Having left Swayambunath at around 8am we arrived in Hetauda at 8:30pm, hot, tired and dusty, having lost several cyclists to accidents in the dark. Day one of the Tour de’ Lumbini had finally finished…
A friend of mine had roped me into joining the Tour de’ Lumbini, a 4-day, 360km cycle rally, from Kathmandu to Lumbini. It is essentially a pilgrimage by bicycle to the birthplace of Buddha – the messenger of peace – to promote the tour slogan ‘Pedal for Peace’. Fifty or so intrepid souls gathered with our bicycles for the starting ceremony where we were blessed by monks for a safe journey ahead. Naturally we started around an hour late in a fairly chaotic bunch negotiating the steep, narrow back streets out of Kathmandu. Around two hours later we had barely made it to the city limits, not helped by the unfortunate group of Thai cyclists who had joined the rally on their steel-framed road bikes unaware of the amount of unpaved road we would have to cover.
The adventure level increased as we cycled up to the cable car at Thankot where we would have the luxury of being towed 2.5km up to the top of the Chandragiri Hills. Not being a fan of cable cars, I would have preferred the long, tortuous cycle ride to the high winds and power outages that kept us up there for more than half an hour jolting and swaying far too frequently for my liking. We all regrouped at the top before embarking on a bone-shaking descent an then undulating through Newari villages. A big lunch of dhal bhat set us up for the 15km ascent to Simbhanjyang, at 2500m, before the long descent to Hetauda. It was already after 5pm when we restarted, but surely the 20-25km “all downhill” couldn’t take that long.
The first crash occurred in front of me as one rider hit the sand on a corner and went down badly on his wrist. From this point we were, rather unsuccessfully, asked to ride slowly, in single file with no overtaking. As night fell we were sharing headlights as many of us had not expected to be riding in the dark… Luckily I had one of the support vehicles behind me most of the time lighting the way. Eventually most of the bedraggled group arrived in our hotel in Hetauda, the rest arriving in the backup bus either injured or having opted not to cycle in the dark. After a cold shower I was definitely ready for bed.
The following day was a flat ride from Hetauda to Chitwan, which passed fairly uneventfully, albeit with orders to ride in single file, as we were on the main highway, constantly being ignored. It was clear that Nepalis cycle as they drive. The excitement of not knowing what was about to happen in front of you helped pass the time at least.
We stopped for a delicious home cooked lunch in one of the rider’s family’s home eaten from leaf-plates sitting in the garden under jack fruit trees. The only disturbing part was the amount of photos the Nepalese were taking of me and the other British lady on the ride trying to casually eat rice and dhal with our hands…
We finished the ride in Chitwan, spread between several homestays. Drinking wood apple juice, being served water by the Nepal army and sharing a bed with two ladies I had only just met, were all just part of the new experiences. Unfortunately, I didn’t last through the Tharu cultural show, that of course did not start anywhere near the scheduled time of 9pm, as I was, again, definitely ready for bed.
Day three saw us setting out on a washboard road to stop after a couple of kilometres for another ceremony. We were getting used to these as locals welcomed us into their towns, gave us drinks and snacks, and local dignitaries and people of import shared speeches with us, which I couldn’t understand. These ceremonies often involved being given tikkas, the red dot of vermillion paste on the forehead, given as a symbol of welcome, and khatas, the Buddhist ceremonial scarves, given as a symbol of welcome or farewell. Another couple of kilometres back on the highway and we stopped at The Art of Living Happiness Centre with a beautiful temple where for all the selfies being taken it was like herding cats trying to get the riders back together again. By around 10am we had covered 5 kilometres in around two hours. We undulated our way along the highway with a gentle, but hot, 6km climb up to our lunch spot where more dhal bhat was consumed to assist us for the rest of the ride. At the rate we set off we were going to arrive at our destination of Butwal by around 3pm. Well, maybe 4pm. Oh, wait another ceremony. Maybe 5pm. We arrived at the hotel around 6:30pm with time for a shower before another enormous plate of dhal bhat.
The final morning had one of the rally organisers rousing the riders with his battle cry of “Tour de Lumbini?” to which we all responded cheerfully and loudly “Pedal for Peace!” holding our two fingers in various portrayals of the peace sign. Our group had expanded for the final stage to Lumbini, on Buddha’s birthday, and we filled the streets of Butwal begin talked at again by local people of note. During this my fellow riders were loading up my jersey pockets with cartons of juice and biscuits that were being handed out.
We made it only a few kilometers down the road before we were stopped by another welcoming party, only this time around the speeches there was local Magar music and dancing, which was far more entertaining. My colleagues continued to load up my jersey pockets and I ended up with four cartons of fruit juice, a liter of water, a packet of biscuits and six bananas. I became known as “Kera Kumari” (banana goddess). The next stop came shortly after the previous one, but again we were welcomed by local musicians and beautifully dressed ladies giving us more tikkas and khatas and the party was in full swing.
Amazingly, by hook or by crook, by bicycle or by bus, we all made it to Lumbini where we listened to the Prime Minister give a speech (for Buddha’s birthday ceremony as opposed to just for us this time), had more dhal bhat (handed out free to pilgrims) and had a lesson from a monk (which I also couldn’t understand).
We loaded the bikes on the bus, had one last meal of dhal bhat and then headed back to Kathmandu.
I hadn’t known what to expect from the event, but it was typically Nepali in style – somewhat chaotic, yet it somehow works, and incredibly fun and friendly. For a nation relatively new to cycling I can only hope the event grows in strength and I can take part again with my multitude of new cycling friends. As a group we’d learned to ride in single file too. Almost.