NEPAL: PART 2 - WANDERING THE LOWER MUSTANGS
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY OLIVIER DE VAULX
In Nepal, the Himalayas are like an impassable barrier for the average traveler. Luckily for us, the Mustang valley offers a safe corridor to cross the mountain range, with dirt roads and small villages along the way. Thanks to Christophe Noel from FarXplorer, we were able to ride trusted Royal Enfield Himalayans from the jungle surrounding Pokhara to the entrance of the valley, as described in the first part of this story. Now that we are about to enter the Mustangs, we have a new plan: for the next few days, we will ride less miles and dive deeper into the Nepali culture. A pretty different approach than a traditional motorcycle ride, where success is often measured by the distance traveled, but one that fits this country much better.
Playing Indiana Jones
Our very first night of camping is held on a field next to a tiny village, located at the bottom of a deep canyon. Above our heads, what we first took as a power line is really the curve of a narrow suspended bridge. The locals crossing it by foot look like ants in the distance, and we’re amazed by their bravery while also relieved that we won’t cross it ourselves. Little did we know that we would have to deal with one of these fragile-looking structures the next morning! Christophe is all smiles, but for us foreign riders used to concrete bridges, the general feeling is of a concerning lack of confidence. Having only to walk on this footbridge wouldn’t be that easy, but crossing on a motorcycle seems totally insane. As if the whole thing wasn’t challenging enough, there was a tight corner before the entrance of the bridge, followed by two rocky steps. Whatever, there’s no room for cowardice and along with the peer pressure at maximum intensity, we slowly start to roll, going through one by one. The treacherous corner is taken at trials speed, the two following steps taken cautiously, and there it is, a long and bright line dividing the black void of the canyon in front of us.
There are some cables on the side that act like a fence guard, and as long as the handlebar is not caught in it, we should be safe. The engineers who designed the Royal Enfield Himalayan did a good job with the low center of gravity and the long first speed, a combination that allows us to cross at a slow but steady pace. We’re sitting straight, looking ahead and never on the side, the eyes on the exit, so far away. After twenty excruciating seconds, the wheels are on the ground again… we did it! All the pressure is suddenly gone, and using the need for more pictures as a perfect excuse, we do it again, just for fun. This time, I even use the second gear, the extra speed giving more stability. Yet, a quick glance on the side to see the river at the bottom of the gorge is all that I allow myself. We might be getting used to the feeling of riding on tiny planks supported by cables of unknown condition, high in the sky, but the path forward is way too narrow to show off and take any real risk. We’re not real Indiana Jones yet!
Like in the movies, there’s always a treasure to be found on the other side of the bridge. This time, the golden tokens take the shape of autumn leaves, all shiny underneath the Nepali sun. The valley in front of us is surrounded by the snowy summits of the Annapurna, but we’re riding in forests of pines and oak trees. A lazy river goes through, and a narrow trail follows. For a little while it becomes more of an enduro ride than an adventure ride, and the awesome dirt pushes us to play with our Royal Enfield bikes in a way they were never designed for. This is so much fun, and the exhilarating ride only stops when we reach a farm, hidden in the heart of the valley.
The building is painted in bright colors that match the dresses of the women crouched in front of the porch. They welcome us with a warm smile, and we barely have the time to remove helmets and jackets before they offer us some delicious cups of tea. On wooden shelves built outside, thousands of apples are drying under the sun, while hens and goats wander freely in the orchards. This is a timeless scene, one of those rare moments in life when you experience a total sense of peace. We lay on the grass, barely speaking, soaking up the scenery, the light, the entire moment. The women are back to the grueling job of sorting potatoes, while one rider, who’s a mechanic by trade, fixes a small bicycle for the kid of the house. We could stay here for ever.
But there’s more to discover in Nepal, and soon we’re back on the trail. Leaving the green valley through the same bridge that we once feared but now enjoy so much, we’re riding on a paved road along a larger river. Just before the town of Kagbeni, we take a sharp turn toward the mountains and start a steep climb. Hairpins are coming in rapid succession, and it’s easy to scrape the footpegs on the pavement. Going up seems to bring us closer to the sharp summits of the Himalayas. This stunning view makes it hard to focus on the riding, and if you don’t take your eyes off the snowy giants, it would be easy to miss the apex of the next corner and dive from the cliff! It’s safer to stop on the shoulder of the road to enjoy the view safely. The air is perfectly still, the atmosphere quiet, and we feel the privilege of being almost alone in this remote backcountry, facing the gigantic peaks. We admire Nepali horses grazing rare grass clumps behind a stone wall, their colorful saddle blankets contrasting nicely with the blue sky. Starting our motorcycles again, we keep climbing. The elevation is taking its toll on the not so powerful 411cc mono cylinders. Still, we manage to keep a decent pace, and we soon see Jarkhot in the distance. This small village is perched on a rocky headland overhanging a big cliff. From a distance, with the mountain range in the background, the view is stunning. A few wild horses cross the road in front of us. Not long ago, they were the only means of transportation in the region. Now that motorcycles took over, they are roaming in the hills, probably enjoying this newfound freedom.
Yak burgers and skilled pilots
We pass a small monastery surrounded by yellow trees and arrive at the edge of the town. Leaving the bikes, we enter the narrow and shady streets of Jarkhot by foot, almost in stealth mode, as to not disturb the quiet afternoon. The houses made of stones and mortar have ridiculously small doors and even smaller windows. We seldom cross people, and when we do, it’s often old ladies carrying bundles of wood. Dogs are sleeping in the shade, indifferent to the sound of our dusty boots on the cobbled streets. We discover monasteries and temples, artistically painted. This is another enclave out of time, and we feel grateful for just being here, silent witnesses of a different way of life.
Lower Mustang is full of these little surprises. Every village has its own atmosphere, and we follow the same ritual each time: we park the bikes and walk in the streets, saying “Namaste” to the people we meet. In Kagbeni, next to the small market near the river, we find a few shops to buy blankets as well as a “Yac Donald” restaurant. It’s basically just a tea house with a fun name, a smart marketing move by the owner, a young Nepali woman with a degree from an American University. There, we pause for lunch and order yak burgers as well as traditional Dal Bhat dishes.
In Jomsom, we refill the tanks at the local gas station. There’s no pump here, just a friendly woman with small plastic containers that she uses to fill up our motorcycles. It takes forever, but who cares? We sip a coffee at the cafe next door, on a terrace surrounding the nearby airport. The trekkers from all over the world are coming here by plane, the pilots flying at low altitude over the runway to clear it from animals before doing a steep 45° angle turn to align themselves for landing. In short final, the plane is just a few yards over the roof of a hotel recklessly built on the path. The pilots are skilled, the passengers thrilled - and also probably scared - and we enjoy the show.
Apples and A hidden gem
It’s probably Marpha that makes the most lasting impression on us. Reaching the town in the afternoon, with the low sun spreading its rays through the multicolored prayer flags, we wander through the narrow streets to finally climb the steps of an old monastery. From there, we have a perfect 360° view of the village. Every roof is a terrace, and most of them are used as a platform to dry apples. No wonder why the town is called the apple capital of Nepal! Most tourists wouldn’t see much more of this charming community, but Christophe has an unexpected surprise for us. There’s indeed a secret place hidden in these narrow streets, and thanks to a friend of a friend, he heard of it and found a way in. After almost 10 minutes of negotiations in front of an anonymous house, he waves us to enter. We go through the dark rooms, walk over the stables, and finally reach a tiny door on the rooftop. Hidden beneath a brick wall for 150 years and just recently reopened, this door leads to a secret temple that even the habitants of the village had never heard of - and are still not allowed to visit. Yet here we are, lowering our head to enter the sanctuary. Inside this small room painted in red, three Buddhas surrounded by paintings and offerings are looking at us. Two dozen books are stored here, each one valued at more than twenty thousand US dollars. The owners of the house live in fear of being robbed and only some privileged people have access to this temple. This is an overwhelming experience, one that can’t be replicated and will stay with us forever.
Leaving town, still unable to believe our luck, we are distracted from our thoughts by a herd of yaks wandering in front of us. Bigger than cows and definitely wilder in behavior, they seem like relics of an old time. But it’s more likely us who are out of place here. It doesn’t matter, each day in the Lower Mustang has been full of positive emotions, and we just wonder how going to the Upper Mustang the next morning can get any better.
Special thanks to Christophe Noel, the CEO and owner of FarXplorer www.farxplorer.com for the opportunity to join this unique trip to Upper Mustang; Thanks to Suzan, who’s probably the best guide to visit Kathmandu and go off the beaten paths; Thanks to Biki and the FarXplorer crew members, who fed us and took care of our bikes as well as our tents; Thanks to Donna, Bob, Joey, John and Chris who coped with my need for pictures at any given moment; Last, but not least, thanks to all the anonymous Nepali we met along the way, you guys are awesome!
For Nepal: Part 1 - Highway to the Himalayas CLICK HERE
For Nepal: Part 3 - The Forbidden Kingdom CLICK HERE