Richard vs Motorcycles

Trip Start Sep 27, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Hotel Red Planet

Flag of Nepal  ,
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nothing much has changed in Kathmandu, I still like the place and throughout this week there has not been one time when I wished I was still alone up in the mountains. I enjoyed my trek, looking back is always easier but it is not something I would wish to be my life and just thinking of the hundreds of porters I saw no doubt walking exactly the same route as me with ten times the luggage for well over the hundredth time, probably more, sends a shiver down my spine and fills me with a mixture of respect and sheer loneliness.

The Red Planet Hotel seem to be pleased to have me back and I was impressed that they remembered who I was and seemed very eager to see the photos from my little month long journey into the mountains, in fact the thing I was looking forward to more than anything was looking at them myself and this led to quite a remarkable series of events which enabled me to make another good Kathmandu friend.

In fact this isn't quite true as we has actually all met on the trail itself a few days ago but not in any great length of time and did not even trade names but it was still a nice little coincidence. I was in a coffee shop called Himalayan Java, it was all very smart but I could make a Hot Chocolate last from eleven in the morning until five in the evening and they had a fairly decent Wi-Fi connection so I tended to spend most of my days here going through the twelve hundred or so pictures I recorded on the trek. One day I was doing just this with a photo of my final hike up to Gorak Shep which showed the Everest massif behind a footpath being walked by a lonely hiker dressed in red displayed on the screen of my laptop when someone approached me from behind and without seeing my face asked me when the photo was taken, I explained that it was about a week ago at Gorak Shep and the man laughed, he happened to be the person in the photo! I recognized him as soon as I turned around as we had spoken briefly at base camp but I was quite amazed that he had spotted himself in my screen and he invited me to join him and another chap I recognized from the hike, Joe, who was from Canada and had hiked down from Gorak Shep with the Bulgarians and I before departing on a longer route back to Kathmandu.

After a trip to the Indian Embassy where I applied for a six-month visa, I spent the rest of my time in Kathmandu hanging around the various cafes and bars of Thamel. I had planned to spend three months in Nepal but frankly apart from heading off on another trek, which was not something that filled me with excitement in the slightest, there was not a huge amount to do. I have no interest in Tibet or Bhutan due to the ridiculous fees charged for the mandatory tours of the countries that, while interesting could just not be considered due to my rather restrictive budget. No, the only way was to move on and that meant move down. I had had a good run and though I paid for a ninety-day visa, I had racked up just over half of that so it wasn’t like I had totally wasted my money, besides, the only other visa I could have got was the one month one so I would have needed to extend it anyway.

There was time for one more adventure though as Joe and I decided to rent out a couple of motorbikes and explore the Kathmandu valley. I had never ridden a motorbike before and was slightly worried by the gears which I had never really understood though strangely hitting the road on two wheels for the first time in one of the world’s most congested cities never even gave me the slightest worry. We looked at a few rental outlets all of which seemed a bit seedy and then managed to find one which was even worse but we managed to haggle on the price a bit so we decided to go with Mr Buddha, which probably wasn’t his real name. I opted for a moped in the end though Joe went for a full on 150cc Yamaha and said I could swap with him half way which sounded like a good cheap way to learn how to ride a bike.

Just starting out was hard enough as the outlet was right in the center of Thamel with hundreds of people, cars and other bikes already on the street, talk about a baptism of fire and I nearly managed to drive straight into a handicraft store before I realized how to tease the throttle and slowly make my way out into the city proper. Now if Thamel was rather daunting then the streets of Kathmandu were something of nightmares! It wasn’t actually as hard or as scary as I thought, certainly not on the same level as driving in Amman, Jordan as on a bike you have so much less to think about and after all I have ridden mountain bikes since I could walk and as soon as I forgot about the stigma of the motorbike and realized that I was probably driving slower than I would be if I were actually on my pushbike back home (I used to race the roads each day from work trying to beat my time from the previous day with very little regard to my own safety) and I had a crash helmet on here.

In fact if I had to use one word to describe the experience it would be fun, give me another and it would be big fun. I loved it! It was like a theme park ride or a three dimensional video game! Everywhere I looked something would be happening as perhaps fifty vehicles of various sizes came out of turns and then jostled together to fit into a road perhaps with room enough for eight of them to travel next to one and other. To my left there would be a bus filled with people looking down on me with conspicuous confusion, to my right a taxi with an irate passenger yelling directions (what difference this made in total bedlam I have no clue) while behind me would be a truck barging its way through anything with the nerve to get in its way. Pulling out and around slower traffic came with the constant fear that you would be rammed off the road by one of these iron beasts approaching from the unlimited blind spot in my bike that had no rear view mirror. And this was just the traffic you could see, such was the pollution and dust that I spent perhaps three out of every ten seconds with my eyes shut as the thick air assaulted my face, before long we had to stop and purchased knock off Ray Ban’s from the side of the road to cure the beach which was slowly accumulating in my corneas.

The moped was so easy to wiz through the traffic on and long stretches of roads became private races between the ten or so other riders in the ever-moving bubble which never strayed more than twenty feet from my face, who could get to the quickly-closing gap between the two busses first, who could get to the front of the queue ready to race across the traffic lights first. Rivalries started, red Honda, blue Bajaj, you would think you got away from them but at the first hold up they would drive smugly past, the rider giving what probably wasn’t a look but felt like it at the time. I imagine having to do this every day would either be an absolute trial or, as I saw it, an endless battle between me and everyone else, which, here in the mighty congestion felt like me against the world.

We were not exactly sure where we were going but headed in the rough direction of 'out of town’, that being the direction with the most hills in the distance. Kathmandu being surrounded by hills could have caused some confusion, but generally going in a straight line and sticking to it seemed to work and after stopping for a (surprisingly good) burger at a local supermarket café we consulted a map and decided to head for a small hilltop village high above the city at around 2,500m. We had no idea if we could make it and the bikes had to be back at six in the evening but we gave ourselves four hours to make it leaving two hours to barge our way back into Kathmandu.

It is surprising how quickly the city shifts from choking fumes to rolling pastures. The hills are quite simply beautiful and all of a sudden I was transported to rural Nepal and not the rural Nepal of the mountains but somehow more ‘real’ rural Nepal, not that the mountains are not real, but here in the rice terraces, irrigated into flooded squares mirroring the sky in a patchwork of silver it seemed for the first time that I was in the true Asian countryside, like the mountains had been some freakish sideshow and that this was the real thing.

Navigating these surroundings was a sheer pleasure as the temperature, while still balmy, cooled with every meter gained, as the road became a track, which became a muddy slip needing all of my balance to avoid capsizing the bike into a pool of brown sludge. Every now and then a village appeared to as much bring relief that we were on the right path as well as a provide a temporary road which my rather underpowered moped seemed to thrive on at least for the moment. In fact I had had rather enough fun on the little Honda and switched with Joe for a time onto the bike. After stalling about thirty times (a muddy hill start is probably not the ideal scenario to learn about finger clutches) I soon got the hang of it and raced to the summit of the hill, leaving Joe in my wake as the little moped coughed its way in my mud tracks.

The view from the top was fantastic, the Himalayas clearly visible in the distance albeit nameless ridges rather than any famous faces, still, if there is snow, in my book, it’s a proper mountain so in this respect we had ourselves a grand audience some fifty miles or so to the north behind the familiar green hills I had become accustomed to during the early parts of the previous month’s trekking, indeed if anyone wanted the beauty of the middle hills of Nepal without the effort then surely an enjoyable ride out of town for an hour or two before stopping here would give pretty much the same experience for none of the physical outlay. Cheating of course though.

Just before we crested the hill and began our descent back down toward Kathmandu via a different, all paved route, we past a quaint little village which would have been picture postcard if it were not for perhaps the least attractive tea house playing what can only be described as German techno music at full volume from two huge industrial sized speakers placed outside its doors. Quite what its owner, a middle aged woman hoped to achieve by this marketing strategy I am not sure, you could certainly ‘hear’ her restaurant from a long way away but I am not entirely sure that is such a good thing, perhaps a big rave expo was in town and she was just playing along? I am not sure this is a likely scenario though.

Coming down the mountain crisscrossing along smooth roads with Kathmandu ever so slowly raising up toward the horizon deep in the distance surrounded by the valley that bears its name should have been an amazing experience, and in a way it was but for quite the wrong reasons, I managed to crash the bike.

Now crashing the bike itself did not hurt at all but hitting the ground, having a bike fall on top of you and then hitting a car did rather more damage though, as I write this I still claim that it was not entirely my fault. I was a victim of circumstance and coincidence that is all, I am like every guilty man out there with an excuse to shout to the world! It was of course my fault for riding a bike with no license, lessons or insurance but I was, if anything, a bit unlucky. A burst water pipe, the only wet piece of road we saw on the entire journey had caused a two or three meter patch of road to become slippery, a patch I managed to hit at exactly the same time that a car came up on the wrong side of the road, my side, in front of me round a blind corner. I braked; using the front brake, big mistake, the bike slipped from under me and threw me off before landing on me as I skidded into the car and it into a bush,

My first thought was obviously the damage to the bike though this instantly ceased when I checked all my teeth were intact and then realized that my arm, chest and ass hurt like they were on fire and I couldn’t feel below my right elbow. The occupants of the car, a white Toyota, ran to my aide (Joe had been in front of me and missed the whole episode) and helped me up, giving me some rubbing alcohol for the open wounds in my arms (it was here I realized I had just taken off the shirt given to me by Jess in Uganda, my mood lifted from the knowledge that damaging my arms was better than damaging my favorite piece of clothing) which in no way eased the pain. I was able to stand though and in a blur from somewhere I had received my bike and was able to survey the damage to this, the shock of the accident ceasing to more realistic thoughts of how much I would have to pay to fix it. I was surprised, the only damage seemed to be a slight scuff around the plastic light surround, nothing some mud wouldn’t cure I thought, ‘Yes sir, had a great day off roading on the bike, sorry about the mess!’ surely he could not charge me for some dirt?

The dirt managed to make the scuff look far worse, collecting in the indentations and I washed it off before slowly meeting up with Joe who had stopped at the next corner awaiting who he must have thought was the world’s slowest motorcycle driver. I quickly traded back to the scooter, my experimentation with a ‘grown ups bike’ well and truly over and we made our way far more gently down the mountain road.

Let none of this take away the sheer majesty of this journey though, the mountain road just before the pink of sunset was just beautiful, dusty Kathmandu looking like a pearl in its green valley surrounded by flat rice terraces with the odd farm fire sending up plumes of white smoke on the horizon, it looked like something out of a postcard and with the air in my face and wind in my hair the whole experience was up there with the best of my entire time travelling the world.

Inevitably we got lost on the way back to Thamel. Kathmandu itself was no problem and again I had a great time competing with the fellow cyclists on the main streets after a dusky and dusty entrance to the city through the backstreets past Bhaktapur and the city airport. Thamel though seemed to elude us and despite my best efforts at remembering, we managed several circuits before we finally found the route back to the strange little tourist center of Nepal’s sprawling capital and the path to the cycle rental place. We were late, but we hoped that this might take the managers attention away from the damage to the bikes. We were wrong.

‘What happened to the front!?’ He said, looking very upset indeed Not the best start to the return of our motorbike which I had crashed into a car and attempted to cover up with dirt and by being quite late back at the rental shop, not the best start at all.

It was pretty obvious that we had not got away with it from the first moment we reappeared and the fact that we were late was also noted and obviously didn’t help, I am not sure why I thought it would and I knew at once that we were in just a little bit of trouble. The bicycle rental man was an ugly fat fellow and seemed in no mood at all to humor us, he wasn’t the friendliest of chaps when we were renting the bikes, just how he would be when I bought one of them back a bit broken, I was about to find out!

It seemed obvious that this was something the rental manager had been through before, there was no shouting or questions as to what had happened, just a very methodical series of events. He looked over the bike and also told us that we had bent a metal safety bar, which presumably was in place to stop the bike getting further damaged in the event of an accident. To be fair I obviously broke it but we had not been shown the bike before we rented it and we had no way of knowing if this was something he said to everyone who came back to the garage, cue a rather large argument in which we attempted to say that we could not possibly of caused such damage, admitting only to the damage to the front of the bike which now looked to be just damage to a sticker on the front of the bike.

The manager telephoned who he said was Yamaha and got various prices, we were to pay 4,500 rupees for the front light surround and 1,500 for the metal support brace. We argued that it was just sticker that was damaged on the front of the bike and would just replace this, the manager said this would be ok but it had to be the same sticker which he knew could not be purchased without the rest of the part and even when we offered 2,000 rupees so he could get a new sticker he bluntly refused and said with a rye smile that if we brought him the sticker or the part tomorrow he would refund us that part of the money he wanted.

As Joe had rented the bike in his name we had to pretend that he had had the argument (me putting Jess’ shirt back on to hide the blood on my arms and moving very infrequently to hide the limp I had managed to acquire for myself) so whenever I tried to fight my cause, knowing I was the one going to have to pay, the manager became very irate and insisted he only speak to Joe and not this ‘rude rude man’, I could have returned the compliment. We had little choice though, he had taken Joe’s passport as collateral and he needed it to pick up his Indian visa in the morning, I was going to have to pay the man.

We retreated to a cash point and tried to think of a plan. While we knew full well that I had damaged the bike, we had no idea if we had caused all of the damage and also had no clue if we were being quoted fair prices, the manager really did have us by the balls on this one, even if we returned with the parts, which we had absolutely no idea of where to find, he could very easily have turned around and said, ‘what money?’ and laughed us away. We had to hatch a plan.

Joe agreed to return to the manager alone with my money, we felt that he may be able to sweet talk a discount without my ‘rude’ presence while I worked on getting proof of the exchange. I had already told Joe to make sure he got a receipt, but to back it up, I decided to go a bit rouge and spy on the whole proceedings. Borrowing some dark glasses and a jacket from Joe and turning my cap around backwards, I grabbed my camera and posed as the most conspicuous man in all of Nepal, I looked like a homosexual teenage Neo from The Matrix, and quite what a tourist would be doing in dark glasses, taking photos in the dark of night in backstreet Kathmandu is beyond me, but looking back it seemed like a fun distraction to the whole thing and my aim was to take a photo of Joe, who had agreed to do it very slowly and deliberately, handing over the money to the manager so we had some proof to go to the police with if he tried to rob us blind and not refund it.

I think I did a good job. I felt ridiculous, sweated profusely in Joes winter jacket in the summer heat and got several hundred concerned looks from other travellers, but I managed to catch the whole ‘deal’ in glorious, if slightly blurred detail. Joe played his role fantastically and handed over the money in the most over the top way imaginable so I knew when to shoot, it was like a Hollywood explosion in slow motion and must have looked rather unusual to everyone concerned apart from the two of us who were in on the act.

With the deal done there was little we could do but go and have a few well deserved beers and while the accident had hurt me and cost me about £50, the whole cloak and dagger exchange had injected enough fun into the whole mess to make it at least the best of a bad situation though both of us were resigned to the fact that we would never be able to get the part and see if the manager really was robbing us.

We may have thought too soon though as the following day, after sitting for seven or so hours at the Indian visa office where I was surprisingly granted the six month visa that I so desired, we decided to walk back to Thamel along a road where, the previous day on the bikes, we had seen a number of motorcycle repair shops, it would be foolish to at least not check to see if any of them had the part I had paid so considerably for. It turned out that they did not, but one of them suggested we try the Yamaha main dealer, a twenty minute walk or so past Thamel, which he thought had a spares section. The bike was a few years old so it was a long shot, but as it was so close, again, we thought ‘why not’.

What happened next was a series of unusual, perhaps even remarkable events. The Yamaha shop did indeed have a spare parts section, which looked like an industrial trade counter in the basement and consisted of old bikes and a couple of men behind a desk which sat in front of an endless room of manila boxes, each catalogued and labeled with some precision. We explained our problem, half expecting to be met with confusion and ridicule but surprisingly, all three of the workers in their red Yamaha t shirts, spoke perfect English and fully understood our problem, laughing at my inexperience in the accident, it seems that pulling the wrong brake and falling is part of the hazing process of motorcycle riding and I was met with sympathy if a little teasing which was all part of the banter. I explained the part we needed, helped by a bike in the basement I was able to point at. I didn’t know the age of the bike; just that it was a Yamaha Gladiator and I had seen others on the street that looked better, so I estimated it was the previous generation model, perhaps three years old. It was here that something rather amazing happened. The man behind the counter spoke with his colleagues and told me that the part retailed at 1,400 rupees, three thousand less than we were charged for, but there were two Gladiator models and the other was indeed more expensive at around three thousand. I was thrilled at this revelation but with no proof I needed something to tell the man which model of bike it actually was and asked for a magazine or perhaps the internet so we could track it down but one of his colleagues came forward and grabbed a box that was sitting on the desk they stood behind and opened it, ‘was it like this?’ he asked. Inside the box was the exact front piece to the exact bike we had rented, brand new and complete with the right stickers the bike rental manager seemed so adamant he wanted replaced. It was the only box on the desk, it was there when we arrived and out of the thousands that lay on the shelves behind them, the whole situation seemed like it was somehow made for us to find.

It wasn’t of course, we were told that someone else had ordered the part and it was awaiting collection (not the same man as we were enquiring for!) but it was at least a huge coincidence and we were told that this part indeed cost 1,400 rupees to buy and that due to our situation, they would even fit it for free if the bike rental manager wished to drive the bike down. Fabulous news!

All that was left was for some evidence. Fortunately I had my Apple Macbook Pro with me which I had taken to pass the time at the Indian Embassy and so, using its webcam I took a photo of the part and got the Yamaha guys to write down the price so we could present it to the rental manager. We had done it! We had our proof and thanked the Yamaha guys before marching back to Thamel for one last assault.

The manager was not there when we arrived, but we were confident and in battle mode, we insisted he was called and that he come down immediately. We were so confident we waited for him in his own shop, smiling as he approached on the other, newer Yamaha he owned. He looked quite surprised to see us standing there.

We explained the entire story of the part and that we would not be leaving until we received three thousand rupees back that he had effectively stolen from us. Of course he didn’t believe us, that part was very expensive he said and we could not have found it anywhere in Thamel, he had phoned Yamaha and they said it had to be ordered in from India. We were prepared for this and I showed him the picture, he said nothing, just stared in shock that these two tourists had dedicated their time to actually taking him up on his proposition. He tried to argue that fitting costs would  be too much money so we told him of Yamaha’s offer, handing him their number if he wanted to call them right there and then. We showed him the picture, we told him we had evidence of him taking our money and we showed him the receipt he had drawn up Joe. He had nothing to come back on and finally, after another long pause where he stared at the photos, the receipt and the floor, he agreed, though we had to give him the receipt and delete the photos. A small price to pay, and obviously he had no idea that photos can be copied. He handed Joe the three thousand Rupees and I held out my hand for him to shake, I did not like him but at least he had stuck to his promise, even if at the time he made it, he must have had absolutely no idea that we would actually come back to make him honor it. He did not offer his hand in return, instead looking me right in the eye and saying in a stern voice, ‘fuck off and die.’ Although I had no intention of the latter, never seeing his face again was one of the few things he had said in the last two days that I was actually in full agreement with and we both left with a spring in our step, he had just paid for me to have a couple of nights of good food before I left for India.

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