Getting to know Nepal, getting to know yourself

We’ve just spent 5 weeks in Nepal, its cities, its mountains and its countryside. And although we haven’t crossed the entire country, I think we had enough time to get to know it a little bit. And we also got to know ourselves a little better!

Getting around

Nepal is not the easiest country to cycle. It’s not even easy to drive a car or bus, since the roads are in a horrible state. Even the main highway between the 2 biggest cities (Kathmandu and Pokhara) is best driven with a sturdy 4-wheel drive and a lot of patience. Nepal is really struggling with it’s road system: most roads lie in steep valleys making them very vulnerable for landslides. China and India come over and help out sometimes to put roads in places of their interest (mainly connected to temples/stupas the Chinese and Indian tourists come to visit). Many other roads and bridges are damaged even before being finished. All this results in poor public transport where it takes a bus on average 13 hours to cross 150km.

Choosing Nepal as our first country to cycle was not that smart after all. We have spanking new bicycles, still eager to keep them in good shape and not break them in 2 pieces on these rocky roads. Cycling on dusty roads while breathing smog is not what we had in mind. And having 600km on the meter in one month time, doesn’t really feel like your getting somewhere.

What we’ve learned: We definitely feel we’d like to move on quicker. We definitely still choose to travel with bicycle iso travelling with a bus. But we prefer to cycle on better roads with better air, and to really cycle iso walking next to our bicycle.

The people

Besides all of them spitting on the street, the Nepali are just great. We felt so safe here in Nepal. You can just put your bicycle and bags wherever you want and it will not be touched. They always have time for a smile, a wave, and if their English is good enough, a friendly chat.

They are by far the most hospitable people. They trust you in their house, even when they’re not around. They trust you will pay the bill. They are always helpfull and extremely relax. They exhale a kind of calmness that is contagious. And they really don’t care if your clothes are dirty and your hair is messy.

But you also see that the Nepali are struggling. They’re still busy meeting their basic needs. This is one of the poorest country in the world and you see it. And it’s hard to see, because they just don’t have all the chances we have (and find absolutely normal: food in the fridge, kids at school, a dustfree home, …)

What we’ve learned: We can become a lot better at giving trust to strangers and getting trust back. By opening up our houses and by having time for others. By staying calm, even if the situation is far from calming. But we also got hit harder (harder than I thought) seeing them struggling. We would like to help, but the challenges are so big we don’t see where to start. And that’s pretty frustrating.

The nature

Aaahhhh the mountains, they are just simply amazing! I could keep watching those for days! In 1 small country you can go from tropical jungle up to +8000m and that’s just extra-ordinary! It’s logical that the whole world is coming over for a hike.

But nature is suffering too. Sherpa’s told us that they have seen so many glaciers dissapear over the last 20 years. What used to be covered in snow whole year round, is now a dry rocky tip. Landslides appear more often because of the big cement industry down in the valleys. Rivers are running dry, and if not, become a stinky dumping ground.

If this continues, there might not be a drop of snow on Annapurna in let’s say 50 years. The world’s water ressources are running dry. And it’s sad to hear that ‘global warming’ is pretty well known, but very little is done. As said before, the Nepali are still struggling with basic needs. They’re not really busy sorting their waste but throw it on the street instead. And owning a car/motorcycle and/or eating more meat is still what they dream of and pursue.

What we’ve learned: If we ever come back, it’s to be in these magnificent mountains. Or to help the people. Because it really makes us pessimistic with regards to Climate Change.

The cities

We’ve spent quite some days in Pokhara (recovering from the Annapurna trip) and Kathmandu (planning the next step of our journey). It probably was a little too long, but is allowed us to get outside of the tourist zones and get a completer view of the cities.

Some people described Kathmandu as a cosy city, and I guess 20 years ago it probably was. Now, with over 1 million people living in the capital, the whole valley is one big dusty smoggy suburb. Kathmandu is the 7th most polluted city in the world, and they were happy to announce it had improved as they were 6th last year.

But it’s not all bad. There are some cool places to discover like Bouddhanat area and Lazimpat. We were happy to observe the Dashain (local Xmas) shopping maddness, cultural festivities and at the same time glad to find little hidden gems like a Social Cafe who donates part of its turnover to a local good cause and even a Food truck park.

What we’ve learned: Even if we are city lovers, citytripping is not the best reason to come to Nepal. But when in the city, it’s always worthwhile to get out of the tourist areas like Thamel or Lakeside, as that’s where you’ll get the tastiest food and the best overall city feeling.

The conclusion after 5 weeks in Nepal

We wanted adventure and we got it. We went seriously out of the comfort zone. We have experienced amazing things, pushed our limits and have felt alive every single day.

But now we want things to be a little easier on us for a while. And that’s why we decided to fly to Malaysia instead of continuing towards India and Bangladesh.

What we’ve learned: even if I thought I would like to be amazed and challenged every single day, I learned to admit that that might just be a little too much and a little closer to my comfort zone from time to time does me well too. And luckily I have a great husband who learned this too 😉

What we’ve learned too: 5 weeks into our gap year, we still have approx. 45 more weeks to go. And having all this time is just an amazing feeling! We might not have the luxury these days that come from having stuff or a warm house to call your home, but we already feel very spoiled because we have plenty of time.

Cycling Annapurna

3 weeks ago we arrived in lovely Pokhara, Nepal’s second biggest city and the doorstep towards the Annapurna’s. There are severals treks possible in the Annapurna Conservation Area, and we decided to go for the big one, the Circuit Trek, since we have plenty of time and crossing the 5416m Thorung La Pass sounded like a great challenge. We found some pictures and stories online of people cycling the Circuit Trek (we even found a picture of a tandem on top of the pass!), so we felt confident to go for it.

Long story short, don’t ever think of cycling the Annapurna Circuit, unless you are completely crazy 😉

Don’t get me wrong. The Annapurna Circuit Trek is amazing! You get world class views on the full Annapurna range. You start from low altitude in a more tropical environment and work your way up with views that change day by day. You get pretty close to all these mountains that are above 7000m, and you’ll feel so small. But it took (a little) blood, (a lot of) sweat, and (also some) tears to get to the pass with our bicycles.

Leg 1: get to the start of the trek in Besisahar: 106 km
It took us 2 days on our bicylces to get there. We tried once more the scenic route (white roads in Google maps), but regretted it pretty soon due to… bad road conditions, that take a lot of your energy and slow you down enormously.

Leg 2: uphill from Besisahar to Thorung La Pass: 110 km
The first part untill Tal is in a very narrow valley and subject to many many landslides. The roads were in a terrible state, so we pushed our bicycles most of the time. But… this gave us plenty of time to enjoy the green lush nature and numerous lovely waterfalls.

Between Tal and Manang the valley opens up and the roads get a little better. Here we could cycle more than half of the time! And you start to be rewarded with views on the high Annapurna range!

Don’t rush through Manang. It’s a small but lovely village, and perfect location for some rest and acclimatisation. We took 1 day to walk up to Ice Lake (4610m) where my winter/open water swimmer husband enjoyed a swim-with-a-view. And we added 1 extra day to recover from that walk up to the lake, and stack up some extra calories by eating plenty of delicious yak cheese sandwiches.

From Manang on, the scenery becomes more impressive with every turn you take. Unfortunately for us however, the road turns into a hiking trail, so very little cycling was possible. Back to pushing the bicycle!

The high altitude kicks in, and you have to breath at least twice as much as you’re used to. Every 10 steps, I gasped for air for about 20 seconds. Again, you’ll get plenty of time to enjoy the views that way!

We took 4 days to go from Manang to the Pass. That’s a lot, but we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t suffer from the high altitude and sticked to the recommended elevation on max. 500m per day. This also means you have the afternoons free to rest and enjoy the views.

We started from High Camp to conquer Thorung La Pass, so we had plenty of time to get up, enjoy, and still have enough time to get to Muktinath, a solid 1600m descend. And my god, we made it! I couldn’t help but feeling emotionial the final meters towards the pass (and it was great that those final meters were flat enough to cycle!)

Leg 3: downhill after the Pass
After pushing the bicycle up the pass, we hoped to be rewarded with a nice and smooth descend. Unfortunately the way down to Muktinath we walked again next to our bicycles instead of sitting in the saddle. The hiking path was just too narrow, too steep, too rocky.

After a night in Muktinath, we did get an 11km reward: the best stretch of road in Nepal is to be found deep in the mountains with amazing views on the Mustang area, a much dryer valley with dramatic scenery! Unfortunately it was followed by kilometers of rocks and dust and headwind. By the time we reached Marpha, I was completely done.

Leg 4: local bus back to Pokhara

150km left to reach our luggage and a clean guesthouse in Pokhara. We decided to book a jeep to bring us and our bicycles there. But the bicycles didn’t fit the top of the jeep so we were forced to swap to a local bus. Another adventure: 13 hours of bumpy roads and trying to control the content of our stomach. But also amazing to see how the chauffeur and his team managed to drive these awful roads and stay calm. Must be buddhists!

We made it safely up the pass.

We made it safely back to Pokhara.

But I think this is the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve reached and surpassed so many of my limits that I need a few days to recover. On the other hand, I’ll never forget in my lifetime the views of those mountains!

Some tips for those crazy ones still considering cycling up the Thorung La Pass after reading untill here:

    Opt for a good mountainbike with thick tires, big relief and a very small gear.
    Don’t go unless you’re skilled in mountainbiking. It will make a big difference between cycling and walking next to your bicycle.
    Travel light. We only took a 35l backpack and added a sleeping bag on our rear rack. I personally think the sleeping bag is essential since it’s really cold up there. But we met other people in the lodges who just slept in the blankets of the lodge.
    Be mentally prepared for low levels of comfort. It’s good to know that there are many small villages with lodges and guesthouses on the way. But the higher you go, the more basic the accomodation. I mean really basic.
    Take enough cash money with you. The higher you go, the higher the prices to eat and drink. Lodging is very cheap and sometimes even for free as long as you eat in the restaurant. But if all supplies have to be brought up with a donkey it’s logic that you’ll pay 250 roupies for a bottle of water in High Camp, compared to 20 roupies in the supermarket in Pokhara. And you’ll be hungry, so you’ll want to eat a lot!
    Take a bus/jeep to the start in Besisahar or you’ll be tired even before you start.
    Take a book or playing cards to kill the time in the afternoon, even if you’ll meet plenty of other great adventurous travellers in the guesthouses to chat with.
    Try to have some buffer in your timing. For us it felt really like a little luxury to know we had plenty of time. So we could take 1 extra rest day. Or wait for the weather to be clear on the pass.
    And finally, reconsider if you really want to cycle. Hiking is a really good option 😉