Here comes the second part of our great adventure in the Nepali Himalayas.
One of the biggest concerns while doing the Annapurna Circuit is the relatively quick altitude gain. It is said that above 3000 meters one should not climb more than 500 metres a day to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness. In the little Town of Manang (3520m) we wanted to get used to being exposed to low oxygen – so we stayed three nights to help our bodies to adopt to a new state. Manang turned out to be a perfect place to slow down.
People living on high altitudes learned not only how to survive in unforgiving surroundings, but also how to take advantage of extremes. Since the fuel for cooking is scarce, solar cookers are commonly used to boil water.
What fascinated us (not only in the mountains, but also all over Nepal) was that the children are still “real”, they play bows and arrows, make their own toys and enjoy the outdoors. The lack of PlayStations and TV channels for kids does not seem to bother them much.
Yet a Nepali childhood does not last long. To help the family to survive the winter all kids must work hard. Child labour is practised widely, but as in many developing countries, it is unfortunately the only way to keep the family afloat during the hard, winter months.
What could seem harsh or even out of place for a Westerner, for the Nepali from the Himalayas is just a daily routine. Occupying the land where not much wants to grow and where you can not rely on resupplies by road, people learnt to use what they have. Like in Tibet or Ladakh, the staple winter diet consists mainly of dried yak meat and barley in different forms.
Tourists could get to Manang by either a motorcycle taxi or by plane – there is a landstrip just a few kilometres away from the town. The only way out towards the Thorung La Pass, however, is available only for the ones who walk (on either two or four legs), or for those lucky ones who brought their bikes with them.
Cycling on a trail that is by many considered a hard walk, for us was just pure joy! We spent almost four months on high altitudes in Ladakh and we were happy to discover, that our bodies did not forget how it is like to push hard with only half of the oxygen that is available at sea level.
Some people could not believe how it is possible to even think of bringing a bicycle on a trail like this, but look at the road below: you could probably cycle it too!
Surprisingly we felt perfectly fine up till 4500 metres and started to feel a bit weaker only above 5000. Being in the majestic Himalayas pumped us up with a strange kind of energy (we get goose bumps even now, when we think about it)!
There were some sections of the path where we could not cycle. In the end we built our bikes for touring and not for extreme mountain challenges. Luckily we got an advanced pushing training in Zanskar some months before, and rolling the lightened bikes up the rocky trail was much easier than you might think.
Even during the day of climbing the last metres before the pass, there were some easy, ridable parts. Who would not like to cycle in such a fantastic place?
The altitude of 5200 metres – this time – was a bit too much for Anna. We were faced with a big dilemma: go back to the guest house on 4925m and wait for a day or two or push hard, reach the pass and quickly descend. We knew the symptoms of AMS and we knew our bodies (we cycled over fifteen high passes and Thorung La was about to became our seventh pass of more than 5000 metres). We decided that the best would be for Anna to walk as fast as she could to the pass while Mat pushed the bikes one by one.
Reaching the pass was a quick but joyful experience! For both of us it was the highest place we have ever visited! Hard to believe that not longer than two years before, we thought that we had touched the sky on the top of mount Teide on Tenerife! 5416 metres (or 17769ft) is pretty high for the people that grew up on the coast!
Happy, but tired and oxygen deprived, we rolled down the pass (when it was possible).
Having the pass behind us and all those gigantic mountains around – spectacular nature at its best – and being in the middle of this with our bicycles made us shed a tear of joy.
On the other side of the pass lies a mystical and fascinating land – a former kingdom of Mustang. To get higher up the valley, to Upper Mustang one must get a very expensive permit (500USD!) and hire a guide. Fortunately most of Lower Mustang requires no permit and the Around Annapurna Trail runs right through it.
On our way down, wherever it was possible, we cycled on the hiking trail instead of a rough and bumpy jeep road.
We were a bit afraid, that the whole adventure will finish after we climb the Thorong La Pass. But we quickly realized how wrong we were – tiny picturesque villages with their amazing, gentle inhabitants provided unforgettable memories.
Entering a paved road, after 10 days on a gravel trail was a strange experience indeed. It was a bit too easy to cycle, we missed the high mountains! We tasted a fruit of bikepacking and we knew, that cycle touring fully-loaded could never be enjoyed as much as it was before this epic adventure. There is nothing better, more overwhelming and empowering than cycling in the high mountains, carrying only the necessities, no doubts about that! We would definitely do it again and highly recommend it to other cyclists.