As I sit here in Kathmandu, enjoying bottles of Everest Beer, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Thamel, I think back over the last fortnight of riding in Nepal - there's so many memories that it seems like the journey was a month long.
The iconic scenes of mountain adventures, Sherpas, rugged terrain and temples were all that initially came to mind when contemplating a trip to Nepal, but I had little idea that its latitude was quite low, meaning I would enjoy some rainforest and jungle and have little need for winter garb even at this time of year (mid November). I also had little idea of the influences of India on the plain and Tibet over the Himalayas. But my real education came from its difference to most third world developing countries I'd visited, in that it has held on to so much of what has made it so unique.
Sure, I had a chuckle every time I saw an old lady using a mobile phone in an isolated medieval Himalayan village otherwise connected entirely to the outside world by way of a single track, but other than vital technologies like those, life hasn't seemed to change much for a great majority of the villages we were lucky enough to visit. No street signs, little to no advertising or materialism and an overwhelming number of people living subsistence lifestyles.
Besides the prevalence of mobile phones and the move from travel by foot to that of the internal combustion engine, there seemed to be little change in the real soul of Nepal. We seemed to have entered a land where time seemed to have stood still.
Arriving at the airport was standard fare. Without any time for decompression, I was faced with oncoming headlights of an army of motor cycles and horns blaring while we shuttled down the road at speed - me and my luggage in the back of an old Mitsubishi Pajero. I arrived at the tea house high in the hills just in time to begin dinner with my new mates. We ate, were briefed on the next 12 days and had some beers.
The next morning it was the first of the huge breakfasts, bike building and coffee before we started riding uphill. It was the first time I had seen the country in broad daylight, but I had little opportunity to see it as I fought for air at 5,000 feet. I was struggling until I found my rhythm and started to forget about the pain and need for oxygen.
The first couple of days of the trip was aimed to showcase the surrounds of Kathmandu before we hit Annapurna and the Mustang. It certainly did that as we were very soon sky high and enjoying views over the city, the first of the foot formed single track that covered the country, village life, prayer flags and temples.
By good fortune we happened to be riding on the day of the national elections, which meant we were able to experience something pretty unusual in Kathmandu: car and motorcycle free streets. In order to prevent multiple voting motorized transport was prohibited, and we enjoyed every second of it racing through the narrow and undulating streets of the outer city with very little care except dodging dogs, ducks and chickens.
Our second day of riding saw a long ferry by car up into the hills and our first view of the snow covered mountains we'd get to know in the near future. After the two hour drive, we started the day’s ride with an awesome ridge ride, in a rain forest, at 2,200 meters high.
With a typical Nepali mid-ride tea stop at a small village, came some more more great riding, with more amazing forest trails. Ancient rocky paths, covered in moss, punctuated by mud and bounded by cliff faces – perfect!
We reached the plain around lunch time. We all cracked a long neck each, bought one for the road, and agreed that we were lucky being right there, right then, enjoying that day.
We shuttled to Bhaktapur and explored the evening away. Bhaktapur is a well preserved ancient city located in the Kathmandu valley itself. Most of the residents are either farmers, wood carvers or pottery artists. While the tourists sites in Nepal were very popular with visitors who come through, every one of the sites was still a fully functioning part of the each city. No barriers, locals admitted for free and animal and vehicular traffic allowed in even the most 'heritage listed' of sites.
The next day was a rest day in Pokhara before we headed into the big mountains of Jomsom, at 2900m elevation, by air. Bright and early, after a slight delay for weather, we boarded the old timey aircraft, revved the engines and took to the air, leveling out below the peaks and enjoying some of the most beautiful views imaginable from an aircraft.
Five minutes from landing, however, the pilot turned the plane around and returned to Pokhara as the wind in the small Jomsom airport had picked up and it was no longer possible for our Twinotter aircraft to land. We were now faced with a ten hour drive in two land cruisers on one of the world's most dangerous roads. We made it to the mountains well after dark and would soon be reaping our rewards.
We woke up in Jomsom at 2900m above sea level. The view alone made the previous day's drive worthwhile. The intent for the day was to reach Muktinath, at 3900m. It was going to be an interesting day; little did I know, one of the best I'd ever spent on a bike. I am one of those sick people that love to climb, but the descend was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had on a bicycle. Before we started the ride though, our local logistic guide, Mukhiya AKA Snow Monkey presented us with traditional silk scarves and wished us Tashi Delek, meaning good luck in the Tibetan language.
We began with a water crossing so cold that I had what could only be described as ice-cream-headaches-in-my-feet!
It wasn't long until the shortness of breath, exhaustion, cold and occasional dizziness took hold; but the views, coupled with the crisp sound of gravel under 2.4 inch wide tyres and farmers chanting to their Yaks while plowing fields, made it all worth while.
We reached Muktinath by lunch time, devoured a well needed feast, played with dogs and set off downhill. If I plucked you from your seat right this minute and dropped you on these trails you'd swear they were made by dedicated riders. Instead, millions of feet over hundreds of years have worn these ways through the mountains and here we were to enjoy them on our machines. It was truly magical!
That night was spent in Kagbeni, a beautiful Tibetan village, which was fun to explore by night and day.
The next morning we departed for Muktinath yet again, this time by shuttle up the road we had ridden the day prior. After some biking and a portion of hike-a-bike with frequent breaks to catch our breath, we made it up to 4,200m, our highest point of this trip.
It was just us, prayer flags, Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh highest mountain at 8,167m, Annapurna at 8,091m, and a 1,500 meter single track descend ahead.
What followed ranks as one of my favorite rides ever on an epic trail that seldom sees any travellers, let alone those on two wheels. It was a loose gravel trail with long flowy stretches broken apart by tight switchbacks. We were simply flying behind our lead guide Mandil, down the open, mountain-hugging trail.
Several more technical sections led us to a riverbed, where we picked our lines over rock gardens, water crossings and grippy-dried riverbed ground.
After a quick lunch break at Jomsom, we were back on our bikes pedalling through villages and apple orchards, stopping to let mules pass and battling extreme head winds.
Two hours later, all of us arrived safely into the apple growing capital of the region, Marpha - which meant it was time for apple Brandy and the world famous apple pie.
The region has been a major thoroughfare for Tibetan refugees for years and the morning saw us explore the history behind the area by following the routes and discovering the accommodations afforded them by the local people, some still inhabited.
Day 9 consisted of an even greater descent of 1700m. It was one of our most varied days of scenery and terrain as we passed through incredibly friendly mountain villages with children lining up for high fives and calling out ""namaste!".
There were some short punchy climbs, as usual with the purpose of descending the most exhilarating trail possible.
We crossed eight suspension bridges in the day, enjoyed fresh apple juice and even a siesta in addition to riding a combination of cobblestone alleys, stairs, river beds, double track, pine forest trails, rock gardens and waterfalls on our way to the much hyped about hot springs town of Tatopani.
We reached the springs dusty and tired, but everyone had a million dollar smile across our faces.
We departed early the next morning and enjoyed the last glimpses of a region we'd all come to love. Our last day on the bikes wasn't exhilarating, wasn't as spectacular as previous days and wasn't special for any given reason; but somehow it was just as much fun and even somewhat emotional as we rolled into our final destination of Beni, by bicycle.
Then, a van transfer back to Pokhara for a celebratory night, the last together as a complete bunch, more of the usual antics, concluding with 11 meal orders from the hotel bar, after midnight.
This trip to Nepal was organised by H&I Adventures
who I highly recommend. All of the staff on the trip were local, and in addition to riding only the flowiest trails, we spent our nights in clean family owned accommodations and ate delicious local food. Our lead guide Mandil Pradhan knew the area like the back of his hand and Suraj Rai, the second guide, was a great personality and a gem of a mechanic.
There's a lot to be said for packing your belongings in the morning, jumping on a bike, enjoying some of the best trails you've ridden, then arriving at your destination in the evening with your bags delivered, a new room, a shower, local cuisine and cold beer at the ready. You simply can't put a price on that!
Text: Ty Domin
Photography: Ty Domin & Geoffrey Wilkinson
Tour URL: H&I Adventure's Nepal Tour Page