The Annapurna Circuit on Two Wheels
“Alright, 50 more steps and then you can rest. 1, 2, 3…” For the past 4 hours, my thoughts have been dominated by counting my steps and controlling my breathing. Every time my legs get too tired to go further, I pause, look around, and enjoy the view. The sun is slowly rising up from the horizon, lighting up the barren but beautiful landscape of Lower Mustang. I reposition my mountain bike on my tired shoulders and continue to trudge up the steep trail towards Thorung La.
During the Dasain holiday at the end of September 2017, I escaped from Kathmandu with my mountain bike for a solo trip around the Annapurna Circuit. The route is famous for the Thorung La crossing, a pass at 5,416m elevation that separates Manang and Mustang districts. Most people start the trail at Besisahar and gradually gain elevation while moving northward through Manang district, before reaching the pass. Following the pass is a rapid descent into Lower Mustang.
I decided at the last minute to do the circuit in a clockwise direction, which is in reverse from what is normal. I wanted to do this so I would have a bit more time at the start of the trip to ride on the Lower Mustang side of the route, where the weather is generally better, before crossing the pass into Manang, where there were forecasts for rain and snow.
After two days of slow and bumpy bus rides, with my bike carefully strapped to the roof, I finally arrived at Ghasa, the starting point for my two-wheeled adventure. From Ghasa, I rode on jeep track to reach Kalopani, from where I crossed the Kali Gandaki River and found myself on a beautiful singletrack trail that went along the river almost all the way to Jomsom. For the most part, this trail is easy to ride since there’s not much steep uphill or downhill. After a full day of riding, I made it to Kagbeni, where I settled in for the night.
Doing the Annapurna Circuit in the clockwise direction is usually not recommended, due to the very rapid ascent from Kagbeni (2,804m) towards the Thorung La (5,416m). I decided to spend an extra day acclimatizing and rode up to Muktinath, from where a spectacular singletrack trail crosses down into Lubra Valley. The riding here is amazing, though a bit sketchy at times, with some very steep, slippery, and off-camber trails and a lot of tight switchbacks. The next day, I rode up towards Muktinath again, but continued a few more kilometers to stay at Muktinath Phedi (also called Charabu, 4,230m), the highest place to sleep on the Mustang side of the pass.
After a cold night, I woke up early and began hiking at about 5:30am. Though the distance from Phedi to the top of the pass is only about 6km, the net elevation gain is nearly 1,200m, making the trail too steep to even push my bike. Instead, I hefted my bike onto my shoulders and carried it the whole way up, reaching the top nearly five hours later. The views from the top of the pass are amazing, and it’s the perfect vantage point to see how the ecology and climate shift from the very dry, barren, and vast landscape of Mustang, to the wetter, more colorful, and more topographically squashed landscape of Manang.
From the Thorung La, I spent the full afternoon descending a net of almost 2,000 meters to reach Manang village. After five grueling hours of carrying my bike up to Thorung La, I could finally fly down the other side of the pass towards Manang. After descending towards Thorung High Camp, the valley views became dominated by Annapurna III and Gangapurna, towering in the distance. Below my wheels, the trail gently flowed down, with the occasional steep, tight switchback. I was careful to make sure I didn’t get going too fast or out of control on the slippery, loose gravel; I was completely alone and knew I was far from medical help. So, I took my time to enjoy the trail and the views.
There are many trails branching out from the Manang Valley, allowing for short side trips or an extended trip into the Naar-Phu Valley. I decided to leave my bike in Manang and make the two-day return trek to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake of its size in the world, at 4,920m. This is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen, with water of the spectacular bluish/turquoise color that you can only find in glacier-fed lakes. This was definitely a very worthwhile side trip, and a good break from the bike saddle.
After returning to Manang from Tilicho Lake, I hopped back on my bike and enjoyed some final sections of singletrack trails, riding up to Ngawal and then down to Pisang. From Pisang, I got back onto the main jeep road and powered through the long final leg of the trip. Despite the net descent of over 2,000m, this jeep track stretch was surprisingly exhausting, with plenty of long uphills, and rough, rocky downhills that left my hands and wrists sore from the vibrations through the bike.
After a full day of riding, I finally reached Besisahar, the ending point for my trip. The next day, I loaded my bike onto the roof of a microvan and arrived back in Kathmandu in the evening, exhausted, satisfied, and not at all excited to go back to the office the next morning.
This article and photos originally appeared in Issue 6 of Inside Himalayas magazine.