11/10/18-31/10/18 (three weeks)
Distance cycled: 218.7km / 135.9mi
Elevation cycled: 7,153m / 23,468ft
Distance hiked: 18.4km / 11.4mi
Elevation hiked: 1,320m / 4,331ft
Oh man, where do we even begin. Firstly, I’ll apologise: I think we’re cheating a little by grouping three week’s worth of blog posts together. We do have a good excuse, mind you. We’ve been riding around in the Himalayas, going where the oxygen gets so thin that it starts messing with your body. Idiots, I know, but it’s just too much fun.
Anyway, if you followed the Instagram diary we had going during Annapurna – at the very bottom of this blog post if you missed it – you’ll know that we did indeed get up and over Thorang La Pass at 5,416m (sorry if that’s a spoiler). Don’t worry, this blog post isn’t a repeat of all that, well, I do mention Dan’s rash again, but how could I not? Look at it… Instead, I’ll share – and probably overshare – all the bits in between what we’ve already told you.
Before I get into all that, a quick recap of where we left off during the last blog post. If you remember, we did actually start cycling the Annapurna Circuit, but had to retreat back to Pokhara as my wheel rim had cracked. Two frantic days in Pokhara saw us arrange two new wheels to be sent from the UK – we’re erring on the side of caution and changing Dan’s too – and we rented me a mountain bike. Then we jumped in a questionable taxi and hotfooted it back to Besisahar to pick up where we’d left off.
So. Annapurna. What a ride. To be honest, we’ve been a bit speechless since getting back to the real world. It went above and beyond any expectation we had. Don’t get me wrong, it was bloody difficult, but tears and pain aside, it was simply amazing (nobody really cried). Definitely a trip highlight. Maybe even the best thing so far… To give you an idea of what we’ve just tackled, here are some stats and map.
You may have noticed that we didn’t cycle the full loop back to Pokhara, catching a bus the last 115km instead. I’ll explain more about why at the end. For now I’ll just point out that it isn’t meant to take twenty-two days to cycle the Annapurna Circuit from Pokhara. And it would have taken longer had we of completed it. When we initially planned the route, we had expected it to take us around fourteen/fifteen days. But with the wheel setback, some route errors and multiple sicknesses, you can see how we failed to stick to that timeframe.
Now, for the pack list. Without my touring bike, we were short of two rear panniers, so we had to cull even more kit to make sure it fit into Dan’s two rear panniers and my backpack. Dan kindly carried all the heavy gear, like tools and toiletries, plus a few extra bits that didn’t fit in my bag. After everything else, we only had enough room for two sets of clothes each. That doesn’t sound so bad in theory, but after two weeks of riding, those clothes needed burning not washing. We smelled so bad.
It is totally ridable, even for novice mountain bikers like us. We had read stories of people mostly pushing, yet after riding it ourselves, the only reason we can think of people having to push, is if they stuck to the hiking track. That would be tough as it’s packed with trekkers and there are one too many steps to climb.
Once inside the Annapurna Conservation Area, there was a jeep track all the way to Manang, which is only about 20km from the pass. From Manang you do have to cycle on the hiking track, but we were surprised at how much of it was cyclable – and how courtesy the trekkers were. We felt like celebrities after all the photos, applause and cheers we got #egos. All in all, we reckon our cycle to push ratio from Pokhara to Ghasa is 90:10. That equals about 35km pushing.
The typical (‘right’) way to complete Annapurna is anti-clockwise. This is due to there being a much higher lodge on the east side, which makes the day you go over the pass easier. We did meet a lovely (crazy) bunch of cyclists completing the route clockwise, however. It is doable, of course, but it’s not for the fainthearted. It sounded brutal, as you climb from 4,200m to 5,416m essentially in one go. Descending the west side was tough, never mind ascending it. The single track down the east side is why mountain bikers choose to suffer clockwise to the top. It’s meant to be some of the best single track in the world.
I’ll just add one more thing about the route, the beauty. Riding from Pokhara at 820m to Thorang La Pass at 5,416m, you see landscapes that don’t even look real. Starting in a dusty city, you quickly climb to rich, green forest. Once you’re in Annapurna, you’re in a jungle at first, then an alpine forest. Above 3,500m, the landscape changes dramatically – less oxygen means less plants and trees grow, but snowy mountains appear. Above 4,000m it’s barren. And above 5,000m nothing grows. You are walking on rocks and dirt. But it’s stunning, as you’re surrounded by monstrous mountains that are so intimidating. If you enjoy landscape photography, this will be your paradise. Dan was in his element.
There’s not an awful lot to say about accommodation really. Just that hotels outside the Annapurna Conservation Area are as you would expect. Hotels inside, aka tea houses, were surprisingly pleasant. They were of course very basic, especially the higher we got, but we found them all very comfortable – and much nicer than on the Everest Base Camp trek.
The rooms were always clean and big enough to store the bikes inside. We often found places with private bathrooms, which was a blessing when I was sick. Also, unlike the tea houses on the Everest Base Camp Trek, showers, WiFi, and electricity were mostly free. And as a bonus, most tea houses we stayed at were free too, so long as we ate two meals there. There really wasn’t a lot of choice, so it was very easy to do that.
Touring Bike v Mountain Bike
Once we’d set our minds to cycling the circuit, we did our usual task of stalking every other cyclist that had done it before us. The consensus? Fat tyres, light load. We’d read one or two particular write-ups that said a big ‘no, no’ to touring bikes. We could obviously skim a load of kit off our weight, but since we only had touring bikes, that’s what we had to do it on. Then mine broke. This gave us a prime opportunity to test them against each other.
First of all, I can’t remember the last time I actually rode a mountain bike – if ever. It definitely took some getting used to. Riding a different style of bike is like driving your friend’s cars: you’ll get it moving, but you might turn the window wipers on instead of the indicator. After a few days, I had gotten used to the back-to-front brakes, different gear shifters, and straight handle bars. It did take a little longer for my bum to get used to the saddle, however. I stupidly forgot to swap it over to my comfy Brooks.
Once I got into the swing of things, the bike was amazing. It was literally made for routes like Annapurna. That’s not to say Dan couldn’t do it on his touring bike – you could do it on a town bike if you tried hard enough. It’s just his Surly was lacking something (a front suspension for one thing). While I was bombing down mountain sides, smashing over rocks, Dan took it a little easier. One of the main reasons for that, was to avoid a third cracked rim (we really are that unlucky).
Another difference in the two bikes was the weight distribution. While Dan only carried around 15kg, most of that weight was in his rear panniers. That didn’t make much of difference when cycling, but when pushing up gradients of 38%, he really felt it. In fact, sometimes he would put the panniers on the front rack, or we’d push his bike as a team. My set-up was considerably lighter, with my 1.5kg sleeping bag bungeed to my handlebars and around 3kg in a backpack. Unfortunately a serious rugby accident in his late teens meant Dan’s couldn’t join me in the backpack crew, as he often suffers with back pain.
After two weeks, we came to the conclusion that both of our set-ups were wrong. The best solution are frame and saddle bags, helping to spread the weight around, reducing the stress on your back or back wheel. In another revelation, we realised that we’re mountain bike converts! As much as I let Dan push his own bike up the hills, I didn’t hog all the fun bombing down them on the rental. He loved it as much as I did and we’re actually considering a mountain bike as our next bike purchase in New Zealand, rather than road bikes.
Altitude sickness is so weird. Our bodies works better at sea level, where oxygen levels are highest. Once we move to high altitude (above 2,500m) where the oxygen thins, the level of oxygen in our blood begins to decrease rapidly, which can lead to medical problems.
Most people experience symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, which can include headaches, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, tiredness, loss of appetite and shortness of breath. Occasionally, this turns into the potentially fatal High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), fluid on the lungs, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), fluid on the brain.
AMS can affect anyone – even if you’ve climbed high before and were fine. Sadly, one of the guys in the Clockwise Team had to turn around 300m vertical metres from the pass. He was showing early signs of hypothermia and AMS. Sat wrapped in multiple sleeping bags, unable to get warm, he made the right decision to turn around and descend with his girlfriend. This wasn’t the first time he’d been to high altitude, or Annapurna for that matter, but it just shows that it can affect anyone at anytime, no matter their experience.
If you think that’s bad, the death zone, above 8000m (which we didn’t enter, I might add) is a region of altitude where oxygen levels are simply insufficient to sustain human life for an extend length of time. This is why people climb Everest plugged into oxygen tanks. Most of the two hundred people who have died on Everest died in the Death Zone.
You can help alleviate AMS. The NHS recommend that once you reach 3,000m, you sleep no more than 500m than the previous night’s sleep, to help you acclimatise. Also, for every 1,000m gained, you should have one full day off. On these ‘days off’, it’s advised that you hike to a higher altitude, before coming back down. On top on that, drink three litres of water per day, no alcohol, plenty of rest, and a high calorie diet. You can also take certain medicines. I love that the NHS had to state on their website that you can’t actually get AMS in the UK because our highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is only 1,345m. We’re so small.
Interestingly, people who are born at high altitude have adapted to the lack of oxygen over generations. People native to the Himalayas, for example, have better oxygenation at birth, enlarged lung volumes throughout life, and a higher capacity for exercise.
So what did we experience? (This is the gross picture bit).
Thorang La Pass (5,416m)
I know we wrote an Instagram post briefly explaining the day we reached the pass, but I just wanted to go into a little more detail on our mindset and how close we came to not doing it.
We’d put so much effort into getting to Thorong Phedi, the last camp before the pass, we were pretty broken by that point. I still didn’t have an appetite after that bout of sickness and diarrhoea. We weren’t sleeping well. Our bodies were exhausted trying to keep warm. We were done. We had expected to be back in Pokhara sipping beers by now. Instead we were at 4,525m in minus double figures. To makes matter worse, we saw the Clockwise Team coming down from the pass. It was great see them, don’t get me wrong, but their tales of the day did nothing to fill us with confidence. They’d started at 4:45am. It had reached -15°C. Their waters had frozen. Their friend, Rob, had to turn around. They’d all experienced symptoms of AMS throughout the day. They. Look. Dreadful. (Sorry if you read this guys).
We were sat shivering around the dinner table, trying to forge some kind of excitement for the task ahead, while listening to the fact that the worst was not over. We just couldn’t do it. We were knackered. We come up with a few possible options to encourage our commitment:
Hire a porter to carry Dan’s panniers (like I mentioned, they made pushing much harder).
Hike to the pass then come back for the bikes and cycle back the way we came.
Have another day’s rest and recovery, then see how we feel.
As we said goodnight to the guys, we half joked that we would see them at breakfast. Back in our room, it was freezing. I’m talking so cold that we slept in our clothes. It was one of the worst night’s sleep we’ve both had. Partly due to the cold and partly, I guess, due to nerves and excitement. We barely had four hours sleep. At 3am, we were rustling around, wide awake. That’s when we turned to each other and said, ‘bugger it, shall we just go for it?”
That’s when the adrenaline kicked in. An energy we just did’t have the night before took over. We were up and––I’d say we got dressed, but we never got undressed the night before. Annoyingly, as we were so sure we weren’t going to do it, we hadn’t pre-ordered breakfast, which is something every tea house asks you do before bed. We dashed to the dining hall hoping to get something – anything. It was jam-packed with trekkers eating. Everyone had had the same early idea. We were so surprised. After a fast feed, we packed and were ready to leave by 5am. Some people had left a 4am.
It took us until around 3.30pm to ascend 992m and descend 1,677m over 18.7km. It was a struggle. We’d push a dozen steps and stop for a breather. Trying to catch our breath was difficult. The higher we got the harder the burn in our legs got, too, as our oxygen levels dropped.
We took it in turns to pep each other up. We’d go to our happy places. We’d daydream about the warmer adventures we’ll have in India. We’d play songs in our heads. But a lot of the time, it was just empty silence. It definitely became more of a mental battle, rather than a physical one. It’s easier to push your body further than your mind.
Then we did it. Reaching the top was an incredible feeling, although we didn’t rest there long to bask in the glory. A quick photo and sugar hit and we were making our way down. We only cycled some of the downhill, guiding our bikes down the rest. I reckon a more experienced mountain biker would have been able to cycle a lot more than we managed.
We were shattered by the time we found food and a bed. Too tired to process what we’d just done, we ate an early dinner and passed out fully-clothed, having not brushed our teeth or anything. What a day.
Not cycle down the west side.
As soon as you reach Muktinath, the first main village after the pass, everything feels different. It’s like you’re not even in the Annapurna Conservation Area anymore. From here you join a road and it’s not limited to jeeps. You’re dodging all kinds of traffic, plus lots of vain motor-bikers who pose in the middle of the road for the perfect Facebook profile pic. Then there’s the dust. It’s relentless.
If we were to do it again, we would consider cycling from Pokhara to Thorang La Pass and then cycling back down the same way. Maybe even try that single track everyone bangs on about.
In our research, we came across multiple tour companies in Nepal offering a guided cycle tour of the Annapurna Circuit for $2,000 (£1,575) per person. We did not spend $4,000.
So what did we spend?
Annapurna Permits for two people: £56
Rental bike 14-days: £140 (would have been £0 had my bike not broke…)
Accommodation 21-nights: £60 (like I mentioned, a lot were free if you ate there)
Meals & snacks: est. £20 per day* £440
Water: £0 (we filtered our water. At high altitudes expect to pay up to £1.60 per 1 litre bottle)
*I’ll update once I’ve updated our budget.
As know we ordered some new wheels. We were expecting them to be waiting for us when we got back to Pokhara, although we got an email while we were in Annapurna to say there had been a problem. I won’t go into it all right now, I’ll save that for when we have resolved the issue. But needless to say, it’s another mission and a half, which meant we couldn’t finish the full loop. Annoyingly, we had to hop on a bus and make a mad dash for these wheels so we can get to India before our Nepali visa expires. We don’t want a repeat of the Russian scandal. We read overstaying in Nepal is worse than in Russia – can you believe that! Keep your fingers crossed that we’re peddling by next week.