As so often seems to be the case, I found myself killing time in Kathmandu. Even for me there are only so many cappuccinos I can drink while pretending to plan my future. Instead I decided to visit my friends near Pokhara, and what better way to get there than by bicycle.
I had cycled to Pokhara (and back) once before along the Prithvi Highway – the main highway linking Kathmandu to Pokhara. Although a scenic enough ride along the Trisuli, Marshyangdi and Seti rivers it is busy with buses and lorries pumping out noxious exhaust fumes. So, this time I decided I’d load up the mountain bike and take the back roads. But first, I’d need a mountain bike.
A quick trip to the bike shop in Kathmandu and I bought the cheapest one I could get. It had two wheels, pedals, gears and brakes. Perfect. Tenzing was ready.
I set out with a vague plan of where to go, hoping that the dashed lines on my map of Nepal marked as ‘trekking route’ would turn out to be more road-like. I should have known better.
I’d ridden most of the first day’s route to Trisuli Bazaar before so was not expecting any tarmac and I was not disappointed. It’s a bumpy, dusty ride out of the Kathmandu Valley and up to Kakani, surrounded by terraced hillsides, and down the other side. The road was, however, much improved from my last trip in that the descent was mostly hard-packed dirt instead of mud. On arrival there were numerous lodges to pick from so I chose one that looked clean and settled in. The following day’s ride started with a climb out of the town before undulating through local villages and lush agricultural land along a stony, dirt track gradually making my way up the next valley. The day got hotter, the climb got steeper, until finally I found myself at the top, in the small village of Samari. I ate some spicy potatoes before tackling the unrewarding, tiring, rocky descent. At one point the ‘road’ turned into a river too deep to take the bike across, but luckily there was a suspensions bridge nearby, so I made my way across the bridge and onto the footpath before meeting the road again. I laboured my way up and down the route regretting the under-sized snack of potatoes, until, scraping my last reserves of energy, I crested the col and descended into Dhading. The lodge owner took one look at me and Tenzing and said, ‘There is water. You can wash your bike.’
I had managed a mere 45km in nearly 7 hours. This did not bode well for reaching my final destination.
Dhading itself was a haven of tarmac. For about 500m. And then I found the muddy highway I wanted still under construction and spent most of the day riding in the large ruts left by lorry tyres. At least it was neither a river, a river bed nor sand. I called it a day just after lunch in Arughat as I managed to choose the least accessible route from the main road down to the Buri Gandaki river, having had to carry my bike down some steps before a 200m descent down loose boulders (I am no fearless biker). Following that I couldn’t face the 800m undulating climb up to Gorkha in the heat of the afternoon on roads of unknown condition…
I set out positively the next morning, however, as a local had told me the road conditions were good. Unfortunately, they weren’t. They deteriorated from gravel road to loose sand. Amid various crunching noises from the bike I slogged my way up another mountainside managing to take in the beautiful views of hamlets dotted in amongst the terraced hillsides. Arriving on the outskirts of the town of Gorkha I opted for a back route that avoided the main highway ignoring the advice from my GPS. My shortcut entailed pushing my bike up a 20% pavement and then carrying it up stone steps being given curious looks by locals. There is no shortage of accommodation in Gorkha and, again, I picked one that advertised wifi and hot water. I then had a cold shower and spent most of the evening powerless sitting in the dark due to a thunderstorm. Fortuitously in Nepal, food is cooked by gas and /or fire and I feasted on several plates of momos (steamed dumplings).
Gorkha was close to the epicentre of the 2015 earthquake yet three years later there is little evidence of this and a beautifully smooth tarmac road leads up to it from the Prithvi Highway. This was my way down. I started the day with hazy, distant snow-capped mountain views sitting above a cloud inversion in the valley below. Luckily the clouds were short-lived as I zipped my way down the tarmac until my turn off at the river, a tributary of the Marshyangdi. I was back onto another rocky, dirt track. However, today there was no major climb and I had a wonderful pootle undulating through small villages and avoiding goat herds before lunch of dhal bhat at Turture. From here a blessed tarmac road took me up towards Besisahar (a route for trekkers heading to the Annapurna Circuit). Naturally it was not to last as I turned off onto a tertiary road, which turned into another river bed and lurched my way uphill to Sundar Bazaar, my resting place for the night.
I found a lodge tucked away behind the streets of the town, where the owners kept a monkey chained up, which they incessantly teased. Luckily, they treated their guests considerably better and plied me with local cock meat (no jokes) and roksi (the local rice wine). I hope this wasn’t going to hinder my efforts the following morning, as, like the previous days, my final day began with a climb out of the valley. This time I chose the wrong route, out of two, and ended up having to lug my bike up 600 vertical meters of pointy stone track averaging around 10%. And it was boiling. But, like all things, it came to an end and after an awful descent on the same surface, I finally had my target of Begnas Tal in my sights.
There was tarmac, stunning views and a very welcome cup of tea.