Been there, not done that

As mountain biking takes off in Nepal, a new guidebook for cross-country bicycling aficionados


People are doing three-month treks across Nepal’s mountains along the Great Himalayan Trail, they are even running ultra-marathons from east to west. Now, make way for mountain bikers.

It took Welshman Richard Williams 29 days to bike west-to-east across Nepal from Dadeldhura to Phidim -- 1,650 horizontal kilometres, but we are left to calculate how many vertical metres up and down that meant.

Williams has chronicled his journey in a book titled simply, The Road, which is not just a description of his journey but also a guidebook for cross-country bicycling aficionados. 

Each day is chronicled like a diary, capturing the culture and current mood of the country through cuisine and conversations, and it is well illustrated with photographs and useful maps and graphs. 

Williams lives in Switzerland and started biking in the eastern Himalaya in India because he was spooked by reckless bus drivers on roads with nightmarish drops. 

He then did the Yak Attack in Nepal in 2013, a multistage mountain bike race in the Annapurnas. After the 2015 earthquake, he came to Nepal frequently to help rebuild schools, and the idea for The Road started to develop.

Richard Williams
Richard Williams has chronicled his biking journey in a book titled The Road.

“Nepal is associated with extreme adventure, but there are plenty of opportunities for mellower activities,” Williams told us in Kathmandu. He hopes this book will open up mountain biking in Nepal to a wider demographic. “Roads are much better now, and drivers are safer.”  

The Road is ideal to see as much of the country as possible while having a challenging enough ride in not-so-extreme temperatures. Biking across the country along The Great Himalayan Trail, has been done but it is cold, high, and sometimes requires carrying the bikes over high passes. 

Biking on the East-West Highway along the Tarai is hot, flat, and dangerous. The road across the mild climate of the scenic mid-mountains is much more enjoyable.  

Since Nepal’s rivers mostly flow north to south, traversing the country does mean lots of ups and downs for bicyclists. 

The Road starts with an introduction to Nepali culture, a history of mountain biking, and Willimas fills the middle with journal entries. Interviews with professional Nepali mountain bikers serve as a bookend.  

Photographs by Manish Maharjan and Ananta Poudel are appealing, and drone shots of the trail and landscapes of the remote far western Nepal are blown up over two pages. Portraits of Nepalis work and play means that the book is not just about biking, but also about the people and places along the way.  

Been there, not done that NT
It took Richard Williams 29 days to bike west-to-east across Nepal from Dadeldhura to Phidim.

On maps, the routes are marked as small red lines that zig-zag through serpentine roads, and elevation graphs depict altitudes gained and lost. Cartographer Mark Murphy, who turned 61 during the trip, rode alongside Williams put the maps together. 

Most days, the events are pretty similar: tough ‘undulating’ climbs, steep descents, great views, and conversations with locals often over food and beer, chyang, or tongba.  

Williams observes Nepal perceptively, and notices that there are very few men in the villages because of outmigration, and the remittance economy is buoyant. 

Another time he talks to a group at a chiya pasal who are frustrated with the government (surprise, surprise) and vent their ire. 

The book is dotted with colloquial Nepali phrases like “Tei ta,” “Ek Chin,” “Estai ho,” and “Ke Garne” – perhaps summing up a stoic Nepali spirit somewhere between helplessness and sarcasm.  Williams find the Nepalis' resignation to their fate remarkable.  

Perhaps these attitudes are also behind what Williams admires  about Nepal. “There is a much stronger sense of community, and people are so friendly,” he says. “Life in the West is good but everybody is individualistic, and working all the time.”

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He notes his appreciation for the laid back, content culture, and marvelled at how resourceful Nepali biking guides could be. “Once during Yak Attack a guide used a coke bottle to fix a puncture and the biker went on for 40km like that,” he remembers. 

The book is also ethnographic. Williams stayed with Dalits and met Rautes, and especially liked biking through the remote parts of Western Nepal that haven’t yet been reached by mass tourism.

In one entry he details locals amused at the sight of the team, and two children initially apprehensive about meeting a stranger hijacked his bike for a quick joyride. 

A lot of Williams’ descriptions are of food and drink on the go. He describes scrambled eggs for breakfast and the uniqueness of every dal bhat along the way. 

“This was real, authentic Nepali food,” he says. Williams is especially taken with tongba, the warm fermented millet drink that one has to sip through a bamboo straw. Then he passes the outsized cement monument of a giant tongba container at an intersection in Myanglung.  

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The book is a guide as well, and advises readers on where to stay and eat, and what to expect. While an ‘intrepid’ rider might want to ‘bikepack’ the route independently, Williams strongly recommends a guide and a support vehicle.

Packages for The Road are currently offered at Himalayan Single Track, a bike shop and mountain bike tour company in Thamel. 

“It is hard to sell the entire trail because of how long it is, but we have packages for people to do parts of it, with different levels of support,” explains Australian expat and co-founder Jenny Caunt, who also wrote several chapters of the book. 

Mountain biking tourists are on the rise in Nepal, and they mostly come from Germany, Denmark, the UK or the US. Caunt reckons 90% of them come to Nepal exclusively for a mountain biking holiday. 

“Routes on the Annapurna Circuit and Upper Mustang are popular. Most of our clients are foreigners, but many Nepalis like to bike independently,” she adds. “Some of the back country routes between Kathmandu and Pokhara are perfect to ride.”  

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The Great Himal Race

The Great Himal Race NT

The multistage race across the length of Nepal Himalaya was first held in 2017 by Bruno Poirier from France who himself ran from one end of the country to the other in 1994. Outdoors instructor and tourism entrepreneur Jagan Timilsina was the winner in 2017 when participants ran from Khang La on the eastern border between Nepal and Sikkim, to Hilsa in the country’s northwestern corner. This time, the runners went west to east instead, starting at Hilsa and ending at Kangchenjunga Base Camp.

Ultrarunners from France, Switzerland, the US, Greece and Nepal participated in this 51-stage, 60-day journey that borrows much of its routes from the Great Himalayan Trail. There were three joint winners: Swiss national Jules-Henri Gabioud, Frenchman Fleury Roux, and Nepal’s Upendra Sunuwar, all with a time of 264 hours and 31 minutes. Two women: Asimina Inglezou from Greece and Rachelle Komarnisky from Canada also finished the race.

After the race, the runners walked from the base camp to Taplejung over a few days before taking a bus to Bhadrapur and flying back to Kathmandu. Awards of victory and completion were handed out at Hotel Manaslu.

Everest Marathon

Everest Marathon NT

The Everest Marathon honours Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first successful ascent of the highest peak in 1953 being held every year on 29 May for the last 19 years. The route goes from Everest Base Camp to Kala Patthar and Namche Bazar.

Runners may choose between three categories: a standard 42.195km route, a 21km half marathon, or a 70km ultramarathon. There were participants from all over the world, including the UAE, Australia and Lithuania, but most of the top finishers were Nepalis. Arjun Rai Kulung was first in the standard category with a time of 03:53:02. Kulung is a professional runner who started out as a porter and ran his first Everest Marathon at 19, finishing in the top ten despite running in trekking boots. He is signed to The North Face Asia Pacific Adventures.

Gopal Tamang finished first with a time of 08:18:04 in the 70km extreme ultra category.

Everest 135

Everest Marathon NT

The Everest 135 is an ultramarathon which, as the name suggests, is 135 miles long, more than five times longer than a standard marathon. This is the first race longer than a hundred miles in the Everest region.

An annual race was held for the first time since 2019 last month because of the pandemic, and was jointly organised by Nepal’s Himalayan Trail Running and the Guwin International Sports Club in China.

Participants ran from Jiri to Thame, Rinzo La Pass and Everest Base Camp before looping back to Lukla. They experienced a cumulative elevation gain of 13,900m and a total descent of 12,800m while reaching a maximum height of 5,517m. There is a cutoff at 150 hours, anybody taking longer is considered as a ‘did-not-finish’.

For runners who want a more manageable challenge, the race has a 100km category as well. Elite runners from China, Australia, Japan and the US participated. This year, 49-year-old Wang Xiaolin from China won the 135-mile category with a time of 85:41:40. Runner-up to him was Niwa Kaori, also a 49-year-old from Japan and the only woman in the top 10. 

Vishad Onta