We’re 3800m above sea level. The road to the top of the mountain pass has been swallowed by a glacial waterfall. The rocks glisten in the mid-day sun, water lapping over them and flowing over the sheer cliff to the valley floor below.
I attack it with every ounce of skill I’ve got, feet dancing on the pegs and beads of sweat forming on my head. The oxygen starved air has robbed me and the banana yellow XR 250 between my legs of the few horsepower we started with. I manage to smash my way across the rocks with good speed and a small degree of finesse.
“I jump off and run the bike the ten metres to flat ground.”
The XR is wailing, revving higher than it ever has before. I hold the throttle to the stop. In front the ground surges upward around a corner. The desert earth is loose, baked by the sun. The ground is void of grip as I attack the turn. The revs die down as the XR struggles. There is no way we’re going to make it to the top. The little Honda is gasping, struggling to drag us forward.
I jump off and run the bike the ten metres to flat ground. My lungs grasp for oxygen and my heart bursts through my chest.
Welcome to Nepal.
The Upper Mustang
The finest thing about travelling into the unknown, to places off the beaten path and away from the guide books, is the beauty of never knowing. You don’t know anything about the terrain, the people, the weather and you certainly don’t know what to expect.
The lack of certainty is what makes it an adventure. The moments that catch you off guard will undoubtedly be the ones that stick; the stories you regale in the pub and commit to paper, the stories that make the whole thing memorable.
Nepal in its own right is not off the beaten path. Quite the opposite. It’s a tourist trap filled with an immense amount of western foreigners bashing their way through the cities and mountains, hauling themselves around the biggest mountains on earth and taking photos of religious culture.
Nepal is also a place that has had its fair share of political discord. Nestled in the centre of the country, bordering Tibet is one of the earth’s most special creations; the mountainous cold desert of the Upper Mustang. Only a few locations across the globe are like this; the Upper Mustang is one of the least visited by outsiders.
“The road became laden with foot deep ruts squashed in by buses and the smiles spread across our faces.”
For years the Upper Mustang has served as restricted demilitarised zone between the Nepalese and Tibet. In 1992 its restricted status was lifted but other than trekking in with a guide there was no access. No roads, no vehicles, no electricity and very few people.
In 2015 an epic five-year road crafting project came to an end. The Nepalese army completed access from the town of Jomsom to the Chinese border. Electricity has been run, a path through the mountains carved and access to an empty, preserved and incredible corner of the earth became possible by bike. The rainless, thriving high altitude mountain lands of the Upper Mustang were now a realistic motorcycle goal.
Beni to to the border
A trip into the Mustang is something that needs organising. It’s not a turn up and ride kinda thing, mostly because of the political hoops. You legally still need a registered guide, which means someone needs to organise it all. My friend Chris was that guy.
The prep he gave me about the trip was pretty straight forward. “The riding is all on a dirt road, it’s going to be high altitude, the accommodation will be very basic and it’ll be cold at night so bring a decent sleeping bag.”
Firstly, I forgot my seeping bag. Secondly, dirt road is a very, very loose term.
Every story about travelling into the Upper Mustang starts in the Lower Mustang. You’ve got no choice on that matter because of the aforementioned single dirt road. In the humid, subtropical forests surrounding Beni, the tarmac transporting an endless stream of tiny Suzuki Alto taxis horning their way across the country, comes to an end. The road gives way to a single car width dirt thoroughfare that paves the way for tourists and locals aiming for the mountainous, sacred temples at Muktinath. The vibrant, air condition-less busses, painted with promises of free Wi-Fi and much more, dominate the road. The savage Kali Gandaki river provides an epic rumbling soundtrack to the exquisite madness.
It’s a road that manages epic quantities of traffic flow, with bus after packed bus followed by a constant stream of four wheel drives. The ground was beat up. Were were at the tail end of the monsoon season. The road had been driven to bed-rock by months of rain and the bed-rock shaped by the constant pounding of overladen buses. The riding was incredibly fun.
The skies opened up. The road became laden with foot deep ruts squashed in by buses and the smiles spread across our faces. We scrambled, footed and fought our way through the melee. Our pace was slow, huge puddles engulfed the road and the road was littered with broken buses and abandoned cars. Like I said, dirt road is a loose term.
As the darkness loomed, one of the crew, Mikke, caught the sump of his CRF 250L on a substantial rock. The oil flowed profusely, dropping its inside on the ground to our dismay. We went in search of oil and a repair. In the end we towed it through the dark and cold rain, ate steamed dumplings and slept in our cold, un-heated bunk room.
It was a great first day.
The next day we made it to the border of the Upper Mustang. The town of Kagbeni is the last place on the road you can travel to without a permit. It’s also the first place that really feels like you’ve made it past the tourist influence. A handful of guest houses serve walkers trudging the famous Annapurna circuit, young monks play in the stream and cows roam the dusty streets.
Three days of riding and an altitude gain of nearly three thousand metres followed. With each corner we rounded and every peak we crossed the scenery became more dramatic. Every peak around us touches over 6000m. Behind us looms the massive Annapurna range, where you’ll find three peaks over the magic 8000m mark. The road condition improved as the desert swallowed the forest and loose rocks replaced mud.
We slept in basic tea rooms, embracing the squat toilets and ice cold showers with open arms. Each morning we clambered out early for the epic sunrises. At this point it was already becoming a magical trip. The simplicity of life was special, the scenery unlike anything I’ve even seen, the history incredible. And then we saw the mountain at Dhakmar.
Across the ice blue, glacial melt river flowing through the valley below the three house village of Lo-Ghami is an ancient mane wall (pronounced ma-ney), painted with vivid red, blue and white paint. Standing nearly three metres high and 150m long, it provides an incredible foreground to the magical wall of coloured earth the stands above the town of Dhakmar.
Patches of intense blues and vibrant reds run through the orange sandstone like they were painted by an artist. The crevasses and channels cut by thousands of years of rain bursts and wind, house caves cut by an ancient people. It’s hard to do it justice with words on a page. We bumbled across the plain, following a faint horse track and stunned by the golden, setting sun catching the gargantuan, immediate cliff face in front of us.
It was truly special.
The road into the capital of Upper Mustang is virtual highway. Littered with miserably faced hikers getting wind blasted with the talcum powder like dust. The weather is warm and the altitude is taking its toll. A touch of dehydration is accentuated immensely by the thin air.
The incessant light grey dust is slowly become tedious. That is until you reach the top of the hill above Lo-Manthang. With the Himalayas now behind us, the draw distance reached as far you can imagine. Crumbled paper foothills surround the tiny walled town of 876 people.
Lo-Manthang is everything you can hope it would be. The influence of 20 years of trekkers is apparent, but it’s still a place that is holding tightly onto its culture, heritage and the way of life they’ve maintained for thousands of years. Everything from the incredible 800 year old Buddhist monasteries, to the washing done in the aquaduct is magical. People almost didn’t care about the intruders. We were flies existing in their town, allowed to move around, soak it in and move on.
The introduction of electricity hasn’t, as of yet, bought much more than light and power to the guest houses. They still do everything the old fashioned way, still use horses to move around and work tremendously hard. Some have graduated to motorcycle to move themselves but the only four wheeled vehicles are present to cater for the desires of the trekkers.
After two nights, a horseback trip to the ancient caves and plenty of time to take in the local tranquillity our time was running out. We had to head back to the border.
“Wow, that bike is off the edge of a cliff. I hope the bloke is okay.”
The voice in my head spoke those very words. We’d been riding along cliff edges for seven days. The prospect and odds of one of the group having a moment wasn’t lost on me. Not all cliff edges are created equal and frankly that’s a proverbial god send.
The rest of the soliloquy played out in my head.
“Wait, that looks kinda like a CRF. Ah damn, that is a CRF.”
The key point of recognising a CRF 250L is that almost no-one in Nepal can afford a CRF 250L. We were currently the only people on them in the Mustang.
Mikke had ridden himself off a cliff.
It’s as plain and simple as that really. He couldn’t have chosen a better place, had anymore luck or come away any less damaged. The edge he careened backward off was gentile by Mustang cliff standard. Just 500m prior, the crevasse to our left hung vertically like a curtain at a theatre. From my vertigo, height hating eyes it was a bottomless chasm.
Where Mikke rode off it wasn’t. Gravity clung him and his bike to the dirt. We dragged him up, attached a rope to the bike and rode into the sunset with just a bent set of handlebars to show for it.
The End – Returning to Kathmandu
Once you’ve reached the end of the Mustang road, the only way out is back from whence you came. The road backward is arguably the better direction. The road faces the Annapurna until you reach Jomsom. The whole ride is in the awe inspiring shadow of a snow capped mountain standing 5000m above you. It’s uplifting, intimidating and adds something even more special to the journey.
When you reach the sub-tropical forests, the density of people, the chaos of a road filled with Nepalese on a pilgrimage and the noise all come as a shock. For the last seven days the only noise has been the wind, the trickle of a stream and the mellow purr of a gutless, choked Honda. Now it bustles. Buses horn, bikes zip between rows of traffic and everyone wants to sell something. The shock is overwhelming and it only gets worse as we get closer to Kathmandu.
The pollution closes in, the air tastes dirty and rubbish piles high on the side of the road. The salvation to our return to civilisation is the offset of an ice cold beer against the warm humidity and the best shower in two weeks.
The Upper Mustang is an incredible place that has been inadvertently preserved by the restrictions placed upon it. It means that, right now it’s rough and basic. It’s a raw experience where the riding is challenging, the altitude physical and the scenery is unlike anything else I’ve ever had the joy of experiencing. It’s is a motorcycle adventure paradise.
The speed of life in Nepal is so vastly different to the west. It’s fantastic on so many levels, refreshing and relaxing but only if you’re ready for it. It moves slowly, takes an age for anything to happen and is remarkably relaxed for a busy place.
That experience starts the second you get off the plane and join the convoluted and unclear visa application process. From the lack of signs and photo machines that don’t work to the two-hour cue to pay 30 dollars; everything takes time.
The roads are slow to ride, all the vehicles on the roads are slow and getting any where takes an age. We never averaged more than 50 km/h in the two weeks, even on tarmac. Despite the relative speed of the traffic being low every thing feels hectically quick. Buses drive wildly; weaving, swerving and running blind corners on the wrong side of the road. The experience is sensory overload and almost all the vehicles are small. Suzuki Alto’s are the primary taxi and KTM’s 390 Duke is considered too fast to realistically own.
The biggest difference is that nothing happens when it should. We live in a society where we aim to be timely, arrive when we say and expect everything else to happen accordingly. We’re not the best society at it, but it’s an expectation. In Nepal, there is no expectation of that.
Prior to the riding portion of our trip we had to get a flight from Kathmandu to a smaller city, Pokhora. The domestic airport in KTM was the epitome of this. Upon arrival at the check in table, no staff could be found. After 30 minutes a staff member arrived to inform us our flight was delayed. We’d take off about two hours late.
The information board maintained otherwise. We sat in the departures hall, watching the time go by and watching other western people equally stressed/confused by the lack of organisation and the locals unaware that their way is different from ours. Two hours later we checked in, they weighed us all and pointed us into the chaotic departure lounge.
Eventually our flight was called. The departure board still said our flight had left three hours prior. On the runway were sat two planes. The petrochemical waft of fresh paint hung in the air around our transport. They’d literally just finished painting the plane and were halfway through the next one…
Food is always a talking point. It changes so much across the globe and Nepal is no different. As a country jammed between China and India, you’d imagine it’d be an epic, crazy fusion culminating in sensory overload.
That expectation didn’t account for the arid climate, tiny population or lack of money in the Mustang. Reality is, the food is very simple. There are four traditional dishes eaten in the Mustang and are eaten almost every day. Dal Bhat is the most popular. It’s steamed rice, lentil soup and a couple of other little bits. It’s almost the same every where you go and is the staple. Two times each day, the guides, porters and locals eat it.
The other two options are different dishes that are exactly the same. One is Nepali and the other Tibetan. One is noodle soup with smaller noodles and the other is noodle soup with big noodles. Everything in between is the same. They cook heavily with Garlic because it grows wild and that’s it.
The last is the infamous Mo Mo. It’s a steamed dumpling filled with whatever meat or veg they can put in it and that’s almost all there is to eat.
Throughout the upper Mustang you’ll see caves cut into the sandstone cliff faces. They’re incredible things, hundreds of metres off the ground. To this day, very little is known about them. They were cut and lived in by humans and that’s about all is known. Some of them are huge, with multiple floors and enough space for communities to live in.
At the town of Choser, they installed an access method to one of the region’s largest caves. It’s incredible to be in but despite this a huge amount remains a mystery. No one is really sure how the inhabitants reached these caves, why they chose to live so high off the ground or who they were. Over the region some 10,000 caves have been found, filled with incredible murals, 14,000 year old remains and as high as 50-60 metres off the ground.
With Thanks To
The Trip to Nepal is organised by the Chris Wilthuis of Explore360, an adventure riding company based in Stockholm. We used a collection of Honda CRF 250L’s for the trip and flew into Kathmandu.
For more information on the trip visit www.explore360.nu
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