Issue Thirty Six

The Annapurna Circuit

Bikepacking The World’s Biggest Pass

WORDS & PHOTOS x Leslie Kehmeier

18 July 2018
Part One

Organized Chaos

There’s so much going on, I don’t know what to look at,” exclaims Jaime. 

Jaime (Hill) is fresh off a plane from Vancouver, British Columbia and taking in her first dose of the organized chaos they call Kathmandu. For newbies, the experience is like none other. First impressions of this city are, quite frankly, shocking. It is a crazy mash-up of old-world traditions and new-world technologies. The layers of humanity, overlapped and intertwined with random pockets of livestock, are enveloped by buildings and structures as far as the eye can see. There is a flow here that seems impossible, with vehicles, people and animals all moving at different speeds and in all directions. Somehow it all works seamlessly together.

Having experienced this for the first time five years before, I could not think of a better introduction for my Canadian friends. I am beyond excited for the opportunity to return to such a beautiful and vibrant country and share the experience with others. A second chance to visit a country like Nepal is something I do not take for granted. Aside from having some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, it is also a place of vibrant culture. The people, the food and the history are unparalleled. 

As our airport shuttle weaves and winds through the streets of the city to our basecamp hotel, I ride shotgun and answer questions. Jaime, Elladee (Brown) and Kelli (Sherbinin) sit glued to the windows of the van, taking in their first memories of an extraordinary trip. The next day we will get an even bigger dose of driving in Nepal, making the long, 8-hour drive to Besi Shahar and the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit. Known as one of the world’s most famous trekking routes, we will tackle it as a self-supported bike-packing adventure. With a local guide leading us, we will embark on something that turns out to be an incredible life-inspiring adventure.

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Part Two

Get Local

We had a boner of a day,” Jaime summing up day four of the trip as we arrive in Manang. 

Reaching the village is a milestone. Here, we will have a day of rest with plenty of time to acclimatize and wash down slices of apple crumble with cappuccinos. Manang also marks a noticeable transition in the landscape along the Annapurna Circuit route. The lush forests and waterfalls of the lower Marshyangdi River Valley have given way to the rugged high peaks and sparse vegetation of the dry alpine plateau.

Our group has been at it for a few days since we left Besi Shahar. We are following a road”, which is more like a rough 4×4 track only suitable for high-clearance jeeps and hearty souls. It is one of the hardest routes I have ever ridden a bike on. Thankfully, my companions are a dream. Their humility, courageousness and wonder keep me distracted from the relentless leg-burning climbs and ever-thinning air. As we pedal, push and chat, I cherish that we have only been together for 24 hours and are already talking deeply and laughing until it hurts.

The bond we form is only further deepened by our experiences with the locals. The lunch stop on day two provided an especially memorable interaction. We were greeted by the kindest woman as we climbed the stairs to a restaurant. She had been crouched in the corner, at the water spigot, washing dishes. As soon as she saw our group, she stood up and walked quickly, practically running to greet us. She was about 4 1/2 feet tall with long, shiny dark hair and a burning cigarette planted firmly in the middle of her lips. I was the first person in line to meet her, and unbeknownst to my travel mates, I have an affinity for the older generations. When I saw her, my eyes lit up and I said an enthusiastic Namaste!”. She took my hands in hers while we smiled at each other and then embraced like we were family. To make a connection with a local is perhaps the most special experience that I can have while traveling. 

After devouring a delicious, wood-fired meal, we say goodbye to our little lady with another round of hugs. It was time to keep moving on towards Manang. 

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Part Three

The World’s Biggest Pass

“We’re going to be in such good shape. Let’s do a cross country race with a downhill bike,” encourages Jaime, who is less than a day removed from a bout of the classic intestinal issues that some travellers face on the Annapurna Circuit. 

Thankfully Jaime bounces back quickly and we are able to stick to our planned schedule, pedaling and pushing our way to the world’s biggest pass, the 17,769 foot Thorlung La Pass. Not surprisingly, it would be the most challenging part of the trip and we would need every bit of our energy and strength to get there.

Beyond Manang, the road gives way to the main trail. We merge with all other trails users, including hikers, porters and locals transporting goods by horse. Since the route has historically been a trekking route, we attract our fair share of inquisitive looks from other people we encounter. Fortunately, the looks are friendly and connections are made.

While this region of Nepal seems quite remote, it is home to a population of hearty people. Most impressive are the porters who carry gear for their hiking guests. I understand how humbling it is to carry my own gear. Knowing the porters make a living doing the route multiple times a year is unfathomable.

Supporting the efforts of the porters and guides, along with the rest of us, are the tea houses. Even in the most desolate places, we become accustomed to passing at least one tea house, fronted by a polite, often smiling, proprietor waiting to re-energize us with tea and a can of sour cream and onion Pringles.

As we get closer to the Pass, our routine becomes very regimented and basic – eat food, hydrate, move the bike forward slowly, rest, and repeat. We have shunned beer at this point, replacing it with gallons of tea, alternating between lemon-ginger-honey and masala. By the time we pass through Letdar and Thorlung Phedi, we are acclimatized and quietly confident. On day eight of the route, the hike-a-bike to the pass that starts at 3am is tough. It is dark, cold, and the trail is a slippery mixture of scree, snow and ice. The first tea house stop is quicker and quieter than our usual routine. Although we do not talk amongst ourselves, we are all thinking of the Pass and the many more steps it will take to get there.

Tears of joy overcome each of us as we see the prayer flags flying at the summit of Thorlung La Pass. The build-up of the last week has culminated in big smiles and bright eyes. After many photos to commemorate the event, I duck into the tea house for copious amounts of hot liquids. There, I take a moment to soak up the accomplishment. While this kind of adventure is often my “normal”, I allow myself to celebrate it as something remarkable.

I am proud to share the experience with four other incredible people.

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Part Four

It’s All Downhill from Here

Schralp: to ride one’s bike aggressively and with finesse,” explains Jaime. 

This term comes up earlier in the trip while discussing the big descent from Thorlung La Pass, down into the Kali Gandaki River Valley. In this case “big” means really big, like the biggest descent in the world that one can do on a mountain bike. The schralping part is a solid 5,500 feet on singletrack between the Pass and the Muktinath Temple. Arguably, it is one of the most unique mountain bike experiences on the planet. It is what dreams are made of, a seemingly endless, rowdy ribbon of trail with big mountain views. 

No doubt, we have definitely earned this part of the trip. After all, it has taken us a solid week of serious elevation gain to get here. After downing several cups of tea, we re-strap our frame bags to our bikes and get to the business of descending. And in case you were wondering, the schralping executed by the Canadians was impressive.

Near the bottom of the trail we skirt the side of the Muktinath Temple, a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists. As we bounce down the long staircase into the adjacent town, we pass a mixture of Sadhus (Hindu holy men) and people making their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. It seems we should be out of place, but we are really just part of the flow of life that happens everywhere in Nepal.

We stop in the village of Ranipauwa to refuel from the morning’s activities and then saddle up for part two of the ride to Jomson.  The route changes from trail to road and we drop like rocks down a paved road to the Kali Gandaki River. A strong headwind greets us at the bottom, a regular occurrence we are told. Thankfully, nothing can dampen our spirits after making the Pass. For our guide, Om, it is the 45th time he has been on the Annapurna Circuit. One would never know though because his enthusiasm and energy would have made anyone think he was doing it for the first time.

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Part Five

The Simple Life

I used the smaller one and shoved more in it,” Jaime announces as we leave the hotel in Jomson heading down the valley towards Beni, the unofficial end of our bike-packing adventure.

Jaime, like the rest of us, has been packing and re-packing her handlebar bags on a daily basis. Each of us has become quite particular and methodical about where everything goes. Besides our backpacks, the handlebar bag is the only other vessel we have to carry our gear around the Annapurna Circuit. Although it seems restrictive, limiting what we can take with us has been a good exercise in learning that we can live happily without more “things” than we thought possible.

From Jomson we ride for two glorious days, finding a mix of roads and trails along both sides of the Kali Gandaki River.  Beautiful pine forests flank each side of the expansive and barren riverbed. As we pedal and coast short climbs and descents along the contour, we enjoy the little bits of forested singletrack that remind us of home. There is a light feeling amongst all of us, probably the natural satisfaction that comes with accomplishing a big goal. We continue the usual routine of riding, meeting people, stopping for photos, drinking tea, and thoroughly enjoying a country that welcomed us with open arms.

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