If you missed part one of Huw’s report, catch up here

Setting up our tarp on a fallow rice paddy one night, Rachael heads off to ask for water at the nearest house. Rachael can make friends anywhere, anytime, and when she comes back some time later it is to say that she has made a new friend called Krishna, who not only gave her plenty of water but made her sit down to share some dinner, and insisted that all three of us stop by in the morning for breakfast. We arrive in the morning, although to be honest I feel reluctant to take advantage of more hospitality when there are hills to be climbed and the road is calling. Krishna is young, younger than us and busy toasting beans for breakfast over an open fire in the small, tin-lined shack that serves as his family’s kitchen. A cat skulks by the warmth of the fire against the frosty morning, trying to avoid becoming a toy for Krishna’s baby sister without losing its feline dignity. Krishna is typical of the contrasts of modern Nepal: as he cooks over the open fire in the tin hut, he explains that he is a university student, studying medicine down on the Terai, and is home for the holidays. We are in one of the more remote parts of Nepal in terms of physical access, but the mobile data here is often better than at home in the UK, as Krishna’s smartphone reminds us. None of it seems unusual to him – why should it? – simple encounters open up our eyes but by bit to the reality of the world beyond the tiny one that we know.
Bikepacking Nepal
Bikepacking Nepal

With a beautifully British naivety about the accuracy of paper maps outside of our own sceptred and well-surveyed isle, we are surprised to learn that the road we have been intending to follow for several days to arrive in high Sherpa country doesn’t exist at all, which means a long detour down to the Dudh Kosi and the agonising slog back up from a height of only 200m. Along the way we meet Erin, a fellow cyclist who has been following these dusty roads through Nepal for weeks, having started in India months before on a simple but practical mountain bike. She explains that she has gotten used to having to push up many of the rutted, steep and dusty climbs, so she has coined the phrase ‘hike-ling’, which quickly becomes our favourite new word too. We might feel a bit dirty, with the dust coating our faces and arms where it has stuck to the sweat there, but Erin has taken this to a professional level; I’ve never seen such impressive tidemarks. After chatting for a while in the shade of a banana tree we go our separate ways, us looking forward to the long ridge she described to us, and her seeming upbeat and optimistic when we say that there might be a fair bit of hike-ling coming her way in her direction.

Bikepacking NepalBikepacking Nepal

Bikepacking NepalNepali roads are an interesting exercise in fatalism and engineering, being carved into the steepest, loosest and most unpredictable hillsides imaginable. How they mange to survey and construct benched roads wide enough for trucks and buses in these tortuously folded hillsides I have no idea, but when the first monsoon rains come they produce enormous landslides, blockages deposits of mud on the roads that turn many of them into a seriously sketchy proposition.  The wrecks of many buses and jeeps, visible on the hillsides below, attest to that, and the surface is usually so rough that on our bikes we are by far the fastest things around when descending. This seems to be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders, and we see roads still under construction that are already virtually impassable in many places.
Bikepacking Nepal

More hills go by, more dust baths, more brief encounters with people that we wish we could get to know better. We even find some unexpectedly good Black Forest gateau for breakfast in one town. Eventually the Mid hills Highway delivers us to Phaplu, now high in Sherpa country. It might be little more than an airstrip with a few teahouses attached, but within an hour of arriving luck comes our way, and we walk into the house of Pemba Lama, a retired guide who is brimming with local knowledge, stories and every bit of gossip worth knowing from the valley. Set up with his vague directions and a whole heap of his long-suffering wife’s monumental banana pancakes, it’s up, up and away into the thinner air beyond 3,000m. We even share the road for a little while with Take, who’s come from Japan to carry his bike to Lukla. He seems to be aware that carry will no doubt be the operative word, and we hope his infectious smile won’t leave his face.

When we leave the road it’s soon time to toil. I’m no stranger to a good hike-a-bike, but oh my sweet lord this is unpleasant: Rachael and me begin to feel the effects of altitude, which is made all the worse by the fact that Annie seems to be having no trouble at all. Having assumed that the locals know best, we each bought a porter’s head strap from a bemused shop owner in Phaplu, and left as much of our kit as possible in Lama’s basement, but after four or five steps my head is swimming and I feel like I’ve sprinted a mile with this bloody bike on my back. We each fall into our own rhythm as we force our way upwards through rhododendron and pine forest, breaking through the tree line on a well-trodden pilgrimage path that is used once a year to reach a festival at a glacial lake, the Dudh Kund, and our ultimate goal. Above that lake, and sweeping into our line of sight as we enter the high valley leading to it, is Numbur. At 7,000m it is the highest point in the Numbur Himal, and now it positively demands our attention as the last warm light of the evening lingers on the snowfields three and a half kilometres above us.
Bikepacking Nepal

Bikepacking NepalBikepacking NepalThe night is a long one at 4,000m, bitterly cold and after a dinner of yak’s cheese and boiled eggs provided at the last teahouse we passed. In the relative shelter of a yak shieling we each lie in our bivvy bags, try to ignore the altitude headache and wait out the dawn under a million million burning stars. At the first light of the day I eat a chunk of now frozen cheese as we pack and set off, but very soon we admit defeat and put down the bikes, preferring not to labour them up a path that we would inevitably have to carry them down. The last five hundred metres of climbing start hard and end worse, with my body protesting that it’s really not so keen on this idea anymore, but the arrival of the sun just as we crest the end of the valley is some relief to numb hands and feet, and we all fall silent as we arrive at the Dudh Kund itself.

Standing in the whipping wind, there is no need to wonder why thousands of Nepalis make the trip each summer to pay their respects to it; whatever your beliefs and wherever you’ve come from to get there, I think that anyone will feel the power in a place where the earth meets the sky, and the melting snows begin a journey that will deliver life to an entire continent. Perhaps it’s that simple, intrinsic power that has attracted us to this particular spot, high and cold, and whole continents away from home. Anyone who has been to high, solitary places, whether on foot or by bike, knows that feeling of being a part of it all, but I do wonder if the irony in the phrase ‘it’s my religion’ isn’t so ironic, when it comes down to it.
Bikepacking Nepal

Bikepacking NepalEvangelising aside, the descent from the Dudh kund feels like being born all over again, and if I get my way I will never be so stupid as to try to ride punchy technical climbs at 4,000m again, as they quickly leave me gasping on the floor and wondering who hit me in the stomach. The air thickens like soup as we drop down the ridge, back into the forest and bounce down the rocky trail that we struggled up what feels days ago. It’s only when we’re back at 3,000m that I realise how bad I felt up there! The reward just keeps on coming though, as we bump our way past mule trains down the ancient cobbled trail, stopping to buy more tea, and yak cheese now that we’ve discovered it’s a potent adventure fuel.
Bikepacking NepalBikepacking NepalBikepacking Nepal

Phaplu becomes our home for the next ten days or so, allowing us to head out for a few days at a time into the surrounding hills while knowing that Mrs. Lama’s unbeatable cooking is waiting for us – her portions are so big that a three-day hunger is needed just to tackle them. From ‘town’ it’s possible to access singletrack on both sides of the valley, provided you don’t mind plenty of climbing, and our exploratory missions throw up some gems in amongst the grunting and sweating. From yak-nibbled pastures above the tree line on Pikey Peak to some wrong turns through dense jungle; weathered mani walls that almost drip a sense of deep, slow time where they have been forgotten; a monastery abandoned in the wake of the recent earthquake, and a village where reconstruction of their stupa is already well under way. Just as much as the opportunity to explore the connections between trails in the daytime, we look forward to learning more from Mr and Mrs Lama about the area’s human connections in the long evenings by the woodstove. A constant parade of locals drop by for tea, gossip and laughter, including a pilgrim who is himself heading to the Dudh Kund, a Tibetan nun, and Biscuit Lady, who has the mysterious habit of dissolving an entire packet of biscuits in her tea before slurping it off a spoon.

Bikepacking Nepal

I said that this was a story about simple things, but no place that I have ever visited is quite as complex as Nepal, combining the ancient with the cutting edge and the natural world with an ever more encroaching human one. Monks walk by in costumes that haven’t changed for centuries, sporting crocs and a smartphone. Men like Krishna cook on an open fire among subsistence farers and talk about life at university. Even in Kathmandu we saw rice paddies shaded by high-rise apartment blocks. That said, what Annie, Rachael and me also found were the same simple pleasures that anyone who has ridden their bike between unfamiliar sleeping places will have found: the simple joy of food, the road ahead and people who cannot help but offer the warmth that travellers on bikes seem to receive so often. Whether it was oranges, freshly fried samosas or the most incredible saag picked straight from a garden, I think the memories on my tongue might be even stronger than the sights of those monolithic mountains, but it strikes me that no one part of the journey was expected or predictable. ‘Because it is there’ isn’t only a justification for travelling, it describes the total ignorance of far-flung that can only be remedied by going, doing, seeing, tasting and sweating that bigger picture into reality.

Photos: Huw Oliver and Annie Lloyd-Evans. Words: Huw Oliver

This trip, like many others, wouldn’t have been the same without the support of some cool folks back at home. We owe many backslaps/beers/thanks to Andy at BackCountry.Scot, Rachael at Hope Technology  and Rab Equipment. Dhanyabad!


  1. Hey friends… your photos its amazing!!!!

    i wanth the photo “Hike-ling in Nepal-171643” if its posible… only for my apartament !
    i wanth this photo in myb apartament jejej 🙂

    enjoy the trip and welcome to colombia…a beautifull -nice place to mtb !

  2. Pingback: Simplicity: Hike-ling in Nepal Part One - Bikepacker

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