Once back in Kathmandu it was time to reverse all the modifications to the bike and attempt to make him feel a bit better about his new dusty, wheezy and squeaky demeanor. We also had new, exciting plans to think about. Whilst we were researching cargo options to continue our journey, Nickiy had made some enquiries elsewhere. Synchronicity played a strong hand and we found a group of people who were organising a journey into Tibet. Then into China and then into Kyrgyzstan. The Tibet border crossing had moved after the 2015 ‘quake, and the new crossing had not been open to foreigners. Until now.
This opened up a load of new possibilities. Our other land routes west would involve Pakistan (impossible visa and sketchy) then Iran (possible), or Afghanistan (definitely a no), or China and the Stans (some impossible, others fine). A trip through Tibet and China would get us to the heart of the Stans then we could cross the Caspian sea to quickly touch the dusty lands of Turkey and the Mediterranean. We wouldn’t need to crate the bike and fly it anywhere. Best of all, we would get to see the amazing Tibet. With our own eyes.
Analysis of this oriental route convinced us that we needed to get ready for high altitude life. Plus we wanted to be sure we could get to the Tibetan border easily. So we decided to do some reconnaissance and visit some sights, to the north of the city this time.
In a parable you may have heard before, we plotted our routes on Google and loaded them into the trip computer. Having visited the very sacred Budhanilkantha statue (Hindu not Buddhist) in his water bed, we left the guest house and began following the 50km downhill route towards Trisuli. This started well then we got stopped at a military checkpoint. Fearing the quiet road led only to an army barracks, I got ready to turn around. Eventually Nickiy overcame the language hurdle with the Gurkha and discovered that beyond the soldier was a National Park. It was only a matter of paying to get into the park. This seemed like an unexpected bonus as we would enjoy a beautiful park and get to where we wanted to go. This was not to transpire however.
Not far past the entry barrier, we turned off into a tiny village and dropped steeply into the next valley. The tarmac was replaced with rocks and dirt and was lumpy, at best. Quickly this path veered to one side and became a single-track path. Nickiy dismounted and scouted ahead as usual. She was gone a long time so I began to think I had misinterpreted the next steps. I began to follow tentatively on the bike and after a bit of a scary section I spotted her walking back up the hill. She was waving madly using the ‘signal’ from Team America. Further down the hill was certain motorbike carnage, she confessed. A river-stripped, rutted track awaited. With ruts so deep the bike would be swallowed up and wedged forever. Plus a cliff drop if you were lucky enough to ride above and beside the ruts. So we turned around, swore at Google and tried as best as we could to find another route on the phone. Was this really a ‘car’ route?
There was another road through the park that theoretically met up with our rutted road deeper in the valley. Once the park checkpoint soldiers had ripped our tickets in two, we pressed on and found the going much better. It was challenging, but seemed to be much more like a jeep track should be….you know, wide enough for a jeep. But then it became a river bed again. Large, spherical, slippery boulders carpeted the slope in front of us. Scoutmaster walked off to get some exercise and, presumably, come back with good news. Nope. We had to turn Stein around again on this steep and uneven slope. Then we had to ride back out, embarrassingly waving at the soldiers after spending $18 on park entry and enjoying none of it.
Three hours and 18 very hard kilometres after leaving earlier, we were standing outside the same guest house again by the Hindu statue in his water bed. There were now three of us on the bike; Nickiy, me and my cold. Defeated, like being back at Red Rock West, we ate breakfast and studied more digital maps. We would have to go back to the Kathmandu ring road and try again. Google would not route us a different way towards Trisuli via Kakani. We could see a main road but, however hard we tried dragging with our finger, Google squirmed elsewhere. So we chose to go our way, regardless. And there was nothing wrong with the road, a few landslide remains not withstanding. Taxis, buses, trucks and tractors were all using it. Thanks Google. We relaxed that evening at Kakani, which is famous for two things; views of the Himalayas, and a very bad plane crash.
Aeroplanes do not like mountains and Nepal is full of jagged and steep crags. Subsequently, Nepal suffers more aviation disasters than it should. Blame is often thrown around, but it isn’t usually directed at the mountains. In peak monsoon in July 1992, Thai Airways flight 311 was inbound into Kathmandu airport when the pilot couldn’t get the flaps to operate. The crater rim around the city requires a steep descent, landing under full flaps. The pilot decided to divert to Calcutta (Kolkata), but 21 seconds later managed to get the flaps working properly. By this time he had missed the descent profile and was too high to make the landing. Asking for permission to turn around and commence their approach again, they never received the correct radio guidance from the control tower in Kathmandu. Taking matters into their own hands, they banked right and climbed then checked-in again with the tower. Flying in heavy rain and cloud by instruments only and with no ground radar for the ATC to verify their position, somehow they didn’t just turn by 180 degrees, but did a full circle over the airport. The crew lost situational awareness of how to get back to the landing approach waypoint, called Romeo. They needed to turn back but instead carried on past the airport. The ATC didn’t think much more of it and was waiting to hear from TG311 when it was back in the correct position for runway approach. Meanwhile a different control centre took over managing the plane at its higher altitude and assumed the stated bearing was correct for approach, not knowing, or verifying which side of the airport the plane actually was. On board, the co-pilot was trying to locate the approach waypoint Romeo using a problematic flight computer. When they eventually got it working, confusingly it brought up two Romeos; one ahead, one behind. By the time the co-pilot realised their navigational error, the pilot may not have listened to his concerns. The plane’s ground radar warned them briefly of what lay ahead, but the mountains were too steep to pull away from. The hillside was 4,850m high and the plane was flying 1km below that. All lives were lost and no piece of the plane larger than one metre was found. The wreckage still lies in the Langtang region of Nepal and many of the victim’s bodies ended up in a mass graveyard in Kakani. Engraved stones grimly list the names of many of the dead; individual travellers, whole families, 14 nationalities in total. It is an eerie place. Peaceful, yet sad.
We headed further NW early the next day on a suspiciously quiet dirt road. There were some slippery, lakey bits, and we worried we’d come across an impenetrable blockade just before joining the valley road. Google had successfully seeded our minds with navigational doubt. We emerged however, unscathed into the riverside town of Trisuli and grabbed a room at the first hotel we spied. My impaired lungs had not enjoyed inhaling the talc-like earth-powder and Stein was pretty pissed off too. It was time to return to Kathmandu.
Our goal had been to check out the route options to the Tibet border. Of course there is no such thing as a wrong result; it was all valuable data. Out of three roads, one was a no-go, one was ok but slow and the third, back to the city, would turn out to be the best. Isn’t that always the way these things work out? I guess we can’t blame Google for that!