Nepal, the home of temples; mountains, fluttering prayer flags, spirituality and peace. It has been on our travel wish-list for years having dreamed of tackling the Annapurna Circuit by bike and indulging in the delicious dhal bats.
After a 12 hour flight, arriving in Kathmandu was an explosion of the senses, the traffic, honking of horns, thick smog, dust and organised chaos was a sight to behold. Our first few days exploring the Thamel district was mainly in preparation for the Annapurna Circuit, grabbing our last minute bargains for those extra layers that we would need to survive the -15 temperature on Thorung La Pass. From our research, we knew of course that the Himalayas were the ultimate goal for mountain lovers as you can explore the trails to Everest and the Annapurnas taking in the incredible mountain scenery and gigantic mountain peaks. A feast for the eyes; the scale of which are still overwhelming to comprehend.
During our stay in Kathmandu we couldn’t miss visiting the Swayambhunath Stupa which is among the oldest religious sites in Nepal. The area is made up of a variety of shrines and temples some dating back to the Licchavi period. A Tibetan monastery sits on the hill next to a museum and library which are the more recent additions to the site. After you climb the steep steps to the top and slowly catch your breath the views of the Kathmandu Valley burst into sight. The hand painted Buddha’s eyes watch as you wander around while the monkeys await to pounce. One of the little buggars went for my water bottle, I screamed and it fled. After Gibraltar I know their game.
Even after the 2015 earthquake, Nepal remains a popular destination for tourists, who are slowly helping to inject the funds needed for Nepal to rebuild. Like us, I guess visitors love to explore the Kathmandu Valley and its abundance of palaces, hidden backstreet shrines and stunning temple art. You can also enjoy the coffee, wander around the trekking and craft shops and the assortment of restaurants of Thamel but knowing that you can escape the hustle and bustle and nip off to the countryside where lies a quiet retreat away from the chaos. Life goes at a slower pace here once you surround yourself in the beauty of the mountains and lush jungle terrain.
After experiencing the fore-mentioned chaos of Kathmandu, Mat and I hopped in an eco-van with our friendly Max Verstappen behind the wheel and headed to Pokhara, the second biggest city in Nepal. The journey was a gruelling 6-7 hours of bumpy roads, dodgey overtaking, vehicles overturned but stunning views, all the while with our bikes precariously strapped to the roof hoping they would survive. Despite being the second biggest city, Pokhara is relatively chilled. The metropolitan atmosphere is relaxed and the coffee houses pretty dam good. The views of Machhapuchhre mountain and its 6,993m peak peer above the clouds whilst the daily abundance of thrill seekers paraglide their way down over the lake from Sarangkot. Pokhara is the place where we would begin the Annapurna Circuit route, working our way up to Sarangkot and into the mouth of the Himalayas.
Eileen, Andy, Rob, Emma, Mat and myself had one stop pinned on the map to help inspire the six of us who had joined forces to conquer the Annapurna, the International Mountain Museum. We wanted to find out more about Nepal’s eight thousand meter high peaks, the names of successful summiteers including the first from M. Herzog and Louis Lachenal who scaled up Annapurna on 3 June, 1950. There is not only information about the Himalayan range but also about the environment, geology and species, as well as the sherpas and porters who conduct the brave and selfless clean up efforts on the mountains. It was a beautiful museum which injected some energy and excitement to pedal the intimidating and looming Thorung La Pass.
Riding the Annapurna Circuit the ‘wrong way’ around was an incredible journey that we both won’t forget. Riding the loop this way around means that your last day up to the pass is a 1300m ascent pushing the bikes 7km. We were told by many trekkers ‘we wouldn’t make it’ as it was too steep and a greater ascent in a shorter space of time in comparison to the ‘right’ way around which is about 500m from the last teahouse. We decided to take the bikes as far as we could (4900m), leave them, then journey back up the next day to break the pushing up a bit. Our decision to ride it this way was due to the insane decent once over the pass on the other side, or so we hoped.
With grit and determination and a lot of help we got 250m from the summit and both agreed to turn back. Rob was suffering early signs of hypothermia and no amount of huddling close and covering him in sleeping bags was going to make a difference. This unfortunately meant that him and Emma had to head backwards, and pretty sharpish. Mat and I were so close to follow as I had awful AMS symptoms and Mat was finding it hard to breathe at rest, we basically wanted to join Emma and Rob and call it a day. We were pushing our bikes and stopping for breath every 5 steps due to thin air up there. It was also -15 with a badass wind chill numbing our hands and face when moving so slowly.
With great encouragement we eventually made it to the pass all credit due to Andy and Eileen. They helped to push our bikes up in relays and kept our spirits high during a pretty rough time. They were absolute troopers and helped us to conquer one of the most beautiful, traumatic, terrifying, exhausting and dam right craziest things that we’ve ever done. Me and Mat owe these guys our experience of the Annapurna Circuit.
After the Anna, it was definitely time to recharge the batteries. It really did take its toll on me but all of us were falling ill and feeling pretty drained. We left Manang after a day of rest to descend to Besi Sahar and then pedal back to Pokhara to indulge in some luxury at the Three Jewels Hotel. With extremely friendly owners who were very attentive and accommodating we soon nursed ourselves back to full energy with hot showers, a actual toilet (oh how I love you and have missed you), delicious breakfasts and comfy beds. Perhaps it was now time for a holiday – as you would understand we soon extended our stay.
Coffee was drank, facials were had, my monobrow was addressed and my mane cut. I was back to feeling like a human again. We explored further the sights of Pokhara taking in the tranquility of the lake and meandering the streets with our cameras. After treating ourselves to some TLC it was time to give some love to our bikes.
For me Nepal has been a real eye opener. The way of life here is hard with people working long and physically laborious hours with limited access to healthcare and education. Despite this, the people are so incredibly humble and friendly, the children play with limited toys but exude happiness none the less. Family time is particularly treasured often allowing people to share and embrace their community of warmth. It has definitely left a positive impact on my life and mindset.
Tomorrow the day has come for us to pedal onwards to Kathmandu on a six day journey off the beaten track through tiny villages and farmland. We will be both pretty sad to leave the spirit and beauty of Nepal, but the next leg of our journey awaits…Australia.