To Lo Manthang on a Royal Enfield

Features Issue 167 Oct, 2015

Biking is a great way to see the world, and it’s a challenging endeavor, as well, especially if you’re going to places remote and relatively unexplored.


To travel by a motorbike is part mountain biking, part cruising in a convertible, part downhill skiing. What these have in common is the lack of a physical frame in which to see the world through placing you in the narrative of the moment. You experience complete immersion. You feel the changes in temperature as you enter a new valley, you can smell what is cooking as you pass through a village, the lady washing her hair by the side of the road catches your eye, and a quick tilt of the head confirms the quirkiness of the instance just shared. It’s freedom. It’s waking up early and having hot coffee whilst you give your bike the morning check before hitting the road. It’s meeting the locals whilst taking in the stunning view—or changing a punctured tire! It’s enjoying a beer after a day’s ride with fellow riders whilst sharing tales from the road. It’s community.

A good rider can also always be a better rider. Some days you want to sit back and just cruise. On other days you’re more focused on your riding ability. The line you take into a corner. The use of your throttle and body position on the bike. Where your eyes are focused. All the small intricacies of riding are constantly perfected with each corner you tackle. It’s learning. 

Man-machine bonding

The beauty of riding a vintage bike like a Royal Enfield is that, unlike modern bikes where there is a ‘get on and go’ attitude, a vintage bike has a more classical approach. You need to feel your machine. You need to understand all the sounds and signals that the bike is giving you. Looking around at the incredible landscapes and perfecting your cornering skills are just as important as listening to your bike. You may even find yourself talking back to your bike! The tappets are too tight. The valves are slapping. The carb is running rich. The mechanics of riding provide the rider with a richer experience that brings you closer to your machine. It becomes a part of you. A friend—and sometimes a folly—but always a companion.

The first experience I had with motorcycles was through my cousin. A six-foot, pony-tailed, tattooed Harley rider. Such a cliché! I was about six years old, and with no explanation, he sat me on the back of his fat boy and simply said, “Hold on.” Clutch in, first gear, a twist of the throttle, and we were out of there at what felt like lightning speed. I have never held on so tight. He took me for a short spin around the block, and by the time we got back home, I’m not sure if I was more excited or scared! What I do know though, is that I had experienced something that would last inside of me long enough until my father finally gave into my pestering and I could get my license to ride. The first bike I finally owned was a 2009 Royal Enfield Electra. It was beautiful, and I was proud. I bought it in Kathmandu in 2011 and have not looked back since. At the time, I was working as a chemical engineer for an NGO in Kathmandu that focused on water sanitation projects. Before I had my wheels, I would rock up at the office punctually for the 9 a.m. Monday meeting, but slowly, my weekends became longer and my sick-days were maxed out, as I would take off each weekend to explore Nepal. I was hooked.

A gutsy decision

Riding around Nepal exploring remote villages and witnessing the diverse cultures made me want to share these experiences with others. I, therefore, decided to purchase Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club and make my passion my job. It was a gutsy decision, having completed a couple of degrees and a Masters, but I knew it was the right decision. I also knew that I could tie my previous life in with the new one by investing profits from the business into local development projects that I thought were worthwhile. Suddenly, it all made sense. Hearts & Tears is more than just a motorcycle tour company. 

It’s about bringing people together and sharing the positive energy that Nepal gives every day. Whether you’re a seasoned rider, or complete beginner, we believe that through motorcycling you can connect with people and places in the most authentic way. Based in Pokhara is the perfect starting point for tours, and living there is ideal. Located on the foothills of the Annapurnas on Fewa Lake, countless small villages dot the surrounding area just a stone’s throw from Lakeside. Within 15 minutes, you can find yourself riding through lush forests, visiting hidden temples, or standing on a secluded hilltop with views of Machapuchare. 

A new frontier

In the years gone by there have been countless adventures and memories, but the greatest highlight to date is riding to Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang. Upper Mustang is a restricted area north of Kagbeni that extends to the Tibetan border, and still has a presiding king and queen. It’s actually more Tibetan than Nepali, which is evident, as Tibetan is the main language spoken. Due to political reasons, Upper Mustang was included as part of Nepal, which, when you look at a map, sticks out like a thumb along the border line. I first rode there in June 2014 with my father for his 60th birthday. We both rode 350cc 5-speed Electras. As far as I know, we were the first riders to attempt riding to Lo Manthang by Royal Enfield. A new frontier. We knew we were up for a challenge due to the conditions of the road and altitude, but we didn’t expect the road to be quite so bad! 

Amongst our spares kit was one set of clutch plates, which on the first day of entering Upper Mustang my Dad burnt out on a steep climb. We had to be careful from then on. There are several high La’s (passes) to cross on the way close to 4,000 meters. The path that climbs these passes zig-zags across the hillside, taking you to the top. To ensure that you don’t lose power on the corners it is important to keep your speed up, otherwise if you do happen to stop, the bikes lose so much power at altitude that only with a push can you keep going on. It’s heavy work at altitude, and on many occasions, it was either my Dad or myself who had the pushing duty—and, therefore, a near heart attack! The villages we visited were incredible. Samar, Geling, Ghami, Tsrang, Dhakmar, Ghar Gumba. Each village was unique, and took you back to a time that the modern world had (thankfully) overlooked. In your lifetime, there are certain experiences that will stay with you forever, and this was one of them. After seven days on the road from Pokhara, a face full of dirt, and two sore bikes, we crossed the final pass, and there before us in all its glory lay the ancient capital of Lo Manthang. We turned our engines off and looked on in silence, as the emotions of the moment hit us in waves. We had made it! What an incredible feat. But that feat had also brought us closer to the end of our journey. We were both happy and sad at the same time. Regardless, though, we knew we were privileged, and soon kicked our bikes over and triumphantly cruised on to downtown Lo Manthang. 

Venturing into forbidden territory

We spent several days in Lo, visiting the ancient monasteries and absorbing the atmosphere. It was nice to have a rest after being on the bikes constantly, and there were some great side trips to be done from Lo to the nearby villages, one of them being the caves in Chosur. These caves are etched into the hillside, and used to be hideouts for the locals when the notorious Khampas were wreaking havoc in the area. The pinnacle of the trip, however, was our ascent up to the Tibetan border at Kora La, which sits at 4,600 meters. We had been warned by many locals not to get too close to the border, as the Chinese have CCTV cameras and take intruders seriously. These stories just made us want to go there even more! We planned on making the trip up there and back in a day, so there was no need to pack too much, except for some basic spares and a bit of food and water. We took the back-way up, passing through ancient ruins, even came across an illegal Chinese bike trading market! 

After about two hours ride north of Lo, and some very steep climbs, the terrain flattened out, and we were no longer in the trans-Himalaya, but beyond in the Tibetan plateau. We passed through a huge gate, which signified the end of the road, but we knew we could go further. A few more kilometers of riding, and there it was. A fence constructed by the Chinese that extended from one horizon to the other. Tibet. We got as close as we could, gave a wave to the CCTV cameras, and cracked open the single malt. What a feeling! Several goat herders passed us by with looks of ‘what on earth are these guys doing here?’ and not wanting to push our luck too much, we headed on back to Lo. The people we had met in Lo were anxious to hear about our experience up at the border, and were relieved when we returned with smiles on our faces. We said our goodbyes, swapped emails and phone numbers, and made our way out of Narnia to the world below. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I couldn’t wait to go back!

Lessons learnt

Since this trip in 2014, I have led an expedition to Lo in April 2015 with eight bikes and a group of Australian riders. There were quite a few learnings from the original trip, mainly to do with bike configuration. Engine capacity being a big factor. The 350 cc Enfields didn’t have the power required at altitude, so 500’s were necessary. Tires with better traction were also important, and we dropped the front sprocket by two teeth to give the bikes more pick-up on the steep climbs. We fitted bash plates to protect the engines, and I went with right shift bikes, as there is more clearance for the brake lever over the rocky sections.

Even with these alterations, the trip was still a huge challenge, and the fact that we had the worst snowstorm in the history of Lo to compete with, didn’t make the trip any easier. On several occasions, we were digging tracks with shovels to remove snow from the passes! It was hard yakka, as the Aussies would say. But, once again, with determination and the spirit of ultimate adventure driving us on, we succeeded in our journey to Lo. And, to be able to share the experience with others was incredibly rewarding. The Tour of Lo will become a flagship event for Hearts & Tears MC each year, with the next tour commencing in May 2016 to coincide with the colorful Tiji festival of Upper Mustang.