Annapurna Bike Tour: The Descent

 Bruce Robertson

Although we had climbed almost 1,000m in altitude on our mountain bikes, we aren't yet at the highest point of the tour. After a rest day at 3,700m in Muktinath we are ready to go up another 200m to the Lubra La pass to begin the long descent - and main selling point of the tour!

It is another cold morning but with a bowl of Tsampa porridge and apple to warm me up it's time to stock up on water at the refilling stop (cheaper and saves more plastic bottles befouling the local environment) and then set off.

Himalayan traffic jam

Not far along the way we are stopped by a traffic jam - Himalayan style - of a herd of cattle heading out to find some grazing. Patches of snow still remain that even a sunny day doesn't warm up enough to melt. Some cross the path and we need to walk through - or have an impromptu snowball fight!

Lubra La is a great photo stop with breathtaking views and a shrine of rocks left by previous visitors. Despite the 3,900m height it is busy enough here as our stop coincides with a couple of hiking groups and some more cyclists - but there's plenty of room for all.

Down the other side of the pass is surprisingly steep and we probably walk and push (or hold back) the bikes more than we ride. The guide from the other bike group shows that it can be done with good mountain bike technique (and a lot of nerve) but fortunately our guide matches our more sedate and cautious pace.

Cycling over Lubra La

At this point the vintage hiking boots I'm wearing on the bike started to lose a sole (the other follows soon after). This was more of an inconvenience as they weren't lost entirely and our slow pace didn't make me hold back the group - my worry was more about what I would do for the rest of the tour.

I soldiered on and down another steep section that even the other guide couldn't ride, we have to carry and lift our bikes and feet, careful not to plummet to the bottom! We again cross the mad river that erratically changes course in the wet season. At least this bit is very flat but the very rocky dry river bed means some more walking.

Steep descent to the mad river

Contrary to expectations this morning is probably the most technical and challenging section of the tour, but by no means too difficult - our group are all recreational cyclists that rarely even ride off-road. However the spectacular mountains and scenery all around make everything else pale into insignificance - actually having to work for it only enhances the experience. A fact that works the other way for some and has reduced the number of hikers who now come to Mustang - the road (however imperfect) has made the trek seem less of a challenge.

We have been on hiking trails today but move onto dirt roads and jeep tracks as we get closer to the lunch stop, back at our starting point three days ago in Jomsom. The riding is different (and easier) but the scenery no less picturesque. More open country means we get the full force of the increasing wind through the Kali Gandaki valley so the lunch stop is very welcome - we're also lucky enough to be indoors during another shower of rain.

Lunch over, the sun is out again and we set out for an easy afternoon. Our destination, Marpha, is less than an hour away and the going isn't too bad despite the headwind - following the jeep tracks and using the face-masks again to combat the dust.

Marpha is a very pretty village entered through a gateway tower. We have high hopes of our hotel as it is called the Marpha Palace - happily it lives up to the name with comfortable rooms and lots of hot water!
Marpha souvenir shop

There are plenty of souvenir shops around (with few tourists) but the one we visit belongs to our guide Tashi's mother. Their village is actually a Tibetan refugee camp nearby but the refugees aren't allowed to operate businesses there - we are to visit tomorrow morning. Another local business we come across is actually a shoe repair shop - very opportune as the soles of my shoes probably won't hang on another day. For a very modest price the highly experienced cobbler is able to expertly glue and stitch the boots for me to pick them up later that evening. They will probably last another ten years!

We visit the monastery while in town - as often the case, it was in the highest point of the village, up a very long staircase. It was one of the best maintained monasteries we'd seen - largely using foreign donations - and offered awesome views.

After that and on top of a long day in the saddle, dinner and a comfy bed are very welcome.
Jeep track to Marpha   View to Marpha
The author was a guest of Infinite Mountain Adventure and the tour was the Annapurna Fun Ride. 
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.