The vibrant colours and pungent smells assault the senses, but more important, this riding trip helped to transform the lives of destitute children
Story by Misti Hurst
Photos by Misti Hurst and @inmist
Arriving in Nepal is like being thrust into the middle of a kaleidoscope, with music blaring. Kathmandu, the capital, grabbed my attention instantly. The city assaults the senses – it’s vibrant, thumping and pungent; an overstimulation of colour, noise and scents all at once – and I loved the city immediately. My first moments were jam-packed with pulsating colours, people begging and selling and smiling, livestock, vehicles, ramshackle buildings, spices, dirt, tea, smog. Kathmandu pulls you in and hugs you with its beauty, then almost spits in your face with the brokenness of it all.
In May 2018, through my husband John Parker, I met Scott Falez, creator of a new company called Adventuring with Purpose (AWP). His vision is to run motorcycle rallies in Nepal to raise money for the charity Himalayan Life. All profits go directly toward programs that help transform the lives of destitute children living on the streets – to move them toward a place of “not life, [but] to life.” The company operates exactly as the name implies: motorcycle adventuring with purpose.
Scott and I instantly connected and when he invited me to join a group of 11 other Canadians, for the “soft opening” – the trial run – of his inaugural rally in Nepal, I said yes without pause. Five months later, I was there, full of excitement and anticipation. I couldn’t wait to straddle a Royal Enfield Himalayan and experience riding through the insanity.
But first, we took a day to settle, get to know the other riders and kick jet lag to the curb by touring Kathmandu. Daniel Burgi, founder and director of Himalayan Life acted as our guide for the day. We also met Suresh Shreemal, the 24-year-old Nepalese rider tasked with organizing bikes, planning, leading us along the routes we were to ride and handling some of the logistics of AWP’s first official ride. Daniel and Suresh were an energetic pair who led us weary travellers through winding streets and introduced us to the country on our first day.
Let the Tour Begin
For an authentic tour of the city, we hired rickshaws to carry the 14 of us to the base of the Swayambhunath Stupa (a.k.a. the Monkey Temple). Seven rickety bicycles towing teetering carriages stuffed with foreign motorcycle riders as passengers…. Suddenly our tour of the city became a fierce and bumpy race!
We tumbled out, still laughing from our “race,” at the foot of a daunting staircase leading up into the temple. Our group marched onward, passing mischievous monkeys stealing chips and snacks from other tourists, until we reached the beautiful summit. There we stood, enjoying the soft sounds of prayer flags and bells blowing in the wind and the scenic view of the city below. Later that evening, we visited the grounds of Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple on the shore of the Bagmati River. Each day, open-air cremations take place on one of the banks of the river.
“This is the creepiest place I’ve ever been,” said Daniel with a crooked grin as we choked on the smell of burning bodies and our ears rang with the haunting sounds of prayers, songs and the stomping of dancing feet.
The next day, we flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara, where we were to pick up our motorcycles and begin riding. From the window of the plane, I got to see the stunning Himalayas for the first time; towering peaks rising out of the fog like icy blue diamonds cutting through cotton-candy clouds.
As we neared Pokhara, I spied brownish windy roads cutting through the deep green of the hillsides below. The scene looked like a child had grabbed a crayon and, with clenched fist, scribbled some lines that someone then made into roads. These were the same streets that Scott had seen when visiting Pokhara for the first time; the ones that captured his imagination and launched his vision of AWP. He wondered what riding a motorcycle on them would be like. Months later, there he was alongside his friends and family and living the dream.
Nestled in the valley were splats of purple, red and blue, like a bunch of children’s building blocks had been tossed everywhere to form little houses and two-storey buildings. Colours burst into view, like someone had spilled a giant bag of Skittles.
Soon we were standing in front of Raju’s Bullet Surgery, a hole-in-the-wall mechanic’s shop with a scattered row of Royal Enfield Himalayans and Crossfire 250s out front. Suraj, our driver, would navigate a chase vehicle that would transport our luggage and would carry Raju, our mechanic, and Dr. Rahil, who was our emergency first responder (just in case). Soon after our arrival, we took off on a three-hour practice ride. We were 12 Canadians strung out in a long awkward line, following Suresh through the hectic streets while trying to remember to stay on the left-hand side of the road.
Riding in Nepal is chaos in Technicolor. There are no apparent rules when driving or riding. There are no signs, and no traffic lights. People and vehicles and bicycles and cows are everywhere, all moving and merging and turning and passing and accelerating and stopping. Picture riding through a video game, or water flowing together from multiple streams. Anarchy that actually works!
In the crisp darkness of early dawn the following morning, our motorcycles roared to life and took off for a quick ride up some nice twisty roads to catch the sunrise from Sarangkot. While winding and curling up the decently paved road, we were teased with glimpses of the white-tipped Himalayas coming to life in the rising sun.
We made it to the lookout and huffed our way up the steep stairs in all our riding gear just in time to watch the fiery orange ball appear over the hillside and cast a pinkish glow on a large, diamond-shaped snowy peak called Fish Tail. The sheer size and beauty of the Annapurna Mountain Range, rising high and mighty into the sky, was absolutely stunning.
The ride back down was more off-road than on pavement. Our group did exceptionally well to manoeuvre our less than nimble Enfields on the winding, rocky, dirt trails. The ride that day was short because we were scheduled to visit some of the Himalayan Life facilities that afternoon – the purpose part of our adventure.
Himalayan Life: Street Kitchen/Recycling Plant/Holistic Shelter
The goals of AWP are to raise and donate money to Himalayan Life and also allow participants of the ride to meet and interact with those whom the financial contributions benefit most.
Our first stop was the street kitchen, a drop-in activity centre that is the first point of contact for kids who live on the streets, most of whom are deeply addicted to sniffing glue.
The centre’s staff, many of them former street kids, take their time to build trust with these otherwise neglected and shunned children with the ultimate hope that they can be persuaded to move into the Holistic Shelter. At the shelter, kids and youth find a safe place to live and sleep and, if willing, go to school or learn a skilled trade. The street kids also find people who will love and nurture them.
Chanman Shreemal runs the entire program. He has the best laugh and the brightest, happiest eyes I’ve ever seen. We watched him lead songs and games with the kids at the street kitchen. Although I couldn’t understand what he was saying, I could feel his passion and see what an impact he was having on those small human beings. Seeing those kids – some of them the same ages as my two children – with their empty black eyes and no family to love them was an emotional moment for me. The tears fell fast from my eyes as we later toured the streets these children call home and even the dirty bridge they sleep under most nights.
Life is Enjoy
Seeing my sadness, Chanman gave me a fierce hug and said, “Life is enjoy. Life is challenging, yes. Life is difficult sometimes, but life is enjoy.” He told me to focus on the positive.
Then we visited the shelter, where the ambience was completely different. We were welcomed by happy, smiling children standing in a neat line and wearing almost a uniform of tidy sweaters and clean pants. The biggest difference to their contemporaries on the streets was that the eyes of the children living at the shelter were bright and shining. There, they had clean clothes and food, a cozy place to sleep, time for play, and people and toys to play with. These children also had access to schools and education. They had a future.
While most of the money required by the shelter comes from direct donations to Himalayan Life, the staff there figured out how to make the shelter more sustainable by creating the only recycling plant in Nepal, which helps to fund their projects. The Himalayan Life Plastic Co. collects and recycles some 75 tonnes of plastic bottles each month. Jobs are given not to those with highest qualifications but to those with the greatest need. The shelter gives hope to those who feel lost, and they make money to help continue the cycle. What an incredible display of compassion and ingenuity – recycling not only bottles, but life!
Before we left, Chanman asked me what I thought of Nepal so far, and I said it was crazy and chaotic! He laughed and said, “Alla malla! That means chaos. Everything is alla malla in Nepal!” Our next few days of riding, to Bandipur, Daman, Butwal, Chitwan and back to Pokhara, would certainly prove that.
Alla Malla Around Every Corner
We were under the impression that we would be riding on pavement, but we quickly found out that roads in Nepal aren’t anything like roads in North America. Alla malla.
Imagine the tightest road you’ve ever ridden along, then make it tighter. Add a cliff on one side and some incredible snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. Then put potholes in random places and gravel in the middle of corners. Make a technical series of switchbacks, and make sure that half the road is missing in the middle of them. Put some piles of sand and a few rivers in the mix, some burning garbage on the side, then add people everywhere, kids playing on the side of the road or soccer in the middle of the road, and sprinkle the scene with cows, chickens, turkeys, stray dogs, monkeys, goats and ducks.
Then fill the road with non-stop traffic, including giant colourful buses and painted transport trucks that take up the entire road. Add motorcycles, scooters (with entire families on them), tractors, carts and little three-wheeled vehicles and ensure that they all pass each other whenever possible – or seemingly not possible – and that you have someone coming at you head-on around most turns. Make sure that a hay bale or a bag of rice falls off a truck in front of you at least once and that everything is as colourful and vibrant as possible, yet muted by black exhaust fumes and smog.
Watch in awe as you see goats walking on the top of a bus while it’s moving, then fill your ears with shouting, music, horns blasting and children laughing, and your nose with the smell of fresh jasmine, sewer, exhaust, incense, chai, baking and curry – and have it all coming at you non-stop for nine hours of riding.
That essentially is how the next few days of riding felt. Exciting, adventurous, fun and visually overwhelming. Alla malla.
Our “pavement” riding took us from the lakeside village of Pokhara, through the mountainous region of Bandipur and Daman, then into the tropical rainforest of Chitwan and Butwal. Temperatures ranged from 0°C in Daman, where we watched the sun rise over Mount Everest – looming in the far distance to 8,850 metres above sea level – to almost 38°C in the humid valley of Chitwan, where we rode elephants and endured a two-hour jungle walk.
Off-Road Adventures to Muktunuk
After eight days of riding, the “pavement” portion of our trip wound to a successful close as we retuned the Enfields and traded them for 250 cc Crossfires – four-stroke, five-speed Chinese-made dirt bikes – for the three-day off-road portion of the trip.
In the early morning hours, we left Pokhara again for Marpha, which rises to an elevation of 2,440 metres above sea level. With only one “road” up to the lower Mustang District of Nepal, we were in for a long and wild day.
Our first challenge was riding across a long, narrow suspension bridge, which for me was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life. Add to that a full day of passing buses and cars and scooters, all blundering over a bumpy, rocky, tight, traffic-filled mountain pass. The “road,” narrow and rutted and dusty with a perilous cliff on one edge, had us shaking our heads in amazement.
At one point, we were delayed behind a flatbed truck that had gotten stuck in deep sand and was rotated slightly sideways so that the back end was close to dangling off the edge of the cliff. This meant that traffic was blocked in both directions.
No one seems to get angry in Nepal, though. A honk of the horn simply means “I’m here and I want to get by.” If someone gets stuck, then people help to get them unstuck. There is a sense of urgency in that drivers and riders go fast and pass wherever possible, but their attitude isn’t driven out of anger or rage; rather, the common attitude is just that everyone will get where they are going sooner and without delay if they just pass and honk and flash their lights and keep moving. The system is one based on trust.
To clear the stuck vehicle, everyone worked together to put rocks into the back of the truck and behind the wheels to help with traction. The minute the truck was able to move a few feet to one side, all the motorcycles and scooters were revved to life and squeezed carefully by.
We then had another hour or two of riding – time passed without notice – in the dark with temperatures dipping and deep river crossings that we could scarcely see. By the time we arrived, dirty, wet, tired and cold, at our rustic hotel in Marpha, we’d been on the road for almost 12 hours.
The tiny town of Marpha is like someplace lifted straight out of a movie. The town has narrow cobbled streets and small shacks cut into the rocky mountainside, and is barren and beautiful and dotted with colourful scarves and blankets for sale. Round-faced children were dressed in knock-off puffy jackets and handmade knit hats and they crouched in the dirt as they watched our long line of riders blast by.
My favourite part of the entire trip came the next day while riding another 425 metres higher to the village of Muktinath. The land in this, the lower Mustang region, is so vastly different from the valleys below. Treeless, barren, red-peaked mountains and rocky trails, as if we were riding across the surface of Mars. We enjoyed the best mint lemonade and some yak schnitzel at Hotel Bob Marley’s Rasta Rock Restaurant – a beautifully decorated and chill little spot that attracts many tourists, most of whom are in the area for trekking. We sat on the rooftop patio, admiring the rocky vistas, then purchased some scarves from a beautiful woman who was weaving them on an ancient loom on the street.
During our ride back to Marpha, we passed yaks being herded down mountain trails and surprised two majestic wild horses as we roared around a corner, kicking up clouds of red dust. The horses reared up in fright and for a moment I thought they would charge us, but they turned away and galloped down the trail ahead of us.
Calling It a Day
The evening peaked when three of us found ourselves sharing locally made plum brandy with Nepalese motorcycle tour guides enjoying their Employee Appreciation evening in a tiny room, the dance-club version of Metallica’s Enter Sandman blasting into the night.
The return ride to Pokhara on the same crazy road we had travelled on the way up was equally yet differently exciting. Fraught with a few breakdowns and mechanical issues, we literally limped our bikes back to Raju’s shop. For the final hour, I rode in the dark with a snapped clutch cable, stamping through the gears and trying not to stop. This would be challenging in any conditions, but was even more so because of the chaotic traffic of Nepal and the fact that I was on a bike that was about six inches too tall for me. Once we reached Pokhara safely, we happily slid off our bikes and ordered round after round of Nepali beer to celebrate.
I don’t think I’ve ever been on a more emotionally or visually intense trip than this one – ever. Alla malla. Motorcycles, adventures, children, charity, kindness, friendship, love … it just doesn’t get any better than that.