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Ride to the far western: the road less travelled

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Riding to places that are not frequented, always bring immense pleasure to me. So this time around I decided to revisit the less talked about far western region of Nepal, Mahendranagar. I had last been there as a 10 year old when my dad drove us in our rugged and reliable Maruti Van during one of the family road trips. However, for most part of the trip I remember dozing off in a deep slumber, even with the frequent pot-hole jerks failing to wake me up. So all I remember of the far western trip back then was passing through the huge Karnali Bridge. That was it!

Fast forward fifteen years, and the far western side of Nepal is still an understated tourist destination in the country. Even when the idea of a roadtrip springs up, the landmarks of the far west are rarely even considered. But, I wanted to relive those past moments and refresh my memory. So, it was a very carefully planned ride till the far western motorable tip of Nepal ranging almost 2000km to and fro. As always, I found companion in my touring partner Sohyal Karki and my cousin Monish Mulepati who happily agreed to be a part of the tour. The three of us riders on our Bajaj Pulsars geared up with the enthusiasm to compensate the comforts of home for nine days on the road. We left home with the determination to have extreme fun, but still be safe and get back at our doorsteps all in one piece. In a place like Nepal where there is a dearth of strict road rules and regulations, you never know what surprise may pop up on the next corner.

So, here is how it went…

Day 2

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The earlier night we had planned to leave by seven in the morning. But due to the extremely foggy conditions we decided to wait till the weather cleared and rode out only a couple of hours later. Having already seen much of Narayanghat and Chitwan on previous visits, we didn’t bother to look around and continued to ride ahead. We stopped by for breakfast at Daune, a 65km uphill ride from Narayanghat through the twist and turns, under foggy conditions which at times offered zero visibility. The weather cleared as we rode downhill towards Butwal. We had plans to visit Lumbini, but decided to cancel riding to the birthplace of Lord Buddha due to time constraints, and also because it was a diversion from our proposed route. Being a new riding route for me, this was from where the fun was going to begin. We continued riding and stopped ahead at Bhalubang, 100km far from Butwal, for lunch. Till Bhalubang it was a ride around the hills with moderate road pitch conditions and after that began the straight ride through the plains. It was fun to zoom through the tarai straights with minimum traffic movement on the road. When riding towards Kohalpur from Lamahi we came across this wonderful stretch of road that ran through the forest and was almost arrow straight for about 20kms. Speeding across this stretch made me realize the power my bike lacked and how I wished I had come here in 600cc supersports. With the experience of having ridden/driven across almost the entire length of the country, I wouldn’t be wrong to assume that stretch en route Kohalpur to probably be the finest piece of straight tarmac laid in Nepal. Courtesy of our frequent photography breaks we made it to Kohalpur pretty late at 6pm and were still a good 70km far from out hotel at Bardia. Under the low light visibility of our motorcycles, it became pretty much difficult to keep track of the unknown road in the darkness, with jungles on both sides and no sight of any human civilization. So we stuck together riding in tandem and maintained a moderate speed making sure none of us was left behind to the mercy of the wild animals lurking in the jungle. After riding 60kms from Kohalpur in the absolute darkness, we finally reached Amreni and took the 13km gravelled diversion road into the Bardia National Park. This 13km ride was indeed frightening considering we were riding through a dense jungle with imaginations of all sorts of wild animals probably greeting us on the road. After all that goose-bumps and road bumps, we reached our resort for the night after riding nearly 420km. We got ourselves the cosy cottage rooms at the Bardia Jungle Cottage, freshened up, and chatted by the fireside discussing the plans for the next day as we waited for our dinner. For the next day, we planned on a jungle walk around the national park, as it was the best way to see the wildlife and nature up close and confirmed our stay at the hotel for the next night too. We were now about 635km far from the capital. Over to Day 3.

Day 3

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Bardia National Park is a protected area in Nepal, established in 1988 and is the largest and most undisturbed wilderness area in Nepal’s Terai region. We woke up at 8am to a peaceful morning in the jungle. It was soothing to take a morning stroll around the clean and green jungle boasting of various flora and fauna, for commotion and pollution cursed Kathmanduties like us. After a heavy brunch and brief orientation on the basics of jungle walk by our designated guide, we entered the national park for our jungle walk. Once into the jungle we started fantasizing on our possible reactions on encountering upon a tiger or some wild animals ahead of us. But as it turned out, it was a very rare case to spot the tigers. We even waited by a popular spot near the riverbank for nearly an hour, hoping the tigers would come to quench their thirst but later had to give up on our hopes of spotting the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger.  We did though get close enough and spotted some fresh tiger paw marks and lots of tiger poop as the guide claimed. So all we managed to spot during the jungle walk was a hibernating python and some deers jumping here and there. Maybe it was the constant ruckus we were making as we marched along, that scared the animals away. So feeling unlucky and disheartened, we satisfied ourselves with the pictures of the spotted tigers that were hung on the walls of the hotel. Nevertheless it was soothing to take a walk around and be off the saddle without numb butts for a day. Having walked for five straight hours we ate a scrumptious dinner cooked on a wood fire oven like horses, and crashed away for the night bearing the agony of the hyenas constantly laughing away in the jungle as if they were having some joke sessions.

Day 4

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Today we woke up with much excitement as we were finally going to reach our destination and set foot on the western border of Nepal and India at Mahendranagar. We bid the shy tigers a goodbye, rode out of the jungle and hit the highway. Just after 30kms into the ride we came across Nepal’s engineering marvel, the Karnali Bridge at Chisapani. The 500m long cable-stayed single tower Karnali Bridge was completed in 1993 with support from the Japanese and during the time of its construction was one of the longest cable stayed bridge in the world. It’s sad to not see such level of infrastructure developments happening anymore. After some photo session at the site and trying out the fresh fried fishes, we then crossed the Karnali River and continued towards Mahendranagar. It was nostalgic to pass through the bridge again, which is the only vivid memory I had of the previous childhood roadtrip. By the afternoon we made our touchdown at Mahendranagar after a nonstop 130km ride from Chispani. The place was bustling with people and vehicular movement just like any other border town. Just for a sense of achievement we rode over to the Indian border across the Tanakpur Dam crossing and checked out another Nepalese engineering marvel, the Dodhara Chandani Suspension Bridge. It was an amazing sight to come across the magnificent 1.5km long bridge which is one of the world’s longest pedestrian traffic suspension bridges. The first impressions of the bridge were an instant reminder of a miniature version of the popular Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco. I was amazed to learn that such a structure even existed in Nepal. The bridge links the only island of Nepal, a border village of Chandani Dodhara with the rest of Nepal. The very sight of the bridge made riding almost 800kms from Kathmandu truly worth it. Though it was a pedestrian bridge, motorcycles were allowed to pass through, and we did not miss that opportunity. We then checked into Hotel Opera at Mahendranagar which I must say served good food with excellent service. Even the rooms were considerably cheap for what was on offer. I would blindly recommend the hotel if you are ever in Mahendranagar.

Day 5

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For the next day, the hotel set us up a jungle safari around Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, interestingly on our motorcycles itself. It was fun riding through the jungle on our motorcycles but we hardly managed to spot any animals. Even the few deers, peacocks and wild boars that we spotted resting in the jungle, would run away. I believe it was the noise from our motorcycles that played spoil sport in chasing away the animals. I wonder what would have happened if we had shown up in the jungles on thundering Royal Enfield’s? Luckily, when we hit the flat grasslands in the jungle we managed to spot herds of swamp deer (Barasingha) feeding on the grass far away. There were nearly hundreds of these horned deer and thankfully, they were oblivious to the noise of our motorcycles. So in the end, the jungle safari on motorcycles was worth it after all. We then got back to the hotel, had our lunch and checked out for the return leg of the journey. It was already late in the afternoon by the time we moved out and decided to spend the night at Nepalgunj which was about 200km far from Mahendranagar. We reached Nepalgunj at around 8pm and decided to ask around for the location to a good hotel rather than looking around on our own, which turned out to be a bad idea. So we spent the night at this certain hotel which was recommended by most of the shopkeepers as a popular hotel in Nepalgunj. The rooms weren’t satisfactory but we decided to check in anyways since we were tired and didn’t want to go about looking for hotels again. Only later into the night we realized the kind of hotel it turned out to be with people flowing in and out late till the night. So that was what popular meant in Nepalgunj. I guess we should have asked for a ‘good’ hotel.

Day 6

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Thankfully we didn’t get ourselves in the midst of some police raid and checked out of the hotel before the sun was out. We were to ride towards Palpa for the night, still a good 300kms away. Now having already been familiar to the route, we sped across the flat track highway without much stops in between. It was exciting to be speeding back on the arrow straight roads from Kohalpur. We soon reached Butwal and after a quick lunch moved uphill towards Tansen, Palpa. The weather changed from humid to relatively chilly as we approached the hill station of Tansen. After the straight roads, it was thrilling to be back to the mountain roads charging through the corners. We reached Tansen by the evening and finally found our hotel through the town’s maze of steep, narrow and winding alleys lined with Newari style houses. We dined at the Nanglo Bakery Cafe outlet in Tansen and ate to our content all those delicacies we had missed in the past five days.

Day 7

 

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We got up early, rode around Tansen and spent some time relaxing to the winds blowing at the popular Batasi Danda in Srinagar. But due to the foggy weather we missed out on the scenic views of the snow capped mountain ranges from the hill top. Since we pretty much had the entire day, we decided to pay a visit to Rani Mahal at Rani Ghat. This palace was built in 1892 by Governor Khadka Shamsher in memory of his wife Tej Kumari, and is often called the Taj Mahal of Nepal. The hotel suggested us to trek but we stubborn minds started our bikes and rode off. Only later into the ride towards Rani Mahal, we realized why we were told to trek to Rani Mahal. The road was in pretty bad shape and we had to bear the brunt of serious off roading for around 15kms, frequently having to cross deep streams. It was a challenging ride and in the end we still had to trek for half an hour as the road wasn’t actually entirely rideable. It was tiring getting there but the effort was worth it after witnessing the grandeur of Rani Mahal. The ancient palace was set on a massive rock bed at the bank of the Kali Gandaki River with a huge main building surrounded by layered gardens, stone walls and small shrines.  Bringing the construction materials to the site must have definitely taken a lot of effort considering the lack of a proper road even back then in the remote area. It’s however sad that it is such a magnificent monument and the government does not admire it. The palace seriously needs to be properly conserved and renovated to preserve its beauty. We then got back to Tansen, packed up and immediately left for Pokhara. It was almost dark by the time we set out and it was going to be a 125km long night ride through Syanja into Pokhara. After dodging several night bugs and constantly wiping off the splattered bugs on the visor, we reached Pokhara at 9pm in the night. We dropped our baggage at the hotel and spent the evening unwinding ourselves at Club Amsterdam in Pokhara, listening to the good selection of songs being played by the local band.

DAY 8

 

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All of us had already seen much of Pokhara on our previous visits and decided to cut short our sightseeing of Pokhara. But no matter how many times one has visited Pokhara; you can never get enough of the Lakeside. So we spent a while relaxing and killing time on the banks of the mesmerizing Fewa Taal before getting back on our saddles. We had a very fulfilling American breakfast and set out to visit the ancient capital and kingdom of Gorkha, which was 115km down the Prithvi Highway. We soon reached Khaireni and after filling ourselves with steaming momos, we took the 20km diversion from the highway to Gorkha. Gorkha is a picturesque hill- town that has a rich history of its own and is the home of our legendary Gurkha soldiers. We visited the Gorkha Durbar which was a steep uphill ride from the bazaar area. It used to be the dwelling of King Prithvi Narayan and his ancestors. The Durbar was a humble yet quite impressive complex of a temple, fort, and a palace built in the Newar style. We were supposed to get back home after the Gorkha visit but none of us really wanted to return back to Kathmandu. So we decided to spend one last night in Bandipur and rode 20km back to reach the diversion that leads to Bandipur. We took the uphill and windy road to Bandipur and reached the picturesque town by the evening.

DAY 9

 

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Bandipur is a hilltop settlement in Tanahu District of Nepal famed for its preserved and old time cultural atmosphere. The town is a living museum of Newari culture and people here seem to live centuries apart from the rest of the country. After a morning stroll around the cobbled town which was almost deserted, we got our motors running for the disappointing journey back home. But just as I was about to ride off, the worst I had expected happened again. I had earned myself a hat-trick puncture. With no motorcycle garages in Bandipur, I again had no option but to transport my bike down to the nearby garage on the highway. This time we found a Mahindra Jeep to transport the bike who happily fleeced me of Rs.500 for a 15km ride. We reached the garage soon enough and hit the road back home recollecting all those awesome memories of the 9 day ride into the wilderness. We had our lunch at Malekhu and sluggishly climbed back the hill from Naubise behind heavily loaded TATA trucks all the way to Kathmandu.

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The far western region of Nepal sure might not appeal to many like the various breathtaking mountainous regions of Nepal. Also the nearly 2000km journey is not an easy roadtrip to execute. But it’s one of the best ways to see the country beyond Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara. The region may be highly ignored but it offers one of the best wildernesses environments in Nepal, with the massive and undisturbed areas of the Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve and Bardia National Park. It is also worth riding or driving all the way there just for witnessing the very few engineering marvels of the country and experiencing one of the best motorable roads in the country. There is just so much to see on the route which instantly captivates you and introduces Nepal up close and personal. It’s nevertheless sad that in spite of all these places of interest, the far western region still has not received it’s due…

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