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Pushing past my limits? Annapurna Circuit Challenge at 70

Pushing past my limits? Annapurna Circuit Challenge at 70

Following my thrilling cycling escapades to Kalinchok, Sailung, Tarke Ghyang, and Chitlang, my 13-day trek to Upper Mustang in 2018 was the absolute humdinger. The rugged terrain, the breathtaking views, and the camaraderie with fellow trekkers and cyclists, who became more like a family, made it an unforgettable experience.

I then set my sights on the iconic Annapurna Circuit for 2020, the prize trail coveted by international and domestic trekkers and cyclists. Spring (March-May) and autumn (mid-Sept to mid-Oct) are the shoulder seasons for trekking the Annapurna Circuit.

The Circuit offers a feast for the eyes, with breathtaking views of the Himalayas. The majestic Annapurna massif, Annapurna I to IV, stands tall, followed by a whole shebang:  Dhaulagiri (8167m), Manaslu (8156m), Nilgiri (7061m), Machhapuchhre (6993m), Hiunchuli (6443m), Lamjung Himal (6983m), Tukuche peak (6920m), and Tilicho peak (7134m), among others (43 peaks overall).

Deemed as demanding, the trail/dirt road rises from as low an elevation as 760m to a soaring 5,416m (Thorang La pass). The Circuit, which encompasses 230 km, gets underway from Beshisahar, Lamjung, traverses Manang across to Mustang, and culminates at Beni, Myagdi.

The Annapurna Circuit also distinguishes itself for Yak Attack, touted as the highest and most challenging mountain bike race on earth with extremes of temperature and the harshest terrains.

The global pandemic, a force beyond our control, abruptly halted our plans for 2020, including the Annapurna Circuit. In early 2020, Covid-19 hit Nepal hard, followed by frequent blanket lockdowns, and life seemed to come to a grinding halt. Given the Covid-19 fallout, Mustang and Manang officially drew the curtain for visitors, and uncertainty loomed over the future of adventure travel.

Raju, my trusted cycling companion, and I meticulously planned our 13-day tour itinerary of the Annapurna Circuit. After the government lifted all Covid-19-related restrictions in the first week of March 2022, we began our preparations in earnest. We studied the weather patterns, mapped the route, and prepared our gear. After much brainstorming, we finally set out our trip following the Dashain holidays, ready to face whatever challenges lay ahead.

Both Manang and Mustang had opened their doors to visitors, and Kathmandu gradually saw the influx of foreign tourists, but uncertainty and doubts still hung in the air. “Something could go wrong any time,” said Raju.

However, our journey was not without its share of unexpected challenges. Just before Dashain, a sudden bout of precipitation caught the country off guard. It persisted throughout the festival, triggering a series of landslides and flooding on the road from Beshisahar to Manang, bringing all traffic to a standstill.

We had no choice but to hold back with a snowball’s chance in hell for the roads to open shortly. And the Tihar festival was around the corner into the bargain. But we didn’t give up. Thankfully, the fogs cleared—the rains ceased, and the roadway opened. And we scheduled our delayed expedition after the Tihar festival in the second week of November—our fingers crossed.

The big day arrived for our epic ride, and we shuttled our bikes to the Gongabu bus terminal. We planned to take a bus, but the hassle and chaos at the bus station made us change our minds, and we opted instead for a public Hiace van with our bikes adequately loaded on the roof.

“Finally, we did it; nothing can stop us now—until the kingdom comes,” Raju exclaimed with a mix of relief and excitement as the van started moving, Besisahar-bound—the kick-off point for our thrilling cycling adventure.

After four hours of a bone-jarring ride on the Prithivi Highway to Dumre, the once-paved road to Beshisahar was challenging. It was reduced to anything but pits and potholes, causing us to pitch and toss as the van lurched along almost the entire journey. 

What bothered us most was the plight of our bikes on the van’s roof. We ensured they were well-secured each time the van pulled up for lunch or tea breaks.

Phew! After almost four hours of a bone-jarring ride, to our great relief, we finally arrived in the late afternoon at Beshisahar, 178km away from Kathmandu. Beshisahar, day one on our itinerary, was our stopover for the night and the onset of our cycling to Manang. We checked into a nearby hotel.

Contrary to our expectations, Beshisahar, the district headquarters of Lamjung, turned out to be a large city with fancy houses, trendy shops, and a score of eateries, including in-vogue fast-food joints and diners. The Bazar area bustled and crawled with people; hawkers peddled their wares, and the traffic flow remained steady.

Less than 800m from the sea level, the weather of Beshisahar, even in mid-November, appeared balmy and rather pleasant. The urban sprawl extended to the banks of the Marshyangdi River. The bluish-chalky river kept us company without a break throughout our ride from the town of Dumre.

After a brief stroll across the town center, we returned to the hotel to check our gear and make the last-minute preparations. The thought that we would spin off the next day made us so thrilled we could die!

I, for one, had a mix of excitement and nervousness.

As I gazed at the rugged landscape and the daunting hills ahead, I couldn't help but wonder: Was I pushing past my limits, no longer a spring chicken at age 70? But the thrill of the adventure and the unwavering camaraderie with Raju made me all the more stubborn and dead set.

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