NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS & PHOTOGR APHS B RUCE J ENKINS

Bik­ing to the foot of Mt Ever­est is an in­trepid jour­ney for body and soul

THE QUOTE EM­BLA­ZONED across the web­site of an ad­ven­ture mo­tor­bike tour com­pany of­fer­ing a 13-day en­durance ride from Kathmandu to Mount Ever­est had me hooked from the out­set and, if I’m hon­est, a bit jit­tery too. “Just you, a mo­tor­cy­cle, mind-si­lenc­ing scenery and a bunch of other peo­ple who are cu­ri­ous enough to want to find out where this ad­ven­ture will take them.”

I’m a mo­tor­bike man from way back but over the decades ca­reer and fam­ily have taken cen­tre stage. By my mid-60s mo­tor bik­ing had dwin­dled to in­fre­quent, mild-man­nered out­ings with mates. A few years ago, I had triple-by­pass heart surgery. Throw that into the mix and my cre­den­tials for ex­treme ad­ven­ture were ques­tion­able.

I didn’t know it at the time but sign­ing up to ride 2400 kilo­me­tres on a Royal En­field Hi­malayan from chaotic Kathmandu across the Nepal/China bor­der into Ti­bet, up as far as Lhasa and back down to Ever­est Base Camp, man­ag­ing rugged roads, chill-to-the bone-weather and high-al­ti­tude air, was go­ing to be a per­sonal game-changer. I lost five ki­los on the tour but what I gained can’t be mea­sured: a mas­sive sense of ac­com­plish­ment and a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the world. And so my life-en­hanc­ing ad­ven­ture be­gan. Twenty-seven fel­low rid­ers, six from my home-base of Hawke’s Bay and a col­lec­tion of Aussies, Brits and Ir­ish, as­sem­bled in Kathmandu with a day-and-a-half to spare be­fore the ac­tion be­gan.

My nerves jan­gled at the thought of rid­ing our mo­tor­bikes out of such a crazy, messy, won­der­ful city where bro­ken build­ings and tem­ples re­main in a state of flux fol­low­ing the dev­as­tat­ing re­gional earthquake of 2015, and cars, cows, trucks, taxis, mopeds and cy­cle rick­shaws con­verge in four-lane road frenzy.

“Any­thing big­ger than you has the right of way and fol­low the per­son in front,” we were ad­vised at our first brief­ing at the ho­tel. At 1.9 me­tres I’m def­i­nitely taller than most Nepalese peo­ple but height was ir­rel­e­vant and I was go­ing to do ex­actly what I was told.

While we waited to be al­lo­cated mo­tor­bikes and for an ori­en­ta­tion ride out of Kathmandu, we max­i­mized our tourist time by hir­ing a guide and a mini­van for the price of a 30-minute taxi ride in New Zealand. The whis­tle-stop tour took us to the an­cient town of Patan listed as a UNESCO World Her­itage site and the holy Buddhist shrine of Swayamb­hu­nath on a hillock over­look­ing the Kathmandu Val­ley be­fore we pulled up in the vicin­ity of a cre­ma­tion cer­e­mony on the banks of the Bag­mati River. I felt awk­ward ob­serv­ing some­thing so deeply per­sonal, but it ap­peared to be a mat­ter-of-fact af­fair. With a body wrapped in or­ange cloth and a pyre it was so at odds with New Zealand tra­di­tions. I felt a long way from home.

The fol­low­ing day with our group visa into Ti­bet sanc­tioned, my own set of wheels and a dummy ride un­der my belt, we rode out of the ho­tel carpark (as salut­ing se­cu­rity staff halted the traf­fic) and headed up the scenic 140km Friend­ship High­way to the Ti­betan bor­der.

The earthquake in 2015 de­stroyed the Friend­ship Bridge be­tween Nepal and Ti­bet, clos­ing that bor­der to for­eign tourists for two years. A new cross­ing opened in late 2017 and our party was be­lieved to be the first or­ga­nized mo­tor­cy­cle tour group in the world to use it.

We were warned that trav­el­ing to the bor­der was the tough­est leg of our Hi­malayan es­capade and no-one in our party would dis­agree: seven hours of high-de­mand rid­ing on raw roads with hair­pin bends, blind curves, pot­holes, slips and bit­ing rain.

‘ You signed up for a chal­lenge not an easy- go­ing hol­i­day’

My hee­bie-jee­bies dis­ap­peared. I didn’t have time to fret since in­tense con­cen­tra­tion was the name of the game. We barely got out of sec­ond gear and we al­ways stuck with a mate – any­thing could hap­pen in such hairy ter­rain. A buddy sys­tem was our mantra through­out the trip. “Look out for each other. First on the scene at an in­ter­sec­tion waits for the others to catch up.”

Our digs for the first night in the vil­lage of Syabrubesi were ba­sic but I don’t think any­one had trou­ble sleeping. In the morn­ing the bor­der ac­cess – not un­like an air­port con­trol point – was se­ri­ous stuff as the Chi­nese author­i­ties re­viewed then rub­ber-stamped 27 for­eign rid­ers on 27 In­dian-reg­is­tered bikes.

Our own me­chan­i­cal and med­i­cal team trav­eled with us through­out the jour­ney but in Ti­bet we were joined by a lo­cal sup­port crew who trans­lated for us, car­ried our lug­gage, lunches, snacks of sweet bis­cuits and hot tea, and guided us through 10 days of lu­nar land­scape which will never leave my mind. Think Ton­gariro Na­tional Park on steroids – from New Tin­gri, Xigaze and Lhasa to Ever­est Base Camp and Gyirong – with moun­tain­ous 5000-me­tre Hi­malayan hill climbs to boot (Ao­raki Mt Cook is 3700 me­tres).

One minute you felt you were solo on the moon, the next minute smil­ing, wav­ing Ti­betans were herd­ing goats along­side the wide, well-con­structed sealed roads that were bet­ter than most state high­ways at home. It was such a jux­ta­po­si­tion: prim­i­tive life along­side Ti­bet’s mod­ern trans­port in­fra­struc­ture funded by China.

The days were long, stren­u­ous and up­lift­ing. We were now av­er­ag­ing 100kph. Our ac­com­mo­da­tion was first-class, Ti­betanstyle hotels with a strong West­ern in­flu­ence. With our time­frame tight and our bod­ies tired, we dined in-house. Noth­ing fancy but nour­ish­ing – stir-fried veges, rice, bok choy, broths, chilli and chicken. Cof­fee was all but non-ex­is­tent; the sta­ple bev­er­age was tsampa – roasted bar­ley flour mixed with a salty, but­tery tea made with yak but­ter.

Mid­way through we had a rest day in the stun­ning city of Lhasa where 24 hours was never go­ing to be enough. I climbed the 2500 steps up to the sev­enth-cen­tury Po­tala Palace, once the res­i­dence of the Dalai Lama, as if in slow mo­tion be­cause of the lack of oxy­gen in the air. None in our group suf­fered al­ti­tude sick­ness thanks to the tablets we were ad­vised to take, and I kept de­hy­dra­tion at bay with a cru­cial three to four litres of elec­trolytes and flu­ids each day.

On day 11 there re­mained one high­light to tick off. That great big hunk of a rock – Ever­est – the whole im­pe­tus for our ride. And it didn’t dis­ap­point. The day was clear. The beauty of the moun­tain took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes think­ing of those who’d lost their lives up there and of Sir Ed­mund Hilary’s legacy. In the short time we were at Ever­est Base Camp, a 70-year-old man with no legs scaled the sum­mit and one death was re­ported on the slopes.

The camp set­tle­ment had a com­mer­cial vibe with lo­cals ped­dling hand­i­craft at in­flated prices and I was happy to pay – this, af­ter all, is their liveli­hood. That night in front of the yak dung-fu­eled stove at our ac­com­mo­da­tion, Rong­buk Monastery, the high­est monastery in the world, I sipped a ginger and honey tea and watched the last light leave Ever­est. How lucky could we be?

On the morn­ing of day 12, we scraped ice off our mo­tor­bike seats and tilted our minds home­wards. Fight­ing off the cold for most of the day we rode a sec­tion of the Old Silk Road as we neared Gyirong for our last night in Ti­bet. Plans for a faster route back to Kathmandu were scut­tled by news that Nepal had been hit by se­vere thun­der­storms and land­slides were block­ing the road. I was ner­vous about re­liv­ing that gnarly first chal­lenge but sur­prised to find a fort­night on the bike had me in the groove. It was eas­ier.

Back at our ho­tel in Kathmandu I en­joyed the best cold beer of my life and toasted an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence – nerve-wrack­ing, in­spi­ra­tional, un­be­liev­able. Would I do it again? A fel­low rider said to me, “You signed up for a chal­lenge not an easy-go­ing hol­i­day and you got it. Now you have sto­ries to tell when you get home.”

The sto­ries are still be­ing told in­clud­ing one about the ad­dic­tive­ness of ex­treme ad­ven­ture. Oh yes, the Roof of In­dia ride on a Royal En­field Hi­malayan mo­tor­cy­cle is up next.

The fleet of 27 mo­tor­cy­cles parks up out­side the Rong­buk Monastery guest­house – the group’s rel­a­tively lux­u­ri­ous ac­com­mo­da­tion for the night near Ever­est Base Camp.

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