If you like a challenge, mountain biking and big, big mountains, Nepal is the right place for you. We decided it was the right place for us, as we bikepacked a loop from Kathmandu, around the famed Annapurna Circuit trekking route, and back to Kathmandu via the Chitwan National Park jungle.
As a high point, it is hard to beat the satisfaction of getting your bike to the top of a 5416m pass (Thorong La), then cycling down the other side. This feat was only marginally tainted by the Israeli tourist at the top who requested a “wefie”, so he could prove to his grandmother that people her age were cycling a route he could barely walk.
Top of Thorong La (5416m).
To reach the Annapurna Circuit we selected backroads from Kathmandu, to avoid the infamous Prithvi Highway where your life is constantly at risk from triple passing vehicles, tyres falling off trucks and other such treats. Our route through Trisuli Bazar, Arughat Bazar and Gorkha to Besisahar might have escaped the traffic hazards, but there were plenty of other challenges to be found. Once you leave the (very few) Nepalese highways you say goodbye to blacktop and hello to gradients of between 10 and 20 percent. We also became very familiar with mud; when it rains, there is mud, and rain is not infrequent in April/May (the weather tends to be fine in the morning and clouds in or thunderstorms in the afternoon). Your author's Shimano XT 2x10 drivetrain chugged through no problem, but Chris’s new SRAM Eagle was not quite so enthusiastic about mud, requiring frequent stops for waterbottle squirting activities.
Mud mud glorious mud.
Besisahar marks the start of the Annapurna Circuit and the onslaught of trekkers. We saw very few tourists prior to reaching this point, and no cycle tourists except in the middle of the Annapurna Circuit. Cycling the Circuit has been facilitated by a 4WD track being completed from Besisahar up to Manang (3400m) in 2014. There has long been a 4WD road on the far side of the Circuit, from Muktinath down to Beni, and then a sealed road to Pokhara. The trekkers largely take walking tracks, while jeeps carrying the less trekky trekkers, and cycle tourists, share the road. There are also some impressive truck and bus drivers on the road; their four wheel driving and running repair skills need to be seen to be believed!
Standard Nepali truck.
The 4WD road is not to be sniffed at as a poor cousin to single track; the road is a supreme feat of engineering and no easy cycle ride (spot the small red cyclist). It also takes you through a variety of landscapes, including deciduous forest, pine forest, espaliered apple plantations and to the high dry valleys at altitude.
Impressive road engineering, cut into the side of the cliff.
Logistics on the Annapurna Circuit, and generally in Nepal, are ridiculously easy. On the Circuit there is no doubting the route. All towns have “hotels” and every village on the Circuit has a plethora of tea houses in which you can both eat and stay. There is a risk of a cycling trip becoming a lemon and ginger tea and momo (dumpling) eating trip. There is no need to plan or book ahead, although in the higher elevation villages we found it best to arrive by the middle of the day to secure a private room, rather than a dormitory bed. Marpha was a particularly attractive example of a village and had especially good apple crumble on offer.
Exploring the tiny streets of Marpha in search of Apple Crumble.
Food can be ordered from a menu; mains cost in the region of US$3-5 and a room with bathroom US$8-10. WiFi usually comes free. We averaged US$30/day per person. Route finding outside the Circuit was not a problem. We used MapsMe and OsmAnd on our iPhones, for which we had bought Nepalese SIM cards, at the princely price of US$5 for 2.5GB of data and plenty of calls and texts.
Chris at a Tea House.
The top mountain biking and views of the trip were the four days from Manang with a side trip to Tilicho Base Camp and Tilicho Lake (without bikes), to Thorung Phedi prepatory to our big climb to the pass, over to Muktinath and down into the Lubra Valley and on to Marpha. We were beyond the roads, therefore were cycling on walking tracks which, for the most part, were very cyclable. 7000-8000m mountains were everywhere, including Gangapurna, which towers above Manang.
Dhaulagiri is another stunning peak.
And how could you forget crossing a swing bridge with these views? I actually had a lump in my throat sometimes while cycling; could I really be doing some truly fun mountain biking in such an amazing place?
Bridge with a view.
Sometimes I had a lump in my throat for other reasons, such as wondering whether I could push my bike the full 1000m over Thorong La, carrying it over the rock steps and snow banks, whether the mud would ever end, and whether an impatient bus driver might just wipe me off the road.
From the heights of the Himalayas we headed towards the jungle to hunt views of animals. It took us another 2 days to get to Tatopani and then a hard push through Beni on the 4WD road and on to Pokhara on sealed road with a fair bit of climbing and traffic involved. A further two days took us to Sauraha, the tourist centre of Chitwan National Park.
Pokhara is Nepal’s second largest city, on a sizable lake and with theoretical mountain views that are mostly obscured by haze. The pollution of the lake was also something to be seen, or smelt. Throughout much of Nepal, rivers and lakes are used as communal washing baths. Last year we were impressed by the relative cleanliness of the Everest area but it would appear that this condition has yet to impact the west of Nepal. On the weekend, Pokhara was full of holidaying Nepalis, visiting a temple set on an island in the lake.
Sauraha was a ‘depths of tourism’ experience for us; we aren’t at all good at organised touristic activities. A half day walk in the jungle was as much as we could cope with, but resulted in us seeing more rhino that one could, or would, shake a stick at, as well as crocodiles and the elephants that are being bred locally for tourism purposes.
Sharing the road.
Rhinos appeared very placid, like cows munching water weed. In the evening, a rhino wandered into the rice paddy next to the guest house and was quite unperturbed by men waving torches and shouting at it. “Darn”, we thought, “we could have skipped the touristic experience and just waited for the rhino to come by.”
Rhino cooling off.
Our return to Kathmandu took a further three days of cycling, including large quantities of uphill, as Sauraha is at 170m and to reach the Kathmandu valley requires going over two passes, one at 2500m and another at 1500m. We left the heat and mosquitoes of the tropics behind and returned to thunderstorms, cooler temperatures and hillsides stretching into the distance, and thence to the bustle and smog that is Kathmandu.
Silhouetted against the landscape.
Memories I will take away from Nepal include the friendliness of people, huge smiles, kindnesses such as, rising at 5am to cook us an omelette so we didn't have to have a cold breakfast, the best mountains in the world (though please tell us where there are better ones because if there are better ones, we want to go there), and how bikepacking beats cycling with panniers hands and feet down. Namaste is a Nepalese greeting meaning both hello and goodbye. Challenges satisfactorily overcome: 935km cycled over 88 hours on 23 days with 20500m of climbing - while still having fun, and many momos eaten, we say “Namaste Nepal, Ka kite ano”.