I’m on a six-lane highway from Pokhara, Nepal, and the Royal Enfield Himalayan I’m driving harmonises with the smooth tarmac. My passengers and I rush along at 70 km/h and I even have time to look at the cotton clouds in the blue sky. “It’s easy and hassle free,” I think. “At this rate I’ll be in Kalopani in less than three hours – 125 km away and at the overnight stop.”
Little did I know that we wouldn’t stay on the fast Pokhara-Balung Highway the whole way. About 68 km further, at Maldhunga, there is a fork. I look longingly to the left, where the same silky black ribbon continues. My path takes me to the right, along the Maldhunga-Beni ‘road’, with a surface that looks more like the jute twine used to tie bamboo scaffolding.
It’s late May and I’m in Nepal on a drive to Upper Mustang where Tibetan Buddhist culture and tradition is still practiced. The region was isolated for decades and getting there is still not for the faint of heart.
If I’ve ridden 5km, I’m way out of my comfort zone. The road is a rock-strewn mud track, and last week’s rain has left puddles that soak my shoes. The town of Beni is only 16 km from the fork in the road, but it takes me almost two hours to get there. This excuse of a road runs along the Kali Gandaki river. At Beni I cross a bridge and hit slush. It grabs the front wheel and the next thing I know I’m lying face down in the mush. I get my bike out of the mud and keep going. Over the next few kilometers, clumps of mud fly from the handlebars onto my helmet.
The road rises high above the river and meanders along the mountainsides. The scenery is spectacular but I have a lot of work to keep the bike upright as there is gravel, loamy mud, water crossings and sometimes the risk of landslides. I find the Himalaya balances best when I’m standing on the footpegs and shooting it over irregularities. My whole world right now is the motorcycle and the road ahead. It has a meditative effect in a strangely pleasant way.
The Tiji Festival is a three-day celebration.
(Rishad Sam Mehta)
When I reach the Kalopani guesthouse, my fellow passengers say that I look wiped out. But actually I feel calm and relaxed. It took me six hours to get there and each hour challenged my skills and wits. The views of Kalopani are said to be spectacular, with Annapurna peak dominating the skyline, but the dark clouds block the view.
The next morning it’s raining and I brace myself for a tougher ride as the wet gravel is slippery from the slush. We stop at Marpha where the locals sell petrol in barrels. The price is Nepalese €200 per liter. This means translated €125; the measure of a liter is an empty water bottle. After five bottles have emptied into my tank, I continue.
Kagbeni, 20 km from Marpha and past Jomsom, is the end of the road according to Google Maps. In less than 48 hours I rode from Pokhara, which is at 2,697 feet, to Jomsom at 9,000 feet. But Google Maps was wrong – there is a track that leads towards Lo Manthang in the Upper Mustang region.
It is a barely navigable route that runs high above the Kali Gandaki River alongside the highest gorge in the world. I stay as close to the mountain as possible. But sometimes the corners are so tricky and the mud so treacherous that the bike inevitably slides towards the edge.
Kagbeni is the gateway to the Upper Mustang region and the landscape changes abruptly. Until I drive to Chhusang, 10 km from Kagbeni, and stop at a dhaba At lunch I notice that the rain has gone. Likewise the vegetation. We are now in a rain shadow area. The landscape is rocky and barren, formed in the Ice Age and is still being minutely sculpted by wind erosion. It is reminiscent of Zanskar in Ladakh.
We are still about 30 km from Lo Manthang, the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Lo. The ride gets more challenging as I ride through what is commonly called quit, very fine sand. I can’t take my eyes off the road for even a moment. But the scenery is so stunning that I often park the bike to admire it and take a few photos before heading out again.
Get a grip quit takes some time, and by the time I see the walled city of Lo Manthang in the distance, I’ve figured out the technique. You’ll need to keep the throttle steady and ride with a relaxed grip on the handlebars to weave the bike through the fine sand.
We spend three days in Lo Manthang. The three-day Tiji Spring Festival, usually held from May to June depending on the Buddhist calendar, takes place. Also known as “The Liberation of the Demons”, it is the story of a deity, Dorje Jono, who wages war against his father (a demon) to save the kingdom of Mustang from annihilation. The father wreaks havoc on Mustang by causing water shortages – the most precious resource in this arid land. Dorje Jono finally succeeds.
Featuring a variety of plays, colorful costumes, music and dance, this re-enactment has attracted travellers. We spend time downtown, where there are a number of cafes serving cappuccinos and americanos, and restaurants serving steamed or stir-fried momos and chilli beef with fiery red chutney.
There are souvenir and artifact shops; The fossil camps are the most fascinating for me. The region around Kagbeni was a sea before continental drift and collision millions of years ago crumpled it into a mountain range, so there are rocks with ammonites to be found. Ammonites are shelled cephalopods that became extinct about 66 million years ago.
On the way to Lo Manthang.
(Rishad Sam Mehta)
As we head back after three nights in Lo, I feel refreshed and more confident on the bike. The return trip is divided into small sections, so what I did in two days I’ll do in four. The first overnight stay is in Samar, a small village with charming private accommodation just 40 km from Lo. Samar remains the nicest place we stayed at on the entire trip. There I get my first glimpse of the majestic Annapurna.
The next night stop is Marpha, 55 km from Samar. Between Samar and Marpha we drive through Kagbeni again and this time it is stress free because it doesn’t rain and we have plenty of time. We stop at Yakdonalds – no typo – named for its yak meat burgers. They are delicious and the Happy Meal comes with healthy sea buckthorn juice.
Two days later we reach Pokhara after traveling about 650 km. There is a sense of gratitude for a great ride and anticipation because Pokhara, the city where everyone and everyone returns after tough hikes or scaling snowy peaks, really knows how to throw a party. Now that the riding is over, I look forward to live performances by local talent, soul-satisfying food and fine Nepalese whisky.
How to get there: There were always footprints for Upper Mustang and Lo Manthang. The only way to get there used to be by hiking from Pokhara. Then came the navigable roads to Jomsom; now there are flights from Pokhara to Jomsom. From there, it’s another five-day trek to Lo Manthang if you choose to walk.
Road construction is underway and the asphalt is slowly and steadily creeping closer to Lo Manthang. Currently, the road behind Jomsom is almost impassable and only suitable for 4×4 vehicles.
How to proceed: Wild Adventures Nepal (wildadventurenepal.com) organizes guided tours. Royal Enfield can organize trips to Mustang for a fee, including motorbike and logistics.
Costs: Upper Mustang, beyond Kagbeni, costs $500 (approx €40,000) for 10 days and $50 per day thereafter.
Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer and photographer.