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12th Nov 2012 1:12pm | By Editor
I’m zipping past rows of emerald green and mustard-coloured crops, huge crescent-horned buffalo and women in red and green saris.
The hot Nepalese sun is beating down on my back as I cycle up the steep paths of the Kathmandu Valley, and new, knockout views appear around each bend.
The mountainous route west from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, to Pokhara, the country’s second-largest city, isn’t a smooth one. I’m on a mettle-testing, 400km cycle ride that will involve me bouncing over bullock cart tracks, sliding over sandy gravel, gliding through tiny rural villages and pounding up steep, winding mountain roads – all the time trying to avoid collisions with cows, villagers, smoke-belching trucks and all sorts of other traffic on these chaotic roads.
I’ve chosen to join this 15-day group bike ride in the hope of avoiding the done-to-death trekking routes and seeing a more off the beaten track side to Nepal. At least, that was the noble plan, but now my thighs, heart and lungs are on fire with the strain of pedalling uphill and I’m starting to wonder if my shell-shocked body is actually going to be up to this epic journey.
My trip to Nepal starts off much more gently, when we take a minibus ride from our hostel to the 12th-century Nepali city of Bhaktapur, just east of Kathmandu. The Unesco World Heritage Site used to be the capital of Nepal, and its dusty streets and ancient temples give the impression that not much of it has changed since then. Our guides, Mangal Lama and Ajay Pandit Chhetri, lead my tour group on a stroll through winding alleys, taking in the intricate Newari woodwork over door frames and windows, Shiva temples and the famous Durbar Square, with its five-tiered Nyatapola temple – one of the tallest in Kathmandu Valley. Five pairs of stone-carved figures flank the stairs that lead up to the temple: wrestlers, elephants, lions, griffins, and Baghini and Singhini, who are tiger- and lion-headed Buddhist demi-gods. Each couple is supposed to be 10 times stronger than the ones immediately below. I take endless snapshots of them, as well as the Tibetan scroll painters in the side streets who daub bright, intricate images of Buddhist deities onto silk canvases.
When our sightseeing is done, the 10 other cyclists and I hop on our bikes to embark on the real reason we’re here – the cycle ride itself. We leave the city behind and make our way into the hills, taking on paths slippery with scree, rocks and dust. The intensity of riding across such tricky terrain and up steep slopes takes me completely by surprise, and so I pant, gasp and slip to the back of the group. After around an hour I’m seriously struggling and eventually have to grind to a halt.
With my shirt stuck to my back, I down half a litre of water and try to catch my breath. Ajay, who is 5ft-nothing, waits patiently behind me, spinning the pedals like a pro, clearly without the slightest need for a break.
I remember what one of his co-workers had told me earlier: “Don’t be deceived by his size, Ajay is Nepal’s number-one national mountain bike champion.” This was no exaggeration, as I find this tiny, lean, mean, cycling machine has won Yak Attack, one of the world’s top five toughest bike challenges, no less than three times. This gruelling 10-day stage race takes mountain bikers over mud, rock, sand and snow, through the Himalayan foothills, the Annapurna mountain range and over the Thorong La Pass. The temperature range is extreme, from -20°C to scorching mid-thirties. Needless to say, Ajay’s in tremendously good shape, and it shows. As I wobble off again, he politely asks if I need help. I wheeze out a “yes” and Ajay, still cycling himself, gently pushes me from behind until I have the momentum to carry on solo, spurred on in part by sheer embarrassment.