10 Jan Trip Diary – Bicycle Touring The Annapurna Circuit – Part 1
If you’ve been following along recently with the blog, you know that I was very much in need of some solitude after India. I wanted a little peace and quiet and a healthy dose of Nepalese natural beauty to re-set the body and mind. I decided I’d find just that if I ventured up into the mountains and away from the city crowds of Pokhara but when I left off in my last blog, I was unsure exactly where I’d go. After a day or two of online research, asking locals for advice, and scanning Google earth, I made my decision. I’d head up the famous long-distance trekking route that is the Annapurna Circuit…on my bike.
The Annapurna Circuit is often voted the best long-distance trek in the Himalayan mountains, within the Annapurna range located in central Nepal. It seems there is a lot of debate over the total length of the route depending on where the trek finishes and, thanks to the continuing construction of a road more motorised transport is used that allows trekkers to skip the first three to four days by hiring a jeep all the way to the village of Manang at 3500m. Most guidebooks put the total distance to be walked at between 160–230 km (100-145 mi).
It combines a wide variety of climate zones, from the tropical landscapes found at the beginning, to the freezing at its highest point of 5,416m (17,769ft) at the Thorong La Pass close to the Tibetan plateau. In addition to the views of numerous peaks between 6,000 and 7,000m, most attempt the trek for the chance to glimpse some of the Himalayan giants up close, mountains such as Annapurna I (8,091m), Dhaulagiri (8,167m), Manaslu (8,163m), and Annapurna’s three slightly smaller siblings, Annapurna II (7,937m), Annapurna III (7,555m) and Annapurna IV (7,525m). The more I read, the more I knew I needed to go and experience it for myself.
I was planning to do the trip over Christmas and New Year. The thought of waking up on Christmas Day and unzipping the tent to views of snow-capped mountain ranges filled me with excitement. In the south of England, where I’m from, a white Christmas is about as rare as rocking horse poop. I wanted to approach the route in a way that mimicked how I’ve chosen to cycle around the world, that is, self-supported – carrying with me all I needed to eat, sleep and stay warm – and by going it alone. During my research into the route, I came across a few blog posts and magazine articles recounting tales of people who had cycled the route in its entirety before and indeed, many tour companies in Pokhara offered clients the chance to cycle the circuit. Initially, this boosted my hopes of completing the full circuit. However, all of the stories I read or tours I saw involved doing the route on mountain bikes, with their wide tyres and full suspension frames. It also seemed that every cyclist I’d read about had chosen a different approach to tackling the route than mine; instead of carrying their own food and camping equipment, they elected to sleep and eat in the many tea houses and lodges that line the route, keeping their overall weight to a minimum and just carrying all they needed in a small rucksack. Most, perhaps wisely, chose to do the route during the summer season too. I couldn’t find any information on how a loaded touring bike might fair.
Gathering local advice
So I decided to head into the city and find a tour company that had some experience cycling the circuit. I needed more information about what I’d encounter up there and local knowledge is hard to beat. Pokhara is full of tour agents so I ended up just picking one of the first I came across. The Nepalese man that sat behind the desk, buried beneath an oversized down jacket that was stained by what looked like years of rough mountain adventure, but could just been dahl bhat, was nice enough. He listened as I excitedly ran through my plans, nodding occasionally to let me know he was listening.
When I finished, he lent back in his chair in the way my old high school teacher, Mr Matthews, did just before belittling me for something I’d done or, more likely, not done. He informed me that the failure rate on previous trips he’d run with cyclists was fairly high, even when carrying very little weight. The effects of cycling at altitude forced many of his previous clients to abandon their attempts so he had not run a trip for years. He also expressed concern that with it now being December and with the winter season truly underway, the temperatures above 4,500m would be far too cold for camping. “I’d think you’d be looking around -20c just before dawn,” he said, adding with a smile, “that’s if your lucky.” He told me he always ran his previous tours during the peak season between mid-September and early November when the weather was warmer. As if to hammer the point home that I’d freeze, he added, “Even then we don’t camp.”
When I mentioned I wanted to carry everything I needed with me and was hoping to get the weight of my bike down to half it normal touring weight of around 60kgs, he let out a high, short laugh before erupting into a coughing fit so violent his head almost disappeared inside his jacket. “That’s close to Sherpa weight around here,” he finally managed to blurt out as his reddened face emerged back into view. “It’s pretty steep from the village of Letdar all the way to the top and vertical before high camp,” he said, now looking much more serious. “I think you need a rethink. Would you like to book a trekking tour with us instead?”
Time for a rethink?
While walking back along Phwer Lake that forms the eastern side of Pokhara, I began to doubt my idea was possible. My festive cycling break into the mountains didn’t look like it was going to happen, not on that circuit anyway. But, for the last two days, it’s all I’d been reading about and I’d become slightly obsessed with the idea.
Back at my hostel, I tried packing the bike. I packed and repacked, ditching as much weight as I could. After borrowing a set of scales from the hostel, I found I could only get the bike down to just under 36kgs. Food for the two-week trip; pasta, rice, noodles, dried fruit, porridge, nuts, and dried milk powder was around 8kgs on its own. The bike was close to 14kgs without any bags. Add to that camping gear; tent, sleeping bag, mat, stove, fuel bottle, and cooking pan, along with some extra clothing and I could see why the Michelin man back in the tour office had laughed at me. Things weren’t looking promising. The only plus I could think of is that at least water was available on the route in the form of natural springs and streams and with purification tablets, at least I could keep that down to a maximum of a couple of kilos at any one time.
After a restless night, I woke in the morning having made my decision. I accepted the fact that my bike was far from ideal for the task, that the chances of extremely cold nights up high were almost inevitable this time of year, camping would be a tad chilly, to say the least, and that my setup was just too heavy. Also, it had been many years since I’d been above 5,000m. I remember it being hard work and all I had with me back then was a small, light rucksack. So I decided instead on a plan B. I’d go anyway and just see how far I could get. Even if I couldn’t make the pass, I was sure I’d make it high enough to enjoy a white Christmas and then I could just turn around and come back down the way I’d come. It would mean I’d get around ten days to enjoy the mountains and I was sure that would be enough to clear my head.
Later that day, I arranged all my permits from the office in Pokhara and informed the hostel I’d be leaving in the morning. I’d be back for the rest of my stuff that they had kindly agreed to look after sometime early in the New Year. With the bike packed, I struggled to sleep that night; I was like a kid on Christmas Eve. just too excited about the following morning.
Part two of the Annapurna Circuit cycle trip will available soon on the blog. 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.
This blog post covers trip dates from 15th -17th December 2017.