Adventure | A Voyage of Discovery in Mustang, Nepal
For more than seven hours we’ve been crammed in a small jeep along with two Dutch hikers and their guide, making our way up an incredibly bumpy incline. Despite outside being pitch black, nothing fazes our Nepalese driver, whose stoic composure over these boulder-strewn and pothole-ridden roads is commendable. It must be something he’s used to!
Right now we’re at 2,500 metres above sea level in the Kali Gandaki Gorge, where the river has spent millions of years carving the deepest gorge in the world between the 8000 metre high mountain giants of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri in the Himalayas. After four days of travelling, we are desperate to see these revered mountains in the flesh, but we still have to show some more patience. Today’s destination is Jomoson, the centre of the Nepalese kingdom of Mustang, and a popular base for hikers who wanted to embark on the famous Annapurna Circuit. For us, it will mark the start of another bike adventure, but this one is much more than just riding the trails around the Kali Gandaki Gorge, this is an opportunity to get to know the local culture.
As the sun breaks through the next morning, we launch ourselves out of bed for a glimpse of the encircling mountains, but the highest peaks aren’t visible behind the 6,000 metre ones. Oh well, we’ll have plenty of opportunity for that in the coming days! We get our bikes together and set off on our first short stage, intended to acclimatise us to the Himalayas. As the Kali Gandaki meanders peacefully across a huge flood plain towards the Indian Ocean, we head up into the mountains in the direction of Tibet, following a hiking path to Kagbeni. That signifies the border to the former Kingdom of Upper Mustang, a kingdom that foreigners were forbidden from entering until 1992 – and even today, you’re required to splash out for an expensive permit.
Our route follows the Annapurna Circuit eastwards, in the direction of Thorung La. At 5,420 metres above sea level, this is one of the world’s highest hiking trails. There’s been a dirt road here since 2008 that takes us to our next destination, Muktinath. This pilgrimage site at around 3,700 metres will be our base for the next few days as we not only explore the trails, but also set about shooting a bike film.
Our lodge in Muktinath is just one of the many surprises of this bike trip to Nepal: not only is there electricity here, but hot water and Wi-Fi too. Given the sheer number of tourists and the road along the gorge, modernity has reached the Himalayas. Instead of having to walk for several days for supplies, things can easily be brought up here in a jeep.
The following day is the first time in our lives that we’ve taken our bikes higher than 4,000 altitude metres. And the best thing about this feat is that we’ve ridden the majority of the uphill trails on this nameless pass over Muktinath! But we’re going to have to pay a high price for this, as this thin air makes itself known with every single turn of the cranks – and pushing the bike doesn’t make much difference!
Dusty sand crackles under the tyres as the Dhaulagiri massif towers on our left. Standing at 8,167 metres high, this giant with its imposing glaciers dominates the Kali Gandaki Gorge. Fortunately, our much-needed breathers give us chance to admire it in its full glory.
Shortly before we reach our destination for the day, there’s yet another surprise as we bump into a group of mountain bikers from Bulgaria. And over the next few days we see more and more of them. The Annapurna Circuit is clearly starting to attract more than just hikers these days. However – and as we’re about to find out – lots of people underestimate the effect of the altitude and the demanding nature of the trails. At 5,000 metres, even the smallest issue can result in serious danger.
We take a moment to enjoy the view of the Upper Mustang, our goal for the day, before we speed along a super flow trail back to Muktinath. This is what makes mountain biking fun! A super tight series of curves on this dusty and dry terrain with the Dhaulagiri in our sights. As a reward there’s apple crumble pie waiting for us in Muktinath. And if you’re wondering how the apples were transported here, then you’re well off the mark, as right in the middle of the mountainous Kali Gandaki Gorge lies one of Nepal’s biggest apple growing areas at 2,700 metres. 100% local cuisine!
The next day we discover another valley towards Thorung La. Alternately riding and pushing, we fight our away along the well-trodden path. A thick blanket of snow begins around 4,200 metres, the remnants of a blizzard that had cost the lives of almost 50 hikers just three weeks before – proof if any is needed that this is a proper high mountain region, where nature is in charge. Given the snow, we leave our bikes at a tea house to explore further on foot and make the most of the views over this stunning high valley. The way back to Muktinath treats us to yet more unbridled fun on the bike with some small jumps, some cinematically-stunning technical sections and, of course, one of the well-known Tibetan rope bridges.
The next two days see us really get to business. We meet Hannes and Nils, whose film project ‘Trail of Change’ is documenting how local cultures within the Himalayan valleys are being impacted by advancements in civilisation and road building. As a side project they want to shoot a bike film with us to show that the Himalayas aren’t just for hikers and climbers, and that they’re pretty well suited for bikes too. Fortunately for us, these two have spent years hiking in Nepal so they know all the best trails to ride. In the area around Muktinath we have masses of fun sprinting different sections for various camera angels, riding from the icy cold pre-dawn until the last rays of sunlight tuck down behind the Dhaulagiri. Hannes and Nils spend the evenings and the breaks between filming regaling us with their tales from the last few years. They explain how the new road has changed the lives of the people of Upper Mustang, making it that bit easier, and why guests now stay away from the lodge owners of the lower part of the Kali Gandaki Gorge.
The next few days bring with them a continuous descent into the subtropical jungle on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. With such diversity surrounding us, the ride is absolutely fascinating and we poignantly reflect that our insignificance as humans when compared to nature is manifested in this magnificent landscape. We set off on the desert-like dusty trails from Mustang, heading back into the Kali Gandaki Gorge along a dried-out riverbed, which evolves into a lush, fertile valley within 20 kilometres of riding. Then we take a dirt track towards Beni. But before you presume that all dirt tracks are dull and undemanding, think again: every single incline on this super rough track made us work like dogs, and we were grateful for every single centimetre of travel that our bikes had.
Our bike adventure slowly drew to an end. After 10 days at dizzying heights (in the truest sense of the word!) it felt really odd as we returned to the grimy, dusty and over-populated Kathmandu. The big city hit us like the apocalypse. But, just like all over Asia, there’s a certain peacefulness in the air that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else.
During the long flight back to Europe we had time to process our thoughts on the trip. In terms of technical trails, in all honesty, the Himalayas don’t have much on the Alps. Far from it, in fact. And the sheer enormity of the mountains doesn’t really hit you when you’re there. Even though we only saw a tiny part of Nepal, our short, intensive trip through a country that’s undergoing huge upheaval is not one we’re going to forget in a hurry. One thing’s for sure: we’re definitely going to return to ride more trails and find out more about the lives lived in such a fascinatingly diverse country.
“The Mountains are our soul, the Piedmont our hearth, the trails our blood. Nature, culture, people, gourmand specialties. On our guided mountain bike tours through the lonely valleys of the western alps, we experience the Piedmont from its best side. Sound interesting? Let us surprise you on our unique alpine crosses and our trail camps. More information about our tours at www.atracktive.com.
Words & Pictures: Florian Mair & Axel Molinero