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 😉