Step, step, breathe. Step, step, breathe. Breathe. BREATHE. Leaning against my handlebars, my eyes draw level with the surrounding peaks. I struggle to keep moving as I carry my loaded bike up the last few hundred metres to Thorung La Pass. I’m 5,416 metres above sea level, it’s October in the Himalayas, and I still can’t get her words out of my head … “We need to talk.”

It was early July, 2015, when after almost three years of on-again, off-again turmoil, the girl of my dreams walked out the door and out of my life. I was left alone in my darkest hour and compensated with a summer lost in the mountains, a new bike, and a last-minute ticket to Nepal, booked on a whim to join three friends on a self-supported bike-packing trip.

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Himalayan dreaming. Todd Weselake and Miranda Murphy in the shadow of Gangapurna (7,455m). Manang, Nepal. Photo: Steve Shanon

The plan was simple: load all of our gear onto regular full-suspension mountain bikes and pedal three weeks and 500 kilometres around the Annapurna trekking circuit, through the Thorung La Pass, then follow the Kali Gandhaki river into the restricted Mustang region up to the Tibetan border. The goal was to simply “get over it.”

In April 2015, a devastating earthquake killed 9,000 people, destroyed entire villages and added more than a bit of chaos to Nepal’s tourism industry. But I figured the earthquake would also help put my problems into perspective. Figuring two pairs of underwear are more than enough for a month-long trip when you’re single, I got on the plane.

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Suspension bridges are abundant on the Annapurna circuit. Murphy and Whiteside with the Annapurna massif in the background. Ledar, Nepal. Photo: Todd Weselake

Arriving in Kathmandu at night, our senses are overwhelmed. Rolling blackouts mean electricity is at a premium and streetlights are out of the question. The van ride to our hotel is a blur, dodging piles of rubble and stray dogs in the dark. With dawn’s light, we see just how hard Nepal is hurting.

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Puja ceremony. Tsarang, Nepal. Photo: Todd Weselake

The earthquake damage goes far beyond crumbling buildings and infrastructure; in fact, most of the country has little to no damage. The more devastating aftereffects are the social, economic and political situations. Tourism is down and a blockade by India means fuel is short on supply. Gas has skyrocketed to five dollars per litre and in a land where the average income is less than ten dollars per day, that leaves many families devoid of transportation, heating or cooking options. And yet, despite the hardships, the people of Nepal are resilient and quick to smile. It feels like the perfect place to be.

* * *

Collapsing in a heap atop Thorung La Pass, I’m awestruck by the beautiful surroundings. Clear blue skies top peaks draped in seracs and icefields. Tiny villages rest in the shadows far below as a ribbon of singletrack extends between them. After a short respite to catch our breath, along with some tea and cookies, it’s time to drop in; to the tune of a 1,700-metre descent. Though these Himalayan trails were worn-in by foot, they feel like they’re made for a bike. From flowing singletrack through glacial moraines near the summit, the trail steepens into a series of loose, technical switchbacks.

 

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Entering the forbidden kingdom. Murphey & Whiteside descend into the arid Mustang region. Tetang, Nepal. Photo: Todd Weselake

Dropping off walls and down stairs, we hoot and holler all the way to a tea house patio for a break. Today’s destination, Muktinath, still sits over 500 metres below. After another cup of milk tea, we continue our descent along fast flowing goat paths, eventually reaching Sri Muktinath, a temple overlooking the city. We’ve arrived at the gateway to the Kingdom of Mustang.

Though these Himalayan trails were worn-in by foot, they feel like they’re made for a bike. From flowing singletrack through glacial moraines near the summit, the trail steepens into a series of loose, technical switchbacks.

Closed to tourists until the early 1990s, Mustang is like a whole different world. Arid hillsides, Buddhist monasteries and another language welcome us to this forbidden land. Formerly known as the Kingdom of Lo, Mustang was its own kingdom until Nepal annexed it in the 18th century. The region is an important trading route from India to Tibet, operating as a restricted, demilitarized zone until 1992 and maintaining its own monarchy until 2008.

 

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Miranda Murphy & Kathryn Whiteside enjoy a beer and a laugh after a hard day of climbing. Chame, Nepal. Photo: Todd Weselake
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.A local watches the commotion during harvest in Lo Manthang. Lo Manthang, Mustang, Nepal. Photo: Steve Shannon
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A local herder and his goats. Gamli, Nepal. Photo: Todd Weselake

Remote singletrack, interspersed with a rough dirt road, leads us through hidden villages and over 4,000-metre passes. The desert landscape is beautiful yet harsh; the winds batter us and dust clogs every orifice even as cool air descending off the distant Annapurna range brings a slight chill to the air. The Tibetan border is visible in the distance.

We descend to Lo Manthang, the capital city, on a rough dirt track that leads us through the walled perimeter and into the city-centre. Riding over broken cobblestones, we’re greeted by a crowd. A festival celebrating the end of harvest is just starting and Buddhist Monks of all ages congregate in the streets amongst locals and tourists. Horns blare loudly as the Monks chant and masked figures dance throughout the streets. This is our turnaround point.

Our exit from the Mustang region follows up a ribbon of single track up out of the valley. Cresting multiple 4000 metre passes, we descend to a remote village home to one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the world: Ghar Gompa. Though we’ve seen many gompas during our travels, this one feels different.

Inside, the room is dimly lit room and simpler than most. Thick smoke from burning incense fills my nostrils. My mind shifts back to earlier in the year and soon I realize my riding partners have all left and I’m alone with the monk. He invites me to pray. I am not Buddhist but I join him, close my eyes and inhale.

 

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Shannon and Murphy ridge riding at High Camp (4900m). Thorung La High Camp, Nepal. Photo: Todd Weselake.

Om mani pad me hum.” Thinking of the pain of the previous months hurts. Closing my eyes, I repeat the Buddhist mantra in the darkness. “Om mani pad me hum.” Questions swirl: Was it love? Was it foolishness? The only thing I’m certain is I gave it my all. Om mani pad me hum.” It’s time to move on.

I exhale, re-open my eyes and stare into the statue of Buddha in front of me. I feel myself start to really breathe again.

 

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The trails range from road to singletrack to…stairs. Steve Shannon descending from Sanangkot to Pokhara at the tail end of the trip. Sarangkot, Nepal. Photo: Todd Weselake

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