As the East-West highway continues towards Kathmandu, it moves through flat plains, interrupted by large protected areas. Shukla Phanta was the first one I passed through, followed thereafter by Bardia and Banke National Parks. Further on, after the turn-off to Kathmandu, the highway also goes through the most famous of them – Chitwan National Park. Almost all of them are here to protect tigers, rhinos, elephants and crocodiles, among hundreds of other animal and bird species. Here one can get acquainted with a completely different side of Nepal, one of jungles and wetlands – something very different from the high snowy slopes and deep green valleys.
For me, the parks provided much needed variety on a road that is otherwise exhaustingly flat and straight. And also dry. This was the driest season of the year. the first rains should have already arrived, followed by the monsoon in about two months’ time, but it was obviously delayed this year. The wide but empty riverbeds that the road crossed were evidence of how much the rivers change here during the year. Creeks barely 10m wide would expand to a current several hundred meters across. Autumn might be the best time to visit here again.
The closer to Kathmandu, the heavier the traffic and the larger the towns. So to save my lungs and keep the road from getting too repetitive I tossed the bike on top of a bus heading straight towards Butwal. It arrived there in the middle of the night, around 3 am. Sleeping on that bus had been impossible – I had a tiny place sideways behind the driver, squashed between other ‘extras’. With all hotels being closed at this hour (with lights off and bars pulled down even) I decided to enjoy the moonlit night and continue pedaling to my destination. I arrived in Lumbini just before sunrise.
Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha. Its location was found thanks to the discovery of a pillar marking the site, placed there by Ashoka the Great (you really should read the Wikipedia on this) ca 245 BC. The pillar still stands, now next to the Maya Devi temple housing the ruins of where Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have been born. The Lumbini park which surrounds this holy place is big enough to be best explored on bike and holds several large and opulent temples and monasteries, with more being constructed. At its north end it also holds one of the 80+ World Peace pagodas built by the Nipponzan-Myōhōji all over the world.
The park itself does not shine with grandeur and on a hazy morning actually feels somewhat misplaced there, standing among crop fields on this flat plain. However, with all the new buildings hidden away, the central walkway with its long canal actually has a pleasant, simple, peaceful atmosphere to it – one of water, stone and trees. This meshes well with the very basic look of Ashoka’s statue and the Maya Devi temple. Here it feels natural to take off your shoes, walk around barefoot, enjoy the shade of the Bodhi tree and the sound of hundreds of prayer flags flapping in the wind. Lumbini is very much one of those places where you will not find much if you just look around with your eyes.
After I’d circled the park twice I rode to Siddhartha and got on a bus once again. From here onward, the highway would be cramped with little new for me to see. I’d already driven these roads before and biking here would not be remotely fun – dodging trucks and breathing dust. In several places road reconstruction was still in full swing from after the earthquake. The dust could get so thick that even inside a car you’d barely see more than the lights of the vehicle in front of you. This just affirmed that taking the bus here was the healthy choice.
Having skipped the previous night, I fell asleep as soon as the bus pulled out. By the time we reached Kathmandu it was already dark. The bike was the color of sand but despite my fears still in good order. I left a group of baffled taxi drivers behind as I rode away from the bus stop. From there it was only 10km more to go. And then, home.