Muktinath Epic Bike Journey 2011

This year, I banded together with some good buddies to do complete a trek…on mountain bikes! Our plan, Day One to get van transport from Kathmandu to Pokhara, bikes on top, stay a night in Pokhara and then swap to a Landcruiser, bikes still on top, and drive to Marpha on Day Two. Then to overnight in Marpha, do a light ride the on Day Three to get acclimated, and come back part way to Jomsom where we’d overnight again. Day Four, big climb (1000 meters up to 3500m) to Jharkot and overnight. Day Five climb to Lupra pass (3800 meter top) and descend (1300 down) to Jomsom again, and another overnight. Day Six of a 50km ride and 1000 meter descent from Jomsom to Tatopani for some hot spring action. Then back into the vehicle on the following day for the ride back to Pokhara. Laze around town and on Day Seven get a vehicle lift to Sarankot for a final descent back down to Fewa Lake. One more overnight in Pokhara and on Day Eight back to Kathmandu via the van. Fun!

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Day One: Saturday, 1 October Driving KTM to Pokhara

We packed all the bikes on the van and loaded up. The drive to Pokhara was uneventful, our driver was well behaved and didn’t try to pass any buses on blind curves. Mandil’s pop music from the past two decades filled our ears in our un-airconditioned ride. We stopped for lunch at the Riverside Spring Resort and thought about the ride to come. Onward past the Manakamana pilgrims and tourists to Pokhara!

Once in town, we checked in to our hotel, secured the bikes, and hit the town. The lazy streets of Pokhara were awash with tourists in trekking gear; floppy hats, zip off pants, strappy spaghetti tops and the occasional stripy balloon pants and dreadlocks. All the shops had their best feet forward, cleaned up store fronts with the best name brand knock-offs, hand stitched embroidered T-shirts and patches, Tibetan handicraft and more. As we meandered in, various happy hour signs drew our attention and we finally sat down at Moondance Cafe for a drink with a friend we’d met*.

*For the uninitiated, Pokhara is the place to go to get the heck outta Dodge, and so whether it’s just the beginning or end of a trek, or your final destination, you will inevitably see one or several people you know, during trekking season, one the one street in town.

Drinks had, we moved on to the (New) Everest Steakhouse for (you guessed it) a steak and a nice Bordeaux. We turned in early to make ready for our next day of driving tomorrow.

Day Two: Sunday, 2 October Driving Pokhara to Marpha
Morning found us eating a nice buffet breakfast on the front lawn of Trek-o-tel, just across the street from Fewa Lake, quite scenic and relaxing compared to the hubbub of Kathmandu. We lashed the bikes to the top of our rented Toyota Landcruiser, and Danrhaj, our driver, led us out of town, past Nayaphul, onward towards Marpha, what would be an eight hour drive. The condition of the road steadily declined as we got out of town (Mandil attributed a system of numbers on the scale of 1-10, where a ’10’ is the best, all relative of course), going from a 10 quickly to a 5, with the second half of the drive being made up of 1-5. At the best of times we would have a smooth, sandy jeep track with more than enough room for two cars, and at the worst of times we would be climbing up a narrow track and see an oncoming bus, having to dodge up against the mountainside, or lean out over a sheer cliff above a rushing river hundreds of feet below.
The most harrowing moments were two: first having to skirt a precarious drop off to the left while an oncoming bus on the right got so close as to spin the wheels on our bikes, and second having to ford a waterfall pool and circumnavigate a bridge that had been washed out by that waterfall, about to fall away from the cliffside. We had a brief stop in Tatopani (literally “hot water” for the hot springs) for lunch

We reached Marpha by evening, unloading the bikes and luggage and getting settled in to the Mountain Villa Hotel, where we actually met another group of mountain bikers! We met Mandil’s friend, Gaurav, a professional photographer. He would be going up to Muktinath by vehicle and would meet us there. We tucked in to dinner which included Enchiladas (made with millet flour I think) of all things. The next day would be our first ride, an easy outing to Kagbeni and back to get acclimated to the 2500 meter altitude. (for reference, Kathmandu is about 1400 meters in the city)

Day Three: Monday, 3 October Acclimatization

We woke early to a warm breakfast on a bright, crisp day. We departed, and cruised through town, and soon came to Jomsom where the police checked our ACAP permits. There is a small air strip at Jomsom where flights from Pokhara land. Several small aircraft landed with loads of trekkers while we were in town, appearing from between snow-capped peaks and peeling around the valley to land into the wind. Out of Jomsom, we crossed the river in town via the pedestrian bridge, and our driver prepared to follow down across the mile-wide river bed. As we huffed and puffed our way along the jeep track, we spotted our vehicle, a speck out in the gravel wash (probably head-sized rocks, but from our perspective, quite small), unsuccessfully trying to navigate the deep twists the river took through the valley. It wasn’t able to make it over the river, so we wouldn’t be making two trips up to Muktinath (we had planned on one via bike, a downhill, then one more up via vehicle before managing the second downhill via another route on bike), rather would be staying up in Muktinath (or rather Jharkot) on the following night.
We passed an excavator that had fallen down into the river, the jeep track edge collapsing under its weight. An unfortunate local, who actually had the funds, purchased it and then drove it to his death a few weeks prior. The winds pushed us around, the dust punished us, and we passed groups of trekkers and pilgrims. We found a pedestrian swing bridge before Kagbeni and took it across the river to do a light climb up to Phalyak, a small village a few hundred meters above Jomson. Some time before we reached it, with our headwind full on against us, I wasn’t sure whether I should just crawl under a rock and sleep then and there, or just turn around. Happily, I made a third choice, to keep on, and we made it to the village.
The way back was not actually that much easier despite the downhill; I felt we were nearly blown off the pedestrian bridge by the crosswinds. We fought desperately against the headwinds back to Jomsom, and against our grasping, gasping lungs.
We rolled into Jomsom and checked in to Hotel Om’s Home, lodging the bikes in the courtyard and settling into the dining room after ordering some food. Again, each meal was enough to serve a family of four, though that didn’t stop me from tearing through it. At altitude your body is already working harder, and exertion just increases your calorie burn rate…
We played cards, drank whisky (some Islay Mist) and turned in.

Day Four: Tuesday, 4 October The Big Climb

Tuesday we woke early and refreshed. A trekking group led by a guy who had the voice of William Hurt was breakfasting along with us, prepping to walk to Kagbeni I think. We saddled up and took off in the same direction, quickly passing the group and turning up towards the pass, past Kagbeni, en route to Muktinath. I was trepidatious about the ride, fearing yesterday’s exhaustion was only a prelude to today. I shouldn’t have feared, though, as we were now quite acclimated and cycling the mountain bends wasn’t quite so hard was the previous day.
We bounced slowly up the jeep track, four wheel drive vehicles dusting us as they passed. We climbed up, up, up. Mandil decided that slow pedaling was for westerners, and quickly took off, like some Tibetan monk on a flying tiger. I passed the monotony by putting on some music. The B-52’s, Modern English, Kaesha, and They Might Be Giants, among others, helped me climb the 1,000 meters up. We feasted on chocolate covered coffee beans, clif bars, trail mix, anything that would power our bodies. The valley sank away beneath us with each switchback. The terrain’s scrubby thorny brush threatened to puncture my tires should I stray from the track. Old car parts not yet worn away by the elements littered the landscape near the road, old vehicles shedding them like the droids on Tatooine.
Ryan grabbed a handle of a passing tractor to hoist him up one of the final hills, we looked on in envy as it pulled him along for some 100 meters. My music played on, and my system jittered with the caffeine, the landscape shimmering in the sun as I twitchily pedaled, rocking out to my music.
We finally caught up with Mandil at Jharkot, our destination, some 300 meters below Muktinath. We had made it up the full climb in some four hours. At the edge of exhaustion, we ordered Dal Bhat with Mutton curry (goat), and lounged on the upper deck of Hotel Plaza, the Himalayan peaks all around us beyond the green valley. The sun and cool mountain breezes dried our clothes and soothed our souls. Our dal bhat arrived and we devoured it, the best food of the trip thus far. My smaller solar charger (without vehicle support we packed light) soaked up the sun and trickled power to my iPhone. Mandil felt he should do another ride (!) so he scouted up to Lupra pass, where tomorrow we’d find ourselves.
After a shower, I decided a nap was in order and went to it. Afterwards, Nick, Ryan and I walked around the ancient village.
In the evening, we ordered more food for dinner, and following we had a good game of cards while passing a thermos of Tongba, fermented millet sprouts with hot water, drunk through a Mate (mah-tay) type straw.
At 10:00, a timer cut the lights and power. We went to bed, though for Mandil and I, the noted Apple fans in the group, went to sleep restlessly as the expected iPhone announcement was less than an hour away. I propped my iPhone in the cold concrete windowsill of my room, trying unsuccessfully to refresh a liveblog of the event, and gave up after almost an hour. The himalayas looked down over the pitch black valley, the moon shining on their brilliant white peaks, and I dreamt of a new iPhone and the next day’s descent.

Day Five: Wednesday, 5 October The Goatpath Downhill

Mandil knocked on Nick and my door at 6:00am. “May I borrow your iPhone charger?” (He still has the 3G(s?) and his battery lasts all of an hour.) He wanted to know what Apple announced as well. I handed it to him and we scuttled out to the dining room for better cell service. Looks like they went with the iPhone 4S. Bugger. I’ll get it anyway, as I can buy the unlocked version and not have to worry about this jailbreaking and unlocking business to get it to work here, or later in Zimbabwe…
During breakfast Gaurav called to say he was already at Lupra pass. We finished up and began the grassy climb up another 300 meters. At the pass Gaurav had taken an easier path down, while we were taking…an interesting way. We took a quick break to ditch the bikes and hike up to the nearest hillock. All around the Himalayas still rose far above us. We resumed our ride, coasting along the ridge and then the ground…went…away. GoPro cameras strapped on, Mandil, Ryan and Nick cruised over the edge and began winding their way down goat path switchbacks and I slowly followed.
We descended the 1000 meters in less than 30 minutes (15?). I walked sometimes when I felt my back wheel lifting off the ground. Feathering my rear brake on turns, I was able to get the wheel to lock and slide where I shifted my weight, giving me a better (required) turning radius, keeping me on the trail.
Once we got to the bottom, we got dumped out into a river valley washout, the surface made up of rocks, boulders, silt and a river coursing through it. We had to make our way down to where the washout met the road.
The first time we crossed the river, I made a great effort to keep my shoes and socks dry, pitching them and my bag across. The second time I was miffed, had already got myself wet so was less hesitant. The third time I was plain mad, charging into the thighdeep water without a thought.
We made it to the road, donned our breathing masks and pushed into the 35-40mph headwind, another 45 minutes to our hotel in Jomsom.
Despite everything, I still got to go riding with friends, didn’t get hurt, and my iPhone was fine. All about priorities.
We put our shoes and socks on the roof to dry.
We had an incredibly late lunch, very satisfying, and so I only had Lassis for dinner (blended fruit yoghurt drink) and a few bites of chicken chili. We finished our 5th of whisky with cards.

Day Six: Thursday 6 October Eight Flats and a Chain

During breakfast at Om’s Home, I stared out the window past the 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper taped to the window proclaiming “WiFi” at the nearest peak (Annapurna?). Flights began coming in and leaving Jomsom’s airstrip. I repaired a flat that I’d gotten from a thorn yesterday (slow leak overnight) and rode out, the vehicle driving ahead to meet us later in the day at Tatopani. It would be a 50km ride, and nearly all downhill, descending another 1300 meters overall. Super fun.
At first we rode along the valley, cruising through Marpha at speed, stopping briefly in Tukuche (Ta-Cooch-Ay) to munch on Apples.
We began the swoopy, winding jeep track that winds its way down out of the mountains to the tropical area. We opted for trails where we could, finding amazing riding through the woods past conifers, over streams, through grassy fields. The blue skies and mountain peaks lifted our spirits and urged us on.
Then we began getting flats. Mandil. Mandil again. More swooping down. We took a shortcut to cross a river, soaked our shoes. That’s cold!!! I got a flat.
I was done. Ryan and Mandil steered off on the trail while Nick and I pushed on taking the road, ostensibly a faster route. Ironically we met them 15 minutes later as they crossed a suspension bridge back to the road.
Then serious downhill jeep track, fast, and bouncy, rocky. Mandil hit a rock hard and got a pinch flat. More time. Not ten minutes later he got yet another flat. We stopped for tea while it rained a bit. More down, fast, fast.
Ryan broke a chain. More time. Daylight slipped away from us. We pushed on. Then Ryan got a flat! This is not typical, as Ryan rides tubeless, so any puncture he gets just burps for a second, and then stops up with the gluey sealant sloshing around inside his tire. This was serious. Sealant squirted out the sizable hole in his tire. He put his thumb over it to stop the loss while we looked around for something to plug the hole. A thorn? Not to be had. A small stick? Nothing. A…nail. A nearby farmer had two finishing nails, and Ryan shoved one in. We held our breath collectively and Ryan…slowly…pulled…his…finger…away. It held! He pumped his tire super full to minimize the chances of the nail puncturing the inner liner, squinting in the dim light. We were off again. The last 10km to Tatopani we tore down the mountainside like possessed water buffalo, ripping past groups of pilgrims and trekkers alike, only leaving behind dust clouds in our wake.
At 6:30, not a scrap of daylight left, we rolled into Tatopani and checked in to the Daulaghiri (dowl-uh-geary) Hotel, wedging a place for our tired selves into a round plastic table with matching humming-bird emblazened chairs in their courtyard. What was supposed to have been an easy three hour ride had been a nine-hour epic. We’d made it with seven flats (we would later discover an eighth, Nick’s, slow puncture) and a broken chain.
Dal Bhat arrived in a record 15 minutes! I basically lifted the Thali with both hands and tipped it into my mouth. They had Fanta Limon, a Nick favorite. We followed copious amounts of food and drink with chocolate cake.
After dinner Nick and I entered our room and I suppressed a Jamie Lee Curtis scream as a saucer-sized spider skittered across the vaulted, timbered ceiling into a corner. It considered me from afar, and decided I was too large to be tasty. I briefly shuddered, changed into my board shorts, and we stepped lightly down the stone stairs to the hot springs down the hill. We settled in, beer in hand, and the dust and speed of the day melted away. The steep valley sides stretched up to the sky, the milky way and stars visible between them. Sleep came easily that night, the spider and I agreeing to not look at one another too long.

Day Seven: Friday, 7 October Driving Tatopani to Pokhara

I woke early the next day and walked around town a bit. The sun comes up later when you’re between mountains, and there was a slight chill despite our low elevation. (about the same as Kathmandu, 1200 meters or so) I got back to the hotel and shared breakfast with the guys. We packed, and rolled the bikes down to the vehicle, where we securely lashed them to the top. We bounced our way back down to Pokhara, some four hours, to the eclectic 90’s pop mix on Mandil’s iPhone, picking up a couple kilos of Apples in Beni en route. We reached pavement and then Pokhara, and had a nice dinner, and hit the town afterward.

Day Eight: Saturday, 8 October Sarankot Downhill

The last day of our trip we got a vehicle lift to Sarankot, the overlook above Fewa lake in Pokhara. It’s a popular spot for tourists to come and watch the sun rise, and for others to go paragliding. Of course, all we saw were the amazing downhills. We bombed down through the forest and track in about an hour, coming out beside the lake. Korean for lunch, a nice swim in the Barahi hotel pool, dinner at the Old Luan Hau Chinese Restaurant. Good times. Back to KTM the next morning.

Photos from the ride!
Muktinath Bike Trip 2011

Day Nine: Sunday, 9 October Driving Pokhara to KTM