October 30, 2014 by Jordan Rouse
Kitted out with our North Fake gear and the new bikes, our plan was to ride the 200+km route to Besisahar, the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit. We would take it fairly steady and enjoy the scenery so planned 5 days for the ride, following the route of the Yak Attack mountain bike race which also goes on to cover the Annapurna Circuit.
Leaving Kathmandu early in the morning, we followed our friend Madhukar to the outskirts of the city on quiet back lanes. Saying our goodbyes at the bottom of the only Tarmac climb of the route, we spun the pedals up to the lip of the Kathmandu valley passing through Shivapuri national park at a height of 1600m.
An epic, almost vertical mile of downhill followed into the Likhu Khola valley. A few buses full to bursting with people returning to Kathmandu after the Dasai festival lumbered up the hill, rolling side to side over the rocky track like overladen packhorses.
We didn’t envy the guys sat on the roof holding on for their lives! We had to hop off the track a few times to let them past but they were so slow and noisy we had plenty of notice to get out of the way.
The change of scenery and atmosphere on leaving the confines of Kathmandu was so dramatic we were both a little overwhelmed. Quiet lanes, mountain jeep tracks, fields and forest paths would be our bike playground from now on…..we wondered what took us so long to come riding in Nepal….
We spent the next few hours flying down the snaking path to the valley below before following the river past golden brown rice fields awaiting harvest.
The tough but hugely enjoyable day was over before we knew it as we rolled into the small town of Trisuli Bazar. Already we felt the difference from road touring where the last kilometres are always a bit of a drag; virtually no traffic, having to pay constant attention to handling the bike, and navigation challenges were keeping us much more interested.
Checking into a guest house for the princely sum of £2.50 we refuelled on double helpings of Dal Bhat, the staple diet in Nepal. The meal consists of a huge pile of rice accompanied by a lentil soup, vegetable curry, pickles and a popadom, and you can have a second full plate when you’re done, perfect for a hungry cyclist.
The mountain biking really started on the second morning with a steep climb out of Trisuli on a technical and rocky jeep track following the Samari Khola valley to the hill top village of Samari. As I was thinking to myself how quiet a ride it would be away from the lumbering buses, as the road would surely be impossible to drive except with a decent 4×4, I heard the unmistakable triple toned horn of one of the beasts around the corner. How they get around these mountain roads intact I have no idea, but fair play to the drivers. Luckily that was the last we saw of any traffic for almost 2 days.
Stopping for a Dhal Bhat in Samari we met a young Nepali who had been working as a chef in military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq so spoke great english. He showed us the village temple and advised us we’d be better taking a high level route across to Katunge (our planned stop for the night) instead of dropping down the valley and following the marked trail on our map and climbing up another steep hill. We took a gamble and followed his advice, and although the road wasn’t on our map locals along the way assured us we were on the right track. Well if you count a 4 hour detour as the right way then they were spot on. However, the track was a beautiful traverse around deep wooded valleys with rice terraces far below, excellent to ride because there was no vehicle traffic to chew up the path. 4 hours later we still seemed no closer to Katunge and with our map not being great we established we wouldn’t make it to Katunge and would have to ask to stay with locals. People kept pointing the way to Katunge but the terrain didn’t seem to tally with what we could see on the map so we gave up as lost and asked in a village on the top of a beautiful ridge if we could stay somewhere. The local shop owner said no, so we pedalled onwards with just an hour or so until sunset. At the end of the ridge line before a huge downhill I got chatting to the guy at the last house. With travellers luck, the guy spoke great english and offered us a place to stay for the night. It turned out Reikh was another one of many Nepalese who work abroad to support their families, and he told us he felt compelled to help travellers as he knew how it felt to be a stranger in a foreign land.
We had found Reikh at what turned out to be his uncles house and we were offered an al-fresco sleeping area in a bamboo outhouse. We had sleeping bags so it was a nice little camping spot!
We spent the rest of the evening back in the village at Reikh’s house; a beautiful large traditional mud and wooden structure. His mother now lived there alone since the family all worked away now, but had returned home for the festival period. We had dinner of rice, lentils and goat meat cooked over an open fire, accompanied by home brewed rice wine.
We awoke next morning to a sunrise which revealed our first proper view of the Himalaya to the north. To see these mountains of legend for the first time from such an awesome viewpoint truly took our breath away. Riding in the dusk of the previous evening we couldn’t really tell that we were now on a knife edge ridge with Himalayan peaks to the north and fertile green valleys of forest and rice fields dropping away to the south. Saying goodbye to the family we dropped off the ridge and found ourselves back on track in the village of Katunge.
We waited for an hour while a villager cooked us up a hearty breakfast (including chicken transformation from clucking cooked) then headed off for the next destination of Arughat.
5 minutes into the ride and Katie had vanished off the back, so waiting a few minutes I realised something was up. As she walked into view I could see her dry bag dangling in one hand; her seat post rack had snapped in half. Examining my own I discovered to my horror it was about to suffer the same fate. We’d bought these lumps of Chinese made rubbish in Kathmandu and thought they’d at least last a month, 2 days was a bit of a shock!
Bungee cords can solve any mechanical problem however, and the dry bags have spent the rest of the trip tied to the seat post no problems.
Another huge downhill from Katunge followed, involving some very technical navigation of loose stones and slippy gravel tracks. We had to carry the bikes a little, but this was to be good training for the Annapurna circuit. Picking up the Yak Attack route arrows again we crossed the first of many steel cable bridges and took another jeep track to Arughat.
After another brutal climb on rough tracks, we crested the Arughat valley and were treated to an amazing and unexpected view of a winding river flowing far below, bounded by green rice fields and more ancient forest.
A gentle cruise down to the town on smooth track in the fading golden sunshine topped off a great day. A hot shower was a nice treat after two days without a good wash and we slept soundly that night.
The next morning we set off early on what would hopefully be an ‘easier’ day. Wrong again. The shocking topography of our map failed to highlight the huge but beautiful climb out of the Arughat valley, and what should have then been a nice ridge traverse to Gorkha turned into a rollercoaster of a ride. A roasting hot, sweaty and dusty day followed, exhausting us both.
Due to the fine dust on the track, our bike chains were drinking oil like my old Ford Fiesta. We were constantly having to stop to brush down and lube the creaking chains. Our chests weren’t fairing much better as any passing vehicle kicked up huge plumes of the dust making it hard to breath.
A few miles before finally arriving into Gorkha, one of many encounters with cattle herders turned slightly nerve wracking when local villagers thought it amusing to encourage the horned oxen to fight in the middle of the road. When you have no escape route from rampaging beasts, things gets a bit tricky! We kept out of the way while horns clashed for a few minutes and children ran circles around the fight, seemingly amused with the show despite the very real danger of being gored. A motorcyclist banging his horn dispersed the show for long enough for us to slip through and we were away safely. Rolling down into Gorkha, we’d decided on a rest day before we even stopped pedalling.
A day of sleeping and eating set us up for the next days ride to Besisahar. A huge 1000m drop into a wide valley put us in prime position for another impossibly steep ridge climb, leading to a beautiful forest route. A few too many of the infamous Nepali head wobbles in response to our asking for directions led us to think we were on the wrong route. Happily we dropped out into Turkughat village right where we planned, but then had to endure a 20km stretch of smooth tarmac uphill into Besisahar. The smooth road was a relief after 5 days of difficult terrain, but the behemoth trucks and buses speeding the other way encouraged us to get it over with ASAP.
Rolling into Besisahar we found a nice looking hotel for a well deserved rest before tackling the start of the Annapurna circuit…..