For years now, Muktinath slowly but surely had crept up to the top of my travel list. Numerous stories had been told and retold, by friends about the mountains; by fellow mountain bikers about the challenging single tracks and high altitudes; by almost every other traveler about the land of contrast. When Solo Woman Travel Challenge put forth the opportunity to explore the arid hills on my own, I would have been remiss to not have jumped at it. Little did I know, my big biking adventure would be littered with one too many water and biscuit breaks.
As a professional mountain biker, I have had some practice dealing with the pressures of uphill biking, but that didn’t make the actual experience any easier. My route was the ACAP region and the first few days were the hardest. Each day, I increasingly felt like I was piggybacking a baby elephant. Had I not carried all that stuff in my bag—spare tube, chain lube and two dozen energy bars, among others—my ride would have been easier. Owing to the lack of preparation, I was tempted to throw my hands up and sit there hoping to miraculously reach Tatopani. However, the thought of a rendezvous with some wild animal did somehow make me get on my bike again. I realized when you are alone in a situation like that you do the only thing you can- you keep going.
All the while, Kaligandaki River roared into my ears like an airplane perpetually in flight. Biking uphill from Beni to Tatopani for some 15 kilometers had pushed me to my limits, and had also made me look forward to the thrill of pedaling downhill. A few kilometers from my destination, an excavator, clearing out one of the numerous landslides that punctuated the way, offered me a ride. For a split second, I did think about continuing to cycle. But there’s a fine line between heroism and stupidity. Isn’t it there?
After reaching Jomsom, I took out my camera to capture glimpses of unique life there. Planes landing in the nearby runway; the clean slate-paved ways; stone houses lined with apple trees, stacks of wood on their flat roofs (“Whoever’s got the biggest pile is the richest,” said a local); azure skies that popped even more vividly against the washed out, drab contours; a public bathhouse set up by the women’s group; one taxi; a board that read “War is no solution.”
On my second day in Jomsom, I ran into two mountain bikers from Kathmandu and was overwhelmed with a sense of reassuring familiarity. We made our way toward Kagbeni cycling among the prayer flags brought alive by the winds. In Kagbeni, we played football with little kids in the monastery while the prayer wheels danced. When uphill biking got too strenuous, we danced under the sky to reinvigorate our spirits. Finally when we reached Muktinath, I bathed under the 108 glacier-fed water spouts; I felt my exhaustion wearing out.
Muktinath is a sacred pilgrimage for many--both Hindus and Buddhists. To many, it is ‘the’ destination. I, on the other hand upon reaching there, was looking forward to leaving it behind because it meant beginning of my downhill journey.
Downhill cycling means one has to navigate steep trails, narrow tracks, perilous surfaces and numerous other hurdles along the way. It requires strength and precision. The feeling of pure adrenaline you experience while overcoming such risks is beyond words. Especially when the threat quotient is high, and in Mustang, it is as high as it can be. Before setting off, as I said goodbye to my friends, I was struck at once by the feeling of loneliness. Trekking alone can be lonesome, and cycling even more so since you can’t always talk to other travelers on the way.
I made my way to Lupra Valley through some dramatic open single tracks over the dusty, rocky Mustang. The steep trails and the rough terrains made for a perfect adventure. By the time I reached Jomsom, I had already gotten accustomed to the terrain and the trekking trails, and I could bike with considerable ease--even more so compared to the way I was doing at the start of my trip. As I stepped off my bike reaching Tatopani, I realized all at once, just how tired I was. I dipped into the hot water spring and all my exhaustion dissolved. I could truly believe in Tatopani’s healing properties.
With a few days to spare before I returned to the claustrophobia that Kathmandu sometimes induces, I decided to take a detour through the popular Ghorepani-Ghandruk trekking trail, the easiest section of the Annapurna Circuit.
As I travelled alone, I learned it was necessary to fabricate a few details, but that’s not to say that the trip was at all unsafe. But as someone who did a solo trip for the first time, I was slightly apprehensive, at least in the beginning. “My friends are waiting for me at the next stop,” I told some overeager passersby. Or I let numerous “Hey boy, where are you headed?” pass by simply pointing ahead and walking on. I followed the suggested path that led me through some dense rhododendron forests and in Ghorepani, I caught my breath while looking at Machhapuchchhre and Annapurna South, among others.
The next morning in Poon Hill, the sun rays hit the mountains and they shone in all their amber glory. At last in Ghandruk, as the mountains dominated the skyline and the valley, I thought to myself that it was indeed a perfect place to end a perfect trip. My life in the mountains had come to an end, and now I needed to head back to the reality that awaited me in Kathmandu.
The article is an excerpt of Nishma’s solo travel account she embarked upon in 2016. She is currently studying Bachelor’s in Travel and Tourism Management in Public Youth Campus.