17 December 2019
With the highest mountains in the world, and raving reviews by everyone who had graced her soils, Nepal seemed to be a must visit destination. So when Phoebe Coers sent us a link to the Yakru Enduro – an enduro on the roof of the world - it seemed like the best excuse to plan a trip around a 'race', and get over there. And I figure, Nepal had mountains, we had bikes. By that logic, there should be plenty of mountain biking.
The plan was to be with the race crew for 8 days, starting from Kathmandu and finishing with 3 days racing in the Manang district of the Annapurnas; then head off on our own to continue exploring the Nepali mountains while the race crew headed back down the valley to their waiting aeroplanes. Here's how it turned out.
To anyone who's ever flown into Kathmandu, they'll know it's pure chaos. We were stoked that we had a bike-capable airport pickup organised. The trip from the airport was hectic for a couple of young westerners. My mouth was half hanging open and there was a lot of nervous laughter. But it seems there's an organisation to the chaos that everyone understands. Traffic lights are barely even necessary, but 'horn is life' - provided you know how to drive.
Kathmandu taps into all the senses.
Here we met the other racers - all six of them. That made us eight all up. Our numbers were bolstered by a couple medics, four photographers and the crew of race organisers and volunteers, including two camp doctors. Seems we were going to be well looked after! Kiwi rep was strong with three racers and a medic representing the land of the long white cloud.
36 hours in Kathmandu was enough, and by the second morning we were rearing to get to the mountains. Here we learned another important Nepali lesson - time and patience. Nothing happens quite on time and that’s just how it is. That morning we made a crawling start, heading out of town in heavy traffic (that is really no different to midday or afternoon traffic) and down the Kathmandu valley. Within 20km and 2 hours of leaving the city we had out first breakdown, and spent a good hour kicking dirt in a carpark while the jeep was fixed with a spanner and a wrench. Lucky there was a shop nearby with 25 rupee biscuits on offer.
It wasn't until a bumpy 6 hours later that we had our first glimpse of the Himalayas and left the 'sealed road' behind at Besi Sahar. The last 3 hours of the day's drive were done in the dark, landing us in Jagat for the night. The cool thing about arriving somewhere at night is waking up the next morning. Here we were in the Marsyandi Gorge, in the foothills of the Himalayas. In the Himalayas, even the foothills are big! Rising directly out of the gorge walls, it's a pretty impressive site.
The next day was more 4wd drive action, while we marvelled at the scenery, people, and feat of building a road through here, even if it wasn't much more than a couple logs over a creek at times. Tea stops are important, and we took one of ours on the roof of a teahouse overlooking Manaslu, the worlds 8th highest peak. We're starting to get high now, and the vegetation was changing to reflect the altitude with more stunted trees and open spaces. We also passed by this incredible slab of rock called Heavens door. It's a geological masterpiece, and we treated it appropriately by stopping like proper tourist on the side of the road and taking many photos.
That night our lodgings were in Dhikur Pokhari (3000m ASL), and we got to build our bikes. Better than Xmas for a bunch of pent up mountain bikers. It was also our first look to see if our bikes had survived the plane journey, but the Tardis bike bags did their job well.
Bike (and excitement) building.
Day five and today we get to ride bikes. Despite the amazement of being in the Annapurnas, the last couple days in 4wds had been pretty tiring and we were excited to get some 2 wheeled rubber rolling underneath us. Today's plan was an acclimatisation ride to our race base. We all learned the effect of oxygen pretty quickly (i.e. within a couple minutes), but it was a jolly good time to be moving up valley under our own steam. Stats: 15km and 400m climbing. Given our massive stats for riding, most of the team napped for the arvo. Upon a bit of a recce walk afterwards, I came across this old(er) lady who'd dropped her motorbike (thankfully not on her) but couldn't lift it up. I gave her a hand and she taught me how to say 'thank you' in Nepalese. She must've thanked me over 10 times, but repetition works so 'Dhan'yavāda'.
Our race base was a mountain lodge up in Ngawal, at 3500m. What a beautiful spot. Views across the valley to the Annapurnas, and with race briefing that night, we were all amped to get the show on the road properly the next day. Tomorrow's destination could be seen across the valley - a small white fleck on the opposite valley wall.
Race day one started with a cruisy ride across the valley floor into a 600m hike-a-bike up the trail we were about to race. Given it was a blind race, and we had no idea what to expect from the terrain here, it was a bit of a relief to take a look at stage one before racing it. This was hands down the coolest race start I've ever experienced. It started at the Kresang Monastery below a hanging glacier on the slopes of Annapurna III. Absolutely incredible scenery and feel to the place. Breathtaking. Pun intended we were all feeling the impact of reduced oxygen on our lung capacity. It made me chuckle at the warning in the race briefing about altitude sickness, since the doctor advised us to 'avoid strenuous exercise at altitude'. Ah whoops. Lucky we had a strong medic team to keep an eye on us. This first stage hardly even felt like racing, since we were all testing the grip (moon dust) and lung capacity on the sprints (low). It was surreal to be racing enduro in this environment. The second two stages were much shorter with not much elevation drop. I was almost disappointed, but then again I don't think I could've done another big climb.
Yakru Enduro delivering postcard-worthy views.
Ben on a steep liason. Photo: Riley Seebeck
The Yak Attack (the XC sister of Yakru) came through just as we were finishing up for the day. Epic. Those guys were attacking those climbs like they were at sea level. Pain cave material for sure.
The following two race days were fairly similar in format, with a big climb at the start followed by two shorter ones. Day two and three both started hiking up a set of steps and descending down fast, loose stages with a few tight corners thrown in. Stage 7 (last stage on day two), was my favourite. The liaison to it was hard, straight up a minor foot track, but it opened out to a beautiful plateau with sections of open pine forest and grand views of all three Annapurnas. The descent (race stage) was steep, dusty and loose, before cutting through a small village and finishing on flow singletrack. Nice.
Got to have a shout out here for the dog we named Lee (credit - Tom Sampson). In Nepal dogs belong to nobody and everyone, following locals and trekkers between towns hoping for a feed and some company. We were lucky enough to pick up little Lee, who stayed with us over two stages. Poor pup showed great loyalty to complete strangers, limping by the top of the second stage. At the bottom we chased him off in the direction of the village, hoping he would find himself an easier meal than following us up the hills.
'Lee' joined us for two stages.
By day three we were into the swing of things, but that does not mean we were moving very fast still. We had become used to the state of oxygen, but it was still a slow trek of one foot in front of the other hiking up the hills. Our brave medics had been provided e-bikes for the event, which would've been a great idea except the up tracks were nearly 100% hike-a-bike. Trudging uphill at 3500-4000m with an e-bike on one's back can only be described as character building… or character punishing.
The race finished on a major high, coming down a steep dusty single track with amazing corners leading into flow trail dodging trees in scrubby sub alpine forest. Three days of riding and racing through this area had given us a great range of exploring and side trips that we would’ve otherwise passed by.
The prizegiving that followed was an absolute hoot. Every volunteer and participant was acknowledged with a Nepali hat or scarf, symbolising identity, pride and honour. Getting up on the podium was a special experience, the acknowledgement and gifts of the Nepali people were unlike any other race prize giving I've ever attended. And getting a novelty cheque in Rupees was, well, a novelty.
Phoebe Coers, Megan Rose and Robin Pieper on the Yakru Enduro podium, with the winners trophy. Photo: Riley Seebeck.
Then it was time to change tack. load up our gear to head up valley while the race crew made their way down valley. A semi emotional goodbye signified that we were probably more tired than we thought. With front rolls on two of the bikes and loaded packs, we re-rode the final stage from yesterday, stopping for photos and line choice this time. We pursued our way up valley, and Ben decided to pioneer the sport of bike-packing-free-ride - going to the effort of lugging himself and gear up a scree line to give it a go down. That night we stayed in Manang, the main town of the district. It's a humming wee place, with plenty of shops, hotels and teahouses, tourism, guiding outfits and even a few picture theatres. All in the traditional building style of stone or wooden buildings that are brightly coloured and barely straight.
Robin takes a Mani Wheel moment.
Our goal for the next few days was to ride up to Tilicho base camp and on to Tilicho Tal, the world's highest lake. We had a map, and had adopted a lone Danish fellow who was also biking and wanted some friends. Not wanting to take the jeep road, we opted for a walking track on the other side of the river. For about a km or so we were feeling pretty good - with this beautiful trail all to ourselves and avoiding the dust of the road. Then we rounded a corner and the trail was swept away by a landslide. On closer inspection of the map we found the words 'often blocked by landslide'. Ah ha. Nevertheless there was a small path leading through the exposure, and so across we went. Ben's mountain goat headspace and footing were pretty crucial here, as I (and Phoebe to a lesser degree) were anything but confident. Safely across, our reward was beautiful single track through the forest, and not another soul in sight, coming out a small bridge and up a steep climb to the morning tea town of Khangsar. From there it was up to Shri Karhka for lunch, then along an amazing 'traverse' to Tilicho Base Camp. 'Traverse' means the elevation at either end stays the same, but the middle was anything but. However it was beautifully carved into the side of the hill, crossing gullies and scree slopes. The downs were mostly rideable and it helped us to make good time, and earn many a comment from walkers.
Robin and Phoebe in Mountain Goat territory.
Ben, fully loaded.
Tilicho Base Camp is a welcome site, and a place of refuge as we're getting pretty high now. It sits at 4100m, and the small streams and waterfalls around the place are all but frozen. There's a smattering of teahouses around and that's about it. The only way in is through the trail we just rode, and all supplies are brought in by donkey. Naturally resources and food are a little more scarce here. Since we were nearing the end of season, it was fairly quiet, but also fairly cold, with temperatures falling to -7 during the night. Not much opportunity for evening chat as the fire was barely going and insulation is still a dream of the future - so off to huddle in the sleeping bags at the civilised hour of 7:30pm.
We had heard that it was crucial to get an early start to make it up to the lake before the winds got up, so the alarm was set for 5am. Turns out the next morning was a false start, with Ben’s bowels not agreeing with the high country cuisine. The rest day was not unappreciated though and we tried for round two the next day. It sure was a slog up to Tilicho Lake, especially at the 5000m end of the spectrum. What a stunning place though, with towering glaciers, peaks and the main event - Tilicho Lake. Someone spread a rumour that there was a small teashop there, but alas it was not to be, although we did shelter from the icy wind behind a building.
Chocolate (almost) saves the day, again.
The ride down was a hoot, we had left our bikes at the bottom of some steep switchbacks leading to snow, and so we got to ride about half of the trail downwards. Future Robin's knees are very thankful for that and we made excellent time back to basecamp. By then we felt it was time to move on and stay someplace else for the night, and with the whole afternoon in front of us, decided to push onto Manang for the night. My guts also felt it was time to move, and quickly, resulting in some ‘elegant and graceful’ vomit stops back along the trail. Ben and Phoebe were champs at keeping me, gear and bike moving, and a gross 4 hours later I collapsed into bed back in Manang. 10/10 would not recommend.
And as all good things come to an end, it was time to head back down valley and make our way back to Kathmandu. We had planned to take the road and duck out onto the trail as often as we could, but the map proved surprisingly inaccurate and the trail surprisingly hard to find, so it was mostly 4wd trail down the valley. On bikes, it was easier to marvel at the road construction and be extra glad we didn't have to be in a jeep. The increase in oxygen was a welcome gift and I enjoyed the change in climate and vegetation from sub alpine through to the sub-tropical jungle in the Marsyandi Gorge. Our last day in the Annapurna's was another one of those 'traverse that doesn't traverse' sort of days and we found ourselves climbing colossal amounts, but with lots of oxygen. Besi Sahar (great name, not a great town) was a welcome sight, and there we found a jeep to take us back to Kathmandu. We splashed out and got one with suspension for the road.
Heading back down he valley.
Because we were a little unsure of the distances and logistics getting back to Kathmandu, we ended up with a spare day in the city. The city itself is nothing special to hang out in (totally self-derived opinion), so we hired a guide to show us the local trails in the nearby hills of Nagarkot. This is possibly one of the most bizarre days on the bike. Our poor guide was very XC, but had been told we wanted to do the 'enduro' trails - so it was basically a treasure hunt for hard trails, upon which he would do his best to ride on his 80mm of travel. We were dubious at times, mainly when we were bush bashing through prickly kiwifruit vines type plants, or when our guide seemed to be asking directions from everyone we met. But, our reward was some janky, some fast, some rocky trails. We ended our day by being spat out on some rice fields and riding in between the rice terraces and eddying out in rural backyards. We were met by many 'namaste's' and 'cheers'. I don’t think I've ever felt so out of place on a bike but it was very, very cool.
And finally, it was time to pack, deal to a bit of shopping (hot tip, do Xmas shopping in Nepal) and renegotiate the roads and airports back to little old NZ. What a great time we had in Nepal, struggles and all. The Yakru Enduro was awesome. Such a great group of people and concept to have an enduro in such a harsh and remote place. We felt so welcome and the organisers went to great lengths to make sure we had the best possible time. It's really a race for the adventure, rather than the race. Staying on afterwards and continuing to explore was a really different feel to the race, and I really enjoyed the independence and interaction it gave us with the Nepali people and culture. I feel like we only scratched the surface, and I can easily see how people come for weeks and stay for months.
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