Biking the Great Himlayan Trail

Features Issue 130 Sep, 2012
Text by Prianka Rauniyar / Photo: Gaurav Man Sherchan

“No rest is as good as the one that comes after an endeavor. No accomplishment is as satisfying as one that contained doubt. And no courage is as great as one that included fear.”

These lines by the famous Norwegian high-end sports gear manufacturer Helly Hansen resonate with every outdoorsy individual and holds especially true for mountain bikers. A sport that requires the highest order of fitness, strength, balance, perception and judgment but gives the biggest rush as well, mountain biking is picking up massively as an adventure sport around the globe and Nepal is no exception. Unarguably, one of the most daunting yet exciting trekking destinations in the world, the country flaunts a mind boggling 1600km-long trail of the entire Great Himalaya Trail (GHT), considered the holy grail of trekking.

Much has been said about the incomparable experience of walking the longest, highest and most demanding trail running along five countries encompassing the breath-taking scenic views of the mountains. However, little has been mentioned about traversing this path on mountain bikes. Since the GHT is not a single trail but a network of many owing to its varied terrain, much is to be explored, mapped and experienced. Nepal is set to turn a new leaf in the mountain biking frontier with bikers like Mandil Pradhan leading from the front. Mandil’s organization, Himalayan Rides, caters to a niche market of international bikers who travel around the world in search of virgin territory and an adrenalin-rush packed biking tour. As they zip past rugged mountain terrain, deep gorges, dirt roads, steep foot trails and pony trails at altitudes close to 5000m, the risk of venturing into the unknown stares them right in the eye. The joy of conquering the-never-before eggs them on.

Except for three of the popular trekking trails in the country - Annapurna, Solukhumbu (Everest) and Langtang, which also either fall in or touch the GHT - most other regions are completely unexplored. This is primarily owed to inaccessibility due to the lack of logistical support like transport, lodging and food. Mandil quit his job at a company he co-owned to pursue his renewed love for mountain biking. He believes that for mountain bikers, biking the length of Nepal’s GHT is the equivalent of claiming the peak of Mt. Everest for summiteers. This goal is no easy task if one considers the altitude of the mountains in this range and the steep landscape that makes it difficult to ride on and which also means bikers have to carry their bikes and hike through certain segments. Mandil is quick to point out that Mountain biking is never going to replace trekking. Out of a 100 trekkers that come to Nepal, only about 5 have the required skillset to bike on the trails. Mountain biking just adds another dimension to trekking, he suggests.

So which are the off-beaten trails other than the most popular ones? For starters, the blossoming rhododendron forests and quaint villages set against the backdrop of Kanchanjunge, the world’s third highest peak makes the area a huge draw. To the Far West, the region covering Humla is untouched due to poor transportation, limited resources and rough trails. However, it covers close to 25% of the Himalayan range in Nepal and if developed could be a paradise for trekkers and bikers. The mesmerizing Dolpo trails are remotely located amid deep canyons with an inexplicable aura of peace and serenity to it. The Langtang trail is special to Mandil. He says the sheer joy of riding up close to 3000m above sea level to the sacred lake of Gosainkunda and then dropping down to 200 m to meet the Trishuli River is both tedious and very fulfilling. He’s done it once and is looking forward to doing it all over again.

Mountain biking is definitely not for everyone. It requires a certain level of technical expertise, sound skills, strong emotional and physical will power and an undying passion for adventure. If you’re equipped with the right gear and afore-mentioned arsenal, Mandil recommends some basic etiquettes and tips for survival:

  • Never ride alone on an unfamiliar trail. Take along a companion and look out for each other. It’s safer to venture out solo on a popular route but it’s still advisable to bike in groups for support, encouragement and help.

  • Know your limits. In a group, there will always be people who are more skilled than your. Do not emulate them blindly. It’s not a competition, especially not in areas where the nearest hospital could be five days away. If you’re the better biker, it’s best not to urge others to copy you if they’re not confident. There are times when even the most fit biker breaks down wondering why they’re putting themselves through it. Accepting your limits is not being timid. The ecstatic feeling of standing at 5000m and knowing you got there on your bike when most people couldn’t get there on their feet is unmatched. Take calculated risks, not blind ones.

  • Be self-sufficient. Get to know your machine and how to fix it. It will save you a lot of trouble. There was a time when he had just started biking, Mandil recalls, when something in his bike broke down on the trail. Since he didn’t know how to fix it, it took him two and a half hours to walk back into town and take a bus ride home. Had he known how to, it would’ve taken him five minutes to fix it and thirty minutes to get back.

  • Respect your surroundings and the locals you meet. “We are like the circus that has come to town with our flashy clothes and head gear,” says Mandil about riding into far flung villages. It is important to remember that the trails are for the walkers first. Don’t take their hospitality and friendliness for granted.

Mandil travels extensively. At present his team is in an exploratory phase, collecting trails and mapping and documenting them to create a network, which any biker can use. He mentions modestly that he has covered half of the GHT in Nepal without realizing it, leaving the Far West out of his territory for now. He believes that adventure sports and mountain biking in particular have endless potential to grow and prosper for the tourism perspective in Nepal. Since, mountain biking has picked up speed massively as a hobby, an expensive one that, Mandil explains that the development of basic infrastructure for support would help boost the nation’s regional economies. The slump in the latter has resulted in much regrettable immigration.

Mountain biking is at a nascent stage in Nepal with immense scope to expand. No colossal changes are required to give it that push it needs; functional airports, highways and systematic management is all this industry needs. Most adventurers come prepared, enamored by the mysterious and embracing the chaos that Nepal is.