Annapurna Circuit

Nepal Part 2 | Besi Sahar to Beni | Day 134

Circumventing the behemoth Annapurna range, the rugged road pushes up from lush jungle to arid desert. A five day climb leads to Thorung La, the 17,500 foot pass, and loops down through the lower Mustang. One of the most classic trek’s in Nepal, the Annapurna Circuit, allows you to lay eyes on three out of the worlds ten highest mountains. We came to Nepal with the sole purpose to cycle the Annapurna Circuit and with the knowledge it could be the most intentionally difficult “mountain bike” trail of our trip.

The beautiful section from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar, an unexpectedly wonderful route full of culture and life, would sadly be our last taste of “real Nepal.” Upon reaching the start of the Annapurna Circuit we were shocked. One long string of tea houses painted like dollhouses, containing anything you desired, from wifi to popcorn, sprawled down the trail. We quickly dubbed it “The Disney Land” of trekking and struggled to keep our budget under $20 a day just getting enough overpriced food to feel full. Even Dal Bhat quickly grew to $5 a plate, ouch! I’m not sure what we were expecting, but we were a little disheartened by the general atmosphere. As with any theme park, there were pro’s and con’s; I can’t complain about the ability to take more frequent hot showers. 

In 2002 a crude road was constructed half way up the other side of the Annapurna Circuit to Manang. Like all progressive movements, the new road has brought a mixture of emotions: some feel the new road has ruined the trek while others see it as an increase in business. Of course, it is understandable that climbing out of the woods onto a road kills the “adventurous” spirit to any trail. But the ease of access also allows relatively quick delivery of food, supplies, and trekkers wanting to skip the first half of the loop. Both sides make a good case, but perhaps most importantly, the new road allows cyclists to give a go at peddling one of the most classic treks of the world. 

"We quickly dubbed it The Disney Land of trekking"

We consulted Sonam, a legendary mountain biker and owner of Dawn till Dusk bike shop in Kathmandu, and heeded his warnings to go as light as possible, strapping on backpacks and ditching our back racks and bags. Sure glad we did! I suppose we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Only a week before we started the Annapurna Circuit did we even realize it is just one big hill. Ok sure that’s a lot of up, but we have been cycling for five months already, good practice. The Annapurna Circuit was one big test for us. A test in: strength, endurance, and patience with each other. It pushed our boundaries and basic ability to ride a bike. 

Early in the Circuit we met a group of German cyclist on a tour led by Denise, a kind hearted awesome mountain biker from Epic Rides bike shop. Denise helped us with basic trail information and marked up our map with his advice: “Cross the bridge here,” “Rest day here,” etc. We would tail this group for the entire Circuit, eating their aluminum framed, shock absorbing, calves of steel dust the entire way. 

Setting off in the humid jungle on a rough rocky road that only deteriorates as you go, turning to huge boulders and washways. Weaving up the valley the road carves itself into the side of the mountain. It was beautiful. Giant glaciers near the clouds, too high for us to see, feed enormous waterfalls spewing from every direction into the narrow valley. It took days before seeing small clues of altitude: banana trees turned to pine, the air became sweet and crisp, and the sun showed itself a little longer each day as we climbed further out of the canyon. In the Distance, soaring above the green hills, a glimpse of Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world sitting at 26,781 feet. Shortly after comes the first glimpse of Annapurna II, the 16th tallest mountain in the world at 26,040 feet.

By the end of day three, after finally reaching Manang, it was full blown Himalaya. Annapurna III and Annapurna IV had just burst into view right outside of our teahouse window. Also, in Manang there is a clinic offering free altitude sickness classes. Two clinics were erected in the mountains of Nepal, one in Manang and one in Namche Bazaar due to the amount of trekker deaths from altitude sickness. We were surprised at how much we learned, here are some tid bits: After reaching 10,000 feet you should only sleep 1,500 feet higher than the previous night and Diamox helps your kidneys acclimatize faster which is why it makes you pee so damn much.  

"By the end of day three it was full blown Himalaya."

I have trekked a lot. Like a whole lot. And it is most common while trekking to talk about…trekking. Rumors spread about challenges ahead. Difficulties are exaggerated. Fears are created mainly out of boredom. It’s annoying. Hearing all the mumbo jumbo we started to fear the daunting 17,500 foot pass in our near future. 

“Thorung La is going to be sooo cold.”

“You are going to carry your bikes over the pass? No, seriously?”

“Wind is your enemy, you have to be off the summit before noon.”

It was dumb, but it got to us. 

Thorung La grew in our minds every passing night. Even though we had cycled over plenty of high roads in much more remote places, we started paying a little too much attention to everyones advice. The night before “the pass” we brought our bikes up an extra 1,000 feet, the steepest part of the whole climb. We left them in the last tea house in order to make the full climb less difficult the next morning while allowing us to sleep at a lower elevation. 3:00 AM hit, complete darkness and frigid air. Headlamps strapped over layers of hats and hoods, we began to shuffle up the steepest part, again, to retrieve our bicycles. The going at 16,000 feet is slow. 

"We were ill prepared for the temperatures."

Even with socks over our gloves our hands were frozen blocks, we were ill prepared for the temperatures for this short bit. We now looked on in envy at all those people with their ridiculous snow gear and voluptuous downs. Olivia demanded we wait for the sun to show its’ face before continuing with the climb. The sun peeked over the mountain bringing a blanket of warm air by 5:30AM. A porter with a donkey trailed Olivia up the entire pass offering to carry her bike to the top, and with every exhaustive step his haunting $30 offer was hard to dismiss. But we pushed, no assistance necessary; although I had to do all the hardest parts twice, pushing my bike up first and then going back to push up Olivia’s. 

I had never seen mountains like this in my life! Straight ahead of us was Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world, dominating the horizon at 26,795 feet. This is exactly what this ride is all about, seeing the giants of the world. Finally reaching the top, we stood in line to take our picture by the sign (yes we had to wait in line) We snapped a couple unattractive photos, and got the hell down the mountain before the massive groups of Russian and French trekkers clogged up the trail again. 

"Straight ahead of us was Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world, dominating the horizon at 26,795 feet."

Over the pass is Lower Mustang: muave, dry, and dusty. The gateway to Upper Mustang, a lonely plateau sitting just south of Tibet. If we had more time and money we would have definitely loved to have seen this region (the permits are $500 and you have to have a guide). We started to see traditional Tibetan whitewashed homes again with wood and grain stacked on the roof. Actual villages full of locals, instead of rows of guest houses was a nice change of scenery. Lower Mustang was a relief and reminded us of our miles pedaled in Ladakh. After returning to such a place, we both realized how fond we had become of Tibetan culture.

Soaking in a glorious hot spring in Tatopani was probably the best way to end this journey.

On the way down from Mustang we finally caught a view of Annapurna I, the tenth highest mountain in the world at 26,545 feet. With the ragging wind to our back we bombed down 50 miles in one day, a lot of miles when cycling the Himalaya. The wind can get really crazy on this side, we’re talking dust storms of doom so thick you can’t see two feet in front of you. 

Soaking in a glorious hot spring in Tatopani was probably the best way to end this journey. While sitting in the hot springs we contemplated our whole experience cycling the Annapurna Circuit: 

Annapurna Circuit is one big hill. The road is rough and usually extremely steep. Hike a bike for five days straight is grueling. This is a trail for mountain bikers– the descent is just as steep as the ascent.The physical challenge was rewarding, however the cultural and adventure aspects were lacking. In short: Would we do it all over again? YES! To be amongst mountains like these is magical no matter the circumstance. If we did it again would we take our bikes? Nah, If we would do it all over again we would probably trek it, there was a little too much hike a bike for us. 


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