Demons, Downhills, and Dal Bhat

Dec 26th, 2022

This article first appeared in the October/November 2022 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

I’d never ridden a bike on organs splattered across a hillside, but that’s what one of my Nepali hosts, Tsewang Bista, said I was doing as I toured through Nepal’s Upper Mustang. Founded in the fifth century as the Kingdom of Lo and then absorbed by Tibet before joining Nepal, in its earliest history, Upper Mustang was home to the Masters, spiritual magicians and gurus who were historical figures of flesh and blood. When the queen of Nepal couldn’t conceive, the king reached out to one of these masters, who conjured a rainbow and walked to Lomanthang on it, which rendered the queen fertile. Upper Mustang is a crossroads, a nexus for trade and culture. It is the most direct trade route between Tibet and India.

But that’s not why I’m riding on ancient organs. In the 15th century, an important abbot was building the first Buddhist temple in Upper Mustang, bringing Buddhism to this crossroads of trade, knowledge, religion, wizardry, and spirituality. The abbot toiled daily to build his temple, but he had an adversary. Every night, the Demoness of Darkness would fly to the abbot’s temple while he slept and destroy it. At the same time, the Demoness was sweating through the night to build her own temple, an eight-story building that when finally complete would destroy the world.

The abbot knew he had to stop her. He called on the father of Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, who flew from India to the abbot’s assistance. Rinpoche lay in wait for the Demoness at her temple. When she arrived, a gory battle ensued. In the bloody struggle, a flashing battle of swords, knives, and magical powers, Rinpoche defeated the Demoness, splattering her organs and intestines and disembodied parts across the Tibetan Plateau. It is said that the purple blue tint of Mustang’s hillsides is her liver, which Rinpoche dashed on the rocks and oozed across the landscape. Red streaks in the rocks are her blood. Rinpoche built a mani prayer stone wall atop her intestines that is two football fields long. Then he built the first Buddhist monastery over her eviscerated heart, destroying ignorance and saving the world.

I reflected on this story as I set out with my crew of friends from Vermont and Colorado for a week of mountain biking in Nepal’s Upper Mustang. We were accompanied by Tsewang, a carpet trader and tour operator who is from here, Kathmandu bike guide Arun Karki, expat documentary filmmaker and writer Ben Ayers who has been based in Nepal for 20 years, and a team of drivers and support staff. Radical rides, some of which were to be first descents, and a heavy dose of cultural immersion were on the itinerary. We explored, seeing what was possible to ride and what wasn’t, while also visiting monasteries and stupas or chortens (monuments containing relics, offerings, and prayers) that most westerners don’t get access to.

mountain biking in nepal
Louise Lintilhac and Dana Allen drop in above Lomanthang.
Mike Donohue

We started mellow with a well-known route on the border of Upper and Lower Mustang, shuttling a switchbacking climb from Kagbeni to Muktinath by jeep, then climbing to 13,450-foot Lupra Pass by bike. It was a lung-busting first ride and an in-your-face introduction to the thin air we would be riding in. At the top of the pass, a small chorten was draped in hundreds of khata, Tibetan scarves symbolic of respect and gratitude that are often left as offerings. We descended on purpose-built singletrack that cut through a scrubby hillside and then down sandy, rocky, rolling hummocks into the bouldery edges of the Kali Gandaki River, which carves between 26,545-foot Annapurna and 26,795-foot Dhaulagiri. It’s the deepest gorge in the world. Where we exited the trail, 2,000-year-old petroglyphs decorated a wall of rock on the river’s edge.

The ride was stunning and exhilarating. So was going back to Kagbeni, a tiny town in the shadow of towering Himalayan peaks. We spent the night there at a simple hotel owned by Tsewang’s cousin. In the morning, I arose early and climbed to the roof on a chiseled log ladder to watch the orange glow of sunrise reflect off the snowy mountain summits. The town was a maze of earthen brick alleyways, with homes and paddocks arranged around courtyards and narrow alleyways. People carried plates of marigolds, rice, and other offerings to leave at homemade altars. Shepherds shushed goats through the narrow alleys out to pastures, paying their respects at the massive stupa painted with Buddha Eyes that dominated one edge of town, and dragged their hands along the wall of brass prayer wheels on the other edge of town to send the prayers sealed inside the wheels into the world.

We ate breakfast on benches at a long wooden table — fried eggs, buckwheat porridge, and milk tea. We loaded into Indian-made Mahindra pickup trucks with our bike wheels hanging over the tailgates.

Soon after, a Greyhound-like bus pulled deep into the town’s extremely narrow streets, and a line of cars had to back up so that the bus could exit. There were mere inches between the bus and the city walls as it rocked its way down the potholed dirt road toward the next town packed with travelers and traders bearing bundles of produce, wood, hay, and more.

The landscape was sandy gray punctuated with pockets of brilliant green orchards and crops, crisscrossed by suspension bridges, and adorned with the red, blue, yellow, green, and white prayer flags snapping in the breeze. Our extremely talented and seemingly fearless drivers shuttled us up a hairpin road that clawed its way high above Kagbeni. That was as far as we could go by shuttle, and we unloaded the bikes and pedaled a gently climbing doubletrack across another low pass before dropping into an all-mountain epic. The trail skipped between rocky technical descents lined at times with thorny yellow shrubs in full bloom. The footpath crossed precipitous and sandy gorges that in a monsoon carry runoff through the foothills of the mountains all around us. We swooped and weaved across shallow canyons, skirting blind corners, occasionally losing traction out on a sandy straightaway.

mountain biking in nepal
The author, crossing one of Nepal’s ubiquitous swing bridges across the Kali Gandaki River, which has formed the deepest gorge in the world.
Mike Donohue

Nepal has a mysterious and magical feel. Myth, legend, and history are interwoven here. Temples, chortens, and stupas are ubiquitous in Upper Mustang. Buddhism is a dominant thread in the weave of culture and community and this region’s identity. Guru Rinpoche built the first Buddhist temple here, and since then, the temples have propagated across the landscape, each filled with elaborate, ancient paintings that tell the story of Buddhism, and other sacred treasures.

We drank tea and ate khapse, a kind of fried bread, with a team of archaeologists at Ghar Gumpa, a monastery in Loghekar. The archeologists were working to restore the building and save its artifacts. Like so many temples in this area, its walls are collapsing from ever-increasing monsoon rains, a result of climate change.

We toured the temple, then loaded our bikes back onto the shuttle, which took us to a mountaintop. When I asked Arun where the trail is, he pointed to a narrow opening between a craggy rock cliff and a large boulder. The path dropped steeply out of sight. I rolled in. It was a loose, pebble-filled canyon of sorts. I let off the brakes and hoped for the best. The route weaved between rock and mud fins into an abrupt, loose, and surfy trench. Blow a corner where the fins drop away, and I’d have time to think about my mistake during the 1,000-foot drop. In sections, the canyon was barely wider than my 800mm handlebar, and at times it felt like ass over tea kettle would be my next move.

We punched out into the flats, adrenaline pumping, and headed for a midday dal bhat feast. A mound of steaming rice dominated my stainless-steel plate. Smaller, stainless cups around the rice held chicken curry, pickled vegetables, lentil stew, steamed greens, potatoes, and sometimes a lentil cracker. The locals eat with their right hand so I did too, scooping little piles of food into my mouth. Nepalis prefer dal bhat for most meals. Because we’re westerners, we only ate it once or maybe twice a day. Some in my party missed the diversity of western cuisine, but I was happy to eat dal bhat all day long.

While on a morning walk through Ghemi, a town where Tsewang’s cousin is mayor, I witnessed flocks of Angora goats playfully perched on steps carved into a log propped on a roof as a ladder. They peered at me curiously while bleating from a corral cobbled together from earthen bricks, a scrap of corrugated metal, some grain sacks, and a leather tether.

The riding, the scenery, the culture, the food, the sights are all part of what makes cycling in Nepal awesome, and the people, for us, were the other part. And the people we got to know best on this trip were Tsewang, our bike guide Arun, and our drivers Ayman, Raj Kamal, and Raj Kamal 2. Arun and Ayman speak excellent English, and we bantered with them on every drive about life, Nepal, and everything else. The two Raj Kamals don’t speak much English, but we devised a pantomime/broken English that worked. We also picked up a few important Nepali phrases from them including jum jum, pronounced “zoom zoom,” which means “let’s go!”

mountain biking in nepal
Hike-a-bike is a daily occurrence riding footpaths and livestock trails that ascend up to 15,000 feet.
Mike Donohue

The two other staff, Pasang and Karma, were clearly descendants of the Masters. Pasang regularly appeared out of nowhere when one of us needed something. He made massive, corked Thermoses of milk tea materialize at all hours of the day. Karma, a lanky Nepali tasked with managing trip logistics, was an Upper Mustang local and our fixer. He was an earnest, down-to-earth, regular guy, but he made miracles happen. So far, he’d shot a rock into the stratosphere using the local yak wool and leather slingshot, pop-started a diesel jeep in reverse, and plucked a collection of shaligrams from the river. Karma seemed to know intuitively which river rocks would crack open to reveal the curly ridged fossils of 400 million to 66 million years old ammonite shells. He knows which imperfections in the smooth river rocks mean there’s likely a fossil inside. During a break to stretch our legs on a long drive, he collected a grocery bag full of them, one for everyone in the group.

After a fun exploration by bike above Ghemi, it was a no-brakes doubletrack past colorful chortens to drop into Tsarang, the village where Tsewang grew up. While we waited for our rooms, a few of us rode through the village rice paddies and farming fields, the monastery, and through an earthen matrix of homes, shops, schools, and mangers. I handed my bike off to a local kid for a test ride and was rewarded with one of the biggest smiles I’d ever seen. Tsewang was building a guest house next door to the home he grew up in. We couldn’t make it 10 feet without someone greeting him and paying their respects. He took the time to talk with everyone we met.

Across a gorge from the village, the cliffside was pockmarked with holes — caves. Elaborate, spacious chambers were scraped out of the conglomerate sandy rock here. We walked down a winding, dusty trail and across a suspension bridge to get to them. We ascended into the lowest level of this vertical village on a crumbling, extremely steep staircase. Soot on a wall signified where a cookfire once burned. Sticks, so many sticks, lay bundled into a corner, abandoned before they could be fuel. According to Tsewang, wood equalled wealth. Small shelves and miniature alcoves in a wall likely held statues. We scrambled higher, chimneying and stemming through narrow openings on dust- and gravel-covered sloping holds. Windows carved into the cave walls peered out over the shepherd ground where stone corrals did their best to shield livestock from the snow leopards. It was sketchy going. Those with rock climbing skills, including a couple of our extremely able drivers, scrambled up and up.

Leaving Tsarang, Karma borrowed a motorcycle with slick road tires and fishtailed up a steep, grassy, sandy hillside doubletrack, a climb the drivers could barely manage, to show us to a “choose your own adventure” downhill. We unloaded once the Mahindras reached the limit of how far they could drive and pedaled up the zone’s final pitches. Finally, I shifted my weight a little farther back than usual, let go of my brakes, and flew down the hillside, hopping and popping off stray rocks and banking off contours in the hummocked hillside. We spun into the dusty, walled city of Lomanthang, the former capital of the Kingdom of Lo. The former king, Tsewang’s uncle, now has a resplendent hotel here. It was a surprise to find out we were traveling with the nephew of the former king. He doesn’t have a title — he’s a jeans-wearing, low-key guy who told self-deprecating stories of being a failed trader as a youth. Now he is a very successful businessman and community leader, a dealer in antique Tibetan carpets, owner of a new hotel, and a tour operator. In the hotel restaurant, Tsewang introduced us to his parents, grandparents, siblings, and extended family through photos that lined the walls.

Lomanthang’s gompas were stunning. The nunneries and monasteries, both religious havens and repositories of ancient Buddhist art, are usually off-limits for westerners. But all welcomed us, thanks to Tsewang’s and Ben’s connections. At multiple stops, Ben’s archeologist friends were scrambling to restore temples before the paintings crumbled, succumbing to moisture and vandalism, and were lost forever, and we had a chance to learn about their work.

In Lomanthang, the vibrant paintings were violent, serene, erotic. They’re massive canvases of the real, the surreal, and the magical populated by snakes, dragons, elephants and tigers, Buddhas and consorts, wrathful deities, benevolent gods and kings that tell the tale of the defeated demoness and the rest of the history of the world. The blue pigment was ground lapis lazuli transported to Mustang from Afghanistan along the Silk and Salt Roads in the 16th century through a relay of ancient merchants. Powdered jade, the green pigment, arrived from China the same way. We met a local artist on the street, another friend of our hosts, who was repainting the temple art. He also tended a packed, closet-sized shop where he sold detailed mandalas and thangkas he painted using traditional techniques with earthen pigments and yak hide glue.

In addition to billboard-sized paintings, monasteries and nunneries throughout the region have hundreds of statues. They’re not inanimate objects; they’re ancestors who need to be cared for as any person would. Daily, they’re bathed with ceremonial smoke. They’re fed with offerings. If one is damaged, its soul or spirit can be temporarily transferred out of the statue while it’s repaired, then repatriated to the earthen, metal, or gold-plated effigy with the proper ceremonial process.

mountain biking in nepal
Ben Ayers carves his way across a Himalayan ridgeline.
Mike Donohue

From Lomanthang, the Raj Kamals and Ayman drove us up the most terrifying road yet. It was impossibly steep, dusty, and long. As scary as it was to be transported up this road in a jeep, I was thankful to not have to pedal it. We were scouting a new route, a shepherd’s trail that descends into the hamlet of Tange. By the time my Mahindra stopped, Karma and Ben were in a heated roadside discussion, arguing and pointing, head scratching and gesticulating. Karma finally ran down the hillside to show us the path he saw that we could not. With his footprints to guide us, we rolled in.

I made a right turn at the fork to swoop down a plunging hillside. Riders behind me chose left, got cliffed out, and had to retrace. The hills and ridgelines were brushy scrub and carve-able decomposed rock where we could drop into any line. We played around on a super-steep slope that rode like volcanic ash before rolling into the tiniest town we’d stayed in yet.

Upper Mustang holds the highest concentration of human-created caves, and they’re visible across the landscape. In Tange, we clambered around those caves for a couple of hours before dinner, trying to connect the chambers.

A lot of the rides we’d done up to this point were half-day, highly intense, steep downhill adventures, but eventually we hit the biggest riding day of the trip. The first hour was innocent enough, the route strewn with chickenhead boulders as it climbed the rocky foothills of this valley. At a massive swing bridge ticker-taped with prayer flags, we spotted a shepherd straight-lining it up a mountainside with his flock of goats a lot faster than our bikes would manage. Our path meandered to his right. It was rideable for a minute. Then we pushed, rode, pushed.

And then just pushed. From 12,000 feet or so to around 15,000. Ben hired two porters to help ferry our bikes and lunch to the top of the first pass. He speaks fluent Nepali, but clearly there’d been some breakdown in communication. There was some haggling as the porters came to understand what they’d actually been asked to do. Fees were renegotiated. The group plodded along, with the porters pushing two bikes uphill, while other riders alternated pushing each other’s bikes.

We reached a khata-wrapped chorten at the top of the pass around 15,000 feet. After a brief regroup, we set off on a ridgeline traverse that took the rest of the day. Over the next four hours, we ripped along dirt paths that swooped and soared, climbed then barreled down rollicking rubble-strewn slash. At times we wove through shrubby vegetation. But most of the time, we pedaled red and yellow and gray and blue dirt. The last pitch was a smackdown through a loose boulder field that sent more than one rider over the bars.

We ferried back to Jomsom, the village where we started our trip. It was a little bit shocking to have internet, cold beer, flush toilets, and a restaurant with a menu of possible dinner options. Like many bike tours before, I couldn’t say I missed the modern conveniences, as much because they signified the end of the trip as because I liked sampling what a simpler life could be.

The final ride was as functional as it was fun. To start the trip, we took a small plane from Kathmandu to Pokhara and then a 16-seater plane from Pokhara to Jomsom. Now we rode from Jomsom back toward Pokhara along the Annapurna Circuit. We cut through small villages on dusty roads and crossed the Kali Gandaki on wooden bridges cobbled together from scrap and swinging suspension bridges heavy with flapping prayer flags. We dropped off the arid Tibetan Plateau and were back in trees, which was familiar and comforting to a crew from northeastern U.S. Rooty singletrack merged into a sandy dirt road construction zone then returned to the forest before finally popping out on a road so potholed and dusty and in such disrepair that we zoomed past cars and buses on our mountain bikes. We rode it all the way to lunch and hot springs in Tatopani.

The end of any trip is always a mix of emotions. Back in Kathmandu packing bikes and feasting on a dinner of Nepali traditional foods in Ben’s courtyard, we were pleasantly exhausted and ready to return home, but also in awe of the experience we just had. We managed to traverse the planet while COVID still raged and to pedal bicycles into one of the most remote and least visited areas of the world. Rinpoche defeated the Demoness of Darkness to destroy ignorance. Travel like this, that’s a cross-cultural exchange, and truly immersive, does the same. Bantering with the team, even in pantomime and broken English, was as much a part of the experience as moving through the landscape of the Tibetan Plateau. So was exploring Buddhism’s most sacred sites. So was peering into my own preconceptions and expectations, and letting magic and reality intermingle without needing to keep them apart.

Nuts & Bolts

Starting out

Currently, all international flights arrive in Kathmandu. Plan to bring your own bike unless you book a tour with an operator that specifically offers bike rentals. There are many places to stay in Kathmandu. We recommend booking a room in historic Patan at Cosy Nepal. Cosy’s rooms are scattered throughout Patan and are immaculately maintained. And in Patan, you’ll be deeply immersed in one of the city’s most vibrant, historic, and cultural districts.

Finding your way

There are many great places to mountain bike in Nepal, and going with a guide will assure you find the best riding. Singletrack comes and goes as new roads are built, so great riding is a moving target. A local guide will know the best trail locations and trail conditions. Trans Himalaya Rides provides day trips as well as complete tours that include guiding, meals, accommodation, and in-country transport. Owner and lead guide Arun Karki is a specialist in Upper Mustang.

Flying in and out

Trans Himalaya Rides can also arrange air transport to Jomsom, which is the gateway to Upper Mustang. It takes two days to fly there from Kathmandu to Pokhara and Pokhara to Jomsom. Bikes typically go by truck. The drive is arduous for passengers. Himalayan Rides runs fantastic trips in and around Kathmandu and in Lower Mustang. They also rent high-end mountain bikes.

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