On his extended visit to Nepal,Neil Cottam starts by heading into the trickier to reach Rara National Park.
"A familiar cacophony of sounds greeted me as I exited Tribuvhan International Airport in Kathmandu. People shouting, dogs barking, horns honking. An acrid mix of post-monsoon humidity, engine fumes, and dust permeated my lungs as I squinted through the haze at the maelstrom of taxis and microbuses. I drew a deep breath, smiled, and plunged in. Kathmandu has a very unique atmosphere. I love it.
Thirty-six hours later I am back again. This time it is Domestic departures, the scene is the same; seemingly disorganised chaos, but one that seems to work, just. Five cyclists, with five mountainbikes, adding to the confusion. After a much protracted discussion, and the passing of a couple of hundred rupees to ensure safe delivery, we handed our bikes over to the dastardly baggage handlers. Fingers well and truly crossed.
A smooth and uneventful flight delivered us to the southern plains city of Nepalgunj. The stunning views, during the flight, of the Himalaya on one side and the directly opposing vastness of The Terai Plain on the other seemed in particularly sharp contrast to the crippling humidity and bloodthirsty swarms of mosquitoes that greeted us on the ground. A couple of rickshaws laden with bicycles wobbled the short journey to a nearby hotel as we strolled alongside. A couple of beers and a plateful of delicious Dhal Bhat (the Nepali staple consisting of rice, lentil soup, various overcooked vegetables, and a few scraps of meat if its available) filled our empty bellies. The warmth of the Nepali people and the thoughts of adventure filled our hearts and our minds.
A cancelled flight kept us in Nepalgunj for two nights. An airport staff unused to handling mountainbikes caused familiar confusion but we eventually boarded the last flight out of Dodge City and swooped towards Jumla in the foothills of the west at 2500m above sea level. It was an experience I have no wish to repeat.
Our plane lurched wildly through the clouds, bounced like Zebedee through turbulent thermals, skimmed, quite literally, the mountain tops, and finally careened sideways, in one direction then the other, in to the final approach. I've flown a lot, including three times out of Lukla - the worlds most dangerous airport - and I'm used to unpredictable mountain flights, but nothing could have prepared me for this one. Nepali pilots are possibly the best in the world and I knew we were in safe hands but it didn't stop the adrenaline from coursing through my veins as I struggled to maintain an air of confident composure. When travelling I usually carry only three pairs of underpants - one to wear, one to wash, and one in case... I very nearly had to crack out the spare pair.
Jumla, the departure point proper for our adventure, was mercifully cooler than the plains. It proved to be a delightful distraction. Western Nepal is rarely visited by tourists so five excitable mountainbikers cruising through town caused quite a stir. I like to pull wheelies and pop a few bunny hops for the local kids, and aside from the simple glee of showing off a little it leaves a positive and lasting memory and might hopefully inspire one or two to take up cycling for fun rather than just necessity one day. It's good for the spirit and good for the planet.
The five amigos, Andy Nuehauser, Santosh Rai, Bishnu Gurung, Chandra Ale, and myself, trundled upwards out of town; a trifling 1200m ascent welcoming us in the warmth of the morning sun. Fortunately only the second 600m of it was brutally steep hike-a-bike. We spun our way slowly up to a high plateau above the town and then shouldered the bikes for the remainder, arriving at the summit a timely five hours after we began.
We were rewarded for our endeavours with a fantastic descent down the other side. Technical and rooty at the top followed by fast and flowy all the way to a teahouse in the village of Khali. Suitably fuelled on noodles and eggs we attempted to out run the rain and hail that was now falling with ruthless impunity. We succeeded, partially, and after a dozen or more kilometres of furious descending we catapulted out into a river carved valley and cruised awhile along the gentle trail. Santosh dispatched a puncture in Chandra's front wheel in short order whilst the rest of us slurped tasty black tea and looked on with feigned interest. With two hours of good daylight left we elected to push on a little further and after a lot of pushing up steep slimy jeep road and a precipitous traverse of a landslide scarred hillside we arrived in the tiny village of Chautha just as the light slipped away.
Day one set the theme of the trip. Big hike-a-bikes, great descents, afternoon rain showers, very simple accommodation, Dhal bhat, and the sickly sweet aroma of profuse marijuana plantations.
Our arrival at Rara Lake the following afternoon, after yet another brutally steep hike-a-bike, was a delight; it appeared almost out of nowhere as we popped out of the forest into a wide meadow. Horses grazed freely as we enjoyed our first spectacular view of Nepal's largest lake. Nepal, as a developing country, is blighted by litter and sanitation issues. Rara is unique in that it is pristine; it must be one of the most protected natural wonders in the country, and being difficult to reach it keeps footfall numbers - and the corresponding pressure from heavy traffic - very low. The crystal clear waters, flanked by swathes of ancient pine, could well be plucked from the Canadian wilderness or European Alps, and there's nary a sweet wrapper nor a fag end to be found anywhere. It is simply breathtaking.
A big bowl of homemade, and locally grown, red-rice pudding set us up for a day of exploring loamy forest singletracks. It was nice to be unencumbered by luggage for once, and, like ye olde trail pirates, we plundered the bountiful spoils. It was dead good. Our customary evening Dhal Bhat was delicious, the accompanying mutton (goat) was the best I've eaten, and the side of dry fried chillies pepped it all up nicely. A fine end to a fine day if ever there was one.
Losing two days to delays on the way out meant that our planned time at Rara had to be cut short. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring the forest trails and striking ridgelines. If Nepal can ever overcome its political and social problems then this area could rival Whistler, Queenstown, or The Alps, as a world class mountainbiking destination. Difficult access and poor infrastructure will keep this place off the radar for all but the most determined adventurer for many years to come. Our adventure, however, was only half done, we had three more days of riding to complete our circumnavigation back to Jumla.
We rolled westward along the north shore for about a kilometre before once again shouldering the bikes for a 900m ascent. Two and half hours later we were sitting atop the summit munching coconut biscuits for sustenance and keeping the company of a couple of shepherds whilst enjoying one last view of the lake. Our revelry was cut short by rolling clouds and a sharp drop in temperature, it was our signal to begin a descent of epic proportions.
Steep and technical trail with a bit of carrying here and there deposited us in to a stunning, uninhabited, and remote valley. The gradient eased a little and we bounced our way down fabulous singletrack for a veritable eternity until it opened up into green pasture. Santosh made enquiries with a local goatherder (always a bad idea) as to the direction of Sinja and we meandered around for quite some time before eventually figuring it out for ourselves. We passed through our final National Park check-point and continued to plunge headlong on virgin singletrack until the valley opened out again into an amazing high plain, flanked by forested peaks.
An impromptu game of football ensued with local urchins and then we carried the bikes a long way down a rocky path. It always improves though and we eventually rode swoopy singletrack all the way to the next village and a late lunch of fried "meat" and egg noodles. Before we even left I started to get a bit of stomach ache and assumed the worst. We whizzed down (and up) a dusty jeep road all the way to Sinja.
You could tell that we had left the National Park because the place was pretty dirty. After a bit of toing & froing we settled on a place to stay. Choices were at a premium so we opted for the lesser of two evils. Bishnu butchered a chicken and, along with Santosh, commandeered the kitchen. My stomach had settled a bit but I knew something was brewing. Sure enough as we headed to bed I got the dreaded rumbling and had to make a dash for the less than salubrious squat toilet twice in ten minutes. Toilet paper is a rare commodity in rural Nepal and I had to try and master the local technique of splashing water onto the affected area. It is a skill that sadly alludes me. I'll leave it at that.
Our journey from Sinja to Chhala Chaur was a whopping twelve kilometres, virtually all up hill, and hard. Everyone seemed slower today, it seemed that I wasn't the only one suffering from tummy troubles. I definitely had no power in my legs, maybe it was the effects of Delhi belly, or maybe accumulated fatigue; probably a bit of both but I suffered quietly all the way up. I was happy to see the back of Sinja. Bishnu seemed very excited about leaving and yelled out "Woo-hoo, let's go" before attempting to bunny hop a small rock. Thankfully he failed spectacularly and flew over the handlebars into a slightly blooded and very embarrassed heap in the middle of the road. I laughed like a drain. I'm certain the admiring townsfolk were suitably impressed.
Following classic Nepali directions Bishnu lead us confidently the wrong way. He was having a good day. Santosh and Chandra, who were slightly behind, went the correct way and we all met up at a teahouse somewhere up the trail (after we spent an hour going the hard way up some very steep hills). Nepal is like an everlasting episode of Keystone Cops. Apart from a short but very nice downhill blast we pedalled (occasionally), pushed, or carried, the whole way.
The remoteness and beauty of the valley was scant distraction from the misery I was feeling in my legs. We crossed over many small bridges as we zig-zagged our way up. The bridges were fantastic, each one hand carved and different, and built to last. They were something I hadn't seen anywhere else in Nepal.
After an eternity of damnation the forest opened up into a glade with horses grazing, a buffalo with a broken leg, copious quantities of marijuana growing at the edges, and a small farmhouse that sold us delicious milk tea. After an hour of lazing around we discovered that our teahouse was , quite literally, just around the corner. I think everyone was relieved to have a short day. Santosh and Bishnu in their now customary fashion butchered a chicken for dinner. Earlier in the trip it was quite exciting to have a local chicken for dinner. Nepal has many unique features and its "local" chicken is one of them; it's the chewiest, non-chicken like chicken in the world. Mind you, eating Dhal Bhat had been a novelty at the start of the trip but after eating it every day for nine days the sheen had worn off that too.
Our lodge was a simple affair, surrounded by majestic pine, real rural Nepal, and with the light misty rain that was falling it could easily have been mistaken for bothy in a Scottish glen. It was truly beautiful. In the middle of the night I was woken abruptly by a disturbing rumble. My toilet terrors should perhaps be left for another time, you might be eating. It didn't end well.
Our final day began with a baptism of fire. The hillside climbed upwards at a gradient well in excess of 50 degrees and we huffed and puffed our way up until it eased to a more rideable standard. An abandoned jeep road gave us the option to avoid further carrying and for once we took the easier choice, gliding slowly to our final summit. At the top we pooled our snacks and congratulated ourselves on a job well done; then mounting the bikes and selecting the big ring we stomped our way down to Jumla like Steve Peat on steroids (In our minds at least).
It had been a great adventure. The trails, the scenery, the divine splendour of Rara Lake, and of the course the company of good friends.
I'm now back in choatic Kathmandu enjoying the hedonistic pleasures of city living; coffee, beer, perfectly delicious Blueberry Cheesecake, and riding with friends.
My plans for a recce trip in The Upper Mustang before Yak attack have been scuppered by bureaucracy. It all seemed so simple - buy a permit and bugger off; not so. Two international permits ($500 each) and an official trekking guide are required, so that little adventure will have to be enjoyed during the race instead. My alternative plan to embark on a training and acclimatisation trip to Manang, high up on the Annapurna Circuit, has also seemingly sunk in the waves - an over-the-bars incident on an innocent social ride means my bruised and very sore back needs time to recover before the masochistic pleasure of tackling the worlds highest mountainbike race.
Whilst hanging out at Himalayan Singletrack in Kathmandu I happened across a bunch of fellow bikers after adventure. Chris Lucas, Sean Belgium, Dan Curry, and John Large were loaded up with Alpkit goodies and about to embark on a trip around the Annapurna Circuit. They were a great bunch of lads and after a curry, a few beers and some sage advice from me, they headed off in a jeep to begin their adventure. Hopefully I'll catch up with them on their return to Kathmandu and maybe share some of their stories too.