Mountain Biking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal: Part 1
Words by Elladee Brown
Photography by Leslie Kehmeier
The inspiration to travel to Nepal was ignited by a curiosity to ride mountain bikes in such a historic and culturally rich area. After a recent backcountry mountain bike trip to Tibet I found myself wanting to explore more of the Himalayas, particularly on the Nepal side. I heard about the Annapurna Circuit through a friend I recently went to Tibet with, Matt Yaki of Wandering Wheels based in Revelstoke, BC. He had ridden it recently with a local guide from Kathmandu and his enthusiasm about the experience was spilling over in the conversation. I knew this journey was something special and I wanted to make a trip happen. Matt connected me with Om, the local guide he worked with, and from there Om and I started messaging about available dates and timeframes. We locked down April, in front of monsoon season and after the winter. I touched base with a few friends I had in mind for the trip. I knew it would be long and hard with countless variables, so the right group was of utmost importance.
Mountain biking has meant many things to me over the years, but at 46 the core of it is the same as it always was: the mountains, the experience, the challenge, the people. I felt like this trip would be the ultimate opportunity to experience adventure on a whole new level, both on and off the bike. I’m in awe of seeing how other people live in this world, and how it broadens my own perspectives and views. The privilege of travel is something I never take for granted. It’s a place to learn about the bigger picture and how we fit into it.
Kelli Sherbinin is a friend from way back. We both grew up in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, Canada and have a lot in common as far as lifestyle and values go. We both have a profound respect and connection with bikes and the outdoors – it’s an incredible bond we share as friends. I’ve ridden with Kelli for a couple of decades and I know her capabilities. She’s a hands-on owner at Endless Biking in North Vancouver as a director, guide and instructor. She’s also a former racer and a kick ass Mom. Kelli is tenacious and skilled, tough and organized, and most importantly, really fun to be around. When I let her know about the trip I figured it would be tough for her to carve out time with work and parental commitments, but she wanted it badly and kept digging deep to find a way. That way was found.
Jaime Hill and I first met at the Trans Cascadia Enduro event in Oregon in 2016. We were both signed up for the event and Jaime reached out to see if she could catch a ride down with me from Vancouver to Oakridge. It was time we met anyway, I can’t count how many times people would say, “Oh my God…you and Jaime haven’t met yet??!! You guys are ‘sisters from another mister!!” Needless to say I was excited to meet this Jaime person to see what the hype was all about…turns out it’s real! I quickly learned that her personality type and attitude made her one of the most fun people to ride with ever. I knew that if shit went sideways Jaime would approach it differently than most. She loves to party and clink glasses, but also understands when it’s go time. Ten days of a lot of high-altitude climbing on a bike require fitness and competency - as a former member of the Canadian Gymnastics Team, Jaime knows focus, and as a current mountain bike coach, athlete and mentor, that same determination rules supreme. Jaime committed to the trip before I could finish asking her - with so many changes in her life it seemed like a timely visit to a soulful place like Nepal.
I met Leslie through Jaime at Trans Cascadia the same year. She was on assignment as a photographer for the event and had worked with Jaime in Whistler the year prior. It was a special event that year in Oregon, I met not one, but two amazing, rad women. Leslie exudes a guide-like calmness that is extremely helpful in third world countries when shit hits the fan. She’s travelled and bike packed on almost every continent and by far was our most experienced teammate. Not only did she carry her camera gear, lens’ and hard drives, she also packed around an old Polaroid camera as part of a personal project she was working on. How she connected with the locals was incredible to watch - she approached people and situations with so much respect and humility - people really felt that and connected with her. Everyone deserves respect but in a place like Nepal travelers read situations differently. As the sole American in our all Canadian crew, we were stoked to have her on board to Make Adventure Great Again!
Two and a half days of travel to get to Kathmandu via China Southern Airlines was just part of the build-up. Not a bad airline at all…we
I was the first one there, Kelli and Jaime showed up about 45 minutes after me. The other member of our team, Leslie Kehmeier, left her home base in Colorado a couple of days early to ride some local Kathmandu trails and take photos in advance of our trip.
Sometimes the anticipation of an adventure like this has me so wound it’s just better for me, and everyone else around, to arrive early. And plenty of time we had. Our scheduled
The four of us had been planning this adventure for almost six months and leading up to our departure we met so many people back home who had trekked the Annapurna Circuit at some point in their past lives. Seems it’s somewhat of a rite of passage for the foreign explorer, and for good reason – the Annapurna Circuit is considered one of the best and most beautiful treks in the world. It officially opened in 1977 as a trekking route and circles the world’s 10th highest mountain, Annapurna, 8091m / 26,545 ft. It can be done in both clockwise and counterclockwise direction. We chose the counterclockwise route to better acclimatize for the final up and over, it’s a gentler transition to the thinner air and changing
We’re not the first mountain bikers to ride the Annapurna Circuit but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say we had the most fun. Riding the route on a mountain bike is somewhat of a new concept thanks to a gravel road that’s been pushed through from Besisahar to Manang. While the road is controversial to some, it’s welcomed by many of the locals. It gives them much better access to supplies, education and health care for their communities. When I say ‘road’ I mean the snarliest, roughest path you’ve ever trodden along…if there’s such thing as a ‘black diamond double-track’, this is it.
We missed our connecting flight to Kathmandu because of the delay out of Vancouver and were forced to overnight in Guangzhou. China Southern offered us a hotel room as the next flight wasn’t leaving until morning. After a couple of hours sorting out new flight schedules we boarded a bus and set off into the night arriving at our hotel around midnight. The centerpiece of our hotel room suite featured an electronic Mahjong table – must have been some wild parties in that room – between the cigarette burns on the furniture and the black mold in the shower, someone was having a good time.
Early the next morning we were finally on our way to Kathmandu. There was a huge mix of people on the flight, most on their way to various treks and expeditions in the numerous mountain regions of Nepal. We’d later run into several of them along the route in the days ahead.
It’s difficult to explain the scene at the Tribhuvan Kathmandu airport but it’s a good first taste of the country and the experience you’re about to have, especially as a Westerner coming from a place of total cleanliness and order. We spent a good couple of hours lining up in the airport to buy our 15-day visas. When and if I go back to Nepal I’d definitely handle this detail online beforehand. Nonetheless we got through customs, paid the $25 US for the visa and made our way to what appeared to be baggage claim. There’s no better feeling travelling this far only to see your luggage made it, and bikes too. We zipped our bike bags open to find carbon frames and stanchion tubes intact – sighs of relief.
Leslie, Om and our shuttle bus driver from Hotel Shambala were there waiting for us. Om, with his huge infectious smile, dreads and positive vibes, greeted us by putting the traditional Kata, or silk scarf, around our necks. If there were such thing as a Nepali Bob Marley, Om was it. This was our first Namaste greeting of many and truly set the tone for the rest of our trip. I sat in the front seat of the shuttle van and was quickly introduced to traffic Kathmandu style. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs – all weaving in and out and somehow managing to narrowly missing each other. No yellow lines, no crosswalks and seemingly no rules – shoot for the opening, commit to your line and keep moving forward - that’s how you get to where you’re going, just like mountain biking. This place was rowdy as hell and I kinda liked it.
Hotel Shambala was an awesome transitionary landing pad for our arrival. It’s a small Tibetan themed hotel in the middle of the city with great rooms, the best momo and incredible service. We planned to stay two nights in Kathmandu in case luggage didn’t make it or flights were delayed…good thing. Kathmandu is also the place where you exchange money and attempt to use ATM’s. We tried about six machines before we found one that would dish out the rupees we needed for the Circuit. Very few places in Nepal accept credit cards or foreign currency, you need local cash before venturing out into the backcountry.
We met with Om later that afternoon at the Himalayan Java Co to go over the trip in detail and discuss the back-up plans. So many considerations; fatigue, altitude, mechanicals, weather, stomach issues and timelines…and did everyone have helicopter evacuation insurance? Most trekkers take a good 15-20 days to complete the Circuit - we had about 10 days to get it done. Om had reserved guesthouses along the route and had a general idea of the mileage we should be doing each day to make the trip in the time we’d allotted. We’d be riding just over 200km, not an enormous amount of miles but when most of it is over 10,000ft it becomes a bigger deal.
We took a cab from our hotel to the Thamel district of Kathmandu for dinner that night where we had our first intro to the traditional main meal of Nepal, Dal Bhat. It’s considered the national dish and is made up of rice, a lentil style soup with some tasty side garnishes like chutney, sabji; a mix of spicy vegetables, and usually achar, pickled veggies. Om eats a ‘dal bhat set’ twice a day, it’s what he grew up on and it clearly powers him through the mountains and the high altitude. That night we all gave eating with our right hand a try. There’s actually some major technique to it and it’s not just a matter of shoving food into your mouth by hand. You scoop up the food by curling up your first three fingers to make a spoon, and then use your thumb to push the food into your mouth. There’s a method to this and by the end of the meal we were all pretty proud of ourselves. There’s usually a sink nearby where you can wash up after eating and then it’s onto the next thing; Gorkha or Everest Lager – both of these brew brands are also a staple in Nepal and served in nearly every restaurant and teahouse. We killed a few, four, five bottles on this particular night and then it was back to the hotel for a final pack to decide what we’d leave at the hotel and what was essential for the trip. We’d all be carrying what we needed with us on our bikes with frame and handlebar bags, backpacks and small seat bags.
It’s not an easy task packing for the hot humid jungle and the freezing high altitude where there’s potential for rain, snow or wind induced dust storms. Add to that toilet paper, hand sanitizer, water filtration systems, spare bike parts and tools, extra food, toiletries, sleeping bags, medication, communication devices, chargers and hang out clothes. Kelli, Jaime and I had never bike-packed before so we relied heavily on advice from Leslie, Om and the internet, and of course everybody has their own idea of what’s essential and what’s not, so you do the best you can and hope you have what you need for the days ahead.
We split up certain supplies so all three of us weren’t carrying repetitive items like chain lube and sunscreen. And then other things like toilet paper and hand cleaner – can’t have enough of that stuff, especially with four women drinking over 2L of water on the daily! And Aeropress coffee makers! Leslie and I both brought ours from home and decided they were absolutely essential items. She one-upped me with the portable hand grinder though. Brilliant.
We pulled out of Hotel Shambala the next morning around 8:30 after spending a solid hour packing the van and securing bikes to the roof rack. Not having a designated vehicle bike rack for rough roads means you better be really good at tying knots…and if you don’t know knots, tie lots.
It takes about seven hours to drive from Kathmandu the 160km to the start of the Annapurna Circuit in Besisahar, the headquarters of the Lamjung District of Nepal. I grew up in a small community in the Interior of BC where my Dad was a logging contractor. As a kid I’d occasionally join my Dad driving semi hazardous exposed logging roads to the cut blocks where he worked. Most active logging roads in our area required other drivers to call out numbers posted along the road on CB radios so everyone knows where each other is. It gives truckers, foresters and loggers ample time to pull over where there’s room enough to pass. The system in Nepal entails honking your horn on a blind corner at the last minute hoping the oncoming traffic hears and has time to swerve out of your way, wherever that is. It’s a shocking realization at first, but then you amazingly become accustomed to the near deathness of it all and settle in. It went like that for about seven hours until we finally rolled into Besisahar; the end of our jeep journey and the start of our bike ride.
It’s about 15 - 20km of rolling terrain from Besisahar to Ngadi, our first overnight. There’s only about 100m/330 ft of elevation difference between the two towns. We unpacked the Jeep in downtown Besisahar in front of the Thoroung La Guesthouse. From there we packed the bikes with our gear and had a hot lemon tea to kick off the trip. It was so good to finally roll out on the bikes and start pedaling after sitting in the jeep all day. It was a rough road but nothing for the bikes we were so fortunate to be riding…me on an Evil Following MB, Kelli on a Rocky Mountain Element, Jaime a Juliana Furtado and Leslie the Ibis HD4. Needless to say, we were well equipped for this expedition. There are no bike shops along the route, so it’s essential to have gear you can depend on, and whatever else to fix the unexpected.
After about an hour and a half of riding we rolled into the Superview Guesthouse around dusk. Such a cute and quaint place! We were greeted by a woman and her young son and daughter. Om knew this woman from previous trips he had done on the Circuit and referred to her as ‘Didi’ – which we thought was her name. We learned later that night, that in Nepal, ‘Didi’ is a salutation for any woman older than you.
‘Superview Didi’ served up an incredible ‘dal bhat set’ for dinner that night, and then the best chai Masala tea we’d ever had. The accommodation was basic but everything was clean and dialed and the hospitality off the charts. And the food…the food was so good; everything fresh, made from scratch. There’s so much service training in major hotels in big cities but the genuine feel of someone lovingly welcoming you into their home is as good as it gets. I said to Kelli that Nepali people seem to be born with a kindness gene – so much great eye contact and heartfelt Namaste’s. Day one was a perfect first day of riding and a good tester to see what changes we’d need to make with our bikepacking set-ups. I knew for sure that I was going to switch up my load distribution for day two. It was a perfect first day in other ways, too…the reality that this dream trip was actually underway and already exceeding any expectations we may have had.
Om let us know at the start of the trip that it’s early to bed and early to ride in Nepal. He was right…we were sleeping by about 8 that night and up early for breakfast around 7…packing bikes for departure by 8. Things take a little longer on day two than they do on day eight. In the beginning it’s also a crash course in cultural differences. Things that you’re accustomed to in North America have a funny way of playing out here. Take toilet paper for example…it doesn’t flow endlessly in these parts…in fact, it doesn’t flow at all. Or maybe you turn a tap and expect water to come out, or the wifi to work…it’s moment by moment in Nepal and you just have to go with it.
This morning was also the first time we heard Oms’ deafening whistle – with that killer smile of his he had a good laugh and blew that thing as loud as his lungs would allow. He was anxious to get us going as we had a big day ahead. He led us out of town on the main road and to the edge of the Marshyangdi river. The Marshyangdi is a mountain river that stretches over 150 kilometers and begins at the confluence of two mountain rivers, northwest of the Annapurnas. He had us dip our hands and feet in the water and reminded us we’d be following this river for the next several days, climbing high up above it at times and then back down to the bottom as we snaked our way up the massive steep valleys of this subtropical zone.
Our goal on day two was to make it to Tal, a town at 1700m / 5610 ft, well above Ngadi at 890m / 2937 ft. We’d end up climbing just over 800m / 2640 ft. The climbs were steep, rocky and loose with the occasional reprieve of a short descent into a town, teahouse or along the river. And goats, so many goats along the way, baby ones too! It was definitely Jaime’s weakness - she was powerless against them and couldn’t help herself from taking picture after picture and stopping for every sweet face. They seemed pretty receptive though, and in the end she even got some cuddles. Every corner and new stretch of road brought mind-blowing views. We kept joking that it couldn’t get any better and then it just would! So hard not to pull your camera out every two minutes. We didn’t fight the feeling and just let ourselves be in awe of this amazing place.
The road to Tal goes all the way to Manang, after Manang there is no motor vehicle access and they rely on porters and horses to get through and to the top of the pass, Thorong La. We were still down low in the subtropical part of the Circuit, and with each corner and punchy climb we looked back on a beautiful view of the river, and ahead of us, the first sightings of snowy peaks. We’d be passed by the occasional jeep and transport truck along the way but were always faster on the downhills because of the roads conditions. The roads were rough and bumpy and we were so happy to be on suspended bicycles. Not only are the roads rough, they’re narrow and exposed…some sections have literally been carved out of the mountainside and become raging ‘road rivers’ during monsoon season, or worse, completely washed away.
We stopped in the little town of Ghattekhola and had a beautiful lunch served up by the husband and wife owners of the Nepali kitchen and guesthouse. The husband, Pancha, developed a hot spring pool on the river just below their teahouse. Both he and his wife grew up in this village and have created a premier landing spot for both trekkers and locals. They’ve also created opportunities for the rest of their local community and seem to have utilized the best aspects of what tourism can bring, a thriving economy that benefits the locals and the land.
There are many poor regions in Nepal with not a lot of opportunity for job creation, health care or education. The popular trekking routes have created an economy for the locals. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project or ACAP was launched in 1986 and is the largest project undertaking ever for the National Trust for Nature Conservation in Nepal. This area is the first protected area that allows local residents to live within its boundaries. They own their property and maintain their traditional rights and have access to the use of natural resources. The Nature Trust receives no regular funding from the government but it’s allowed to collect entry fees from trekkers. All of this revenue is put back into conservation and development activities in the Conservation Area. There is little to no garbage along the route which is in stark contrast to some of the lower lying areas and cities.
We rolled into Tal that evening around 5:30, a wee bit wet from getting rained on near the end of the ride. Tal came into view as we climbed the road on the opposite side of the Marshyangdi. From there we descended down a spur road and over a bridge and into this mystical looking, colorful town. It was misty and wet and the overhanging clouds added to the special effects. When we pulled into the guesthouse there was a group of about fifteen Israeli’s having beers in the front yard under umbrellas. This was the first group we’d run into but far from the last. We learned from them that many Israeli’s finish their mandatory military service and head straight to Nepal for a trekking trip. As one of the guys in the group said, ‘We get around…’
Hot showers not only awaited us they were connected to our rooms! We were hungry after our first substantial ride day and ordered a lot of delicious food between the four of us; veggie curry, cornbread, momos, apple turnovers, beer, tea, more beer…there’s so much good wholesome food to be had all along the route…there’s little need to pack anything extra with you.
Leslie Kehmeier is a Colorado-born outdoor adventure photographer and mountain bike nerd who does not currently call anywhere home. Always on the go, Leslie is most comfortable running through airports to catch a flight or steering the wheel of her Sprinter van (Henry) in search of good food, amazing coffee and marking another place off the list in her quest to tell yet another story about life outdoors. Follow Leslie’s travels via Instagram @thewideeyedworld or through her website: thewideeyedworld.com.
Elladee Brown is a British Columbia based mountain biker involved in many different aspects of the sport. She loves high altitude, big mountain zones and hanging out with awesome people and dogs…loves her coffee too. You can check her out on Instagram @elladee17