You read that right: 2073. It's not a typo. Between 12-14th April, during our one-week second visit to Nepal, we enjoyed two unforgettable experiences: rode with 250 bikers from Kathmandu to Pokhara (200 km) on Royal Enfield motorbikes and, once there, we ushered in 2073 (Nepali Bikram Sambat calendar). It was a blast!
How often do you travel into the future and celebrate two New Year's Eves in 12 months instead of one? And I'm not talking about movies or books time-travel, but about day-to-day life. In mid-April I did just that. On April 10th flew with Turkish Airlines from Istanbul and 2016 to Kathmandu and 2072 (Nepali BS calendar) to celebrate, together with my Nepali friends, New Year's Eve 2073 - April 13th was the first day of the new year. How did I arrive to do that? It all started in mid-February during a Skype call with my good friend Rabi Thapa, the CEO of Sacred Summits and Moto Himalaya. I met Rabi two years ago, in October 2014, during my first visit to Nepal and we've been in contact ever since. Rabi knew how much I love Nepal and how eager I was to return to this amazing country, so at one point during our conversation he said: "Why don't you come over in April when we're organizing the 8th Enfield Rendezvous and Poker Run? I know you're a petrolhead, so I'm sure you'll enjoy the ride. Then, after we reach Pokhara we'll celebrate New Year's Eve 2073 together with riders and guests from all over the world. It will be fun!"
My reply didn't take long: "Sure, sounds like a plan! See you then!" I knew from my first visit that Nepal is best experienced until the end of May (from June onwards the monsoon sets in) and after mid-September, when high season starts. So there I was, on April 11th at noon, exiting Kathmandu airport after quicker arrival formalities and heading to Radisson hotel to check-in. One of the guys from Rabi's team came to pick me up with a Royal Enfield motorcycle - this brand has an interesting story, check it out - and after a quick ride at sunset through Kathmandu's chaotic traffic we arrived at the Handle Bar, where Rabi was waiting for me. Handle Bar is THE place where Enfielders gather to share cool stories and cold beers. I first went to Handle Bar in October 2014, when I've tasted the famous Nepali MoMos and enjoyed a fun evening with my Nepali friends, joking and sharing all kinds of stories.
Coming back to 2016 / 2072, Rabi and I grabbed some Gorkha beers (I missed those) and went outside to welcome a part of the riders who would participate over the next three days (12-14th April) in the 8th Enfield Rendezvous and Poker Run. It was the perfect moment to find out more about this event. "I started this event, along with friends, back in 2009. I had a friend, Binod Acharya Chettri, who was a passionate rider. Binod went to Australia to meet another friend of ours, Steven McLean, who is also an avid biker. Steven organizes the Poker Run in Australia with Harley Davidsons. When Binod returned to Nepal, he came up with the idea of starting this here as well, but with Enfields. There wasn’t much support from people at that time and the idea was shelved. Then, in a tragic mishap, we lost our friend Binod. Afterwards, Steven came to see us and we decided to organize Poker Run every year, in memory of our departed friend. That's how it all started", said Rabi in an interview.
The event has been gaining in popularity ever since. In 2009 there were 22 people on 12 bikes and the event lasted one day. "Initially, there were hardly any avid Enfield bikers in Nepal. Now, however, the scene is changing and we can see a lot of Enfield clubs in Nepal. As the whole idea of Poker Run is to ride, chill and have fun, a day was not enough. Bikers started complaining about their hangovers and then we started planning two-day trips during the Nepali New Year, reaching three days now", added Rabi. The biggest turnover was in 2015: 400 participants. This April, also due to the political instability and the fuel crisis, only 250 riders took part in the Poker Run. "It's still a good figure", Rabi told me. "This year, for the first time, Japanese, Romanian and Norwegian bikers joined us, along with more Indians."
Why "Poker Run" and how does the event unfold? Rabi: "All participants pick five cards each, from the pre-party to every stop on the route, and on the final night we pick a lucky winner on the basis of the cards. Winners walk away with complimentary vouchers. Our team consists of a road captain who leads all the Enfields; no one can go ahead of him. We don’t have any other rules as such; everyone is there to have a good time in a civilized manner and we have never really had any problems. We also have mechanics to help the bikers, should the need arise. Also, there is always an ambulance and a medical kit in case of an emergency. We have a variety of awards given to the participants, like the Most Senior Rider, Best Woman Biker, Best Modified Bike, Best Maintained Old Bike. Poker Run is all about having a good time with friends, old and new!", concluded Rabi.
'Nuff said about the event, let's go ride! April 12th, the last day of year 2072 (Nepali BS calendar). A hazy morning finds myself on a wide and fenced open space in Tudikhel, in front of Kathmandu Mall, where all the riders would meet and later depart for Pokhara, 200 km away. Because of the heat, the dust and the polluted air - Nepal's capital ranks high when it comes to this - I could barely see the horizon. Groups by groups, bikers from Nepal, but also other parts of the world, started to arrive riding their Royal Enfield motorbikes. Between taking photos and shooting some videos of them, I had the chance to chat with dear friends from October 2014, but also meet new people, passionate about motorbikes and adventure. Following a speech by Rabi and Chief Guest Prakash Man Singh, a politician and an avid sportsman, the 8th Enfield Rendezevous and Poker Run was flagged off in the sound of roaring engines, horns and a burnout.
My first contact with Kathmandu's polluted and chaotic traffic was back in October 2014, on the way from the airport to the hotel. And now I've found myself again in the middle of it. Be it motorbikes, taxis, buses, trucks or private cars, everybody is using the horn excessively (if you don't horn, you don't exist!) and they zig-zag like you haven't seen before. Although you expect someone to crash in the next few seconds, this doesn't happen. Somehow they all know what they're doing and anticipate other drivers / bikers' moves. Neither in October 2014, nor now have I seen a single traffic incident while driving on the busy streets of Kathmandu. This crazy traffic feels even more intense from a motorbike as air and dust hit you right in the face. It took us 30-45 minutes to exit Kathmandu and in that time I inhaled exhaust fumes for an entire year! It was a pretty intense ride - dodging oncoming cars that were overtaking and entering a good part of your lane (in Nepal they drive on the left, just like in UK and Japan), pedestrians crossing the street when least expected, then stopping inches from your motorbike to let you pass. Even so, the rider from Rabi's team I went with was good and we managed to clear Kathmandu with ease heading to cleaner air, beautiful scenery and less congested traffic.
Just like in the previous years, the 8th Enfield Rendezvous and Poker Run included some stops for refreshments and entertaining events along the route. On our way to beautiful Pokhara - Nepal's second tourist destination after Kathmandu, but first when it comes to amazing landscapes and activities - we stopped for breakfast at Dharke, then lunch at Muglin and took a Red Bull break at Akala. Before entering Pokhara, after nightfall, most of the riders regrouped and we rode into town two by two, much to the delight of the passers-by. Try to imagine how hundreds of Royal Enfield motorbikes sounded in the still of the night... Unfortunately, this part can't be translated into words. You have to experience it - at least once - to fully understand the feeling! Together with the second rider from Rabi's team, I arrived at Fulbari Resort at around 21:00, took a refreshing shower and headed to the resort's garden to start New Year's Eve 2073 celebrations with 250 bikers and guests.
How did we usher in the New Year, Nepali style? The uniqueness of that moment - at least for an European tourist like me - started in the morning of April 12th, last day of 2072. Right before checking-out from Radisson Kathmandu and heading to meet the Enfield riders, The Himalayan newspaper (English daily) was brought to my room. I knew it from my first visit to Nepal, but this time it was different. The entire front page had the following message: "2073 Happy New Year". Fast-forward to the celebrations in Pokhara... the Nepali have a more subdued way of welcoming the New Year. No fireworks, no confetti, nothing of the extravaganza you see in Times Square or other big cities around the world. Headed by the event's VJ, a funny guy passionate about motorcycles, the traditional countdown started ten seconds before midnight. The band which sang live music until 1 AM accompanied him, together with all the bikers and guests gathered in Fulbari Resort's garden. A joyful and powerful "Happy New Year!" erupted from everyone at midnight, marking the arrival of 2073. Adding to the fun of the night, Rajiv - another good friend of mine from Nepal - was also there, welcoming the New Year together with Rabi and the riders. What a moment that was! The party, good music, lots of jokes and adventure-related stories kept everybody entertained long into the morning hours. After we all woke up - more or less sober - there was a Charity Ride done by the Enfielders in Pokhara and the day ended with another big party at the Fulbari. On the third and final day, some of the riders headed back to Kathmandu, while others went on to Mustang.
Did the 8th edition of Enfield Rendezvous and Poker Run - also known as "The biggest thunder ride in the Himalayas" - live up to the hype? It sure did, at least for me. Over three unforgettable days I've met cool people from around the world - Japan, Norway, India, United States and, of course, Nepal - reconnected with my Nepali friends and saw, first-hand, what it means to be part of a bikers' brotherhood. As for the sunset witnessed from the motorbike, it was easily one of the best so far. For some riders, reaching Pokhara took longer than planned - almost 12 hours - because some bikes had mechanical problems and we stopped to assist them. But this hasn't stopped them from enjoying the ride just as much. I also sat on the side of the road for one hour or even more with guys from Rabi's crew waiting for the assistance truck, but the wait was worth it as I had the chance to rediscover, once again, how cool the people from Nepal are. Smiling, friendly and always ready to help you, no matter the problem. They sure know how to make tourists feel right at home!
One year after the powerful earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015, the country needs tourism more than ever. So if you're thinking of an adventure destination for this summer / autumn, look no further. Kathmandu, Begnas and Pokhara - as well as other cities in Nepal - are ready to welcome you for an unforgettable experience. In Kathmandu we recommend Dwarika's Hotel (you can also check-in at Radisson). If you're in Begnas, you must experience Begnas Lake Resort and spend a few days there. As for Pokhara, our mind is still at The Pavilions Himalayas, the best boutique resort we've experienced so far (and we've traveled quite a bit). In 2017, you - or your friends passionate about motorbikes and adventure rides - should definitely consider taking part in Enfield and Rendezvous Poker Run in mid-April. If you don't have a Royal Enfield motorbike, you can rent one for about 50 dollars / day plus fuel expenses. The event will coincide again with Nepali New Year celebrations. Two authentic experiences you won't be forgetting anytime soon! Now back to the present / past, depends on how you look at it. :) Teodor Stefan