Peddling the Great Himalayan Trail
The Great Himalayan Trail (GHT) is the most epic hiking route in the world. It is challenging enough to trek the 1,700km from Kanchenjunga to Humla, but an intrepid Nepali has done it on a mountain bicycle.
Mangal Lama started out on 1 April, and took 88 days to solo cycle the Nepal section of the GHT, a part of the larger trans-Himalayan arc extending right across China, Bhutan, Nepal, India to Pakistan.
Ten years after famous Everesteer Apa Sherpa and his team did the Climate Smart Celebrity Trek, Lama wanted to show that it could also be done by mountain bike. “I wanted to test myself physically and mentally,” says Lama. “The GHT is in itself very challenging, but I wanted an extra element of excitement.”
The main hurdles were sections that were not suitable for bicycles. For example in eastern Nepal, Lama carried his bike for up to seven hours at a time. He got sick and had fever in the Everest region, had to change his route because the monsoon caught up with him, and he lost his way in the wilderness several times.
The biggest challenge was crossing the 6,190m West Col in the Makalu-Barun National Park where Lama had to carry the wheels on his back and the frame on his shoulders. “That was really hard, because I also had full climbing gear, crampons, harness, rope, everything,” Lama says.
While crossing the Tashi Labtsa pass into Rolwaling, a porter slipped. He was uninjured, but a bag with his tent, sleeping bag, food, gas, shoes, and spare parts fell into a crevasse. “I lost everything and I still had a long way to go,” recalls Lama. “I had some thoughts about why am I doing all this hard work if people will not even appreciate it.”
Lama’s venture, titled GHT on Wheels, came with a larger aim — to improve education and showcase under-appreciated areas of Nepal for domestic and foreign tourists both for trekking and mountain biking to raise local incomes. “I want to promote trails other than Everest,” Lama says. “Nepal has so many little known places, cultures, and so many of them spiritual.”
Lama was born to a farming family in Kakani and as a child, did not know how to cycle. But having worked for 17 years in a cycle repair shop in Kathmandu he got interested in mountain biking. He took part in several races, and now works as an expert guide on Nepal’s plentiful singletracks in Manang, Mustang, Jumla, and Dolpo. The tourism collapse due to the pandemic got Lama thinking about the GHT adventure.
The Trail passes through some of the remotest and most under-served districts in Nepal, and Lama believes that promoting the route for mountain bikers will increase their income and improve livelihoods. Lama’s venture, titled GHT on Wheels, partnered with Vision Dolpo to raise funds for Early Childhood Development Centres. He organised all the logistics, including food and supplies, himself. He relied on GoFundMe crowdsourcing, support from friends, and equipment company sponsors.
Even as he encourages more mountain biking tourism in Nepal, however, he warns international travellers to find well-recommended guides. Unlike trekking, mountain biking requires more logistical planning, safety considerations, gear, and understanding of appropriate singletrack trails.
“For the GHT, you have to have a combination of time, money, and passion. If you have the time, but don’t have the money, you can’t. You need all three,” Lama explains.
Many people in Nepal and around the world followed Mangal Lama’s adventures on social media with thousands tracking his progress on the GHT on Wheels website and Instagram.
Lama is also working on a book and documentary film about his groundbreaking journey that includes spiritual lessons he learnt as he rode past some of the most tranquil and scenic places in the world. On his trip, Lama also discovered that Nepal is neither small, nor poor as he had been led to believe. After three months traversing the country, he says Nepal is vast. And except for some materially poor regions, living standards are improving and the people are rich in hospitality.
“Nepalis themselves say Nepal is a poor country, and it is true that our people are not rich in the conventional sense, but they offered me food even when they had little for themselves,” he says. “Spiritually and culturally Nepalis are very rich. Go to the mountains, feel free, and come back with new ways of looking at life and the world.”
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