Anything worth doing does not come easy, and starting a bike tour halfway up the Himalayas certainly isn't easy - but boy is it worth it!
Our journey begins at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport where our guide Tashi, meets and greets us and takes us to the hotel - saving us the stress and chaos of 'taxi ranks' and touts. After a comfortable overnight stay in Kathmandu, and a good breakfast, the minibus is loaded up for the seven hour trip to Pokhara, Nepal's second city.
Leaving Kathmandu is the first adventure. Streets in the older central part of the city are very narrow, a real rabbit warren of alleys and lanes, plus you share the road with motorbikes, cars and other pedestrians – there are no footpaths here. Further out the roads are wider but the traffic is much heavier and just as chaotic – a line down the middle of the road seems just a suggestion! There are also no traffic lights, though some intersections are policed. The honking of horns to indicate right-of-way is ever present as is the dust and pollution haze over the city.
An hour out, as we leave the city and begin to climb out of the Kathmandu Valley, the minibus promptly breaks down. The driver assures us it won't take long to fix. He says the same after the second and third hours on the side of the dusty road where he'd pulled over. Finally after four hours a replacement bus arrives and we're off again to Pokhara. We arrive about five hours later after a somewhat hair-raising but fascinating journey – I don't think I'd want to drive in Nepal on the narrow and potholed roads with questionable or loosely followed traffic rules!
However it all adds to the experience and the lakeside area at Pokhara is a pleasant end to the day, albeit darkness had fallen at this stage. After a good nights sleep in another nice hotel (with good wifi) we head to the airport, only 20 minutes away. Unfortunately it is raining which proves to be a bad omen.
Airport formalities are pretty smooth although the weather at our destination causes the flight to be delayed. Breakfast is hastily rescheduled for the airport rather than as planned up the mountain at Jomsom. Fortunately there is good wifi available as we are still here four hours later when finally all flights are cancelled. Apparently this is not an unusual occurrence as the precarious landing at Jomsom, between two high 8000 metre mountains, requires clear weather. However the new road up the mountain now offers a new alternative to waiting for a flight the next day (which in any case might again be cancelled).
Tashi has a jeep on standby so plans change and we are driving up. Unfortunately this means that we miss out on the short but spectacular flight between two Himalayan giants (Annapurna and Dhaulagiri) – I'm fortunate enough to have taken this flight previously. An eight hour drive in place of a 30 minute flight is not a great trade-off but at least we get there with no guarantee of the weather being any better tomorrow. And it's certainly an experience and an insight into local life.
The road out of Pokhara is mostly sealed, although down to one lane in many places. And the rain means that the dust is now mud making the going slow – coupled with the fact that traffic is higher than usual due to the flight cancellations. By Beni the sealed road finishes and the going gets steeper and rockier. The road is really only suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles though most people travel by bus. These Indian Tata buses are pretty hardy and can take a lot of abuse – although being two-wheel-drive they often struggle. On a couple of occasions we get caught behind buses need to be coaxed and cajoled over particularly rocky sections. At one steep section a bright green bus ahead struggles particularly hard and a line of traffic builds up and stops behind it. The rain has temporarily eased and the audience to watch the show was growing. Eventually and after several failed attempts and retreats, the green bus manages to get over that section of road. The traffic starts moving again – that is until the second bus promptly stalls at the same spot! There is no place for rush hour and timetables on this mountain.
Tashi confirms our worst fears – it is this 'road' that we will be cycling down. Dumbstruck, our hope is that the rain stops soon and the road dries out by the time we reach here in just under a week's time. Even then could we possibly ride on that surface and in that traffic? There was a lot of nervous laughter in the bus, along with the doubt and disbelief.
Nine hours after leaving Pokhara lakeside, we pulled up outside our lodge in Jomsom (altitude 2,700m) where, despite the late hour, a good meal was prepared for us and we settle in for the night – comforted by the fact that the last few hours have been dry and tomorrow's ride is shortish - a good introduction and acclimatisation to the altitude.
As luck would have it we wake up to clear sunny skies with planes obviously flying today as the roar of engines and a glance out the bedroom window confirm. The airport runway runs parallel to this one street town with a single row of hotels and lodges in between.
On the positive side we got here in one piece and now have the whole day for the 'gentle' and short ride to Kagbeni. The following instalments show that it is all worth it...
The author was a guest of Infinite Mountain Adventure and the tour was the Annapurna Fun Ride. To read more of this awesome adventure please check out the Nepal Blog.
This trip was in April 2015 and finished just days before the devastating earthquake. You can support the victims through your local Red Cross or other humanitarian organisation. However beyond much-needed immediate help one of the best ways to support the Nepalese people and economy is to visit and rebuild tourism, Nepal's biggest industry.