This is a story about a motorbike ride that should never have happened; about an epic solo journey on an inappropriate and underpowered road bike along a frighteningly bad road that cuts through the deepest ravine in the world to reach the foothills of the highest mountains in the world; about a trip riddled with so many false starts, obstacles and challenges — in addition to a diplomatic crisis — that I still have trouble believing the universe let me get away with it in the end.
At the start there were four of us, an international crew of highly experienced off-road adventurers with a plan to ride from Hanoi to Kathmandu — an epic 4000km-long journey through seven countries over three weeks.
Filmed by French TV, the adventure, we hoped, would bring a ention to the fact Nepal was once again safe for travel a er the cataclysmic 25th April earthquake that le the Himalayan nation’s vital tourism sector on its knees. But one by one, my partners pulled out until I was last man standing. To hell with them, I thought, hatching a new, albeit significantly condensed, route that started in the capital Kathmandu. From there I would hire a bike and ride 200km west to Pokhara, a lakeside city surrounded by snow-capped mountains known as the adventure capital of Nepal. I would then veer 150km north on the Trans-Himalayan Highway to the sacred city of Muktinath. Set in a high-altitude desert honeycombed with temples and caves, Muktinath is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists who make the long and arduous uphill trek to shower under the 108 holy waterspouts at Muktinath’s monastery. Add bad roads, mind-blowing mountain scenery and exotic culture to the mix and you’ll understand why Muktinath has become a mecca for adventure riders, too.
“Only those who are willing to undergo physical discomfort and rigour can go to Muktinath,” wrote Indian journalist GR Narashumhan, who, like many South Asians, discloses only the initials of his fi rst and second names but is happy to spell out his surname in full.
Five days before I touched down in Nepal on 25th September, Nepal’s government passed its first constitution. Normally a good sign for a fledgling democracy, it enraged minorities living in the southern lowland provinces bordering India who said the constitution screwed them out of their rights. When their calls for amendments fell upon deaf ears, protesters hit the government where it hurt by blocking border checkpoints — a stroke of genius considering Nepal imports nearly all of its petroleum products by road from India. Now everyone in the country would feel their pain as petrol pumps around the country ran dry. I may have been on a holy pilgrimage, but all the prayers in heaven couldn’t help me find fuel in Kathmandu.
So I condensed my journey once again and flew to Pokhara where I’d been told police had a stockpile of fuel. With a bit of luck, I may be able to convince them to part with a tankful by explaining how my work as a motorbike journalist will promote tourism in Nepal. With a leer of accreditation from ARR’s editor Mick Matheson in hand, I marched into the police station. Well, I tried to march in, but the guard told me to piss off . Emergency services were on life support, government employees couldn’t get to work and the economy had tanked. My needs were trivial in comparison.
The following day I rocked up at the police station again, this time with a switched-on travel agent called Tara Gautam to speak on my behalf. To his credit, Tara got us through the front gate and won an audience with the commander in chief. And while I don’t speak any Nepalese, I didn’t need Tara to translate when the commander replied with riotous laughter. My request, it seemed, had gone down about as well as the Titanic.
Down but not out, I crossed over to the dark side and started hunting for fuel on the black market. The asking price of the first resellers I met — Pokhara’s taxi mafia — was $20 a litre. When I tried to negotiate, they got off ended and told me to piss of on a bicycle up to Muktinath instead. Later that day as I was le ing out my frustrations on a kicking bag at a gym, I got talking to the owner, former Nepalese kickboxing champion Raju Nepali. After listening to my dilemma, Raju took me to a backalley dealer who sold petrol for only $4 a litre. But with hundreds of desperate customers, he’d imposed a three-litre quota. I took it anyway.
The next day, Tara, my new travel agent buddy, took me to a hardware store where a guy who looked like a Nepalese Saddam Hussein sold me fi ve litres at $7 a litre. It was a bargain compared to the next batch we bought, a five-litre jerrycan for $75 ($15 a litre) sold by some rat who worked at the gas station. It was obviously stolen and the price was exorbitant, but I didn’t care. Put together with my other stash, it gave me just enough fuel to ride up to Muktinath on a rusty old Royal Enfi eld 350cc Bullet I’d borrowed from the Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club in Pokhara. The president, fellow Aussie Matt Gardner, was already en route to Muktinath with a group of punters right now. If I could cross paths with Matt on the road, there was a good chance I might be able to bum some fuel off him for the return journey to Pokhara.
After months of planning, setbacks, reverse engineering and dodgy late-night under-thetable deals, I was finally ready to hit the road. It’d been a great adventure just getting this far, and the real journey hadn’t even begun. After four days in Pokhara, I couldn’t get out of the city fast enough, tearing past a petrol station where a line of double-parked cars and triple-parked motorbikes stretched for more than three kilometres from the pump.
At the first roundabout I veered left onto the Trans Himalayan Highway, an ancient thoroughfare that connects Nepal with the Old Silk Road in China and Tibet. The first few kilometres comprised a high-speed take-no-prisoners game of cat and mouse as I ducked and weaved between dangerously overloaded trucks and buses. Yet as I passed the city limits, the grime, dust and diesel fumes of the developing world were le behind and Nepal’s fairytale-like countryside appeared in all its glory. Snowcapped mountains sparkled like white gold against a cloudless blue sky.
Eagles soared in slow, circular movements. Emerald-green rice paddies shimmered and blinked in the morning haze. An opal-coloured river wound its way along a ravine far below. There’d been many times over the past six months when I had given up on this trip. But after only half an hour on the road, I knew it’d all been worthwhile. The first 75km of road was peppered with gravel and potholes but was otherwise in good nick as it snaked up mountainsides and dropped into deep valleys. It was 2pm when I hit the town of Beni, the halfway mark to Muktinath, where I stopped to munch on a few cheap and delicious potato samosas washed down with an ice-cold mango juice.
Things started getting interesting after Beni, when the tarmac was replaced with a series of surfaces of such deviant and devilish nature that it seemed they’d actually been put there to puncture tubes. Beds of jagged slate rose from the dirt at every conceivable angle, concealed, o entimes, by river crossings, superfine chalk-like dust and gooey pits of warm grey mud. The Enfield howled with pain every time I dragged its short sorry ass over fields of pointy triangular-shaped rocks and straight across boulders consuming the width of the road. And why wouldn’t it? The stupid thing had no bash plate. But it did have a pair of oversize crash bars that managed to catch on dozens of trees, rocks and roots I passed. I heard so many chilling rock-on-metal bangs that I began to think nothing of them until I looked down and saw the bloody muffler had fallen off! Making matters worse, the tripod I use to take riding selfies and a spare camera that I’d strung to the saddlebag rails with five bungee cords had gone MIA too.
Wasting precious fuel, I doubled back for half an hour until I found a couple of kids playing a game of baseball with my muffler, though my tripod and camera were nowhere to be found. I bought back the muffler from the kids for a dollar and used a length of chicken wire I found on the road to reattach it to my bike with surgical precision — if that surgeon had been smoking crystal meth continuously without sleep for 12 days.
It was late in the a ernoon when I rocked up at Tatopani, a village set on the side of the gushing Kali Gandaki River that’s famous for its hot springs. As I sank into the delicious warm water and my salt-and oxygen-deprived muscles began to thaw, I consoled myself with the probability that after all the shit that had gone down, there wasn’t that much left to go wrong on this journey.
Rising from an altitude of 800m at Pokhara to 8901m at its genesis on Mount Annapurna, the Kali Gandaki is the deepest and most awesome gorge in the world. Half an hour out of Tatopani I found myself riding along a narrow road hugging the edge of a colossal rift in the earth several hundred metres wide through which thousands of gallons of water churn every second.
Higher and higher the road went, overlapping preposterously bad, rocky surfaces devoid of anything resembling a clean line. The Enfield coughed and spluttered as the oxygen content of the atmosphere began to thin, although it was otherwise fine until mid-morning when it began to emit a chilling bone-crunching sound. As I punched on the noise became louder and uglier and the bike started losing momentum, until suddenly I was dead in the water. I jumped off and take a look. OMG! The rear sprocket: its teeth were rounded off by the strain of crunching up these monstrous hills!
With no spare sprocket to speak of, I lowered my head in defeat. My pilgrimage to Muktinath was over. I’m slumped on the ground staring blankly into loser-ville and when two young Nepalese guys riding past off ered their assistance. “Don’t despair, we are with you, brother,” they said. After getting on their phones and discovering there was a motorbike mechanic in Ghasa, a village I passed only 15 minutes ago, they helped me turn the old clunker around and followed from behind as I coasted downhill in neutral.
Whenever I hit a patch of flat ground and couldn’t progress no further, they jumped off their bike, ran behind me and helped push the Enfield. They were absolute bloody legends and ordinary everyday examples of the warmth and hospitality of the Nepalese people.
The guy who fixed my bike, however, was a total bastard. He took one look at the sprocket, removed the rear wheel, fished out the off ending part and started machining the teeth with an angle-grinder, giving it a new lease on life. There’s no doubting his mechanical prowess but his price was extortionate. He demanded $700 for his time — $5.90 more than what the average Nepalese makes in a year. Thus began a Mexican standoff between the two of us that involved half the village of Ghasa, the local coppers and a group of passing mountain bikers and which continued for three hours in the midday heat, until the fat oily prick finally succumbed to my one and only offer of $50.
It was 3pm when I finally got out of there. Pushing metal against rock, I smashed it nonstop for four long hot hours until I got to the village of Kagbeni, where I rendezvoused with the Hearts & Tears Motorcycle Club. When I saw the president Matt I felt an urgent need to punch him in the face for giving me such a lemon of a bike. But at the same time I wanted to hug him for being witness to the fact that I made it! Muktinath is only 20km up the road!
I also learned Matt’s group had troubles of their own. They ran out of fuel on several occasions and had to pay big bucks to buy small stashes from villagers on the road. Their bikes — a fleet of beautiful new black Enfield 500s — had given them no end of grief and one had to be strung onto the back of the support vehicle a er its rear brake disintegrated. As for the other punters — tourists who’d paid to tag along — they’d mostly lied or exaggerated about their riding experience and had had a hell of a time getting up here. One guy had even come off and snapped his collarbone.
“I had no idea it would be like this. I thought it would be more bitumen and patches of dirt here and there, not this pathetic excuse for a road,” said Zoe Weller, a pillion passenger from Australia.
“The terrain has been a shock to the system.” Added Craig Hembrown from Singapore: “I thought it was going to be hard but in retrospect I didn’t know what the word ‘hard’ meant. But at the same time the scenery is far more beautiful than anything I ever imagined, and the Nepalese people are amazing.”
The next morning I headed off in a convoy: eight Enfield 500s, Matt the lucky bastard on a Crossfire CFR250 (a Chinese knock-off of the Honda CRF) and their support vehicle. With the exception of Matt and his sweep, they were absolutely useless riders. And to make things even harder for themselves, they were lugging their girlfriends on their backs. But the fact they had made it this far was impressive and for that they earned my total respect.
We entered the ancient kingdom of Mustang, a wild, rugged, semi-autonomous region of Nepal that looks like the moon and is split in half by a giant sheer-sided canyon more than a kilometre wide in parts. The road became even more punishing up here, littered with all kinds of tectonic debris and at times dropping so suddenly over the crest of hills that I thought I’d taken a wrong turn until I inched forward and saw the track merge into an impossibly tight switchback a few metres below.
Anyway, I was riding along, enjoying the view, minding my own business, when that god-awful crunching noise of the chain slipping around the rear sprocket returned with a vengeance. I dismounted to take a look at the rear sprocket. The mechanic’s modifications had pushed the teeth past their stress point and all but three of the teeth had snapped off . Seems his $700 job wasn’t worth $700 at all.
Fortunately I now had back-up and when Matt and the group caught up with me, he got his mechanic to replace the sprocket. Once the job was done and the bike was tested and ready, I told the support vehicle, which was significantly slower than a motorcycle on these roads, to shoot off and that I’d catch up later on. But soon after take off my bike started spluttering and within a minute I was out of fuel. I removed my helmet and took a look around. I was in the middle of nowhere, in a high altitude desert without a lick of fuel and no mobile phone coverage. Adding insult to injury, I was now less than 10km from Muktinath though still as far away as I’d ever been.
An hour went by until a car passed — a 4WD carrying a group of Hindu devotees to Muktinath. The driver pulled over, assessed the situation, returned to his car, pulled out a hose, opened the fuel cap, inserted the hose into the tank and looked at me in a way that left no need for elaboration. By the time I’d sucked a litre out of his tank and fed it into my bike, my head was swimming in petrol fumes and I was bloody hallucinating, purple and orange spots swimming around my head.
If I’d lit a cigarette at that moment, I would surely have exploded. Water did nothing to getrid of the taste of fuel in my mouth, though squeezing in half a tube of toothpaste did the trick. When I finally caught up with the guys at Muktinath, Ma couldn’t believe I’d caught up with them again. “I’m like bacteria,” I told him. “I can’t be killed!”
Set under a pair of snowcapped peaks in an olive grove with a gilted temple in its centre, the monastery of Muktinath is cut straight out of Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine. A few of the boys stripped off to run under the freezing-cold 108 waterspouts, while I found a place to sit and contemplate all the interconnected factors and generous people and improbable coincidences that conspired to get me here in one piece.
Moments later, one of the other riders whose name escapes me sat down and started telling me about all the problems they faced on the way up. At one stage when he’d run out of fuel, Matt had to lower a bottle of fuel to him on a rope down a cliff because the switchback between them was too steep for the support vehicle to reverse course. I laughed out loud and shared one or two Muktinath stories of my own. “Well, if you made it up here,” he said, “it must mean something.”