Thailand has some fantastic mountain bike trails and although my wife and I ride often, we know we've barely scratched the surface. Still, about once a year the urge to go and ride someplace else, with different trails, scenery and culture, becomes irresistible. In search of mountains even bigger than the ones we rode in Peru last spring, we decide on Nepal as our destination. With 8 of the world's 10 highest peaks within its borders, mountains simply don't come bigger than they do in Nepal. Sacred Rides runs a trip "Treasures of the Himalaya" - it combines a few days riding in the Kathmandu valley with sightseeing and five days in the Mustang valley. Just the ticket.
Acclimatization - riders have flown in from as far as North-America for this adventure - consists of a few days riding in the Shivapuri National Park on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Each day generally starts with some climbing followed by fast and flowing single-track, and some sections that put everyone's bike skills to the test. A few "technical dismounts" are observed and a few more later confessed to. The author himself easily picks up the award for best crash after a tumble onto some big boulders 2 meters below the trail - ouch. Along the way we spin our first prayer wheels (and learn to always circle them clockwise), visit one of the world’s largest stupas, and wander around the ancient kingdom of Bhaktapur. It's immensely enjoyable, and an excellent prelude to what is next on the agenda and what drew us all to Nepal in the first place: the Himalaya.
We board a flight to Pokhara, a pleasant lakeside town that serves as the starting point for the numerous treks in the Annapurna region. Those lucky enough to sit on the right hand side of the plane - and our knowledgeable, affable guide Mandil has made sure that all of us are - get a first glimpse of the Annapurna mountain range. We chill for the day in Pokhara while our bikes are being transported overland. The next morning sees us rise before the sun does and we are whisked off to the airport to catch the 6 am flight to Jomsom, altitude 2800 m. The tiny 18-seater aircraft soars up into the sky and gives us a close-up view of Annapurna I (the world's 10th highest peak, 8091 m), and Dhaulagiri I (7th highest, 8167 m). Noses are pressed against windows and the propeller noise drowns out the excited murmur. It really is a dramatic and stunning panorama.
The first thing I notice after landing is that I can see my own breath. The temperature has dropped to a mere 8 degrees and we all layer up against the cold. A quick breakfast and change into our riding clothes later we're on our way, following a river bed in the wide and barren Mustang valley. An hour into the ride, we arrive at a metal suspension bridge that spans the width of the valley. Over the next few days we'll be crossing plenty more of these, but since this is the first one, and a very long one too, it makes for a great photo opportunity. At the other end awaits a long ascent that will take us to Phalyak, 300 m higher up. Such a climb takes a considerable effort in any climate, but at such high altitude it turns into a real lung buster, and we stop here and there to rest and take some photos.
But we are amply rewarded at the top: the village of Phalyak is not on any of the countless trekking routes in the area, so it doesn't get any regular visitors and has remained completely authentic. Mandil's friend extends an invitation to come and drink tea on his house’s rooftop. Basking there in the midday sun with sweet tea and biscuits, snow capped peaks as far as the eye can see, and colorful prayer flags around us gently flapping in the breeze, it is a memory that will stay with me forever. Pure bliss.
But then we remember that riding is what we came here to do, so we zip up our wind proofs and hurtle back down the mountain, crisscrossing the dirt road that we came up on. In no time we're back at the suspension bridge. By now the valley wind has picked up considerably so we're leaning in against the wind and hope it doesn't suddenly die down. It doesn't, and an hour or so later we ride into the charming village of Kagbeni (altitude 2900 m), our home for the next two nights.
All of us read it on the trip itinerary with mixed feelings, and now it's finally here: a 1000 vertical m climb to Muktinath (and back down). The way out of Kagbeni is steep and consists of a series of switchbacks on jeep-wide gravel roads. Then it levels out for a few kilometers but near the top the dirt road steepens and we shift down into granny gear once more. We have several rest & snack stops along the way though, and the views of the Nilgiri Himal range and the barren landscape - we're above the tree line - take our breath away as much as the altitude does. And then, at long last ... the top, and smiles all around.
Clearly not many mountain bikers make it up here, because a few friendly locals insist on trying out our bikes and having their photos taken with us. We wolf down a hearty meal of dal bhat (Nepal's national dish) and tackle the descent: mostly a mixture of super fast dirt roads and rocky single-track, although the final section is "freeride", i.e. there is no trail. Near the bottom the rain sets in, adding a sense of drama to the adrenaline-filled fun of the descent. Before long we're back at Kagbeni, sipping hot chocolate in a local cafe, while assistant guide Rocky spins some tunes. Good times.
The next morning we ascend to Muktinath once more, but this time in jeeps and via a different route. It's a seriously bumpy ride - we strap on our bike helmets halfway up - and the photos we take through the jeeps' windows will no doubt take some straightening later, but the views are otherworldly . From Muktinath we embark on a climb to a pass at 4100 m (the highest point of the trip), predominantly on goat trails. The last section of the trail proves too tough for all of us: we end up hike-a-biking it, and later we're even wading through fresh snow. We round the corner and face the imposing beauty of Dhaulagiri I. Again, only a privileged few mountain bikers come up here every year, and we feel a sense of achievement and awe.
Saddles lowered, we set off on a 1400 m descent over open terrain, steep and rocky, but with dozens of Alpine style switchbacks. Such hairpin turns don't really feature on our home trails, and they're a little daunting at first, but when we get the hang of how to ride them, they are heaps of fun and I end up finding them rather addictive. Concentration is always key when riding downhill, but never more so than here. This is as remote as it gets and even the most basic assistance is several hours away, or as our guide summed it up crystal clearly in the morning: you either ride out of there, walk out of there, or you get carried out ... The latter is not on anyone's bucket list. We all make it safely down to the bottom and pedal against the strong headwind down to our lunch in Jomsom, and then on to Marpha.
Marpha is best known for its apples and for putting them to good use; we sample the pie, crumble, cider and - everyone's favorite night cap at these temperatures - brandy. The morning ride meanders along a river south, then follows an undulating dirt road. Because we're making good time, Mandil "treats us" to a bonus climb up to Larjung, a picturesque village at 2750 m. The ride down is a real gem though and more than worth the effort of the ascent: it's a shaded single-track forest ride with more tight switchbacks and a few rocky drops - the technical dismount count goes up.
After lunch, we ride a rocky single track through a pine forest until we hit a dirt ‘road’ that will take us to today's destination. It is super fast - land speed records tumble, or so it feels like -, features some natural berms and is littered with rocks and potholes. Every so often though we veer off the main track to speed through another Himalayan village, flying down steps and - sometimes narrowly! - avoiding startled goats and buffaloes. The ride ends at the hot springs in Tatopani, where the entire group is quickly found soaking aching muscles while sipping ice cold Everest beer.
The last day of the trip takes us further south along the same dirt road. We've left the Mustang valley now and the scenery no longer features the world's most majestic peaks. As we get nearer to civilization the road gets dustier and busier with buses, jeeps and motorbikes and upon arrival in Beni we reluctantly dismount for the final time, hand our bikes over to the support crew and get transferred back to Pokhara.
Over the farewell dinner and the inevitably ensuing drinks, we all agree that this is some of the best - if not the best - riding we've ever done. Considering that, between all riders on this trip we've covered plenty of the most popular mountain biking spots on the planet, that is a hell of an endorsement. We'll be back.
The author, Joris Laperre, is a Belgian mountain biker based in Bangkok, Thailand.
The photos were taken by Gaurav Man Sherchan, Stephen Ripley, John Couling and Joris Laperre over different Sacred Rides' Nepal trips through the past year.