The Annapurna Circuit is a famous trekking route that weaves around the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal. Till recently trekking on foot was the only way you could complete the circuit. However, in recent years the trekking route has been widened to a 4x4 jeep track. That peaked my interest and I decided to ride my motorcycle around the circuit.
But unfortunately I learned about a section between Manang to Muktinath where it was impossible to ride a motorcycle. This section has the mighty Thorong La pass which sits high at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet). While researching the circuit I read about cyclists who had been able to conquer the Thorong La pass by carrying their cycles on their backs for an entire day.
Instead of giving up on the idea I decided to do the next best thing - ride my motorcycle around the Annapurna Circuit as much as possible. I mentioned this to some of my crazy friends and we hatched a plan. We decided to make Pokhara as our base camp and ride the Annapurna Circuit in two parts. First we rode from Pokhara to Manang and back. Then we rode from Pokhara to Muktinath and back. Since we had some time we rode from Pokhara to Ghandruk and back as well. Ghandruk lies towards the middle of the circuit and is on the way to Annapurna base camp, from where mountaineers scale the Annapurna mountain peaks.
The Manang leg was the toughest thing I've ever done on a motorcycle. It's smooth tarmac from Pokhara to Besisahar, after which all hell breaks loose. If I had to choose one word to describe this trail it would be "relentless". You just don't get chance to rest. It's one nightmare after another. Skill and a light motorcycle help. But you really need the mental strength and sheer will power to ride a motorcycle to Manang and back.
The Muktinath leg felt like a walk in the park after we did Manang. It's tarmac from Pokhara to Beni after which the road becomes a dusty track with lots of jeeps and mini buses kicking up the dust and dirt every now and then. The day ride from Pokhara to Ghandruk and back was an easy one as well.
Colt put up a stellar performance. I'm glad I chose to ride my Hero Impulse on this ride instead of my Triumph Tiger. There is no way I would be able to reach Manang on my Tiger given my off-road skill and physical fitness levels. In fact, if not for my Impulse's knobby tyres I would not have been able to get the motorcycle anywhere close to Manang either. The knobbies made up for the lack of power at those high altitudes and I was able to make use of each and every Newton-meter of torque that the puny 150 cc engine put out. The best part is I didn't drop Colt even once.
Riding the Annapurna Circuit has been the best ride of my life so far.
The Sonauli Border Crossing
The Sonauli border in Uttar Pradesh was our first ever Indian border crossing. The situation on the border is completely chaotic. Buses don't cross the border. So people need to get off a bus on one side, walk across the border with their stuff and board a bus on the other side.
Indians don't need a visa to enter Nepal. But our motorcycles needed to be imported into the country. There were touts hovering outside the customs office promising to make my life easy for a fee. I wasn't comfortable handing the original documents of our motorcycles to a shady looking character. So I decided to do things myself.
As I walked into the office a freshly drunk bloke with bloodshot red eyes grabbed my hand and pulled me into an inside room. He pointed me to someone sitting at a desk dressed a little better than he was. The man gave me a big smile as if we were long lost friends meeting after a decade. When he opened his mouth to speak I realised that his English was only a little better than my Nepali.
I figured the drunk guy was the official tout of the customs office and the other guy was the official Nepali customs agent. From my rich and varied experience in Indian government offices I have rightly concluded that if someone sitting at a desk smiles at you there is no chance that person is a government employee. But there is every possibility that you are going to have a productive day in that office. For a fee of course.
I was right. For a fee of 100 Nepali rupees per motorcycle the agent filled out the paperwork for all four motorcycles, ran around the office getting signs and stamps from whoever had to sign and stamp our motorcycle papers. We also had to pay 100 Nepali rupees for each day we planned to spend in the country. We hadn't changed money yet. So it was nice to know that the agent accepted Indian rupees. I guess he would settle the accounts with the Nepali customs office with Nepali rupees at the end of the day.
Everything was going great until the agent asked me to take the papers and show it to a person sitting on a bench outside the office. I remembered previously curtly asking this person not to bother me thinking that he was a tout. But actually he was a Nepali customs officer trying to help me out. His job was to inspect the motorcycles and verify their details.
I walked up to him meekly, gave him the most innocent smile I could muster and handed him the papers. The officer gave me a stern look and asked me to point to our motorcycles in the parking lot. Thankfully he signed the papers and handed them back to me without getting up from his bench to inspect the motorcycles.
That was it. Our motorcycles were through.
Riding back into India was uneventful. We simply rolled across the border without stopping.
Going With The Flow
On our way back from Manang we had to make an unscheduled stop. An excavator was levelling and widening the track that we were riding on and we had to wait for him to finish whatever he was doing. The operator was kind enough to build a small ramp for us to climb up to level of the original track. Then he moved out of the way for us to pass. Life moves at its own pace in the mountains. You can't rush things up there.
When riding the Annapurna Circuit it helps to use a motorcycle with a large fuel tank to avoid carrying fuel as part of your luggage. On the Manang side the last fuel station is at Besisahar, where the tarmac ends. On the Muktinath side the last fuel station is at Beni, again where the tarmac ends. After that you are on your own.
You can buy fuel in black at 1.5 to 3 times the price from villages along the way. But the supply isn't guaranteed. Among our bikes the Duke was the one with the smallest tank. So on our way back from Manang, we stopped to buy 3 litres of petrol for it. To be on the safer side, each one of us bought 1.5 litres each as well. That turned out to be a blessing because when we reached Besisahar, we learned that there was a truckers strike in Nepal and the fuel station in the town was dry. We had to ride another 40 kms to get fuel.
Before heading out to Nepal I told my wife that there would be days when I would be completely out of contact. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw "Free WiFi" signs at every restaurant and hotel we stopped at on the Muktinath side as well as the Manang side of the Annapurna Circuit. Mobile network coverage in the area was sketchy. But each restaurant and hotel had an antenna from some service provider and offered free internet to their customers.
In most cases the internet speed was pretty good. I could send pictures and even videos to my family back home. Every morning my boys used to jump out of bed and check the pictures and videos I sent them. I answered all their questions about Nepal, and in a way, they felt they were part of my ride. I didn't miss them and they didn't miss me.
I did make it a point to stay off social media though. I believe social media and vacations don't go well together. When you are on a vacation you need to be spending time talking to the people you are with. There will always be time to post stuff on social media and interact with friends when you get back home.
People in the villages along the Annapurna Circuit have been catering to trekkers (mainly whites) for decades. But now with the widening of the walking trail to a 4x4 road the number of trekkers has drastically reduced. This has negatively impacted tourism in the area which is their main source of revenue. In some hotels along this route things have gotten to a point where the room is free if you order the hotel's food.
These are not cheap dormitories. These are pretty decent and well maintained hotel rooms with comfortable beds, warm blankets, wall power sockets, attached bathrooms with hot water and WiFi. The food is the freshest you will ever have on this planet. If you order chicken, you will see one less chicken running around the compound after your meal. You can see them pluck the vegetables from their garden, wash them under the garden tap and cook them for you.
We felt bad using the facilities of the hotel and not paying for them. So when checking out, we made it a point to hand some money to the hotel owner. Our gesture was always returned with a smile that did a pretty good job hiding the underlying sense of desperation.
We crossed 4x4 ambulances and mini-trucks with supplies as we rode around the circuit. I'm sure that wasn't possible earlier. The road was made to give the people a better quality of life. But unfortunately it is also hitting their livelihood. Now that the damage is already done I hope a new set of tourists start visiting the Annapurna Circuit. If not trekkers then motorists on two wheels or four.
The Road To Manang
The road to Manang in Nepal runs along the Marsyangdi river for the most part. It's a single 4x4 jeep track with safety barricades in only a few places. It's quite common to find yourself negotiating a steep and rocky hairpin bend only to slam your brakes half way and get out of the way of an oncoming jeep fighting a losing battle with gravity. This trail is neither for the faint hearted not the inexperienced. You are only one small mistake away from almost certain death.
Although many people do it, I do not recommend renting a motorcycle from Pokhara or Katmandu and attempting to ride this trail. You need to be absolutely one with your motorcycle while riding this treacherous trail. It's best to use a motorcycle you trust and know to be in the best condition.
The engine capacity of the motorcycle doesn't matter. I rode to Manang on my puny 150cc Hero Impulse fully loaded with my luggage and spares. What matters is the tyres. You will definitely need to use proper knobbies if you plan on riding this trail alone. Or if do not wish to ask others to push you up a rocky slope every now and then. You are going to get stuck. Many times. Knobbies are the only thing that will get your out of a sticky situation. Trust me. I know.
If you want to get the true Manang off-road experience like we did, I suggest you start making plans soon. The Nepal government has started to concrete the really bad sections of the road. I'm guessing in a couple of years the Manang leg of the Annapurna Circuit will be feel like a walk in the park.
While researching the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, I came across a lot of videos showing the road from Pokhara to Muktinath, but hardly any showing the road from Pokhara to Manang. I created this video using the footage of my helmet mounted GoPro for those looking for information on the road to Manang.
We expected a few close calls while riding our motorcycles around the Annapurna Curcuit. Luckily we had just one at the notorious waterfall near Chame. Everything was going smoothly until the Triumph Tiger rode across the wooden bridge. For some reason the motorcycle stalled just after he crossed the bridge and it tipped over. Luckily there was a log of wood which broke the bike's fall and prevented it from rolling down into the ravine below. It was a pretty scary moment. But after that it was time to celebrate with a dance.
Riding In The Snow
I've always wanted to ride a motorcycle in the snow. But we got more that what we asked for. We got snow on a set of steep hair pin bends which made life pretty interesting. Once again the knobby tyres on my Impulse came to my rescue and I didn't need anyone to push me up the slippery slopes.
Riding Across A Suspension Bridge
We came across many suspension bridges while riding around the Annapurna Circuit. Most seemed like they were designed for pedestrian use. But then we came across one that seemed strong enough for two wheeler traffic. We asked the locals and they told us that it was ok to ride our motorcycles across.
I had initially planned to ride my motorcycle nice and slow across the bridge keeping my eyes up ahead instead of looking down. But as soon as I reached half way and started to climb up to the other end the knobs of my tyres started to get caught in the metal mesh making up the floor of the bridge. The motorcycle felt as of someone was holding it back and letting it go in quick succession. I quickly realized that I had to shelve the "nice and slow" plan and twisted the throttle. On the way back I decided to keep the throttle twisted and the ride across the bridge was much smoother.
Gangapurna Glacial Lake
One of the many reasons I wanted to ride to Manang was to visit the Gangapurna glacial lake. It is formed by the melting snow flowing down from the Gangapurna mountain, part of the Annapurna massif.
We had a rest day at Manang and we decided to walk to the lake. When we got there we found that a good portion of the lake was frozen. I had never walked over a frozen lake before and I didn't want to miss the opportunity. We threw a couple of large rocks to see if they cracked the ice. They didn't. Instead they just bounced off the surface and slid away.
The layer of ice was pretty thick. We could see rocks thrown by others slowly making their way down through the ice. Ice melts with when you apply pressure to it. Which is why the rocks were melting their way through to the bottom of the lake.
It was quite a surreal experience, one that I will remember for a long time to come.
The cost of an Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) permit depends on the area you wish to visit. The cost of a permit to visit Manang and Muktinath was 1000 Nepali rupees each. You can get these permits at any trekking agency in Pokhara or Katmandu. There are ACA check posts at different villages along the way. It's easy to miss them as they look like regular houses. The officials don't always stand outside to stop you. You need to register yourself and your vehicle at each check post and get your permit stamped.
Registration isn't just mandatory for tourists. It's also important. This is because in case of a disaster, the officials have a way to track how may tourists may be trapped in the affected area. Nepal is the land of landslides. You see remnants of one every few kilometers. And I'm not talking about a couple of boulders blocking a road. I'm talking about a major portion of a hill washing down over a large stretch of road. When we were at Jomsom, we met an Australian helicopter pilot who often did search and rescue missions in the Annapurna area. His stories were pretty interesting.
The ACA permits are one time use. This means you can't buy a permit for Manang and use it to visit Muktinath as well. If you are the kind of person who likes to go with the flow and not plan too much ahead, you have an option of obtaining a permit at one of the ACA check posts as well. Just that it will cost you double. The cost to visit Ghandruk was 200 Nepali Rupees. But we ended up paying 400 each because we showed up at the ACA check post without a permit.
The ACA officials are very courteous and friendly. They make you feel at home. The same could be said about everyone we met in Nepal. You feel so welcome in this beautiful country.
I captured this beautiful frame at one of the ACA check posts on the way to Manang.
Whenever I visit a remote place I always make it a point to buy stuff directly from the locals instead of some high priced souvenir shop in a city. I also make it a point to never bargain with the locals. I don't see the point. Even if they charge me double, it is still going to be a small sum for me. But it will be a huge sum for them. I'm not struggling to make ends meet. They are.
Outside our hotel in Muktinath a lady had a stall selling woolen stuff that she and her daughter had knitted. She was quite surprised when I agreed to the price she quoted for a woolen skull cap. Then she did something that took me my surprise. She offered me two caps for the price of one. That's when I realized that she actually felt bad that I had not bargained with her. In a way, she was feeling guilty of cheating me and was trying to make up for it.
I smiled at her, politely declined her offer and paid her the money. It was an awkward situation and I wanted to get out of it as quickly as I could. So to change the topic I asked if she and her daughter would pose for a picture with me. They obliged.
As I left the stall and walked to my motorcycle to pack the woolen stuff I had bought, I wondered why was it that the people who had less are often more honest and sincere than those who have more.