Distance: no idea, maybe 40km? Average speed: pretty slow, maybe 10km/hr! Time on bike: all day (almost). Number of times lost: none.
When I heard I was going to get the chance to visit Kathmandu on a work trip, I got excited. Very excited. Nepal is a country I’ve always wanted to visit, and the possibility of a week living in a local village, learning more about their water and sanitation situation, sounded fantastic. But there was something else stirring in my mind… could I organise a day or two cycling in Kathmandu after the work trip?!
I don’t have time to research the idea properly (due to Glastonbury, and then Eigg) so I figure I’ll assess the possibility once out there. When I float the idea with one of our staff in Nepal he’s pretty lukewarm to say the least, saying it’s far too dangerous and a bad idea. Taking this advice on board, I research organised cycle tours, which will guide you on a day’s ride for about $90. This sounds steep for a cycle ride, and where’s the fun in being guided…?
It’s true, the traffic in Kathmandu is pretty crazy and very busy. There’s also the noise, fumes and dust that come with the territory. Not most people’s idea of fun I know, but as a cycling city, it doesn’t strike me as being any worse or more dangerous than Hanoi or Phnom Penh.
In common with those places, the traffic here moves relatively slowly, there are hardly any traffic lights/junctions, and few big lorries or buses. So the three things that make cycling dangerous in London – speed, traffic lights / hard junctions, and big vehicles – are all less of of an issue here. To my mind, it may actually be safer cycling in Kathmandu than London. Also, my free day is a Saturday, which means the roads are a bit less manic, and the weather isn’t too hot, so I decide to just go for it…
And I’m not alone. On the same day, more than 1,000 riders are taking on the Kathmandu Kora, a sponsored cycle ride around the city. I consider taking part myself, but the 7am start and the fact I still need to procure a bike make this sadly impractical. Instead, I follow roughly their route, but about two hours behind.
I hire a bike for 800 rupees, roughly $8, from a place in Thamel, and set off at about 9am, armed with the compass function, GPS, Google Maps and maps.me on my phone for navigation.
First stop: Patan Durbar Square in the south of the city. Taking a myriad of tiny back-streets, I manage to find this without too much problem, and encounter plenty of street markets and general hustle and bustle along the way. These little streets are full of people, bikes and motorbikes, so I blend in pretty seamlessly.
My achilles heal is not having a bike bell, which renders me completely invisible in the sense that the horn or bell is how you make your presence known here. More than a couple of times I have to shout ‘beep beep’ instead!
Durbar Square is impressive but sadly not as impressive as it was pre-quake. There’s a lot of reconstruction work going on, but it’s still worth a visit. I decide to have breakfast (banana and honey pancakes) here, at a rooftop cafe overlooking the square. There are definitely worse places in the world to have breakfast.
From here I head west to Kirtipur, crossing the Ring Road (their version of the M25, with 6 lanes of traffic and random cows sitting in the middle of it all) along the way. From now on, I’m navigating entirely by compass, leading me into taking all sorts of tiny little roads and muddy tracks. Fortunately, the mountain bike I’ve hired handles pretty much everything that I throw at it with ease. Hell, the brakes even work.
It’s a bit greener and rural around these parts, even though I’m still within sight of the city. Farming is the main activity, with fields growing mainly rice and tomatoes, although I do also cycle past some kind of brick factory.
As was the case in SE Asia, I get a few quizzical looks from the locals, but it’s always with a sense of friendly bemusement rather than anything unpleasant.
At one point I stop at a junction and a group of local children who speak good English start talking to me. I cycle off but then the track fizzles out and I have to turn back, seeing the kids again. “Are you lost?” they enquire, giggling. “Not lost, just exploring” I tell them before taking the other track and hoping for the best..!
From Kirtipur, I head north, cycling through countless little communities, all with similar shops, houses, kids running around, folks on scooters and dogs passed out on pavements. It’s so nice to be able to witness these scenes of daily life in such an inconspicuous, care-free way. Vive le velo.
Eventually I hit the Prithvy Highway and ride back east towards the city on a long downhill, before hanging a left onto the Ring Road, north towards Swayambhunath Temple – aka the Monkey Temple.
I’ve already visited the temple on foot, so instead I cycle around the base, stopping off at another nearby temple, and also checking to see if the Natural History Museum is open (sadly not) before riding on, towards a region called Balaju.
Somewhere around here I spot a cafe promising, prominently in every window, ‘FREE WIFI’, so I decide to pull in, park the bike inside and order some lunch. I’ve not yet had the local speciality, momo, so I order a plate of veggie momo for just 85 rupees (less than a dollar). Essentially they’re similar to spring rolls, but really tasty and great for lunch. “Can I connect to the wifi?” I ask, while waiting for the food. “Wifi not working”. My Google Maps refresh will have to wait…
While eating lunch the ominous sound of heavy rain drumming on the tin roof starts, and doesn’t stop. I figure it’s not the worst place to get wet, given how warm it is, so decide to head out anyway. I’m headed for Balaju Park (not marked on Google Maps, luckily is on maps.me) but when I eventually find it I discover there’s a small entry fee and, given that it’s raining, I decide to give it a miss. Maybe a bad idea in retrospect, as there are precious few nice parks in Kathmandu as far as I can tell.
From here I head a bit further north before deciding that I’ve probably seen enough of the maze of hilly, pot-holed, muddy, back streets of the Kathmandu ‘burbs and decide to go back into town, on the Ring Road for a bit, before cutting west towards Boudhanath Stupa.
The road to Boudhanath is perhaps the busiest and craziest I ride on, with hundreds of buses, cars and scotters trying to navigate through huge muddy lakes from the earlier rain. A friend said Boudhanath was peaceful – maybe I’ve got the wrong place. You also pass a tent settlement – a sobering reminder of the fact that many people are still homeless after the earthquake.
The stupa itself is another victim of the quake and is being re-built, but it’s still an interesting place to visit. Here I spot a few mountain bikers – as muddy and bedraggled looking as I probably am – so I’m guessing they’ve taken part in the Kora event (the route ends here).
From here I head to one final temple, Shree Guhyeshwori, via a road which I’m going to name-check because the surface is so new and perfect (in comparison to almost every other road in Kathmandu). It’s called Tusal Marg and, going downhill, is amazing! Sadly, the big red building at this temple is now mostly reduced to rubble.
I don’t have time to go into the temple proper, but instead hang by the river and observe yet more manic monkeys terrorising people as they cross the bridge.
With one eye on the clock, and also the realisation that I have no real idea of how to find the place where I hired the bike from, I head back into Thamel. I cycle a few streets that look familiar and eventually find my man. Bike reunited with owner, that just leaves me to walk back to my hostel for a much-required shower.
It’s funny, after a day spent in the saddle navigating these bumpy backstreets, walking suddenly feels pedestrian in comparison.