Nepal is justifiably renowned for its great trekking. The iconic destination of Everest Base Camp and other trekking routes lure thousands of adventure seekers from around the world. Many travelers to Nepal are also discovering that biking offers many of the same rewards as trekking, along with some unique aspects that can’t be found just trekking in the mountains.
While it is called “mountain biking”, the typical biking itinerary in Nepal is more than an off-road experience. Roads in larger towns are mostly paved but in small towns and villages they’re usually gravel and packed dirt, sometimes resembling wide trails more than roads. So a mountain bike is the best way to cover lots of distance and all kinds of terrain in Nepal, but the overall experience is very much like road biking.
I’ve recently completed a couple of two day bike “treks” in the Kathmandu Valley that were as exciting, challenging, and picturesque as any biking I’ve ever done in other parts of the world, and recommend the experience to anyone with basic biking skills and fitness. It’s a wonderful extension to any Nepal trekking itinerary.
ItrekNepal is based in Bhaktapur at the Sanctuary Lodge on a hillside overlooking Bhaktapur and the eastern stretch of the Kathmandu Valley. From the grounds of the Sanctuary Lodge you can see a relatively low mountain ridge that arcs from the north up to a high point at Nagarkot at around 7000 ft elevation (2200 meters) and over to Dhulikhel and Panauti. For the first trip, which can be completed in one day, we spent the night at the cliffside hotel with stunning views of the high Himalayan peaks. We had trucked our bikes (Trek hard tail suspension bikes in good condition) up to Nagarkot for the start of the trek, though cycling up from Bhaktapur would have taken no more than 3 hours at a leisurely pace. I was accompanied by our guide (a competitive mountain bike racer in his spare time) and one of the local ITrekNepal staff. In the morning we took off through the small town of Nagarkot, and then descended a remarkably smooth, paved road. Winding for over a mile through a pristine mountain park, certainly one of the best-maintained parks in all of Nepal, we stopped occasionally to admire the panoramic views over the valley. The road from there on was packed dirt with enough slope and ruts to offer a moderate challenge, including a brief, fairly steep uphill section halfway down the mountain. At lunchtime we arrived at Changu Narayan, the oldest temple in the Kathmandu Valley, dating back to the 4th century! The temple complex includes some of the finest examples of Nepali wood, stone and metal craftsmanship, all well worth spending an hour touring before or after lunch at one of the small cafes near the temple.
From Changu Narayan the road descends quickly to the valley floor. The final few miles along the valley road back to Bhaktapur is smoothly paved, passing through several small villages before arriving at the “backside” of Bhaktapur. We navigated the streets and alleyways of Bhaktapur carefully to get back to the Sanctuary Lodge by mid-afternoon with our only regret that the trip hadn’t been longer.
I returned in November to bike from Nagarkot again, this time in the opposite direction, 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. This trip, however I was with another ItrekNepal staffer who had never ridden a mountain bike before. I gave him some quick instruction 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 backwards and I found myself face down in the dirt. Other than a nasty bump on my shin and a bruised ego I was ok and got going again with a lot more respect for this part of the route. It was the only fall any of us had that entire (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 local folks without getting hurt).
In 20 minutes 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. 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 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’s knows how to re-create.
Our route the next day bypassed the large town of Banepa on a delightful village road that had just recently been opened, so new in fact that we only discovered it 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, smooth and with 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 the town, with narrow streets and ancient structures. The cultural centerpiece of Panauti is the Mahadev Temple complex, which dates back to the 15th century, a well-preserved example of classic Newari architecture and craftsmanship.
There is a 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 though, back through the hubbub of Banepa, along well-travelled 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 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 had 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 warm 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 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.