Overnight Biking Adventure

After experiencing the thrills of mountain biking in the Kathmandu Valley in the summer of 2008, I returned in November to bike from Nagarkot again. I started in the opposite direction of my first trip, heading south toward Dhulikhel and Panauti. This time, the initial descent was anything but smooth.

The winding dirt road was steep enough to require constant braking, and much of the surface had an ungraded, rocky “washboard” quality that demanded caution. But it was a ton of fun and wouldn’t be overly difficult for anyone with some mountain biking experience. On this trip, however, I was with another ItrekNepal staffer who had never ridden a mountain bike before.

I gave him some quick instructions, and after 10 minutes, he was handling the terrain with a smile. After that, I stopped worrying about him, relaxed, and let my attention drift for a moment when my front wheel suddenly pitched backward and I found myself face down in the hard dirt. With the exception of a nasty bump on my shin and a bruised ego, I was fine and got back on the road with a lot more respect for this section of the route.

It was the only fall any of us had that entire time (on the one-day bike trip during the summer, I had done an “endo” right in the middle of a village, awkward enough to garner some laughs from the locals without getting hurt).

In 20 minutes, we were at the bottom of the hill and wound our way through a series of compact valleys dotted with small villages. The local people seemed fascinated by our presence. Dozens of young children clamored around us in the village squares as we pedaled through like metal cowboys. It was clear that few westerners ever visit this part of the Kathmandu valley, though it’s a favorite getaway for well-to-do Nepalese city dwellers.

After a long, steady climb on dirt and paved roads, we arrived in Dhulikhel in the early afternoon. We were staying at the Dwarika’s Shangri-La, a mountain resort version of the famous Dwarika’s in Kathmandu. The road ends at the bottom of a very long stone staircase leading up to the lobby of the hotel.

The climb, even carrying our bikes the entire way, was well worth the effort. As we passed through the hotel lobby and stepped onto the veranda, we were greeted with a panoramic view of several majestic Himalayan peaks. While the Shangri-La is more expensive than the many other hotels and guesthouses in Dhulikhel, it is worth every penny for the views, the comfort, and the unique presentation of Nepali heritage that only Dwarika knows how to recreate.

Our route the next day bypassed the large town of Banepa, taking us along a delightful village road that had just recently been opened—so new, in fact, that we only discovered it that morning by pouring over local maps with one of the hotel staff, who confirmed that a foot trail on the map had just been widened into a small road.

After several idyllic miles, it connected with the main road from Bhaktapur to Panauti, which was smooth and had little traffic this far from the city. We reached Panauti before noon. This is a hidden gem of a town, just 32 km from Kathmandu yet worlds away. Located near the Roshi Khola and Pungamati rivers, it appears to have been left exactly the way the founders had built it, with narrow streets and ancient structures.

The cultural centerpiece of Panauti is the Mahadev Temple Complex, which dates back to the 15th century and is a well-preserved example of classic Newari architecture and craftsmanship.

There is a challenging five-day bike route that continues past Panauti up through the mountains that surround the southern part of the Kathmandu valley. We returned the way we came, back through the hubbub of Banepa, along well-traveled roads.

Along the way, we stopped in the small hilltop town of Sanga, riding and pushing our bikes up incredibly steep, narrow streets off the main road to a promontory with a commanding view of the entire Kathmandu Valley. Overlooking the town and valley is a 66-meter statue of the Buddha, the tallest in Nepal, and still so new that the construction scaffolding has yet to be removed.

From Sanga, we raced down a very smooth, winding mountain road, fast enough to pass several cars and trucks as we made our way back to Bhaktapur. There are three things to say about biking in Nepal other than the magnificent scenery and good-natured people you’ll meet:

1) the roads are generally in very poor condition, hence the need for mountain bikes but also the reason to rejoice when you happen upon the smooth pavement;

2) Nepali drivers are very loose in their interpretation of the rules of the road, compulsively passing each other without justification or fear, so you’ll need to pay close attention when biking through large towns; and

3) while Nepalese drive recklessly (by western standards at least) they also drive so slowly that it’s hardly dangerous and you can often outpace them on a bike. But there’s little need to ride fast when everything about you is so glorious—I think you might want to go as slowly as possible too.

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