Let’s talk about death

The Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu is one of the most sacred places of the Hindu faith.

On the banks of the Bagmati River that runs through Kathmandu, monkeys cause mischief, worshippers make offerings to the gods – and bodies are burned on funeral pyres 24 hours a day.

Visiting the temple, and watching the cremations is perfectly acceptable – many Nepalese and foreigners alike go to pay their respects, so on one of our free days we joined them.

Watching a body burn is a surreal and moving experience.

We sat a respectful distance on the other side of the river, and watched as a family carried out the body of what we assume to be a young husband and father.

Neither of us have seen a dead body before. It was quite a shock, and soon became very emotional as the wife, who was inconsolable with grief, said her final goodbyes.

She went and sat with the other women who comforted her, whilst the men lowered the body into the sacred river and washed the man’s feet.

They removed the orange cloth covering from his body, and replaced it with a white linen covering.

The mourners said their final goodbyes, each touching the body, whilst the sobbing wife clasped her husband’s hand. The daughter poured water from the river onto his head, before it too was covered in the white linen.

The funeral party moved down the river to one of the burning ghats, a stone plinth set amongst the steps, where the body was carried and placed on a stack of wood. The daughter said and emotional goodbye, lit the logs, and soon fire had engulfed the deceased man.

All you could see was wood, smoke and flame.

After a time the ashes were deposited in the holy river, the family moved on, and the process started again as the next group of mourners were arriving.

Many Nepalese visitors and even the funeral party were taking photos, so we figured it was okay to take this one.

Many people had advised we should visit the temple. What we thought would be a gory and intrusive experience, was actually peaceful and moving – at times emotional and overwhelming.

It felt strange to be watching the funeral of someone we didn’t know, and to witness such a private, intimate moment as a wife and daughter saying goodbye to their husband and father.

That’s just how it is here, and has always been. Conducting the ceremony in full public view, on the banks of the sacred river, and in the grounds of the holy temple.

Nothing is bottled up or boxed away – emotions, and the body of the deceased are laid bare for all to see.

They would probably find it bizarre to know that in the UK people are put in a box, then in the ground in a field – it’s just a different way to do things.

Things are different here, and the saying “life goes on”, has never been more appropriate. During the funeral, men and women wander round selling their water and snacks, kids shift through the silt in the river bed (containing the ashes of the deceased) looking for things to sell, and music continues to blare from the temples.

We’re all going to go someday. It must be consoling for the Hindus to know that when your loved one passes away, they will be cremated in the same fashion as your ancestors have been for hundreds of years – and will be for hundreds of years more.

Personally, we agree we’d like to donate our bodies to science and donate our organs – hopefully someone can make good use of them when we’re gone.

They should be in decent nick after all this cycling!

Our time in Kathmandu wasn’t all attending funerals – quite the opposite.

We had arranged through Warm Showers (cycling network), to stay at the house of a man called Pushkar Shah. On his profile he states:

“I have been around the world on bicycle since 1998-2009 , 150 countries all continent of the world . Summited top of the world Mt. Everest on 17th, May 2010 with 192 countries flags . If you want to listen and share adventure cycling stories with me you heartily welcome in my place . You are always welcome in land of Mt. Everest.”

Pushkar is a Nepalese celebrity. When we told various people in Nepal we were staying at Pushkar’s house, the response often was: “No way! I’ve read his book”.

Pushkar had some incredible tales – when he was in Mexico, he was kidnapped and taken 180 km inside a jungle. He assaulted his captors and escaped…  Here we are with him and another French couple on the day we left, he joined us for the start. For more stories check out his wikipedia or google him.

Pushkar is in the middle, alongside us and another French couple he was hosting.

When we arrived late on Saturday however, there was less focus on the cycling, more focus on the gambling and boozing.

We walked into Pushkar’s front room and were introduced to his six friends who play the card game “marriage” every Saturday night – and drink – a lot.

He set us up with some Nepalese wine and and sat us down.

“Okay you watch”

It’s a complicated variation of rummy, with three decks of cards and a points system that dictates how much money you win or lose at the end of the round.

After watching a few rounds, in an effort to ingratiate himself with the lads, Ewan asked to get involved in the game.

There was a brief explanation of the rules in broken English, and then it was in at the deep end…

After being plied with much alcohol, and only having a vague grasp of the rules, Ewan’s results on the card table were… average.

There was much hilarity amongst the lads at some of the choices of card being played, and much glee when after the first three rounds Ewan was shelling out increasing amounts of money each round.

Katie declined to play, but was also being plied with much alcohol, so took herself off to bed whist Ewan continued to gamble away the joint savings.

Eventually the game finished and Ewan rallied to win a round, although the damage had already been done.  Despite (or maybe because of?) the poor card performance, Pushkar and the crowd appreciated the effort and we all ended the night as friends.

The cycle out of Kathmandu the hardest single day of the trip so far.

It was only 78km, short in distance terms, but the climbing was savage. 1,600m of vertical climbing, at gradients as steep at 28% – which is very steep …

To complicate matters further, the road ran out about half way up, so we completed 28km on a mixture of dirt track and rubble.

We had grand plans to make it to the Nepalese border that day – 130km – which we explained to Pushkar:

“Not possible – you will only get to Hetauda” (78km)

We planned to prove Pushkar wrong – we were confident we could do it!

The master was right – we checked into a guest house in Hetauda, exhausted.

Things didn’t get easier over the next few days.

Once we’d recovered, we span to the border and re entered India for the second time.

Arrival into Indian customs we were made to wait for over an hour before getting our stamps.

“Sorry – you will have to wait. Server is down.”

It was less the server, more the clouds of smoke and burning plastic smell emitting from the computer under the desk.

We had all the right papers, but about seven people had to check our passports, before a fat sweaty Indian man turned up to write our details in the massive dusty book.

Eventually, after he’d finished writing, and excused himself three times to go and spit on the ground outside, we were in.

When we’d been in West Bengal previously it had only been for a few days, so we didn’t feel like we’d had the full “Indian Experience”.

We have had it now.

India is as hectic a place as we’ve been. On Bangladesh levels, but instead of a mere 162M people, there are over 1.3 billion.

India is an intense place to travel – especially on a bike. It takes some adjusting to after the (relatively) calm Nepal.

There are so many factors that make it a tough place to cycle, any one of which would be difficult enough on their own – but put together make it very challenging.

The first is the heat. After descending from the 1,400m elevation, and relatively cool climate of Kathmandu, India is scorching.

The Garmin on our first day read the temperature as just shy of 44 C. A trip record so far.

To cycle in that heat, you need to take regular breaks, and drink a lot of water. We purify our water with chlorine tablets, and since we’ve been in the heat have taken to mixing in electrolyte solution to replace lost salt through sweating.

The combination of this means that after about 10 minutes in the heat, the water in your bottle has heated up to the temperature of a hot bath. Mix in the chlorine and salty taste – and it tastes like a seawater jacuzzi fusion.

The constant attention in India is if anything more intense than Bangladesh.

Every time we stop, for anything, a crowd gathers to just stare at us. There’s no attempt to talk, and often they don’t even talk to each other. They just stare, with blank faces.

On one occasion, Ewan was fixing a puncture at the roadside. A few kids came to watch, then a few adults. Then a few mopeds who were passing stopped. Then once there is a crowd, people just come to see what the crowd is about and join in. On a nothing stretch of road, within about five minutes there were 30 staring faces, watching Ewan fix a puncture.

The crowd got so big that a vendor turned up and started selling ice cream as a snack whilst watching the day’s entertainment.

See if you can spot Ewan in the crowd, and notice the red ice cream truck in the background!

The roads the last few days have been worse than any country so far. Often the tarmac will just end, and give way to rubble, or sand for long stretches. After a few kilometres on this you feel like your bones have been rattled around inside your body, and your hands get blistered.

Animals roam everywhere. Wild dogs, like in the rest of Asia, but also goats, monkeys and of course – the sacred cow, which is entitled to go wherever they please.

Other animals occasionally crop up, which require some dodging!

Every car or scooter, either over taking or oncoming beeps their horn, minimum a couple of times as they pass you, which starts to wear thin after hours and hours of constant blaring beeping in the scorching heat.

This video illustrates a few of the challenges of the Indian roads – watch out for the elephant and the funeral procession.

In addition to all this, it takes time to get used to the Indian culture and way of life: The constant spitting, urinating and defecating – everywhere. The litter and plastic that covers the countryside, and the constant negotiation and haggling that accompanies every purchase.

It’s hard to fall in love with India at first sight.

But like with all places, it’s important not to judge too readily.

One stoppage to fix a puncture, a man wandered over. He (like many men in Asia) had been chewing on “betel nut”, a mixture of tobacco, nuts and lime. It causes cancer, makes your teeth fall our and dyes your gums red… see article here.

He had about four teeth, and his mouth was dyed so red from chewing the betel nut, it looked like he’d just been punched in the face.

Nonetheless, he gave us a big toothy grin, and offered us a blanket to sit on whilst we fixed our bikes. We gladly accepted, and he did the international food gesture, hands into mouth.

“We don’t have any food – really sorry”

But he kept on doing it. He wasn’t begging, he was offering us food and kept gesturing to his house.

Once we’d fixed the wheel, he almost dragged us into his house made of mud, sticks and bricks, and proudly sat us down in his front room. His wife brought through some home made dal and rice, and after she’d shooed away the chickens, we ate a lovely meal with our hands, whilst he and his family smiled and watched.

He spoke no English, and we no Hindi, but we showed him some picture of our trip on our camera which he liked, and got a group one as we were leaving:

Kindness of people like this is typical of the Indian subcontinent, and India is no different.

Once you accept the dirtiness, the noisiness and the general madness of India, it’s easier to appreciate how unique a place it is.

We had a day’s break in the city of Varanasi. It’s famous for being the spiritual capital of India and sits on the banks of the Ganges River.

It’s mental, by any stretch of the imagination.

People live in squalid conditions under roads and bridges, rickshaw drivers hustle and bustle down the roads filled with cows, dogs and goats, vendors pedal their street food and the smells range from delicious cooking to sewage and everything in between.

By the river, families bathe in the holy waters, and women wash their clothes and sheets, boats sail up and down, Hindu priests conduct religious services and bodies burn in pyres on the riverside.

It’s a crazy place, but it’s probably a microcosm for Indian as a whole.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you spend an evening by the Ganges, you begin to appreciate the India that so many people rave about.

A place of beauty, energy and life.

*We’ve been listening to a lot of TED Talks on the road. If you fancy a bit more “death talk”, here’s an interesting one from funeral director Caitlin Doughty, that challenges the funeral industry to be more sustainable. It certainly made us think!