Not far from Marpha is our first stop, the Chhairo Tibetan Refugee Camp. This village is the home of our guide Tashi and his family. We enjoy a hearty breakfast at the lodge, the only business allowed to operate here. Refugees from Tibet have arrived over the last several decades but neither they nor their children can become citizens of Nepal and are limited in what they are allowed to do. It seems somewhat ironic in this district of Mustang that traditionally follows Tibetan Buddhism and culture.
Leaving the village we visit what is probably the oldest gompa or monastery of our trip. This 16th century building had fallen into considerable decay but is fortunately now undergoing some much-needed restoration work.
Below Chhairo the landscape changes markedly and opens up to what I can best describe as positively Alpine. Everywhere is much greener and the mountains are now framed by wooded hillsides. The improved weather and lower altitude mean it is much warmer and the brilliant blue sky contrasts with the white of the sunlight gleaming off the snow-capped mountains.
This morning our mountain bike tour takes us along hiking trails, which has not been feasible in many places. We follow the river, but higher up the hillsides and in between sweeping pine trees along local walking tracks. Frequent photo stops are essential and we don't have to worry about having to avoid or even meet hikers - there aren't any here! In fact we hardly see a soul the whole morning.
There is a lot of fun riding single-track although some parts have to be walked - at least by us non-MTB experts. However our many photo stops have put us behind schedule - Tashi is a very patient guide! We decide to skip the morning tea stop at Lete (where we stopped on the jeep ride up) in favour of a more relaxed lunch a little further on at Ghasa. By this stage, and in full sun, it is quite hot and the layers have long come off.
We had left the hiking trails a bit earlier as we crossed the river, but after Ghasa the track becomes the road again and there is more traffic coming into Mustang and the Annapurna Conservation Area. The riding is still fun, though the stops now are as much to let smoke-belching buses and dust-raising jeeps go past, as it is for photo stops - the scenery is still awe inspiring. The road is also still being worked on - at one point they are building a bridge to bypass a ford across the bottom of a thunderous waterfall. It is quite nerve racking watching the workers high above a deep ravine with little or no safety equipment.
A couple of times we get stuck behind buses on the way down as the road is really better suited to our bikes and suspension. Getting closer to today's destination of Tatopani we come across a large party of trail (motor) bikes that are just as home on this road. Although they have as much right as us to visit this gorgeous part of the world their noise and pollution are as unwelcome to us as the jeeps and buses. However the road is progress for the locals and makes life much easier - unless they work in the now declining trekking and tourism industry! Also if it wasn't for the road we probably wouldn't have been able to get up here on our bikes either! Over time tourism is and will continue to adapt to cyclists, bikies and pilgrims (to Muktinath) replacing trekkers.
I digress. Mid-afternoon we arrive at Tatopani which ironically is full of tourists being a major crossroads for people starting or finishing their trek, ride or journey. Undoubtedly the main attraction for all of us is the hot springs. This natural phenomenon is a very welcome break up here in the Himalayas and, although not very big, it isn't too crowded. I last visited here 15 years ago and facilities have considerably improved although it does seem less in keeping with the landscape.
There is another power outage that evening but it doesn't cause problems as the locals are used to working around this and dinner can still go ahead. The worst thing is the first world problem.
The next day is our last and is just a couple of hours ride to Beni from where we will get a bus to Pokhara. The weather is still good, the road easy enough and the fun continues. We ride though several villages and are greeted by groups of kids (isn't this a school-day?) looking to high-five us as we sail through.
Beni is a major transport interchange and the start (or end) of the paved road. Lots of roadside stalls and local restaurants line the route to Pokhara where we get to relax until our flight to Kathmandu tomorrow. I thoroughly recommend time out in Pokhara rather than Kathmandu, particularly in the picturesque lakeside area.
Reflecting on the past week or so I have to conclude that it was an awesome experience and my new favourite bike tour - the challenges and any lack of comfort are quickly forgotten and now only enhance the memories. It was all so 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 tour took place 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.