Cycling the Himalayas

Part one: Upper Mustang and the Annapurna Circuit

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Here at CyclingTips we tend to focus almost exclusively on road cycling, but every once in a while an off-road cycling story catches our eye. Such was the case with Andrea Oschetti's journey through the Himalayas. Over the course of a year, Andrea is making several trips to the Himalayas to tackle specific sections of the mountain range by mountain bike. In this first instalment Andrea and his two companions heads to Nepal to visit the Upper Mustang and the Annapurna Circuit.

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Hidden beyond the Himalayas is a remote valley where time stands still. Its people came from Tibet and kept the ancient traditions and a simple way of living alive, rooted in religious rituals and beliefs. Its king says it is the place of happiness.

Travelers have been dreaming about the valley of Mustang for centuries. Today it is still a paradise, especially for cyclists. A mountain bike and a backpack are all you need to set off and explore solitary trails, locked in majestic valleys, dotted with vernacular villages and monasteries.

Mustang is in north-central Nepal. In Katmandu, a small group of local young men set up a small company, El Yak, with the vision of opening up the best, and less touristic, trails of their country for the lovers of the two-wheels. Together, we designed an itinerary that will cross Mustang from south to north, along its ancient caravan road, to reach its capital, Lo Manthang.

We will venture further north to explore the caves and monastery near the border with Tibet. We will leave our bikes and hike back south, off the beaten track, across remote valleys and passes well above an altitude of 4,000 meters. We will connect with the northern section of the Annapurna Circuit at Muktinath, get our bicycles back, climb the 5,400-metre pass of Thorong La, and follow the circuit downhill counterclockwise.

Eleven days of tailor-made adventure!

The guys at El Yak organise my special permit needed to enter Mustang and arrange the two flights, first to Pohkara, at the base of the Annapurna, and then to Jomsom, across the Himalayas. Shyam, a member of the Nepali national downhill team, will be my guide. My friend Ake, a cycling and safari guide in Tanzania will come along too. We don’t need any support.

 

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Click map above to see a larger version.

Mustang is in the Tibetan plateau, a high altitude desert. Rocks, stones, and soil in shades of brown, ochre and red against the infinite blue sky. We ride on a jeep trail that follows a valley with side cliffs, majestically showing the signs of glacial erosion and the work of the winds.

The contrast of blue and brown is interrupted around every 10 kilometres by the lush green of the barley fields around beautiful villages. First we reach Kagbeni, then Chuksang, then Chele.

White Tibetan houses stand in clusters by the fields. Their windows are small. The white walls are painted with red stripes to keep the evil spirits away. Wood branches are displayed along the perimeter of the roof as a sign of wealth.

At Chele the road starts to climb. The mountain pass ahead is higher than 4,000 meters.

Climbing is about getting into a rhythm, where the body finds solace in its repetition. Like meditating, when focusing empties the mind of thoughts, the body enters a trance-like state where pain is somehow subdued. Without rhythm, climbing is unbearable. Every turn in the road carries the hope of seeing the summit, just to reveal more turns, more climbing, more pain.

 

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As I keep pedaling and climbing, I think of Tim Krabbe’s 1978 book ‘The Rider’ where he shares what goes on in the mind of a cyclist at each kilometre of a local race. He calls shifting to a lighter gear “taking painkiller pills.” The strongest riders – those who put more kilometres into their training (for cycling is a fair sport) – keep their biggest gear squeaky clean, and leave their adversaries behind. For the rest of us, the painkillers available are limited, as there are only a few gears to shift into. Only rhythm can save us.

There is no rhythm today. The road is at times too steep, at times too technical. I must stop, put the bike on my shoulders, and walk on. Unbearable. Never ending, like the chilled winds that come down from the glaciers. I miss my road bike. I miss the smoothly paved Stelvio and the Tourmalet.

But this broken climb is also epic, for cycling is about climbing. The Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France became epics in the mountains. On mountain roads, thousands of fans camp, wait, and cheer the cyclists who become heroes. Cyclists conquer the mightiness of nature by means of the most simple and most clever machine made by man. The beauty of climbing is in the certainty that the act itself entails; as human beings, we find comfort in certainties. The pain of going uphill is certain, unavoidable, but also the summit, eventually, is certain.

The rewards that always come with reaching the top here in Mustang are incredible. I stand in front of amazing views of Tibet to the north and the Annapurna to the south. I experience a sense of achievement at having crossed the same passes that were the subject of the adventurers’ tales I’ve dreamt of since I was a kid.

 

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“The beauty of cycle touring is its ability to unlock the place you visit and its culture.”

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Google Earth flyover showing the journey from Jomsom to Syanboche.

The descent is certain too: the thrill of speed, the magic of the wind in your hair, the gain of distance without effort, the relaxation of the muscles. We ride down all the way to the small village of Syanboch, which we reach just at the right moment: dusk.

Our exhaustion is pleasantly countered by the simplicity of the homestay that hosts us. Dinner is butter tea, an omelet, the local Tibetan bread, and few boiled vegetables from the garden. The bedroom is a small empty room, with only a bed and a poster of Mount Kailash, the centre of the world for the Tibetans.

Outside, darkness envelops everything. The sky is full of stars. It’s cozy to sit in the kitchen around the stove. We are still in our dusty cycling clothes, our faces black. Our host’s face is dirty too, from his day in the field. He speaks to his elderly mother in a language that sounds like a lullaby for us. She is in the corner spinning yak wool. Back to our bedroom, we are fast asleep; the sleep of the righteous is what the bicycle gives you.

The prize of every traveler venturing into Mustang is its capital, the fortified Lo Manthang; it finally comes into view on the top of the last of the mountain passes. I look at the city as a dream come true, as a conquest on a bicycle.

A few hostels have sprung up around the walls of the city since it opened itself to the global tourism in the early 1990s. I find hotels soulless, like airports. The beauty of cycle touring is its ability to unlock the place you visit and its culture. The pace of cycling is slow enough to allow you to see the details, yet fast enough to cover distance. The climax after a day of cycle touring is to be able to stay with a local family in their home, as a guest. This is what I intend to do here as well.

On every one of my cycling trips, at around six in the afternoon, when men are heading back home after working in the fields or taking care of their small business ventures in the villages, I start my search for food and shelter. I call it “generating benevolence”: it entails finding a human being and having him willing to draw on the basic human values of hospitality and assistance by way of sympathy, necessity, and interest.

On the high pastures in the Pamirs or in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, a western man in lycra on a bicycle is as exotic and interesting to the locals as a nomad herder living in a yurt or a lama of a fortified monastery is to me. While tourists often generate indifference (or at best are seen as rich men to make some quick dollars off of), people engaged in sports are almost universally seen with sympathy.

 

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“The family that hosts me is gathered on the first floor; the ground floor is reserved for the cattle, and today for our bicycles as well.”

 

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In the remote Wamena valley in Papua, tribesmen joined me barefoot for few kilometres as they saw me running by; in the Turkmen Karakum desert cars stopped to offer me water; in the remote beaches of the Philippines, in the plantations of Malaysia, in the slums of Jakarta people stood by the road giving me the thumbs up.

When it is clear that no options are available, it is rare that people do not assist. Generating benevolence requires a sixth sense on how to pick the person to ask for assistance: why him and not another? I follow a few tips from experience: a house with a well-kept garden or with flowers, even if modest, is a sign of a good place to stay. A doctor is likely to have a clean house. I prefer to choose and generate benevolence rather than following those who approach me with an offer in the first place.

My experience is that most of the time you are better off in a home than a hotel or camp ground, and, most important of all, you are always sure of an interesting glimpse into the real life of the locals. A home does not lie; it says who you are. I run a private kitchen in Hong Kong. I cook at my home or at my client’s home for the simple reason that is the most meaningful way I know to generate cultural exchange out of brief encounters.

The family that hosts me in Lo Manthang is gathered on the first floor, as the ground floor is reserved, as is customary, for the cattle, and today to our bicycles as well. Their daughter is making the dough for the Tukpa, the local version of gnocchi. The mother is preparing fresh butter by pounding it in a wood cylinder. The stove is fired by cow dung, and a soup is simmering on it with pieces of yak meat. The father is spinning the prayer wheel.

The daughter speaks good English. With her soothing smile, she tells me that Mustang is a happy land because of the people’s devotion to Buddhism, their strong sense of community, and their contentment to live simply, like their ancestor did. “Foreigners can experience the gentleness of the people of Mustang and the purity of our landscapes. They can make it theirs and carry into their life,” she says.

 

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We ride our bike on a loop north of Lo Manthang to discover ancient caves and monasteries. They bring an aura of mystique to the landscape, already charged with energy. Nobody is around. We find the entrance to many caves barred; others are too high up on mountains to reach.

Sometimes we are lucky. We find the person with the key to a cave, its roof covered with mandalas whitened by time. We encounter a monk who allows us to enter into the assembly hall of a monastery and admire the clay statues of the Buddhist’s Gelugpa tradition: the eleven-headed Avalokita, Manjusri, and Sakyamuni. On the walls, frescos depict a green Tara and a series of Indian yogis. It is a magical place and there is a special sense of belonging, for we arrive here as pilgrims would: by simple means, in our case a bicycle.

We found a jeep driver who agreed to take our bicycles back to the beginning of the Mustang valley, at Muktinath, where the Annapurna Circuit skirts this magic kingdom. We will go back on foot, through valleys too remote and technical even for mountain bike.

Muktinath is at the base of the highest pass of the 5,400-metre Thorong La. We got our bicycles back and left Mustang to follow the circuit counterclockwise. I spare my back and hire a horse to carry my bicycle to the top, as does my guide. My companion Ake feels strong and carries his bicycle all the way up the mountain, though the snow.

The first part of the descent, down to the hut of Torong, is very technical, but soon the trail becomes easier, save for the steep precipices on its side. The valley turns east and opens up majestic views over the mountains: Gangapurna, Annapurna III, IV, and II.

We reach Mantang. A road from Besisahar was built recently, although the jeeps do not arrive up here yet because of a missing bridge. The road was very badly received by hikers globally, supposedly because it disrupts the sense of wilderness of the Annapurna Circuit. But it was very much needed by the locals. And it also opens up new touring opportunities for cyclists.

We ride down the valley through ancient forests. We have left the Tibetan desert and the Himalayan snows behind. From Muktinath we reach Besisahar in two days, and in five hours by car we are back in Katmandu.

A Kipling poem speaks about the instinct of men to go far away, beyond the mountains. I have been by bicycle beyond the mountains, in the valley of Mustang. There is nothing beyond the mountains, simply peacefulness and the sense of freedom that the immense landscape instills. One of the monks we met told me that the ascetics who inhabited the caves of Mustang were not looking for anything. But this nothingness has a lot of charm, and is full of meaning.

To be continued …



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  • jules

    glorious! the beauty of the annapurna region cannot be overstated. i would dearly love to visit Mustang, which is more untouched than the Annapurna circuit. the section below Jomson, where a road has existed for a while – is arguably ruined for tourists. they were still building the road on the other side of the Thorung La when i visited in 2009, but they had plans to keep the walking trails separated.

    the road debate is controversial. as a tourist, i don’t like it one bit. it detracts from the tourist experience. others point out the needs of locals, but it strikes me that the local economy is heavily dependent on tourists, so it’s a bit of a dilemma. what will likely happen is that hardy walkers (there aren’t many cyclists) will gradually be replaced with 4WD tour groups.

    but Mustang seems, for the time being, immune from that – as the Nepalese govt hasn’t opened it up properly, due to security concerns (i.e. China). which is probably a good thing for tourists.

    crossing the Thorung La, at 5400m ASL, is something you can never forget.

    • slartiblartfast

      Crossing Thorung La from the Muktinath side is borderline crazy involving a climb from 4100m to 5400m in one go. It seems that Andrea Oschetti and his party got away with it because they had acclimatised to this altitude already. Seriously – don’t try this folks!
      Agree with Jules’ thoughts re the road from Besisahar up to Manang. I am not sure how often this road will be open to vehicles because when I was there in 2007 it was interrupted by landslides at frequent intervals. Oschetti’s party must have ridden down it in one day which is very impressive because it takes at least a week to walk up.

  • Big Al

    …. and they are doing it on hardtails! Ouch….. respect.

  • Tony Abbott

    Wow the world sure is a beautiful place.

  • MadBlack

    Simply amazing. Thanks for sharing!