Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel – High altitude adventures in Nepal
Gravel Union On
28 September 2020
Nepal is generally known as a destination for trekking or mountain biking, but if you’re after adventurous gravel riding then there’s plenty of options available. Olly gives out the lowdown and some photographic inspiration.
I took this image nearly 20 years ago, but when I close my eyes and think of Nepal, this is what I picture in my mind’s eye - stunning snow-capped mountains, popping against an azure blue sky. When you arrive into the country, most likely via the international airport in Kathmandu, your first impression won’t be the stunning mountain backdrop (although you do get one on a clear day from the city). Unless you’re super well-travelled in Asia or South America, my suspicion is that your first impression will be a mix of incomprehension, awe, trepidation and excitement as a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells threatens to overwhelm you.
Even the transfer from the airport to a typical guest house in Thamel, the most usual destination for visitors to the Nepali capital, is somewhat hair-raising. Luckily, once the initial shock wears off, you will realise that you’ve arrived at the adventure capital of the world and that fun times lie ahead of you. The vast majority of active visitors to Nepal travel there with aims of climbing in the Himalaya, wildlife viewing in the jungles on the southern border, white water rafting on one of a multitude of rivers that flow out of the mountains in the north of the country or for two wheeled aficionados, heading out in search of singletrack to mountain bike on. Not many currently head there as a gravel riding destination, but I suspect that will change in coming years.
When I arrived on one particular trip to Nepal, I spent a day strolling around Kathmandu before heading for the mountains and was chatting with a Sadhu (holy man) at one of the stunning Buddhist temples found within the city and he said “Namaste” (I salute the god within you) “Why have you come here on a full suspension carbon fibre mountain bike, when a lot of our trails would equally well suit a decent gravel bike fitted with big volume tubeless tyres?” he asked. OK, so that’s obviously just poetic licence! He said nothing of the sort and in fact the last time I was lucky enough to be out in Nepal, gravel bikes were still in their infancy. But the principle is right. Depending on what flavour of two wheeled adventure you’re seeking in Nepal, a gravel bike could well be the perfect tool for the job!
Nepali gravel riding is definitely not your run-of-the-mill European or USA style. Unfortunately, you won’t find miles of graded tracks, perfectly maintained infrastructure or a well-established gravel riding culture. But, if you want your gravel riding to on the adventurous end of the scale though, with some hike-a-bike added in to the mix, then you’ve come to the right spot! Think more monstercross than cyclocross and Nepal could be your nirvana.
To the north of the city you’ll find the foothills of the Himalaya, and although they’re more commonly used by MTB riders seeking thrills on a daytrip out from Kathmandu, you’ll also find trails perfect for a gravel/adventure bike. There’s a network of tracks, varying in nature from crushed stone and rubble jeep trails to sinuous undulating singletrack produced by villagers walking (often in flip flops) from place to place, which can be linked with stretches of pothole strewn backroad to take you on a journey in the foothills. A good inbuilt compass, a thirst for adventure and a cheery “Namaste” stashed metaphorically in your jersey pocket will help, but some digital assistance from our friends at komoot probably wouldn’t go amiss either! Or, if you’d rather head straight for the good stuff, then call in to see the team at Dawn ‘till Dusk – one of Kathmandu’s premier purveyors of trail knowledge. They’ve been guiding riders for more than 20 years, so will be able to sort you out with a guide (or route suggestions) in no time.
My first destination on my last trip to Nepal, was the lakeside city of Pokhara, situated more than 200kms to the west of Kathmandu. Most tourist visitors either catch a bus ride or take a short internal flight between the two cities, but you could ride there if you’ve got enough time. There is a major road linking the two cities (although “major” should be inverted commas, as the road condition can be pretty agricultural in places), but it wouldn’t be ideal for riding on – better to stick to the backroads not far to the north. Pack your climbing legs though – you’re likely to do more than 3000m climbing just to ride between the two cities.
From Pokhara your destination is obvious – the mighty Himalaya form a protective wall to the north of the city and although the higher altitudes are obviously more the realm of the hardcore mountaineer than a gravel bikepacker, there’s plenty of thrills available for us too. If you want a pedal-powered adventure with a mix of stunning views, remote cultures and some serious altitude gain then my advice is simple – head for Mustang. If you’ve got a couple of weeks to spare, the return journey from Pokhara following the course of the majestic Kali Gandaki River and on-route heading through the world’s deepest river gorge up to Kagbeni and then with a final sting in the tail, climbing to the Vishnu temple of Muktinath would be my top choice. It’s not a route for the faint hearted (or for those who don’t like climbing) – there’s more than 9000m of cumulative climbing on the return route from Pokhara to Muktinath, but the scenery will blow your mind.
Until just over 10 years ago if you wanted to travel to this region, your choice was either to trek in (following the Annapurna Circuit route) or bizarrely, to fly in on a tiny plane, buffeted constantly by downdrafts from the mighty peaks of Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri and landing on the deeply dicey runway at Jomsom. Now though, the modern world has arrived in the valley – initially it was just a dusty jeep trail, but now many sections are completely paved.
Luckily, some enterprising locals have realised that constructing a road would negatively impact the trekking business and so worked in partnership with ACAP to waymark a parallel route to the new route – known as the New Annapurna Trekking Trail, which parallels the new road but on the other side of the valley. Some sections of the trekking route would be too big a challenge on a gravel bike – hundreds of ancient stone steps making the route pretty unpleasant, but other parts are fantastic and would give you a challenging ride away from the traffic.
There’s no doubting that riding in the Himalayas is hard – the effects of altitude can even be felt in Kathmandu, which is only 1000m above sea level. By the time you’re heading up the hairpins on the final climb to your end goal of Muktinath, which sits at a lofty 3800m, you will definitely be feeling it! Take it slowly, stop frequently to take in the mind-blowing views, drink plenty of ginger tea at the roadside tea-lodges and you will make it. The good news is that the views on your Himalayan gravel bike adventure will always make up for the pain of the ascent.