very useful. The people staying at the Guest House fall into two groups, the French speakers and the English speakers, but there is a bit of a cross over. It's good though, no matter what time of day you are there, there is always somebody to have a chat to making it hard to get away at times.

I have even taken my bike into a bike shop here, Dawn till Dusk being a well known stop here amongst the long distance cyclists. My gears haven't been exactly smooth on gear change for a while so I got the very knowledgable guy there to have a look. He replaced a piece of bent plastic that the cable passes through at the gear changer that was restricting movement, carefully straightened the cable, oiled it all and reset the gears. It took him about 25 minutes and he didn't charge me a single rupee. Gear change is now perfect and feels wonderful. I had just got used to it over time and hadn't realised how bad it had got.

Well after 5 days of chasing around travel agents and airline offices and still not being able to get a firm answer of whether I need an onward ticket, I took the risk and bought a one-way ticket to Dhaka. I suspect it is officially a requirement, but something that never gets checked. I know for a fact that it's even more complicated getting a ticket in Dhaka as you don't pay the agent but have to go to a bank and pay the money in and return to them with a certificate. Aint life complicated? Thankfully I have a contact in Dhaka who I have just met through forum pages on the internet and he is going to arrange the ticket and he assures me I will be able to pick the ticket up the day after I arrive. When I am in Dhaka I will get in touch with him and we will have a tea together.

Today has been a good day, the first day that I haven't been chasing around for something or other. Ali, Sonya, a German girl whose name I keep forgetting, and I went out into the valley for a bike ride. Kathmandu is a bit of a sprawl, but its not a massive city so it doesn't take too long to get out into the fields. Before long we were heading for the mountains, but took a loop back along a rough track, which at times turned into grass at the edge of a field. I was mighty thankful that it hadn't rained recently otherwise it would have been a quagmire. To start with we could just see the tops of the high mountians, but as time went by it cleared and we had much better views, though on a totally clear day it would have been fantastic. The company was good and it made a nice change to get out of the city. Later in the afternoon we split up as I wanted to go to the temples and cremation ghats at Pashupatinath and the big stupa at Bodhnath (photo). At various sights they are all too keen to relieve you of your cash when really they are pubic thoroughfares, but they aren't exactly tight on entry as there is normally only the main entrance manned, so a short walk around to a different entrance and you can walk around for free. I don't feel guilty about it as in Durbar Square in Kathmandu cars, bikes, locals just pass straight through as there is a road through the middle and at Bodhnath there are shops hotels and cafe once through the 'entrance'.

Overall I have really liked and enjoyed Kathmandu. It's a very manageable size, some of the backstreets and squares are delightful and somewhat rustic, and I just love the stupas, but they would be even better without all the gift shops, afterall they are religeous sites. The company at the Guest House has been great too, there is always somebody to talk to. Once again I shall be sorry to say goodbye to Ali and Sonya. Today has been the only day I have cycled with them but I am sure we would have got on well if we had travelled together.

So I depart for Dhaka, Bangladesh on Wednesday at 12:15. I am not looking forward to the hassle of the flight, but I am looking forward to a new country and environment and the challenges that it brings, and I really do expect them to be challenges in Bangadesh.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Day 258 - Kathmandu

Pokhara felt a bit of a waste of time. The first day I decided to chill out, wander down the main Lakeside street and see all the luxuries available that haven't been there for so long. I even had a pizza which I had been craving for since I was ill and just wanted simple foods. I took a boat out to the island where there is a small temple and generally enjoyed the nice weather and surroundings and looked at the mountains. The second day was to be sent climbing another 800m above Pokhara to a ridge that gives unobstructed views of the Himalayas, but when I got up early the cloud covered most of them, so I delayed my start and had a relaxed breakfast and after that only the tip of one of them was visible, and that went soon after too. I decided I didn't need to climb so high for an obstructed view of the clouds, afterall had had seen the inside of one a couple of days ago in Tansen. So I went to the 'Bat Cave' instead, where as I entered I met a large American woman waiting for her husband to come out of the alternative very narrow exit. I descended into the cave with my torch, through a smallish hole into the main cavern where sure enough there were thousands of Horseshow Bats hanging from the top of the cavern. I almost expect one to drop off and land on me. I could see lights from the direction of the narrow exit and before long they all passed me having given up and I was left in the cave all on my own. I switched my lights off, then closed my eyes as tight as possible, then opened them as wide as possible and I couldn't tell the difference. We are talking dark. On exiting through the way I went in, I met the American husband who matched the size of his wife. "I bet you didn't get through that little hole" I thought. I was right.

The following day I was paying just before leaving the hotel at 7:15. There was a low mist and I couldn't even see the nearby hills let alone the mountains and the rain was settling in nicely. The guy at reception said it would be like this the whole day as there was no wind and suggested I should stay another day. Being somebody that does not give in easily once my mind is set, I wet back to bed! When I got up the rain had stopped but I still couldn't see any hills and it had seemed a bit silly to me to cycle through the wonderful landscape and not see anything of it. As I had breakfast it rained again and that was the theme for the day, so I didn't do alot apart from wandering around the book shops and drinking tea and coffee. A waste of a day, but surely the weather would be better the next day.
With the simple life, the low season and a lack of electricity the night life is not great here, consequently I read a reasonable amount. Whilst I am happy to look in bookshops I never buy anything, I prefer to exchange, normally at hostels, lodges, hotels etc. The thing I like about that is that the selection is not so good and I am forced to read books that I would normally never choose, I have even read a few novels recently. I have just aquired 'Angela's Ashes' but I need to read it quickly as it is a big heavy edition. I now have 3 books so that I don't run out of material before I get another chance to exchange, also it stops me dashing up the hills too quickly. Talking of Angela`s Ashes, it has made me think. He had a tough time of his youth in New York and Ireland, but taking nothing away from his hardships, what I see around me everyday here is very similar. The photos of the 2 little children are pretty much as I would have imagined him and his brother.

The following day didn't dawn much better, but at least it wasn't raining, so I was going come what may. The route out of Pokhara was like the weather, dismal, but at least I was on the move, even if I couldn't see any mountains. I had decided to take the short route along the main road to Kathmandu, as there was no point taking the longer route over a high pass just to see more clouds. My map was wrong again as the 92k to the turn off to Bandipur was in fact 71k, so I arrived much earlier than expect. I was told that there was a 600m climb off the main road up to Bandipur in 8km, that's steep I thought, they must be wrong, but after slogging up it for an hour and a half I can confirm that they were spot on. The weather improved greatly in the afternoon, it was still hazy, but at least I had a bit of a view heading up the climb. Bandipur is a very rustic little town sat on a ride top. There is no traffic there as its difficult even for bike with a few steep steps needing to be negotiated. I checked in at a very 'rustic' Guest House, complete with wooden floors, steps and tiny balcony looking down the valley, and after a days cycling you cant beat a freezing cold shower! The whole village is rustic, lovely old wooden houses, kids playing the the traffic free street, and wonderful views of the nearby mountains and more clouds.

The next day was clear, at least it was at Bandipur, but the mountains beyond were still obscured by mist and as I dropped back down the same road back to the main road I descended into cloud, lovely cold cloud. Back on the main drag the weather wasn't much better, but I felt better in myself and decided not to stick to the main road, but take the longer route south to the Terai, then east to Sauraha and Chitwan National Park. The road south rolled alongside a large river (photo) and would have been fanastic if it had been clear, but it was still good. Sauraha is across the river from the National Park, but everything there was expensive, so being a cheapskate I didn't go in but satisfied my self with a cycle down the rough track to the Elephant Breeding Centre which involved a little punted boat across another river. The elephants where just returning from a days work/training and evidence of its success was obvious from the number of babies about. They were allowed to run loose and terrorised the kids there, in there search for biscuits which soon appeared. 'Lights out' has now increased to 2 blocks of 4 hours, yippee! At least it was a couple of degrees warmer here as it is back at seaish level, but I still live in a jacket and a hat.

The following day I waited around for the elephants bath time at the river, a bit of a disappointment as there were only 4. Entertainment was provided by the tourists that went in to sit on the elephants and get showered from their trunks. They had also been trained to shake their back and deposited them in the river. The ride in the afternoon was flat all the way to Hetauda, a largish town, which felt really strange after all the little places I had stayed in.
I was awake early the following morning, probably aprehensive of the climb into the mountains ahead of me, climbing from 420m to 2488. After 10k I reached the first village and had assumed I had climbed about 300m but was really depressed to discover I was only 150m higher than Hetauda, it was going to be a long day. I wasn't long before visibility was reduced to not a lot. I then hit the school run, literally. As I climbed kids ran along beside me and I picked up more the further I went. If it wasn't tough enough already they made it harder by hanging on the back or pushing down on the brake levers. I was somewhat relieved when I saw the school ahead, but it soon turned to disappointment as they kept on running past it. They were getting a bit excited so I rather encouraged them to head back to school. From there I could see just far enough to see the road zig zagging up the mountain, it was a long time before that village disappeared from sight. I later stopped at a village cafe and had tea and a snack where I met some students on motorcycles. I was asked the usual questions, was I married, how many children, how old was I. When I told them my age I said I was papa, but they said no no, papas papa. That made me feel really good but in a country where the average age is just 20, that is probably about right. The road carried on winding its way up, houses being few and far between and the temperature dropping, so I stopped and put another layer on and ate at the same time. Soon after I had a rough patch and decided to throw more food at the problem, a spicey snack which was salty and biscuits and that seemed to so the trick. I was heading for Daman but still had no idea how far it was, then I realised the kilometre stones were to the village at the top of the pass. That seemed to made it tougher, but it was all in the mind. At last I came out of the top of the murk and the sun shone and I soon began to warm up and to make it worse I could see the road further ahead way up the mountain. But at last I made it to the top where I stopped for another tea. It had been a climb on 2180m over 52k, taken 6 hours 20 minutes and I had used 4800 calories, sometimes I even bore myself you know. It was cold at the top but got even colder on the north facing descent but thankfully it was only another 3k to Daman.I checked into another basic hotel, where there was one little hand basin to serve everybody, guests, family and kitchen. Good, I couldn't face a cold shower, I was shivvering already. After I had changed I went down to the view point for a wonderful view of the clouds. The only place to eat was at the hotel and having seen the kitchen I didn't really relish it but I needed to replace some of those calories. Mother brought over the rice and veg I had ordered and sat very close with her arm around me which made all the other women there laugh, but she soon scooted laughing off as 2 men walked in. She returned after a while and did the same which didn't bother me that much as I was far more concerned about all the other women that had gathered around and were sneezing over my dinner, yum, yum, extra calories. It was cold during the evening as the clouds cleared and I could see the stars. The ground was crisp and there was likely to be a frost. It dropped to 5 degrees in my room and I sat on my bed and read a book with my jacket, hat and gloves on and a duvet over the lot.

Yesterday dawned bright and clear, an almost perfect day and at last I could see the Himalayas layed out in front of me, that really lifted my spirits and made the wasted day in Pokhara worth while. I was very cautious on the 9k of steep descent at the start as there were odd bits of ice about. The after a few undulations there was another 7km climb which my legs really weren't interested in. At the top of that there was another fantastic vista across to the high mountains again and I could see the road twisting way down the mountainside miles ahead. I started a 30k descent to the main road and a bus passed as I stopped to take photos. I kept catching it and then losing it as I took more photos. The descent was slow, twisty and bumpy the whole way, but what a delight it had been the whole way from Hetauda, on a traffic free single tracked road, bliss. At the town at the bottom I refueled and got talking to a man who had been on the bus and had been tracking my progress down the hill. Back on the main road it was terrible, lots or lorries and buses, but the worst of it was the road surface, it was awful the whole way up a another 12k climb, great patches of road had disintergrated and I either had to skirt around them or squeeze through on a thin strip on the inside with drops just inches away, hoping the trucks wouldn't come too close to me. It wasn't long before I was heading down into Kathmandu valley. The city is busy for Nepal, but its not that big and it didn't take me long to find the Guest House recommended by Judith and Andre. Before I could even go in I was accosted by an Aussie nutter. I could tell he was a nutter before he even spoke. He was dressed very strangely, but I couldn't take my eyes off the playing card held on to his jacket with coloured clothes pegs. He said I was bonkers to be cycling in Nepal and as he talked he got louder and louder. He told me his unlikely name, which I have forgotten already, but said he was the richest man in the world and was going to bring down the pound sterling. As I was wondering how I was going to get away from him, when I saw Aldrick walking up the street. He and Sonya are the 2 cyclists we met in Agra. They were in the Guest House opposite so I checked in there instead. I had hoped to find them in Kathmandu by email as I guessed they would still be here but I didn't expect to find them that easily. Whilst stood there another cyclist introduced himself to me, Andreas from Germany and he had met Judith and Andre at Chitwan. It's a small world. So I now have a decent little room here, but it is freezing cold in there, it's warmer outside. I expect to be here about a week while I sight see, head into the valley and sort out flights etc. S and A have a flight booked to Malaysia and will then head back up to Bangkok. They too are fed up with to cold. 5 degrees might not sound cold to you back home, but you all have central heating. Central heating here is an open fire outside in a metal container with a group of people huddled around it trying to get warm. Even with jacket and hat on its hard to get warmed up in the evenings. I spent the evening chatting away to S & A, comparing notes as they, J & A and I had all taken exactly the same route through Nepal, not that there is a lot of cloice mind. They had met up again with J & A in Pokhara after they had come back from a trek.

Today I decided to try my luck at the Myanmar Embassy. It took an age to find. It was only a few hundred metres from where it was marked on the map but everybody I asked said they didn't know where it was, or sent me off in different directions, but perseverance paid off. As I head off for a visa I always think of packed chaotic consolates, trying to find forms and information, getting photocopied done etc, but this one was great. I was the only one there and I just sat at a desk with and official and filled out the forms with his help. There were some tricky questions like, the colour of my hair, I wish, the colour of my eyes, which I didn't know the answer to so I asked him and he just laughed so I just put brown. I paid my $20, gave him 4 photos (what a waste!) and was told to pick it up at 3pm on Friday. Excellent. It was down hill all the way there, but strangely enough down hill all the way back too, so it just goes to show what a difference no baggage or mountains makes. I spent the rest of the day wandering around the Thamel district of Kathmandu, a bit like Pokhara Lakeside with hotels, guest houses, gift shops, book shops, travel agents, internet cafes etc. I know need more maps, books and air tickets. Oh to be able to cross those borders by bike, wouldn't life be a doddle. I heard on the news recently that the India - Pakistan border is shut because of bird flu, may be that's why they told me I had to fly.

Every bus that passes here has people sitting on top, they must be absolutely bloody freezing! I read in the paper this morning about a bus accident that killed 7 and injured 60, it was travelling full shall we say. It was carrying 70 more than its legal limit. The headline was "7 die and 60 injured in bus mishap" Mishap! That's a bit of an understatement.

I have just topped 16,000km, that's 10,000 of those strange English things. I am sure it shouldn't have been that far to Kathmandu, so I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

I suffered from a tooth ache a couple of days ago. I think it was the same tooth as I had some work done on when I was in Dubai, but I really don't fancy a dentist going anywhere near it in this part of the world. I noticed there is a monument to the Toothache God here, so I will go and pay it a visit, it's probably cheaper too.