Story by Mark Koelen
First time I was in Nepal, I did a short trek in the Annapurna region in the Himalayas. That was 1998 and I fell in love with this country. After that, I have visited Nepal three more times. For work and for travel, but now it was the first time I was in Nepal by bicycle.
I came in from the far western border with India. I passed the southern and ‘flat’ part to get into cycling again since I took a break from an intense cycling adventure in Ladakh. I had thick and humid fog for nine days straight. Turns out it was a 2000 km long ‘superfog’, the biggest ever recorded that stretched out from Pakistan to Sikkim in India. Every day I was cold and I didn’t pitch my tent once. I was lucky because I could afford the € 3 a night for guest houses along the way. But many people lead a tough life in Nepal. I even felt embarrassed complaining about the weather, especially when I saw children working in these harsh circumstances. Besides that, it was good to be in Nepal. Especially because they all seemed to like the bicycle man and wanted to get a glimpse of him when he had his tea stops.
When I got into the mountains going up to Pokhara the sun started shining and my energy level skyrocketed. In Pokhara, the starting hub for trekkings, I decided to cycle up to Muktinath in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. Muktinath is a holy village that I visited in 2003 when I hiked the Annapurna circle. Back then you could only go there by hiking but things have changed and now it’s possible to cycle all the way up there.
I didn’t know what to expect, all I knew it was off road after day 1. Could Purple Haze – my bicycle – handle it? That was my biggest concern. Traveling light would be wise but I decided to go fully packed anyway so I could go wherever I wanted without having to go back to Pokhara. Maybe not the smartest choice but we world-cyclists get all claustrophobic when we give in to our freedom.
Day 1 – Doggy Style
The first day I cycled from Pokhara to Beni. With serious climbing on a mostly paved road, I could do 85 km with a 12,1 km/h average. But on this stretch in a downhill, something happened that didn’t happen in 33.000 km of cycling. I fell and pretty hard too. This dog attacked me, I lost focus in a curve with small rocks where people were working and my front wheel slipped. Face down scratching my chin over the asphalt, an open knee, but fortunately, my cycling gloves saved my palms (thanks for that, they even have grip on the asphalt).
In an act of revenge, I lost my cool and started chasing the dog. The adrenaline and dopamines had taken over. The village people, collectively working on the road, were looking at this cycling guy first falling on the concrete and then running after a dog. After some minutes I got back into reality. The village was staring at me, a woman gave me back my glasses that fell off when I was hovering over the asphalt, I got my shit together, gave the people a dumb smile that kinda told them how stupid I felt, and started cycling again. Didn’t feel any pain. Yet…
Day 2 & 3 – Hot Water
The next day I could feel it. My knee and wrists were painful but it was my back that took a serious blow. That day I cycled only for 32,1 km to Tatopani which means hot springs. I averaged 7,5 km/h on a road with heavy dust, mud, holes and countless rocks. In 32 km there were 3593 meters of climb and descent. Mostly climb. That night I decided to spend an extra day at Tatopani. To just lay myself down in the hot water and let my body recover.
´Steep up, steep down, mud, trails, rocks, the works…´
Day 4 – Jomsom
After Tatopani the plan was to reach Jomsom the next day. I boiled 10 eggs, bought a kilo of carrots, half a kilo tomatoes, a kilo of dried food, and I still had a loaf of dark brown multi seeds bread. I kinda knew I would need it. That perhaps I’d be hungry like a bear. End of the day there was no food left in my panniers. Good choice I guess.
Cycling from Tatopani to Jomsom was only 55,3 km’s but it took me 11 hours out of which I pedaled and pushed the bike for 9 hours. I averaged 6,1 km/h. Steep up, steep down, mud trails, rocks, the works. A beautiful trail for jeeps and mountain bikes, not for fully packed road bikes. I arrived in Jomsom in the dark with countless stars to back me up. After arrival, my eyes stayed wide open for another 2 hours from the hormones and energy levels. I checked in to a guest house where the price had gone up to €4,50. An easy choice at minus 15 Celsius that night. But the best had yet to come because believe it or not they had a hot shower. I didn’t have much hot water the last 5 months but now I actually had a hot shower after this epic ride. Must have showered for half an hour. Sorry about that.
That night I ate the local dish of Nepal which is Dal Baht. They keep on giving rice and Dahl when you’ve finished your plate in Nepal, one of the reasons why I like it so much. Now, after today, with all the food I ate, these poor people from the guest house just had to keep coming over and over for more food. All cyclist have this but sometimes after a crazy day, you’re just unstoppable. After indulging like a madman I went to sleep. Starred at the ceiling with my eyes open still processing the adrenaline and dopamines. And then I fell asleep like a little cycling baby.
Day 5 – Muktinath and Back
The next day I cycled to Mutkinath. I cycled for 7 hours to do 50 km’s (that’s a return trip Jomsom – Muktinath). Also a tough day with strong winds and cold reaching 3800 meters but after the day before I was made of steel. And believe it or not, 16 km’s out of the 50 were paved. Some Chinese or Indian guy donated an 8 km stretch of asphalt. A smile on my face! Besides that, it was the most beautiful day in the Annapurna’s so far. Stunning nature and Tibetan culture.
Day 6 – Grateful
I absorbed all the energy of this beautiful trip going back to Pokhara on the same road. I decided to give my bicycle and myself some rest so with Purple Haze on a roof of a jeep I stared at a bumpy scenery for 10 hours being grateful. I realized again that there’s always a reward in the end. You don’t even regret being fully packed or remember the pain you had going up. All that stays is the energy. So if you ever think about cycling the mountains of Nepal then go for it. In the end, the effort you put in only makes it better. Besides, without the dark, you can’t see the stars. So go there, and go all the way.
Photo credits: Mark Koelen
Read more about Mark and his encounters with people and cultures around the world: Cycling For Stars.
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