Traveling to Mustang
I was working quietly in the yard of my hostel when my friend Ujjwal and his buddies rolled into the yard with four mudsplattered mountain-bikes. They explained that they had left from Mustang the previous day and rode 180 kilometers down out of the Himalayas and to Pokhara.
I was inspired! And without further research I became sure that this was a good plan for the week.
So I rode my cheap bike into town and got to work. I visited a few biking stores and haggled a rental on a new-ish Giant Hardtail for Rs. 1600/day. I bought a bus ticket to Jomsom (Rs. 1500) and made sure they would strap my mountain-bike to the roof. I bought a cheap North Fake 40-liter backpack (Rs. 1800), and gaiters (Rs. 700) for the mud. I borrowed 2 maps from my buddy Jonas- one of the west Annapurna area and one of Mustang. Finally I dropped by the government office and purchased my two permits for Mustang (Rs. 5000 total).
After two days of errands, haggling, and biking around Pokhara I was ready to go. On Tuesday I caught the 6 am bus to Jomsom with my rented bike strapped to the roof.
Driving through Nepal is absolutely breathtaking. You bump along dirt and mud roads at a walking pace, marveling at the little terraced villages perched on green hillsides in valleys that wind up to snow capped peaks in the shimmering distance. Water flows everywhere- in winding little streams, huge waterfalls, and violent gushing rivers which have cut massive valleys.
We stopped at a small Khaja Ghar (think Nepalese bodega) on a hillside for breakfast at around 8 am. There was curried potato, fried bread, and a hard boiled egg. After breakfast I had a cup of chai masala tea while I took in the view of the valley. Everywhere you happen to stop in Nepal there is some gorgeous view of a valley.
We drove higher into the hills. We stopped to switch out one of our tires at a roadside shack with old tires stacked all around. There was a lot of haggling and general confusion but eventually we replaced a tire or two on the bus. Then we were off again, turning off of the main east/west road to the rough path that follows the Kali Gandaki river northward up the valley, deep into the Himalayan Mountains and the Mustang Valley.
After a few hours of brain-vibrating travel up dirt and rock roads, we stopped at a roadside spot for Dal Bhat. I scarfed it down with my hands and hopped back on the bus. I had a fear of being left behind, as the bus would just scream right off when the driver was done eating. Once on this journey, we left some folks behind and had to turn back for them!
In the afternoon, the monsoons came and dumped sheets of water on the roads, turning them to slick, treacherous mud. There were many narrow sections just wide enough for our tires, with hundred foot drops to the right side. This was a very harrowing part of the journey, but I had faith in our driver and didn’t stress too much, as there was nothing I could do.
We came through the narrow part of the valley up to a wide rock field interspersed with small streams. In this way, the shape of the Himalayas here was the same as in the Langtang Valley. The southern part of the valley at the foothills was steep and V-shaped, while the northern part of the valley flattened out into a broad expanse. Jomsom sprawls out in this wide, wet field of rocks at the bottom of the valley. There are snow capped peaks in all directions, and I can see the land of the valley rising towards Mustang in the distance.
We arrived at the humble Jomsom bus stop and the bus attendant made it clear that I would have to pay him an additional 2,000 rupees to get my bike back. The price had been agreed at Rs. 1,500 so this was some mild extortion, but with basically zero shared language he was quite successful at just bluntly ignoring my protestations. Eventually I needled him down to a 1,000 rupee bribe and frustratedly got my bike back. It felt good to jump on the bike after all those long chattering hours on the bus, and I quickly forgot my frustration at the extortion.
The weather when I arrived in Jomsom was windy, wet and overcast. Things were generally ominous and I started to feel slightly intimidated to ride my bike up into that dark valley ahead. It occurred to me that I hadn’t met anyone who spoke English that day, and I started to feel a little isolated. I took no solace from the imposing mountains hemming me in in all directions.
I started into Jomsom to find a place to sleep before darkness fell. When I arrive in these small towns, my first order of business is usually to find a cheap hotel with a kind-looking, old woman working the kitchen. The older the better because I figure she has more experience cooking. I usually walk around visiting two or three hotels to check the menus and haggle a low price. Often, I can get a free room if I promise to buy dinner and breakfast. Even with such measures, the quality of the meals and the kindness of my hosts is usually a crapshoot. I found my hosts in Jomsom to be extremely cold and even disgruntled at my presence. The host, a middle aged women, never looked me in the eye and only grunted in response to anything I asked. I say “hotel” but most of these are just homes where the family is renting you their spare room. They cook your dinner along with dinner for the kids. In Jomsom I felt like a total intruder in the home I was staying. I think this might have something to do with the concept of a “frontier town.” Jomsom was a hub village, the entry-way into Mustang. It had none of the charm of Mustang but had some economic opportunity and so drew many down-on-their-luck people. These are simply my uninformed assumptions from being there briefly. The disposition of the locals improved drastically when I got further into Mustang.
Early the next morning, I set off in cold rain towards Kagbeni. I was biking steadily up a rocky road hugging the rock field for a while, when I met a local guy around my age on the road. He was impressed by the bike and not a little bit incredulous that my plan was to ride it up the valley to Muktinath. I asked him about his motorcycle and we agreed to swap rides for a section of the road.
I hopped on the motorbike, shifted into first gear and sped ahead. We rode side by side until we got to a small bridge with another rocky stream feeding into the main valley. There we swapped back and said farewell.
A couple kilometers down the road I stopped at a small schoolhouse/hotel. There were some young Tibetan monks hanging out on the stoop and I asked them for some water. I came inside the building with them and filled up my water, admiring the room we were in. It had floor to ceiling glass windows on three sides, with a glorious view of the village of Kagbeni down below along the river. I had arrived!
The monks told me that they had rented this hotel for 3 years to be the site of a Buddhist school. There were 27 young monks around 17-25 years old, along with two teachers. I asked them about their subjects and they said they were learning Buddhist Philosophy, and Nepali. Next language unit was English. I asked if the schoolhouse was boarding anyone besides monks and they laughed sheepishly and said no.
As I was leaving, I spoke with the teacher. He too was shocked that I was up here alone with a mountain bike. He was happy to see tourists back in the valley, though. I asked him how the students were progressing and he said good, although there are many distractions now. Lots of activity in the valley, and internet access. Things are different now then when he was studying to be a monk.
I reached Kagbeni in no time from the monk schoolhouse. I wound through the narrow streets and back alleys of Kagbeni on my bike, crossing streams and bridges and avoiding livestock. I had no aim but generally pointed up the hill.
Eventually I reached a big hotel called “Hotel Dragon” which overlooked the town. There was no one in sight, and the hotel had some ominous transcendental mantra humming coming from inside. I searched around for a while and found the kitchen.
From the balcony at Hotel Dragon I could the big bowl of a valley we were sitting in, rimmed by barren dirt mountains. Anything beyond the dirt mountains was obscured by low clouds. I could see tons of roads and trails winding out from the bowl and I spotted what I thought might be single track biking trails. So, after Dal Bhat, I headed out away from town in that direction. I searched in the hills on my bike for a while, exploring roads and shoot-offs, always climbing towards a dirt peak sheathed in clouds.
I reached the ridge where I thought there may be trails but it was just steep rocky dirt cliffs with no good biking. I didn’t see any other bikers. So I laid down my bike and pack and hiked the last half kilometer to a the first of a chain of little dirt summits.
At the summit above Kagbeni, there was a little half moon wall made of stones protecting against a fierce wind. I sat down to meditate in the protection of the half moon, until the savage wind and cold rain drove me back down to the shelter of Kagbeni.
I woke in the early hours of the morning to begin my long bicycle climb to Muktinath. This would be about 1000 m of elevation gain over 8 km of distance. I had a vague idea in my mind that it would be challenging, but good god! this day was me at my most masochistic.
I started strong on the beautifully paved road in switchbacks up the mountain directly adjacent to Kagbeni. By mid morning I could look down and see Kagbeni as a small green square by the river far below.
I stopped to drink some water and met two pilgrims garbed in orange robes and turbans, with long white beards extending to their chest. They had small backpacks and smiled to see me struggling against the mountains with my little bike. These were the first of many pilgrims I would meet on this journey to Muktinath; the temple there is a destination for both Hindus and Buddhists across India & Nepal.
I continued on for hours up a steep grade, pausing occasionally to wheeze and chug water. I marveled out how quickly my environment would change with just a few minutes of climbing. Huge snow capped peaks would emerge, and then shift behind smaller peaks just to emerge again twice as imposing on the jagged horizon.
After more hours of biking, I passed through Khinga, and then the small village Jharkot. At Jharkot, I branched off the main road to travel through the village. I thought I might find a cup of coffee and some brief rest. Not much was open and the town was very austere. Women were carrying large baskets on their head, and men were working breaking rocks and building walls in the fields. No one paid much attention to me. I sat down next to a trickling stream to rest. The heat of the sun with the lull of the stream… suddenly I woke up to the squealing sounds of goats. The sun was high in the sky! I had slept for an hour or so.
I filled my water in the stream, forced myself to chug half in order to fight the altitude sickness, filled it again, hopped out on my bike and headed briskly uphill out of the village.
I could see Muktinath in the distance. Beneath the peaks of Khumjungar Himal and Khatung Kang was a large green bowl filled with trees and agriculture, irrigated by the waters of the Gandhaki River. Muktinath sat on a majestic hill at the center of this bowl, overlooking the green valley. I got very excited because I felt some spiritual energy emanating from the village. Several gompas speckled the hills ahead, their white steeples rimmed in gold and crimson. The view of Muktinath from across the valley gave me great energy and I pedaled hard towards my destination. After another hour or two of climbing, with the great majestic city growing closer in the distance, I arrived in Muktinath.
I felt immense relief and even greater fatigue when I arrived. This day had been one of the most painful and arduous of athletic pursuits in my life. In this moment I was certain that a bicycle is possibly the worst way to explore the Himalayas.
I collapsed into a restaurant with a patio in the sunshine and spent an exorbitant sum on a tourist meal. I didn’t care- I needed eggs bread and Cafe Americano.
I sat in the brilliant mountain sunshine for a few hours as my strength came back. A group of American motorcyclists came to the restaurant! And these were no Pokhara hippies… they were red-blooded Americans from Texas and Florida come to ride motorcycles and avoid Dal Bhat at all costs. I relished in conversing in regular American English for the afternoon. These were the first Americans I had met in many weeks and we talked and talked about everything as I emptied my brain of all the pent up conversation.
After a few hours basking in the sunshine and conversation I realized I should go to the temple.
I bid farewell to the Americans, left my bike at the restaurant, and started towards the temple on the hill. I had long stopped worrying about my bike being stolen; I got the feeling theft was extremely rare in Tibetan culture.
While walking to the Muktinath temple, I met a Hindu pilgrim in a turban and orange robe. We chatted in broken English for a while, then I sat next to him on the bench quietly. Together we looked peacefully at the long staircase leading to the temple high on the hillside. I prepared myself to walk into this sacred temple, the destination of holy pilgrimages from thousands of miles away. I quieted my mind and focused on my breathing. I focused on the experience of sitting with the Hindu pilgrim, without expecting anything. There was nothing to be said, but I felt a powerful sense of peacefulness and of non-wanting in that moment. After a while, I bid farewell to the pilgrim and started up the stairs.
There were many pilgrims on the long staircase. Many were camped there, either in makeshift tents or little rock caves. They were asking for money so I put ten rupees in each outstretched hand.
The staircase was long and tiring. I thought after I arrived in Muktinath that my suffering might be over but of course Dukkha life is suffering. It should not be easy to reach the temple of Muktinath. It should require some sacrifice and hardship. I felt satisfied for having put myself through some pain on my bicycle the past days.
Towards the top of the stairs, I met a black dog with a very kind demeanor. The day was hot and dry so I bent down with my water to offer a drink to the dog. He did not accept my offer but muzzled lovingly into my body. I scratched his collar and started up the remainder of the stairs, with the dog close at my heels.
We passed through the temple gate at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t so much a temple as a walled-in compound filled with trees and various religious buildings. The different buildings in the compound were connected by stone and dirt paths formed in the side of the mountain.
I started up the tree lined path with the dog. There were racks of golden bells on each side of the path and I rang them as I walked. I reached a fork and instinctively turned right. I came out into a cleared out area with a massive statue of the Buddha in his lotus meditation pose. I sat facing the Buddha and tried again to quiet my mind. The dog sat right in front of me and rolled in the dirt, stomach up. I began to think of the dog as Sidar.
Sidar muzzled up against me and insisted I scratch his neck. I scratched and felt a bump on his skin. I pulled his hair away and saw a juicy, milky white tick with red speckles burrowed into his skin. I pulled that fucker off and flicked it away. I was unreasonably happy to be able to help Sidar.
I walked out of the Buddha-statue area along a deserted dirt trail. There were thousands of Tibetan flags covering the mountain above. After a few min I found myself in front of the gates of a temple compound within the compound. I followed a group of three Indians through the gate and copied what they did. I walked in and spun a large Wheel Bhavachakra in the clockwise direction. There was a golden ornamented temple ahead (within the temple, within the temple). I watched the Indians walk inside and do a yoga-style flow 3 times. They swept their arms up in a big motion and brought their palms to center in front of their Crown Chakra. Holding their palms together, they fell to a squatting position. Each did this three times and turned to their left. They struck a gong twice and walked clockwise around the temple out of sight. So I popped my shoes off and followed, copying their motions. I walked solemnly and slowly through the temple, trying to focus on my breath as well as the significance of the place. The room was decorated in the five bright Tibetan colors (yellow, white, blue, red, and green to signify all the parts of the world). All four walls were lined with glass encasing thousands of identical metal buddha statues of about six inches in height.
I reached the front of the temple and saw an epic statue of Buddha, flanked by other figures who I could not recognize. I saw Mara to Buddha’s left hand side.
I tried hard to calm my mind from thoughts of ego. From prideful thoughts, ideas of some personal glory from being there and witnessing such a thing. I breathed deeply and repeated the vinyasa flow I had done earlier. After a minute of two, I turned and continued clockwise through the temple back to the door. On my way out I tapped the exit gong twice BONG BONG and walked out to the bright sun.
I was tired. The altitude at 3800 m was a challenge and I had biked so far that morning. I walked out of the sub-compound, imagining a refreshing lake I could dive into. I walked down further and saw naked men and women of all ages in towels bathing. There were over a hundred taps spraying out cold mountain water lined in a half circle around a temple. Men were stripped down to their underwear and women were naked but for a sweeping “sari” looking towel.
I immediately took my shirt off and doused my face with cold water from the taps. Then I noticed that people were running through the taps in a line, traversing the semi-circle in a sort of “gauntlet.”
So I stripped down to my underwear and ran through the gauntlet of cold water, following a boy of around 16 years old. He was running but I tried to walk calmly and collectedly so as to impress the people around. Each tap landed squarely on my head and I quickly got the worst brain freeze I’ve ever felt. I quickened my pace through the gauntlet of cold showering water, trying to avoid twisting my ankle in the mish mash of crooked metal grates and tubing that I had to walk through.
It was painful but exhilarating and I was almost at the end when I was blocked by two old ladies taking their sweet old time under one of the taps. I was only 10 taps shy of the exit but I jumped out. Immediately! A kind Indian man came over and explained that I had to do all 108 taps in one go or it didn’t count. And then he showed me two small pools below.
“After you complete the 108 taps, go wash yourself in the two pools and your karma will be washed clean.”
At this point there was a small group of entertained onlookers monitoring my progress so I had no choice but to repeat my journey through the brain-freeze gauntlet. I went back and completed the gauntlet, running unashamedly this time but still getting a massive, deadening brain-freeze. I jumped in the first pool and again did the three vinyasa flows, splashing myself with cold water each time. After both pools I exited to a laughing group of Indians, Nepali, and Tibetans. I felt incredibly refreshed and had a big grin on my face.
I dried out in the sun in my underwear watching the fascinating scene until somebody politely told me I should put clothes on.
In the evening, I had Dal Bhat with chicken at my hotel. I had the, refill my plate many times as I ate as much as I possibly could. In the restaurant, I met Saurav- an early 20s Nepali kid fiddling on his guitar. We chatted amicably about the USA and Nepal. The conversation turned quite grim when the topic turned to his country. We spoke about the ineffectuality and corruption of the current democratically elected government, and how things were better under the king (just 15 years ago Nepal was a monarchy). We also spoke about Nepal’s largest contributor to GDP- remittances from expat workers. Many Nepali men of working age are recruited as laborers in middle eastern nations- mainly working in oil & gas. They send their wages back home to their families in Nepal. But these laborers in Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, etc have no labor protections and are often treated as next to slaves. Some are not paid at all, their passports held by their employers to prevent them from being able to go home- effectively making them slaves.
Saurav’s own father was a laborer in Saudi Arabia for 10 years and in that time he only saw his father twice. His family lived on the meager remittances his father sent back.
Saurav was here visiting extended family; his aunt owned the hotel we were in. He invited me back to hang with his family and drink some butter tea.
I came with him and met the extended family, around 12 energetic Nepalis of all ages sitting around a table drinking butter tea and eating popcorn. I had a cup of that deliciously stinky tea and listened to the conversation.
Through my travels, I’ve grown quite accustomed to sitting in the midst of an energetic conversation in a language I do not comprehend, simply listening to inflection and watching the expressions on peoples’ faces. I think it is the introvert within me that actually appreciates a conversation that I am within, but not expected to take part in. This was the experience sitting with Saurav’s big family, drinking butter tea and feeling very warm and at home.
While listening to the conversation, I had a chance to observe the family. According to Saurav, his family had roots in both Tibet and Nepal. These were a very hard people- short with sinewy muscles, and brown skin leathered from the sun. Everyone had an easy smile with crows-feet and they laughed often. The old grandmother’s hands were powerful and strong like the hands of a rock climber. The men wore athletic pants and light winter jackets, all coated in a light dirt. It’s like everyone had a slight dusting of dirt on them- on their jackets, in their hair, under their nails. Personally, I hadn’t had a shower in days and had only brought one outfit on this trek so I felt quite comfortable with the general dirtiness. I mean to say- no one had bad hygiene or smelled bad- it was just that film of light brown dust that coated everyone.
Each Nepali must have had 10 cups of butter tea in that sitting and no one’s cup was ever permitted to be empty. At some point in the evening we switched from tea to Raksi and I got into an energetic English conversation with Saurav’s friend about the homogenization of culture by western capitalism. I went to bed tipsy and full of butter and woke up early as the sun was rising over the mountains.
In the morning, I returned to the temple to meditate. This time, I went properly clockwise through the compound. I sat up on the hill for a while enjoying the view of the snow-capped peaks surrounding the village. At lunch I ambled down the hill and then set off on my bike down the mountain.
The way from Muktinath to Kagbeni was a dream. Smooth paved road for miles and miles, incredibly steep downhill with amazing views.
At Kagbeni, the road turned to rock and dirt and became more flat. At the bottom of the valley the headwinds became gale-force. It must have been 50 mph blowing up the valley. Despite going slightly downhill I had to pedal hard to overcome the wind. It was unpredictable and extremely aggravating; sometimes it would cease in a brief moment of peace (like holy shit it’s pure bliss to be without this wind) and then it would come in a blast and stop me in my tracks or even knock my off my bike. Entrained in the wind was tiny dirt particulate which stung at my skin and coated my teeth. I couldn’t hear anything- even when trucks were behind me blasting their horn.
After hours of struggling against the wind, the storm clouds were growing above me. There was to be a monsoon. I was passing by Marpha, a charming village on the river known for its apple orchards. I stopped and made my rounds of the Marpha hotels haggling- settling for a bare room at Rs. 400.
Marpha was a beautiful little village which looked nothing like any of the other settlements I’d seen in the Himalayas. For one, the streets were paved with wide, flat stones that gave a vaguely European cobblestone feel (as opposed to the dirt/cement streets I was accustomed to seeing in Nepal). The village consisted of one road which was really more like an narrow alley-way, with tall stone buildings on both sides. This design served to protect the village against the vicious wind of the valley. The stone buildings on either side of the road were painted white, which I had also never seen in Nepal. I walked to the north end of the town and sat among some old, crumbling stone and straw thatched buildings. Downwards, towards the river, the land was all apple and apricot orchards. I bought a small bottle of the local apple brandy and sat, watching the town darken around me. A Buddhist temple was lit up on the hillside far above my head. A group of Indians walked by and we shared the apple brandy, chatting. They too were floored by the fact that I was riding a bike down the valley to Pokhara. At this point I had collected that it was not a normal thing to do; I felt some amount of pride and stupidity at this unorthodoxy.
In the morning, I started the long ride back to Pokhara. Marpha wasn’t too far down the valley so I still had about 90 miles to get to Pokhara. This distance felt very daunting, although I felt as though if I worked hard enough I could do it all in one day.
Down the Valley
The first section at the top of Mustang Valley was beautifully paved, for which I was deeply thankful. I sped down the valley at speeds upwards of 40 mph without heed. It felt heavenly weaving down this majestic road which hugged the broad expanse of the valley floor. Massive snowcapped peaks revealed themselves in the distance and then hid themselves again. Beneath the peaks, white steepled monasteries dotted the green ridge hundreds of feet above my head. I soared like a bird for ten or fifteen miles, passing through many little mountain villages, each built in a location where a tributary flowed into the great Kali Gandaki river.
I rode on through a narrow pass out of the Mustang Valley into a broad rock field rimmed by pine forests. The road now alternated between rough asphalt and dirt. I sped onward down the hill, enjoying the muffled peacefulness of that pine forest which reminded me of northern California. One minute, I would be in the silence of the deep and solemn pines, and then my road would curve out onto a cliffside with a vista of the great valley stretching out before me. It was still early morning and vertical shafts of sunlight poked through the clouds like fingers from heaven reaching down to touch the snowcapped gods which ruled this domain. There were monasteries everywhere and I yearned to stop and meditate at one; however, I felt a great urgency to make ground as I still wanted to reach Pokhara by nightfall. So I sped onward down the hill for miles and miles and miles.
Its important to understand that this downhill section was over 65 miles of riding in one go. I can’t describe the whole journey- the shape of the valley and the condition of the road and the types of villages I passed changed with every mile I traveled. My fatigue grew until it became a beast inside me. The Evil, I started calling it in my mind. It is amazing the places one’s mind goes when he is alone with pain. Soon enough I had a raucous chorus of internal voices clamoring in my head and I wondered truly how many Dan Chilsons my mind contained. One line from Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” repeated in my mind over and over for hours, threatening to drive me truly insane.
“Of course they’re gonna know what intercourse is by the time they hit fourth grade they got the Discovery Channel, don’t they?”
At the lower part of the valley, the road turned to pure mud and dirt with large rocks. Thankfully my hardtail bike held up; however, it was slow going weaving through these difficult sections of downhill. My arms and shoulders ached and the vibrations from the rough road on my bike’s tail chattered my whole body. At this part I longed for a full suspension bicycle. There were many river crossings and deep stretches of mud that would swallow up to my ankles. These I had to pick up speed for and power through without falling, as falling would drench my feet in mud or water. Soon enough I was splattered with mud up to my forehead, with puddles of water in my shoes. Onward I biked, not even a little close to being home. What is home, anyway? In that moment, that concept was as abstract as its ever been.
On a relatively smooth section of steep downhill I opened up the bike and sped ahead The road was smooth dirt with small pebbles so I felt confident opening things up to a brisk speed. Suddenly, my body was launched over the handlebars. I landed hard on my right shoulder and skidded to a rough stop in the dirt. I groaned and rolled over, staring up at the blue sky rimmed by mountains. I have “wiped out” many times in my life and the critical moment is always that first moment of motionlessness, after you stop sliding and the world is suddenly quieter than its ever been. I stayed motionless, taking inventory of my body parts. Before even moving one muscle I felt quite confident nothing in my body was seriously damaged so I breathed a sigh of relief. I waited ten or fifteen seconds before deigning to actually move. The whole right side of my body was bruised and cut up and my left calf was bruised but all in all I was OK.
I dragged myself off to the side of the road to be inside my body for a moment. All the jubilant energy I had from the morning had been squeezed out like toothpaste in that moment and I hated this road. I probably still had 30 miles to go before I even got to the bottom of this god-forsaken valley.
I was also baffled at how I fell! I looked at the road and saw only smooth dirt with small pebbles. On this journey I had traversed much more treacherous terrain than that! My theory is that one of the small pebbles had gotten kicked up and stuck in my front wheel. I had never experienced such a freak thing before and it concerned me that this was a possibility. After a while, I grudgingly clambered back on the bike and gingerly made my way further down the mountain.
Miles and miles and miles onward. My initial goal was to do 65 miles before lunch to get out of the valley. However, at this point I needed to rest so I took lunch at the Galeshwor Temple.
After lunch, I spurred my protesting body back onto the bike and continued on downhill.
The Pokhara-Baglung Highway
Eventually, I exited the great valley cut by the Kali Gandaki River. I got off the dirt road and started riding on the Pokhara-Baglung Highway, one of the few paved highways running east/west in this part of Nepal. Nepal is obviously very challenging terrain on which to build roads, so good roads are few and far between. Most roads wind through the mountains and valleys with many switchbacks. I had 40 miles of tough climbing ahead of me to get to Pokhara.
After exiting the valley, my first task was to climb out of the valley onto the mountain ridge above. I was dead tired and dreaded more climbing. Fortunately, I was able to attach myself to a passing tractor for this climb. The tractor passed me on the uphill and I sped up and grabbed onto the back with my left hand. I let the tractor pull me up the hill to the entertainment of the kids on the tractor. They took many pictures of me getting towed and laughed and laughed.
When I reached the top of the ridge I released the tractor and sped past it, waving farewell. I powered through my fifth, sixth, seventh hours of biking with nothing but grim determination and a deep emptiness in my mind. Suddenly I felt desperate to make it to Pokhara before nightfall and I felt possessed in speeding forward to make this happen. Mainly, I didn’t want to put the same sweaty pair of pants on tomorrow, and I was afraid I would be too sore to ride a bike tomorrow.
Pokhara sits on Fewa Lake inside a large bowl of mountains. My final task was to climb up to a mountain pass to get to the ridge of the bowl. From Patichaur to Lumle I climbed around 6,200 ft on my fat, heavy, hardtail mountain-bike. This climb was my sixth and seventh hours on the bike. I kept imagining the crest of the ridge to be just around the corner. I did this probably 100 times and was disappointed every time as I saw the road continued to go upward. I learned not to make hopeful conjectures about the road ahead. Eventually night fell and I had to stop for safety, as I only had a small light. I stayed at the village of Lumle just about 5 miles from the crest of the mountain pass leading into Pokhara.
The next morning dawned beautiful and clear and I knew I had mostly downhill to get to Pokhara. My body was in pain and my ass was chapped but I hopped on the bike with a smile and climbed the remainder of the way to the top of the pass. From here, I was rewarded with an incredible view of the Pokhara valley, with Fewa Lake shimmering in the distance and my glorious road careening downhill all the way to the city.
I screamed down the road towards Pokhara with a big smile and the wind blowing in my face. At one point I found myself stuck behind a car. There were Nepalis looking through the back window and smiling at me. To give them a show, on a downhill part I pedaled as hard as I could and flew past the jeep at high speed. When I passed them, I let loose a massive rebel yell: “WAHOOOOOOO!”
I arrived by lunchtime. It felt amazing to arrive; I couldn’t believe that I had come over 130 miles from Muktinath on rough mountain roads. I ate a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and ten bananas and then took a nap.
Looking back on this experience, I probably will never take a mountain-bike into the Himalayas again. It’s simply too steep and too heinous. I now understand why the locals were so incredulous that I would do such a thing, and I now I understand why I didn’t see a single other bicyclist on my trip. The way to experience the Himalayas is the way that the Tibetans have been doing it for thousands of years- by foot (or maybe by horse/yak). That being said, the bicycle was incredibly intimate way to experience the Nepalese countryside. I felt strongly connected to the road and to the people I passed by. I interacted with so many people and made many brief friends on the road because of my traveling by bicycle. I will never forget those challenging days on the road, biking hard and staying where I please, all in the glorious countryside of Nepal.