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The best way to see Nepal, it has long been said, is to walk. Nowadays, however, mountain biking is a serious alternative. Decent mountain bikes are available to rent in Kathmandu and Pokhara, where you’ll also find good route information and well-organized tours. Even if you’re not planning an extreme off-road Himalayan MTB adventure, renting a bike is worth considering: bikes provide a more intimate experience than a speeding jeep or bus and they get you to places at a more exciting pace than trekking.
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Although Sagarmatha National Park itself continues to ban mountain bikes, it’ll be possible one day – perhaps very soon – to cycle to the gates of Everest. The traditional approach road to Everest, long paved as far as Jiri, now slips and slides at least as far as Bhandar. East of that, the giant Lamjura pass, with its endless stair of a walking trail, would put off all but the most dedicated mountain bikers. Other, rough roads are steadily approaching from Dharan and the Arun valley to the southeast, however, and a well-built new road now approaches from the south. Breaking off the East–West Highway 37km east of the Janakpur turn-off, this exciting new option threads north through huge and intensely populated hills to the thriving district capitals of Okhaldunga and Salleri, and to tiny Phaplu airstrip – which is just a few hours’ walks south of the Everest walk-in trail at Junbesi. And Junbesi is just the other side of that huge Lamjura pass … Linking any of these routes as a loop, or with the trek north to the high Everest country, would currently require an off-putting amount of portage, but roads are changing fast in Nepal.
Don’t bring a bike unless you have the time, energy, and commitment to using it a lot. Airlines (both international and domestic) now generally impose a 25kg weight limit, with extortionate rates for extra kilos, so check the costs and allowances when you book your ticket – and pack light. The specialist mountain bike shops in Kathmandu and Pokhara offer reassembly and full servicing. When you return home, make sure to clean off mud or soil to avoid problems at customs; a good local operator can wash, service, and pack your bike post-tour. Soft bike bags are worth considering; you’ll be expected to deflate the tires and swivel the handlebars parallel to the frame. Nepali (and Chinese/Tibetan, if you’re cycling that way) customs may want verbal assurance that the bike will be returning with you when you leave the country, but this shouldn’t be a problem and should not cost money. Domestic airlines’ willingness to accept bikes as baggage is always dependent upon available luggage space, so check in early.
Chinese- and Indian-made bikes are available from streetside vendors for Rs100–200 per day. Superficially, they look the part – some even have suspension – but they’re heavy and often uncomfortable, components are flimsy, maintenance may be poor, and they rarely come with a helmet. If you find such a bike in a fairly new condition, you could get away with a day trip or overnight loop but they’re not really fit for rough roads. Don’t ride this kind of bike further than you’re prepared to walk back with it.
For hard or long-distance riding you’ll need a real mountain bike, which can be rented from specialist bike shops/tour operators in Kathmandu and Pokhara (but nowhere else). A helmet and basic tool kit should come with the bike. Chinese-made bikes with V-brakes go for around Rs500 a day, but if you’re doing anything more than pootling about it’s worth paying for a Western bike. Prices range from around Rs1000 for an older hard-tail bike to around Rs2000 for a newer one with dual suspension. You’ll be expected to leave a passport or something of value as security. You’ll generally have to pay for damage or above-normal wear and tear. Be sure to reserve these bikes as far ahead as possible, especially during busy times; the choice is definitely limited in the peak season.
Whichever kind of bike you rent, it’s your responsibility to check it over before setting off. Check brakes and pads, test spoke tension (they should all be taut), ensure that tires have sufficient tread and are properly inflated (check inflation while sitting on the bike), test the chain for tautness, and work the bike through its gears to see that the derailleurs function smoothly. Check that there’s a bell – you’ll be using it a lot.
You may be able to buy a decent used bike from a departing traveler, especially towards the end of the autumn or spring seasons – check mountain bike shop notice boards in Kathmandu or Pokhara or their websites. Alternatively, you could buy new and sell on yourself: good-quality bikes from manufacturers such as Trek or Commencal can be bought in Kathmandu and Pokhara, at prices similar to home.
The Pokhara Valley account gives more detail on roads and bikeable destinations in that area. A few recommended itineraries are given below, though you’ll need patience, local advice, and good map-reading skills to get the most out of them – hiring a guide is recommended. If you’re planning on biking from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the Prithvi Highway can’t be recommended, because of the volume of trucks and microbuses, and other vehicles. It would be better to put your bike on the roof of a bus – or plan an ambitious, multi-day (minimum five days) route via Trisuli Bazaar, Dhading, Gorkha, and the Marsyangdi valley.
A shortish day’s circumnavigation of Phewa Tal is easily possible, heading out along the north shore and returning via Danda Kot and the World Peace Stupa – the last part takes you downhill along single tracks through the forest, coming out just west of Damside. This loop will take most people around five hours. A more adventurous, slightly longer option heads out across the face of the hillside underneath Sarangkot – but you’ll need a guide to find the mix of 4WD trails and single-track; the longer alternative would be to follow the Sarangkot ridge. To make a really full day trip, you can extend the loop south of the Peace Stupa down the Seti Nadi.
The hilltop viewpoint of Sarangkot makes a great focus for an intermediate-level day trip or overnight, and one that can be easily done without a guide. From the Bindyabasini temple in the bazaar, follow the paved road 8km westwards to Sarangkot town and lodges, where there’s a junction: the hilltop viewpoint is another 3km along to the right, while the left-hand fork leads towards Naudaada. The first 10km of the Naudaada road contours pleasantly along the south side of the ridge through the forest, terraced farmland, and villages; at Naudaada you can head back to Pokhara on the busy Baglung Highway. A shorter, but more demanding alternative is to break off the Naudaada road at the saddle of Deurali, then descend steeply on off-road tracks via Kaskiot to Pame, a couple of kilometers west of Pokhara along the lakeshore.
A fine road, paved only in its earliest sections, follows a ridge between two beautiful lakes, Rupa Tal and Begnas Tal, and then westwards to Besisahar. A network of trails developing in this region can offer one or several days of riding – enquire at Pokhara bike shops. A fairly tough, long day’s route, involving some carrying, is known as the Begnas Loop: it takes you east of Pokhara (from the Bhadrakali Mandir), along the ridge road past Tiger Mountain Resort to Kalikasthan and Tiwaridanda; from here it’s downhill, heading south on a rough road to Kotbari and Sundari Danda, then back on the partially paved road between Begnas and Rupa Tal. Heading east of Begnas Tal, it’s a 40km three-day rough-road trip through Bhorletar and Sundari Bazaar on the way to the paved road at Besisahar; from there you could head on up the new road up the Marsyangdi valley (the eastern side of the Annapurna Circuit) or return to Pokhara (with a side trip to Bandipur).
Only the most committed mountain bikers take on the full, trekking-style Annapurna Circuit, carrying their bikes across the high pass of the Thorung La. Some tour companies offer the option of plane, bus, and mule transport to the top, followed by an incredible downhill, but it’s expensive. If the complete circuit is beyond most people’s reach, it’s increasingly possible to follow either of its arms upwards, then turn around and descend the same way. The eastern side is the more popular. Attractive roads lead to Besisahar, from where you can now cycle up the Marsyangdi Valley all the way to Manang – though you may find yourself carrying your bike for up to a quarter of the ascent. The trip from Pokhara to Manang usually takes 7–10 days. The western side of the circuit is less varied, at first, though new roads being built will soon offer the possibility of a cut-through from Birethanti to Tatopani, via Ghorepani. Currently, however, it’s 90km from Pokhara to Beni, and then a fairly relentless climb along the mostly unpaved 80km road up the Kali Gandaki from Beni to Jomsom. Above Jomosom, dusty, Tibetan-style and relatively flat roads beckon on toward Muktinath (and, with a special permit, Upper Mustang).
No special bike permits are needed for the Annapurna Circuit, but if you are entering the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACAP) you will need a TIMS card and park entry ticket, just as trekkers do.
Unpaved roads head downstream along the churning Seti Nadi, with dramatic overlooks of the canyon and views of the mountains. The road on the south side of the canyon goes on for many easy, downhill miles, and leads to some more remote trails further to the southeast. One good loop from Pokhara follows a trail south from the main road to Chhorepatan, stopping just short of Kristi Nachana Chaur, then turns east to Nirmal Pokhari; from here, you descend to the Seti, crossing at Dobila, below the huge Fulbari Resort – from where it’s a relatively gentle ride up the Seti towards Lakeside.
The easiest route to the Terai is along the Prithvi Highway to Mugling and then south from there to Narayangadh, which is only a short hop from Chitwan National Park. It does get heavy traffic but is mostly downhill and you can pedal it in a day.
A more adventurous and strenuous route follows the winding, scenic Siddhartha Highway southwards to Butwal, via Tansen. This ride requires some long stints in the saddle and several overnight stops. It’s a fast downhill ride from Tansen to Butwal, and from there it’s a flat and easy couple of hours to the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini. An even more adventurous option would be to head west of Pokhara to Baglung, and from there follow the incredible, switchbacking Tamghas Highway south – either looping around southeastwards via Ridi Bazaar to Tansen (it’s 80km from Tamghas to Tansen via Ridi), or continuing south and west from Tamghas via Sandhikarka, on 90km of rough roads, joining the Mahendra Highway at Gorusinge, 48km west of Butwal (and some 10km north of the Buddhist archeological site of Kapilvastu). West of Butwal, the Mahendra Highway leads through a beautiful dun valley towards the relatively undeveloped far west, the traffic lightening as you go.
From Hetauda, Kathmandu’s gateway to the Terai, it’s a half-day ride west along the busy Mahendra Highway to Chitwan National Park, where there are many flat village trails to explore by bike. Moving on to Pokhara requires traveling via Narayanghat and the Prithvi (Kathmandu–Pokhara) Highway – worryingly busy in the mornings, but nonetheless beautiful, especially between Mugling and Pokhara. Another option is just to put your bike on a bus. Heading east out of Hetauda, the Mahendra Highway is sometimes interestingly rural, sometimes rather urbanized, and always flat. There’s a good network of lovely rural tracks around Janakpur.