It’s no secret that Geography was never my strong point. I never understood the need to be aware of silt build up in the banks of the river Ouse, yet there it was, in my GCSE curriculum.
It isn’t the sort of geography that has piqued my interest later in life either as I’ve progressively expanded my geographical nous, in its more personally palatable form. Nonetheless, I knew little about Nepal before 1st March 2014, when I set off with friends to explore the Annapurna region in the central northern part of the country.
We set off from London with a short stopover in Delhi and then onwards to Kathmandu for what seemed a surprisingly simple endeavor for somewhere so far. Some amazing views of the Himalaya’s on approach to the Nepalese capital got us sufficiently excited for what was to come.
After unpacking our bike bags we spent three days in the Kathmandu valley. Our accommodation comprised a quaint, elevated hillside cottage with a view of the city that by night, was spectacularly lit up. During the three days, we progressively acclimatised to the altitude with some increasingly loftier rides. We sampled some breathtaking views on long brutally tough climbs that lead to Monastery’s with culture and history I did my best to appreciate. Of note, was our visit to Swayambhunath Temple, otherwise known to westerners as Monkey Temple. The presence and sheer volume of monkeys at Swayambhunath remain a mystery, or even myth if you believe of their supposed origin.
Kathmandu itself sits at around 1,400 metres above sea level. This means that fairly short upward rides can quickly reach altitudes of over 2,000 metres. The city has a population of around 1.5Mn people and the vibe in the city’s streets is lively, chaotic even. Overhead cables and powelines drape low enough to touch and there is a sense of over-development, no doubt in part due to rapid population growth.
It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been to Nepal, but the simplest and most sedate views of anything seem mesmerizing. From the temples, with their prayer flags and Tibetan prayer wheels to the ancient architecture, there is much to captivate the mind in this holy and beautiful land.
Post-acclimatization, day four arrived and we took a ride of around 90km from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, a medieval town historically protected by the Gurkha armed forces or ‘Gurkhas’.
The riding to Bhaktapur was superb with varied terrain and gave us some clues as to what might lie ahead. Our guide explained that the riding so far was special, but the riding to come was off the charts! We hadn’t even got close to the mountains yet.
On day five, as it later transpired, we were privileged to have experienced Bhaktapur and in-fact as much of Nepal as we did, before the devastation of the 2015 earthquake which struck the region not long after we left. Fortunately, many of the city’s buildings and temples survived, in-part because they were re-built after the worst earthquake in India-Nepalese history in 1934. On that occasion, an eye-watering eight magnitude quake almost completely destroyed the three main city’s of the Kathmandu Valley.
We took a flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara the next day and experienced our first real glimpse of the Himalaya’s, on board a small twin engined plane. Even though the mountains were still over 100km away, they stood tall around the airport as though they were within touching distance. To the naked eye, especially for the first time, the landscape of these mountains is magical and almost incomprehensible. It almost doesn’t seem real, as if too perfect. The proximity was confusing even, difficult to quantify when it really seemed you could walk to the mountains in front of you. It gave perspective to the sheer magnitude of the the Himalaya’s.
Pokhara served as a day off after the initial acclimatisation period, so we got to enjoy a bit of culture, some well-earned refreshments and a hearty Nepalese meal. The buzz from Pokhara’s nightlife brought a warm atmospheric feel to our experience. The streets were lined with bars and restaurants busy with locals, hikers, mountaineers and the occasional Yak! I wondered how many other mountain bikers were among the hustle.
The next morning, we boarded a De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin-Otter aircraft. A phenomenal flight over the mountains into Jomsom, a small town at 2,700 metres above sea level. The airfield is tiny and boxed in on all all four sides by huge towering 5,000M+ peaks. The approach and descent to the airfield was both breath-taking and tense. The twin-otter was loaded to the hilt with our bags, sherpas and bikes! Apparently, this is one of the world’s top ten most dangerous airfields… after taxying in, we spotted the burnt out crumpled wreckage of a previous flight that clearly didn’t make it. Likely from the fateful 2006 Yeti Airlines Jomson disaster. It sobers the mind and added a little more drama to our high-altitude arrival.
What followed was a week long tour through the Annapurna Valley with trail riding I’ve never seen the like of in magazines, let alone real life. From pine forests and stunning mountain climbs, to long descents and snow lined roads, laden with trekkers, yaks, mountain goats and various other wild animals, this was beyond our expectations.
The undoubted highlight of the whole mountain section of the trip, was a three hour hike-a-bike up to the ridge of a 4,400 metre peak through deep snow. The experience was a blend of amazing, thrilling and intimidating, topped off with the most enjoyable riding I have ever experienced. A two hour free-ride descent off the summit down to the valley, through natural switchbacks and fast paced sections with sheer drops either side! The scenery was so striking and awe-inspiring, we had to stop periodically just to process what we were seeing. I had always expected to see Nepal through the perspective of climbing or hiking. When I think of this part of the world, I think of Mount Everest and its history, stories and legend. I never expected mountain biking to lead me there. I cannot now imagine a life without the experience of being in Nepal.
The Valleys are Vast and intimidating.