Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the world’s most famous hiking trails, making its way around the Annapurna range of the Himalayas, topping out at Thorong La pass, 5416m above sea level. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending two weeks walking, so I decided to cycle it. Luckily I’m not the only crazy person around, and I found five other people who planned to cycle it too.

Left to right: Sabina, Robin, Pax, Ross, me, Silas. Photo by Robin & Sabina
After meeting up, we cycled out of Pokhara and into the foothills of the Himalayas. It wasn’t long before we had our first problem. Silas’s bike was handling strangely. This is Silas’s fourth attempt on the Annapurna circuit – his bike keeps breaking down. He had a few problems along the way but managed to keep going this time.The tarmac roads didn’t last long, and soon we were cycling on dirt tracks, with views of mountains to our north.We ended the day in a village called Sundar Bazar and checked into a hotel. Sabina is a fierce negotiator and arranged us two rooms for a total of 1000 rupees(£7). As was often the case here, the rooms had one double bed and one single bed. I shared a room with Ross and Pax.We had a brief section of tarmac the next day as we rode into the town of Besisahar, the official start of the Annapurna Circuit. We had our permits stamped at the permit office, then continued on.For much of the Annapurna circuit a jeep track runs roughly parallel to the hiking track. We tended to stick to this, as did many of the hikers we saw. For the next couple days we slowly climbed up, following a river.The road was rough and rocky, but ridable for the most part. There were definitely a fair few steep and sandy sections that we needed to push though!We often passed waterfalls, with streams running down to the river. The road ran right through these streams.There were lots of stray dogs in the villages. We were used to being chased by dogs in most other countries but here, as in India, the dogs were remarkably well behaved and friendly.On the fourth day we reached 2500m above sea level. This is the point where altitude sickness can start to be a problem, and we passed a military/medical crew setting up a station next to the road. They offered to check our pulse and blood pressure/oxygenation. We all passed!We ended that day in the village of Chame, at an altitude of around 2700m. The hotel was nice enough but the next morning we decided to go to a local restaurant for a much cheaper breakfast. There was a long row of spinning barrels running through the village. I think they’re supposed to give good luck.I had a few things to sort on my bike, so I was the last one to head over to the restaurant. As is usual in the area, there were lots of dogs around. By now I’d got used to them, though, so I paid them little mind. It came as quite a shock, then, when one of them bit me on the back of the leg!I kicked out at the dog and it ran off. I continued over to the restaurant to meet the others, and took off my trouser leg to look at the bite. It had broken the skin but was an odd shape, a cut rather than a bite. I had been wearing trousers and leg warmers, and neither seemed to have been broken. I guessed it was more a case of one tooth catching and dragging along, rather than a bite per se.The cut was very shallow, and since there had been two layers of clothing in the way, it seemed unlikely any saliva would have got through. Rabies is something of a problem in Nepal, though, and being 100% fatal it really isn’t something I wanted to risk. I asked around about where would be the nearest place I could get the post-exposure vaccines. As luck would have it, there was a hospital in this town that had them!Silas and I wandered off in search of this hospital, and found it closed. He did a great job of washing out the wound while we waited. We waited quite a while beside what seemed like the main entrance to the hospital (a rather grandiose name for the small clinic). Eventually we found out that, while we were waiting, a doctor had arrived via what had seemed like a back entrance.
Being operated on by Silas by the “hospital”
The doctor had a look and confirmed that they could give me the rabies and tetanus vaccines. Perhaps due to the odd shape of the wound, he described it on the chart as an “alleged” dog bite! Silas took some photos of the nurse giving me a rabies shot in each arm. Thankfully he refrained from photographing the tetanus vaccine, which was injected into my buttock!It was all done pretty quickly and I only had to pay 2000 rupees (£13) for the whole thing – which would include the two further courses of vaccine I needed to get in 3 and 7 days. For way of contrast, the cost in the US is about $500 per course!Ross had come to the hospital during all this and I’d asked him to tell Robin, Sabina and Pax that they should feel free to make a start as Ross, Silas and I would be able to catch them up. Silas and I walked back to the bikes, me sporting the ridiculously over-the-top bandage the nurse had given me.Silas replaced that bandage with a more minimalist one, and we set off cycling. We were starting to get quite high up now and the scenery was changing, with evergreen trees rather than farmlands, and some impressive rock faces.The road was at times just a narrow track carved into the side of the cliff. Some of the corners looked particularly precarious and at one point we saw a vehicle that had crashed into the river below.The road crossed over to the other side of the river and climbed somewhat more steeply for the next few kilometres.There was a mountain bike trail on the other side which Ross and Silas wanted to ride down. I wasn’t too keen on the idea so I rode on ahead and soon caught up with Robin, Sabina and Pax, who had just stopped for lunch at a cafe. It was called “The Bob Marley Cafe.” There was marijuana growing outside and the guy offered to sell us some, but we declined.After the cafe the road conditions were pretty good for the rest of the day; quite smooth and generally flat too. There was one small climb up to a stupa which had amazing views both ahead and behind.From there we rode toward the town of Manang, our goal for the day. This town was noteworthy as it marks the end of the road. From here the going would get significantly more tough.We spent two days in Manang. Silas went for a two-day hike-a-bike and the others went on a hike on one of the days, but I mostly lazed around and enjoyed the good food and incredible views.In order to get my next Rabies vaccine, I had to ride back to Chame. I then planned to ride back to Manang, and on to catch up with the others – effectively doing three days of riding in one! I therefore set off as soon as it got light, in pretty cold weather and with a fair bit of ice on the ground.I made good enough time and the Chame hospital opened a few minutes after I arrived. I got the vaccine quickly and rode back to Manang, stopping to chat for a while with a friendly group of hikers on the way.I had got used to not eating much over the last few days as the riding was somewhat shorter than I was used to. I didn’t adjust this now that I was back to riding at my pace and exhausted myself by going too long without eating. The section just after Manang involved carrying the bike up several series of stairs, with which I rather struggled.Even after the stairs the trail was pretty narrow and often unrideable. There were no longer any vehicles here, and supplies are carried either by people or by ponies.I finally caught up with the others in Yak Khorla, just as it was beginning to get dark. I was pretty ravenous by then and rather enjoyed my yak steak!The day after Yak Khorla involved a lot of pushing! This day took us from 4000m to 4500m, and the reduced oxygen was definitely making itself felt in how out of breath we were. A few of the others had some headaches due to the altitude but I was fine.When the trail crossed to the other side of the valley, it did so via a remarkable suspension bridge. Riding across this was pretty unnerving.We reached “base camp” at about midday. This was where we planned to sleep for the night, before taking on the pass tomorrow.After dropping off my bike, I went back to help the others. While I was carrying everything I had, they had left most of their stuff in Pokhara. It really was amazing the difference 10kg or so made. After struggling to push my bike up, I was jogging along with Sabina’s bike!We took lunch at the base camp then dropped most of our stuff in our rooms. Our plan was to push the bikes up as far as we could today, then return here to sleep. The next day over the pass would be a long one so we wanted to do as much as we could today.The first stretch was a real challenge. For about a kilometre the trail averaged a gradient of something like 30%. It was a real grueling slog to get the bikes up, switchbacking left and right on rough terrain.The trail straightened for the last push to high camp, but now had a light covering of snow. At the high camp we dropped our bikes and went back to help the others up the last stretch. We’d considered leaving the bikes here but as there was still a fair bit of light left I advocated trying to get as far as we could.From here the snow was quite deep, and there was a bit of a drop to our side. I went first, trying to dig in as much as possible with my feet to create footholds for the others.Robin and Sabina were feeling pretty tired, so they left their bikes first and set off back to base camp.The rest of us continued on to a bridge, where we locked up our bikes. I’d hoped we’d be able to collect water here tomorrow but the river was frozen solid. I picked up a heavy rock and dropped it from the bridge; it bounced.The return to base camp was obviously much quicker than the way up! We made it back and Silas, Ross, Pax and I spent an enjoyable evening playing Tichu. This was a bizarre Swiss card game that Silas had taught us. We ended up playing it most nights of the trip.The next morning was our earliest start. We’d taken as much stuff off the bikes as we could and were now carrying it. Ross, Silas and I had the most things to carry. While Ross and I had backpacks, Silas did not. He was a funny sight with his panniers strapped to his front and back.After a couple of hours we reached the bikes. We continued onward and stopped for a rest by a tea house.When we got to the teahouse, Silas said a packet of biscuits had gone missing from his bike. It turned out then that some cycling shorts had been taken from Sabina’s bike. Checking my own bike, I found that my multitool was gone. It was hardly the place one would expect such a thing to happen. Sabina and Robin were (understandably) quite upset but there wasn’t really anything we could do so we continued on.We continued on our way up to the pass, taking a couple of breaks along the way. Past the teahouse it got a little easier as the snow wasn’t quite as deep, though definitely still present.After many hours of pushing our bikes, we finally reached the pass. At 5416m it was the highest the others had been, and the highest I’ve been with my bike. We spent a long time there taking a rather ridiculous number of photos!We finally began our descent, still pushing much of it. We ended up splitting into two groups for the descent. Ross and Silas are keen mountain bikers and they rode a lot of it, crashing a fair few times by the sound of it. Silas broke his bike pretty much beyond repair on the way down.The rest of us were more cautious and spent most of the time walking, and swapped to a jeep track when that became an option.We all met up in Ranipauwa. It had been a really long day and we were pretty tired by the time we checked into a hotel. There were still a few days to go before we got back to Pokhara but the hard part was over. Though it wasn’t quite true yet we felt we’d basically completed the Annapurna circuit. It was great fun.Robin, Sabina, Ross & Pax contributed many of the photos used in this post. More of their stuff can be found on their websites, farawayistan.com (Robin and Sabina) and https://uglyarmadillo.travelmap.net/ (Ross & Pax). They’re also active on Instagram which you can find via their blogs.

One thought on “Annapurna Circuit

  1. Amazing adventure Sam! How many people can say they’ve ridden the Annapurna Circuit on a bicycle? Kuddos to you! I can only imagine how much more beautiful it was in person than the pictures reveal (but I still loved the pictures). Thanks for sharing!

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