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Nepal the annapurna circuit

t was quite a strange feeling sitting by the roadside, revelling at last in the joy of privacy. There was no commotion, no crowds and no gawking; just me, my bicycle and my bowl of porridge. I’d crossed the border from India to Nepal and it honestly felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, I love India and its 1.2 billion people, but I also love personal space and anonymity. I was now happily rolling along the Mahendra Highway on a generous shoulder on my way to Kathmandu.

Downtown Kathmandu, Nepal

The coming month was one that I had been looking forward to for quite some time. India had me weary and I was in need for some TLC in the form of the soothing and sedative Australian English.

“Yeah nah, mate. She’ll be right. We’ll just be a couple of Terry’s and wing it and be home and hosed in no time”, said Dicko. Dicko had flown out from Australia with the intention of cycling the Annapurna Circuit, and with each sentence spoken I started to relax and not even worry about the fact that we were cycling up to a height greater than the Mt. Everest Base Camp.

The thing was, we hadn’t really done much planning. I’d cycled at altitude before and had the necessary clothing, mentality, and equipment to be comfortable above 5,000m. Dicko on the other hand didn’t have a bicycle, any windproof gear and packed more camera lenses than pairs of jocks. We rationalised this as a minor detail as we had more important logistics to figure out- like which bars to drink at. For all its drawbacks; pollution, dust, hawkers, noise, Kathmandu is one of the best capital cities I’ve visited. The eclectic mix of people provided the greatest attraction itself. There were the trekkers decked out in North Face apparel, the hippies wearing no shoes, the tour groups, the weirdos – and my personal favourite – the people who come to Nepal/India to “find themselves”. I’m not sure what group we were placed in, but hopefully it was none of the above.

"Dicko"
Old Town Kathmandu, Nepal

Nearly a week later we found ourselves in Pokhara still without the slightest clue on what we were doing. On the penultimate day, we frantically organised trekking permits, a bicycle for Dicko and finally got a map for the Annapurna Circuit. The following day involved a four hour bus ride to Besisahar (the trail head). Surprisingly, the bus wasn’t dangerously overcrowded and I’d been seated next to two beautiful Nepalese girls. Within five minutes of driving, the twelve seater bus had 23 people and the conductor managed to squeeze a bony young boy between the girls and I.

On the first day of cycling we rode out of town wide-eyed and filled with anticipation. I’m sure Dicko was a bit nervous, as he had just flown from South Australia- a state where the highest mountain is 1,432m (the height of Kathmandu) and was now surrounded by some truly intimidating scenery. I was a little nervous as my biggest responsibility until now was keeping my jocks clean and showering regularly. Even that had been a struggle. I was now responsible for another human being cycling up to Thorung La (5,416m) with insufficient gear and more than a hint of unpreparedness. Within the first kilometre Reece’s rear pannier fell off and we sat by the road making repairs. Only 4,000 plus vertical metres to go….

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most trekked trails in Nepal, having an influx of 120,000 plus tourists throughout the year. The attraction lies not only with the views, but the lack of technical climbing, abundance of teahouses and constant Wi-Fi. With frequent visitors, the notorious aspects of tourism were always bound to be prevalent. We were constantly bombarded with demands for ‘'Pen” and “Chocolate” from little children. One even threw a rock at Dicko, much to my amusement. In one instance, six children walking from the opposite direction linked arms and made a barricade in an attempt to stop us. I showed a great deal of compassion and barrelled straight through them.

After the first day on the bike we took rest in a seven house village where the room cost 100 Rupees ($1.20). The house resembled some sort of animal farm, with goats walking through the kitchen, a cockroach under my pillow and a cat that snuck out from under the floorboards to meow right next to my ear. The first night’s dinner would see us eating the Nepalese staple of dhal baht; a combination of rice, dhal, vegetable curry and potatoes. Not only is dhal baht all you can eat, it also a precursor for some of the most lethal farts known to mankind. As all good friends would do, I rode in front of Dicko and dropped stink bombs all day, reaffirming that I am the most immature 26 year old in the world.

As we climbed higher and higher, the mountain views becoming clearer, we were able to draw motivation from the soaring peaks and forget about our tired bodies. The conditions of the trail/road made it nearly impossible to cycle and we would often resort to pushing our bikes. Unfortunately, soaring prices were also becoming more noticeable. With such difficulty in getting supplies to villages, food becomes the major profit earner for teahouse owners. It wasn’t uncommon for us to get a free room as long as we ate dinner from the kitchen.

The New Jeep Road, Annapurna
Annapurna I, Nepal

We arrived in Manang and were well overdue for a few rest days. Sitting at an elevation of 3,500m, the village was perfect for acclimatisation. After seeing countless helicopters ferry sick trekkers from the top, we wanted to take the necessary precautions to avoid the quick lift down - I also didn’t have travel insurance. The first day involved a hike up to 4,000m to see a glacier. After losing the trail on the way there, we eventually got close enough to hear the ice cracking. Unsurprisingly, we also got lost on the way back, following a goat trail that led us into some pretty dangerous situations. At some stages we were slowly walking on a perilous trail that took us through some prime landslide territory. On one instance I had to lie on my back and shuffle across an area where there was no path but a 40m steep drop. It was easily the scariest and dumbest thing I’ve done on the trip so far. The next day involved hiking to 4,900m to see a frozen lake. Our navigation skills once again bared no fruit, as we got lost and couldn’t find the lake.

Nearing Manang, Nepal
Nearing Manang, Nepal

From Manang we cycled/pushed into the barren landscapes where vegetation struggled to grow. With the rise in altitude we had to pay more attention to the symptoms of altitude sickness and be completely honest with each other. This was no time to mask our feelings and try to be tough. In environs like this you need the utmost respect for nature and her reckless abandon. Just two years ago a vicious, unpredicted snowstorm killed over 40 tourists attempting to cross the pass that we were heading for. This was no time to muck around.

We kept pushing forward, taking our time and savouring the impressive views. I started to feel a little dizzy on occasions, but I put this down to tiredness and even a little vertigo from pushing the bike along narrow trails close to a cliff. After being on the move for nearly 10 hours and ascending over 1,000m we arrived at Thorung Pedi – the last stop before the pass. The teahouse had a different aura, as people disposed of their nervous energy by finding any way to keep their mind off the next day. By the evening, snow started to fall and the temperature plummeted. We retreated to our room and had an uncomfortable sleep due to the altitude.

The alarm for 5:00am rang and we were ready to go. The first few hours involved pushing our bikes to high camp at 4,900m. The rising sun hadn’t peaked over the mountains yet, and the temperature froze both my hands and water. Breathing became heavy and laborious as we kept ascending. With all my gear on the back of the bicycle, pushing became nearly impossible. Sometimes carrying the bike was easier. Reece was feeling good, and with the advantage of having his weight on his back he pushed on faster up the pass.

The silence was deafening and it would be impossible to describe the feeling of being completely alone high in the mountains. It’s what I search for as you have to earn every single metre. Trying to breathe normally as if I were at sea level was impossible. Breaking down this process was the only way I was going to get to the top.

​10 small paces – STOP - 20 big breaths - 10 small paces – STOP - 20 big breaths - 10 small paces – STOP - 20 big breaths.

By concentrating on my breathing, I managed to get to the 5,416m summit without too many altitude issues. Thankfully I saw Dicko there with his camera enjoying and embracing what we had just achieved. It was quite funny to see everyone else in expensive trekking gear with guides and porters and then us. Our bikes and bodies had taken a battering, I was wearing bike shorts and Dicko was wearing jeans and a hoodie. We hung around for a cup of tea until we felt cold and then descended down to the next town. The reward of a downhill soon evaporated as the terrain was too steep and made cycling a dangerous prospect. We eventually limped back to Jomson a day later and decided to get a bus back to Pokhara.

Thorong La (5,416m)

My initial thoughts of the Annapurna Circuit were those of scepticism. I envisaged expensive teahouses, complaining trekkers and no real chance to experience seclusion. Whilst these scepticisms proved partly true, the choice to cycle was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – purely because I got to share the experiences with a mate. I won’t be forgetting those ten days for a while.

Thanks - To Alec and Susan in Kathmandu, thanks for hosting me. It's probably been the closest feeling to staying at home that I've had. And to Dicko....an awesome few weeks in Nepal which hopefully will get you out again soon (see you in Morocco).

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