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.
After 20 long and sweaty uphill kilometres more I land exhausted on the sofa of our hotel lobby. I’m handed a sticky mango juice by way of welcome and thirstily glug it down before heading into the shower to wash the heavy layer of brown dust from my skin. I watch my newly acquired “tan” slowly disappear down the plughole.
That evening, over some local dal bhat (lentils and rice) and chilled Gorkha beer, half of the group admit they had found the gruelling start tough as well, and I feel comforted as we clink glasses.
In the morning, we slowly make our way along a series of dusty lanes that lead the group to Bungamati, a 16th-century village rarely visited by tourists as it’s not easily reached by road or air. The rural Newari people, who inhabit Bungamati, are the sixth largest ethnic group in Nepal, and indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley. Bungamati is home to a rich artistic culture – as we cycle through, we see villagers weaving, knitting and sewing colourful handicrafts.
We roll from here down one particularly steep hill, and I have to give my brakes a sharp squeeze, remembering Mangal’s top tip to “pull on the left (rear brake) and play with the right (front brake)”, lest I go flying arse over tit over the handlebars.
The cycling is again heavy going, but we’re in good hands, always with a guide at the back – usually where I can be found, too – and one at the front. That support is welcome, considering the combination of the hair-raising sheer drops and the rather scary trucks that take the tight turns at such a speed it is as though they’re playing chicken.
The following two days’ journey takes us along the Chobhar Gorge then through pine forest to Markhu, and I gratefully notice a much-needed surge in my fitness and energy levels. Night is falling fast and the sky is lighting up with hundreds of twinkling stars when at the end of our fourth day on the road we roll into Daman, 80km southwest of the Kathmandu Valley, and arrive at our guesthouse. Behind closed doors I rub Tiger Balm into my shocked muscles for the umpteenth time, but despite the persistent burn, I finally feel like I’ve got into the cycling groove.
The view from my window the next morning is jaw-dropping. The sun gilds the countless mountain tops, and I can see all the way from Everest in the east to Dhaulagiri in the west, with eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains including Langtang at 7234m and Ganesh I at 7408m, in between. It’s magnificent.
Regrouping over a breakfast of omelettes and cereal, Mangal briefs us for the day ahead. “Today we ride 1500m over 52km, descending down to Hetauda, towards the plains of northern India. Expect surfaced roads, lots of sharp turns and bends. Please, ride with caution,” he says. All I hear is “descending” – today’s definitely going to be my kind of day.
From under a sign that says “Simbhanjyang 2488m”, I freewheel downhill and fast. My muscles finally feel liberated from the uphill slog. For several hours, I curve around bends enjoying the wind on my face and by the time I reach the bottom, I’m ecstatic. This is the bicycle ride I signed up for, a brilliant few hours of abandon and easy thrills. It’s heavenly.
By dusk the following day, we arrive at Chitwan, a typical traveller-centric town. Signs advertise happy hours and banana pancakes while shops sell Buddhist CDs and postcards of mountain views. I’ve loved being off the beaten track with my bike so much that I feel a twinge of disappointment at being back with all the other camera and binoculars-clutching tourists.
They’re all here to see Chitwan National Park of course, Nepal’s most visited nature reserve. It’s set in the humid Terai, a wide belt of land bordered by the Himalayan foothills to the north and the River Ganges to the south. The Unesco site of forest, marsh and grassland is one of the last places you can catch a glimpse of the endangered one-horned Indian rhino, and after efforts over the past few years to conserve this endangered species, the number of rhinos in the park has increased to 500. Since there’s no riding allowed in the park, I take an elephant safari instead, in the hope of seeing one.
I hop onto Jumbo the elephant, and after just 20 minutes tramping through thick vegetation, the mahout brings Jumbo to an abrupt halt. There, lit up by the soft glow of the sun, is a baby rhino. We’re so close I can see the fur on his ears and the detail of his body, which looks like dark grey armour. “Are we safe?” I whisper to the mahout.
“Yes, madam, we just keep back here like this and he will not attack.” I watch on as a troop of baby boars trot through the foliage to the left and a monkey swings above us. I’m speechless with amazement at this happy, Jungle Book moment, and it stays with me for the remainder of the 160km journey to Pokhara.
When we finally arrive, sweeping views of the bright-white famous ‘fish tail’ summit of Machhapuchhre, the Annapurna range and the Manaslu Himal range, are everything I hoped they would be – the scene takes my breath away. As we chill out in the bars and restaurants around the serene lake of Phewa Tal, recounting our experiences, and listening to other backpackers waxing lyrical about their forays into the mountains, I think to myself that nothing can ever compete with the challenges and thrills of this ride.
Exodus offers a15-day Classic Nepal Ride from £1169pp based on two sharing. Bicycle hire costs an additional £145pp. exodus.co.uk
WHEN TO GO: The best time of year to visit Nepal is between October and November. At that time of year, it’s cooler and the rains have eased off.
CURRENCY: £1 = NPR 139 (Nepalese rupees)
ACCOMMODATION: Tibet Guesthouse in Kathmandu is clean, well-located and with friendly staff. Doubles from £13pn (tibetguesthouse.com). Kathmandu Guest House is located in the heart of popular backpacker area Thamel. Double rooms start from £30pppn, which includes a decent buffet breakfast (ktmgh.com).
Fly Qatar Airways from London Heathrow to Kathmandu from £622 return.
Nothing beats a massage after a long cycle ride or trek. Himalayan Healers have the best treatments in Nepal and the therapists have been trained to international standards.
Massages from around £10.
Lumbini is thought to be the birthplace of Buddha, and so is a pilgrimage site for many devotees. There are lots of temples to explore in this spiritual wonderland, but the sights are spread out, so it’s best to hire a rickshaw. You’ll want to spend at least half a day here soaking up the atmosphere and testing your photographic skills.
Thamel, the most touristy district of Kathmandu, is the place to stock up on energy bars, book a trek, buy knock-off travel gear, and find books and trekking poles. There are a few good cycle shops (nepalbiking.com) and plenty of bars, such as Reggae Bar and Rum Doodle, to swap stories in with other travellers. Be warned, the pollution and congestion is truly terrible here, so you’ll probably only want to make it a short stop on your way out to the fresh air and cool breezes of the mountains.
Planning your next big adventure? Hop over to TNT Tour Search for amazing deals.