Everyone you know who’s been to Nepal and the Himalayan region will tell you how amazing it is over there and no amount of time is ever enough to see and explore enough of it...and I’m here to tell you -
That’s absolutely right!
Simeon called me one afternoon and told me a couple of friends and him are thinking of going mountain biking in Nepal. That was all the information I needed. The next day I had arranged my time off and put together a gear checklist. The two months until the trip flew past really quickly. I was enjoying the bike season in the Alps and had largely forgotten about the upcoming adventure. The penny dropped the week before my flight to Sofia from where we’d fly to Kathmandu via Doha.
"Shit, this is really happening, I should probably be getting ready!"
I hadn’t done any research until now and apart from the fact that we were going to Nepal to do some mountain biking in the Annapurna mountain range, I didn’t know much. Simeon and Georgy had already been to Nepal a couple of years back and had a pretty good idea of how things work over there, and Vlado whom I didn’t know until then was quite pedantic and had prepared everything months ago and also planned a couple of variants of the route. That was all perfect, for once I could just enjoy the trip and not bother with the where and how.
An overview map of our trip. No guides, no porters. Pure masochism.
I would love to tell you about every single day of our month long adventure! From the dusty streets of Kathmandu and navigating the anthill-like traffic of the city, the fun trails around it, the unlikely way we found transportation to Besisahar, the dance-off with locals granting us samosa discount, the time we hired a public transportation bus and all the notable in between moments which show our naivete or problem-solving abilities and perseverance. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone would read the fifteen pages I drafted, so I’m going to focus on the highlights instead.
After a long grind starting from Besisahar, reaching Bharka was a milestone, until now we hadn't had any proper trail riding apart from the Kathmandu trails. Here we would stay an extra day so we could hike up to Ice Lake (4635m) and then bike back down. The morning greeted us with 10cm of fresh snow and below zero temperatures, we got a little worried if we’d be able to do Ice Lake and the mountain pass at the end of the valley for that matter.
Distance: 7km, Elevation: 1156m, Highest point: 4625m
Luckily the cold spell didn’t last very long and after lunch, we were already on the way up to the lake. There’s no riding on the way up. It’s steep. As soon as we left the village we had to start pushing and carrying the bikes, which wasn’t so bad really. I for one much preferred it since we left most of the bulky luggage at the guesthouse. I was at least 10kg lighter which made for a completely different mood on the way up the 1000+ vertical meters to the lake. It was early afternoon again when we all got to the top and there wasn’t much time for anything other than changing and bike setup before we had to point the bikes down. And when we did…oh, my god, the best trail so far! Flowy, with some small hits and the type of corners where you could just lean and push the bike from one side to another akin to skiing, then steep with switchbacks, then flowy again and steep again. It quickly made the last few days of grinding uphill worth it! What a day!
Leaving Bhraka next morning, all I could think was if the trail down from Tilicho (4959m) would be as good as the Ice lake trail. Before we find out, however, we still had to get to the bottom of it. Another few hours uphill along a dusty dirt road and we arrived at Khangsar.
Distance: 18km, Elevation: 1998m, Highest point: 5023m
Up until now, most villages apart from the monk village next to Bhraka originated and exist thanks to the tourist flow, it is simply necessary to have a place to stay along the way, and tourism has done it’s thing and transformed the valley. Khangsar may have sprung into existence exactly the same way, I don’t know, however it felt different. The buildings were older for one, made of stone. It had character, a certain charm to it. Well, there was the ”Your Name Here” restaurant in the middle of the town square as well, but silly out of place signs were to be found everywhere anyway.
We spent the night in one of the guest houses had Dhal Bat again and an almost warm shower. In the morning after breakfast we were on our way again, leaving excess items behind. Most people start from either Khangsar or Mannang and spend a night at the Tilicho Base Camp. For reasons unknown to me, we decided to do it in one day. The way up was rideable at the beginning and then quickly wasn’t, although up to the basecamp there were also a number of descents which wasn’t ideal since we’d lose altitude only to have to gain it again. This was perhaps the most impressive stretch of our journey so far, beautiful colours, massive ridges covered in glacial ice and a view deep down into the valley behind us. The location of the basecamp is simply breathtaking, I could now see why people would opt for spending a night there.
Carrying, pushing and more carrying. Far in the distance, we could see a faint line traversing the mountain, this was our path, it looked forever away. At this point there weren't any people going up anymore, it was too late for anyone to be there, and the weather had promised to turn bad with high winds picking up later in the afternoon. The altitude had gotten under Vlad’ skin and he decided to head back. A couple of hundred vertical meters later, Georgy felt the same and also decided to turn back. It was just me and Simeon now.
We were at the end of the traverse we saw from afar, now there were a dozen of switchback turns going straight up. It was getting cold and the light was getting dimmer, massive clouds were rolling down the glaciers and were threatening to fill up the valley. We got to the edge and saw the last sign for the lake, the clouds, however, had already come down and we didn’t get to see it. There was no time to be wasted. Dressing up, setting up suspension and tire pressures and a quick power bar was all we had time for. It is amazing how we find extra energy when the front of the bike is pointing downhill, suddenly I felt so alive! The steep sections with the dozen switchbacks were quite the thrill, picking up the rear tire to take tighter turns at nearly 5000m with a view way, way down into the valley in the middle of the Himalayas! Whew!
Then the traverse which on the way up took more than an hour was now a speed section with flowy turns, crossing steep scree fields without slowing down, putting power into the pedals to clear the short uphill and then another steeper flow section! An absolute blast! I caught myself wishing for a DHR instead of a RockRazor, but that thought quickly evaporated on the next climb. I was disappointed we couldn’t see the lake, the light was amazing just an hour prior to us reaching the edge and for once I had my camera with me,
but seeing how far the clouds had reached already and that it was quickly getting dark and cold this was certainly the smarter decision. Plus, we still had a long way to go, we weren’t even halfway to the base camp! We got to Khangsar late in the evening, exhausted yet full of excitement!
The next day I could still feel my legs, I could also still see the trail in front of me when I close my eyes. I was feeling weird, maybe the cold shower was not a good idea - a thought for another time. We have to pack up and move on. We’d hike up above Khangsar to drop into the Mannang valley ride another trail along the way and then continue to the basecamp.
Distance: 15km, Elevation: 973m, Highest point: 5414m
A short, steep and incredibly dusty section got us back to the hiking path on the way to the mountain pass. After some hours of climbing and carrying, we’d finally get to the Thorung La Basecamp. From there to the pass itself are only about 1000m vertical, after that, it’s mostly downhill! Fingers crossed!
We were supposed to go up the next day, but I had a fever and didn’t feel great at all with multiple visits to the outhouse during the night and no energy left whatsoever we had to spend another day at the camp. The good thing was we’d have regular meals, I was down some kilos already, surviving on rice and lentils while carrying half my own weight uphill every day for the past two weeks had taken its toll. The next day I felt a bit more alive, the gallons of ginger tea I had drunk along with the herbs offered by every good samaritan who wanted to help surely contributed. We picked up a slow but steady pace on yet another uphill grind.
A 1000 meter climb is not an extreme amount. A 1000 meter climb at 5000m with 30kg of bike and backpacks on our backs was a slightly different story. I was staying at the rear there was no need to rush. I needed to give myself enough time to recover my strength. We got to a small teahouse in the middle of nowhere a third of the way to the pass, Simeon greeted us, he’d been there for an hour already.
Getting to the pass didn’t take too long after that. Once there, it was time for the usual - repack and set the bikes up for going down. I couldn’t wait! Suddenly didn’t feel so feverish anymore. Georgy arrived some minutes later and shortly after Vlad showed up as well. It was time to ride the 5500m down! The trail was mint, steep but flowy, loose stones here and there, grippy dirt at places, tight switchbacks and then back to loose rocks. I wish we could leave the extra luggage somewhere, would have been so much more fun. I could feel the 15kg backpack on my back wanting to push me over the bars anytime I had to stop more abruptly. It makes for a very interesting riding technique.
Having the beefiest bike I was leading the pack, I wanted to ride everything, stepping off the bike is sacrilege on the way down! This is what we came for! Trying to stay off the brakes as much as possible and perhaps thanks to the tunnel vision when going down as well, I took a wrong turn along this tiny path along a spine with drops on both sides. Such a great feeling, I was totally in the moment...until there was no more trail that is. Simeon caught up smiling and telling me “I think we took a wrong turn, but it was awesome!”. Vlad arrived a minute later saying “dudes, I think we took a wrong turn!”. We looked back and saw Georgy at the fork a kilometer away, on his carbon CX Epic shouting at us “You took a wrong turn!”...
The trail continued in the same manner pretty much all the way down to Muktinath, where our next stop would be - the Bob Marley Hotel. Yes, yes, I know. Georgy had been told we should stay there, and to be fair it was the liveliest of all places, some socializing would be nice. We caught up with some familiar faces that we saw along the way, managed to rest a little before the next leg of the trip. Lupra Valley here we come!
We got to Tatopani, found a place to stay, and had a rest day enjoying the hot springs there. In the evening we sat down and made a plan. We had to get to Pokhara. We still wanted to ride, but it wasn’t exactly near and there wasn’t an obvious way. There was this prominent ridge on the map, with a hiking path just along its edge. Long and with a decent elevation, I was hooked, Simeon was in as well, Vlad and Georgy were on the fence. We tried to do some research on the hiking path, but mobile internet wasn’t exactly great in the mountains. We did manage to watch 30 seconds of a video review on the Mardi Himal trek. It was nicely shot and even though we didn’t see what exactly the path was - we were sold.
Distance: 77km, Elevation: 5172m, Highest point: 3547m
To get there we first had to conquer Poon Hill on the way. One-third of the way to the top is a dry and dusty dirt road and two-thirds are a stone stairway. The whole trip is about 2000m vertical and of course, only a fraction of it was rideable, the rest of the time we had to carry, again. The moral was relatively high, we were getting closer to Pokhara and things were generally okay. Vlad was still recovering from his elevation sickness, Georgy had food poisoning from the night before, I was still battling my fever, and Simeon had some joint issues, but despite that, we were fine.
Poon Hill was torture, the stairway part of the hiking path drained everyone’s powers. To avoid the premium prices of the hotels on the peak we slept at the last village just before that and recharged. The push continued the next morning, but it was only a short one, then we were at the crossing point, time to change and set the bikes up for the downhill part.
Holy high-speed compression! Remember the stone staircases on the way up? Exactly the same thing on this side of the mountain, all the way down. Two thousand vertical meters of rock garden. Some parts were more stair like, others were plain rock gardens and steep. I was lucky, I had a freeride bike, 180mm of Kashima goodness. It had already paid off on the previous descends and I managed to ride 98% of this mess. Simeon had a Kona Dawg from 2004, a trail bike by today’ standards, Vlad had an old Scott Genius and Georgy, he had a carbon cx-race machine that clocked under 12kg, probably with the water bottle filled up. Let’s say that it was slightly more challenging for them.
Eventually, after a handful of crashes and scary close calls we got to the bottom. The speed with which you allow yourself to go once the road gets smoother is pretty scary. We were in Birethanti in the early afternoon. I had chicken for dinner, sweet, delicious chicken. We had time to chill in the evening and reminisce about the hot springs from two days ago.
The next morning Georgy made a decision, he would go directly to Pokhara and skip the Mardi Himal push. Without him and his portable speaker, the Fellowship was not the same. But we were still motivated and determined to get to the fabled ridge in search of dreamy trails.
We said our goodbyes and headed into the valley to find a path that goes to the ridge. On the map there was a path drawn on the right-hand side of the river, we thought we might take that and be on the ridge in the evening. It turned out that this path doesn’t exist anymore, we had to cross the river and take a dirt road heading up. The thing is we were on the wrong side of the river now, some hours later we realized that we would have to cross the river again, yet the road was still going up. River crossings and bridges are usually as low as possible where the valley is narrower, which meant only one thing...all that climbing is for nothing because we have to go down to the river, cross and then climb up on the other side again. We descended along some sketchy steps, got to a bridge and lo and behold were greeted by another mile-long section of steps to climb with bikes on our backs. Bloody endless stairs. From the other side of the river, we could see some lights two thirds up the mountain, that was our goal as it was already dark, we’ve been going up all day, again. We dropped our bags at the first guesthouse and ordered food.
We knew we still had to climb, a lot, we’ve all seen the map. None of us knew it would be stairs all the time. Things were no different the next day - more stairs. There are 5 camps along the ridge on the way to Mardi Himal. Forest Camp, Rest Camp, Low Camp, Mid Camp and High Camp with about 2.5h average hike time between each camp. We had not reached Forest Camp, yet.
A few hours later we did. At this point, Vlad had come to his senses and declared, he too is going to Pokhara, and that we’re crazy to continue. Simeon and I find a certain pride in being stubborn. We had lunch at Forest Camp and left some gear there, traveling a bit lighter made a massive difference once again. We threw the bikes on our backs, picked a fresh pace and got our minds ready for the next several hours of masochism. We got to one of the next camps and had a tea break there, then up again. Once again it was dark and we were still far from our goal, the temperatures dropped, but if we didn't stop it was rather comfortable. We arrived at last camp - the High Camp shortly before midnight. Left the bikes outside and entered the most brightly illuminated building.
The common room was buzzing, twenty-something hikers, having dinner, tea and having laughs. A large room with single beds along the walls, two long tables in the middle and a log burner between them. We had full gear on, helmets and everything, As soon as we entered the place went quiet. I could feel multiple pairs of eyes on me, but had completely let go once I felt the warmth. We ordered food and brought our bikes inside. As soon as we did that there was an audible “Ahaaaa!” from the crowd. Bike gear doesn’t make sense there. We ate in silence, and shortly after the room was empty, we were handed blankets and pillows and were assigned beds. This was the fastest I had fallen asleep.
I got up early to take some shots of the sunrise, sadly there was a layer of clouds on the horizon. It was still pretty but to be experienced instead of photographed. During breakfast we had chats with some of the hikers, apparently, we looked like ghosts the night before, everyone was of course really friendly and genuinely curious on what exactly is our plan. We were, too. From the top of the ridge, we could see on both sides of the mountain, with the glorious Machapuchare (Fish Tail) right behind us. The trail was carved on one side of the ridge, in the beginning, it was somewhat flowy, though everything seemed flowy compared to the days of stairs, and quite exposed at times, we were still at 3500m. I had a crash a few turns down, pretty much fell off the mountain with my bike continuing to bounce further down, each bounce adding another 5 mins of hiking do for me. In the middle of it managed to dislocate a finger which promptly grew twice its normal size.
With my bike recovered and my finger back into place, we continued down. It was somewhat rideable, but I wouldn’t say it was fun. We then got into the tree line where the jungle begins. Having already hiked up that way we knew we won’t be riding much. Just before we entered I spotted another way in, and since we had nothing to lose, we decided to give it a go, how bad could it be?
It was rideable! Not only it was rideable, but it was flowy and smooth, neither of us could believe it and 15 mins in we were still waiting for the joyful trail to end any minute now. Luckily it didn’t and we were back at the Forest Camp in record time, overtaking some hikers who were initially faster on the way down at the more techy sections above the forest. Had lunch again, packed the gear we left and headed down again. What followed was the most exhausting and annoying type of riding possible. Riding for 50 meters, carrying for 100, riding for another 20, carrying for 10. The whole cycle repeated until the evening. We were hoping to be able to ride through the jungle, instead had to carry most of the way. Quite demoralizing to say the least. We got to the Australian camp, very manicured place, with flower gardens and mowed lawns, we didn’t feel like we belong there, so we continued further along a nice rideable trail we heard about from some locals, ending up in Dhampus. We found a place to sleep, in a completely empty guesthouse, Dhampus isn’t the most popular spot.
Compared to the last few days, Pokhara was only a stone throw away, we were still on the mountain and still wanted to ride some trails. As is the tradition, most of them were stairs, some sections were rideable, others weren’t. Eventually, we decided to end this misery and take a dirt road to the main road in the valley, we would have had to do that soon anyway.
Some hours later we were in Pokhara! A cozy lakeside town with two hills on either side. It’s quite chill and becoming more touristy by the day a lot of westerners have made it their home and I can see why. We spend a few days there, I did not stop eating for the whole duration of our stay there. I was having three slices of cake and a lassi before breakfast, then snack, lunch, snack, dinner and pizza at the outdoor forest cinema. We did the Pokhara Downhill, and then back to eating. We still had to go to Kathmandu, take care of flights and eventually settle back into our normal lives, but for now, Pokhara was heaven and that’s all that mattered!
Vladimir Vladimirov: Rider
Georgy Bozhinov: Rider - IntoTheWild.bg
Simeon Patarozliev: Rider - @simeonpatarozliev
Milko Stoev: Rider, Words & Photos - @milkostoev