The hill just kept on going, and going, and going. Because that’s what hills do in the Himalaya. And the hill was headed my direction—down—through one of the deepest canyons in Nepal and some of the most extravagantly beautiful vistas in the world. And I was ripping through the landscape fast enough to make my eyes water.
An hour-and-a-half downhill mountain bike ride sounded unbelievable after more than a week of solo hiking, tethered to a backpack, on the Marsyangdi River portion of the Annapurna Circuit and across the 18,000-foot Thorung La Pass. And so there I was, flying down the Himalaya, dirt and a smile plastered to my face.
For purists at least, the completion in the past few years of a “jeepable” road from Pokhara to Muktinath, Nepal, has spoiled what some call the greatest trek in the world. But for mountain bikers, the new road can only be one thing: an increasingly massive draw. And for me, with an injured knee, the ride down the Kali Gandaki river valley was a no brainer.
Mountain biking is only a recent option for hikers trekking the Annapurna Circuit. Although small numbers of visitors have ridden the whole route on their own, outfitters have only recently begun to crop up. In 2011, Jurriaan Prakke and Tenzin Thakali started Muktinath-based Mustang Mountain Bikes. Situated at more than 12,000 feet, Muktinath is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the world for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Conveniently, you can rent Giants, Treks, and Montras with both front and dual suspension for the two- to three-day ride from Muktinath to Tatopani, or an epic five-day ride down to Pokhara. The outfit even transports your pack and gear from Muktinath down to your destination and supplies you with a helmet and a daypack.
In short, if you’re not worried about the speed, or of the drop-offs, or of feeling like you’re cheating the Annapurna Circuit by not trekking the whole thing, then this is the freest you’re going to feel during your trip.
Because this is a relatively new option, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t forget to set aside the essentials for your daypack when preparing your main backpack for shipment down the mountain: windbreaker, hydration pack, passport, money, socks, underwear, toothbrush, silk sleeping bag liner, fleece (it gets cold at night), and sunglasses.
- Check your bike over before setting out and ask for a repair kit and extra break pads. Some of the down hills are decently serious and, although it’s not exactly a technical ride, there are steep bits.
- Leave Muktinath early. The wind seems to be on a timer and starts really blowing at 9 a.m. Though the guidebooks warn of this, it’s a different animal on a bike. Bring along a bandana or something to cover your mouth and nose.
- The road from Muktinath to Marpha takes about six hours, including a nice long lunch in the medieval fortress town of Kagbeni. From here, you can either do the steep ride back up to the main road and follow the busses (and dust) up over the steep, high bluffs, or ride down on the riverbed and be sandblasted when it turns into a wind tunnel at 9 each morning.
- Hold out for Marpha. After more than an hour of wind in your face, you might be tempted to stay in the large town of Jomsom because you’ll have to stop here anyway to get your trekking passes stamped. But the much better choice is the small, pretty village of Marpha—about two more hours down a rocky road past some incredible peaks and valleys.
- The second day of the ride to the hot springs at Tatopani is truly epic—and much more fun.You’ll pass from arid country, to high alpine, to dense forest, to jungle in the course of the day’s six-hour ride—much of it on fun down hills.
- Leave around 6:30 a.m. and you’ll miss the wind and have time to stop for breakfast at a small roadhouse just past a beautiful pine forest around 9 a.m. Here you can watch as tired trekkers crammed into jouncing, beat up local busses pile out for fresh air and a bite to eat. That could have been you!
- Get in touch with these guides. You can contact Jurriaan Prakke and Tenzin Thakali of Mustang Mountain Bikes at [email protected] or [email protected] or by phone on +9779817196197, +9779846585755, +9779857650143, or +9779756703013.
- Or try other guides. Tsheten and his brother Ganesh run a second outfit that opened last season. They can be reached by email at at [email protected] or by phone at +9779841259360, +9779808654082, or +977014373152. Both shops are on Muktinath’s main drag, are near each other and hard to miss. A third bike rental shop is set to open in the 2014 trekking season.
- A two-day ride from Muktinath to Tatopani will cost somewhere around $70, but it is money very well spent. Other options are available—such as Muktinath to Pokhara, and with or without a guide.