Cycling the Annapurna Circuit Trek

    ‘Haven’t you had enough after Georgia?’ Josh asked laughingly, when we told him about our plan to cycle the Annapurna Circuit Trek (ACT). One of the world’s most beautiful high altitude hiking trails. It winds through some of the world's tallest mountains, with Annapurna I as the highest at 8.091 meter (26,545 feet).

    But we’d come pretty far since our first attempt at a bikepacking route in the high Georgian Caucasus. With a full touring set-up we set off on the worst roads and steepest climbs. Of course we were never able to complete this route with our heavy set-up. It also might have been a bit ambitious for our first week bicycle touring ever. Even for the Pamir we had our doubts. Were we strong enough? Was it going to be too hard? And to be fair, sometimes it was. Then we just changed our plan. We took an extra rest day, scored a ride to the top of a pass or simply cried a little and then got on with it.

    This time we were ready

    But this time we felt a lot more sure about ourselves. One thing we had learned from our Georgian adventure is that weight matters. We stripped our bikes to the minimum. Robin had a 14 liter saddle bag and Sabina just a 7,5 liter frame bag. Somehow we had to fit enough warm clothes in our bags for the freezing temperatures at higher altitude. The highest point of the route is the famous Thorong La Pass at 5.416 meters (17,769 feet).

    The total elevation gain of the entire circuit is more than 10.000 meter (32,810 ft) over just 380 kilometer (236 miles). That’s a lot of high numbers, and not many bicycle tourists who’ve completed this trail before us.

    The Himalayan adventurers

    We were still hanging out with Ross and Paxton (Ugly Armadillo) and had somehow managed to convince them that riding this trek was a good idea. In Pokhara we found two new friends wo had the same crazy idea as us. Sam from Wales (CycleTouringSam) and Silas from Switzerland. With our brand new  gang of six we were ready to take on this Himalayan adventure.

    Sara and Andreas (Project Pedal Further) cycled the Annapurna Circuit a few weeks before we did. After some helpful tips about the route and what to pack we were ready to hit the gravel.

    Story continues after map

    Day 1 Pokhara (1.400m) to Sundarbazar (1.406m)

    55 km, 1.195m, 4h 24m

    Our gang was ready to finally hit the road. We rode on the main road for a couple of kilometers before we could take a turn, leading us to the small road along Begnas Lake. The lake was hidden to us behind a thick blanket of fog. But we weren’t too bothered, since we were so excited to finally start our adventure after a lot of preparations.

    After a few kilometers Silas’ front tyre felt wobbly so he stopped to put in more air. He had gotten Ross’ old mountainbike tyre (Sam had the other one), but once the pressure was higher it didn’t quite fit in the fork any more. The only solution was too let some air out again, just enough to find the sweet spot where the tyre wouldn’t rub anymore. It slowed him down a bit, but that was fine on our behalf, since he’s a very fast cyclist anyway.

    We rode through fields and small villages and had our first taste of some pretty steep climbs on dirt roads. Every now and then we would pass roadworks with big loud generators and excavators. We had to carry our bikes over the construction site and all the workers would start to giggle when we told them we were planning to cycle over the Throng La pass.

    Our initial plan was to reach Besisahar on day one, but with all the delays we opted to stop in a small village called Sundarbazar, about 15 kilometers earlier. At the hotel Silas found out he also had to fix his rear tyre, just a simple flat this time.

    Day 2 Sundarbazar (1.406m) to Syange (1.119m)

    44 km, 1.476m, 4h 22m

    The fog from the first day had cleared, so for the first time we had a good view on where we would soon ride. The Himalayas with their snow capped high peaks called upon us all. 

    Besishahar was the last town we could stock up for a fair price. We bought a bunch of chocolate cookies, peanut butter and some dried fruits. Prices on the circuit are sky-high, and it rises simultaneously with the altitude. Understandable, since it’s not an easy task to get the goods up. 

    When we rode out of Besishahar we heard a loud ‘pop’. It was Silas’ rear tube (again). It almost seemed as this ride was doomed for Silas’. The previous three(!) times he had started the circuit, he had had to return due to mechanical issues with his bicycle. So when we all waited to get our permits checked, Silas’ raced by hoping they wouldn’t come after him. The officer asked us if he was our friend. We lied through out teeth and said we had never seen him before.

    By now we were all praying for Silas to get through this whole trip with us. The same day the zipper of his small saddlebag broke, causing him to lose some tools. Plus the hook of his pannier broke off. He looked absolutely defeated, so we all cheered him on to stay motivated.  That’s probably the best about cycling in a bigger group. You may slow each other down a bit, but you always have an entire cheer squad with you.

    We cycled mostly on the road, which was a mix of gravel and some asphalt from time to time. It was going up all day, which was pretty though but definitely doable. When we reached the guesthouse our routine negotiation began. Thanks to Sabina’s strong negotiating skills we almost never had to pay for the room as long as we all had dinner at the guesthouse. The meals also got more expensive the higher we got. A dahl bat (typical Nepali dish with rice, lentil curry and vegetable curry) is usually around 100 rupees, here it was already 300 rupees.

    Day 3 Syange (1.119m) to Dharapani (1.943m)

    20 km, 1.042m, 2h 45m

    From Syange we could choose an almost vertical muddy jeep trail or a narrow alley straight through the village and onto a hiking trail. Easy pick. It wasn’t long before we reached the road, which was even paved. Soon enough we could see why. The road clung against the winding rock face and rose a few hundred meters across the cliff. Most of us had to walk and even that was a strenuous task. At some point the tarmac made place for gravel again and even motor bikes couldn’t ride here. Them too had to push their heavy bikes uphill.

    Along the way we were rewarded with beautiful waterfalls and a lovely hot spring. To reach it we had to walk down a narrow rocky staircase, but the water was a treat for our already sore muscles. When we arrived at our guest house for the day we all took even more care for us muscles, with some group yoga and stretches.

    Day 4 Dharapani (1.943m) to Chame (2.630m)

    17 km, 927m, 2h 32m

    After Dharapani came the next checkpoint. And soon enough the environment started to change. The style of the houses changed a bit, and we saw the first wall with prayer wheels. Here houses were made of stone and everyone seemed to be preparing for winter. Locals were repairing their houses and chopping wood. Nature also changed drastically. Leaf forest made place for pine forrest and the vegetation was much thicker here. Since we had been climbing and climbing, we could see the tree line and the massive boulders rising above it. We even got a glimpse of the mighty Manaslu.

    Just before Chame we passed a makeshift medical checkpoint. We all had our bodyworks checked. We were soon reaching the 3.000 meter mark, and from there you really start to feel the effects of the altitude. Luckily all our oxygen levels were superb and so was everyone’s blood pressure. The doc gave us all the clear to continue climbing.

    It was a relatively short day, so we had some time to explore Chame. It’s a beautiful little old town, with some small shops and even a real coffeeshop. Cuddled up around the stove we enjoyed our cuppa together with some yak cheese. A combination that weirdly enough worked. Ross and Paxton bargained for some extra warm clothes in the shops and Sam went large on more yak cheese.

    Day 5 Chame (2.630m) to Manang (3.530m)

    30 km, 1.146m, 3h 39m

    In the morning we planned to head to a local eatery for a budget proof breakfast. Sam had to fix something on his bike so he was a bit behind. We cycled past a pack of dogs, where one was barking viciously at a motor cyclist. We passed at a safe distance, but Sam hadn’t noticed the dog. Normally the dogs in Nepal don’t harm cyclists, but this one bit Sam in the leg as he walked past.

    He had a rabies shot, but even then you still need to get the whole course of vaccinations. As luck would have it, Chame had a small hospital and this was the only town on this side of the pass where they had the vaccine in stock. It took some time for the doctor to arrive so Silas did a very professional job of dressing Sam’s wound. It looked more like a cut or a graze than a bite mark, so the doctor wrote ‘alleged’ dog bite on the form much to Sam’s displeasement. He felt pretty sure about exactly what had just happened to him.

    As Sam was being taken care of, us and Paxton took a head start. Paxton was pretty annoyed by the bad road conditions. And it was hard work for us too. Without Sam, Silas and Ross we could cycle more in our own pace, with Robin in the lead. There was a grueling set of switchbacks over loose rocks and sand. Hikers were now going faster than us.

    Afterwards came a downhill section over some very comfortable single track. That picked us all right up. We stopped for tea and a snack in Pisang, and just as we were about to leave Sam joined us. Ross and Silas had taken a detour through higher Pisang, following a mountain bike trail. 

    Just as the route on Komoot had predicted, the last part to Manang was nearly flat. It only got better, when we saw the first baked goods in the windows of the European style bakery’s. This felt like heaven. Chocolate croissants and fresh coffee right in the middle of the magnificent Himalaya’s. Prices were sky-high as well, but everyone was in for a treat so it was worth every single rupee.

    Day 6 and 7 Manang (3.530m)

    Manang was the perfect base for an acclimatization hike. There were a few treks to choose from, and the whole group split up for two days. Ross and Paxton hiked to the Ice lake, Silas cycled to Tilicho lake and Sam mostly relaxed in his room. We hiked to the Praken Gompa at nearly 4.000 meter to visit the Lama and receive a blessing to safely cross the Throng La pass.

    In the evening everyone would sit around the fire place together, playing games and meeting other travelers. It was so terribly cold at this altitude and there was no heating in the rooms. We would warm our hands with the stones, that laid on the fire stove. Showering had to be done in daytime, since the water pipes would freeze solid, and not defrost until early in the afternoon. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful place to spend two days and recharge for the highest section of our trek.

    Day 8 Manang (3.530m) to Yak Kharka (4.018m)

    9 km, 411m, 1h 27m

    Once we got above the 3.500 meter line, we agreed to not climb more than 500 meters per day. Sam had to ride back to Chame to get a follow-up shot after his dog bite. He and Silas would cycle down and back up to Yak Kharka all on the same day. We had a really short ride and even arrived before lunch. 

    Manang is the end of the road, so for the first part we had to carry our bikes over stairs and push up a very steep hill. But after that the trail was relatively easy. We could cycle most of it, and we passed a lot of hikers. They were all in disbelieve that we were going to cycle over the pass. They were also astonished by how little stuff we carried, compared to their huge backpacks. We were mostly wondering what the hell they could possibly all have in there.

    In Manang we had met a group of mountain bikers, all on full suspension bikes and with porters to carry their stuff. Hell, they even had someone who cleaned their bikes! We met them again in Yak Kharka, and it was pretty funny to see their shiny cool bikes nicely lined up in comparison to our dirty and worn steel touring bikes dumped against the opposite wall. It both works we guess.

    Day 9 Yak Kharka (4.018m) to Thorung Phedi (4.420m)

    6 km, 313m, 1h 18m

    Birthday cake for breakfast, because it was Ross’ 28th birthday! We all got two big slices but the surprise on Ross’ face was the biggest treat. Sabina woke up not feeling well due to the altitude. But the medicine we had brought worked pretty fast, so we could continue cycling after our healthy breakfast.

    It was getting colder and colder, and some parts of the trail were covered in ice. It was pretty tricky to walk (read: slide) over it with a loaded touring bike. We all made it without landing on our butts and the rest of the track was about 30 percent cycling and 70 percent pushing. We had to pass a dangerous landslide area, where you could absolutely not stop to pause. The altitude was effecting our breathing so it was pretty brutal to push ahead. But seeing the abyss next to you and all the loose stones above you, was enough motivation to push through.

    Once we had reached Thorung Phedi, we had a quick lunch and unloaded most stuff from our bikes. The next day we would go over the pass. It is too hard to do it all in one day, so we decided we would push our bikes up as far as we could get them today. At this altitude it’s also better to sleep lower than you have been that day, so it functioned as our acclimatization hike too.

    The path is extremely steep from the very beginning, and we steadily worked our way up through a series of switchbacks. For every ten steps we had to take a pause and catch our breath. Unbelievably though, we still passed some hikers who were also struggling with the lack of oxygen in the thin air. We made it about a kilometer past high camp and locked our bikes up for the night. The sun had set behind the mountains and our fingers and lips were turning blue whilst we quickly but carefully walked back to our tea house. 

    Day 10 Thorung Phedi (4.420m) to Muktinath (3.800m)

    21 km, 950m, 5h 8m

    Most hikers start extremely early at 4am. They do so to avoid getting caught in the wind at the pass. The wind could bring all kinds of weather, but snow is what everyone dreads most. We decided to take our chances since we didn’t feel like freezing our asses off in the middle of the night and hiking in the dark. At 6am we packed our stuff and carried it back up to our solid frozen bicycles. The ‘long push’ had begun.

    After the bridge there was one steep section, but the rest was quite gradual. This doesn’t mean it was easy, since there still was a lot of snow from a few days before and breathing was near to impossible. Sabina tried to play some music on her phone, but whilst taking it out of her pocket the battery immediately died because of the cold.

    We had a major setback when we realized stuff had been stolen from our bikes during the night. Both our bib shorts were gone, plus Sabina’s arm warmers and some tools (even cookies). It’s just stuff, but it was so demotivating to have someone do you unjust when you are trying to accomplish something really big.

    We tried to focus on the beauty of our environment and it did take our minds of it. Especially when we saw the first prayer flags waving in the distance. The otherwise completely white landscape  was suddenly filled with beautiful bright colors from the hundreds of flags attached to the sign marking the highest point of the pass.

    With our bike on one hand and holding each others hands with the other we walked the last part together. Both with tears of joy in our eyes. We had actually made it. Thorung La, five thousand, four hundred sixteen meters high. The highest hiking trail in the world. And we did it on our bikes. 

    After a lot of ego shots with the congratulation board we started our descend. Cycling was out of the question, it was way too steep. This side of the mountain luckily wasn’t covered in snow. Silas and Ross rode some parts, but Silas had to pay for it when we went over the edge. He was extremely lucky it wasn’t very high, but his bike didn’t survive the crash. The derailleur had completely snapped off. Going down he didn’t have much need for his drivetrain anyway, so he still rolled down most of it.

    Paxton, Sam and us were much more cautious and carefully walked down slowly. At one point we could choose to continue on the narrow hiking trail or a rocky jeep track. We hoped the big rocks would soon turn into something rideable, but with our skinny tires we still had to walk the entire zigzagging road. Somewhere we missed a turn and we made a whole extra loop in the valley around Muktinath before we finally reached our destination of the day.

    That afternoon we kept alternating between feeling excited and exhausted. After reuniting with Ross and Silas we celebrated our accomplishment with some exorbitantly priced plates of fries.

    Day 11 Muktinath (3.800m) to Jomsom (2.713m)

    21 km, 128m, 1h 20m

    From the touristy village of Muktinath, we still had a long way back to Pokhara. We expected road conditions similar to the way up, so we were quite surprised when we suddenly found ourselves on a beautiful silky smooth set of asphalt switchbacks. It is still Nepal, so of course this didn’t last for very long. Soon enough we found ourselves back on washboard and sand, with busses racing by.

    One of the busses picked up a rock with its wheels and smashed it into Robin’s front wheel and launched him over his bike. Luckily all the spokes held up, and after wiping off some dust and setting the handlebar straight again we were on our way without any real damage but a bruised ego.

    We had planned to only have a lunch break in Jomsom, but we all had so many chores so we decided it would be the place we’d spend the night. We had to go to the police station to report our stolen goods, Silas’ wanted to see if he could fix his bike and Sam had to get the next rabies shot in this town the following day.

    Silas’ went looking for a bike shop on Ross’ bike without any success. ‘What has he done now!’ we all thought when he came back carrying Ross’ bike instead of riding with a terribly guilty look on his face. He had managed to get the chain stuck and it took tree guys and 30 minutes to get it undone. Poor Silas, he felt so bad. His luck had really run out.

    Day 12 Jomsom (2.713m) to Tatopani (1.189m)

    47 km, 399m, 4h 9m

    The following morning we waved Silas’ off when he and his broke bike got on the bus to Pokhara. A twelve+ hour ride over dirt roads pestered by landslides and road constructions. Sam even jokingly said he could race him to Pokhara and still win, hadn’t he had to get his injection. He was probably right. But this time he did actually make it over the pass, so we think his Annapurna was still a success!

    The first part of the road was uninspiring, grey boring buildings, road constructions, all on a brown dug-out road. It got more fun when we could take hiking trails trough small villages and cross the steel suspension bridges. We could take a massive shortcut through a dry riverbed and crossed a lot of small streams, which was heaps of fun too. 

    For the night we found a budget hotel with a room which was a bit unique for our (already not so high) standard. The room (5mx3m) was completely crammed with a total of seven beds, basically just turning the entire room into one big bed. It was big enough for all of us, it was cheap and it was quite hilarious so obviously we took it. And to be fair, we all slept like babies.

    Day 13 Tatopani (1.189m) to Nayapul (1.070m)

    58 km, 850m, 4h 28m

    We rode past a roaring gorge with a suspension bridge above it and we couldn’t resist walking over it just for fun. The river its speed really showed how fast we were descending. The water carved its way straight through a narrow split in the rocks about fifty meters below us. The bridge also made for a great spot to see how the road we had been following was carved right into the cliff.

    The last two days felt like riding back into civilization. Prices of our beloved masala chai en chowmein (noodle dish) turned back to normal. By now all our brakes were squeaking and you could hear the dirt in our chains grinding. Our bicycles needed a deep cleanse as soon as possible. Sabina’s chain even kept falling off when she tried to change gears. With only about one kilometer to go, we were not stopping to fix it. When it happened for the sixth time, she was ready to throw her bike into the river. Just one more day left to Pokhara. Only fifty kilometers and a small climb. Nothing really compared to what we had already done.

    Day 14 Nayapul (1.070m) to Pokhara (1.400m)

    44 km, 756m, 3h 24m

    The last ride, the last climb and the last shitty road (for now). We drove straight ‘home’ to our Airbnb in Pokhara. We washed the dirt from our bodies, dropped our smelly clothes off at laundry and gave our bikes a good wash at the car wash. Sam, Paxton, Ross and us went to our favorite restaurant and Silas’ joined us later on for a big tub of ice cream. We had the whole gang back together for one last night.

    After a couple days of rest Sam, Paxton and Ross rode off to Kathmandu. Silas had already made his way towards India to catch a train all the way back to Europe. We still had one more adventure waiting for us here in Nepal. We were trading our bikes for hiking boots. Our next Himalayan mission? The Manaslu Circuit trek.

    We can’t thank our dear friends Paxton, Ross, Silas and Sam enough for an amazing couple of weeks. It wouldn’t have been the same without you guys. Thank you so much for helping us out, and thank you for motivating us when we needed it most. We don’t know yet where, but somehow, someday our paths must cross again. We will cherish this memory and we hope that this was a spectacular ride for you as well.

    Our packing list for the Annapurna Circuit Trek by bicycle

    We did the circuit with a very minimal set-up and left most of our gear in Pokhara. You can see the complete list of all of our clothing here, our cooking gear here and all our electronics here. Here's the list of what we brought for these two weeks.

    Clothing Robin Clothing Sabina Toiletries Tools and more
    Cycling jersey Cycling jersey Toothbrushes Pocketknife
    Long sleeve jersey Long sleeve jersey Toothpaste Spare spokes
    Bib short (2) Bib short (2) Soap Spare brake pads
    Buff Buff Shampoo sachets Gorillatape
    Leg warmers Leg warmers Coconut oil Multitool
    Arm warmers Arm warmers Washing powder Chain lube
    Cycling socks Cycling socks (2) Disinfectant Pump
    Hiking socks T-shirt Pincet Tyre levers
    T-shirt Long sleeve base layer Hair ties Tube repair kit
    Long sleeve base layer Sports bra Contact lenses Camera plus accessories (2)
    Short sleeve base layer Underpants (3) Contact lens solution Action cam
    Boxershorts (2) Zip-off hiking trousers Earplugs Iphones plus charger
    Zip-off hiking trousers Leggings Paracetamol Earphones
    Thermal long underwear Cap Ibuprofen (anti-inflammatory) Powerbank (2)
    Cap Beanie Diamox (altitude sickness) GPS device
    Beanie Gloves Loperamide (diarrhea) Wahoo cycling computers
    Gloves Down jacket Water filter Passports
    Down jacket Rain jacket   Permits
    Rain jacket Rain trousers    
    Rain trousers Cycling shoes    
    Cycling shoes Overshoes    
    Helmet Hiking shoes    

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    Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

    15 February 2020 at 17:07

    Wat een avontuur. Vroeg me wel af wat de ‘hikers’ van jullie tocht per fiets vonden. Ging dat samen op de trail of ook irritaties?
    Ik vraag dit omdat ik een tijdje geleden een verhaal over noord Spanje las waar de wandelaars niet blij zijn met de mountainbikers/bikepackers die de zelfde paden gebruiken( ging niet om de route naar Santiago maar andere routes).

    Verder niets dan bewondering. Mijn man en ik hebben ‘toevallig’ dezelfde fietsen maar daar houden ook alle overeenkomsten mee op . Wij hebbend leeftijd van jullie ouders en dromen nog van verre reizen. Die gaat er ook komen, maar zo extreem als die van jullie hoeft gelukkig niet.
    Andere vraag; passen de 50 mm banden goed bij de S28 samen met de spatborden? Of moeten die er gewoon af.

    Geniet verder van jullie reis en ik wacht de volgende verslagen af.
    Groet Anja

    15 February 2020 at 20:33

    Again interesting and amazing: “petje af”.

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