15 Jan Trip Diary – Bicycle Touring The Annapurna Circuit – Part 2
Did you miss Part 1 of my cycle tour around the Annapurna Circuit? No problem. Before reading Part 2 you can catch up with my trip here.
With my decision made, against the advice of nearly everyone I talked to, I cycled out of Pokhara early in the morning with a smile on my face at the thought that soon I’d be high up in the Himalayas and cycling along one the world’s best long-distance trekking routes. I was sure I’d find the space and serenity up there that I desperately needed to clear my head of the intensity and overwhelming chaos of India that was still clouding my thoughts and feelings. It didn’t matter to me right then how far I made it along the circuit or how high I got. I just wanted to go as far as I could into the mountains to guarantee myself some peace.
Things get rough
My quest for solitude began right away. I decided to take the back roads instead of the highway to my first destination of Besisahar, which is widely accepted as the start of the circuit and the gateway to the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. Within ten kilometres, I found myself riding through quaint villages surrounded by farmland with the impressive distant snow-covered peaks of Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) and Himal Chuli framing the view. My surroundings were so captivating that I didn’t notice that the road changed. The smooth asphalt that had led me off the highway had disintegrated into a rough track of sand and stones and I only noticed it when I hit a rather large pothole that threatened to throw me out of the saddle. Little did I know then that it would be the last time I’d enjoy a smooth ride for nearly two weeks.
Joy of the back roads
As the first day wore on and I continued to bump and bounce my way eastwards, I began to encounter the green rolling hills that form a beautiful prelude to the bigger giants beyond. Riding became desperately slow going with my exertion under the afternoon sun beating down on my back. I was soon drenched in sweat that stuck my t-shirt to my back as if someone had shrink-wrapped me. Despite shedding over half of the bike’s normal weight, thanks to leaving all the unnecessary items I usually carry at the hostel, the bike still felt heavy. With most of the weight I did have over the back wheel and without the normal counterbalancing effect of the front panniers, the steep terrain often caused the bike to perform small wheelies meaning I lost some momentum and I often had to come to a complete stop. At times, the sandy track became so deep that cycling became impossible. The back wheel spun in the dirt and I was unable to find any grip so I had to push the bike until things improved.
Despite the trail becoming much harder sooner than I thought, I was surprised to find I was still in a good mood. Normally, when I encountered this kind of hardship on my trip in the past, it would see me grumbling away, muttering expletives to myself, and sporting a look of thunder as I contemplated just why I was there in the first place. But, my excited anticipation of what lay ahead kept me smiling, at least on the outside – things were slightly different inside my head. In an attempt to block out the increasing pain from the lactic acid building up in my calves, I thought about all the warnings I received when I spoke to locals about my idea when I was in Pokhara: “Your bike’s too heavy for the steep terrain. Even a light mountain bike struggles.” I thought I’d overcome this by going slow and that I would only go up as high as I can. “It’ll be too cold to camp, especially above 4,000m.” It would still be a good test of my equipment and my resolve. “Cycling at altitude isn’t easy. Most people we take up there fail.” Nor is cycling around the world but I’m doing okay so far. As much as I tried to find solutions to these questions and many more, I couldn’t help but think I wasn’t going to get that far. After all, the locals know best. Cresting the final hill, with a straight shot view of the Fishtail on the horizon, cemented my original decision. I was at least going to try.
Late the next day, after a beautiful night spent camping next to a river and taking just as much time to descend the hills I’d just climbed due to the constant threat of wheel-buckling potholes and rocks, I arrived in the large town of Besisahar. With my desire to do this self-supported trip, no matter how far I got, I wanted to stay away from the many hotels and guest houses that litter the town and instead find somewhere I could camp. As darkness crept in and the town began to illuminate under the neon signs of countless trekking shops and restaurants, I began the steep descent out of town, passing the large sign that signals the start of the circuit. This was it, I thought. It was time to lay the nagging questions that filled my mind to rest. The answers lay ahead but could wait until morning. It was now time to get some rest.
The following day dawned bright and I was up and on the bike by 7am after a good night’s sleep. I camped in a small clearing just meters from the road, For almost its entire length up until the final pass at 5,416m, the trail follows a river that has carved a deep gorge through the landscape. Thanks to the continuing construction of a road, the toughest of jeeps can now reach the village of Manang at 3,500m. The trail begins by switching between wide but sandy, heavily pot-marked and rocky roads to smaller hiking trails on the other side of the river. I was bouncing and skidding along the road side of the circuit within minutes of setting off.
Each side has advantages and disadvantages. The road follows the line of least resistance, meaning that it often fluctuates between steep ground and flat sections that allows for relatively easy riding. At times, it descends for short periods, but I soon learned that would only mean I was about to head back up. The main disadvantage was that if it wasn’t constructed of fine sand or wheel spinning gravel, then it was crudely paved in large stones that jutted up in a continuous streak of tyre bursting, frame snapping roughness. It was like trying to cycle across a reef at low tide. It’s extreme unevenness and unseen mini drop-offs and sharp peaks forced me to push the bike more often than I could ride. The other obvious disadvantage is that I often encountered jeeps in the lower sections, trucks, ferrying locals, or resupplying some far-off villages. Despite the terrain, nearly all of them passed me at an alarming speed with music blaring from their open windows, leaving me coughing and covering my eyes as they went by in a thick cloud of dust that enveloped me for minutes after they’d gone.
On the other side of the river, the hiking trail was less congested and much narrower but was far steeper. On the second day, I encountered long sections of steps that gave me no option but to carry the bike. At lower altitudes, I was able to carry all 35kgs at once but as I gained height, this became too much and I resorted to making two trips: one with the bike and the other with my two panniers. The trail was also often impossible to cycle on as large sections crossed through boulder fields or headed along almost vertical, narrow tracks that clung to the hillsides. Occasionally, large and unwelcoming drop-offs on my left side were enough to persuade me to walk the bike; a nudge from the rock wall on my right whilst riding would be enough to send me on a wild ride to the river below.
Peace at last
For the next five days, until I reached Manang, I constantly crossed between the two sides by cycling over narrow suspension bridges. The scenery on this part of the circuit begins with small patches of farmland with abundant banana and orange trees. The heavily forested hills that surround the gorge soon gave way to higher, less vegetated, rockier mountains that rise up to around 3,500 meters. Occasionally, a snow-covered peak of one of the larger mountains beyond would appear as a brief glimpse into what was to come. A day or so before I reached Manang, above the village of Pisang, the landscape changed again. Now the valley flattened out into a wide alpine plain, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and covered in pine trees that littered the floor with the biggest pine cones I’ve ever seen. These plains are regularly used by local communities for their herd grazing and I often came across huge yaks or groups of goats blocking the path, staring blankly at me as I forced myself past, and I heard the jingling of cowbells off in the distance. The beauty of this area is enhanced by the fact the riding here is the flattest of all the circuit.
Camping proved a delight, especially after the hardships I’d encountered finding camping spots in India. I could camp pretty much anywhere I wanted. At 1,700m, just after the beautiful village of Tal with its impressive waterfall, I camped on a gravel beach that had built up on a bend in the fast-flowing river. The sound of its turquoise water flowing over the boulders provided the perfect sound to fall asleep to. At 2,800m, above the village of Chame, I pitched my tent in a clearing overlooking the gorge; at 3,000m, I was hidden deep in the forest. All five nights I spent camping getting to Manang were magical and it wasn’t long before I started to find the peace I was looking for and I felt that the stress of cycling through India was dissipating. To add to my happiness, the weather seemed to be on my side. The days remained clear and warm and although the nights became colder as I approached Manang, it didn’t take long to warm up as after getting in my sleeping bag so I slept comfortably.
Dreaming of a white Christmas
I arrived in Manang early in the morning on Christmas Eve, just as I’d planned. Over the last few days, I’d been telling myself that if I could reach Manang in time for Christmas and find a good spot to wake up to, hopefully with a snow-covered view, I’d be happy with that. That, I thought, would be far enough for me. Sure enough, I found the perfect place: a small piece of flat land perched above the village itself with an incredible view of Annapurna III, Annapurna IV, Gangapurna, and Tilicho Peak, all snow covered and rising up almost from the door of my tent. That evening, I sat for hours huddled in the entrance of my tent and watched as the stars began to appear and the moonlight light up the mountains around me, until the cold forced me into my sleeping bag. I lay awake until late considering my options from here. I felt good, if not a little physically tired from the trail so far, but I knew what I’d achieved up to this point was the easy bit. If I continued above Manang, I’d be entering a whole new world for me, one of a vastly steeper terrain than that I’d ever tried to cycle on before, of extreme cold, and of an altitude higher than I’d ever experienced. The poor odds of making the pass the locals had given me and their accompanying warnings were hard to put out of my mind. Rolling over, I put the decision off until the morning.
When I woke the following morning on Christmas Day and unzipped the tent, it was to a view I’d dreamt about for many weeks throughout India. The air was still and with no one around and all signs of civilisation hidden from view, the mountains appeared even bigger than I’d remembered from the night before. Snow drifts swept up into the air from their peaks in thin whispers. Gangapurna’s glacier led down to the river below me gleamed and it was brightly shining in the early morning light. Without leaving my sleeping bag, I reached over to my stove outside and made myself a coffee. The air was still cold from the night before and as I cradled the warm mug in my hands, I made my decision: I would leave for an attempt at the pass in two days time. Enough, I hoped, to acclimatise sufficiently. I reasoned that it would be a shame to come this far and not at least try. After all, things had gone well up until now. Sure, it had been tough going but I was never expecting it to be easy. Turning around now suddenly seemed rather ridiculous.
On the 27th December, a little more than 48 hours after arriving in Manang, I prepared to leave the village with the plan to reach the small settlement of Letdar at 4,200m. Over the past two days, the nights had become noticeably colder, reaching a low point of -9°C in the early hours before dawn on the day of my departure. Still, I was buoyed by the fact that even at this temperature I remained relatively comfortable during the night, although if the predictions from the locals of temperatures dropping below -20°C higher up were right, I knew that may well change. During my time in Manang, I completed two acclimatisation treks to above 4,000m in the surrounding mountains and found I still felt fine. This helped to slightly relieve my fears of how I’d feel higher up but as I’d done both treks without the bike, I still remained unsure of how I’d find cycling at such altitudes. Having made my load as light as possible and eaten my way through the last of the heavy food, I jumped into the saddle and began to follow the red arrows that mark the trail out of the far end of the village.
Answers this way
Everyone had told me that this was where the trail gets harder and steeper and that not much farther on is where trekkers start feeling the effects of the altitude and begin to turn around. Despite its beauty and the almost constant smile on my face, the trail up to this point had come close to breaking me. The riding had been the hardest I’d ever experienced. Since leaving Pokhara, for hours on end, I struggled to gain any great distance and I considered turning around on many occasions, convinced it wasn’t possible and that the whole thing was a waste of time and effort. But after a short rest, almost involuntarily, I found myself continuing on. Normally on my world cycle trip, I measure my daily performance in the number of kilometres cycled but up here, it was in meters: every single one felt like a big achievement. Often I began to believe that the locals had been right: what was I thinking? But, here I was, 3,500m up in the Himalayas, already surpassing what some had told me was possible. Whether I could make it farther or not could only be found out if I ventured up and into the beautiful but daunting landscape that unfolded in front of me. With a last look back at Manang, it’s brightly coloured prayer flags fluttering away in the gentle breeze, I set off in search of my answer.
The next installment of this four-part series on my Annapurna Circuit cycle trip will available soon on the blog. You can read Part 1 here. Until then, why not check out the rest of Trip Diary Blogs or visit the gallery page for a visual tour of the 17 countries I’ve cycled through so far.
Better still, head on over to Pedaling The Globe’s new YouTube channel to watch the short video from my time on the circuit. You can find it here.
This blog post entry covers trip dates from 18th-27th December 2017