Out of the Comfort Zone and into the Nepali Mid-Hills

Note: This story took place before the pandemic

The wheels hadn’t even touched the runway on our flight from Kyrgyzstan to Nepal and I already knew we were in for something completely different than the summer and fall we spent in the quiet and remote regions of Central Asia. As we began our descent, I could see the rolling hills that separate the lowlands from the high Himalayan mountains. This area, known as the “mid-hills”, was where we’d spend the bulk of our first couple of weeks in Nepal.

From the air, I watched an endless sea of zig-zagging roads, villages, and terraced hillsides that stretched as far as the eye could see. This tangled web of life came to a dramatic crescendo of tightly-packed buildings and chaos as Kathmandu finally came into view. These were certainly not going to be the untouched and sparsely populated valleys you might find while roaming the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, but change is a good thing. Being thrust into new and sometimes even uncomfortable situations is what makes bike touring so rewarding.

On the ground, it’s an assault on the senses. The jam-packed city streets are filled with motorcycles, pedestrians, buses, and tuk-tuks, all jockeying for their little strip of road. Dust lingers in the air as thick as the explosion of wires hanging from each electrical pole, while high-pitched shouts from street vendors and bus attendants come from all directions. As you might expect, half a year in Central Asia had lulled me into a sense of familiarity with the disposition of its people, the cities, and the landscape. Within mere minutes, Nepal snatched that comfort zone away.

For this stretch of the trip, we’d be joined by Chrissa’s hometown friend, Fotis. It was his first-ever bike tour and I can say this was definitely one hell of an interesting introduction to two-wheeled travel! While the main focus of Nepal would be to ride the famed Annapurna circuit up in the high mountains, we figured we’d “warm-up” first with a route through the sharply undulating mid-hills.

What we didn’t realize was that the mid-hills would be every bit as challenging as the high mountains. While the Annapurna has the thin air, the mid-hills have the relentlessly steep and dusty roads.  Our granny gears would undoubtedly be working overtime on the climbs and our brake-pads would be screaming for mercy on every descent.

Due to the harsh summer monsoon season and rapid development of the country, almost every road in Nepal seems to be under a constant state of construction at all times. No map can even hope to keep up with the sheer number of roads being put in, so occasionally it takes some asking around amongst the locals to determine what the best route may be at any given moment.  In many countries, locals are typically keen to send a cyclist toward the nearest paved highway, but that’s not the case here, where folks are very used to taking their motorcycles on whichever sketchy track or bridge that gets them to where they’re going.

While regions such as those surrounding popular destinations like the Annapurna and Everest have seen tourism explode to the point where it can leave the cultural element of the experience feeling a little watered down in trying to cater toward Westerners, the mid-hills have not yet seen this transformation. Here we were able to experience the true nature of Nepali villages and the people that inhabit them.

In between the lung-busting climbs, we stopped at roadside markets for locally grown bananas and mandarins, and we chatted with the hordes of smiling school kids. The younger ones would excitedly ring the bells on our bikes or fumble around with the various flashing patterns on our taillights while the older kids would ask us to take selfies or dance in their TikToks (this is Chrissa’s specialty).  Always with a huge smile and always a welcome distraction from the challenges of the ride.

We inhaled many varieties of the staple Nepali food, veggie dal bhat, a dish based around rice, lentils, greens, and various curried vegetables. Low-key this is one of the true highlights of touring in Nepal, as there is no better way to end a hard day of riding than with a giant plate (and refill) of dal bhat!  Even if a rogue chunk of pepper in one left half of my face feeling tingly and numb for the majority of an evening.  They definitely aren’t messing around with the heat!

Unlike previous places I’ve ridden over the last 4 years, we didn’t actually pull out our tents or our camp stoves even once in Nepal. The sheer density of villages and people in these hills means there aren’t too many super appealing camping opportunities, and it’s just too convenient to roll into a town in the evening, find a cheap place to stay, and cut out all of the extra “chores” of camping.

Even when we found ourselves out in more sparsely populated areas where there were no hotels or restaurants in sight, someone would always offer up a spare room or even their balcony for us to crash on.  We’d share food and swap stories over tea, or even a glass of raksi, a homemade alcoholic drink that is reminiscent of Japanese sake.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned while bike touring it’s that these impromptu invitations always make for the most interesting and memorable nights!  Looking back over the last 4+ years, each one stands out vividly in my mind.

While the air was thick with haze at this time of year and it often obstructed our view, we managed to catch fleeting glimpses of the towering 8000-meter peaks as we inched our way toward them. It wouldn’t be long now before we’d be dragging our bikes and bodies up to heights none of us had been before. Like a moth to the flame, they were drawing us in.

To be continued…