The Annapurna Circuit – a must for any self-professing nature / mountain / travel / culture-curious enthusiast – but BIKING must be the best way to do it.
1 – The scenery
It’s difficult for words to do it justice. Jaw dropping. Stunning. Unique. Varied. Most days, everywhere I look, snow capped peaks of 6000m+ dominate my view; others, I’m biking over what feels like Saharan desert-esque single track; next, I’m riding along old trading routes through orchards, timeless villages or welcoming guesthouses; then there are a jeep track that remind me how much the area is changing. No two days are the same, no morning and afternoon have the same feel. It’s a truly epic journey.
2 – Pure bragging rights
You will push / bike up to 5416m and ride the single track down from the summit. The highest anyone has taken their bike is X. You’re only Y off that. How cool is that?! Needless to say, there’ll be a fair amount of pedaling and sweating to get there as your journey starts at 890m (Nadi Bazar)… No ski lifts or uplifts are available I’m afraid. Yowzer!
3 – The cultural journey
You will experience first hand the warmth of a people who know a thing or two about hospitality. Culturally, it may blow your mind (it did ours – interesting and very humbling). We loved the culinary journey – lots and lots of good food and chefs in the Annapurna area! – and the warm and varied homestays, all fantastically chosen by our guides
And why is biking better than hiking?
Well for those that aren’t already convinced that everything is better when viewed from a saddle, there are a few reasons why that’s particularly the case for the Annapurna Circuit. (1) It’s an efficient use of time! Let’s not beat about the bush: the Annapurna Circuit is undergoing major changes. Big construction projects are underway and Nepal is currently making full use of its new found friendship with China to build new roads and connects previously remote village. The Annapurna Circuit trails are being impacted to the point where tourists are wondering whether the circuit’s worth doing anymore. Personally I feel it is (the views are unbelievable and it’s still a beautiful journey) but biking renders roadworks and their aftermath (dust, dust, dust!) short-lived. (2) It’s a mountainous journey with ups and downs. Descents are FAR less enjoyable on foot than they are by bike! (3) The fun of being able to escape the beaten track! Walkers don’t get to venture into the desert-like Lower Mustang “mid-hills” with their flowey single track and incredible views. You will!
Below follows my experience of our 14-day journey with Pokhara Mountain Bike following the circuit and its mountain bike friendly variants. I had quite the best time, as you can tell by the photo below, and this was especially thanks to the team at Pokhara Mountain Bike. I wanted to share my experience in case some of you had questions or needed any convincing…
So let’s start from the very beginning.
I’m actually a bike guide and mountain leader in the UK. I work all summer and spend my winters exploring new places on foot and by bike. Cranked and Single Track have played a big role in ensuring Nepal was Up There on my hit list. It being our first trip to Nepal we were looking to get more than just a mountain biking experience: we wanted a feel of the culture and that sense of journey and place. And of course, this being the 21st century, options and tour providers abound. My friend and I were umming-and-ahhing about going with a British company but we weren’t altogether impressed with the propositions we found online: a day here, a day there and before you know it you’re being shuttled back to Tribhuvan Internation Airport having not really had a sense of a journey. We chanced upon Pokhara Mountain Bike on Google, read the glowing reviews, liked the price point and, most importantly, liked the interactions we had with Jagan via email who guaranteed that the trip would run and emphasized the flexibility of the itinerary based entirely on our needs and aspirations. We settled on the Annapurna Circuit with some Lower Mustang added on and booked to start our trip mid November 2018.
Before we knew it, our adventure was upon us. Slightly apprehensive, we made our way to Pokhara Mountain Bike’s base and were delighted to find a fantastic outfit – complete with a range of good bikes (Giant Trans, Scott Genius, Trek Fuel Ex 5 as well as a range of hardtails), clearly well maintained – and a warm greeting by the team and Jagan himself. Someone dashed out to get us the tastiest coffee I’ve had in a long time (the first of many) and we sat down to fine tune the trip and how the next few days would play out.
We had 2 acclimatization days and guided rides in and around Pokhara – a good thing really as the bike I’d brought from home needed some tweaking and I was finally able to finally mentally prepare myself for the climbing and conditions that awaited… High time! – and then set off for Nadi Bazar where our journey would start, team of guide and two porters in tow.
Right from the get go, the riding was hard. Most of the first few days involved a dusty, stoney jeep track which was 85% uphill. The sun was hot. Unlike what I’d been led to believe there wasn’t loads of traffic, but the odd vehicle created a heck of a lot of dust. All part of the journey. And the challenge.
The distances we covered per day of course can’t speak to the challenging nature of the riding or the climbing. All three of us were fit riders who mountain marathon type events at home and more endurance based road rides (anything upwards of 100km). Following quite a short day 1 on the circuit, we sat down with our guide that evening and talked options for the following day. Would a goal of here be feasible? Was lunch there achievable? Day two was more of the baptism by fire we’d come for: our target town, only 37km away, involved 2500m of climbing. Having spent most of the day blissfully unaware about how taxing we’d find the day with its relentless climbing, night fall crept up on us and we ended up getting to our hotel in the dark. Camaraderie forms quickly through these kinds of trials! And needless to say we were a bit more cautious in our route planning the days after.
Altitude was gained quickly but Pokhara Mountain Bike are clearly very experienced and well trained in dealing with all things altitude. A strategic rest day once we got over the 3500m threshold was imposed, and other altitude-sickness-avoiding strategies were employed. As well as emphasizing just how flexible the itinerary was should we have had any issues (and needed to sleep at lower altitudes), our guide also had a well stocked 1st aid kit with him including Diamox. As it happened, none of us experienced any symptoms.
We stayed at some beautiful guesthouses where we were welcomed with the warmest hospitality. Every homestay was different in surroundings, layout and character. The rooms were always clean. Showers weren’t always as “hot” as you’d want them to be (despite all the claims on the Homestay’s colorful banners trying to lure travelers in). And central heating (or insulation) simply isn’t a thing on the Annapurna Circuit. So whilst when the sun was out, it was very much t-shirt weather, after sunset the cold set in. We would huddle around the wood or gas burner in the dining room or kitchen, reading or listening to the lively warm banter between our Pokhara MTB team and our hosts (often whole families). When it came to bed time: I was glad I’d packed a few warm layers and my sleeping bag for extra warmth.
I needn’t have bought snacks. Menus at the various guest houses we stayed at were extensive and restaurants were plentiful meaning we could pretty much stop when the group got hungry (and there being just 4 of us riding it was all fairly straightforward). And to eat? Well anything we wanted! Apples were in season so the sweet tooth delighted in the apple related deserts you could get everywhere. Rice pudding is a thing. The curries were delicious but there’s plenty more to please all palets: pasta dishes, soups, stir fries. Dal baht is the local fare and firm favorite among the team – it’s tasty too. I mean don’t expect Italian standard pizza or widely travelled ingredients but we loved the idiosyncrasy of it all and altogether greatly looked forward to meal times. One of the many perks of riding!
Weather wise, we were blessed with fantastic weather. Blue skies and sunshine were on the agenda every single day. Nights were cold, especially the Thorong La Pass conquering which we did in the dead of night so as to reach the summit by sunrise… There’s a night and event that will live long in my memory!
So why go with Pokhara Mountain Bike?
Well, from my first encounters with Jagan, the CEO, it’s clear that not only does he know what he’s doing but he really cares. About mountain biking, his guests, his team, the unique trip he’ll organize for you, Nepal, the environment. He has surrounded himself by a capable team who share his passion and values. Our guide Laxman, as well as expertly lead our tour and manage his porter team and hotels, was clearly so committed to showing us the best of his country and ensuring we had the best possible trip. I just wish I could have stayed longer to ride and see more…
And to the question: were we happy we brought our own bikes? Well yes because if you’re happy with your bike and its set up then riding your own bike is always better than riding a hire bike, even if they’re good bikes. Also with some long-haul flights, there is no extra cost incurred by traveling with a bike bag (Air India included). We brought our full-suss 29” which we thought would be more than suitable for the terrain we’d face. Not being sure about the specs of the bikes available for hire, this also encouraged us to bring a self-reliant approach and pack our camel packs with the all the spares and tools we could need. No regrets there. Things did go wrong – a mix of usual trail induced wear and tear and high altitude caused my hydraulic dropper post to malfunction. It felt right to be self-reliant. The team was on hand to assist with our trail side mechanics as we were with theirs. One thing you won’t find on the Annapurna Circuit is a bike store.
That’s all from me. I wish you all happy and wonderful travels.