"Of the gladdest moments in human life is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood. Afresh dawns the morn of life."- Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)
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It is with this spirit that I venture forth to explore the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan - known as Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon - and some of the far reaches in Nepal and northern India, on a vintage-styled Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc motorcycle. Our group meets at the hilltop Summit Hotel in storied Kathmandu, Nepal. It's an eclectic bunch composed of Germans, who live in France and Vietnam, a British expatriate, who lives in Abu Dhabi, a Spanish airline pilot, a California couple and yours truly.
After introductions, a hearty dinner and trip briefing, we're off to bed. However, one of the cruel ironies of jet lag is that you can be exhausted yet unable to sleep. Following a long first night, we set out early for the trip of a lifetime. Starting this journey of great expectations, we share a palpable sense of excitement and apprehension about the unknown adventures that lie ahead.
Kathmandu - Lahan, 180 Miles
Severe monsoonal storms have washed out the roads along our intended route, taking out a portion of the main highway for about 15 kilometers. Changing plans, we depart for Lahan instead of Hetauda and encounter some rough dirt roads as soon as we leave Kathmandu.
Due to high fuel prices, vendors "cut" the gasoline with paint thinner and kerosene, and the Enfields are belching smoke and running poorly. My bike is hard to start and keeps stalling, then fouls a spark plug, the first of several. Will it be like this the entire trip?
The hustle and bustle of Kathmandu soon gives way to the unhurried pace of rural villages and farms. After lunch we head south toward the India border before turning eastward to Lahan, where sand, gravel, ruts and several stream crossings challenge our riding skills. There have been a few problems and a minor spill, so everyone is concerned about what's coming; but our spirits remain high as we reach the austere Goduti Hotel, which isn't on the normal itinerary.
Lahan - Dharan via Kosi River Crossing, 66 Miles
Recent storms have shifted the wide Kosi River's course, so we have to detour again, onto rough, deeply rutted dirt roads for about 25 miles around the flooding in East Nepal and then load the bikes onto a small boat for the crossing, since there is no longer a bridge. Two crossings are required due to the boat's size.
Several local men strain against the ropes pulling the leaky, old wooden craft upriver. A crewmember diligently bails the water lest we sink, and upon reaching a wide sandbar, the boat is quickly poled and rowed, fighting the swift currents of the river, to a makeshift landing on the opposite bank.
A drunken goat herder, who smells worse than his terrified goats, sits in front of me, struggling to keep them from jumping overboard. Muttering loudly to me through rotten teeth in indecipherable Nepalese for the entire one-hour ride, he seems unperturbed by the fact that I can't understand a word he's saying.