Rock, Moto, Scissor: Riding in Nepal

It’s pretty easy to die riding a motorcycle. Sometimes it’s not your fault: just a fraction of a second — when an oblivious driver loses control and swerves to keep from hitting something — can take you out. Or you can screw it up all on your own, slamming on your front brake and flying sideways, say, or taking a turn too fast and hitting gravel. Getting ejected from your bike usually doesn’t end well, no matter how good your riding gear is. But if you like to ride, you ride anyway.

I had this brilliant idea to take a motorcycle ride in Nepal for a couple weeks, and I was remarkably naive about how hard it would be. I’d planned to ride alone, like I did in Thailand last year, but once I saw the driving conditions, I hired my AirBnB host, Bhadra, to go with me. He’s an amiable Nepali, who’s led more than 100 treks for tourists on the Annapurna Circuit. Going with a local has its advantages.

I fought hard with my ego on this one: I wanted to go alone, to accomplish it, to face the fear and challenge of navigating and feeding myself along the way. I saw it as a chance to actually dig into the humanity of this place. Also, there’s a true, meditative peace that comes with spending several days alone on a road trip, talking only to order chapatis, buy gas, or negotiate at a guest house. But it was the right move: I shouldn’t be alone — it’s just stupid to risk it for (mostly) ego, and I’d probably have turned back long before I reached my destination otherwise. I’m resigned, and grateful that I can afford to do it.

I know I’m telling this story out of order. I came home from Asia last year, ahead of schedule, to work for a start-up in Los Angeles. When that came to a somewhat abrupt end, I headed back here to finish the trip. I went back to Cambodia first, where I saw the school that I worked to help launch. It’s operational, which is great, but I had some complicated feelings seeing it after all this time. Lots to unpack there, for sure, but let’s instead talk about motorcycles.

I’ve been riding fewer than two years, perhaps 5,000 miles total, in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Los Angeles. So, I’m a beginner. None of those places is “easy,” and I’ve become a pretty good rider: I keep my cool, have good reflexes, make decisions quickly. I’ve studied how to handle a bike, and I can focus deeply for a really long time. I’ve also done a fair bit of yelling into my helmet while something intense is happening.

Nepal is a different animal; it redefines “road.” The road I’m on is the main one between Pokhara, at the foothills of the Himalayas, and Lumbini, near the India border and the birthplace of the Buddha. By all accounts, it’s a “good road,” meaning that 95% is “paved” though mostly without lane lines. There’s usually a straight drop off the cliff with minimal guardrails (to my western sensibilities) on one side, and a deep drainage gutter on the other. Some parts are too narrow for two small trucks to pass each other, though this highway goes through all the towns. At least a third of it is broken or washed out, and every traveler and trucker going any distance in these parts takes it.

What really makes it treacherous are the constant obstacles: goats, pedestrians, monkeys, dogs, cows, bicycles, other motos, children, and chickens come out of nowhere. Trucks and buses avoiding the things on their side are coming head-on into your side, honking wildly — and that’s fucking disturbing, let me tell you. Everyone is always passing everyone else, and “rules” about left/right side, turning, passing, and right-of-way, are suggestions. (I’ve asked. Locals say, “it depends.”)

There are constant huge potholes, long sections more rubble than road, random big rocks, deep muddy tracks, and gravel. Rain too, this time of year. Of course, the road squiggles up and down through the Nepalese mountains, this being the home of the Himalayas. Add it all up and you get the world’s most exciting driving simulation video game. Except I’m actually driving it. Slowly man; very, very slowly. It took 14 hours to ride 125 miles, though that did include selfie, chai, and momo stops, and a wrong turn or two.

Nepal and Nepalis are impossibly beautiful, even without their famous mountains. It’s not just them; it’s also the deep green terraced rice fields, women in bright sarees, men carrying handmade baskets stuffed with so many branches and leaves that they look like a walking bush from behind. There are simple wood and brick houses hanging off improbably high cliffs. There are waterfalls, snaking rivers, and the usual crumbled concrete, faded signs, and trash that all those of us who love Asia deeply appreciate.

So, this ride is scary as hell and, while my confidence grows by every hour and each near miss… well, it’s really hard work and maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It’s easy to die on a motorcycle.

Fear is generally a good thing: your Reptile Brain is screaming that you need to pay attention to something, and get the hell out of there. I’ve been so intimidated on this ride, at times, that I’ve been tempted to somehow leave the bike and climb on a bus. On the other hand, a bus isn’t much safer. but mostly I wouldn’t want to miss a moment of this incredible, fascinating ride, so I’m trusting my Rational Brain to make good use of what my Reptile Brain is bringing to its attention.

On our second day, we came upon hundreds of people, buses, trucks, and motos backed up on the side of the road for a few kilometers. We rode to the front of the line and learned there’d been a landslide about 30 minutes before, and two families had been killed in their cars while driving by. There were still small rocks falling, and a few fell near me. We waited an hour for them to move boulders, crushed vehicles, and bodies to the side. I drove over their blood on this tiny ruined road. It was agonizing.

Before that moment, I thought I’d understood all the risks in Nepal: the curves, holes, trucks, mud, goats, and everything else. But those hazards are just on the surface — literally and figuratively. I’m unlikely to die in a landslide, and I’m unlikely to die on the road tomorrow, but this is a reality check on what it’s like to live in a poor country. The hardship for these beautiful people is dramatic and obvious, and confronts them every day. But the danger is also so deep, buried in the rocks, and can come tumbling down on them at any time, taking any guardrail with it.

I’m on a joyride, a holiday. And I’ll soon retreat for safer ground, while Nepalis will drive motorbikes here as a matter of life, counting themselves lucky enough to own one. It’s reasonable that I’d take this trip because I should see this, remember and learn from it. My friends should hear about it, because we all should help to fix it. I’ll be sure to make it home alive so I can keep working on that.

a good section of the road
another section, waiting for our turn
is it me, or do these milage markers look like gravestones?
Bhadra and me at our destination
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